Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 7, 2017

2017.05-07 “Life-Giver or Life-Taker” Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

Central United Methodist Church
Life-Giver or Life-Taker?
Pastor David L. Haley
Psalm 23; John 10: 1 – 10

The 4th Sunday of Easter
May 7th, 2017

Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road

“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, by Eugene H. Peterson

It has been difficult this week to keep my mind on “The Lord is My Shepherd” while Congress was monkeying with our healthcare, and not in a good way. Because while we know the Lord is with us, we’d just as soon not walk through the valley of the shadow of death, any sooner than we must.

I’m serious when I say this, because while we – as people of faith – believe in the Good Shepherd, we are also concerned about having a good physician, and whether we can afford them, at all necessary times from the cradle to the grave. As Jimmy Kimmel made clear this week in his moving story about his newborn’s son’s condition and emergency intervention, without adequate healthcare, the time between the cradle and the grave can be tragically short. No person and no parent should have to face it without adequate care and resources, when they are available.

I’ve been concerned about this for a long time, from many perspectives. From having a daughter born as a premie, to wondering if we could afford to put my father with advanced dementia in a nursing home, to – when I worked as a paramedic – having people beg me not to take them or their children to the hospital, because they couldn’t afford it. I once had parents beg me not to transport their daughter to the hospital with symptoms of mental illness, because the last time that happened it cost $25,000. Even apart from those major issues, all of us have gotten those indecipherable bills for astronomical amounts, scared that our insurance might not cover it, and then what? Did you know that since the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the number of personal bankruptcies dropped by half?
In an attempt to understand how we got into this mess, post Easter I’ve been reading Elisabeth Rosenthal’s recently published book, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back.” The reason governmental intervention has become so important is because the healthcare industry is not what it was when we were growing up, or even what it was 20 years ago. Elisabeth Rosenthal – a physician herself – describes it in detail what happened, which most of us know from experience. It’s all there; I can hardly wait to get to the part about “How I Can Take It Back.” (CT scan in my garage?)

But what does all this have to do with The Lord is My Shepherd, and of Jesus as – if not the Great Physician – the Good Shepherd?

Well, this: I appreciated the observation made by Professor David Lose this week in his weekly preaching commentary that what’s most evident in today’s Gospel about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, is the simple and stark distinction between the thief who comes to kill and destroy; and Jesus, the Good Shepherd, whose purpose is give life, “more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” To put it simply, there are “life-givers” that give us life, and there are “life-takers,” that take life from us.

In some ways, the contrasts are clear, the distinctions marked. Among life-givers are the role of God and Jesus and faith in our life, at least as that is supposed to work (but doesn’t always). There are rich and rewarding relationships, which – perhaps more than anything else – make life meaningful and rewarding to us. In addition, there are those who teach us and take care of us along life’s way, too many to count: parents and teachers and mentors and coaches and counselors and doctors and nurses and caregivers, some of whom were only available to us because we could afford them. If asked, “Where would we be without such people,” many of us would have to say, “Six feet under!” Truly, people such as these have been life-givers to us; without them, we might not be here right now.

If those are some of the life-givers, who are the life-takers, the big bad wolves, up to no good in our lives? Some of them we know, they are obvious: disease, which for the most part is random, not the result of anything we do. Did you know most cancer is the result of random cell mutation? Who chooses asthma, or diabetes, or mental illness, or congenital or acquired disabilities, all among those things we call “pre-existing conditions.” And then, there are also the things we do that steal life; some of which – like addictions, for example – once we do them, we have very little control. Once abused, they abuse us back, and steal our lives away. This may be the reason why longevity keeps rising among most groups, except that of white middle age men, who appear to be dying of the abuse that comes from hopelessness and despair, the greatest life-takers of all.
Everyone – rich and poor – are subject to these things that steal life, but none more so than those without access to help, as restricted by poverty and injustice. This is where structural issues such as access to health care become important. While the economics of healthcare is complex, the lack of access to healthcare becomes not only an economic but an ethical issue, a life-taker, quite literally, because people without access will die prematurely. While some seem to think that is OK, how would we feel about that if they are someone near and dear to us: such as a child or a parent who needs help, but can’t get it. This is why for all of us, the issue of healthcare is so personal and so frightening; in the wealthiest society the world has ever known, the lack of access to healthcare is a life-taker.

Beyond these stark contrasts, as David Lose points out, the lines in other areas of our lives between life-givers and life-takers becomes blurred.

As a minor example, David Lose suggests, take email. When we adopted email, we all thought of it as a time saver, and in many ways it is, we don’t have to play phone tag anymore, like we used to. I really like the idea that I can park a message in your inbox, and you can answer it at your convenience. But now, email and other forms of social media, suck up more time than we will even admit, such that I have 38,800+ of those emails parked in my inbox!) Sometimes I wonder, “Why don’t I read books anymore; what’s changed in my life that I don’t read books anymore? Part of the answer is email and social media such as Facebook. So is it life-giving or life-taking?

Consider our jobs, whatever it is we do for a living. Many of us – among whom I include myself – have been blessed to have jobs over the course of our lives that we have loved. Really, I am so thankful for the privilege of living my life as a pastor to five congregations of people. And yet, from time to time, we have so lost ourselves in our work and find ourselves so tired and burned out that it’s hard to remember why we ever signed up for this abuse in the first place. Not to mention the toll it takes upon families and friends, which sometimes we are not even aware of. Are our jobs life-giving or life-taking?

And what about our children? I want to speak very carefully here so as not to be misunderstood, so let me quote David Lose directly. See if you agree? He says:

“There is absolutely nothing in the world I love more than my children and have for that reason happily sacrificed time, energy, and money to give them many things I did not have. But as they approach adulthood I sometimes wonder if they’ve always been as well-served as I would like to think by these good intentions and so wonder whether I’ve spent too much time worshiping at the altar of “giving our children as much as we can.” (Just for the record, I’ve got good kids who are not – in case you’re wondering – spoiled or entitled, but I’ve also wondered if some of the struggles that you and I may have gone through were . . . good for us even if we didn’t like them.) Life-giving or life-taking?”

And how about our money, which seems to be the driving force in everything, whether government or healthcare. Money can do so many good things for us, for our families, for our congregations, our neighbors, for people in need. But how easy is it for money to shift from a means to an end, from a gift to be used to a god to be worshiped. I loved Pope Francis criticism of trickle-down, aka “voodoo” economics: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor,” Francis said. “What happens instead is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger, but nothing ever comes out for the poor.” So we ask: does money then become life-giving or life-taking?

Even church. Church congregations and church people can do wonderful things, and yet we have all known congregations and church people who have done awful things to each other. And we have often wrongly believed – as reinforced by us pastors – that only those things we do at church “count” with God, as if our vocations as parents, friends, spouses, employees, citizens, aren’t equally important to God. In which case, does even church become life-giving or life-taking?

OK, we get it. According to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, there are life-givers and life-takers. In some cases it’s clear what’s life-giving and life-taking; in other cases it’s not so clear, and may vary according to person, and the various times and circumstances of our lives.

But what’s crystal clear is this: God’s purpose is for us to have life, and for that reason Jesus the Good Shepherd came to us, that we might live in God’s house, where our cup overflows with goodness and mercy not only to us, but to others, all the days of our lives, however many those may be.

Here is our choice: not only to choose life for ourselves, but to live as life-givers or life-takers; which will it be? It’s a question we need to ask, and a choice we need to make, every day. Amen.

[As noted above, I am indebted in this sermon to the insights of David Lose, at his blog, “In the Meantime: Where Faith Meets Life,” “Easter 4A: Life-Giving or Life-Taking,” May 4, 2017]


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