As he went ashore, Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
In her sermon last week, Deacon Chris spoke about the way that the presence and power of Christ has sustained us at Emmanuel. She mentioned the text we use in the Episcopal Church to bless the Paschal candle, the Easter candle that symbolizes the presence of the risen Jesus among us. It’s a beautiful proclamation: Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega, all time belongs to him and all ages.
Deacon Chris talked about the experience we had with that text here at Emmanuel the past three years, which looked different on the outside but was the same on the inside. In 2019, the blessing was said at the Great Vigil of Easter, in the dark back by the baptismal font, with incense and a new fire burning, perhaps 150 people in the church, special music, a special reception, and a total of about 30 lay people serving in all kinds of roles at the Mass and after it. A complex 2 or 3 hour event, with elaborate ceremonial.
In 2020, the Paschal candle was blessed privately by the clergy in the Great Hall since nobody else could gather. It looked very different, but it was exactly the same spiritual event. The power of Christ and the truth of his resurrection was exactly the same in a very different context. Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end.
She talked about 2021, when the candle was blessed publicly - but in a separate rite just preceding the first of our 3 Easter Masses, since it was not possible for Emmanuel to mount a full Great Vigil liturgy. It looked very different, but it was exactly the same spiritual event. The power of Christ and the truth of his resurrection was exactly the same in yet another context. Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end.
We don’t know what the blessing of that candle will look like in 2022, whether we will still be working with only 40-50 participants at Emmanuel, or whether we will have had more invest themselves and will have the people resources to be more lavish. Those kind of questions about how we relaunch given where we and the world are now, that’s what our three vestry groups are working on, and it’s really all of you that will determine the answer. But the heart of what God is doing in that moment will not change. It will be exactly the same spiritual event as in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The same spiritual event, by the way, as it was in AD 121, or 521, or 1521, three more utterly different contexts. The power of Christ and the truth of his resurrection spoken into the world are exactly the same; it’s the context that changes. Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end.
Some of the most powerful moments in the pandemic for me, were those moments of sharing communion through a window, or giving a blessing out in West Side Park, or offering the ashes on Ash Wednesday... contactless. Those moments when the church was still the church right in the middle of the context we were working with were earthshaking to me, because they proved that nothing, nothing, can take Jesus away from us. Jesus gave the power to live out our sacramental life and our witness and our service in the face of Covid, and he is able to give the same power in the face of anything. Because Jesus is the same, yesterday and today, the beginning and the end. Circumstances and context are no obstacle to his truth and his power. They are the channels in which he can pour it out, if each of you turns to him.
I know that many of our parishioners didn’t quite experience what I just described. A large number of folks in our database were not here much, and just couldn't do it -- didn’t have the knowledge or motivation to take the demanding steps Covid required for someone to continue spiritual practice. Many have missed these powerful moments I’m talking about. Several folks who once came to Mass regularly to be fed by Christ are now completely out of the habit or have decided it’s no longer a priority, as you can see by looking around you.
Now Emmanuel is far from alone in this. It’s going on everywhere. If you read Marisa’s article on research by Ed Stetzer, or if you have friends in churches around the country, you know. The pandemic has been an accelerant to trends that are no obstacle at all to the power of Jesus, but that all kinds of churches were already struggling to understand and take into account: spirituality being repackaged as a consumer product to obtain and use privately at your convenience; hostility towards Christianity; growing numbers of people who have never experienced how any mature religion is lived out in community; the shift to locating sacredness is found in self-discovery and self-expression, not in a God who reveals himself.
The confusion and passivity of churches in the face of all those trends, and the resultant erosion of Christian communal practice, was evident before the pandemic, but easier to ignore in 2019 than it is now, when most churches have had a wake up call about how effective they have been in channeling the unchanging power of Jesus Christ within the lives of people in the database. All of that stuff plus Covid has affected how many people God currently has to work with here. It may affect what you guys prioritize on the Emmanuel schedule, how you try to form disciples, how you decide to reach out to Champaign-Urbana. But does anything there change Jesus? Does it change the sacraments? Does it change the Gospel? Does it change the power of the Spirit? No. By learning how to rely on God’s grace and truth and power and that alone, you the Church can be the living presence of Christ in every situation. Any situation.
Because Jesus will help us. Us. You. I mean, look at today’s Gospel. "As he went ashore, Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd." Sheep are herd animals, and their shepherd feeds and manages and guides the herd. The shepherd changes
them from isolated, hapless creatures into a body brought together, journeying together, eating together, with a common life and a common purpose. Jesus looks at these people in this text and doesn’t see an effective, united body; he sees isolated creatures with no shared guidance or goal. Another gospel writer recounting this same moment describes the people as “harassed and helpless.”
So is Jesus stymied? Is he unable to work in such a context? Is he unable to work with such people? No. When he saw the state they were in, Jesus had compassion for them. And how did he express that compassion? He taught them God’s truth, and he healed them.
Nearly all of us now are "harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd," and we barely even know it. We have become so unfamiliar with what the life God offers us, the good life, feels like that we barely realize we’re going without it. And of course 18 months of living much of our lives virtually, shut away, has accelerated this trend, teaching every single one of us -- oh, so many things that go against how God made us. Teaching us to dip quickly into all kinds of things rather than soak in the important ones, to stay home on the couch rather than make the effort to go out, to be schooled in how life works by memes and screens instead of by Scripture, to stay away from the sacraments and find a podcast or a meditation that suits our taste, to sign on for being harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.
What does Jesus feel about people like this? About the people he sees in today’s Gospel? About us? Compassion. What does he do for them and what will he do for us if we turn to him? Teach us, heal us, as in today’s Gospel. Love us. Feed us. And even better than the shepherd and the sheep, live in us. And once you’ve soaked in his truth and his love and his healing, then he will use you. Christ can use exactly who Emmanuel has, exactly where you are, for exactly what he wants. We have nothing to fear.
But first us harassed and helpless people have to come to him and let him heal us, teach us, feed us, and love us. You have to become sheep with a shepherd. You have to become Jesus’s before anything else. Then you can start.
Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega, all time belongs to him and all ages. To him be glory and dominion through all ages of eternity. Amen.