Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills O God that we may love and serve you today and always. Amen
One of my fondest memories is that of my Grandmother and her sisters teaching me and my cousins when we were very young children the 23rd psalm. I think many of us learned the 23rd psalm as small children and have gone on to teach it to those in the next generation. It is among the most well-known pieces of scripture we have. I have heard it said that one reason for the appeal of the image of the Good Shepherd lasting across the centuries is that it is an image of a wonderful relationship: a vulnerable little lamb embraced in the arms of a loving shepherd. In the psalm, we read of green grasses, calm peaceful waters….but it is the image of the loving Shepherd that makes those valleys safe and life-giving. Even people who would not identify themselves as religious or even spiritual, turn to it, almost automatically, when in crisis….. It is an image of that protective, loving relationship with Jesus Christ that we often recognize and experience at times of need in our lives.
Frequently in Morning Prayer there is no sermon. And the three readings this Sunday could certainly stand alone, especially the 23rd psalm and today’s reading from John: the Good Shepherd Discourse. So this morning I would like to do something that is a little bit different and briefly focus on two women, Monnica, and Julian of Norwich. Two women whose lives embrace and demonstrate the meaning of these readings. Both these women have feast days in our faith and I think it is no accident that their feast days are appointed by the Episcopal Church to be celebrated the week before this Sunday, back on May 4th for Monnica, and Julian’s the week after this Sunday, tomorrow, on May 8th. As sheep of the flock, the relationship with God and with those in their lives that these women lived, have done much over the centuries to spread God’s word and share Jesus’s mission. You can find more out about these two women (and the other Saints of our faith) in the Episcopal publications called Lesser Feast and Fasts or in the newer, updated version, renamed Clouds of Witnesses. I would encourage you to take a look at them.
Monnica was born around 331 in North Africa. She was the mother of St. Augustine and is credited with his, and her husband’s, conversion to Christianity, which she had struggled to accomplish over many, many years. According to St. Augustine, while they were travelling in foreign counties, she fell desperately ill and after experiencing visions of her death, he thought she might fear being buried in a foreign land. She replied: “Nothing is far from God, and I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world.”
The collect appointed for her feast day reads: O Lord, through spiritual discipline you strengthened your servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son: Deepen our devotion, we pray, and use us in accordance with your will to bring others, even our own kindred, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. I love that line: even our own kindred…It always give me pause.
Dame Julian was born about 1342 and is known as one of the church’s great mystics. At age 30 she became extremely ill and was given last rites. On the seventh day of her illness she had fifteen visions of the Passion. After recovering her health, she became a recluse, called an anchoress because she was walled into a small dwelling attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England. The outside wall has a small window in it where she frequently was visited for counsel and spiritual advice by clergy and lay, including the famous mystic Margery Kempe. If any of you have been to the charming little city of Norwich you probably have seen it. I remember being amazed at how small the room was when I saw it. Perhaps you are familiar with her work, The Revelations of Divine Love? One of her best known quotes from which many have taken comfort and support is: “but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ It is a quote that she said she received directly from Christ during one of her visions.
The collect appointed for Dame Julian’s feast day reads: Lord God, in your compassion you granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As Augustine’s mother, Monnica and as Julian of Norwich demonstrated by the way they lived their lives, and as the Good Shepard Discourse in this morning’s Gospel reading teaches us, The Good Shepherd invites us to extend the loving embrace of Jesus Christ to everyone — believers and non-believers. Monnica and Julian knew that when they heard The Shepherd call them by name. They knew that their lives were not just about focusing on their personal, exclusive relationship with Jesus Christ. They knew it was also about evangelism: sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. We know that that ought to be a natural part of our own life of faith, that it is also our mission to share the Good News and to grow the Kingdom of God through our words and through our actions as followers of The Shepherd in the world today.
May we remember Monnica and Julian as two whose lives were beacons of God’s eternal and all-embracing love. Two women who turned to the Shepherd’s all-embracing love when they found themselves in the valley of the shadow of death, two women who found The Shepherd’s comfort and protection and two women who dwelt in the house of the Lord their life long.
Thanks be to God, Amen