Listening on the Journey


John 10:1-10 [Jesus said] “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

“(The Shepherd) calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

I have to admit, I had a hard time knowing and following the Shepherd’s voice this week. My difficulty started with the mundane frustrations that come with normal life. Stress about my looming final papers in school; panic at realizing it’s May, and my summer shorts don’t button; a fight with one of the kids, who retreated into the silent treatment; a quick drive-by from the depression demons, just to remind me that they still know where I live.

Nothing earth-shattering, just the awareness that I am not always the person I want to be… that the competence I like to project is sometimes a veneer over exhaustion, or fear, or just a bad mood. In fact, I started the week confronting just how much a need a Good Shepherd to follow, but also confronting how I don’t always want one.

Then the challenge got a lot harder than my petty problems. My ears were filled with wailing for the tragic loss of another young Black life. Jordan Edwards. A 15-year old boy shot for no reason; killed in front of his two innocent brothers, who then were treated like criminals.

I read an impassioned response to the shooting written by my fellow student at the Philadelphia seminary, Lenny Duncan – a man who has put himself and his story on the line to try to work within the system for progress around racial reconciliation. A faithful, committed Christian man who wrote this week about his conclusion that America has no conscience.[1] And I asked myself, as I read his lament: if Jordan’s brothers were in my congregation, how could I possibly preach to them this Sunday about a Good Shepherd who leads his sheep to abundant life.

And then I asked myself the same question about many of you, knowing how you are facing life circumstances that look anything but abundant: financial challenges, and broken relationships, and lost dreams, and frightening health conditions…

And then came Thursday, and the national developments that could make some of those health conditions a whole lot more challenging to manage… I watched my facebook feed fill up with stories of friends with pre-existing conditions… and I flashed back to my sister’s bankruptcy due to medical bills… and I felt so angry, and so powerless, and so confused…and the only prayers I could formulate on the National Day of Prayer were questions:

“God, why?

Why does this world have to be so broken?

Where is the abundant life Jesus talked about?

And how, in the tumult of all this noise of pain and fear, are we supposed to hear your voice?

This week knocked me face down in the messy pain of this world, staring at the questions of why suffering – the questions I couldn’t quite answer when I preached on the story of the man born blind during Lent....Which is ironic, because our gospel text today is a direct continuation of that story.

In case you missed that Sunday, (it happens, I know) John 9 tells the story of a man born without sight, who – for that reason – was assumed by the people around him to have been born in sin so severe that it required the devastation of blindness as a punishment.

But Jesus rejects that explanation, heals the man’s sight, and then goes on to reveal the blindness of the people who called him sinful – because that judgment was based on their desire to be able to arbitrate how God does and does not work; their authority to answer the “why” questions.

In my sermon on John 9, I told you all that “spiritual sight is not about having answers to every question, it’s about trust.”

I re-read that sermon this week, and I flinched. I flinched because I find it hard to trust the Good Shepherd when the evidence around me looks like the metaphorical thieves and bandits of life are invading the sheep fold, and people are getting hurt - people I love and people I know God loves.

And my instinct in response to that invasion is to tilt my ear to the voice that is marshalling a counter-attack. I want a general to yell “charge” and to see the troops pushing out the invaders. I want the world to feel like a safe place!

But instead, by the grace of God, this week I did hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, speaking through both expected, and unexpected channels.

On Thursday night, I went to the National Day of Prayer service in Montgomery, and I heard a Muslim brother talk about the upswell of fear in our country, but also about the way that people of faith practice what he called “the stubborn pursuit of hope.”[2]

And on Friday, I went to my regular yoga class, and the teacher did something she had never done before, starting our practice with an extended meditation, in which she encouraged us to let go of the expectations we are imposing on our world and our circumstances.

And all week, I spent time in the scriptures, in today’s scriptures about the Good Shepherd, and in several different psalms and epistles, and I heard the reminder that God’s abundance does not look like our expectations for abundance.

It doesn’t look like security against all pain and loss;

It doesn’t look like material opulence;

It doesn’t look like everything being good all the time.

Instead abundance looks like Psalm 23 – a psalm that starts beside the still waters, but also journeys through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s not a journey of peace and safety; It’s a journey that includes evil, and enemies, and even God’s disciplining rod;

And the reason the psalm is comforting, despite its honesty about what the journey of life really looks like, is the promise that we don’t walk the road alone. God walks with us, guiding, restoring, comforting – because there will be times we need comforting. This psalm speaks God’s promise that goodness and mercy will pursue us even more diligently than the thieves and the bandits do.

That is the promise of abundant life – not ease and perfect safety, but rather, as Karoline Lewis puts it, “God giving you what you absolutely need.”[3] And there are two things that I am sure we absolutely need.

The first is a Savior.

My own brokenness, and the fear and pain I have witnessed this week are evidence if I ever needed it. We humans make a mess of things. We hurt each other, and we divide into opposing sides that are incapable of listening, and we return evil for evil, or at least we want to.

But Jesus…. Well, 1 Peter[4] tells us “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”[5]

While that verse is sometimes misused to tell victims of abuse to suffer quietly, the point is actually that Jesus’s example rejects the systems and power struggles that produce unjust suffering by appealing to God’s justice – a justice that super-cedes any human claims to authority, and reminds us of God’s promise to FREE US – from our own sins and the sins of others.

We don’t need a general to lead the troops against those we see as our enemies.

We need a savior who heals our wounds, by bearing those wounds in his own body – and who, by doing so, shows us another way. A way based on trust in the one who judges justly.

When we follow that way, it leads us to the second thing I know that we need - It leads us to true community.

Sheep are not solitary creatures. They live in flocks, which is one of the reasons, I think, that scripture so often uses this metaphor for the people of God. We need each other. If for no other reason, than that communities of loving trust give us a glimpse of what God’s justice really looks like.

It looks, for one example, like the community in Acts chapter 2.[6] A community that made sure everyone’s needs were met; and a community that spent time together in worship, and at meals; and a community characterized by “glad and generous hearts, praising God.”

It wasn’t a safe community, as a reading of the next few chapters of Acts will tell you, but it was an abundant one.

When I am honest, I confess that this is often not the abundant life I think I want. I want to know, without having to trust; I want the freedom and the perfect community, without the vulnerability to pain; I want to dwell in the house of the Lord now, without the journey through the valley.

But that’s not what I absolutely need. What I absolutely need is Jesus, and the community Jesus gives us all to learn together how to trust our Good Shepherd to lead us to true abundance. What I need, by God’s grace, is the trust to keep following that voice with all of you.

Let us listen together. Do you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd? I think I hear him calling us to “the stubborn pursuit of hope.” Thanks be to God.

Footnotes:

[1] Lenny’s article in published online and can be read here: https://medium.com/@lennyaduncan/america-has-no-conscience-8df56a2a4d47.

[2] Mr. Salim Manzar.

[3] Karoline Lewis, “Abundant Life” www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4873 (accessed 5/1/2017).

[4] The second reading for the day is 1 Peter 2:19-25.

[5] 1 Peter 2:23

[6] The first reading of the day is Acts 2:42-47.

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