Scripture: John 10:1-10
Given on June 9th, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
We are all, each of us on a journey in search of peace. Each of us, from the moment we are born share in the profound awareness that things are not quite right either in our world or ourselves. Each of us, from the moment we are born, are removed from the Edenic innocence that we enjoy in our mother’s womb into a world in which the needs and desires of each person so often clash with the needs and desires of our neighbor, our sister, our brother until we find ourselves trapped in webs of relationality that determine that our relationships must be cast against the backdrop of competition for meaning and purpose. Every action we take, every thought we have, every moment becomes a greater and greater effort to ensure that our life means something. That in the end, the relatively short time that we have will be remembered by those closest to us for a long time. But each of us knows that this is a daunting challenge. To seek to derive ultimate meaning out of creation while viewing the time of one’s life against the whole of time and space, in a universe that is always expanding into a size not even comprehendible by the human mind, across the expanse of time in which in our rearview mirror we look back and see some 4 billion years and in the road forward some 100 billion years. We are, a single grain of sand on a cosmic beach that stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. Situated alongside our neighbors and their neighbors and their neighbors and so it goes and so it goes and so it goes. In our attempt to break out of this cycle of sand and time, we begin to try and place accidental parts of our lives at the center of our lives. The past four centuries of human history has seen the rise of racial identification, religious devotion, nationalistic endeavors, class warfare, oppression of our mothers and our sisters all in a effort to claim some grand and divine identity in which we matter while they don’t. We are fully children of God while they somehow weren’t. We are good, they are not. With the advent of the nuclear age, these questions took on a new desperation as we gained the ability to end much life and all conscious life on this planet over the course of a couple of minutes. One of the greatest discoveries in the history of humankind now on the precipice of ending humankind and all in search of the illusive rest that has been spoken about by the faithful from all religious communities since the beginning of time.
And in every time and place, in response to this conundrum, a question that rests at the heart of all other questions, “How are we to live?” In our own tradition, we see this question arise time and time again though it takes on many different guises. There is the story of the rich, young, ruler who comes to Jesus decrying the fact that he has lived within the tenets of his religious community since birth and still finds his life incomplete. Jesus’s response? “Follow me.” We see the teacher, Nicodemus, come to Jesus in the dark of night, plagued in his heart by the questions of the universe, not understanding how things have come to be as they are and yet still desiring to find peace in the midst of all the brokenness. Jesus’s response? “Follow me.” We see the tax collector and Zaccheus, and Saul and Peter, each incredibly broken people, struggling in the depths of their souls with the question, “How are we to live?” Jesus’s response? “Follow me.”
And in our gospel reading for today, we see Jesus answering the question that must have rested on the lips of each one of his followers, perpetually a half a second, a fraction of a millimeter from being asked, “How are we to live?” From the beginning they had each dropped everything they had been doing–jobs, families, friends, everything to follow in the path of this man who told them that they would eventually become fishers for people. What would ensue was a three-year roller coaster ride of ups and downs, of healings and sadness, of strangely uttered phrases and glimpses, moments of clarity that made everything make sense even if only for a split second. But maybe all this traveling, the lack of a permanent home, the lack of the security that comes with having gainful employment and a dependable familial structure, maybe all this was starting to get to them. Maybe they were beginning to lose the vision that was required to follow this Jesus guy to the ends of the earth. Maybe the increasing talk of death that Jesus seemed to become fixated on had spooked them a bit. Whatever the reason, Jesus gathered them together to attempt to reassure them. He begins by using an odd metaphor about sheep and a shepherd. At the heart of the message was the symbol of the right path taken by the sheep. On each side, sheep would be tempted to follow those that Jesus called “strangers.” But ultimately, the sheep will depart from the stranger because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice. Now each of the disciples must have had looks of confusion cast across their faces because Jesus realizes that his first telling has missed the mark, so he tries again. He puts a finer point on it. Except this time, Jesus is the gate through which the sheep must enter. Jesus, the one whom they have been following since he approached each of them and invited them to leave everything behind for the chance to change the course of history forever, Jesus is the way to a more peaceful experience, a more loving existence, a more hope-filled journey, a more abundant life. All those who enter through Jesus will find green pastures. But Jesus knows the challenges that face all people in this world. Jesus knows the struggles that each of us will have in our efforts to follow in his footsteps. Jesus knows the constant temptation to satiate our temporal needs with the stuff of this world. For each of us lurking just outside the gate is a thief, a thief who wants nothing more than to destroy, to dissuade, to draw the faithful from our path, from the path of holiness and rest. Jesus on the other hand has come that all those who follow him will experience life, and experience it in abundance. Those who follow Jesus will experience life, and experience it in abundance.
This is going to be a sermon series about what I have taken to calling “intentional spirituality.” I’m sure I did not coin the phrase and yet it has been the way that I have understood the journey that we are each called to go on when we make the decision to follow Jesus wherever he calls us. Over the next 10 weeks, we are going to talk about different aspects of the spiritual life, the struggles that we each face as individuals, the struggles we face as a community of the faithful here in this place and at this time. But, at the risk of spoiling the ending, there are two things that I want us all to leave this series having taken into our being. The first is that you matter. I know that we all can rationally affirm for ourselves that we matter. Who would occupy our place at the table during familial mealtimes, who would provide for my family, who would do the things that I do for my friends? I know that we can mentally accept that. But to spiritually accept that is a whole other challenge. In a world in which advertisers prey on the vulnerabilities and insecurities of people by convincing them that they are not good enough. In a world in which images of beauty and normalcy continue to be squeezed into an ever shrinking box forcing our daughters to grow up way too fast and giving our sons the message that women are there and have worth only for what they can do for them. In a world in which the quest for sustenance has become a competition in which to the victor goes the spoils while to the loser, hunger, illness, a permanent feeling of worthlessness. Compounded, that looks like over a billion people in the world who live off of a dollar or less a day. I cannot stress this enough, before any of those realities comes careening into your everyday existence, you matter. Not for what you can do but for who you are, a beloved child of God, known in the heart and light of God before the world was even conceived. You matter. The second thing I want us all to take into our being is this, what you do matters. There are almost 7 billion people on this relatively small planet in an immense galaxy. We all, you and me, occupy a small corner of the world and it is easy to be tricked into thinking that what you do has no effect on people around the world. We have, especially in western culture, built huge walls around ourselves to convince ourselves that what happens halfway around the world has little to do with us. For many, those walls collapse when tragedy strikes a garment factory in Bangladesh, or an earthquake strikes in Haiti, or the AIDS epidemic throughout Africa. And when those walls collapse, we can see, maybe for the first time, that what we do has a profound impact of persons whom we have never met. When we pray during times of confessions for the things we have done and left undone, we are aware both of our action towards and our lack of action on behalf of those that Jesus called the least of these. What you do matters because each of us has the ability to enact powerful change in the lives of countless people throughout the world and as a community, as a faithful community, each seeking to walk the path of Jesus, the possibilities are incalculable.
Jesus came that we might have life and have it in abundance but that means neither comfort nor ease. For none of the folks who followed Jesus was the path an easy one. For none of them was there a lack of heartache and pain. For none of the folks did the road laid out by Jesus a simple one. On the contrary, it was at times exhausting, at times, heartbreaking, at times deadly but it was also exhilarating, and blessed, and beautiful and hope-filled, and faithful and eventually they each could rest in the peace that they had given only what was necessary to follow Jesus–their whole being.
On Friday, I traveled to Silver Bay for a presbytery meeting and in the midst of the usual business of the group was paused before we broke for lunch to hear the story of an American woman who, with her husband, had spent over thirty years of her life living in Afghanistan. He was an ophthalmologist. She raised three daughters. For those who know their history this means that they arrived in Afghanistan a few years before the Russian invasion and were there through the US response to the Taliban following 9/11. Throughout the almost hour long message were stories of hospitals being blown up, her family gathering in their makeshift bomb shelter while her husband covered the opening with his body, face-to-face encounters with Al Qaeda, before reaching the part of the story we all knew was coming, while she had returned to the states to await the birth of their first grandchild, her husband, traveling through the Nuristan province was captured by rebel forces and he and his team were killed. But the part of her story that stuck with me was her reaction when folks would say to her, “what a waste.” She said that she would always respond with the same thing. “It’s not a waste,” she said. “It’s a tragedy, but it’s not a waste. No life following Jesus is ever a waste.”
Sisters and brothers, Jesus came that we might have life and have it in abundance. He came that we might follow him and see the world as he saw it. Each moment pregnant with hope and challenge and the Spirit of God always at work. Each moment a chance to change the world. Each moment a chance to unite ourselves with the God who sits at the base of time, the Spirit who draws us back to reunification with God, and the child, Jesus, who walks with us every step along the way giving us faith to see the movement of the spirit in our midst, hope that each moment we might better embrace and share the peace offered by God, and love that each thing we do each thought we have might overcome everything that separates us brother from brother and sister from sister. Faith, hope, and love now remain these three and the greatest of these is love. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, alleluia, Amen!