Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sermon: Hearing and Following

John 10:22-30; Psalm 23
Hearing and Following
James Sledge                                                                                       April 21, 2013

Harry was expecting a call so he picked up the phone without checking the caller ID and found himself talking with a pollster.  He thought about hanging up but he recognized the polling organization as a legitimate one, so if it didn’t take too long…
“I a few questions on political issues,” the voice said.  “But first, are you a person of faith? And if so, are you Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or some other?” 
Harry was an active church goer, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to announce that to some stranger on the phone.  “If I say Christian do I get lumped in with Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen?” Harry asked, “because I’m not that kind of Christian.  Will you assume I’m a Republican, pro-life and pro-gun because I’m certainly not that kind of Christian.”
The pollster tried to assure Harry that he wouldn’t be lumped in with anyone, but Harry was rather enjoying the inversion, with him asking the pollster questions.  “If I say that I’m a Christian will you assume that I don’t want my kids being taught evolution in school?  If I say I’m a Christian will you think I’m one of those people who are sure we are in the end times, or that Obama is the anti-Christ?”
Harry was starting to get worked up, and the pollster was trying to calm him.  “Sir, I didn’t mean to upset you.  I’m not trying to link you to anyone or any group.”
Harry thought for a moment and said, “I have an idea.  Why don’t I just tell you a little about myself and how I live?  Then you can decide if I’m a Christian.  I’m against the death penalty.  I pray for my enemies.  I went on a mission trip to Haiti. I think the federal budget needs to prioritize the needs of the poor, the sick, and most vulnerable.”
“Sir, sir,” the pollster said, trying to get him to stop.  But Harry continued, and finally, in frustration, the pollster hung up.
Although a devout Christian, Harry knew that people mean a lot of different things by that label.  Jesus is in a similar situation in our gospel reading this morning, except for him the label is “Messiah.”  “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” some people ask Jesus.  But Jesus doesn’t give them the straightest answer.  He is almost evasive, and I think that’s because the label Messiah, or Christ, was more problematic than helpful.

People had lots of preconceived notions about what the Messiah would be like and what he would do.  Many thought he would restore the earthly kingdom of Israel, literally sitting on the throne of David, tossing out the Romans, and instituting an everlasting, peaceful empire on the shores of the Mediterranean.  Others thought the Messiah would wage a battle with the Romans but saw the conflict in more cosmic terms.  The Messiah would bring the Kingdom of God.  Jerusalem wouldn’t just be the center of rejuvenated Israel.  It would be the center of a radically transformed world, one where all the forces of evil had been eradicated. 
These are just a couple of expectations.  There were others, some tamer, some wilder.  But Jesus knows that he doesn’t quite fit any of the preconceived Messiah images.  And so he answers in a way that points to the work he is doing, his relationship with the Father, and how his sheep recognize him and follow him.
Jesus’ discomfort with the Messiah label is a bit like Harry’s problem with the Christian one.  “Are you the Messiah?”  “Are you a Christian?”  Is it really that simple?
Many people want neat formulas for faith.  Are you saved?  Do you believe? Do you go to church? If American will be a truly Christian nation, won’t God bless and protect us? But if faith were a simple, neat formula, Jesus could have simply answered his questioners with, “Yes, I am the Messiah.  If you believe this you will have eternal life.”  But he doesn’t do that.  Instead he talks of his relationship to believers and his relationship to God.
“The Father and I are one,” says Jesus.  This is not some esoteric theological point.  Jesus is saying that everything he says and does reveals God, that when Jesus speaks, we hear what God is saying, that when Jesus does something, it is what God wants done.  Jesus says, “Because of my relationship with the Father, God is no longer some unseen, unfathomable entity. When you look at me, you see God at work.”
At least Jesus’ sheep do.  His sheep hear his voice, recognize him, and follow him.  Middle Eastern shepherds do not drive sheep but call them and the sheep follow along behind. This requires more than believing. It is about trusting. “My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me.”
Jesus’ image of himself as the good shepherd is not something new. God as shepherd is central to one of the most beloved psalms, one we have heard and will sing today. The words speak of provision and comfort even in the darkest valleys, even in the face of death. And surely many of us long for such reassurance following the events of this past week. We need to know that God is with us, that God comforts us and those in Boston, those in West, Texas, those who have been wounded and maimed, those who’ve lost loves ones, and those who have had their sense of safety and security shattered. But the psalm does more than simply speak of comfort and sustenance. It also speaks of following, of being led in right paths for God’s name’s sake. In other words, along paths that bring honor to God, that glorify God.
The 23rd Psalm and Jesus speak of God being with us as we walk a very particular path, one that is often difficult, one that is not always embraced by the world around us. In the face of terror and hate and violence, we are called to walk a path that bears witness to the power of love, that holds fast to the promise of life born out of death, hope born out of hopelessness. Our path cannot be the one of vengeance or might makes right. It cannot give into cynicism or settle for “that’s just how things are,” for it is born of Easter resurrection.
Yesterday I walked through the Martin Luther King Memorial in DC, and I was reminded of this sort of faith and trust in the shepherd in one of the quotes etched there, this one from Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Such faith and hope only comes from through the power of resurrection and through hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice. And in Jesus, we encounter the shepherd who calls us to abundant and eternal life that is found in the act of following his path, the path Jesus takes even when it leads to the cross. This is something Dr. King knew intimately, and that is why, on the eve of his own death, he could speak so boldly. Even though he knew he wasn’t going to be there to seem his dream come true, he knew that dream was coming. And so he ended his last speech, his last sermon on the night before hate and evil did its best to stop him and the dream God had given him, saying, “And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
That is what it is to be touched by the power of resurrection. That is what it is to know that following the Good Shepherd, though it may take us through dark and terrible places, we will not fear. That is what it is to hear to voice of the Good Shepherd calling our names so that we live in ways that declare the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of love over hate, of truth over fear. That is the hope and promise guaranteed through an empty tomb and a risen Lord.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me.” Lord, call our names once more. Let us hear your voice once more. Lead us in the way of love and hope and life.

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