a sermon on abundant life

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 2:42-47 | Psalm 23 | John 10:1-10 

Today on the liturgical calendar is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Check out Psalm Twenty-Three illustrated by Tim Ladwig – a picture book we read with the children in worship this morning.

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Nogales, Arizona border

Every day it seems like there are more ways to keep people out, more ways to keep us apart. I don’t even need to spin out examples for you to imagine with me: the stories that teach us who are our people and who are “those people”… the invisible lines that show us where not to go, who not to speak to, on which side we belong… and the actual structures: buildings, neighborhoods, walls, gates – all built to make those invisible stories a concrete reality.

In a time when so many of us are suffering and despairing because of this alienation from God and from each other, it can be difficult to appreciate the image offered by today’s text: Christ as the gate.

“I am the gate for the sheep.”

It is tempting to pick apart the metaphor here. Tempting to go through, image by image and try to figure out: okay, so who are the sheep? and who is the thief? and okay, so we know Christ is the gate, but then there’s a gatekeeper…?

And it becomes even more complicated as you read on, past the section of the text that was assigned for this Sunday morning, onto the part that follows, where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

Okay, now it becomes clear: we’re not dealing with a one-for-one metaphor here; we’re not supposed to figure out who each character is. Rather than giving us an equation, it’s more like Jesus is painting us a picture… like the Psalm Twenty-Three book we read with the children this morning painted a picture of what God the Shepherd might be like for the two children living in the city. Jesus is helping us see the whole scene of who God is.

To understand why Jesus is painting this picture, we have to zoom out, and look back at what happens right before Jesus starts going on about the sheep and gates and shepherds.

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Chuy Region, Kyrgyzstan

To make sense of today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, we have to look back at a story we heard a few weeks ago on the fourth Sunday in Lent: the story of the person, born blind, who receives sight. Maybe you remember…

As Jesus walked along, he saw someone blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; he was born blind… Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes. The man went and washed his eyes, and came back able to see.

Now you may remember, if you were here on the fourth Sunday in Lent, that this was a long reading. Forty-one verses. The reading was so long that we decided weeks in advance that we would act it out in worship instead of reading it, to help us all pay attention. Forty. one. verses. of story about the man who receives his sight… but by verse seven the main event has already happened. A person who suffered for his entire existence, since the day he was born… forced to beg to survive once he became an adult… not only cast aside by his community, but blamed for his own suffering – that person has been restored!

This is really the point of the story, isn’t it? But thirty. four. more verses help us see what happens next. First the neighbors are confused and curious. Then the religious leaders call the man in for questioning: “This Jesus who changed your life couldn’t be from God, because he didn’t observe the sabbath.” Then, the religious leaders call in the parents, who are so afraid of being ejected from the community that they hardly say more than, “We don’t know anything, ask our child.” Then again the religious leaders call the man in: “Admit that this Jesus who healed you is a sinner!” And the man replies, “You’re missing the point. I don’t know whether he is a sinner. All I know is that I was blind, but now I see. If this Jesus weren’t from God, how could he do this?”

And the religious leaders drove the man out of the community.

The story ends right back where it began. The man (now with sight restored) is once again on the outside of the community.

And when Jesus heard that they had driven the man out,

Jesus went out to find him.

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The author of the gospel of John often follows a pattern like this: something miraculous happens, people discuss the thing that happened, and then Jesus monologues for a while to help us understand the bigger picture about who God is.

So now remember the picture that Jesus is painting in his monologue: the sheep living in safety… with a gate to let them in when they need to be safe, and letting them out when they need open pasture… the shepherd whose main priority is the sheep’s well-being… the thief who only cares about personal gain and doesn’t care about the life of the sheep… the picture becomes a little bit clearer.

Jesus is saying: My relationship to you is that I don’t want you to be hurt or cast out. I want to create a space for you where you can be safe, but also free. When there is anything keeping you afraid, or alone, or in pain, I want to take care of you – whether that’s blindness, or a community that despises blindness, or healing, or a community rejects healing. My priority is not anything more or anything less than making sure that you may have life, and have it abundantly.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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Last Sunday many of you participated in a Teach-In about the March to Springfield, the 15-day, 200-mile march from Chicago to Springfield that’s coming up next week, in which faith and community leaders are calling for a just Illinois state budget that puts People and Planet First. At the Teach-In, we had a chance to hear from one another about what each of us envisions when we think about “abundant life.” What would abundant life look like in our neighborhood, in the state budget, in the world?

You shared visions that didn’t sound too different from the vision of Christian community that we heard today in the reading from Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need…”

These days I think it is more important than ever to hold onto that vision of abundant life. To hold onto it and to share it with one another. In a time when things feel scarce – when we’re told stories about how there’s not enough for everyone and there’s nothing we can do about it – when we learn that some people are cast out and that’s just how it has to be – when so many of us are utterly weighed down by the vast expanse between the world we imagine and the world we experience every day… It is more important than ever to hang onto this word of hope from God: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

There’s a practice among the community organizers I work with that feels like hanging onto the hope for abundant life. The practice goes like this (maybe you’ve experienced this): someone is up in front of a room, telling a story about an injustice they’ve experienced in their life or the life of their community, and when they get to the part where the injustice happened, the community of people listening responds loudly, “That ain’t right!”

Let me tell you, the times that I’ve been up in front of a room telling my own story, especially the parts that are particularly painful, hearing that affirmation from my community, “That ain’t right!” feels good. It doesn’t feel like pity, or shame… It feels like good news.

“That ain’t right!” is a way of claiming over and over that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. It is a way of reminding each other that we were made for more. Yelling, “That ain’t right!” fills the air with sounds of solidarity, over and against the other voices (or silences) that might let us believe that we are getting what we deserve, or that what has happened to us is our own fault. 

In a way, “That ain’t right!” is giving voice to something that we feel already, deep down in our guts. Jesus says, “the sheep know the shepherd’s voice.” We already know what the voice of life sounds like. Our task is to tune our ears to that voice… to practice believing it… and to remind one another what it sounds like.

We know the voice of the shepherd. The voice of life sounds like Psalm 23:

I will take care of you
and provide for your needs
and will make you rest and restore you
and protect you when fear and death are all around
I will make a place for you at the table
and remind you that I love you
and I choose you
You will know 
goodness and mercy so deeply
like they’re your traveling companions
Like this whole life is being invited
to one big dinner party
in God’s house

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