(a sermon for October 27, 2019 , the 20th Sunday after Pentecost and Stewardship Sunday; last in a series, based on John 10:7-10)
(a podcast version of this message can be found here)
And Jesus said to them, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Perhaps it’s a by-product of having turned 60 years old this year, I don’t know; or maybe it’s simply that we’re now inching toward late autumn and there’s another long New England winter looming on the horizon, but I must confess to you that these days I’ve been thinking a lot about life… life, what it all means, and at the end of the day what makes it abundant.
Now, to have life is certainly a good thing; it’s desirable, important. “How much more so, then,” writes theologian and pastor David Lose, is “abundant life. The chance to not simply persist, but thrive, to not simply exist, but flourish. To have a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment; to know and be known, accept and be accepted.” Lose goes on to say that if there’s one thing that “pretty much everyone” desires – “even if they can’t name that desire” – it’s this. And I would agree; I mean, we hear this desire expressed all the time, don’t we? That there’s years to your life, but what counts is that “there’s life to your years;” or that “it’s not the number of breaths you take but the number of moments that take your breath away?” Or maybe it’s simply the difference between being able to wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, Lord!” as opposed to rolling out of bed and saying, “Good Lord, it’s morning!”
All I know is that’s the kind of life I want – that is, the “Good morning, Lord” attitude, not the other (!) – especially now that I’m (shudder!) looking – eventually, mind you – toward my “third act.” I mean, like anybody else, have a vision in my mind’s eye of how life should be. But as I say, sometimes I do wonder about the way… of such abundance.
Of course, Madison Avenue and the ever shifting pop culture of this world would love not only to sell you on the idea of what abundant life looks like – you know, beauty, fun, romance, hope, identity, relationship, joy, community and popularity – but also that such things are attained through money and fashion and the perfect physique; by driving the best car, having the most up to date iPhone, and of course (and I hear this a lot on television), the ability and resources to “retire rich.” Even social media gets into the act: do you know that there’s been a move afoot to remove “like” buttons from sites like Facebook and Instagram – you know, the little “thumbs up” and “hearts” and “angry faces” that people put on your posts in re – in part because so many people have somehow placed their perception of personal popularity and success, or the complete lack thereof, on the basis of how many of those “likes” they’ve received, or conversely, on all the negative feedback they’ve received online; as though the meaning and abundance of a life could ever be determined by one’s identity on social media (my own podcast page on Facebook does currently have 107 followers, which is pretty cool, but I digress…)!
The point is that there’s so much in this world and the culture that purports to provide a life abundant, but as the saying goes, “It hits all the right notes, but it is not the song.” In fact, I’ll go one step further here: not only do these worldly efforts ultimately fail to bring life in any lasting or meaningful way – because it always ends up that the abundance that’s promised inevitably comes in the next big thing – it also tends to steal away the qualities of life that truly matter. It’s actually not unlike what Jesus was talking about in our text for this morning when he refers to “the thief [who] comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” We’re all seeking true life and to have it abundantly, but so often that which we desperately cling to for that purpose would rob us of that true life. When it comes to providing abundant life, these are the thieves, the bandits, the imposters or even potentially the hired hand (!) that would actively seek to put the sheep (that is, you and me) in danger; but the good news is that we do have a good shepherd. In the wonderful words of Nadia Bolz-Weber, “in a world where people are being fed spoonfuls of nonsense and told it is Jesus… we have a better Gospel.” And that better Gospel comes in the Good Shepherd who not only stands at the gate for the sheep but who is the gate, and who says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Let me just say at this point that this whole section of the 10th chapter of John, from which our text is drawn this morning is amongst the richest, most evocative and – at least in terms of point of view – one of the more perplexing passages in all of John’s Gospel. First Jesus talks about anyone not “not enter[ing] the sheepfold by the gate” (10:1) being a thief and a bandit; then it’s all about the gatekeeper whose voice the sheep recognize (v. 3), then, as we’ve said, it’s Jesus referring to himself as the gate (v. 9), and then, most prominently, it’s how he’s “the good shepherd” (v. 11) who knows and cares for his flock, even to the point of laying down his life. Jesus is coming at this particular parable at a whole lot of different angles – which is why we preachers tend to divide up these verses in our sermons (!) – but do you see the overarching theme of this whole metaphor of sheep and shepherd and sheepgate? It’s that Jesus is the one – the only one – who saves those sheep from all the predators of this world and who ever and always cares for the sheep that they have life and have it abundantly.
So… given all that, what is this way of life abundant that Jesus offers us? Actually, it’s all right there in Jesus’ words about shepherds and sheep, and it comes down to three things: protection, provision and presence. “That’s it,” writes Karoline Lewis of Lutheran Seminary. “Not observable opulence. Not assumed affluence. Not luxury or lavishness. No, it seems that abundant life, according to Jesus, is knowing that you will be safe and sound, trusting that your basic needs will be met, and believing that you are never alone.”
It’s worth noting here that Jesus’ words about the care of the good shepherd comes on the heels of Jesus (in chapter 9) having healed a man born blind – this man, who as you might remember, was reduced to begging at the pool of Siloam (9:1-9) – and by virtue of this healing was not only given the ability to see but also a whole new life; quoting Karoline Lewis again, even when afterward “the formerly blind man has been thrown out by the religious leaders,” (because remember, the Pharisees were not all that keen on the healing having taken place on the Sabbath), and even though he was “cast out again from community and exposed to the elements,” Jesus finds him and is there for him, bringing him the assurance of his protection, provision and presence (9:35) because that’s what it means to be part of Jesus’ flock; because that is the blessing of having Jesus with you always; because that’s what it is to truly have life and to have it abundantly.
It’s also why Jesus, almost immediately in John’s Gospel, responds to all of this by saying to all those people who were no doubt confused with Jesus’ mixed metaphor here (and here’s The Message version of this passage), “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep.” I am the Good Shepherd; I’m the one who will lay down my life for the sheep! “All those others are up to no good – sheep stealers, every one of them… 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.”
At the end of the day, you see – all through the day, in fact – the way of abundant life is that life spent with Jesus and his protection, provision and presence.
Like I said before… I do wonder at times about my life; about what the future holds for me, and for my family and all the people that I love. I know; it’s still “a ways” off yet, but I do think about retirement and what that’s going to look like and how we’ll manage; and like many of you, I suspect, in these ever changing and sometimes insanely crazy times I can’t help but worry a bit about what this world is going to look like for our children and grandchildren.
And truthfully, beloved, I wonder what’s going to happen with this church as the future unfolds in its unpredictable way. And don’t misunderstand me here; first of all, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon (!) but also because I don’t worry about this church. Oh, yes, we do have our concerns and challenges and uncertainties in this place; and not only would I be less than honest, I wouldn’t be any kind of a pastor if I didn’t confess that there’s not a year when I don’t fret a little bit about budget and offerings and how the rest of the building will get painted. But here’s the thing: I don’t worry because the Lord is our shepherd, our good shepherd, and he has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. And so just as I know in faith that the Lord will most certainly see me in and through everything that comes in my own life, I am convinced that as you and I walk the way together, East Church and the ministry that we share will not simply persist, but thrive; and that we will not merely exist in this world and in this life, but flourish… not only right here and now, not just in 2020, but “from season to changing season, from age to age the same.”
You see, the great joy of walking in “the Way” of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is that wherever we go, wherever we’re led, wherever the windy and twisted road of life takes us we’re never alone on the journey. And wherever that pathway goes and however long the journey, individually and collectively we walk as God’s children. We are known, beloved; known by the God who has created us in his image and for his great pleasure. We are loved with love unfathomable, we are protected along every step of the way in this life and eternally in the next. And we are provided for; provided all that we’ll ever need by the one who is the very source of all of our blessing. And we are strengthened and empowered by his very countenance; we have and shall always know our Lord’s presence times of trial and of rejoicing; so, as our Epistle reading for this morning puts it, “[we] may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
And if that is not life abundant, then nothing else can possibly be.
Beloved, may God bless you and me as we navigate all the joys, the challenges and the blessed uncertainties of this life. May God bless all of his creation with inspiration as it struggles to live with mercy and kindness, with humility and divine peace. May God bless his church – even this church – with power for love and to be Jesus’ disciples here on Mountain Road and beyond. And may God grant us all life that is truly abundant; with the wisdom and the spirit to walk the way ahead in faith and with all manner of joy.
And ever and always, as we do may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry