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Monday, May 16, 2011

Sermon for May 15, 2011, Fourth Sunday of Easter (A)

Rev. Arthur Halbardier
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
St. John 10:1-10

* *

Relationships are complicated…we know.

Some relationships are REALLY complicated.

But it would seem the relationship of sheep with their shepherd would be fairly straightforward.
Jesus is our shepherd, and we are his “sheep.”

Perhaps some of you may not take kindly to being called “sheep.” Sheep are …typically cast as notoriously dumb critters.

My personal knowledge about sheep and sheep keeping is essentially nil. But one writer, who knows a great deal more about sheep than I, suggests that the notion “sheep are dumb” is an ugly little canard spread by cattle ranchers, who typically have fairly low regard for sheep, primarily because sheep don’t behave like cattle. (1)

Example: Cattle are herded from behind by cowboys who hoot and crack whips to make the cattle move. Stand behind a flock of sheep and make loud noises, and they will run around behind you, because sheep prefer to be led. Unlike cattle, sheep have the good sense to not go anywhere that someone else – their shepherd – does not go first, to assure them it is possible…and safe. Which doesn’t sound “dumb” at all.

No wonder Jesus chose to be known as “the good shepherd” rather than “the good cowboy.” Jesus went before us; faced death and hell before us… We face life and even death trusting God in Jesus has already won the victory over them … FOR US.

Today in Palestine, you can still witness scenes similar to the one Jesus described in today’s Gospel. Bedouin shepherds bring their flocks at dusk to a safe protected place, a sheepfold, where there is a watering hole. The flocks become all mixed up together – eight or nine small flocks become a convention of thirsty sheep.

But shepherds don’t worry about the mix-up. When it’s time to move on the next day, each shepherd gives his or her own distinctive call – a special whistle, maybe a distinctive tune on a reed pipe – and that shepherd’s flock will step from the crowd to follow their shepherd.

The flock knows to whom they belong; they know their shepherd’s voice; and it is the only voice they will follow. So, sheep may not be so dumb after all. They seem pretty sensible in fact: they know they can’t go it alone, and that they need to rely on someone they can trust.

If sheep and the shepherd is to portray our relationship with God, then it’s important to note here the key to the relationship is not how smart the sheep are or what the sheep do.The critical point in the relationship is that the shepherd knows each of them by name. God, our shepherd, knows each of us by name. Perhaps we were not paying attention at our baptism when our name was spoken – but God was paying attention!

And on that day, God who declared at the baptism of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased,” declares that you and I are “children of God” and “inheritors of eternal life.”
Whether we have lived as we promised in baptism (unlikely) - or have failed miserably(probably) - we are part of his flock.

God knows us by name, and will not let us go: There is no more consoling word we can hear at the funeral of one we love, no more comforting thought to hold on to at 2:19a.m. when the troubles and worries of the day deny the possibility of sleep, than that we belong to God, who does not forget us.

But, Jesus goes on to say, “when the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice, they know it, and they follow him.”

…..It was going so well…. until that point, wasn’t it? Isn’t it remarkable how the very gospel that comforts us, also frequently questions us? And I wish for better answers.

For there is a cacophony of voices that daily vie for my attention, that tempt me with sweet-sounding alternatives, and I often listen to them – not to the voice of my shepherd. And what of following him? I am more inclined to choose my own path rather than the way he is leading me. And, even when I try to follow his way, I’m often simply stuck in place by fear. And by doubt … I doubt myself, and I doubt him. Is it somewhat like that with you, also?

Perhaps this relationship – our relationship with God – is not so straightforward after all. Not because God’s isn’t straightforward and consistent. It’s our side where things get messy.
Clearly the twelve disciples who first heard Jesus use this figure of speech didn’t find it
all that straightforward, either. The Bible says, “They did not understand what he was saying to them.” (2)

So, Jesus tries a different tack. “OK. Think again about the sheepfold. I am the gate for the sheep.” Jesus evidently thought this was an improvement - that this would help them understand. “I am the gate.” I’m sure that clears everything up for you, too, doesn’t it?
“Gate” isn’t a particularly engaging image. Gates stand between those who have a right to be inside, and all the others. Gates say – KEEP OUT – This place is restricted. This gated community isn’t for you. You're not welcome unless you can prove you belong.

Yet Jesus regards it great “good news” that he is “the gate” for the sheep. Jesus tells his friends, “you must enter by the gate.” You can’t climb in through a window or a crack inthe wall. You can’t work your way in by being good, or doing right, or by serving fifteen terms on the finance committee.

This gate is open for you. I AM THE GATE! You come in through me. Through my life and my death on the cross, which incredibly God says is your life and your death in Holy Baptism. You come in hanging onto my coat tails. I am the gate and the only to get through the gate also.”
There’s another aspect to the image of “the gate.” Again, having the understanding of those folks 2000 years ago who first heard Jesus sheds some additional light.

Sometimes, when sheep were out in the fields for days at a time, coming back to a sheepfold wasn’t an option. Sometimes the shepherd had to improvise, lead the flock to some other safe place for the night – a cave perhaps, or a small box canyon. Then the shepherd would take his place at the entrance. The shepherd’s body was the “gate,” not so much to keep the sheep in, but to keep out thieves and predators.

Our shepherd still places himself between us and the things that threaten our life. Evil that would have us has first to take on our Lord Jesus. Our shepherd remains there at the threshold of daily life standing with us… for us.

The relationship is complex, yet so very simple. Let me sum it up: Though we often ignore God’s voice and hesitate to follow it, God, our shepherd knows us by name and declares us his own. It will never be a matter of what we do, but a matter of whom God says we are. And God, our shepherd, continues to stand with us to support and defend us.

After a statement like that, we know Martin Luther would have continued, “And what does this mean for us?” Our hopeless existence has been transformed by a gift we didn’task for nor deserve. What does this mean for us?

It means what we heard in today’s second reading: “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.” (3)

“Live for righteousness” means that because we are the body of Christ in our present world,we are open gate to all who would come to him. And, “live for righteousness” means we now join our shepherd in the lives of others, encouraging and defending them.

And, what does this mean for us? Perhaps an example can help our reflection.

This week, our brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church USA voted to remove the language in their constitution that created a double standard of behavior for clergy whoare gay and lesbian. We Lutherans know the unpleasant journey ahead for our Presbyterian friends. We’ve been there. Despite the hurts and losses the ELCA has experienced since making a similar decision in 2009, I think that decision stands out as one of our best moments as a church body. That decision, and the one by our Presbyterian sisters and brothers this week were decisions made solely for the sake of the gospel as we can best understand it, knowing full well the cost of that decision.

This is the “enduring” our second reading described – “when we do right and suffer for it.” (4)
Lutheran theology refers to this kind of act as “bearing the cross.” Bearing the cross is what it may mean for us, when we heed the voice of the shepherd.

Elaine and I recently had the chance to witness the social change in South Africa. Thirty years ago, people of faith around the world took the lead in declaring the system of apartheid an atrocity, determined that fighting apartheid was a matter of conscience. Eighteen years after apartheid was officially dismantled, the legacy of that ugly system is not completely erased, but good things are happening.

There was great potential cost in taking a stand against apartheid; all of us with a church pension fund knew the cost might be personal, since one tool was church divestment incorporations doing business in South Africa. But the cross of resisting evil was taken up, and our shepherd sustained his flock in their witness to the gospel.

These have been significant events in recent history. But, what of the future?

Today, we face a national budget and debt out of control. Same at the state level almost everywhere. Unemployment is high, cost of basics like food and fuel are up – and no one wants higher taxes. The solution from some quarters is to weaken environmental protections, reduce support for education and human services, cut non-military foreign aid, to pull back the ever more costly social safety net.

But, who would most feel the effect? We know. It would be the elderly, children and the poor, here and abroad. The future generations who will live in the spoiled environment we leave them. The disabled, the unemployed… all those who have no lobbyists or organized voice. The ones who are ignored by some, and easily forgotten by all of us.

But, our shepherd knows them. By name. They also belong to him.

What does this mean for us? How can the church possibly make a difference? What can individual citizens do? What will be the cost to us, to take their side?

On this and so many other tough issues I do not have clear answers for myself, and certainly not for you. Joe Sittler once described the practice of Christian ethics as “taking a stand with both feet firmly planted in mid-air.” It feels that way, most of the time, as we try to discern “what does this mean for us?”

This I do know. There is the one, who knows my name and yours. Who promises God’s grace will be sufficient for us, and God’s strength will be revealed in our weakness. (5) When I think of occasions when the church has risen up to advocate for victims of injustice and discrimination, the truth of that passage is clear and sure.

A little girl was offering her evening prayers. She had been working on the words of the23rd psalm. This evening she began, “The Lord is my shepherd; that’s all I want.”

She didn’t have the words just right, but, friends, but she truly had the point.

In the end, when we don’t have the answers, we have our shepherd. When we despair because we have no idea what to do, we still have the shepherd. Humiliated by our own timid efforts to follow his lead, or when we give in to self-doubt or despair, still there will be our shepherd, who knows us by name, and does not forget, nor will ever let us go.

Who else could we want…or need?

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Voice of the Shepherd
2. John 10:6
3. 1 Peter 2:24
4. 1 Peter 2:20
5. 2 Corinthians. 12:8

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