Sermon: Sept 11, 2016 – 9/11 Residual Fear

 9/11 Residual Fear

Text: John 10: 14-16

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Before we dive too far into this particular text, I want to offer a little background information about the text itself. When we read things in our New Testaments I think it is important for us to recognize a few things about the time it was written, who the author might have been and who the intended audience was. Only by considering these circumstances can you begin to grasp a clear picture of the context of a scripture and then you can consider an interpretation within that context. At least that is my approach.

Of the collection of writings that make up the New Testament, the letters of Paul are considered to be the oldest writings we have. These letters could have been written as recently as 20 or 25 years after the execution of Jesus. The letters are not arranged in our New Testament chronologically, they are actually arrange according to length – I’m not sure who made that decision or why, but that’s the way it is. Of the letters of Paul, if I remember correctly, First and Second Thessalonians may be the earliest of all the writings we have in the New Testament. If you go back and read those letters, I think you will find a very high eschatology-which is a fancy word that describes what people sometimes refer to as the second coming of Jesus.  In the very early days of Christianity, like 25 years after the execution of Jesus, people still felt like the return of Jesus could happen at any moment. This attitude is reflected in many of the letters of Paul.

Of the four Gospels in our New Testament, the earliest one is the Gospel of Mark-it was written sometime just before 70CE (common era) used to be AD, but someone decided that “After Death” and “Before Christ” were politically incorrect because they were uniquely Christian, so BC was changed to BCE, before the common era, and AD was changed to CE, which is common era.

But I digress. Mark was written around 70 CE, most Bible scholars date this Gospel at that time because Jerusalem is mentioned, but the destruction of Jerusalem is not. It is fairly well-known and accepted history that Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Two of the other Gospels, Matthew and Luke, seem to have been written around the same time, which scholars believe to be around 90CE. There are a number of reasons for this date, but generally this is the accepted time frame for these two Gospels.

Then comes the Gospel of John, written perhaps as late as 125CE. I mention this because by the time John was writing his Gospel, the idea that Jesus would return at any moment had fallen out of vogue just a little bit. After all, three generations of Christians would have come and gone all expecting to see Jesus return and all had been a little disappointed. This is one of the things which gives the Gospel of John its unique perspective. The Gospel of John has no parables in it; rather it is a collection of narratives and dialogue that paint a very different picture of Jesus than what we see in the other three Gospels.  One other major difference is that John is no longer looking for a physical return of Jesus, but rather, at least I believe, takes the position that the return of Jesus, or the kingdom of God, has already taken place. Thus Jesus’ return is in a truly spiritual sense, and the major obstacle in our recognition of this return is our own blindness in spiritual matters.

I’m taking some time here for a lot of background information about John’s Gospel because I think it is important for us to know these things prior to thinking about this text. Because John’s Gospel is spiritual in nature, it is also very metaphorical. This demands that we look beyond any literal interpretation of a text in John and seek an underlying metaphorical or allegorical intention behind the words that were written.

That being said, I want to look again at this text because it is so interesting. There are two key ingredients in this tiny text that I think are very important for us to recognize. The first, which is the more obvious, is that Jesus is saying that his ministry and his accompanying spiritual presence has a broader target market than originally thought. In a historical context, that usually means the ministry is expanded to include Gentiles as well as Jews. But if we attempt to move this text into the 21st century, it can take on a much greater meaning. In fact, it can include the whole world.

The second key ingredient that I think is significant is the part of the text where Jesus says that the other sheep will listen to his voice. There is an implication here that implies the sheep of Jesus’ home pasture did not listen to his voice. Of course, that can be taken any number of ways, but the historical context would indicate that often those closest to Jesus in terms of religious tradition were the hardest of hearing and those more removed from Jesus were more likely to listen to his voice.

Again, if you take the metaphor and bring it forward into the 21st century, who would be the home sheep of Jesus’ pasture and who would be the other? In my mind, the home pasture is no longer ancient Judaism, but rather Christianity. This begs the question; are we responding to the voice of the shepherd? In a 21st century reading, the other sheep may be people of other faith traditions, immigrants, or persons that we classify as other for any variety of reasons. Is it possible that the others among us are actually listening to the voice of Jesus with greater clarity than the home sheep Christians? In many cases, I’m sad to say, I believe that is the case.

15 years ago today this country awoke to the news of a terrible act of violence and terrorism on an unprecedented scale. We spent the day watching TV coverage of an unfolding drama that defied belief; it seemed our entire world was unraveling right before our eyes. 15 years ago we had a unique opportunity to hear and listen to the voice of Jesus. With the eyes of the entire world fixed upon us, we had the choice to listen or not to listen; we had the choice of how to respond and what example we would set for decades to come.

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to know that the voice of the good shepherd, the voice of Jesus, tells us to love our neighbors, to pray for our enemies and to bless those who persecute you. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to understand what “blessed are the peacemakers” means, or that the entire message and ministry of Jesus was summed up by Jesus with two simple commands; love God and love your neighbor.

Not just the neighbor that looks like you. Not just the neighbor that believes all the same things you do. Not just the neighbor that is the same color as you or goes to the same church as you. No. We are to love our neighbor universally; we are to love the neighbor that inhabits the same planet we do, or perhaps even the same universe. Love your neighbor.

Love your neighbor with the kind of love that brings freedom and not oppression.

Love your neighbor with the kind of love that brings peace and not war.

Love your neighbor with a love that brings hope to the hopeless, comfort to the anguished and transformation to a world filled with hate. Love your neighbor with a love that breaks down walls of oppression, with a love that reaches across barriers of race or tradition. Love your neighbor without regard to who your neighbor is, for to listen to the voice of Jesus, to hear the good shepherd, means simply to love unconditionally.

15 years ago we had the opportunity to listen to the voice of the good shepherd; but we did not hear. We heard only hate and fear of the other; we heard only about retaliation and revenge. We invaded and waged war.  And in many ways, we still are. Fear of the other still casts a long shadow over how we choose to react and respond. The residual fear of 9/11 I think grows stronger as we feed it.

Let me leave you with just one other thought. A little known text found in First John, 4:18 says that perfect love casts out all fear.  Can we strive for perfect love? Can we cast out all fear? Can we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?

I’m not sure, but we can try. Real change begins with just one person and that one person could be you. And that is food for thought. Amen.

Sermon: Sept 4, 2016 – “Labor Day Reflections”

“Labor Day Reflections”

Text: Luke 4: 16-19

 

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

I don’t know how many of you have ever had the experience of having a job where your job description is held over you like a ton of bricks. I know I have been in situations where the review process involves a re-reading of the job description and then a following evaluation of all the points that you have either forgotten about or have not had the time to get to. In my opinion, job descriptions, although often necessary, can also be a real drag-and they can be easily abused or misused. But of all the job descriptions that have been written over the ages, how would you like to have this

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s

Not only is it a little ambiguous, but it is also a bit of a tall order. Proclaim release to the captives? Really? What does that look like exactly? Recovery of sight to the blind? Good luck with that one. You get the picture.

As my theological perspective has evolved over the years many things have been modified, but one thing has remained fairly consistent and that is I have always considered this text to be a rather concise and accurate description of the ministry of Jesus. This was his job description; and from most accounts, he did it fairly well. But that was Jesus, not us; and that was then and not now.

Even though there is actually only one scriptural reference to Jesus being a carpenter, the accepted tradition is that Jesus was employed as a carpenter prior to beginning his ministry. I have often wondered what that transition was like. Did he lay down his tools after that day in the temple and decide he was starting something new? Did he just walk away? Was the transition a slow, painful process where Jesus had trouble letting go of his identity as a carpenter? I wonder how he decided that his teaching ministry held more weight than his career as a carpenter?

As we celebrate Labor Day tomorrow and honor the American worker, it occurs to me how complex this topic really is. What we do is so intricately woven into who we think we are that I believe it is worth thinking about. There are positive aspects of this and not so positive aspects. It can inspire us but also bring us down. Clarity of thought around this particular topic I think is imperative to a healthy self image and a healthy outlook on life. But it can be challenging.

Many of you know there was a time not that long ago that for a variety of reasons I found myself in-between churches. This was a tough time. I was unemployed for a time and then seriously under-employed, at least that is how I thought of it at the time. Because of the circumstances, we had moved back to the Denver area and even had to live with one of the kids for a time until we became a little more self-sufficient. If you remember, the economy had tanked and jobs were scarce. It took a long time for me to find a position with JCPenney where I went around to people’s homes and installed drapes and blinds. I suppose it could have been fun in different circumstances, but the management style and a number of other things made the job less than stellar. But I needed a job, so that’s what I did.

I knew that during those few months when I was working as an installer for Penney’s that wasn’t who I was. In spite of that knowledge, it was still hard for me to maintain my same level of positive outlook and enthusiasm for life that I had prior to the economic crash. During this time there was another installer who had been with the company, doing essentially the same kind of work for 20 years and he was happy as a clam. This experience taught me that external circumstances, while very real, still do not have the power to make you happy or unhappy, external circumstances do not have the power to make you feel good or bad, motivated or unmotivated, worthwhile or worthless. All of those feelings are up to you; it’s just easier to blame the circumstances.

Now this story has a bit of an ironic and humorous ending. If you fast forward about another year, we have pretty much given up on Denver and had moved back to the northwest, but I was still looking for meaningful employment. It was at that time I landed the job with Habitat for Humanity that actually brought Heidi and I to the LC Valley. As part of my orientation for this new position with Habitat one of the experiences they thought would be useful is for me to spend a day volunteering at a job site. So my third day on the job, I am at a job site in Clarkston, but the house is almost finished. The work to be done is mostly finish details; touch-up painting, cleaning up the exterior, putting finishing touches on light fixtures or plumbing fixtures, you get the idea. So I show up, with my tool belt, ready to have a volunteer experience and gain some insight about my new position.

I find the construction coordinator and ask the question; what would you like me to do? He then asks me if I thought I could put up the blinds in the bedrooms, because everybody hates that job and often it isn’t done very well. I told him I would be happy to do that and not to worry, they would be installed correctly.

So there I am, third day in a new job that I was sooo excited about, hanging blinds. I couldn’t believe it. I started to laugh at myself because I found the entire episode simply hilarious. Once again, I was taught in another interesting way, how external circumstances really don’t control your disposition. How you choose to look at things actually controls your disposition.

I wanted to share with you an excerpt from a poem by Robert Frost that has always been a favorite of mine. The poem is called “Two Tramps in Mud Time” and it has many layers of meaning around the ideas of meaningful and fulfilling work. But it is the last stanza that really sparks a fire within me; the words resonate with me because for a long time I felt the same way. Here are those words:

 

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

How wonderful it is when you love what you do and you find it to be meaningful and fulfilling work. But I also know from experience that often it is not the work, it is the mental awareness around the work that makes the difference. I love photography, but when photography became work, like it did at times when I worked for an advertising agency, it lost its appeal. As Robert Frost said, the work was no longer play.

Frederick Buencher also has an interesting perspective as he has written in his book “Wishful Thinking, A Theological ABC”: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I believe this may be a better description of that serendipity when it feels like everything just comes together; that is the melding of your personal gladness, that thing that you love is combined with a deep need or hunger in the world. But this statement is not necessarily tied to occupation, the place where God calls you can be a place of personal reflection, a place of volunteerism, a place of relationship or a place of leadership – but it doesn’t necessarily have to be what you do to make a living.

As we reflect upon our own lives and careers and livelihoods, I think it is important for us to recognize how what we do can become intricately woven with who we are. This can be a good thing, but it can also be a dangerous thing; it can be good because sometimes what we do impacts the world and helps other people. It can be dangerous in the sense that often what we do is temporary and it can easily go away. If we secure our identities in the temporary, ultimately we will be disappointed. If we secure our identities in the relationships and the needs of the world we help meet, we can experience a long lasting sense of meaningful and fulfilling contributions regardless of how we choose to pay the bills.

And that, of course, is food for thought. Go in peace.

Amen.