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


Abundant Life

sermon on Psalm23; 1Peter2:19-25; Acts2:42-47; John10:1-10

Jesus gives a great purpose statement today: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Yet it makes us ask, what does he mean? What qualifies (or quantifies) as abundant life? Is it about longevity, as if the number of years is what makes life abundant? Do you imagine it’s having abundance in your life, of food on your table and square footage of your dwelling space and of possessions? Or is abundance in satisfaction, in enjoyment, in feeling accomplishment? Might the abundance of life come in relationships, in types of friends or delight in family? More, is it abundant through relationship with God?

We don’t need to guess at understanding what Jesus might mean by living abundantly, since each of our Bible readings today hits on considerations of abundant life, to give a sense of what Jesus wants for you.

Let’s start with the 23rd Psalm, since that is such a definitive statement of our faith and hope. We sang before, but join in if you know these words:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

We may hardly need say or reflect on more for a vision of abundant life than those beloved words. God abides as your Shepherd. Goodness chases after you so you lack or want for nothing. God guides you to calming waters and lush fields of peace and plenty. Even when life itself seems threatened in deadly dark valleys or by the presence of your enemies, you are comforted and safely kept in house of the Lord.

Still, as true and meaningful as those words are, we can’t stop there, because I don’t want you left thinking abundant life amid this faith of ours is just about you and Jesus, through your good times or troubles you endure or in some eternal heavenly home sense. As much as Jesus is your Good Shepherd and you are a sheep, you are a sheep of his fold and lamb of his own flock. You aren’t alone, but are among a gathering of sheep. And, as Jesus will go on to say later in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, he has “other sheep that do not belong to this” group. It can’t be individualistic. We need to look broader and recognize more to understand what Jesus intends for abundant life.

To begin considering God amid our relationships, let’s take a fairly negative example. You may have been squirming in your seats during the reading from 1st Peter, and Joyce didn’t much seem to enjoy reading it or calling it “Word of God, Word of life.” You may have been protesting and arguing in your minds about unjust suffering. I concur that there’s much disagreeable there. This is the sort of passage the lectionary normally skips past without giving us a chance to confront it. In this case, what we didn’t hear makes it worse, since this lectionary skipped the first verse of the section, which began with addressing “slaves, accept the authority of your masters,” even if they’re too harsh. Yikes! Probably worse still, the next verse after our reading says, “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands.” Double yikes! This among verses that commend enduring abuse and beatings!

We must quickly declare how wrong this is, but we first have to pause with an odd caveat. The author of this letter is trying to make sense of what the resurrection means, including in the course of life’s difficulties, and in some way understands that suffering is not the opposite of abundant life. 1st Peter says our worst difficulties in relationships don’t necessarily cut us off from abundant life.

Using suffering in service of life by breaking oppression was the method of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Dr. King cited exactly this Bible passage, realizing that “unearned suffering [can be] redemptive. Suffering…has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.” He liked to say, “The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory, it will be a victory not merely for [African Americans], but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice [he said] and not white persons who may be unjust.”* That’s a message of striving through intentional suffering on behalf of abundant life, that one side can’t win alone (as violence presumes). True victory for life needs to be shared by both sides. In Dr. King’s example of nonviolent resistance, it may make sense to commend that pain should be endured.

But we have to admit 1st Peter isn’t really talking about that. When this letter says that enduring unjust and unmerited suffering at work or in family relationships means you have God’s approval, that’s mostly wrong. God may be on the side of people suffering and hurting, but if the letter means that God approves of being abused, that is wrong and it is terrifyingly wrong. This passage has been used to perpetuate domestic violence. In another example, there have been some awful racist offences at St. Olaf College in recent days, and 1st Peter’s model would be that those students in positions of weakness should just put up with insults, humiliation, denigrations, or threats. That should not happen. That is not commendable. It’s not godly. That is not abundant life.

Almost every source I read this week declared the need to understand this writing in its ancient context, that slaves and wives and children were property controlled by the authority of a man, that that society was shaped and limited by their economy—a word literally meaning the household order. But that doesn’t make it okay. 1st Peter has some very faithful and wonderful things in it, but this is just plain wrong. It’s wrong about Jesus, wrong about society, wrong for us.

As a counter-example, Paul’s writings were in the same ancient context but refused to endorse that economic or household order. He undid slave/master hierarchy to invite them to live as brothers (see Philemon). He saw marriages as a mutual relationship (see 1Cor7). In Paul’s understanding, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” and none should be treated as patriarchal fathers, because we are all counted as offspring and heirs to inherit God’s promise (Gal3:28-29).

So 1st Peter can’t just say that we need to put up with oppressive and abusive relationships or forms of society, because Paul rightly recognized that what Jesus was doing and is still doing for the sake of abundant life is to reshape our relationships and to confront unjust authorities, whether they be in economy, family, religion, school, government, or anywhere. The example of Jesus is not that he passively submitted to being killed but that he chose to risk his life confronting injustice, and even that not as a suicide mission but with God’s further insistence on life over death. Like Jesus, it may be worth confronting powers for the sake of abundant life. And in that way, amid suffering, you may trust that God intends something other than your pain.

Let’s move from a difficult passage to one that seems more obvious in its abundance. The reading from Acts is the same chapter as the Pentecost story, with the Holy Spirit is creating faith in crowds of new followers of Jesus. This is portrayed as the very early infant church. Just as 1st Peter was trying to figure out, then, what it means to live as the church, to live after Easter, how to encounter continuity of life in this world even while believing it is forever changed by the resurrection, that’s what the community is working on in Acts, too, trying to figure out what this way of life means. In this short reading, there are a couple ways they encounter the abundance of life:  they study, they join in prayers, they eat meals together.

Oh, and they’re also communists. This is a way of seeing the abundance of life, that we have enough to share, that it can’t really be abundant if we imagine it needs to be hoarded, but is best when offered for all. Yet this idea of sharing everything in common, of selling possessions in order to distribute the proceeds as anyone had need has been rejected by plenty of folks, as it’s almost as harmful as passive suffering in 1st Peter. Yet even as we’re skeptical about difficulties of living communally, and even as that ancient community struggled with it—where some wanted to keep their own things and where within four chapters the food pantry wasn’t running fairly—still we do practice this. We practice it in our offerings, bringing what we have, to share life in so many ways for our community (like helping the homeless) and around the world (like funds for ELCA World Hunger and welcoming refugees). We should note this is what happens with our taxes. Those funds are for sharing a common good larger than what we could possess or accomplish on our own. That is a vision of abundant life.

Besides financially, in another aspect of being part of the flock and sharing in this community, I had the privilege of hearing celebrations from Mary Rowe this week, of delight in the care and support and generosity of this congregation as she is recovering from her knee surgery. Now, being cooped up at home, stuck on pain medications, and wondering when she’ll be back into normal routines may not sound exactly like abundant life, but as she shares the joys of this community, Mary recognizes it. This is the koinonia, the fellowship, the sharing, the communion that binds us together in this meal today, and that finds expression as our lives commune and become one with each other.

Finally for our discernment about finding abundant life are Jesus’ words. He offers a strange image: I AM the gate. It’s easier to picture Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who will rescue you from trouble and carry you on his shoulders. Or as the Shepherd of the sheep who leads us and guides us together as a flock. But here Jesus also says he’s a gate. That’s an odd idea.

First, it makes us wonder whether we’re trying to get in or out. Is he a gate that protects us from marauders and harm? Or is he the way out from being trapped up so we can find freedom in green pastures of plenty? He says both: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Perhaps we need both sides of that. We see that church is not about being insiders who disparage outsiders. There’s nothing exclusive about those in the church as better or more blessed. We’re not here to hunker down and shut the world out. And yet we do come in through the gate for a message of salvation. We need a word unlike the bad news that surrounds us, we need the peace the world cannot give. We need the reassurance of resurrection, that life in Jesus wins, that those injustices and pains and fears of scarcity and all that threatens or breaks us apart do not and, in the end, cannot define, confine, or conquer us and our world.

Instead, trusting the message of life that is stronger than death, trusting in Jesus who submitted to death in order to burst through it and undo its powerful grip on us, proclaiming that that is our reality, too, that nothing can stifle this goodness, we go out through the gate of Jesus to his world. We go out to share that good news. We go out to confront the nastiness. We go out to share our life abundantly. We go out to enjoy the blessing that nothing will steal that from us, nothing will be able ultimately to destroy God’s goodness. Life in Jesus is for all for always. We go out, because through him, we recognize life more abundantly. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* “An Experiment in Love” in Testament of Hope, p18