Some Thoughts on Preaching John 10:1-11


I’ve heard countless sheep and shepherd sermons over the years. Some have informed me that sheep are the world’s stupidest, smelliest animals. Others insisted that they’re smart creatures, clean and good-natured. One preacher read us a long excerpt from a biblical encyclopedia article about shepherding as a disreputable profession in Jesus’ day. Other preachers referred to the same information, only a bit more artfully. In one oddly memorable sermon, an older preacher regaled us with his youthful escapades around sheep on a hippie commune. Still another shared a travelogue of her recent trip to Ireland where, she assured us solemnly, ‘you can see a lot of sheep.’

All these sermons eventually meandered home to their various points and conclusions, some of which were worth the wait. Still, every time this text comes up in the Lectionary, I find myself praying that preachers will resist the temptation to indoctrinate or entertain us with lore about sheep, lest they and we be led, like sheep, astray.

They do this, I think, because they believe that, lacking real-world knowledge of sheep and shepherding, we’ll fail to grasp what Jesus is getting at, so they contextualize, ‘splain, describe, and illustrate. The irony is that Jesus’ audience had way more sheep culture than we do, even after we’ve heard a dozen sermons on ovine IQ, yet they had trouble grasping his message, too. Notice that about halfway through, Jesus seems to register some perplexed looks, some unspoken confusion. ‘You’re a shepherd? Funny, you don’t look like a shepherd…’ It appears that they have no idea what he’s talking about. So he re-winds and changes the metaphor. ‘Okay, not a shepherd; this time I’m a gate. The sheep gate. Got that?’

Um. Maybe…

We progressives say we’re not literalists, but the truth is when things aren’t straightforward and clear, we get as nervous as the next person, as eager to nail things down as any fundamentalist. We say we prefer heart over head, yet in our need to get to the factoidal bottom of things, we cling to our commentaries and seminary notes,  forgetting to feel. But in texts like these, the thing is to feel, and to try to help other stubborn literalists to feel, too. Forget sheepy information and encyclopedia articles, one to one correspondences, the sheep equal this, the gate means that, God is represented by X, in Jesus’ day a sheep pen measured so many square feet… We’re not in that world, we’re in a different world, the realm of acute, converting feeling.

We’re also not in the world of ethics. At least not immediately. It may be true, for example, that identifying oneself with a shepherd was not an endearing comparison, that it probably had the same upending shock value as identifying with a Samaritan. If this is right, it does suggest some compelling ethical applications to the church’s  mission to stand with the outcast and oppressed. Yet as important as moral applications are for provoking conversion and commitment, they’re not the only means to that end. What happens when we routinely resort to moralizing is that our exhortations eventually go the way of all churchy language—in one ear and out the other.

The best-kept secret of preaching, alas, is that people are capable of coming to deep ethical conversion and courageous commitment by way of awe as well as (and maybe more than) moral exhortation. But we hardly ever give them awe. The most important stories don’t work by explanation or exhortation. They work by imagination, goose bumps, nerve endings. Explanation has its place, but only just enough to set the stage for wonder. Too much, and we’ll end up with heads full of animal husbandry and hearts bereft of mystery, truth, and power. No one was ever converted by knowing the exact dimensions of a sheep pen in first century Palestine.

We might be converted, however, if we suddenly felt the overwhelming fear in the text: the trembling terror in lurking bandits, thieves and strangers; all that looking-over-your-shoulder for killers. We might be saved if we go down through the fears we can articulate—money woes, our children’s futures, illness, aging, and diminishment—to finally touch the fears we cannot speak or face—that maybe no one knows our name, that maybe no one could ever want to “own” us, that we could be picked off at any moment and no one would care.

We might be converted if our nerve endings start to twinge in longing for recognition and dignity, safety and nourishment, belonging and life, in sync with the same desires of other human beings, and of all creation. We could be saved if we’re led by imaginative preaching to hear in the air the name-knowing voice that echoes in this text and in all the scriptures, beginning to end–the ancient litany of tender and insistent calling that resounds in the church’s heart deeper than any fear.

Instead of trips to Ireland and seminary notes, we might be changed by a mirror held up to the vivid Jesus in this text; by a long, loving gaze at him as he works his poet’s heart out attempting to capture our imaginations, trying out one metaphor after another in an ever-turning prism of meaning and possibility, until some glint off one of its surfaces ignites a small flame in us, and something shifts to make way for a little more light. And then a little more, until everything is fire.

Jesus’ Syllabus

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“If you do not hate your father and mother… you cannot be my disciple.”—Luke 14:26

I know a professor who’s delightful in the classroom. His courses routinely overfill. But he loathes those huge classes. He suspects many students come for his style, not his material; to be entertained, not educated. He can’t get a personality transplant, so he’s revised the course requirements—now it’s a killer. This semester, the crowds thinned out fast.

“You must hate your family…” That’s a killer, too. Jesus sounds tired of being the teacher everybody likes but nobody learns from. Tired of crowds that come for surprising stories and clever banter with lawyers but remain unchanged. Maybe he’s stiffening the requirements to thin them out.

Or maybe he’s having a smelling-salts moment, head snapping back as he comprehends, with mind-clearing clarity, how much it’ll cost him to love what is most worthy of love, and to love it in and above all other loves. Maybe he’s saying it aloud to make it real for himself as well as for us: “I will have to loosen every tie that binds.”

Here’s a horrible vision of life: I’ll love you and let you live if you’re like me; I’ll hate you and kill you if you’re not. It’s the ruling vision of our world. We know the ferocious consequences of its demonic irrationality. The question is whether we have any sense at all of the sacrifice it’ll take to destroy it and create the boundless fellowship of God.

Jesus says, ”You want to be my disciple? Then don’t come to me casually as if we were going to a picnic in the woods instead of a pitched battle in the anguished heart of the world. Read my syllabus. Read it again. Then come, follow me.”

Prayer

I’ve read it, Jesus. I’m not sure I can do it. Give me courage and grace.

 

 

And

 

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“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  [Mark 1:35]

At her denomination’s annual meeting, a social justice activist listened impatiently to a keynote address about spirituality. She was heard to mutter, “The world’s in flames, and these bliss-ninnies want to do guided meditations.”

In her view, ‘spirituality types’ are several singing bowls removed from the problems of the real world, clueless about root causes and systemic solutions. You want to pray? Do justice. Let that be your prayer. Want to linger devoutly over Scripture? Linger over Matthew 25. Then get to work. Enough with the navel-gazing!

Meanwhile, the keynoter was wondering why the ‘social justice types’ always seem so touchy, so grumpy. They have this air of fatigued arrogance about them, she thought, as if everything hinges on them—world peace, justice for he poor, an end to hunger. They can’t relax for even a nanosecond, because maybe, just maybe, the next action or petition will be the thing that finally fixes everything.

Jesus, Scripture says, puts his body on the line all day. And in the wee hours he prays. He never separates inseparables. For him, the kingdom comes by wonder and strategy, protest and ecstasy, imagination and politics, beauty and meetings, service and solitude, rallies and gratitude, rest and work, resolutions and praise.

It’s not a competition between the soul’s silence and the noise of the street. It’s not the sanctuary versus the subcommittee. It’s not even a matter of finding a balance, or making equal time. It’s about that and. About yielding our whole selves—every gift and skill, picketing and praying—to the Living One, in the sure and certain hope that, with us and without us, the kingdom comes, work of our hands and pure gift beyond our dreams.

Prayer
In prayer and action, O God, we hope in you. In you alone.

Ash Wednesday: Showered with Stars

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“…For dust you are and to dust you will return.”—Genesis 3:19

Halfway through the line I almost lost it. Until that moment I’d been in a ritual groove, looking my parishioners in the eye, dusting them with ashes, calmly delivering the ancient admonition, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” One by one they came, listened, received. But halfway through I faltered.

It wasn’t that I suddenly realized the gravity of what I was telling them, that they were breathtakingly fragile, that at any moment they could dissolve into elemental bits, that someday they would. I’d been feeling the heft of that truth all evening.

So no, it wasn’t that I was giving them fatal news. It was that they wanted to hear it. It was that they’d lined up to hear it of their own free will. They knew exactly what the message was going to be, and still they inched their way towards the messenger.

My knees went wobbly as water. I wanted to wave them off, tell them they didn’t have to come, they could go sit down. But I knew no one would. That was the most stunning thing: even if I’d said it, I knew no one would.

So I regrouped, kept tracing charred crosses, kept saying the old words. And they kept coming, one after another, offering me their foreheads with the trust of a child.

And when I told them they would die, some nodded. Some said amen. Some even smiled; they said thank you, as if instead of sentencing them to death, I’d showered them with stars.

Prayer

Holy One, may I live this Lent in bare truth, total trust, and knowing joy; for in life and in death I belong to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grounded

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“They drove him to a hilltop, intending to hurl him off… But passing through the midst of them, he went on his way.”—Luke 4:28-30

At Jesus’ baptism, God discloses his identity: beloved Child. Later, in the wilderness, Jesus resists the temptation to be something else—showman, potentate, Satan’s son. Then he goes public, healing, and announcing God’s reign. The buzz grows.

In Nazareth, his neighbors ask him to preach. He starts with a portion of Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed…” Then he says, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled.”

We could hear that line as a deep, solemn pronouncement, but I think it’s more giddy than grave; for nothing makes us happier than knowing who we truly are and what we’re meant to do. When he sees himself in Isaiah’s text, I think Jesus is struck with the joy of it, and the exhilarating truth just comes bursting out of him—“This is who I am!”

His neighbors aren’t as thrilled. After a tense exchange, they press him to the cliff. Then things turn mysterious: “But passing through the midst of them, he went on his way.”

I don’t know how he did that, but there’s something so spare and serene about that sentence that I think it has to do with being grounded in God, your identity, and your calling. Something to do with the lightness, the fearlessness inherent in being so grounded; the safe passage it grants you—not to avoid danger or suffering, but to go straight through it with your freedom intact, eyes on the prize, anchored in and lifted by the joy no mob can kill and no circumstance can alter.

Prayer

Ground me in the knowledge of who I am and what I’m called to do; and in that grounding may I find joy and safe passage forever.

Pastoral Prayer at the End of Advent

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Most gracious God,

desire of every living thing,

you have lighted our way in Advent

candle by candle,

dispelling our gloom.

and now four candles shine.

The night is almost over.

The Day is almost here.

But not yet.

Promise by promise

you have cleared our sight

with words from afar,

dreams, signs and wonders,

and now the Word made flesh

Is almost appearing.

But not yet.

Grace by grace

you have kept us awake,

brightening our eyes of faith,

and now we watch only a little more.

Now on tiptoe we see

the one we waited for

is almost here.

But not yet.

At the end of Advent,

in these days of not quite yet,

look with compassion

on the pain of the joyless,

the grief of the childless,

the sorrow of the bereaved:

for not all people enjoy the season,

not every family embraces,

not every womb conceives and carries,

not every day dawns with the presence of those we love,

not every story is full of angels,

not every song is ‘Glory!’

As we tell again the story

of your coming among us,

bind our hearts to the anguish of the poor,

the suffering of the sick,

the misery of the imprisoned,

and keep us alive to the terrors of war,

too easily forgotten, too easily accepted.

Increase the joy of earth,

and help us relish with thankful hearts

every good thing that will be ours at Christmas:

every pleasure and taste,

every sound and sight,

every touch and memory,

so that in the delight of our bodies

and the thoughts of our minds

we will know and love you,

who visits us through every sense and pore.

More than anything, O God,

we ask for Christ –

to meet his love, to know his goodness,

to experience his power, to be attracted to his way.

We ask for Christ—

to make the difference, to anchor our hearts,

to lead the way, to bring us home.

We ask for Christ – for cradle and cross,

for lullaby and lament, for life and death

and life made new in him.

In hope we pray,

the spirit of Christmas leaping within us,

heartened by his almost visitation,

the words he taught us on our lips:

Our Father….

Desire

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“Like a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God… When shall I see you face to face?”—Psalm 42:1-2

Waiting is the hallmark of Advent, yet the Advent psalms and prophets speak more about longing than waiting: panting, fainting, begging, crying, desperate human need.

Waiting can be active, but it’s rarely terrible and driving. Desire, however, is visceral, like the crazed thirst of a wild animal in a parched land. God is a fierce and unrelenting need. Advent craves God.

Do you?

No, you aren’t thrashing through underbrush frantically seeking water. You don’t really relate much to that panting deer. You don’t have those kinds of experiences of God. You’re no mystic.

Although there was that moment when you heard a loon on the lake and cried, couldn’t stop, didn’t know why, but so wished you did.

Although there was that moment when you felt incomplete, a restlessness, and wondered what you were missing.

Although there was that moment when you were suddenly and completely happy, consoled without cause, and you wish you could feel it again.

Although there was that moment at the peace march or serving communion or stargazing in pure black night when you grasped it whole, the way it is, the way it’s meant to be.

Although there was that moment when your heart lurched listening to a story about someone who risked it all, who loved the way you want to, yes, you do.

Although there was that moment your defenses were down and your suffering was great when you just cried out, cried out for God, and then got scared: what if God comes?

No, you’re no mystic, no thrashing deer.

But there was that time…

Prayer: I’m so thirsty for you, O God. Like the deer. When will I see you face to face?