Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Sermon, "Of Sheep and Shepherds," John 10:1-10

Sermon 5/14/17
John 10:1-10

Of Sheep and Shepherds

Theologian C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my very favorite books. You might be most familiar with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the first book in the series, but the whole series of seven stories is really wonderful. In the sixth book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, you learn about the creation of the land of Narnia by Aslan, the lion, the Christ-figure in the books. As a result of a complicated series of events, Aslan sends a little boy named Diggory on a mission to retrieve a fruit from a special tree in a gated garden. The fruit will become a tree which will protect Narnia. But an evil witch is also in the new land of Narnia. When Diggory arrives at the garden, which is surrounded by a wall, he sees the witch climbing over the walls to steal and eat the fruit of the tree Aslan has sent him to find. Only, the gate to the garden isn’t locked – Diggory can walk right in. The witch could have too, but she chose to enter instead in the way of a thief. When Diggory enters the garden himself, he sees a sign at the entrance that reads, “Come in by the gold gates or not at all, Take of my fruit for others or forebear, for those who steal or those who climb my wall shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
Diggory can take fruit because he came in through the gate, and because the fruit is not for himself, but to bring back to Aslan. The witch doesn’t drop dead or become physically ill, or anything like that. In fact, the fruit she eats gives her unnaturally long life. But her greed and longing for power corrupts her life until she destroys it entirely. If her motives had been selfless instead of self-serving, if she had just gone in through the gate…
            Our gospel lesson today brings us another story about gates and who enters by the gate, and who chooses to climb over walls. Our text from John takes place after Jesus had healed the man born blind. We talked about this passage very briefly during Lent. Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth. But rather than being happy about this turn of events, the religious leaders call the man in for questioning, and want to find someone to blame, rather than someone to celebrate. The passage ends with Jesus saying that it is the religious leaders, not the man who was healed, who are truly blind.
            We move straight from those words from Jesus to this passage, John 10, where Jesus describes a sheepfold in some detail. At focus in this long metaphor is who is in charge of the sheep, who really has the best interest of the flock at heart. Jesus says, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” In contrast, the shepherd is known to the sheep, known to the gatekeeper. The shepherd knows the sheep, calls them by name, and the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd, and follow where the shepherd leads. Jesus says that the sheep won’t follow the voice of a stranger.
            We read that Jesus’s audience doesn’t get what he’s saying, and so he continues, describing himself as the gate for the sheep. Again, Jesus says, others who try to call to the sheep are thieves and bandits, but through Jesus, through his voice, there is salvation, pasture. Jesus lays out a clear contrast: The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. “I came,” Jesus says, “that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s my favorite verse in the Bible: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The text continues on after the close of our passage, with Jesus mixing his metaphors a bit, describing himself as the Good Shepherd, one willing to lay down his life for the sheep in the flock, one who knows his sheep, and is known by the sheep, but the themes are similar. When he’s done speaking, we read that his audience was “divided” because of his words, and eventually, some try to stone Jesus before he makes an escape.
            One helpful book in my ministry has been a book by Tom Berling and Lovett Weems called Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results. Your purpose, they argue, should answer the “so that” question. Anything you do in the life of the church or in your own individual life should have a corresponding so that purpose to it. Here’s what they mean: think of something you spend your time doing, and then think about why you do it. You might say, “I go running regularly so that I keep my heart healthy and strong.” Everything after the words so that is your purpose. Although other things might happen when you run, the so that is the fruit you are seeking after. And if your running isn’t helping to keep your heart healthy and strong, and that’s the main purpose of why you were running, you need to come up with another plan of action. Berlin and Weems want churches to be clear about their so that statements. They want us to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how what we’re doing helps to support our true purpose. In The United Methodist Church, for example, our official mission statement states that our purpose is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” So we might be doing a lot of great things as a congregation, but if those things aren’t helping us to grow as disciples, and they aren’t helping others to become disciples, we might start to ask questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing.
            Our gospel lesson today contains an implied so that statement. Jesus is pretty clear throughout the scriptures about what his purpose is, and we have a great example here: I came so that people might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus’s desire for us is to be full up of life, overflowing with life, experience wholeness, salvation, abundance. Jesus wants for us to experience deep joy, deep love, abundant life. Are we? I wonder, if a primary purpose and mission of Jesus is for us to experience abundant life, how is it that so many people, and in fact so many of us, seem empty, rather than full?
            I think back to the story of Diggory, the witch, and the garden. I wonder: why does anyone climb in over the walls, instead of coming in through the gate? And how is it that the sheep, who know the voice of the shepherd, end up in the arms of the thief, the bandit, instead of following the Good Shepherd? How do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life?
David Lose writes, “I think that as stark as that contrast seems [between the thief who comes to kill and Jesus who comes to give life], it gets really blurry really fast. Do you know what I mean? Take email as a rather small example: I still remember when email was hailed as a time-saver – “we won’t have to play phone-tag anymore!” And, indeed, email is incredibly convenient and helpful. But it also sucks more of my week than I want to admit even to myself. So is it giving life or taking it?
“Or consider work. I’ve been blessed to have been given several jobs over the course of my life that I absolutely love. Yet from time to time, I lose myself in my work and suddenly find myself so tired and haggard that it’s hard to remember what I was working at or why…and notice the toll it’s taken on those around me. So, life giving or life taking?
“Or our kids. There is absolutely nothing in the world I love more than my children and have for that reason happily sacrificed time, energy, and money to give them many things I did not have. But as they approach adulthood I sometimes wonder if they’ve always been as well-served as I would like to think by these good intentions and so wonder whether I’ve spent too much time worshiping at the altar of “giving our children as much as we can.” … Life giving or life taking?
“Money. So many great things money can do…for us, our families, congregations, neighbors, all those in need. But goodness how easy it is for money to shift from a means to an end, from a gift to be used to a god to be worshiped. Life giving or life taking?
“Church ... So many wonderful, incredibly wonderful things about our congregations and our life together in the church, and yet I’ve also seen congregations do awful things to each other and fall far short of being the body of Christ in the world … So…life giving or life taking?” (1) I ask again, how do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life? And how do we fix it?
            Repeatedly in the text, Jesus talks about how the sheep listen to his voice. Are we listening to Jesus’ voice? Amid the cacophony of other voices clamoring for our attention, how do we hear Jesus calling to us? “And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” As I was reading over our text, my mind kept flashing back to a favorite movie from my childhood, Annie. In the movie, orphan Annie rescues a stray dog from a group of bullying boys, and gets ready to sneak it back to the orphanage with her. A dogcatcher from the pound wants to take Sandy in, but    gives Annie a chance to convince him that the dog should belong to her. He’ll let Annie take the dog if Annie can get Sandy to come when she calls. Annie and another passerby both try to call to the dog, but Sandy is smart enough to know the voice of the one who has protected him already, and he goes with Annie.
            How will we know Jesus’ voice? Thankfully, we already belong to Jesus, and Jesus knows our name. In the midst of many voices, listen for the voice of the one who really knows you. We can follow some of the advice I gave to the children today: we can study, learn about Jesus, learn about what he teaches us, so that it is even easier to hear what he has to say, because we know his teachings so well. We can be as smart as Sandy was with Annie: Sandy only knew Annie for a few minutes, but already Sandy knew to go with the one who was protecting him. The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. A thief won’t do that. Notice who is willing to lay down their life for you, contrasted with all the voices who are looking, instead, to take life from you. Ask yourself: which voice is drawing me closer to God, and which voice is leading me farther away? Which voice is setting my heart on fire, and which voices are leaving me burned up and burned out? And whose voice is calling us to live our lives with purpose, rather than leaving us wondering why we’re bothering to do what we do?
            Friends, Jesus wants us – all of us – to experience abundant life. And thankfully, we just have to follow the voice of this good shepherd who knows us by name, who calls out for us, whose voice we know. “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Let’s follow that voice. Amen.    


Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon, "Finding God at Camp/Holy Ground," Exodus 3:1-15

Sermon 5/7/17
Exodus 3:1-15

Finding God at Camp/Holy Ground

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Today we’re celebrating Camp Sunday. We’ve heard from some folks in our congregation about the impact of camp on their lives, spanning through the generations. I want to tell you about some of my experiences at camp too. I suspect, in fact, that if you surveyed pastors, you’d find that a lot of us could point to an experience at church camp as part of our call story, part of how we came to understand that God was calling us into pastoral ministry. But I want us to start today with our scripture text, and reflecting together on this phrase that comes up in our reading from Exodus: holy ground.
Through a series of events that unfolds in the Book of Genesis, the Israelites ended up living as slaves in Egypt. And, for a variety of reasons that would make another good sermon series, God chooses Moses to be the person who will lead the Israelites to freedom, into their own home, their own land, promised by God. But before Moses can lead the Israelites, he has to meet God and be convinced of God’s plans. That’s where we enter the story today.
            Moses is minding his own business, doing the everyday duty of keeping the flock of sheep for his father-in-law. And then, God breaks into the scene, and Moses sees a bush that is burning with fire, but the bush doesn’t seem to be consumed or burned up. Moses decides to take a closer look, wanting to investigate the strange sight. And as he draws closer, God’s voice is heard in the bush coming from a messenger. God speaks to Moses, calling him by name. Moses answers, “Here I am.” God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” God proceeds to remind Moses of the relationship that has gone on for generations between God and Moses’ forbearers. God has heard the cry of the Israelites and now God is sending Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses questions God’s plan. “Me?” he says. “Who am I that the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, would listen to me?” God responds, “I will be with you. Isn’t that enough? I’ll give you signs, you’ll know for sure.” But still Moses raises objections. “Who shall I say sent me? Telling them that it is our ancestors’ God won’t be enough.” God, perhaps, has had enough. “I AM WHO I AM. Tell them I AM has sent you.” Apparently Moses does not find this answer helpful or impressive, because he continues to complain and doubt and ask questions for another chapter and a half. But our passage today closes here, leaving us to dwell in this mystery of God, I am who I am.
With some regularity, people ask me a question that’s a variation of this: why doesn’t God speak to us today the way God spoke to people in the Bible? In the Bible, God seems to show up in the presence of angels, messengers from God, or speaking in a voice that seems clear and conversational, or in a pillar of cloud and fire, or seen in miracles like the Red Sea parting, or water changed into wine. Why doesn’t God talk to us that way, people will ask? Today’s text is another good example. Moses sees a bush that seems to be on fire and yet is not consumed. This happens while he’s just out doing his regular everyday thing – he’s a shepherd, and he’s out leading his sheep. And I think many of us think, “Well sure, we’d know God was talking to us if God showed up to us like that!”
I wonder, though, if this is really true of us. Maybe some people would respond well to a vision of God that came in this way, but I’m pretty sure if someone came up to me claiming to be a messenger from God, or if someone told me they could change water into wine, or if I saw a bush that was on fire, but not being burned up, and I started hearing voices coming from it, well… I think God has an amazing way of speaking to us in ways that will get our attention, make us stop and listen, rather than make us think we need to get a checkup. I think God is speaking to us, calling us all the time, but I think sometimes when we’re a bit more open, a bit more vulnerable, in the right place, at the right time perhaps, we’re a little more aware that we’re in God’s presence, a little more receptive to God’s voice than we might be normally. That’s what I think of when I think of holy ground – I think of places we encounter in our lives – literally and metaphorically – where we’re a bit more open, a bit more responsive to God speaking to us.   
For me, camp has long been a holy ground place in my life. I think I’ve told you before that one of the things that really shaped me growing up was that my mom really emphasized to me and my brothers that God calls all of us, and that our task is to figure out what God’s call is for us in particular. We’re all called to some kind of ministry – be it what we do for a living or the passion that we work on outside of our working hours. Our job is to listen for God’s voice as we figure out what that is. So I grew up with an expectation that God would be calling me for something. The first time I felt like I was hearing God calling to me was at Camp Aldersgate.
When I was little, too young to go to camp, when you had to be going into 4th grade to go to any of the camps, I would go with my parents to take my brother and cousin to camp. I remember how long the hour drive seemed to get there, I remember knowing we were close when the trees changed and the air started to smell, well, like camp. I couldn’t explain it more clearly than that. I couldn’t wait for my turn to go to camp. To my dismay, the year I was finally old enough to go, they actually lowered the age by a year – suddenly, kids going into 3rd grade could go to camp too, which was obviously very unfair. Also, my mother was nervous that I wouldn’t like being away for a whole week, and she made me go to mini-camp, shorter than the full week that was possible. Despite these injustices, finally, I was able to go to camp myself, and I loved it even more than I had always dreamed and known I would. Sometimes things we build up in our mind don’t live up to our expectations, but fortunately, camp wasn’t like that. I loved camp so much I would anxiously await the arrival of the camp brochure in the mail, which was better than when the Sears Christmas catalog came out, and I would imagine scenarios in which I could afford to go to three or four weeks of camp, instead of just one, and I would start packing more than a month in advance of my departure date, even if it meant I constantly had to unpack again to get things that it turned out I still needed in the meantime.
For me, camp was a place I could be myself. In the midst of the angst of my tween and teen years, I never felt much pressure to be someone I wasn’t at camp. Sure, there were still “cool kids” at camp, but even the cool kids were friendly. It was a place where it was ok, even expected that you would hug each other, care for each other, do kind things for each other. It was ok to talk about God, to learn about Jesus together at camp. I adored everything about camp. I couldn’t wait to be on staff myself. And I was pretty sure, by the time I was in junior high, that I wanted to run my own camp someday.
See, I had never felt the presence of God so clearly as when I was at camp. I found God in the hikes and canoe trips we took, in early morning devotions at the cross by the lake, as we sang a quiet song by the campfire before bedtime, as we heard the scriptures come to life in the form of stories and skits, as we formed tightknit communities in just 6 or 7 days – l felt God so deeply, and I wanted that all the time. It took me a long time to realize that God wasn’t calling me to run a camp. I got a bit confused, because camp was one of the holy ground places where I could hear God calling me in ways I couldn’t in the business of the rest of my life. And so for a while, I mistook the place I heard God calling me for the work God was calling me to do.
Eventually, I heard God’s call more clearly, but camp has remained for me a holy ground place. I did eventually work on summer staff, and I volunteered as a counselor and office worker and chaplain once I became a pastor. I still choose one of our conference camps as the location for my spiritual renewal time each year, and I think I wrote the majority of my doctoral project while on retreat at camp. I know it is place I can go when I needed to be grounded in God’s presence, in the presence of the holy, when I need to let myself be a bit more vulnerable, listening for God. What are your holy ground places? Where do you go, physically, or mentally, when you’re trying to tune in to God’s voice?
Of course, our reading today doesn’t end with holy ground. The “holy ground” part of the text only gets us to verse 5, and then we’ve got 10 more verses still to consider. So what about the rest of the passage? What happens, then, when we find ourselves on holy ground? When we’re vulnerable enough to hear God speaking to us, then what? Well, I think Moses would have liked for his experience to end at verse 5 as well. Sure, it was his fault. He’d been curious and come closer to that burning bush. He’d gotten to see God, which was great, but now I think he wished very much that he could just get back to his flock and go home. God has other ideas, though, and soon it seems that Moses has somehow been selected for a very big important mission, even though he’s ready to make it clear to God why this is a bad idea, even though he has a brother who is better suited to what God is asking, even though what God is asking will put Moses in a most dangerous position. Moses must, for the moment, regret that he’d ever happened upon this place of holy ground, that he’d answered God, “Here I am!” Still, though his task was tough, demanding his all, I doubt Moses would have done anything differently, since he journeyed through life with a deeply personal, intimate relationship with God.
I think we are like Moses sometimes. We’ve stepped onto holy ground – maybe we were seeking a holy ground place where we could hear God, or maybe we sort of stumbled upon it. Either way, we’ve been drawn into places that are holy in our lives, holy settings, and holy situations, only to find God there, wanting to ask something of us. And suddenly we have excuses on our lips, and wonder if we can just leave God there in that holy place, on the mountain, at camp, and head back to our homes. I think sometimes we treat holy ground like a place that we happen upon, and happen to find God there, or a place that we must retreat to, go to in order to find God. Like God was just waiting for me to come to Camp Aldersgate, but couldn’t get to me until I came arrived in the summer. But, as it turns out, God is a lot more talented than that. I think God is always trying to speak to us, call to us. When we recognize God’s presence, we recognize the holy ground upon which we are in fact always standing. Holy ground is just waiting for us to recognize its presence, just as God is waiting for us to answer when God calls. So God will speak to us at church if we’ll listen while we’re here, but God will also show us holy ground in the supermarket or on vacation or when we’re just feeling open and vulnerable, if that’s what it takes. So the truth is, Moses wasn’t able to say no to God – how can you ‘un-see’ holy ground once you’ve found it? Even if you try, God will just break onto the scene in some other way, and suddenly Moses would have found himself to be on holy ground in his house, or in the fields, until Moses was able to understand what God was saying.
Holy ground asks for a response from us. Holy ground wants us to have something to show for having been there. For me and camp, I can say that my experiences led me to become a pastor, even if indirectly. I can’t imagine that I’d have ended up as a pastor had I not spent all that time at Aldersgate, getting to know God, learning to hear God’s voice. When you think about the holy ground you’ve been on, what do you have to show for your journey? How did you let God change you? If you can’t think of an answer, I’d start watching out for the shrubs around your home, because they just might start bursting into flame, trying to get your attention. Our God is the creator of all we see and know, of everyone we meet – and that means that we have a lot of potential holy ground that surrounds us. Our aim is to start recognizing God’s holy ground when we see it. And when God calls, we can be ready to respond, “Here I am.” So take off your shoes – this place is holy ground, and I AM WHO I AM has a message for you. Amen.