First Congregational Church
March 25, 2018
Mark 11:1-11 & John 12:12-16
“My Horse of a Different Color”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A man bought a donkey from a preacher. The preacher told the man that this donkey had been trained in a very unique way, (being the donkey of a preacher). The only way to make the donkey go, was to say, "Hallelujah!" The only way to make the donkey stop, was to say, "Amen!"
The man was pleased with his purchase and immediately got on the animal to try out the preacher's instructions. "Hallelujah!" shouted the man. The donkey began to trot. "Amen!" shouted the man. The donkey stopped immediately. "This is great!" said the man. With a "Hallelujah," he rode off very proud of his new purchase.
The man traveled for a long time through some mountains. Soon he was heading toward a cliff. He could not remember the word to make the donkey stop. "Stop," said the man. "Halt!" he cried. The donkey just kept going. "Oh, no... Bible!....Church!...Please Stop!!" shouted the man. The donkey just began to trot faster. He was getting closer and closer to the cliff edge. Finally, in desperation, the man said a prayer. "Please, dear Lord. Please make this donkey stop before I go off the end of this mountain, In Jesus name, AMEN."
The donkey came to an abrupt stop just one step from the edge of the cliff. "HALLELUJAH!", shouted the man.
Poor donkeys, asses and mules! They are always getting the brunt of the joke. In case it should ever come up on Jeopardy, donkeys make donkeys, horses make horses, but only a horse and a donkey can make a mule. Mules can’t make mules because they are infertile.
Donkeys have been stereotyped differently throughout the centuries. I get the sense that donkeys, these days, are thought to be less intelligent than horses. Not so. I, perhaps like many of you, have thought donkeys to be a sub-class of horses, in thinking of their jobs and in terms of humility and meakness. But back in Jesus’ day, donkeys were ridden by conquerors, symbolizing peace, while horses were ridden by kings going to war.
It was David Lose, from Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis that inspired this morning’s sermon title. He was encouraging ministers to help congregants “get into the story.” It was one of my favorite Bible commentators, William Barclay, who helped set the scene.
For those of you who may have forgotten, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. William Barclay said that “On one occasion a census was taken of the lambs slain at the Passover Feast. The number was given as 256,000. There had to be a minimum of ten people per lamb; and if that estimate is correct it means that there must have been as many as 2,700,000 people at that Passover Feast. Even if that figure is exaggerated, it remains true that the numbers must have been immense.”
Then Barclay add that “News and rumor had gone out that Jesus, the man who had raised Lazarus from the dead, was on his way to Jerusalem.” I say, imagine the noise, the dust, the heat and the stench of human life before sewer systems and air freshener. It is also no wonder that Jesus used one of the old prophets’ favorite teaching tools - rather than try to ‘tell’ his point, he demonstrated it.
Now think of a time when you were anticipating something big, and how that big thing was going to go was by no means 100% clear to you or certain. Maybe you were planning to pop the question and ask someone to marry you. Maybe you were facing a major interview, a big exam, or were slated to give a speech that could change your life (if it went well). And now remember the knot in the pit of your stomach that you endured for many days in advance of that event. Remember how tense you felt, how jumpy you were, how now and then someone would catch you staring off into space with a couple fingers held up over your lips as you got totally lost in thought.
You know the feeling. Now transfer all of that onto the canvases of this morning’s scriptures.
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” 16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
Thank you, Carolyn and Marti. Ole had just moved to Texas and bought a donkey from an old farmer for $100.00. The farmer agreed to deliver the donkey the next day. The next day the farmer drove up and said, "Sorry, but I got some bad news. The donkey died."
"Well then, just give me my money back.” "Cain't do that. I went and spent it already.” "OK then, just unload the donkey.” "What ya gonna do with em.” "I'm gonna raffle him off.” "Ya cain't raffle off a dead donkey!” "Sure I can. Watch me. I just won't tell anyone he's dead."
A month later the farmer met up with Ole and asked, "What happened with the dead donkey?” "I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at $2.00 apiece and made a profit of $998.00.” "Didn't no one complain?” "Just the guy who won. So I gave him his $2.00 back.”
As you imagined that Passover preparation day all those years ago, and all the outside elements crowding into your brain, can you identify now with the end of that which Marti read - about the disciples not understanding the whole picture until after Jesus had been “glorified” as it said? How often do we read about the disciples “not getting” what was happening around them and what Jesus was saying? I’ve been as guilty as any, of giving the disciples a bad rap, while not fully appreciating all that was going on for them. Oh, wait! We (still) do that judging thing without first wearing different sandals or moccasins. Point for prayer.
I think I owe everyone an apology for not really thinking about the real depth of the word “Hosanna” over all these years. It is so easy for our human nature to miss fine lines. Hosanna carries so much energy, and all these years later, maybe we’ve morphed Hosanna into a cheer for Team Jesus, rather than for it’s real - Old Testament - meaning of “Save us!” Maybe we can get a better understanding of Hosanna, when we lay it over the background of energy of some of the protests this past week.
Please hear that I’m not making a statement about the topic of these protests, but about the energy, somewhere between the energy of protests of the shooting of the unarmed man with the cell phone and the gun control protests yesterday. There was similar energy in Jerusalem, against which Jesus was making his statement about who he was, is and always will be: a beacon of light and love. Another point for prayer - in what part we play in such explosive times.
If Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem had happened during the Wild West days, there would have been a wanted poster out for him. The religious authorities didn’t appreciate his challenge to their system of operation, no matter how bad they looked. He knew they wanted his head, and yet he rode right into the path he knew to be right, overriding his own fear, relying on God’s presence and promises. Point of Prayer: for bravery in doing that which seems ridiculously painful and hard.
My buddy, William Barclay, also pointed out that Jesus had been to Jerusalem on several occasions prior to that first Palm Sunday, to visit his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that he had an unknown friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who would ask for Jesus’ body to bury him. There was amply opportunity to arrange for a borrowing of an unridden donkey, and the secret code, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” This wasn’t a spontaneous weekend getaway, but a deliberate, organized, single person demonstration that spoke of - and still speaks - of Jesus’ Messiahship and why he and what he did was a big deal. Yet another point of prayer.
So, what is the color of your horse, so to speak? What in this passage, which looks quite innocuous on the front side, speaks to you? What part do you feel God poking you in the arm about, that perhaps you might give a little more attention? If ever there was a time for prayer, this seems to be it.
God of honor and celebration, Together we cry, “Hosanna!” to your son, who rode willingly and bravely into Jerusalem. We know that you are not just the God of weddings and celebrations and all things good, but that you are also the God of that which is hard and challenging. Help us not to be so quick in judging others, and help us to discern what you have need of us to do in lowering the temperature during a time when our political thermometers seem to be rising. Help us to be brave when you need us to go into the difficult places, to rely more on you and God and your Holy Spirit to take up what we can no longer carry. Thank you for all that you have done in guiding us and leading your people into the pastures of peace. Help each of us to recognize and cherish those parts of our journeys, as much as the lesson-teaching parts that we may refer to as valleys. Hear us, as we celebrate the ever revealing nature of you, your Spirit and your anointed one, Jesus Christ. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 18, 2018
Fifth Sunday in Lent
“In the Presence of Resurrection”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I know this story was used a few years back, but perhaps there are still a few who haven’t heard it. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a cut of tea, they lay down for the night, and went to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see." Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars."
"What does that tell you?"
Watson pondered for a minute. "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?” Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. "Someone has stolen our tent."
Despite the fact that our Christian Bible contains the Old Testament, I would venture to guess that a good many of us know little about Hebrew culture and life - or death. So it helps our scripture passage this morning, knowing that in the Hebrew culture there was - perhaps still is - a belief that when a person dies, there is a possibility that a he or she will be resurrected during the first three days after death. On the fourth day, hope for resurrection is gone. It is probably not unlike the practice in our modern world, of when there is an accident, say flood or the bombing of a building, that after so many days, the search and rescue efforts turn to recovery. After x number of days, finding someone alive in the rubble is highly unlikely.
There was - or is - an understanding that there will be a resurrection of all people - at some point in the future.
The main characters in our passage this morning were probably well-acquainted with this “fact,”, because Bethany may have been a burrow for a Jewish sect known as Essenes, who were devoted to serving the poor and the sick. In fact, according to isrealbiblicalstudies.com, there is a thought that Lazarus may have been an Essene.
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Thank you, Bill. Some of you have seen the film Field of Dreams in which long dead baseball players somehow come back to life to play on a mysterious baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, had built right in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
When one player steps out onto the ball diamond, he says to Ray, “Is this heaven?” to which Ray replies, “No, it’s Iowa.” “Funny, it looked like heaven to me.” So also maybe Lazarus at first asked Jesus, “Is this heaven?” To which Jesus may have replied, “No, it’s Bethany.”
To bring you all up to speed, this is the last of the Lenten series on the “I AM” statements that are recorded only in the book of John. Matthew, Mark and Luke do the parables, John does the “I AMs,” which is a big deal because God gave God’s name to Moses as “I AM who I AM.” The association of the Jesus’ I Am is not lost on the Pharisee, Sadducees and Scribes, who see Jesus’ proclamation as heresy.
Just to make sure you’re all still with me, we know there are a multitude of individual answers to the philosophical question: Why did the Chicken Cross the Road? I didn’t have time to do a full Google check, but one would presume Bill Gates’ answer to be along the lines of “I have just released the new Chicken Office 2000, which will not only cross roads, but will lay eggs, file your important documents, and balance your checkbook. Emily Dickinson was probably much more succinct: The chicken crossed the road because it could not stop for death. The answer from Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk would have been far more predictable. The chicken crossed the road to boldly go where no chicken has gone before.
At various points, Jesus said, I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the world, I am the Gate and last week, I am the Good Shepherd. One way of interpreting those statements is Jesus saying that he is sustenance, truth, sacrifice and guidance. Maybe another interpretation might be food, air, shelter and family or relationship. It might be an interesting exercise, when you are struggling to go to sleep, to think about other ways of interpreting Jesus’ I Am sayings, aside from them being ways that Jesus reveals himself to us - in his divinity and his humanity - that we more fully appreciate his holiness and his familiarity.
Or if really want to set your brain up for some good thinking on a long drive, read the whole of John 11 before you start. The first sixteen verses of this scene can really get your blood boiling. Jesus knew Lazarus was sick, but he chose not to go see him for two days. How does that seem like a Good Shepherd? Such a stunt doesn’t do much for Jesus’ divinity or humanity. In fact, Jesus seems to boast that not only is Lazarus sick, but that he’s dead, and Jesus will use this sad event for his own benefit.
Except that it’s not really for Jesus’ benefit, but for ours - that we can see the power that Jesus has to literally raise someone from the dead. So, yeah, Jesus was divine, but he was also human, and that puts him into a category all by himself. Lazarus, tho, he’s one of us - human to the core, and it sure looks like Jesus is taking advantage of his friend’s situation.
I think we have great potential to take advantage of Jesus, too. In fact, Martha says it for us in verse 21. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. We take death so personally. It’s sort of like thinking that death - or bad things - has a special mission focused on me.
They are in their usual places, Mary is attending to the guests while Martha is seeing to the details. And while she’s buzzing around, knowing full well that Mary is not far away, and that Jesus and Laz were such buds, Martha says that if Jesus would have come right away, “my brother would not have died.”
It’s so human to perceive death or malevolent incidents to be personal attacks against us. And granted, sometimes they are. But more often than not, death and harm is not really about us specifically, but the pain makes it feel like that. I know that it hurts when someone you love dies, don’t get me wrong. And I know it hurts when a relationship ends. I think most of us get that. But none of us become free from this life without dying, and accidents happen, as does life. And God doesn’t cause these things to happen to us to punish us or even to necessarily train us to do or be anything in particular. They do, however, give us great opportunities to develop our character and faith.
Jesus’ I AM in this morning’s passage is that he is the resurrection and the life. When all hope is gone - and the person under the bridge that fell over the Florida highway is four days dead, a marriage is four days dead, or a job is four days dead, or a loved one is four days dead, when whatever it is is dead - dead, Jesus comes along and says, I am the resurrection and the life. Maybe that pronouncement makes more sense to us, because we know that through the Holy Spirit, when death comes near, when relationships change, when people make unwise decisions, through all of that, God is with us.
So here’s the big question, the one that Jesus asked Martha. “Do you believe this?” Do you, in your heart of hearts, believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? (I’ll try not to look anyone in the eye, because you can then squirm at will.) I get that it’s a hard question. And every time I think about that question, I - probably like you - have to answer it again. But do we live as if Jesus is the resurrection and the life?
Robert Hoch, Pastor of First & Franklin Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, gave an glimpse of what it means to answer that question. He said that during his stay with the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker in Kansas City, he helped as the community hosted showers and opened a clothes closet for people living on the street. He said, “Many entered the shower room waiting area looking beaten, tired, and as neglected as the urban cityscape itself. People avoided eye contact. Conversation was limited. But as each emerged out of the showers, clean and wearing a fresh set of clothes, a new life seemed to come into their eyes. They shone with the warmth of their humanity restored, shining with the luster of care and dignity. What I witnessed, I suppose, was a little resurrection, a resurrection of a person in community and a community in a person.”
I wonder how we might become hosts to such resurrections. We obviously don’t have a shower. But maybe we might consider - not saying that we will - but we might consider how we could be part of the folks trying to help the homeless in Benzie County next winter. I wonder how we might become hosts to resurrections in remembering our own creations - as human and divine children of God - when we remember that we are all capable - oh so very capable of making mistakes, making unwise decisions, making less than tactful comments, and offer towels of forgiveness to wipe off the humanity of error.
In fact, I challenge each of us to look for the resurrections and the life around us because they are happening all the time. So many are done with winter and the cold. But what if we focused less on the weather and more on the good that goes around us unnoticed?
What if, in the situations around us, where it seems that Jesus is absent, we realize that he is there - in each and every moment of that situation, just waiting for us to take notice? What if, instead of keeping people trapped in judgment and arms’ lengths, we start praying for those same individuals, essentially bringing them closer to the Bread of sustenance, the light of truth, the gate of sacrifice and guidance of the Good Shepherd? That’s when we are In the Presence of Resurrection, and the glimpse of what that will look like when Jesus returns. So let us get started.
Holy and Resurrection God, we thank you for life - for all of it - the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the life here and the life to come. Help each of us live in the presence of resurrection, the power and the possibility of that which is greater than death and evil. Help us in becoming transformed into the best of what you have envisioned for us - as individuals, as a church family and as your people. Forgive us when we have dissed such holy living, such important matters. Forgive us when we have dismissed or forgotten your presence in each and every “now” of our lives. Thank you for you, God, for the greatness and grandeur and largesse that is ours for the mere act of tapping into such reality. For all the blessings of this life - all of our life - all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent
“The Down-Side of Having a Good Shepherd”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" "Not really," said the sheep. "Your name is written inside the cover."
There was a little spoiler alert in last week’s message, that this week would be another one with a sheep theme. But there’s more than just a sheep theme to this morning’s message, and I thought a little visual aide might be less boring.
A lot of times, I think about sermons as a soup or hot dish, as casseroles in MN are called. This morning’s soup has various ingredients that make for a richer, heartier soup. So we have “I AM” pods.
In Hebrew, I AM who I AM is the name that God used at the burning bush when God told Moses to go to the Egyptian Pharaoh and say, "Let my people go." Moses asked whom he should say sent him, and God responded, "Eh-heh-yeh ah-sher Eh-heh-yeh." This usually translates as, "I am that I am." God, offering up God’s own name is as personal as when we offer our name to someone we meet. I Am that I am is one way how we can know God. That is a big deal, because I AM is naming God’s own self - a present identity, in the moment, not in the past like I was, or the future like I will, but I am - now.
In Greek, I AM is ego eimi, which is not the same as lego my ego. It is, however, the exact same tense that God used back in Moses’ day, and in this simple useage, Jesus is claiming equality with God. You can’t claim to be a Viking if you don’t have Scandinavian blood running through your veins, so you can’t say I AM if you don’t have deity running through your veins. I AM - not I was, not I will, but I am. Right now, and right now, and right now.
Next into the pot goes slices of Jesus’ I AM - like I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the world, and I am the Gate. We spent some time over the last weeks, looking at these specific I AM statements that are found only in the book of John. The books of Matthew, Mark and Luke hold the parables, but John holds the I Ams. Bread is sustenance, light is truth, and gate is sacrifice.
Last week, in speaking about Jesus being the gate and laying down his life for us, a differentiation was made between shepherds and sheep herders. Shepherds lead, sheep herders drive. The sheep that belong to shepherds are healthier, freer and have some control over their own beings. Sheep that belong to sheepherders are less healthy and are controlled through fear and have no control whatsoever.
Before getting to this morning’s passage, we need to add a dash of stereotypes and reputations. Shepherds and wolves and thieves and even God have their own reputations, some undeserved. And, of course, each of us is a stereotype with a reputation, too.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
Thank you, Denis. Because the introductory story may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, what do you call a sheep covered in chocolate? A Candy Baa. And what do you call a sheep with no legs? A cloud. And what do you get if you cross a sheep with a porcupine? An animal that knits its own sweaters.
In some ways, this is a rather innocuous passage; most of the things in it are rather normal and things that we already know. Hired hands aren’t going to have the investment in cattle that the owner has. Jesus made his own decision to lay down his life for us. No one coerced him. All of that seems rather ordinary.
I don’t know the answer to this question, but I wonder if part of Jesus’ point - the part about the hired man running away - is really about us; if it’s a point about our reflection of following God. Do we “run away” too easily when we become afraid - run away from God? Do we forget that God is with us when the doctor says more tests are needed? Do we “run from God” when the funds get low and we forget that God is with us? I’m not trying to imply that any of these things are as bad as a hired hand running from responsibility, but perhaps there’s room for reflection on our own lives and actions.
Without thinking too hard, who is the person that is hardest for you to tolerate? And don’t try to avoid the question, “Who, me?” Yes, you. You don’t need to say the person’s or persons’ names out loud, but I know you can say them in your head, because all the while this sermon has been ruminating in my head, I’ve been doing just that: saying the name of the individuals that rub my fur the wrong way. And we all have someone that can get under our skin faster than others. By the way, my fur-rubber-the wrong-wayer is not anyone here today.
The cold, hard truth is that Jesus said that he must bring them into the fold, too. Not that you are necessarily going to be the one to do it. But, as Jesus said, he has “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.” And he laid down his life for them as much as for us.
I think that’s where we find the idea of agape love. The bible talks about different kinds of love - in Greek terms. Eros is sexual love, from which we get the word erotic. There’s philia love, which is deep friendship love, from which we get Philadelphia - the city of brotherly love. And then there’s agape love, which is self-less love. When agape is translated into Latin, it becomes caritas, from which we get the word, charity.
That self-less love for you is what prompted Christ to lay down his life. And it’s the self-less love for the person or persons who irritate you to no end that prompted Christ to lay down his life for them. Spend some time thinking about that this coming week, and I guarantee that you will be spending some time with a heaping cup of humility.
Being likened to a sheep is not one of the best compliments that can be bestowed on any one of us. In fact, the down-side of having a good shepherd implies that we are, indeed, sheep. But remember that ours is the Good Shepherd, not the Good Sheepherder. We get to follow Jesus, which means we can stop and smell the roses and look at the pretty butterflies and then run to catch up to where he is. Christ doesn’t force us into situations with whacks to the side of the head from the rod and staff that he carries.
So we will make mistakes. We will wander off sometimes and get caught in places that will play out like Jesus leaving the 99 other sheep to come and find us. Our Good Shepherd doesn’t lead us only when times are good or even peaceful and uncontentious. Our Good Shepherd leads us right now, and right now, and right now.
So here’s the thing: if we have a Good Shepherd, then we are sheep. And we are our best when we live as sheep following the Good Shepherd. I know, it’s not very sexy or stylish or hip. But looks can fade, styles and fads will change. But our Shepherd never changes. In a world where your smart phone is outdated before it leaves the production warehouse, there is a deep need for a foundation, a surety and safe trust. And we have that - in Christ. The problem is that sometimes we forget to live like that.
When we live as sheep lead by a Good Shepherd, we are more cognizant that we are all in this sheepfold together. I know, some of you thought I was going to change the metaphor and say that we are all in this boat together. But, I just wanted to make sure at least some of you were still with me.
So when we are on the way out of church, and we’re just dying to get home and get ready for the game to start, perhaps we listen and heed God’s voice, to ask the visitor to coffee downstairs and sit with him/her/them for a few minutes. Maybe it’s listening to God’s voice, to not give a pat answer to someone who’s grieving, but to simply say, “I’m sorry,” and let the silence after that be okay. We can say, “I don’t know what to say,” when it is the truth, and let those who are hurting know that you “get” where they are, without piling on heaps of meaningless platitudes.
Deep inside each of us, I’m guessing, is a place where we want safety and comfort and security and satisfaction. The Good Shepherd is all those things, but sometimes we forget to live that way. Sometimes fear and loneliness and anxiety and insecurity and a host of other malevolent monsters can lure us from the sense of Christ’s sheep pen of peace of mind and stability. It doesn’t mean that the corral of comfort has disappeared, just that we’ve forgotten about it or that it doesn’t seem to fit the present situation.
This whole I AM series is not just about Jesus’ identity, but that where Jesus goes, there goes God. When Jesus goes to the cross, God also goes to the cross. There is no situation or event or personality that God hasn’t encountered, so God knows about each of our situations, events and people. God is with each of them as much as God is with us - regardless of how cognizant we are of Christ; Son of God and Son of Man. So let us pray.
Gracious and Good God, thank you for giving us your Son, that we might know you and trust you and live in your presence more and more. Forgive us when we forget that we live in your kingdom, sheep of your own fold. Help us to remember that there really isn’t a down-side to having a Good Shepherd, but that ours is to remember to live into that reality more and more. For those who need us to call them into the fold, help us to hear your call. For us, when we need to heed your call, help us to hear. And most importantly, dear God, thank you for loving us to such depths that you would send us not just Christ, but your Holy Spirit, too. In the name of the holy trinity, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 4, 2017
Third Sunday in Lent
“More Than a Gate Meeting the Eye”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
For those who have been unable to attend the last two episodes of Bill’s Bible Study, you’ve missed some really good stuff. In fact, when I started to prepare for this morning’s message, much of what he spoke about, regarding parables, came back to mind. For those of you who were there, hold on. For those of you who weren’t, I’d like you to turn to the announcement insert in your bulletin, to the bottom of the second page, where there are the four lines of capital letters.
Bill used these letters in helping us get to the idea of understanding context helping in making a passage make sense. At first blush, these letters don’t make much sense, until we understand that they are a conversation between two river guys from the cranberry bogs of Maine. Looking over the water, at the wildlife in the distance, the first one commented, “M R D U C K S / M R N O T / O S A R / C M W A N G S / L I B / M R D U C K S.”
One could perhaps changed the specific context to a similar one - like switching it out from Maine cranberry boggers to Minnesotan wild rice harvesters or pheasant hunters or whatever scenerio you wish to paint. But the general story - a discussion between two individuals with their own dialect can carry the riddle point.
There’s been a lot of mention in the news lately about teachers being armed with guns. Now before anyone gets their dander up, this is not a commercial for or against that idea. It is, however an example of context, and how not understanding the context or background of a situation robs us of better insight.
Many of you know there continues to be a strong interest in my life with choir directing. One of the Facebook pages I follow - ever so briefly - is one for Choral Directors. A director posted this description, asking for ways to continue to see through to the goal of instilling great music in the minds and hearts of students. Whoever it was said, “One of my students has brutally attempted suicide three times this year. Another, twice. Two more, once each. And another left her suicide note to her mom, but was caught just in time.”
Add to this teacher’s already emotional plate, the demands for lesson plans, concerts and other school activities, one can better understand how another emotional topic, like guns and school safety, can make for a huge plate of lutefisk for teachers. With this context, you can better understand the inclusion for prayers for our teachers just a few moments ago.
There is not such an emotional context for this morning’s scripture passage, but there is some that can help us when we get to the reading about sheep. Although sheep are said to be dumb, they at least know the sound of their caretakers voice. Knowing that God wouldn’t create anything that would rightfully carry the title of dumb or stupid, sheep provide food - of different sorts - cheese, milk, mutton, lamb, besides providing wool. And on top of that there is a difference between shepherding and sheep herding that is described best as leading vs. driving.
In fact, there is a story from a source called Upline, from 1999 where Joe Batten, member of the National Speaker’s Association Hall of Fame, was meeting with a group of 35 corporate CEOs for a day-long seminar. In helping the CEOs determine if they were shepherds or sheepherders, he shared this - so he said - true story.
In the Middle East there are two countries separated only by a common border which each have large sheep and mutton industries. The cultures of the two countries are radically different, and they are hostile to each other. In fact, they have fought wars with each other and they are fighting as we speak.
In one country, the shepherds walk behind their flocks. In the other country, the shepherds walk in front of their flocks. In the country where the shepherds walk behind their flocks, the quality of the mutton and the wool is poor, and it is not a profitable industry. In the country where the shepherds walk in front of their flocks, the quality of the mutton and wool is excellent and the profitability is high.
In the flocks where the sheepherder walks behind and drives and pushes, and corrects, and is always in charge, the young sheep grow up afraid to stray from the flock for fear of being rapped up-side the head by a staff, or having the dogs sent out to round them up. They have no opportunity to explore for better grass and water, or to play with other young lambs. They simply become obedient, passive and apathetic. By the time they are grown, they have lost all initiative. They are not really healthy.
In the country where the shepherds walk in front of their flocks, the young lambs have plenty of opportunity to stray, play, experiment, and then catch up to the flock. Instead of feeling overly controlled, compressed, repressed, depressed and suppressed, they feel free, empowered, enhanced, and stretched. They eat more, sleep better and grow up large and healthy. They are truly led. Joe Batten then asked the assembled executives once more, “How many of you truly lead in your company?” Not a hand was raised!
John 10:1-10 (NIV)
1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Thank you, Cheryl. My guess that for a good many folks, this anecdote goes along swimmingly, until Jesus says, “I am the gate.” Jesus was just talking about shepherds and shepherding and it’s like he switches metaphors, right in the middle of a story.
Maybe these were two stories that got put together because of the overriding topic of sheep. Understanding the context of Middle East shepherding, it’s easier to understand the idea of following Jesus, especially when we are lost, listening for Jesus’ voice, knowing that the One we can completely trust will lead us to safety and rest when we need it and food and drink when it is time. But then Jesus says, “I am the gate.”
In some versions, Jesus says, “I am the door.” But still; besides the greater answer - of Jesus can do anything because he is God’s son - how can Jesus be both shepherd and gate at the same time?
Because part of the context that John leaves out of this story is not what we have seen in movies. Most movies that have scenarios of sheep or cattle or horses have fences with gates that swing open and closed. In some places where shepherding is done, rather than fences with doors, there are fences or enclosures of branches or thorns - with no gate. After the sheep are in the enclosure, the shepherd lays down in the doorway. No sheep will step over and no wolf will get past the shepherd. And because of the sheep’s fear of unknown individuals, they will raise a raucous if a thief tries to get into the pen.
Laying down for the lives of a shepherd’s sheep has some rather significant theological implications for us, because isn’t that what Jesus did for us - laying down his life for us? In some commentaries, where the idea is not of a gate that lays down, but swings back and forth, there is a similar idea of Christ “moving aside” or swinging his divinity to the side in “God becoming flesh” and then in going to the cross, Christ put his flesh aside for us, that in going to the cross. And whatever way you look at it, there is that remarkable, mystical God with Jesus - and us - through the whole ordeal.
Some years ago there was a story carried in various newspapers about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of “Help! Help!” You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. She heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward the living room. “Help!” went the plaintive voice yet again. “Where are you?” the woman replied. “In the fireplace,” came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing.
Scott Hoezee, who was relating this story, said, “I don’t know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: “Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!”
It is important to note that the metaphor of the gate is not one of exclusion, not a license to think of ourselves as Jesus’ only true sheep and others as outsiders. (If we use it that way, we become like the Pharisees who loved to point out the lines of inclusion and exclusion.) The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep.
As we will hear next week, Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The purpose of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep -- thieves, bandits, and wolves.
It goes without saying that there are many thieves and bandits in our world who seek to steal and kill and destroy. There are also “wolves in sheep’s (or shepherd’s) clothing” - preachers and pastors who proclaim the abundant life that Jesus offers as a life of continual health, wealth, and success.
Part of the reason for this series on Jesus’ “I AM” statements is to refocus on what kind of access we want to be toward those who come to us for safety. Are we, in fact, including them, asking them to join us, reaching out to them, despite our own busy schedules and worthy excuses? And in case you’re wondering, this is the part of the sermon that is for me.
“I AM the gate” reminds us not only about Jesus’ protection, but of the choice we have to be includers or excluders. Jesus as a shepherd gatekeeper shapes our reality in allowing us to enter into places that may feel strange or even dangerous, but where we know Christ has our best interest and safety at heart, leading us in those paths most surely when we listen to those still, small voices calling us to trust and believe when it seems most paradoxical to do so.
This shepherding/gatekeeping relationship we have with God is not a one-sided dictatorial bond, but one of mutual appreciation and understanding. So let us begin our week of being shepherded with a little conversation with the Gatekeeper.
Loving and Precious God, we thank you for giving us a shepherd, rather than a sheep herder. Thank you for the respect and courtesy of being created as individuals, able to make up our own minds about following you. Forgive us when we turn down the volume on the still small voices of our conscience and heart when we don’t do what we know you have need of us to do. Empower us, in your mercy and forgiveness, to venture out again, heeding your voice, to reach out to others who are so in need of a kind word or a gentle touch. For all the blessings of inclusion, safety, esteem and all the other ways that enrich us as your children, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.