Middler Sheep

A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter:

Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30, Psalm 23

 

Thursday Liz Cato buried Joyce, her mother. Friday Moreland White, from Osceola, buried his mother, Peggy. Saturday morning, my brother in law, Gene died following a complicated recovery from bypass surgery. And as the 23rd Psalm is often read at funerals, and with all these funerals around us I am feeling remiss if I didn’t say something.

I remember about fifteen years ago when my mother died after a twelve-year spiral into the darkness of Alzheimer. My siblings and I had begun to speak of her already being dead because she couldn’t remember anybody or anything. And so I was taken aback, I was surprised at the sense of loss I felt at her funeral, and sometimes later; until today. Peggy and Joyce and Gene lived long lives; Gene’s not quite so long. And for some time, their lives were diminished in a variety of ways. Their death was a released of sorts. But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if their families were surprised by a sense of loss, today, and in future days.

The 23rd psalm is an expression of trust. It reminds us that we will lack nothing. We hear again that God sustains the flock’s life. More than “goodness and mercy” following us, it actually reads that “goodness and mercy” are pursuing us (Murphy). The 23rd Psalm is that perpetual assurance that we are never ever alone (Lewis).

So, I do not know what valley you find yourselves in today. I do not know what shadows may be moving across your lives at this moment. But, as we were just reminded, I do know that you are not alone, you never have been, and you never will be. The spirit of the Lord God is all of us. The God who made us from the dust of the earth, the God who breathed ruach, life-giving spirit, into us is always present.

Now to today’s reading and setting; both 23rd Psalm and the reading from John 10 are images of the shepherd, the good shepherd to be more precise. However, a couple of things that I read this week sort of tugged me toward a different direction. Remember when Jesus calls his friend Lazarus out of the tomb, he tells Lazarus’ friends to unbind him (John 11). Since we now see Jesus as the shepherd, we can now see how Lazarus’ friends are sheep (SSJE). A colleague of mine wrote a blog titled On Being Sheep (Pankey). One of the commentators, read every week, wrote on the nature of belief, pondering how much of our belief is dependent on God’s agency, and how much is up to us (Lose)? Another wrote that the Jewish leaders had no ability to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice (Hoezee). And another exhorts this morning’s preachers to help their congregation hear the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the others; acknowledging that the voices are legion and that often we do not perceive how contrary they are (Johnson).

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Both Psalm 23 and John 10 are clear; we are God’s, we are Jesus’ sheep. But the tug in the different direction for me this morning was: What does that mean? What are obligations of being a sheep? Sometime in the last 25 years or so, someone said that reading the Bible in the church is simply a matter of giving voice to God’s words. I can see how being sheep is similar; as sheep we vocalize Jesus’ voice, as sheep we manifest Jesus’ presence. Both of which are vitally needed in today’s world. Two Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times this week illustrate how.

In How to Fix Politics, David Brooks notes that after WWII, our community mindset began changing to an individualist mindset. Today’s primary ideology is that we can do whatever we want to do so long as we do not interfere with someone else’s doing whatever they want to do. This has led to a disintegration of community relationships. In one survey 47% of the people did not know their neighbors by name. Brooks writes that we spend less and less time in that middle-ring of community relationships such as the PTA, the neighborhood watch, volunteer fire and rescue, youth football, baseball and soccer leagues, sorority and fraternity organizations, all of that. And so frequently we hear the complaints about not being able to find anyone to help. One of the results of this of increasing isolation is the growing vitriolic speech that we hear in disagreements be it political or whatever. It turns out that these middle ring relationships are where we develop the skills to deliberate differing opinions of all kinds. Because even though you disagree with your neighbor, you still get stuff done together week after week after week that is to the benefit of both your neighborhood and to your larger community. (Brooks).

The importance of the middle was actually proven in a failed Air Force Academy effort to improve the worst performing cadets. The plan was to put best and worse cadets in the same squadron, building on the observation that the best have a tendency to help the worst. It failed, and the Academy went back to the to the traditional mix, that happened to have a bit of everyone, best, middle and the worst, in every squadron. It turns out that the middle cadets are the social glue that held the best and worst together in relationships with each other. And it is the relationships that allow the best to influence the worst (unknown). Without the middle social glue there are no relationships and without the relationships, there is no influence.

 

We are very good at getting together with people like us. But we are not very good at building bridges, to those who are different than we are. As we’ve become more and more isolated, for a variety of reasons, we’ve turned to politics to fill that void. Brooks notes that politics is now at the center of our psychological, emotional and even spiritual lives (Brooks). I would much prefer that our spiritual lives be the center of our psychological, emotional and political lives.

In another opinion column, Roger Cohen in The Death of Liberalism makes similar points. He cites Francis Fukuyama writings that the liberal emphasis on individuality which is not interfering with others too much, “is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats.”

However, such feats are required for the defense of liberty. Liberty stresses the need for us to accept each other’s differences; even when they appear incompatible. Cohen writes that a major contributor to the failure of the Arab Spring was the absence of a middle class ready to accept and mediate multiple truths. As inequality grows and angry discourses rant across social media, intolerance and the unwillingness to accept and mediate competing truths grow, and so does the threat to liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Cohen). We are so distracted by the cacophony of voices promising us perfect freedom and self-fulfillment that we are losing the vital foundation of our neighbors and our communities (Brooks).

So what does all of that have to do with being sheep? Well, it occurred to me that perhaps our calling is to be sheep in the middle. It is not about figuring out the compromise that will make it all workout; it is about allowing ourselves to be that middler glue that builds relationships that allow influence to do its work and for surprising solutions to arise. And we can do this because we know we are in that fold. We can do this because we know everything depends on belonging to Jesus. It is not how we feel; it is not about having the right experience, or being doubt free, or what we have accomplished, or what we have avoided, or always having the right liturgy; we know that the only thing that matters is that we are known by the shepherd (Johnson). And we should do this because we know Jesus is the shepherd to everyone (Lynch).

It also occurred to me, that to be middler sheep is going to require us to learn some things. Like how to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd in the midst of a cacophony of voices that pull us in a million different directions. It is not easy. We may have to stop some old stuff. We may have to start some new stuff. But I think mostly what we are going to have to do is to trust. Sheep trust the shepherd. We are going to have to:

• trust that we will lack nothing
• trust that just as God sustains the flock’s life, God also sustains our lives, even when            we wander away
• trust that goodness and mercy pursue us • trust that we are never ever, ever, ever                  alone
• trust that being in a relationship with God on the one hand, and being in a                                relationship with any other sheep on the other already puts us in the middle
• trust that ~ we are already middler sheep.


References

Brooks, David. “How to Fix Politics.” The New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/opinion/how-to-fix-politics.html?ref=opinion&gt;.

Cohen, Roger. “The Death of Liberalism.” The New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/opinion/the-death-of-liberalism.html?ref=opinion&_r=0&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 4 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Hoezee, Scott. John 10:22-30. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 10:22-30. 20 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection is Protection. 17 4 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Easter 4 C: The Electing Word. 17 4 2016. <http://www.davidlose.net/2016/04/easter-4-c-the-electing-word/&gt;.

Lynch, John J. “The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (C) – 2016.” 17 4 2016. Sermons that Work. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2016/03/28/the-good-shepherd-easter-4-c-2016/&gt;.

Mast, Stan. The Lectionary Psalms 23. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Murphy, Kelly J. Commentary on Psalm 23. 17 4 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “On Being Sheep.” 17 4 2016. Draughting Theology. <https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/on-being-sheep/&gt;.

SSJE. 14 4 2016.

unknown. “unknown.” (n.d.).

 

 

 

Showing Up In Odd Places

A sermon for Easter 3: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20), Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19, Psalm 30

 

50 years ago Time Magazine’s cover posed the question: Is God Dead? (White). Episcopal Café’s – The Lead coverage included a philosophical summary beginning with leftovers of Nietzsche’s thesis that striving, self-centered man had killed God, and that settled that. It moves to the current death-of-God group that believes that God is indeed absolutely dead, but proposes to carry on and write a theology without God. Then continues with those who believe that God in the image of man, God sitting in heaven, is dead. And concludes that our society frequently faces the questions: “What is in question is God himself?” and “What is in the reality of God?” The article recaps information from The Pew Research Center. In the last decade or so

  • belief in God dropped from 92% to 88%
  • church attendance has dropped from 39% to 36%
  • those religiously unaffiliated has jumped from about 16% to almost 23%
  • but interestingly, a majority of the above “nones,” 61%, still say they believe in God or a universal spirit (White).

This morning we heard the third story of an appearance of the resurrected Jesus. The Bible tells us that once before humanity killed God, manifest in the person of Jesus. The result is The Resurrection. So if humanity kills God again, this time via philosophical or ideological means, the result will be ~ the continuance of The Resurrection. The remaining question seems to be how long will it be before we recognize or see the resurrected Divine presence? Bible stories indicate it will take some time. It seems that the risen Christ is not easily recognized until he says or does something familiar (Gavenat and Petersen). The risen Jesus also appears to have developed a habit of showing up in odd, yet usual places (Cox).

We read about Jesus showing up in cemeteries in all the Gospels. In John Jesus appears in homes, and at work. Luke writes of him appearing on the road and, along with Mark, at the breaking of bread with lesser-known followers or believers. Matthew writes about the risen Jesus appearing on a mountain top, and where the disciples had been told to be. Mark also writes of appearances in that which frightens and amazes us, or at table. There are stories of Jesus even showing up when folks have gone fishing.

This morning we heard that Peter and some of the other disciples have gone fishing. They seem to be a bit unsettled; like they are still a little on edge, or perhaps somewhat dispirited (Gavenat and Petersen). The story begins “after these things” but we are not sure what things or how much time has passed since then (Cox). Maybe Peter is just trying to get back to life as it had been before all this Jesus stuff popped up. Whatever their motivation it not very successful night fishing.

On their way back, when they are about 100 yards from shore, someone shouts “Put the net down on the other side.” Have you ever been on a lake or seashore and tried to call to someone 100 yards away? I don’t get how they even saw each other never mind communicated. Nor do I understand how John recognized Jesus, except maybe the net is full of 153 large fish, an overly abundant catch eerily like the 1ooo bottles of wine at the wedding in Canna (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner) (Lewis). Their experience is familiar in other ways; it is just like being with Jesus when they were on or near the sea. When they get to shore there is a charcoal fire, just like in the High Priest’s courtyard; one more familiar thing. The bread and fish are just like the Mountain top when Jesus feeds that large crowd (Harrelson). Another familiar thing. Jesus invites them to breakfast, which might be like the last supper; only Jesus offers them offers them bread and fish instead of bread and wine; this sounds and feels familiar.

Now the story shifts to a conversation between Jesus and Peter.

Peter, do you love me?
Yes ~ you know I am you BFF.
Feed my lambs.
Peter, do you love me?
Jesus, I just told you I’m your BFF!
Tend my sheep.
Peter, are you my BFF?
How many times do I have to tell you, you really are my BFF?

Only this time Peter’s voice tinged with hurt as he recognizes his inability to return the love Jesus is speaking of (Cox). Remember Peter by a charcoal fire in the courtyard where he denies Jesus 3 times, here is yet another familiar thing (Erlangen). The three references to sheep and lambs also draw our hearts, and Peter’s, back to the images of Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10) (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). Next, Jesus’ fatefully speaks about Peter’s future, and then invites him to “Follow me.” This is a final familiar moment; it is reminiscent of Jesus calling Nathan and Philip to “Follow me.” way back in chapter 1 (John 1:43) (Gavenat and Petersen).

 

One gleaning from his conversation with Peter is that Jesus meets us where we are physically and spiritually (Cox). Another gleaning is that the half dozen or more references to previous incidents in John’s Gospel reveal the collective presence and power of grace upon grace (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). It just keeps on building up.

 

Today’s appearance story is also a story of discipleship (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). It points explicitly to the future life of Jesus’ disciples(Harrelson). It also points to our discipleship and our responses to the continuing questions of “Is God dead?” and the cognate questions of God being indifferent or irrelevant.

 

I see a few applicable gleanings.

  • Jesus meets Peter where he was, and he meets us where we are; perhaps we should meet those who struggle with the question of God’s existence where they are?
  • Rather than meet an existential challenge with an equally pugnacious reply, perhaps acts of radical hospitality, like breakfast by the seaside, will reveal the way to living lives of kindness, compassion, sharing, generosity, justice, and peace(Cox) (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner).
  • The struggle with existential meaning reveals the need for Jesus in everyday life … like when we are fishing, or on the beach, or about our daily work (Hoezee).
  • As we discover our responses are as ineffective as the disciples’, even in the simple, well-known stuff like fishing, in Jesus’ absence, let’s also remember their astonishing power and effectiveness in his presence (Gaventa and Petersen).
  • Let’s also remember our need for Jesus in meeting the everyday challenges of discipleship.
  • Just because others cannot perceive it, and we can’t explain it does not mean God’s presence and grace are bound. The Resurrection stories reveal that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, (Romans 8:38-39) can contain grace upon grace (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner).
  • And finally, when we are befuddled by some particularly complex, or simple, existential question perhaps it is time to invite our challenger to go fishing with us, or jointly engage in some other mutually enjoyable routine, perhaps mundane activity.

 

To this point, my probably unrealized goal was to bring some sensible understanding to the last chapter of John’s Gospel. And it’s unrealized because I’m not sure I’ve necessarily don’t that, and unrealized because I’m not I was aware that is what I was trying to do when I did it. Later in the day, I saw a Facebook posting from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry:

We need Christians crazy enough:

to love like Jesus

to give like Jesus

to forgive like Jesus.

So, rather than making sense of John’s last chapter, perhaps we should follow the example and like Jesus, just keep showing up in all sorts of odd places to love, to give and to forgive.

 

 

 

References

Cox, Jason. “Jesus Will Meet Us, Easter 3 (C) – 2016.” 10 4 2016. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. 10 4 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 4 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 21:1-19. 10 4 2016.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection is Abundance. 10 4 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

White, John. The Lead: Fifty years since Time magazine asked: “Is God dead?”. 8 4 2016. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com/fifty-years-since-time-magazine-asked-is-god-dead/&gt;.

 

 

Believing More Together Than Apart

A sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Easter: Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31, Psalm 150

 

Galaxy Quest is a curious science fiction tale, of a TV show that has gone bust, but whose actors still make the public appearances. A galactic civilization picks up the transmissions, believes them to be true and constructs their entire civilization around the show. They get into trouble with an aggressive civilization and come to earth seeking the show’s heroes help. It gets quite comical, dramatic, and has its tragic moments. Near the end, the commander uses the Omega 13 device, allowing him to go back in time, for a do-over of a catastrophic ending. I’m inviting us to make use of the Omega 13’s back in time feature before we begin exploring the ending verses of John 20. The change of scene is necessary because its preceding verses are so different from Luke’s story we heard Easter morning.

So here we go. [smack the railing]

Now that was painless. It is now last Sunday morning, two days after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb, discovers Jesus’ body is missing and runs to tell the disciples. Peter and another disciple run to the tomb to see for themselves. They see the burial linens laying to one side neatly folded, well lying there. They don’t understand any better than Mary Magdalene did. They go to their homes. Mary Magdalene stays at the tomb, where she has a strange encounter with two angles, and the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus. He tells her

 … go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

That evening, the disciples are gathered behind locked doors because they are afraid of the Jews.

Commentator Scott Hoezee questions their decision to lock the doors. To this point in John’s Gospel, there is no hint the Jewish or Roman authorities are scouring the city for Jesus’ followers. So, why are they afraid? He also wonders why they are not out looking for Jesus? Don’t they believe Mary Magdalene? It seems unlikely they would have doubted Peter’s supporting witness, but the story says he went home. Why isn’t he out looking for Jesus? Where is his impetuous self? Why hasn’t he organized a search? Is it possible they are really afraid of Jesus? Have they remembered their behavior of the last week? It is not exactly like anyone stood in solidarity with Jesus. It is possible they haven’t gone to find Jesus because they are afraid they will find Jesus (Hoezee)?

In the end, Jesus finds them. He appears in the room, offers them peace, shows them the wounds in his hands and side. The disciples recognize him and rejoice. But, you get the feeling they still don’t get it; they are just really glad to see Jesus; they haven’t yet connected his appearance to his teachings that he would be betrayed, killed, and rise again. Undeterred by their continued struggle to realize who he really is, Jesus: gives them peace, tells them he is sending them into the world, just like God sent him, breaths on them, just as God breathes life into humanity in creation (Gen. 2:7), and gives them the gift of the Spirit. End of scene.

We don’t know anything else for a week. Well, except that they tell Thomas, who is mysteriously missing, that they saw Jesus. Thomas says

I don’t believe it; and won’t until I see what you saw, the wounds in his hands and his side.

The Bible doesn’t say where Thomas has been (Clavier). And Hoezee’s question about why the disciples aren’t out looking for Jesus has me wondering if that is where Thomas has been. Thomas has shown the desire, the willingness to follow Jesus. When Jesus invites them to come with him to awaken Lazarus, it is Thomas who, recognizing the danger of returning to Judea, where the people recently tried to stone Jesus, says

Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

When Jesus is teaching about the glories of heaven and assuring the disciples they have a place there, and they know how to get there, it is Thomas who says

Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?  (John 14:5).

He wants to go; he wants to be with Jesus.

All this has me wondering if Thomas has been out looking for Jesus. I’m wondering if his disbelief is born of frustration

I’ve been out looking him, and Jesus shows up here, as you all cower.

As intriguing as the speculation is, there is no way to know.

What we do know is this. A week later all the disciples are again in the house. John says the doors are shut; he does not mention the lock. Jesus once again shows up; once again offers the disciples peace. Then he turns to Thomas and says

Do not be unbelieving, but believing (Olive Tree).

Thomas’ immediate response

My Lord and My God.

is the most profound proclamation of faith in the Gospels. Speaking to Thomas, and to those of us who follow, Jesus says:

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

John ends the chapter, which may have been the Gospel’s original ending, revealing that he has written this Gospel so those who read or hear the story may come to believe and have life (Harrelson).

This story is about resurrection, which is about being in relationship with Jesus; a relationship that includes the scars of life: Jesus’ scars, Thomas’ scars, the disciples’ scars and our scars (Hoch) (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). The story is also about the transition from being disciples, or followers, to being apostles, those who are sent. And remember that an apostle’s task is simply to go (Pankey). And on our way share the story of the Kingdom’s presence ~ here and now.

Sharing the story is not always easy. The disciples knew it first hand, and they locked themselves in a tomb, that looks a lot like a house. It is important for us to learn what our tombs look like (Hoch). That will help us understand how we experience here and now. This perspective of Thomas reveals that he is what in today’s world is known as data-driven (Hoch). Many of us are data drive, and this perspective may give us some assurance about the legitimacy of our faith journeys. However, not everyone experiences life this way; we experience life in all kinds of ways. All of them are valid. Not all of them agree.

I started with a bit of science fiction. I’m coming to an end with a bit of wisdom from Einstein. Relativity kind of eliminates the notion of where. The universe did not begin in a place; it began at a time. All our experiences are time-based. We see the moon as it was a second and a half ago, the sun as it was eight minutes and 19 seconds ago, Jupiter as it was 37 minutes ago, the center of the Milky Way some 26,000 years ago. We see you after in tiny time it takes light to get from you to me. Relativity also reveals that everyone’s experience is unique because we are all in different vantage points. This means that there is no such thing as universal knowledge. Knowledge overlaps and the more experiences we share, more and greater knowledge is available to all (Overbye).

Your relationship with the crucified scarred resurrected Jesus, whose experience of you includes all your scars, is unique. It is important to everyone else because it is only when we share all our experiences, whether they agree or not, that we can glimpse the fullest possibility of the Kingdom here right now.

The Omega 13 has done its job. And relativity always brings us back to the present. From here I have no doubts; that together we can be more believing than apart, and Jesus is sending us out there [point out] to share so everyone may be more believing.

 


 

References

Clavier, Anthony. “My Lord and My God, Easter 2 (C) – 2016.” 3 4 2016. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Easter 2, Cycle C (2016). n.d. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 4 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoch, Robert. Commentary on John 20:1931. 3 4 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Hoezee, Scott. Easter 2C. 3 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 3 4 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection is Relationship. 27 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Olive Tree. NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Olive Tree Bible Software, 22014.

Overbye, Dennis. “Don’t Let Them Tell You You’re Not at the Center of the Universe.” 1 4 2016. New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/02/science/dont-let-them-tell-you-youre-not-at-the-center-of-the-universe.html?_r=0&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “Becoming Apostles.” 30 3 2016+. Draughting Theology.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.