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Sheep Grace-Sermon on John 10:1-10

Jesus is the gatekeeper. Watch out for thieves and bandits. And remember, we recognize his voice even if we don’t always listen.
This sermon is quite a bit different from how it was written, therefore, please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The sermon notes which are included for convenience.  

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.2 Sheep at the 2016 California State Fair
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.
SHEEP GRACE.
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.
Amen.

Government by dictionary

The job of the state is not to uphold the dictionary of the English language. Any argument about “changing the definition of marriage” doesn’t take into account the fact that sociologically speaking, marriage has been defined as a union between two people for some fifty years now, or that marriage rites have been performed for same-sex couples, whether blessed by the state or not, by a increasing amount of churches each and every year. The fact is the language is reflective of society’s definitions, not the other way around. Marriage already includes, legally, same-sex unions in two English speaking countries (Canada and South Africa) where the effective definition has already changed. I’m certain that debates about changing the dictionary in the great halls of Oxford and Cambridge and Webster are already well under way. What argument will these people have when the definition in the dictionary is reflective of society as a whole and the legal system?

Hope and disappointment

I voted for the Green Party candidate, Cynthia McKinney, out of principal. I am, however grateful that Barack Obama won the presidency. It means that Americans are starting to change.

However, the Proposition 8, a measure that writes discrimination into the California State constitution, also passed, ending the rights of same-sex couples to marry. The surge of black voters who came to the polls and voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama also has a great deal to do with the bigotry that is setting our country back. It seems it’s perfectly acceptable to most black voters to deny rights to other minorities, in California, in Florida, and everywhere. God bless the 30% or so of black voters who voted against Proposition 8. For the others, and every voter who was duped by lying messages from preachers, may you immediately learn what you have done and feel your guilt.

To the church organizations who forwarded this measure, the Knights of Columbus, the Mormon Church, and the rest who spent well over $30 million on pushing this discriminatory measure, may you be bankrupt. If there are temples led by serpents and demons, you are it. This is how you spend your money, on deception and lies that lead people to vote against their own conscience? Shame on you.

You think you deserve a tax exempt status in your bid to limit religious freedom?

The truth in the lies of California’s Proposition 8

I get increasingly horrified by the frighteningly bizarre beliefs of some of the conservative Christian proponents of Proposition 8. This goes beyond anger, when I realize that there is a deep-seated belief in some people that what should be considered the advancement of humanity in the realization that all of God‘s children are equal is being considered a sign of the apocalypse.

Franciscans for Same-sex Marriage
by Alex Handy from Oakland California,
available under the CC-by-sa 2.0license

I was reading an article where one couple (the wife identified as Sara Havranek), who has to watch every penny because the wife isn’t working and has to raise their five children, has donated $1,100 to support Proposition 8. Any Christian who has studied His teachings knows that Jesus Christ would tell Sara to feed their children or give it to feed the poor or help illness, and not use it to put forward such a vile, evil amendment.

But what really gets me is that there are people like Lou Engle who is holding prayer rallies and instructing his followers to pray and fast for up to 40 days before the election for the proposition to pass. I quote:

“We believe there is a spiritual battle in an unseen realm, and that’s why I’ve called for united prayer for divine intervention,” Mr. Engle said. “It’s a defining moment for the definition of marriage in American history.”

So what about the masses of people who spend time praying for the proposition to fail? Do these people think He will shine His divine light and cause the undecided among us to vote one way or another because more people pray for it? Do they really think that God doesn’t see what’s going on; or do they really think he doesn’t care unless they make it a point to suffer for Him?

I’m going to take a few minutes to debunking the great untruths that have come up in the pro-Proposition 8 side. Maybe you’ve already heard some of these, so bear with me.

  1. Children will or won’t be be taught about same-sex marriage whether or not Proposition 8 passes. Strangely enough, there’s nothing in Proposition 8 about education. And there’s nothing in California’s educational curricula about marriage at all. If a school program is going to teach children about same-sex marriage, it’s going to happen whether same-sex marriage is legal in California or not.
  2. Churches will not lose their tax exempt status if they don’t provide same-sex ceremonies Churches and ministers are entitled to bless or reject any service they damn well want. I cannot take communion in a Catholic Church because I wasn’t baptized Catholic. A Christian minister can refuse to marry a Christian to a Jewish person or an Athiest, if he so chooses, and nobody can file against him. Furthermore, there are ample Christian ministers who will perform the rites that there is no reason why anyone would even want to be married in a church that would willingly refuse them.
  3. The Church does not have a vested interest in legal definition of marriage. This seems to be the hardest one to get through people’s heads, but it is a simple fact. People have confused tradition to be religious scripture. There’s nothing in the Revelations of John about same-sex marriage; and there’s very little in the new testament discussion it. What is at issue is that people fear that their long-held views about the so-called sin of homosexuality in general are being thwarted left and right. But the person who bases his/her entire faith on declaring what God hates based on some flimsy, at best, passages from the bible without even consulting what Jesus Christ spoke about, has no credible faith to begin with. There’s far more in the Good Book about the sin of divorce than about “a man who lyeth with a man”, but you don’t see people going out and passing resolutions declaring divorce (which is inherently the greatest enemy of marriage) against the Constitution.

I read articles about people who spend their life savings donating to this hateful campaign, and people who demand periods of prayer and fasting and it motivates me to write, but whether the Proposition passes or fails won’t have anything to do with God’s will; but the campaign continues to demonstrate that evil can be done in the name of God, even by people who think they’re doing good.

Death of Barry

I’m depressed—and have been for several weeks. I was told yesterday that I was probably going through a grieving process for my friend Barry, who died a month ago. I certainly don’t feel as if I’m grieving.

I have known Barry since 1995. I met him in a twelve-step fellowship. Both of us were working on our drug addiction—me with crystal meth, Barry, opiates. We have always had a thing for each other. We have never been able to consummate that, because I’ve been in a relationship with Michael for most of the time we’ve known each other.

Barry left Fort Lauderdale to move in with a boyfriend in Houston a few years back. Things didn’t work out so well and Barry wound up back in Fort Lauderdale. I had heard about his return, but didn’t get a chance to catch up with him. Before long, I heard that Barry was in the hospital, for pancreatitis; brought on by his HIV medications.

I finally got the nerve up to ask his roommate, Carla for his room number at Imperial Point Medical Center. I stopped by for a visit. He was delighted to see me, so much that he ran to the bathroom—to put his teeth in. I spent much of the afternoon there with him, catching up on our lives. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that I went back the next day to spend some more time with him.

We had begun making plans for when he was going to be out of the hospital when he developed a staph infection. He had fever spikes of close to 104°F (40°C) and developed a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics. They dosed him with Benadryl and Demerol, a combination that made communication with him difficult at best. At one point Barry told me he had a conversation with an Angel of God, who told him that God would be coming for him soon and to put his affairs in order.

After that, spending time with Barry was bittersweet. We still enjoyed each other’s company, but he had come into the hospital off of his anti-depressants, and his morale continued to sink. I had come to really love the guy, and did everything I could to bring his spirits up, but it seemed it was always after he’d been given another big dose of Demerol; and I think that very little of what I said actually got through to him.

Learning to eat again had proven too much of an effort, and he received his nutrients through an IV tube—the likely source of the initial staph infection and those subsequent ones. The nurses were free with the painkillers, too; and Barry wasn’t stopping them from coming. He had already decided, it seemed, that life was too difficult; and at this point nothing anyone said would get through to him.

I am certain that up until his last week at the hospital, if they had stopped feeding him pain meds and had given him counseling, Barry would still be alive. I cannot be convinced otherwise. But even I had to admit he was gone when I visited him at home, under the care of a Hospice agency. I walked in the door and he briefly glanced at me in recognition before he returned to frolic in his morphine-induced Elysian Fields. Maybe he heard me when I that I wouldn’t think less of him if he decided to leave, but I thought he could still come back. I went on to thank him for the time we spent together, and how glad I was that we managed to become a part of each other’s lives.

Then I left; angry at the hospital, his doctor, all of his nurses, the hospice agency…and I held them responsible parties in Barry’s suicide.

He died the next morning. Not of pancreatitis, a staph infection, or any other AIDS related illness but starvation and dehydration. His body simply stopped functioning.

I didn’t attend his memorial service a few weeks ago. I had to stay away.

I hate Imperial Point Medical Center right now—Barry is not the first person I’ve loved who died while in their care. However, the only thing I can do is ensure that I, myself will not be given any mentally debilitating painkillers to ease my journey to the River Styx. I believe in miracles and the mind, and that our mental attitude is a source of healing strength as much as any medication.

I will also not want to deny my loved ones the opportunity to commune with me should I truly be mortally ill.

About Michael

I need to explain a little about the man I call my partner, Michael. I’ve already mentioned that he was arrested in 2002. Right now, he’s serving a prison sentence at the Federal Work Camp at Eglin Air Force Base up in the Florida panhandle. He’ll be out in September 2005, based on his own calculations.

Michael H. and I at Eglin 2004

I met Mike on October 30, 1994, while I was cruising for sex in Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. I was riding my bicycle, and it just so happened he was riding a bicycle as well, and…we sat down under a tree and hit it off. We moved in together “officially” in March of 1995.

In 1997 we bought a house together. We were in love. We had it all. We could afford to make the leap into drug addiction together. We started out with cocaine, but soon the availability of crystal methamphetamine made that drug impossible to resist.

I wasn’t able to get totally clean until 2001; but Mike wasn’t finished. Let’s just say that in the meantime, he was dealing a large amount to support his habit. I was not entirely aware of the dealing, and the ready access of money made it easy for me to keep looking the other way.

Like all easy things, this had to come to an end. One night in June of 2002, I couldn’t look the other way at his heavy drug use any longer. I decided to leave him and made one last prayer that he would get the message. The next day, Michael got popped in the parking lot of Lowe’s by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

I stood by him, and relished the seven months that he was home, between his making bond and then delivering him to his prison sentence. I’m still here, trying to pay the mortgage in the hopes that we’ll have a home when he gets out. I’m happy alone, though. I’m not pining for him. When he comes home next autumn, we’ll take it from there—either start a new relationship between us or sort things out and go our separate ways.

I miss him—I can’t deny it, and I really do love him.

A reason to blog

I have promised that I would use this blog as an instrument for working my writing muscles. However, one of my biggest difficulties as a person with ADD is coming up with an interesting topic on a regular basis.

I would rather not rant daily about what’s bothering me. I am not a huge knot of negativity and would rather not people view me that way. I should not like to spend time here criticizing everything and everybody and yet doing nothing to better my own world.

Whether many readers find my daily musings interesting is actually somewhat incidental. My ego would have me send this link to all of my friends and expect them to keep up with me regularly. Ultimately, I need to do this—to express myself continuously, stringing together word after word until I am able to gather complete thoughts together to form an article.

I may yet send this link to everyone in my email list.

37½

Today’s my 37½ birthday. Midway between 35 and 40. The beginning of my late 30’s. All right, I’m officially middle-aged. I kind of like looking Daddy-ish. I like having a moustache and being able to trim it down or grow it long, and I like having a bare chin again. I’ll get tired of the look soon, and probably grow a beard back, but today it works for me.

Today I accomplished one thing: my appeal of denial letter to United Health Care. Way back in 2002, my health insurance was covered under my lover’s plan as domestic partner. He got arrested for PWID of 690 grams of crystal methamphetamine in June of that year and subsequently fired from his job, whereupon our health benefits stopped. Fortunately, I was employed at the time and was able to acquire health benefits on my own, with—who else?—United Health Care!

Here it gets interesting. I filled out the paperwork initially showing my prior coverage accurately. A saw my doctor as normal. He prescribed routine bloodwork (as normal). I shortly get a letter in the mail telling me that this stuff was denied due to a preexisting condition. Since I’ve had consistent health insurance since 1991, I knew someone was mistaken. I called the company and they told me I had to send them this arcane document known as a Certificate of Coverage from the other insurance company.

Question: “What other insurance company? Why do I have to be the middle man?”

Answer: Because in spite of all common sense dictating otherwise, the Claim Denial Department of United Healthcare won’t spend an extra little five minutes to find out if I was, in fact, covered by the same company.

Alas, I’ve spent hours on the phone over the past year and a half, and haven’t really listened to the suggestions of their programmed telephone reps. You see, I have ADD, and I have a really hard time doing things that don’t make any sense. But today, I did what they said—wrote a letter of appeal to their Appeals Department.

Let’s see if that lights a fire under their asses. Ta-ta for today.

It had to happen

Today, I started my blog. Thank you, GeekSlut, you’ve inspired me. Thanks for the helping hand, too.

Yes, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Kris Henry was the first person I personally knew involved in blogging. Go visit the site GalaxyGoo and get lost for a while. Being a writer, however, I knew that eventually the time would come that I’d be ready myself.

I’m certain to be writing a lot more here, but for now, let me just pump my story, “Eight Hours a Year”, featured in the new anthology Law of Desire: Tales of Gay Male Lust and Obsession.

So long for now.

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