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

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Love, Knowledge, and Unclean Spirits

4th Sunday after Epiphany       1 Feb 15

Mark1:21-28 1Corinthians8:1-13
I like books. But I’m also kind of sick and twisted and particularly like theology books. It’s so disgusting that, when I get a quiet Friday off, I even read theology in my freetime. Pretty gross. That passion made a friend once call me theologically arrogant.

She meant it as a compliment, but it comes back to haunt me with this 1st Corinthians reading that says “knowledge puffs up,” saying my puffy arrogance could be destructive and counter to what builds up. It’s evidently dangerous territory. The story from Mark teases it out more horrifyingly. There the smartest guy in the room is labeled as having an “unclean spirit.”

Now, I’m going to ask you to work with this. Stories of exorcisms and demon possessions just seem weird to us. We picture horror movies, or an ancient culture disconnected from our experiences. But rather than quickly writing it off as so foreign, let’s slow down and enter the story.

In this Bible reading, one wisenheimer knows a lot about Jesus, saying, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In fact, he identifies Jesus better than anybody else has in Mark’s Gospel. Next, notice that this happens at a weekend worship service, with other worshippers who are there to learn about God and to praise God. So rather than picturing an ancient horror flick, a better parallel would be to look around at this place here today.

Which makes us need to ask: if the Holy One of God walked in right now, wouldn’t that be, like…a good thing? Isn’t that sort of the whole reason we’re here? And wouldn’t we be happy for a smarty-pants to be able to help identify the Holy One of God?

But, somehow the opposite, this man expects Jesus is destructive, and so Jesus rebukes him, actually tells him to shut up. I’d suggest the man in the story recognizes what Jesus is about and doesn’t want to be part of it. We could say that what he claims to know is in opposition to Jesus. And being against the Holy Spirit’s work means he’s working with an unclean spirit.

Further, there’s plenty still today that Jesus could want to muzzle. If Jesus is Lord of your life and of the cosmos, think of all the things he would want to get rid of or destroy, the obstructions and confusions to his mission that he’d remove. Rather than something shockingly demonic and terrifying or one bad apple, perceiving an unclean spirit this way is more insidious because we can all get trapped in the thoughts of our brains, leading us away from Jesus and his Spirit’s guidance.

So what is the work of the Holy Spirit? To return to 1st Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” An unclean spirit is content in self-satisfaction, whereas the constructive work of love is in building community, in supporting each other, in reinforcing the weaker elements, in bridging differences, repairing divides. While knowledge too often can be just hot air, love makes an edifice, is literally edifying. I hope you’re hearing these many helpful building-block and construction images. With that, it’s worth remembering that the church is not this physical structure; the church is the connected group of us, the living stones formed around the solid foundation of Christ our cornerstone, united in efforts of refuge and sheltering, of reinforcement and support.

But we neglect this, forgetting to focus on the structure of relationships and to strive for mutual good. We make faith so individualized, or place it in heaven and ignore what happens here and now. So when the Holy One of God shows up in our midst and God-in-the-flesh comes up for a handshake as we exchange the peace, it’s a wakeup call. We have to pay attention to each other. Our lives and relationships matter. This is about love, and whatever obstructs love is wrong.

For an illustration of that I’d like to tell you about Marcus Borg. This past week, theology-type folks have been grieving the death of this popular teacher. A marquee name in the church, Marcus Borg was among the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a project intending as accurately as possible to uncover the “historical Jesus,” meaning not later reflections about him, but who was the guy who wandered around Palestine and said enough inflammatory things that he got killed. In some ways, this important and helpful project tries to hone in on what Jesus was really about, since knowing his engagement with culture helps us engage our own.

But along with keeping track of quotations of Jesus, Marcus Borg and his colleagues also wanted to revise or look again at some stuff like the resurrection, finding a metaphorical meaning “truer” than a literal, factual, traditional kind of meaning.

You’ve probably noticed that resurrection is kind of a big deal for us. So for the last couple of decades, this scholarship has caused a couple problematic or destructive side effects in the church. On one hand was a reaction from those who embraced Marcus Borg’s teaching so much that they looked down their noses at anybody who would still be silly enough to put creed or hope in an empty tomb. Supposing themselves to be more tolerant and realistic and cosmopolitan, at the same time they offend the honest faith of those right next to them. Like the Bible story’s smartest guy who had the unclean spirit, this side became a class of Christian elitists, puffed up with pride, claiming to know better, but too often distracting from the heart of what our faith is about and what Jesus tries to do among us.

The reverse side is those who have dug in their heels to ignore any new teaching at all. If the studies messed with their vision of God, then they wanted to stick to old Sunday School lessons and call it good. I’d say that’s not a great basis for understanding Jesus. Refusing to learn about each other prevents us from growing in relationships. So ignorance can be as obnoxiously obstructive as knowledge. Reactions puffed up in anger can selfishly resist or deny knowledge, like flat-earthers stubbornly sticking heads in the sand, putting on blinders to avoid seeing larger truths around them.

As Marcus Borg was pointing to Jesus and trying to identify him, those have been two negative byproducts. Between those entrenched sides, however, it’s interesting that he himself was insistent on engaging dialogue. He wrote books in conversation with traditional scholars. He accepted all questions at his lectures. He tried not to shame or exclude. In that way, even if Marcus Borg didn’t believe the same things about Jesus that I do, he still wanted us to be Jesus people, confronting injustice and supporting each other, inspired by God. Even when his opponents and his adherents both missed the boat, Marcus Borg was still trying to be a person of love.

That fits these readings today. If you’re puffed up in anger or puffed up thinking you know better, that divisive spirit works against what Jesus is about. If you are striving to learn from Jesus and grow in him, if you are connected into this community with the purposes of being inspired in love, then you’re probably on the right page. That is the Holy Spirit working in you, and among us, for the sake of God’s world.

Almost to conclude, then, here’s another dose of encouragement that captures this spirit on learning to love better from Martin Luther King. In one of his last sermons, he said: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”*

That gets close to the heart of why we gather here and what the Spirit of Jesus is up to. But we need to say one thing more. We’ve said our faith isn’t about how much you know (or don’t know). But neither is it only about how loving you are, as if you can keep track with checkmarks on a list. The intersection of the two may be in knowing how much you are loved by God. That is what matters and is the central reason we gather here.

Life can be a mess and we can mess up and our world can seem to be totally falling apart. The more we know the less we like what we learn, and no answer may seem right or satisfying. So the point of theology and the point of gathering here together is again and again to be able to know love, to trust through all of it that you are held in Jesus’ love. As much as the demonic powers of the world or of your selfish brain, as much as the distractions and obstructions threaten to block it, what you need to know is that Jesus clears that all away and has claimed you in love forever.

All that’s left after that is to figure out what that means.

Hymn: Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue (ELW #644)

* “The Drum Major Instinct,” Testament of Hope, pp265-66

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