The ins & outs

sermon on John 10:1-18, 22-33; Psalm 23


In a disturbing line of thought, I’ve spent the week contemplating the worst thing to bring to church, the most heretical or anti-religious, the greatest abomination, least fitting our theology.

For example, as we’re preparing to update building use policies, including re-examining how we open our doors to our community and neighbors as part of our ministry, my old guideline joke for groups using the space is a hypothetical restriction of asking whether they are going to use the sanctuary to sacrifice goats.

I had not actually been contemplating slaughtering livestock in here today. But have been thinking along those lines, trying to figure out marks that would so clearly indicate this is not our church, not our religion, wrongs which would offend our sense of God or damage our spiritual practice.

Interestingly, obvious symbols of other religions wouldn’t seem to step over our line here. We’re more likely eager to engage interfaith dialogue, and so not be disturbed by a star of David, or representation of the Prophet Muhammed, or yin yang, or totem pole.

Not exactly a religious image but one thing I believe disturbs the core of our religious identity is an American flag in the sanctuary. I believe that is a confusion of devotion, not so much about blurring church and state, but “God bless America” falsely associating the actions of this country with some sort of divine imperative as aligned with God’s will, but a restrictive, diminished view of God’s abundant life-giving.

To admit the other side, though, I had long discussions with a beloved shut-in who was a World War 2 veteran who understood the flag to be a sign of sacrifice and love, united against suffering and evil. He had lived through stronger clarity of that symbol. So even if a flag would seem to me idolatrous and disruptive, I recognize the ambiguity that it could be perceived as not immediately offensive and maybe even a positive addition.

Another line of thought would be marketing—maybe a big WalMart ad or Exxon or something. With capitalism, the dollar becomes “almighty,” the only time we use that term besides as for the creator of heaven and earth. Although our cash asserts that “In God we trust,” usually what we trust most to save us are those financial reserves and not the fiduciary trust in God.

Still, that’s also ambiguous, because momentarily we will practice in our offerings not using money for selfish gain or greedy retention, but releasing and sharing it intentionally as a subsidiary tool for God’s purposes.

I next considered bringing in a Forward Motion W and marching around in a Bucky Badger costume. That might cut a little closer in terms of questioning our devotion. It’s harder at the height of a good season to raise questions of allegiance to sports teams, or to observe our dedication to them as the focal point of our day of rest.

If not that as shocking or contradictory to faith, then I could’ve brought a gun, an assault rifle. Maybe that’s opposed with a sense that our faith should be about safety and security, where that would seem to promote fear. Or that God is the giver of life, but we see weapons as taking away God’s gift by killing. Or that it’s disparaging and dismissive of what are youth were asking of us earlier this morning.

Or I could’ve brought blatant symbols of racism.

Or something against our welcome as a Reconciling in Christ congregation.

Or that is domineeringly patriarchal.

Maybe you have more ideas for this crazy notion I’ve been contemplating.

But for now let’s notice an interesting adaptation or change in churches in fairly recent history: the change from orthodoxy to orthopraxy. The central focus is no longer on right belief but right actions, not directly on who God is but on what we do.

The central arguments dividing the church these days (including splits in the past decade in the ELCA) have become ethical questions. Unlike previous centuries and millennia, it is not who has the ability to be your pastor, if you get to drink wine at communion, what the words of our hymns proclaim, much less how Jesus is fully God and fully human or who goes to heaven or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father.

You may hardly care about such questions and may write them off as irresolvable and, so, silly disputes. You may not like to say the old major ecumenical creeds because they feel too confining for your belief. Where today’s new creed has some emphatic words about our stances, there’s little in there arguable about God. * Yet these had been huge battlegrounds, splitting churches, splitting families, even splitting entire continents—and that’s fights just within Christian theology.

Okay. So what? I regularly invite you to follow these circuitous routes with me, but this likely feels worse.

So: as Jesus says “I AM the gate. I AM the good shepherd,” there’s some of this abominable ungodly question lurking around the edge.

This is the feast of Hanukkah, the feast of the re-dedication of the temple. For history: about two centuries before Jesus, the Greek Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV wanted to show his control, so he got rid of the high priest in the temple and sold the position to a guy who gave up his Jewish name and took the Greek name Jason (a little indicator he wasn’t all that interested in preserving holy and faithful practice).

Also for name changes, that emperor added for himself the title “Epiphanes.” It might ring in your ear as sounding a like Epiphany, and that’s exactly right. We use the word for how Jesus is revealed or made known to us as bearing God’s presence. But at that point in the story, the emperor declared it of himself, calling himself the revelation of God. God made manifest.

To grind that in a notch more, he built a new altar inside the temple to sacrifice to a statue of Zeus. A bad dose of mixing politics and religion, this desecration of the temple was understood to ruin the holy presence, eliminating it from serving as the place to approach God. Not only was it breaking commandments against worshipping a graven image, but even more abominably was for the wrong, false god, not making offerings to the true God.

Jewish believers fought for years to reclaim the temple from this “desolating sacrilege,” and finally the Maccabees were able to overcome the idolatry, to restore right worship, to re-purify and re-dedicate the temple to God. That’s what Hanukkah commemorates.

And what makes it so intriguing as Jesus is in the temple during this festival—what makes the people in the story say it’s keeping them in suspense—is an ambivalence of which side he might be on. He’s claiming to reveal God’s presence. So is he in line with his Jewish heritage, or is he idolatrous and heretical like the emperor? As the story’s tensions continue to multiply, this brings the question of blasphemy against Jesus, of claiming too much godliness for himself, an abomination which would mean he should be expelled and stoned, put to death in order to protect the other believers, even though he’s claiming he does protect them.

Partly, then, I raise this to remind us faith is serious business. If we disregard it or try to equalize all distinctions, we dishonor those who have been willing to sacrifice their lives, and also dishonor and disrespect God, failing to hold God as what we fear, love, and trust above all else. We might ask, where is our commitment and devotion? How is this so important for us that we’d give up our life?

But also, oddly, it invites us to live in the ambivalence. We have this peculiar faith that identifies God with a human being; the almighty with a lowly peasant; the holy and righteous one of justice who might be a lawbreaker, a dangerous criminal; the everliving and eternal one as crucified, dead, and buried; the infinite as dwelling in a particular time and place. Again, how is it that I AM, the God of the temple, the God inherently identified with Jewish history and people and practice, is somehow claimed by us here?

When Jesus says “I AM the gate. I AM the good shepherd,” it’s accentuated. He specifically says that he won’t qualify insiders, as if he’s ruling out both orthodoxy and orthopraxy in saying that he has other sheep who aren’t part of this flock. As gate, he seems willing to let in anybody, as long as it’s for the sake of sustaining life.

We have to hold some skepticism and ambivalence for faith and the promise of life that must be taken on trust, that remains unseen and not exactly verifiable. There’s something about this practice that is supposed to offend. It’s not just to afflict the comfortable, but that we come to church in order to have our routines disrupted, our preconceived notions interrupted, our prejudices redefined, our faults clearly seen but also to enliven our better selves, to have our sense of God reoriented. We’re guided, corralled, shepherded (we may say) through the dark valleys. Which leads us to a place where we find ourselves at a table with our enemies, and the hard practice of love.

So we remain skeptical and on the edge of offense for an abominable faith that welcomes those outsiders, that is willing to ignore rules and propriety and best practices, that even extends constant forgiveness to those who so clearly don’t deserve it—the abusers and offenders and takers of life, a faith that pursues as worthy to reclaim the lost and forsaken, and insists on the dignity of those we’d been told to write off, a faith that offers grace and blessing and resources for life to those who have done so little to earn them, that doesn’t claim inherent goodness for the happy and healthy and wholesome and doesn’t reward the successful, but demands you help the outcast and the poor and the hungry, and give them also a spot to share the refreshing waters. Heck, this is a club that’s even willing to have You as a member. Do you really want to be part of such a despicable organization? Do you really want to be associated with a God like this?


A postscript: So the thing about this sermon is that I believe all that was faithful and vital as God’s word for you. But I finished working on it and have been feeling a need for a second entirely different sermon and word from God. Here it is: if you are feeling lost and confused, struggling in life, very truly Jesus tells you nothing will snatch you from his grasp, ever. You’re held in his arms.

Amen and amen.


Hymn: Gather Us In (ELW 532)

* from The Iona Abbey Worship Book

We believe that God is present
in the darkness before dawn;
in the waiting and uncertainty
where fear and courage join hands,
conflict and caring link arms,
and the sun rises over barbed wire.

We believe in a “with-us” God
who sits down in our midst to share our humanity.

We affirm a faith that takes us beyond a safe place:
into action, into vulnerability, and onto the streets.

We commit ourselves to work for change and put ourselves on the line; to bear responsibility, take risks, live powerfully, and face humiliation;
to stand with those on the edge; to choose life
and be used by the Spirit for God’s new community of hope.  Amen


The Good Shepherd, Sheep, and a Sty

4th Sunday of Easter (John10:11-18; Psalm23; 1John3:16-24)
Two images for this sermon and this Good Shepherd Sunday. First, John Muir began seeking to protect Yosemite first because it was being over-grazed by sheep, eating the place bare. Second, at the Leadership Retreat a week ago, while Tim was teaching, a small voice came from the back of the room: “Big Tim! Big Tim! I just used the potty!” (Three-year-old Ned Redmann)

Let’s clear this up straightaway: We are the sheep. And that means you are not the Shepherd.

That’s a reminder because we tend to picture ourselves as take-charge folks, as independent thinkers, as self-made men (and, indeed, this is too often the dominant, domineering, sexist, so-called “manly” way of thinking and self-made women somehow don’t even get a category). We imagine we know best in looking out for our own interest or think we are generally pretty caring and kind.

But when Jesus says, “I AM the good shepherd,” it means that you are not. We are at best bad shepherds. That gets reiterated all too frequently through scripture, where shepherding was the symbol of rulers, and those rulers tended to be bad shepherds, neglecting the flocks in their care. We’d quickly admit, biblical precedent is right and it’s not just an ancient problem to have self-interested leaders lacking concern for their constituents.

Opposed to bad shepherds, then, we might presume it’s good to be a sheep, at least being fluffy and cute. But the more defining characteristic of sheep is that they go astray following their appetites. Sheep continue grazing, face in the ground, and end up getting lost while they’ve been focused only on filling their bellies. The prophet Ezekiel uses this imagery to accuse us of butting each other out of the way and muddying the waters with our feet, damaging it for those who come after us. We trample and foul it up for others, he says. (see Ezekiel 34) We’re greedy.

This is where we are really sheepish, not to use that term for being shy but for being self-absorbed and ravenous and inattentive to our surroundings. It’s bad enough that we’re making a mess, or to use a good crass version, we’re defecating where we eat; we pollute the place that supplies our wellbeing. The larger systemic ecological problem is that our selfishness also causes harm to the poor people of the planet and to other life trying to survive and future generations of our families and any other creature. We sheep are messing up the place and making it unlivable.

While we’re hanging around these thoughts of the tail-end of a sheep and noticing just how much this all stinks, this is a perfect time to re-examine a word that, I think, gets misinterpreted or elevated to sound more special than it should. The word is “stewardship.” It seems to me that we picture being a steward as something holy, church-y, trying to act like God, which we mistake to mean being important and in charge.

Yet this word begins with a very specific context, and that’s where the meaning of our faith also dwells. See, the word “steward” comes from the Old English “sty-warden,” meaning one who kept the sty, spending their time cleaning up after sheep and pigs and all the livestock filth. So a steward isn’t a big boss or nice maître d’. Stewards cared for crap, and hung out amid the stink, knee deep in it.

So your holy and pious vocation, the noblest calling from God, isn’t to elevate you above the mess, but to get a shovel and get to work. Though you may notice that my main expertise only involves a pooper scooper, that I haven’t done a whole lot of barn work, I’m going to continue speaking authoritatively on “duty.” With that, I can tell you that Martin Luther looked at your lowly life and identified it as a highly important role, stamped with more divine approval than being a clergyperson dressed in fancy robes.

This amazing job? Doing diapers. Luther wrote that, if we were trying to be rational, we’d turn up our nose and say, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my spouse, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery life involves?” But, he continued, Christian faith “looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as [if] with the costliest gold and jewels.”* That’s a different image of a filled diaper—to regard it as if covered in gold and jewels! We can also apply that to other stinky situations of your life, where you’re up to your neck in it, things that aren’t glamorous but sure are held dear and important to God.

In spite of this prevalence of poop, we shouldn’t presume that stewardship is perpetually serving on that literal clean-up committee. The sty where you serve is found in all kinds of nitty-gritty details of life. So mostly we think of stewardship related to finances, those tedious kitchen table-type talks of sorting out where money should go and what you can or can’t buy.

But, again, this isn’t just about how extravagant of a vacation you can afford this summer. With stewardship, we recognize that the calling from God isn’t only about how you satisfy yourself but also how you care for others, how you invest yourself in spreading wellbeing; not just making your own mess but attending to others’. Again, it may not seem all that rational. You may think that if you’ve worked hard for your income you should be able to play hard and make your own choices and not have to sacrifice. You may think you’ve earned it, that you deserve a reward, that you’re entitled to a treat or a new purchase or some luxury time.

But that brings us back around to the appetites of sheep, right?, and imagining yourself to be a better shepherd in charge and in control, and back again to ecology.

The glimpse I hope you’re getting is that God isn’t a God to lord it over you. God is not the highest and mightiest, the most in control, fancy and luxurious, with the biggest palace up in heaven, most removed from the struggles and vulgar stink of everyday life. Our God is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gives himself and lays down his life for you. Jesus your Lord is sty-warden, hanging out here amid what’s disgusting and insignificant and despised in our world and of your life, simply out of devotion to you, for love. So Jesus wasn’t looking out for numero uno, or if he was it was because he didn’t count himself first. He wasn’t pushing others aside to try to get ahead. He didn’t sacrifice the well-being of others to make a place for himself, but offered himself to make a place for you.

This is the model of our faith, the shape of our lives. In our gospel reading Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep” because he cares for and knows them. Our 2nd reading took that word of good news and invited you to live into it saying: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

That “ought,” though, is tricky there. The struggle I have in putting these words together, and I think the Bible writers faced the same struggle, is that it can sound harsh or difficult. Telling you to love and to lay down your life, you may feel like arguing that you can’t be forced to love, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices. Just as Luther realized, you can’t approach this by reasoning through it, or you’ll just turn up your nose. We show our sheepishness is much too inherent.

But what Jesus the Good Shepherd is doing is changing sheep into shepherds. In his care and devotion to you, he is converting you from being self-serving sheep to expand your awareness that you may know others in the flock. In laying down his life for you, he is giving you his life, making you to be a good shepherd like him.

So while parents may grumble and be worn out by changing diapers in the middle of the night, they also don’t need to be forced into caring. Even the disliked and disagreeable tasks are transformed by love. And the love of Jesus is transforming you from being a hungry sheep only looking at your own appetite and taking whatever you can instead to lay down your life, to realize that life’s fulfillment is not found in having more than others but in what you share, what you can offer. This comes so naturally (at times) in our families, this love and willingness to offer ourselves.

But these days present an urgency of tending to our larger family, for the care of the earth around us. During this week of Earth Day, we again pause to recognize that we have been takers, thinking that we had every right and no problems in claiming bigger houses and new cars and countless electronic gizmos and a country with the largest military and unnecessary plastic objects and whatever we wanted for lunch.

In a time of ecological crisis, led by the Good Shepherd, we are called and invited to love, to lay down our lives, to see what we can do without, so we don’t foul up life for others but promote our shared wellbeing. It is in asking what we can sacrifice, and, if we really care, it may be in laying our lives on the line.

When that seems too frightening, too unpleasant, too unreasonable, then turn again to the Lamb of God who fills you with all joy and peace in believing, the God of life who lays down his life for you, and takes it up again, that you may enjoy his blessing and live with his life and abide among his flock forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us (ELW #789)

* Luther’s Works, vol45, pg39