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The Way… of Life Abundant

(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

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2019 in Jesus, Life, Sermon, Sermon Series, Stewardship

 

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Listening Sheep

sheep(a sermon for April 17, 2016, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30)

Last week, as you’ll recall, we told a story about an ill-fated pet duck named Harriet; and today as the sermon title suggests, we’ll be talking a fair amount about sheep. But first; I want to tell you a story about a barking… pig!

That’s right; a barking pig!  The story comes from Robert Fulghum’s wonderful book of essays entitled, “Uh-Oh,” about a kindergarten stage production of “Cinderella.” It seems that when the teacher in charge was handing out parts to all the children in the class, at the end there was this one little boy whose name was Norman.  And when the teacher asked Norman what part he wanted, he answered, “the pig.” To which the teacher replied, “But there’s no pig in this story!”  But in that way that only little kids can be, Norman was steadfast: “There is now!” he said. And so there was.

Actually, it turned out to be a pretty successful bit of casting: Norman, all dressed up as a pig, walked on-stage with Cinderella; making no sound at all, but sat on his haunches and observed what was going on with great earnestness, sincerity and even gravity.  But then, come the climax of the play – that moment with the prince places the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot and everyone lives happily ever after – Norman the pig went wild with joy, dancing on his hind legs and breaking his silence by barking!  Well, as you might imagine that was a bit much for the teacher/director, and so she pulled Norman aside to explain that even if there were a pig in the story of Cinderella, pigs don’t bark!  But Norman insisted: “This one does,” he said. And so it did!

And at the curtain call, guess who received the standing ovation?  That’s right, it was Norman the barking pig!  This, writes Fulghum, was the real “rags to riches” story: not that of Cinderella, the one who passively waited for fairy godmothers and handsome princes to rescue her from drudgery, but rather of Norman the barking pig, this one who actively followed and truly listened to what was going on; and who heard the good news and responded with utter and all-encompassing joy!

I wonder if sometimes in our own walk of Christian discipleship you and I tend to be a little more like Cinderella and a whole lot less like Norman!  So often, it seems, we treat our relationship with God and the life of faith in a way that’s actually very passive: essentially, we wait; we wait to see what God might do for us, rather than investing ourselves in a living faith; we proceed on the assumption that all you and I really have to do is stand idly by and wait to be led!

I suppose that in one sense it does kind of fit our whole idea of faith: after all, weren’t we all just assured a little while ago that “the LORD is [our] shepherd” who leads us beside still waters and will be with us “even though [we] walk through the darkest valley?”  Truly, of the many images that scripture offers us to help us understand our relationship with the Almighty God, this one – that of our being the sheep of God’s pasture with the Lord as our Shepherd – is the one that seems to offer up the most comfort and strength; it’s one of our most powerful reminders of God’s constant care and sustaining love from life to light to life!

So yes… it’s good to be the sheep!  And yet…

For us, sometimes, it can be a little troubling as well.  More than once over the years after having preached on one of these “sheep centric” passages of scripture, someone has come up to me after worship to complain that they really would prefer not to be thought of as sheep!  After all, they say, sheep aren’t incredibly bright animals; they’re pretty skittish, that is, very shy in nature and easily frightened; moreover, they have a tendency to be incredibly stubborn, and if one sheep does something foolish or life-threatening, the chances are very good that the rest of the flock will follow right on behind. The truth about sheep is that they will rarely do anything without having been led to do it!

Maybe you remember a classic “Far Side” cartoon from many years ago that pictures a flock of sheep gathered at some kind of reception, all of them standing there with drinks in their hands.  There’s a buffet table off to one side, balloons hanging up on the other; but the sheep are just standing around looking socially inept, not knowing what to do or what to say. But there’s also a dog entering the door, giving a hearty wave; and in the foreground, one sheep says to the other, “Thank goodness, a Border Collie just arrived.  I was worried this party would never get off the ground!”

You and I don’t like to think of ourselves like that!  Whatever else might be said of us, one thing is for sure, we’re certainly not dumb, foolish, dependent sheep that need to be led everywhere in order to survive anything!  We’re strong, independent, free thinking people who make our own choices, thank you very much, and we go our own way, even if occasionally – okay, more than occasionally – we’ll find ourselves headed down some dark and difficult pathways and end up kind of, well… lost and sometimes all alone. But it’s okay… we can handle this… we can get through it… except… when we can’t. Except when the journey becomes so arduous, and so conflicted that we can’t possibly make the way alone; when we start fearing the worst about everything and everyone, and every step takes us deeper into the darkest of valleys. So, okay then… maybe we do need someone to help us, to guide us and to give us comfort… someone like a shepherd, a good shepherd of the sheep.  So what do you know?  That does make all of us like sheep after all.

But, friends… not sheep in an idle, passive, “Cinderella” kind of way.  I’m talking here about sheep who listen; sheep who actively seek out and listen for the voice of their good shepherd, and who then gladly and joyfully receive his leading.  It’s only in listening, you see, that they know to follow!

Actually, this is also a very real trait that sheep possess.  Even today, shepherds in the Middle East, in order to gather their flocks into the sheepfold at night (and also to get them back out to pasture the next day), will call their sheep by name! And, yes, it’s true: the sheep do hear the voice of “their” shepherd; they actively listen for that one voice, and when they hear it and recognize it, then and only then will they follow. So the sheep are not being passive at all, but in their own simple way, being very faithful; because they know and trust that “their” shepherd will care for them in every way.  And they know this to be true because they have already heard his voice!

Our gospel reading for this morning takes place at the feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem (in the winter, we’re told by John; so it was during Hanukkah, likely in December!), and as Jesus is walking in the temple, the Jews – presumably the elders of the temple, who were already quite perplexed by Jesus and what he might represent – ask him, “How long will keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  And Jesus has a simple answer that probably raised more questions for them than it answered:  I told you already, but you don’t believe; and you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. “My sheep,” Jesus says, “hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  They know me; they know that I will give them eternal life, that they will never perish, and that they will never be snatched away.

Do you see what’s happening here?  Jesus confirms for us, once and for all, that we do indeed have a “Good Shepherd” who will be there with us and protect us from all harm, and that we will know his voice; but inherent in that is the need for each one of us as his sheep to truly and actively listen for that voice!  I dare say that this is the challenge for most of us who would claim our place as members of Jesus’ flock of sheep and who would seek to follow him as his disciples: to listen so closely and intensely for the voice of the Good Shepherd that we’ll recognize it when we hear it; and rather than being some passive act, it ends up becoming one of the most faithful things you and I will ever do on any given day!

When we are truly listening for God’s voice, it means that we are seeking to be attentive to something larger and greater than ourselves… and that affects the way we live our lives, most especially in the spiritual sense.  It changes the the way we pray; because it moves us from endless speaking to silent anticipation; it means our being bold enough to cease being in control of things and letting the Lord lead (and we all know how hard a thing that can be for any of us!). Actively listening for God’s voice also has a way of making us more discerning; much more selective as to what we’re listening to.  For what with all the confusing voices that are ever and always clamoring for our attention and allegiance, amidst all the noise of this world one has to be attentive in order to hear the right voice!

What with having a “full house” of family over the past couple of weeks, as you can imagine, things can get a little hectic and pretty noisy!  At times, I’ve been reminded of those days when all three of our kids were very small, and every night there would be what we used to refer to as “zoo time;” when you’re trying to get these kids fed, and bathed and to bed while simultaneously keeping your own wits about you!  I mean, the kids are running around playing, fighting and working off some of their energy, the TV might be going and the phone’s ringing, and there’s also noise coming from the kitchen: absolute chaos, and next to impossible to hear anything; and I will freely admit to you all these years later that there were nights that all we wanted and literally yearned for was… quiet!  And yet, what I also remember about those days is that in the midst of that chaos – if we were truly willing to stop and really listen for it – there were in the voices of our children words and expressions of love, laughter and life as it is truly meant to be lived.  Granted, it often took some straining to hear it somewhere above the din, but with effort and close attention, it was there; and I can tell you that we’re sure glad we didn’t miss it.

And so it is with our relationship with God; there is so much of infinite value that God has to share with us, but amidst the rest of the world’s noise, it takes effort to be able to discern it. As Frederick Beuchner puts it, “God speaks to us… much more than we realize or than we choose to realize… who knows what [God] will say to me today or to you today, or into the midst of what kind of unlikely moments [God] will choose to say it.”

“Our days,” Beuchner says, “are full of nonsense, and yet not, because it is precisely into the nonsense of our days that God speaks to us words of great significance… and the words that he says, to each of us differently, are be brave… be merciful…feed my lambs… press on toward the goal.

In this world it is admittedly much easier, and very tempting, to be a passive follower; just waiting idly to see how it all will work out or a least be watching to see what all the other sheep do.  But to be a faithful sheep is to be a listening sheep; it means to turn our ears and our hearts to a voice that rises far above the noise that too often surrounds us; it means to hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd who calls us each by name.

It might well require some concentrated effort on our part; but when we hear that voice at last, it will most certainly be an occasion for joyous shouting, singing and maybe even some barking (!)… for this will be the voice of the one who will give us life the way it is meant to be lived now and forever; for “surely goodness and mercy shall follow [us] all the days of our lives, and [we] shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

So let us listen…

And may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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