The Revised Common Lectionary, which most pastors and preachers follow in our tradition, repeats every three years. The texts don’t change, but the way we hear them is different every time. God continues to speak through these texts to this people in this place at this time and in these current circumstances. The text doesn’t change, but the circumstances do.
Six years ago, for instance, today’s gospel text spoke to me powerfully and deeply in ways I could never have foreseen.
Only two days before preaching this text, I had presided over a memorial service for Meghan Brown, the daughter of some our closest friends, a young woman who had grown up with our kids.
I had performed her wedding two years earlier, which gave her death an extra layer of pain for me and a feeling of something like guilt, because she was murdered by her husband, the man I had united her to in marriage.
When I came to the part of today’s gospel where Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” it just wrecked me.
But then I thought about her memorial service. I thought about the church filled to capacity with people who had been touched by her, whose lives had interconnected with hers and with ours. I thought about how they had all come “back to church” for her, back to the Christ-centered starting point where all our relationships had begun.
I thought about how in that service, despite the pain and anger and sadness that had brought us there, we experienced the joy and comfort of the abundant life we had all shared over the years. And I realized that our abundant life continues. I realized that Meghan’s abundant life continues, that she lives on in the hearts and memories of her friends and family and in the loving presence and heart of Christ.
Three years ago, when this gospel text came up for the 4th Sunday of Easter, we were still in the very early days of the Covid 19 pandemic lockdown. Talking about the abundant life seemed like the apex of irony when we were sequestered in our homes and hearing about thousands of deaths every day. But our abundant life together continued in spite of our enforced isolation. We found ways to continue our worship and education online and even discovered that our after-worship fellowship time had a unique advantage because everyone was able see everyone all at once and speak to everyone all at once, taking turns in the conversation.
The text is the same but we hear it differently because of what is going on in our lives and in our world.
What’s influencing the way you hear the text this year?
One of the downsides of preaching the lectionary is that the lectionary sometimes isolates sections of a text from its fuller context. The fourth Sunday of Easter, for example, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, so the lectionary each year takes a different section of chapter ten from John’s gospel where Jesus uses shepherd and sheep imagery. We get a different part of chapter 10 each year, but all these fragments are part of a larger unit, a larger story being told in John, that starts at the beginning of chapter nine and doesn’t end until verse 21 of chapter 10.
This is the story of Jesus healing the man born blind, and the events of the story that’s told in chapter nine play out in and give meaning to the cryptic shepherd imagery Jesus uses in chapter 10.
After Jesus gives the blind man his sight, some Pharisees are upset because Jesus healed on the Sabbath. By the time we get to the end of this story in verse 21 of chapter 10, some of them are accusing Jesus of having a demon and being out of his mind. Others, however, noted that a demon wouldn’t say the things Jesus has been saying and that a demon certainly wouldn’t open the eyes of the blind.
They heard the same words but they heard them differently.
When the formerly blind man tells his interrogators that Jesus is a prophet, they drive him out of the temple. He’s gets booted out of his lifelong flock but in that same moment he is received into another flock.
He has been kicked out of the religious community that he had been part of his entire life, but he has also been immediately accepted into the faith community surrounding Jesus, the “sheep who hear his voice.” He hears Jesus not only as the prophet who gave him his sight, but now as the Son of Man (9:35-38) who came into this world “for judgment, so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” (9:39)
The Pharisees and religious authorities who kicked the blind man out of their “flock” are also listening to Jesus but they’re not quite sure what to make of him. In his Shepherd language, they hear Jesus referencing Isaiah and Ezekiel and Zechariah, but in alluding to those prophets, they also hear something that might be criticism leveled directly at them.
The formerly blind man hears Jesus describe himself as the gate that opens to welcome him into the safety, camaraderie and protection of the flock led by the Good Shepherd. The Pharisees hear Jesus describe himself as the gate that separates the flock away from their influence and the rigid observance of religious traditions that they see as the only path of righteousness.
They hear the same words but they hear very different meanings.
When I taught Confirmation, I always began our section on the Apostles’ Creed by asking the students, “Who wants you to believe what, and why?” We kept that question in front of us the whole time we talked about the Creed. We kept that question in front of us as we talked about our society and all the forces and influences in our culture that want us to think and act a certain way. We kept that question in front of us as we talked about all the voices that call out to us in life, that call us to follow them, voices that are not the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Who wants you to believe what? And why?
When we were ordered to stay at home three years ago to help prevent the spread of a disease that was killing people by the thousands every day, when we were ordered to wear masks in public, when we were asked to practice social distancing and stay at least six feet apart from each other when we took the risk of venturing out for groceries, most people heard these orders as the voice of medical authority urging reasonable precautions in order to keep us all safe. But some protested and refused to abide by these precautions because they heard these orders as the voice of malicious authoritarianism with some kind of nefarious secret agenda.
We all heard the same words. We didn’t all hear them the same way. We didn’t hear the same voice.
What voices are you listening to? What news sources do you read or watch or listen to? What kind of message are they giving you about the world? Are they messages rooted in faith, hope and love? Or are they messages rooted in fear? Do they seek to enlarge your freedom and the freedom of others or do they want control?
We’ve just entered another Presidential campaign season, and this week one of our political parties released a campaign commercial depicting a bleak and almost apocalyptic future that will supposedly be the inevitable result of electing their opponent. All of the images in the commercial were generated by Artificial Intelligence. Nothing in it is real. Nothing at all. Even the images of real people are faked, intentionally faked in a way that makes them look creepy. At the end of all that computer generated dystopian imagery a voice asks, “Who’s in charge here?”
Wow. Talk about gob-smacking irony. That’s quite a question, coming from a machine.
But I have another question: Who wants you to believe what?
What voices are you listening to? What news sources do you read or watch or listen to? What kind of message are they giving you about the world? About yourself? What kind of messages are you letting into your heart and mind and soul?
Are they messages rooted in faith, hope and love? Or are they messages rooted in fear?
Do they seek to enlarge your heart or shrink it?
Do they seek to open your embrace of others or close it?
Who is the gatekeeper for your heart and mind and soul?
“Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
The Shepherd leads the sheep and they follow him because they know his voice. But there are so many other voices that want to distract us. So many other things calling our names and asking for or even demanding our time. So many things drawing us away from the sheepfold, from the companionship of faith. So many voices competing with the voice of Jesus, the Shepherd.
We know what they take from us, these voices that call us away. But what do they give us when all is said and done?
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” said Jesus. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Abundant life. That’s what Jesus wants to give us
Abundant life. That’s what the community of faith is supposed to be about—what it is about at its best. Abundant life is the gift Christ gives us in our life together.
As I conducted Meghan’s memorial service six years ago, I realized that, while it was Meghan’s tragic and untimely death that had brought us together that day, it was Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who had originally brought us all together in the first place. We had all met each other in the very beginning because we had come to church. We had met in the company of Christ. We had heard the voice of the Shepherd who called us all together into one great big flocking family.
That’s how it has been for us here, too, at the Little Church with a Big Heart. Jesus has been our gateway into this remarkable community, this flock that is so full of love, a love that has been palpable and undiminished by the years.
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for the Shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
The Shepherd calls us by name and we follow his voice. Sometimes he calls us to flock together and sometimes he puts us out to pasture. When I retire in a few weeks, I’ll just be following the Shepherd out to pasture. But I will still be listening to the Shepherd. And I will always be grateful for the time I spent in this flock.
And as I follow the Shepherd out to pasture, I will still be listening to the world around me and asking who wants me to believe what? And why?