In one of those rare moments when I was watching a Facebook video, I came across one that had this description “The human condition in a nutshell.” The first frame was that of an animal caught in a crevice and a young person trying to pull a leg out. If there was ever a set up for a sermon illustration, this had to be it.
So I hit the play button and it’s the back end of a sheep. This could be good, because the scripture passage deals with sheep! The kiddo gets the sheep out with no small effort and it immediately runs off, along the trough from which it had just been rescued. And as it leaps - so like a springy sheep would do - it misjudges the narrow trench not 10 feet away and falls in again. True story - the human condition in a nutshell - some days.
Just moments before Jesus said what we will hear very soon, he was interrogated by the Pharisees for healing a blind man on the sabbath. Naturally, the discussion goes from interrogation to Jesus preaching to the Pharisees, using the illustration of gatekeepers and sheep, indicating himself as the gatekeeper for the sheep.
Our second passage is from a little letter written to a group of churches between 95 and 110 AD with leadership issues. Of the 22 books in the New Testament, the writer of 1 John uses the word “love” more than any other letter in the New Testament, including the Gospels.
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.”
1 John 3:16-24
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
Thank you, Serenity and Jeanne. Despite the shift from an agrarian society, there is still something comforting about this imagery of a shepherd and sheep. To that end, I couldn’t resist doing what I had thought I’d stopped once Holy Humor Sunday was done; giving us visual encouragement, with the bulletin cover, to go beyond the familiar representations to other ways of seeing the Good Shepherd.
After nearly 23 years, I don’t know how many times I’ve preached on this passage, but I know I’ve reminded us that although sheep aren’t always the most brilliant of God’s creatures, they are trusting and uncomplicated. And despite what we know of their odiferous nature, they give us some of the best clothing, food and the lanolin from their fleece is found in adhesive tape, printing inks, motor oils and lubricants. Sheep101.info said that “virtually all cosmetics and beauty aids, such as lipsticks, mascaras, lotions, shampoos, and hair conditioners, contain lanolin.”
I noticed that Fr. Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia posted something this week on this passage, and although I haven’t been aware of him long, I will continue to pay attention to those times he shows up at Ministry Matters.com, because of his heart.
He started his piece “It happened three years ago. Pope Francis went to visit a small church in Rome, adjacent to one of the largest public housing projects in Italy. As part of his visit to this church, five children were selected to ask the Pope a question. The first little boy was five year old Emanuele.
When Emanuele approached the microphone, he looked at the Pope and froze. And then, Emanuele started to cry. Adults and children in the crowd tried to assure him, but he just stood there and cried.
Then, Pope Francis said, “Emanuele, come and whisper your question in my ear.”
So the little boy went up the steps, Pope Francis opened his arms and embraced the boy with absolute love.
(And can’t you just envision the arms wide spread in welcome,
drawing close to the child’s face
in complete, intimate focus?)
Then Emanuele put his face right against the Pope’s face.
For a while, Emanuele just cried,
and the pope just kept embracing him.
Then, the little boy started to whisper in the Pope’s ear, the pope whispered into the boy’s ear, going on for about 2 minutes.
Finally, Emanuele smiled, said goodbye to the pope and returned to his seat. The Pope had asked the boy’s permission if he could tell everyone what the boy’s question was, and Emanuele said yes.
Emanuele had told the pope that, very recently, his father had died. He said that his dad was a good man, but wasn’t a believer, although he had brought all four of his children to be baptized in the church. Now, his dad was dead. That’s part of the reason why he was crying. But he was also crying because he had a hard question. The question was this: “Could his dad, a non-believer, go to heaven?”
Pope Francis answered by saying that it was wonderful to hear a son say that his dad was a ‘good man.’ And the pope agreed that Emanuele’s dad had done a very good thing by having all four of his children baptized, even though dad himself did not believe.
Then the pope looked at all of the children and adults who were sitting in front of him, and he said, “We have to remember that only God decides who goes to heaven. And we have to remember that God has the heart of a daddy, a papa.”
Then the pope asked all of the children, “Do you think that God was happy when Emanuele’s dad had his children baptized? Wasn’t that a good thing?” All the children shouted ‘yes!’ And the pope asked, “Do you think that God is pleased with us when we do good things?” They all shouted “yes.” Then the Pope said, “Do you think that God, who has a papa’s heart, would be able to leave Emanuele’s dad far from himself?”
A few children shouted, “No!” The pope asked, “Say it louder, with conviction. Would God be able to leave Emanuele’s dad far away from himself?” The children shouted, “No!” The pope smiled at Emanuele and said, “You see! There is your answer.” God who loves us with a papa’s heart, a daddy’s heart could not leave your dad far away from himself. And Emanuele smiled.
Fr. Renninger went on to mention that there were critics of the Pope’s answer, using the 4th chapter in Acts to make the argument that “Unless you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe the Christian faith, you can’t be saved,” because Peter said so. Fr. Renninger acknowledged that salvation in this way is one way, believing that Christ died and rose and sent the Holy Spirit, the perfect revelation of who God is and how God saves.
And then Fr. Renninger went on to point out that men, women, boys, girls, slaves, servants, rich, poor, Jewish, non-Jewish were all being saved by God’s love, despite best efforts to keep the Good News to themselves - ourselves.
Back in the first passage for this morning, Jesus said “I am the good shepherd” (meaning that we aren’t the Good Shepherd). Jesus said, “I love my flock, I give everything for my sheep. I lay down my life for them. I know mine and they know me.” And then he says, “I have other sheep, too.”
Just as it was back then, so is it now, that we don’t know all those sheep, but Jesus loves them just the same, and will find a way to shepherd them and include them in his heart.
In 1 John, it says, “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. If our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” If we are burdened of heart or not, we have been created in God’s image, God who is greater than us, the God with the daddy’s heart, a papa’s heart.
Near the end of his homily, Fr. Renninger said this: “So, I am not sure that it’s our task to try to fully explain how Christ’s saving gift is experienced by people who have never heard the Gospel effectively preached, or people whose life circumstances have made it impossible for them to fully come to know Christ. But I do know this – “God is greater than our hearts.” Which means that God’s love is bigger than my - our - limitations.
Although I have recrafted Fr. Renninger’s message, it’s theme of God’s greatness and all God’s people, has lain on my heart for many weeks, before this last one, and I can’t say it better than he did. “And if I ever find myself wanting to concoct new barriers, or judge someone as ‘beyond God’s ability to love them,’ I need to remember what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: I have other sheep, not in the fold that you happen to know, and I will shepherd them.
If I find myself thinking that some part of me is beyond redemption, or some other person – or group of persons – is beyond saving, I will always think of Pope Francis embracing a little boy named Emanuele, and telling him, “Remember, God loves us with a daddy’s heart. A papa’s heart. Could God want us to be far away from him?”
So whatever is worrying you, whatever is making you cry... come, and whisper it in God’s ear.
Abba, Father, Papa God, who has made universes and molecules and us, it is humbling to be so loved by you that your son laid down his life for us. You know how ingrained various thoughts and situations can get into our lives, and how they can fester and destroy from within. So heal each of us from the inside out, hear us as we whisper into your ear this day. Thank you for all the imagery you give us to help us understand all the dimensions of your love. Help all your sheep find their goodness in you, however that comes. Help us to lay judgment in your lap, that we are freer to love. And all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
April 18, 2021
Third Sunday of Easter
“The Resurrection as Reality”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Young students were asked to scientifically define some things in our world. In defining the law of gravity, one child wrote, "no fair jumping up without coming back down." Another said about thunderstorms, "You can listen to thunder and tell how close you came to getting hit. If you don't hear it, you got hit, so never mind.”
Another made a comment on clouds, "I'm not sure how clouds are formed, but clouds know how to do it, and that's the important thing.” One was asked to describe how rain happens. The student said, "Water vapor gets together in a cloud. When it is big enough to be called a drop, it does.” One defined a monsoon as a French gentleman. Another said, "When planets run around and around in circles, we say they are orbiting. When people do it, we say they are crazy.”
It is fascinating, learning how others see the world, especially when you haven’t seen it as they have, and it makes a difference in how you will then only ever see, hear or experience that thing in the future. For instance, when I was in college, one of my music professors taught me alternate lyrics to the song to “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees,” and it still makes me smile when I hear it. “When I fall on my face, with my knees to the rising sun, O Lord, have mercy on me.” (Fall on my knees, fall on my face.) For each time you sing it in the future, you keep Shirley Schrader’s influence alive.
This morning’s passage is from that first Resurrection Sunday, Easter Evening. As the writer of Luke tells it, the disciples, for the most part, were huddled together in a room, hiding from the authorities, afraid that they, too, would be arrested for associating with the “notorious” Jesus.
The women had discovered the empty tomb, and there was the to and fro of the disciples looking at it. Perhaps needing to get some air, Cleopas and another of those gathered together, went for a walk toward Emmaus. They told the tale to their disciple friends, of the stranger who had joined them as they walked, and the peculiar warming of their hearts.
35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."
37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.
38 He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?
39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."
40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.
41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?"
42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44 He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
46 He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
Thank you, Phil. The writer of Luke provides a little of the resurrection documentation, but not really that much. The writer actually spends a lot more time describing what happened later on that Resurrection Day and evening. Jin Young Choi, from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York, made a statement that seems to make a lot of sense out of Luke 24. She said, “Rather than looking to Luke to provide factual evidence of the resurrection, we can ask - in what sense Jesus’ resurrection becomes a reality - how, after the Ascension, Jesus is present with his followers in certain ways.”
There is story told out of Persia about a General who had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between the firing squad and the big, black door. As the moment of execution draws near, the spies are brought to the Persian General, who asks the question, "What will it be: the firing squad or the big, black door?" One spy, faced with this dilemma, hesitated for a long time. It was a difficult decision. He chose the firing squad. Moments later shots rang out confirming his execution.
The General turned to his aide and said, "They always prefer the known way to the unknown. It is characteristic of people to be afraid of the undefined. Yet, we give them a choice.” The aide said, "What lies beyond the big door?” "Freedom," replied the general, "I've known only a few brave enough to take it.”
I’ve thought a lot about that sort of scenario over the years. I’ve wondered what it would be like for people to take the risk of choosing big doors over non-life, risks like full trust and life in God, rather than the life shortening way of life that is certain and what seems “safe.” That idea of living fully can play out in a lot of ways, sobriety vs. addiction, healing vs. the familiarity of pain, love vs. hate, and any of the other opposites of life.
I’m not sure how it could have happened, but a 12 year old boy found out about his father’s death in a car accident in the newspaper - before anyone could get word to him. (Maybe he’d been at camp and just come back?) The picture on the front page created not a sense of sorrow as much as a sense of guilt.
However many months before, the boy had managed to break his father’s thumb with a baseball at a family picnic. Most people would appreciate that it was not a planned event, but an accident, and accidents happen. For whatever reason, this boy wasn’t able to accept the accident nature of that event - and subsequently the death of his father.
Godcidentally, the boy had a good pastor, who sat down across from him and said:
"Now, Jim," that was the boy's name, "you listen to me. If your dad could come back to life for five minutes and be right here with us… and if he knew you were worried about that, what would he say to you?"
"He would tell me to quit worrying about that," Jim said.
"Well, all right," the minister said, "then you quit worrying about that right now. Do you understand me?” "Yes sir," he said… and he did.
That minister was saying: "You are forgiven. Accept the forgiveness… and make a new start with your life." The young boy did just that and years later, served a 9,000 member church in Houston. The boy’s name was James W. Moore, the author of over 30 books on Christian living.
I’m not suggesting that letting go of a guilt or sorrow or hurt will result in writing books with titles like, “Yes, Lord, I Have Sinned, But I Have Several Excellent Excuses.” Making a decision to take big, black doors can be scary. “I’ve never lived as if I’ve been forgiven. I don’t know how to live like that.” “I’ve never really been free of the guilt over that event back then. I don’t know how to live without it.”
Living In Resurrection Reality doesn’t mean there won’t be pain and burdens along the way. Some days, just because your saddle is brown instead of black, someone will say something that gets under your saddle and causes a blister that is raw for too long before it begins to heal up.
There will be days when a friend or family member dies, and we can get stuck in the valley of grief, and maybe we’ve never felt brave enough to make the big effort to get out of that valley. And it’s very understandable that the effort is too overwhelming or would require too much work.
Regardless of whether we choose the big, black doors or the certain deaths, the thing is, “While we are still talking about this, Jesus himself stands among us and says to us, "Peace be with you."
Peter denied Christ three times. Thomas had some certainty issues. All the disciples abandoned Christ. But Christ came back and says the word that is to replace fear and pain and anxiety: peace. His return offered them a reality that is not of this world. And Christ gives us that same opportunities for bravery and second chances.
King Duncan, over there at sermons.com, and yes, there is really a site with that name, asked these questions: “What difference has been made in your life by seeing the hands and feet of the risen Christ? Has it caused you to take more seriously your walk with the Man of Galilee? Has it had some effect on the goals you have set for your life? After all, if life is indeed eternal, some of our goals are going to seem awfully shortsighted and self-serving, are they not?”
And yes, we need a certain amount of common sense, or maybe it should be named uncommon sense in these days? The late Earl J. Fleming, an Alaska state biologist, was an investigator to objectively explore bears’ reputation for attacking humans. When Fleming encountered a bear, he neither ran nor shot. At the end of his unique study, he had encountered 81 brown bears, and although several staged mock charges, not one actually attacked. Living in Resurrection Reality doesn’t mean that we have to prove ourselves in exploring potentially dangerous animals.
Sometimes our acts of bravery may not seem like a big deal, such as the day that Laurence Housman took off his jacket at a proper English tea party so that a man who had just arrived in shirt sleeves would not feel embarrassed.
Black Bart was a professional thief who terrorized the Wells Fargo stage line. From San Francisco to New York, his name became synonymous with the danger of the frontier. Between 1875 and 1883 he robbed 29 different stagecoach crews. Amazingly, Bart did it all without firing a shot. Because a hood hid his face, no victim ever saw his face. He never took a hostage and was never trailed by a sheriff. Instead, Black Bart used fear to paralyze his victims.
Living In Resurrection Reality allows us to come out of hiding, out of the darkness and out of fear into the light of freedom and fullness and life. As the Resurrection sinks ever deeper into our souls and DNA, let us pray.
Holy God of Light and Love, thank you for giving us not only your son, but his life in all its fullness. Help all of us to more fully embrace the unknown paths that lie in freedom and the courage to make such decisions. May your life, lived out through ours, be the visual that others can see and through which they can life. For all that is light, love, grace and mercy, all your people say, Amen
First Congregational Church
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.