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).
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.
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>.
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>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 4 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Hoezee, Scott. John 10:22-30. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/>.
Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 10:22-30. 20 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
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/>.
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/>.
Mast, Stan. The Lectionary Psalms 23. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
Murphy, Kelly J. Commentary on Psalm 23. 17 4 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Pankey, Steve. “On Being Sheep.” 17 4 2016. Draughting Theology. <https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/on-being-sheep/>.
SSJE. 14 4 2016.
unknown. “unknown.” (n.d.).