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.).

 

 

 

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One Fold, One Shepherd, One Voice

A sermon for Easter 4

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

Its shepherd Sunday, so of course we read from John chapter 10, and the 23rd Psalm. To hear Jesus proclaim he is the good shepherd, to know that as we traverse the valley of death God’s rod and staff comforts us, well ~ it just makes us feel good. After weeks of hearing about the disciples’ doubt and fear, I’m kind if wondering how they are feeling. Except, ~ they aren’t here.

This morning we go back in time, before Golgotha, before Pilates headquarters, before Caiaphas before the garden, all the way back to Jesus’ encounter with the man blind from birth. When we last heard that story, it ended with Jesus telling the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:41 NRSV)

Only that’s not the end of the discussion. Jesus continues with this whole sheep thing, entering by the gate, the sheep know his voice, and this morning’s “I am the good shepherd.” All this is important, because what follows makes it very clear the Pharisees don’t hear Jesus the same way you and I hear Jesus. The Pharisees are far more likely to hear the echo of Ezekiel 34 in Jesus words. For your information this is a time when Ezekiel is depicting Israel’s Kings and ruling elite, political, religious and economic, as bad shepherds, using the sheep for their unjust gains. As expected the sheep, the people of Israel, have been subject to all sorts of hardships, foreign invasions, even exile and captivity. Ezekiel does not paint a pretty picture.  (Petersen & Gavenat, 2010) In this context, I’d like us to explore the little-considered verse:

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also … (John 10:16 NRSV)

Commentators generally fall into two trains of thought about ‘other sheep.’ Some think Jesus is speaking about Gentiles, who are certainly other in a Jewish context. Some think Jesus is speaking about Jews who don’t yet believe, but will. A third group contend Jesus is taking a poke at the Pharisees, including amongst other sheep all those they exclude from Jewish community, like the man born blind. I rather think it’s all three, that Jesus shepherds any and all of God’s people, even those who don’t yet believe.

However, the word that caught my attention is ‘fold,’ so I looked it up. A sheep fold is an open-air walled off area, typically next to a house, where sheep were kept during the night. Then I got thinking about other such structures were God’s people would gather. The first that comes to mind is Jerusalem itself, which is a walled city. Any person, not expelled from the community, lepers for example, Jew or non-Jew could enter. The second is the outer courtyard of the Temple where any Jew could go. The last vision was the many mansions, many rooms in God’s house. (John 14:1ff NSRV) This journey from the outside in, gives us a picture of ever more exclusive entrance rights. Almost anybody can enter Jerusalem, any Jew can enter the Temple courtyard, any male of age can enter the Temple proper, only the priest can function around the altar, and only the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies, where the Ark, God’s presence on earth, resides. But then we get to God’s home and to our surprise discover a home of many homes, for all who believe Jesus and God abide in each other, and that through Jesus we abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in us. It’s surprisingly expansive inclusive image.

All this comes to bear in post-resurrection times, within the second half of the verse:

… and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16 NRSV)

Two quick points: first Jesus will bring all God’s people into one flock, and he will be the one shepherd, second, it is Jesus’ voice they will hear and listen to. Its clear Jesus’ goal is for all humanity to live in divine harmony. That doesn’t mean there will not be differences. In fact I think Jesus and God celebrate our differences. However, those difference will no longer divide us, rather through them we will be present to God in some mystic harmonic shalom. It’s also clear that it is Jesus’ voice that draws all God’s people together, not our voice. This does not mean we are off the hook, no ~ scripture is clear, it is our calling to share our experience of the risen Christ. But that’s it. Ours is not to judge. Ours is not to exclude. This entire post-resurrection continues.  (Lose, 2015)

God, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, still journeys with us, through whatever valley we find ourselves in. At times, we will walk with another, through their valley. In that journey we may be called to point out an incongruity, to provide an inkling of an answer, to ask a question, but always with the knowledge that it is never our voice that leads them into the one fold, that voice always has been, and always will be ~ Jesus’.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we face, in our post-resurrection days, are those times we hear another pass judgement or exclude another, for any reason, from God’s eternal grace and love. It’s a risk to name that infraction, for they are in fact trying to be like God. It’s equally risky to reach out to the other, whose manner may well be offending, and walk with them through their shadowed valley.

My prayer for all of us comes from Mission St. Clare Morning Prayer which ends:

God be with you till we meet again
By his counsels guide, uphold you
with his sheep securely fold you …
God be with you till we meet again”

May it guide us through those who seek to divide us for their particular political, religious, social or economic gain. May it guide us keep us forever tuned to voice of The Shepherd.


References

Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Lose, D. (2015, 4 19). Easter 3 B: Resurrection Doubts. Retrieved from David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net

Petersen, D. L., & Gavenat, B. R. (2010). New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press.

9, 14, Seattle

So far this week I’ve read of the connection between the blind man in John 9, that Sunday’s reading is more about Jesus being the gate, the Jesus’ “I am the way, the truth and the life”  from John 14, and I’ve stumbled upon the pun of sheepless in Seattle.  All of which leaves me in Seattle following a blind, sheepless, gate along the way to truth and life.  This is nonsense ~ except in how it points to the importance of context, the gleanings of Jesus saying “I am the gate” is shaped by how it flows from the story of people’s response to the blind man and his healing. It’s worth exploring how our lives are shaped by how they flow from the story of our responses to Jesus, birth, death , resurrection and ascension.