Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley.
May 7 – 4th Sunday in Easter
“Sheep Grace”. Text is from John 10:1-10
Good morning to you my sisters and brothers in Christ, saints and sinners, children of God.
For the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the post-resurrection visions of Jesus, but now we’ve taken a step back. At this point in our cycle we come to the week 3 weeks after Resurrection Sunday that we commonly refer to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
Our text from John comes right after the account of the man born blind in which Jesus heals a man blind from birth. This account takes up an entire chapter, and finally ends with the Pharasees throwing the man born blind out of the temple, for basically being honest with them, and then Jesus is speaking to them:
‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
It is at this point that Jesus moves into the beginning of the shepherd discourse by describing a gatekeeper and the sheep and the thief. He tells them that the gatekeeper is the only entrance to the pen and the gatekeeper is the only one who opens it. That those who enter the sheepfold any other way can only be thieves or bandits come to steal the sheep away. That the sheep only know the sound of the gatekeeper’s voice, and only listen to the gatekeeper because the gatekeeper knows them by name. That the stranger’s voice will cause the sheep to run away.
Jesus has to further explain these metaphors because the listeners don’t understand what he is saying. That when he talks about a gatekeeper he is talking about himself. That when he opens the gate that the sheep who pass through his gate discover salvation and find good pasture. That when he talks about a thief he is talking about someone who will steal the sheep away and kill them.
And then he tells them how the sheep who follow him, the gatekeeper, will have abundant life. Later on, after our passage, Jesus tells them that he will lay down his life for them. He also tells them that there are other sheep who are not among this fold that he will bring in as well.
So the allusions are clear. Jesus is telling his followers, the Pharisees, and everyone else who is listening, and in turn, us, that he is the way to salvation. That he paid the price for being that way to salvation. And he is also telling us that there are other voices out there that aren’t him. Voices that will try to steal us, and lead us astray. But that he knows us by name. And that those who are being saved know his voice. And finally he offers life, abundant life.
It may be easy to get caught up in those two words, there at the end, abundant life, because being human, we think of things materially. What do you think of when you hear them? I think having enough finances, having a large house, enough to take care of one’s self without having to want or need ever again. Honestly, after having paid last year’s taxes, and dealing with two months of pain since I broke my left arm, I have a few ideas of what material abundance might be…because it involves financial security and freedom from constant and nagging pain.
This is why preachers who preach the prosperity gospel are so lucrative. The prosperity gospel for those of you who don’t now it is the idea that Jesus wants everyone to have material things, in this world. It seems to me to be a twisting of scripture passages in order to make certain people wealthy, and if you’ve ever seen pictures of Joel Osteen’s house, you might know what I am talking about. But when Jesus tells us about abundant life, he is not talking about bank accounts, property or stocks and bonds.
Jesus has just taken a man who has been begging for all of his life, and given him the sight he has never experienced, so that the man turns to follow Jesus. What the man now has is an ability to govern his own needs and to experience salvation of the kind that Jesus describes…and life without end. And life with the comfort and presence of God holding us close.
And so why does it become so easy to be swayed by the promises of wealth and security? Because so many of us lack both of those, and we see those around us that have those things. It’s why playing the lottery becomes so appealing, despite the scientific evidence that according to the numbers, you will inevitably lose more than you put in, and only a very small percentage of people will actually win. But those people are the ones we hear about, because those are the ones with the compelling stories.
But those stories always have another side. Because for every one who makes it, there are a multiple of others that fall through the cracks. The United States is a wealthy nation, but one where the riches are concentrated among a very few. We are a nation where poverty and food insecurity means not that children are emaciated but that we have an obesity problem, because affordable meals for the very poorest are those that are the most filling, most caloric, and least nutritious. Health problems are on the rise but those that receive the worst nutrition are also among those unable to receive simple preventative medical care.
And yet, millions of other families in the world are suffering the opposite. Children are dying of starvation in places like South Sudan. It is easy to mistake the abundance of riches in places like the United States for being God’s fortune when you look at abundance with a material perspective, but how can we be any kind of *great* nation when we categorically ignore the crying out of the earth around us and allow such misery to take place, both within our borders and without. So if you want to tell me that abundance means that we can sit on our thrones and be wealthy while there are others in the world who suffer? That doesn’t sound like the voice of my good shepherd. That sounds like the voice of the destroyer, the one who leads the sheep astray.
And so, in this world, what do we need to recognize the voice of the good shepherd? How do we discern the love of Jesus calling to us amidst the cacophony of voices that would lead us with promises of riches and wealth and all sorts of other things that pretend to make us happy? What does it mean to live in a world where Good News and abundant life means not that we have won the Mega Millions in the lottery but that we have finally heard the voice of Jesus Christ, and discovered happiness, security, and the provenance of spiritual gifts.
Do you recognize the voice of the good shepherd over all the other voices? One particular thing that comes to mind for me is conspicuous consumption, because here it becomes hard to live without sin for almost any of us. If you drive a car regularly, if you eat anything but locally processed foods, if you use electricity or even any modern cellphone or a computer, you are already contributing to the decline of the ecosystem and the oppression of underpaid labor in foreign nations. Please let us be clear, I count myself among the afflicted of this particular sin of conspicuous consumption. It is a sin I believe very few of us can escape.
Does that mean that the gate that Jesus describes is closed to us? Pastor Sharon and I had a discussion about this particular thing a couple of weeks ago, and I don’t know which one came up with this term.
We are forgiven. When we lay our sins down before our lord and seek his absolution we acknowledge those sins we may not be aware of, but being aware of this we acknowledge it as well. Being aware of this sin, we try to do better. When we don’t have to drive down the street, we can ride a bicycle or walk instead. We can take five minutes less online, we can turn off our cellphones for a while, and disconnect from the web. We hear the voice of our shepherd and follow him.
Jesus has laid down his life for us that we may be among the flock who enters in. The good news is that we do hear his voice. We are granted a measure of joy and Jesus has earned for us our salvation. And abundance means not for us the comfort of material wealth by the faith that our spiritual needs are fulfilled and God is with us, now, and forever.