The Rod and Staff.

Homily 412 – 5th Sunday of Pascha (Samaritan Woman)
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
May 10, 2020
Epistle: (38) – Acts 16:16-34
Gospel: (34) – John 9:1-38

Christ is Risen!
Kristos Voskrese!
Christos Anesthi!

I’m so excited about our current situation. Not for the reason you may suppose. It isn’t about the desire for us to gather again, although that is definitely a desire.

What I’m excited about is our growth – spiritual growth – that has come through this time. I apologize that this may be a reflection of my own experience, but if you will indulge me.

In a way this has been about me taking responsibility for my spiritual life. And I’m not terribly good at that. I’m a product of structure and – in a significant way – not good on my own.

Truly I don’t think any of us are – we are described in scripture, throughout scripture, as sheep. Now, I’m not an expert in sheep but they strike me as very undisciplined.

They have no sense of direction. They just graze. That’s it. They eat. There is no sense of purpose nor fulfillment, nor even objectives and purpose.

In the 22nd Psalm, the 23rd in the Hebrew numbering, there is an interesting (well, to me at least) statement: Your rod and staff comfort me.

Meaning the nudges and taps and strikes that I receive from the shepherd move me to a different place – and the presence of the shepherd, and his desire for good things for me, are comforting, even if painful at times.

So, during this time, God reminds us that we should be sheep, but be rational sheep – sheep that can and should mature. The discipline of the ascetical tradition, indeed the disciplines of the whole liturgical life of the Church, are formative.

Subtly, without our even recognizing it all the time, we are directed – and we learn. We are shaped, imperceptibly, by the rod and the staff of our Great Shepherd – that being the discipline and liturgical cycles of the Church.

During this time, Christ has removed his rod and staff from us – at least partially. He’s left us with the discipline of the Church but removed the in-person cycle of the services we celebrate together. And this, dear ones, is for a purpose.

We can’t just be physically present in Church. We have to be fully present. This is important so that we can be formed by the services and disciplines and learn how to offer our whole lives to Christ our God, as the petition of the litany says.

God in turn reciprocates our offering with His presence – taking what we offer and returning it to us, both physically in the body and blood of our Lord, and spiritually, through His indwelling in our core being.

This is the New Covenant. This is the New Testament. This is the Gospel. If we offer ourselves to Him, He gives Himself to us.

How does this relate to now, you may well ask. By removing the ability for most of us to attend the services in person, I believe it is God’s intention that we feel a bit lost. Like the shepherd has abandoned us to a degree.

In our wanderings, lost, He searches for us – I really think He is always with us but allows us to wander – in order that we may understand the value of His presence in the rod and the staff.

The rod and the staff that we are quick to recoil at and cast away, not seeing the love that comes from the direction.

Directing us to a better place, a better pasture, a more healing place.

And yet, it is still sometimes painful. And, if we are honest, risky, and scary. But our Shepherd knows us, and knows what is best for us. Meaning, difficult though it may be at times, we can and should trust Him.

Looking back over the scriptural accounts of those called to follow God, there is no place that I can find where God shares the objective of the calling. The closest I can perhaps see is Moses, who is called to return to save his brothers and sisters.

Even then, he isn’t told how.

Others, like Abraham, follow blindly. After the Exodus, God leads Moses and the Children of Israel blindly. He doesn’t give out maps and say, “here you go!” and leave us to our own devices.

No, He is with us – every step, every movement. Gently, sometimes not so gently, using His rod and staff to direct us. No, no, not that way. Over here. Now, too far – come back this way. Move forward – we’re moving to a better pasture now, we’ve exhausted this one.

What we have seen over the past several weeks in this feast of Pascha, is the individual transformations made in the lives of those who have made or are making this type of transition. The transition from sheep, to friend.

The Blind Man can’t see who it is who heals him. He knows the name, but can’t recognize Him, because it was in blindness, going away blind at the Lord’s direction, but returning with sight.

Talk about trust. Even the “what have I got to lose” trust is still trust.

So he goes, he washes, he sees. And when he returns, after the interrogations and intrigue, he encounters the One who healed him and doesn’t know it.

We are also being asked to do something – to go and to wash. Going into the world, I will admit, is scary to many, not the least of which to me. My instinct is to want to have all of you back, and give you hugs and words of encouragement.

We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in that direction. So have faith – trust – and go and wash. Begin life again. Slowly, not by our direction, but trusting the direction of the Shepherd who loves us.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Christ is risen!