Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 15, 2011

2011.05.15 “What We All Seek” Psalm 23; John 10: 1 – 10

Central United Methodist Church

The 4th Sunday of Easter

“What We All Seek”

Psalm 23; John 10: 1 – 10

May 15th, 2011

“Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good — a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.”

Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about. So he tried again. “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good — sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for — will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” – John 10: 1 -10, The Message

On the fourth Sunday of Easter, we arrive at church to pleasantly greet old friends. Good Shepherd Sunday, this the fourth Sunday of Easter is called, because on this Sunday we read one of our favorite Psalms, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” On this Sunday we read a selection from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, where Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd.” On this Sunday we sing some of our favorite hymns; in addition to three of my favorites, “God is my Shepherd,” “Shepherd of My Soul,” and “You Are Mine,” there are others that come to mind that we don’t even have time to sing. Just think, for example, of “The King of Love, My Shepherd Is,” and “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”

Most often, when we think of Psalm 23 and Jesus the Good Shepherd, we call upon them to get us through times of distress.  For example, we read Psalm 23 at almost every funeral. Around the country this Sunday, there are likely many victims of disaster clinging to Psalm 23: victims of the tornadoes, and also of the heavy flooding in the south.

But today I want to highlight a different aspect of the Good Shepherd theme, something we all seek and often miss.   Did you catch what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, says in John 10:10: “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” As Eugene Peterson renders it, “I came so that you might have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of.”

Abundant life: not simply to exist, but to thrive, to flourish. To live with a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment; to know and be known, accept and be accepted. If there is one thing everyone in our congregation (and outside of it) desires, it’s this: to live a full and abundant life.  

Paradoxically, out in the culture, right now, for many, Christianity has become known as a religion of rules and intolerance. In fact, according to Jesus, it is meant to be a religion rich in meaning, experience, and relationship.  Where did we go wrong?

Long ago I realized, as a pastor, that’s the way the flow should go. As Christians, you do not exist for the sake of the church, but the church exists for you as Christians, to fulfill the same purpose expressed by Jesus the Good Shepherd: that we might live full and abundant lives.  That’s what we do here every Sunday, I pray:  we come not to offer our lives as sacrifices upon the altar of the church, but to find inspiration and strength here at church to go back out into the world and live full and abundant lives.

That God desires for us an abundant life is richly described in both texts, though, in the midst of our distresses, we may not always see it. 

In Psalm 23, for example, when we say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” we may have taken it to mean that we are in for a life of austerity. When really, what it means is – as some translations render it – in God we really have everything that we need. Not everything that we want, but everything we need. When we are in need of refreshment and renewal, God leads us, to still waters and green pastures, restoring our souls. When we’re confused about the way to take, God lead us to the right path. Though we walk through the valley of shadow, God is with us, to calm our fears and comfort us. In the presence of our enemies, God prepares a feast for us.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.” If that’s not enough, God’s goodness and mercy chase after us all the days of our life. Is this a description of an abundant life or what?  Literally, our cup overflows.  How is it that we have only come to read this Psalm at times of distress? It is a psalm of inexhaustible blessing, the kind of life God desires for us.

With Psalm 23 as the background, when we turn to Jesus’ “I am the Good Shepherd” statement in John chapter 10, it is with a deeper meaning.  When you read John 10: 1 – 10, you may find yourself as confused as Jesus’ disciples, because it is not actually until John 10, verse 11 that Jesus says, “I am the Good shepherd,” one of seven such “I am” statements in John’s Gospel. 

In today’s reading, John 10: 1 – 10, Jesus mixes up his metaphors:  he talks about people climbing over the fence and people going through the gate, he talks about gatekeepers and sheep stealers.  And so it says, “Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about.” So he tried again:

“I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good — sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for — will freely go in and out, and find pasture.”

Great, now he’s not the shepherd, but a gate, literally “the door.”  Maybe we should be celebrating Jesus the Door Sunday.  Anyhow, the point is the same: “I am the Gate,” says Jesus. “Anyone who goes through me will be cared for — will freely go in and out, and find pasture . . . I have come so that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

How are we to understand this?  Well, here’s the way I understand it: evidently, if sheep were corralled, sometimes the shepherd actually slept in the entrance to the sheep corral, becoming in effect, himself the gatekeeper and gate.  To me, this helps makes sense of Jesus saying, “I am the Door,” “I am the gate,” “I am the shepherd.”

And did you get that sometimes the shepherd who is the gatekeeper sends us into the corral, to find security and comfort, but sometimes the gatekeeper sends us out of the corral, to find pasture and provision. In every other instance the verb used here is translated “casts out.”  So what it’s saying is, sometimes the gatekeeper kicks the sheep out, for their own good.  Kind of adds new meaning to the term, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, doesn’t it? 

As the Rev. Adam Thomas, of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, says of this text on Day 1:

“But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He’s talking about us, about you and me. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking the word that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don’t know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.” (Rev. Adam Thomas, Young Leaders Series III: The Sheepfold, Day One, May 15, 2011)

But, of course, according to Jesus, gates and gatekeepers and good shepherds are not the only ones on the scene, others – up to no good – are on the scene as well: sheep rustlers, Jesus called them, thieves and robbers climbing over the fence after the sheep, the big bad wolves of the Bible. 

In life, who are these life-stealers, up to no good? Well, some of them we know, they are obvious. Drugs, too much to drink, yes, they promise us the “high life”, when really they steal life away. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking they’re not out there. Did you see that sad story in this week’s news about that 34 year-old mother of two out in Round Lake, who’d been missing for a week, whose body was found on the floor of her minivan in a parking lot in Grayslake?  Turns out, provided with heroin by her sister-in-law, she overdosed and died, and then her brother and sister-in-law dumped her body in her car and left it in the parking lot.  With family like that, who needs enemies?

But you don’t have to be a junkie to be misled. Though not addicts, we are constantly being sold what we are led to believe will be the abundant life, through things. Six years ago, PBS’s Frontline series did a report called The Persuaders, documenting how products used to be sold for what they were: coffee for good taste, laundry detergent that makes clothes white, things being either “whiter, brighter, cleaner, stronger.”  But now that mostly all products are good, products began to be sold as “lifestyle enhancements” through “emotional branding,” promising to give us what church and community used to provide, but don’t anymore: meaning, experience, transcendence. Think for example, of only a few such brands.  They’re not selling just products, they’re selling lifestyle.  As Harley Davidson used to say, “You don’t have to worry about consumer loyalty when they’ve got your logo tattooed on their chest.” You should all know better than to ask me about my Apple laptop, or my iPhone. I’ve tried to pass this on to my children: we’re Methodists, we’re Democrats, we’re Apple. Those are our tribes. They don’t believe me.

But the truth is, we can’t solely blame Madison Avenue or advertisers if the life we envisioned through things didn’t work out, because after all, we fell for it. As Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, observes in the documentary, while the things themselves may be perfectly useful – a great laptop or pair of running shoes – they can’t provide the abundant life of meaning and purpose we seek.

Therefore we really do need to take an honest look at the choices we make, the strategies we employ, and the things we rely upon to bring us an authentic, abundant life, and ask honestly ask ourselves: How’s that working out? Because the fact of the matter is that after all of our seeking and searching and shopping, we still fall far short of experiencing the abundant life Jesus promises.

In truth, such a life is not something we earn or achieve, something we barter for or buy. Rather, it is a gift, the sheer gift of a God who loves us enough to lay down his life for us. While there are many thieves and bandits in this world who would rob us of life, who would cheat us of abundance, Jesus comes as the gatekeeper and Good Shepherd, the one who knows us intimately and calls us by name, so that we, hearing the difficult truth about ourselves, may believe and receive the greater truth about God’s great and victorious love for us, and God’s desire for us to live full and abundant lives. Once we know this, such a life is within our grasp.

        Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, poet, author, and man of faith. One of my favorite poems of Mr. Berry’s is called The Wild Geese.  As I read it, I can see and sense what he describes in my native state of Kentucky, but it is the ending that I especially love.  It says:

Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end.  In time’s maze

over the fall fields, we name names

that went west from here, names

that rest on graves.  We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here.  And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear.  What we need is here. 

– Wendell Berry

 (Collected Poems 1957-1982)

 

The Lord is my Shepherd; I have all that I need.  (The New Living Translation)

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