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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.

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.

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?

 

Commemoration of Saint Nicholas, December 6

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“He had to be made like his siblings in every way, so that he might become a merciful high priest… For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…”—Hebrews 2:17, 4:15

When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra gave away a fortune and gave himself to the church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for generosity to the poor. After he died on December 6, 354, his fame spread beyond Asia Minor. In Europe, Christian imagination transformed him into jolly old St. Nick. Here, cartoonist Thomas Nast made him Santa Claus.

These days, many Christians are down on Santa and the commercialization of the season he represents. Aiming for a holier Advent, they point back to St. Nicholas, Santa’s prototype. We’d be a lot closer to the right spirit, they say, if we looked to the bishop, not the elf.

If only it were that simple. It turns out that the kind bishop was also a harsh bishop. Once jailed for his orthodox faith, he gave as good as he got, persecuting pagans and repressing Arian heretics. He was an amalgam of utmost kindness and fierce certainty, passions sweet and cruel, a compromised person in a complicated world. Like ours. Like us.

And if we’re hoping to be squeaky clean in this expectant season; if we think there’s a right way to do Advent that will bring us to Christmas with bright shiny faces; if we’re striving to reach a spiritual place in our lives without defects, contradictions, and dead-ends, perhaps we haven’t yet begun to grasp the Mercy we’re waiting for, the One who reached eagerly for the compromised flesh we try to escape, entered the complicated world we try to smooth out, and loved them both to death, even death on a cross.

Prayer

On St. Nicholas Day, we surrender our compromised hearts, complicated lives, and earnest striving to you, O Mercy without end.

 

Image: St Nicholas, 16th c. Russian icon

Zacchaeus

 

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Image: Zaccaeus, by Joel Whitehead

 An old sermon (from 2001)…

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a story that recapitulates all the great themes of Luke’s gospel: the anticipatory mercy of God, the joy in heaven when the lost are found, the moral precariousness of the self-made and the self-righteous, the necessity of deeds to authenticate righteousness – especially the divestiture of concentrated wealth and the just treatment of the oppressed.

It is also a charming story, filled with unexpected details that make it easy to imagine. We learn that Zacchaeus was short, that he ran fast to beat out the crowd, that he climbed a tree, and that it was a sycamore. We learn that, inexplicably, Jesus knew his name, and that on the spur of the moment he invited himself to eat and even to stay overnight at Zacchaeus’ house. When we hear that Zacchaeus responded without the slightest hesitation, we imagine him flattered, flustered, happy, hopping up and down like a child.

But he was no child. He was a grown man, but exactly what sort of man is hard to say. His name means “clean,” or “pure,” but his profession was anything but. He was a chief tax collector with jurisdiction over a prosperous region, raising revenue from Jews for the foreign occupier, a collaborator consorting with Gentiles. To ordinary people tax collectors were disloyal opportunistic extortionists, Roman lackeys. Religious professionals held them in contempt as the most impious of sinners. It would not surprise me to learn that even their Roman employers despised them.

And yet…

And yet, there he is, a tax collector running after the rabbi, eager for Jesus, going out on a limb heedless of possible scorn or injury, unconditionally responsive when Jesus calls him down, illustrating another of Luke’s great themes—that only outsiders and outcasts recognize the kingdom when they see it.

Now, there are outcasts and there are outcasts. Most of Luke’s outsiders, even the morally shaky ones, elicit our sympathy. Widows, possessed people, lepers, women about to be stoned—when they fling themselves at Jesus’ feet, beg for mercy, confess their sins, or clutch his hem in search of healing and a restored life, we feel the injustice, the pity and the pain of their ostracism.

But a tax collector? That’s a different animal. If Zacchaeus is as nasty a piece of work as his contemporaries assume, it seems like just-desserts that he should be shunned in polite company and blotted out of the Book of Life. We could be wary of Jesus’ apparent approval of him in the same way that we are often upset by the characters in his parables who get a lot more than they deserve: Why the favor shown to the prodigal brat and not to the older son? Why a full day’s wage paid to the man who worked only an hour? Why eat with Zaccaheus? Zacchaeus is the kind of outcast we would feel OK about leaving out there beyond the pale. He brought it on himself.

But is he really all that bad? Consider this: when the crowd begins grumbling about what a disgrace it is that the rabbi should lodge with a sinner, Jesus, who usually delivers withering zingers in response to such judgments, says nothing. Zacchaeus is the one who speaks. He delivers a vivid self-defense. And what he says precisely has long been a translators’ debate. It all depends on whether you render his verbs, which are in the present tense, as “future-present” or “customary-present.”

The more traditional approach has been to use the future-present. In this rendering, Zacchaeus has a converting encounter with Jesus, and because of it, from now on he will behave more justly. Meeting Jesus changes him, on the spot, from a bad man to a good man, concerned with fairness and the well-being of the poor.

But in many other gospel scenes in which conversions occur, there are always dialogues of repentance and forgiveness, requests for restoration from the supplicant, and the commending of faith from the savior. None of these typical exchanges happen here. So other scholars prefer to render Zacaaheus’ speech in the customary-present. When they do, what Zacchaeus claims is that all along he has been more generous, more scrupulous, and more self-aware than he’s been given credit for. His self-defense is a simple disclosure of fact: he has habitually given half what he owns to the poor—that’s 40% above the tithe—and whenever he discovers that he has been involved in a fraud, he makes a four-fold restitution—twice what the law required.

He makes this disclosure not as a boast to God, like the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple we read about last Sunday, but as a plea for vindication, a plea that Jesus answers by recognizing him, a rich man, as a true son of Abraham, ready for the kingdom with all his household. Here, then, is another characteristic Lukan theme: although it is indeed harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, for God, all things are possible. Zacchaeus is living proof of God’s power.

Zacchaeus’ disclosure of his generous and just practice was also surely meant as an act of hospitality: after all, Jesus is his guest, and the grumblers are ruining dinner. If Zacchaeus can correct their judgment of his own morality, maybe they’ll stop heckling Jesus about his choice of host. But I doubt he was able to accomplish that, especially if there were Pharisees in the crowd, who, fairly or not (and mostly unfairly), the evangelists depict as men devoid of irony who wouldn’t know a nuance or a compromise if one rose up and bit them, and whose notions of goodness and religious purity were not susceptible to the kind of truly human complexity we may have in Zacchaeus.

And it is human complexity in all its infuriating nuance that is on display here. Zacchaeus is a man carrying out one of those morally-dubious jobs, like designing missile guidance systems. Yet we cannot simply say that he is corrupt: the very thing he gets right in his life is the same thing God has put forward since the dawn of creation as the touchstone of authentic humanity and right worship: care for the poor and justice for the oppressed.

If “customary-present” is the better way to understand Zacchaeus’ response to the critics, it makes the story more familiar to us, and maybe even more credible. Zacchaeus is not converted on the spot—this rarely happens in human experience, and it doesn’t happen here. No, it turns out that he is neither villain nor hero. Neither consistently evil nor an exemplar of consistent virtue. But in a few important areas of his life, he is capable of acting like a man of God, a true son of Abraham, and the effects of his conduct on the world around him are humanly profound.

He is, then, like most of us, a compromised man in a compromised world, leading an ethically-ambiguous life in an ethically-bewildering human landscape. His name notwithstanding, he is unable to be pure in a world that is not pure either.

Like Oscar Schindler, a man not to be trusted with your money or your wife who saved thousands of Jews from destruction.

Like Mother Teresa, a woman supported by donations from organizations opposed to population control in India who gave dignity to the dying and hope to the sick and a new way of service to countless young people.

Like me, when I went to give a talk to some church leaders at the home of the congregation’s head deacon, a fifteen room house on eight acres in Sudbury, more house than any Christian should need or want, I remember thinking judgmentally as I pulled up to the front door, only to be greeted by seven adopted special needs children living happily inside.

This is Zaccaheus, complex and compromised in a complex and compromised world. Jesus loves him, accepts him fully just as he is, and glowingly commends him to Pharisees, to bystanders, and to us.

As I ponder his story, I find myself thinking about the anxiety, apprehension, anger, and frustration running rampant in our roiled-up nation and our war-torn world. We have great need of unambiguous prophets, strong and fearless, who will go way out on a limb and scout a new humanity, a different way, who will speak uncompromisingly the language of peace. But I am also thinking about the hideous consequences of true believing, whether it comes from “them” or from “us,” the frightening fundamentalisms of the right and the left, about the bloody dangers of replacing our first allegiance to human beings with ideology of any kind.

I am thinking about how difficult it is to be pure without being proud. I am thinking about the need we have for truth, and the fact that truth always comes to us unpackaged, in fragments, never unalloyed. I am thinking about the wisdom, the humility it takes to know that, and still to dare.

I am thinking about our communities of faith and witness, imperfect and loved by God; full of people with strong minds and wills, fierce convictions and bright visions; deep and faithful people who are also, at the same time, weak and needy, sinful (I begin with me), plagued by mixed motives and impure hearts, who live in a complex and ambiguous world with which we compromise daily despite our rhetoric of ethical excellence and moral purity, despite the high standards we often hold each other to and the judgments we make about each other when we fall short.

I am thinking about whether we should even try to come before God in any other way except in our frank human nature, full of our ambiguity; and whether, perversely, we should be relieved and even glad that it’s hard and even dangerous to be pure.

And I am thinking gratefully of you, First Church, for if any grumblers should question whether we are an appropriate house for Christ to lodge in, we also can, like Zaccaheus, say in our own defense that by the grace of God, in the midst of our compromises and sins, we do care for the poor and we do work for justice; that at least we know that that is the thing we should be trying to get right, no matter what else we may struggle with, fail at, or fudge.

I am thinking how grateful I am, and I hope you are too, for this odd privilege of being accepted by a God who knows our dilemma, who shared our flesh, experienced our internal contradictions, was done to death by our compromises, and who loved us first, still loves us now, and will keep loving us to the end.