Rev. Sarah Buteux
May 8, 2022
Easter 4, Year C
Psalm 23 & John 10:22-30
Click here to watch today’s service. The sermon begins at the 36 minute mark.
“Hey Sarah! How are you?”
It was an innocuous question. But when I arrived at Taize on Wednesday night – which is a prayer service we do once a month up at St. Johns – I couldn’t just say, “Fine.”
I looked at Reynolds, who plays guitar for the service, and I sighed.
“How am I?… I don’t know, man. Sometimes I feel like I’m living through one long continuous dumpster fire. How about you?”
Do you all know what I mean? Anyone else feel that way?
Our little cohort of Taize leaders did, too. It’s like as soon as we get acclimated to one tragedy or injustice or catastrophe in this world, we have to face another, and this week was no exception.
Do you all remember Tuesday?
Tuesday was not a good day.
The war in Ukraine moved “below the fold,” so to speak, to make room for news about the leaked document from the Supreme Court. Reporters and pundits were up all night parsing the language and were ready to commentate by 6am. Barricades were in place and protesters and counter protesters were assembled before I’d even finished my second cup of tea; their faces contorted by fear and fury.
I walked around all day, indeed I’ve been walking around ever since, with a growing sense of dread. It’s hard to know what to do. I don’t even know how to metabolize the news anymore, let alone how to react in a way that will make a difference.
Of course, the social media activism machine ramped right up. All of my U.C.C. colleagues were changing their profile pictures on Facebook to reflect that they are pro-choice pastors, and I thought that was good. Really good. But I refrained. Not because I am ashamed or unsure of my position, but because when I post something like that it invariably brings out the very worst in other people I disagree with but still love.
They write hateful things on my wall that invariably cause people who care about me and this issue to write hateful things back, and no amount of back and forth changes anyone’s mind. It just feeds the fear and stokes the anger on both sides.
What I really need to do is call those people I love but disagree with and try to talk some sense into them, but I confess that I am tired… so tired of trying to engage people in meaningful conversation about things that really matter, when experience has taught me over and over that no amount of reason, facts, or lived experience can sway their thinking.
I am tired of arguing when arguing doesn’t seem to do any good.
As we prepared our hearts for Taize, Reynolds said, “It feels like things have been really messed up for a long time now.” He started casting back, trying to figure out when things didn’t feel quite so polarized. Was it back in 2012? Maybe 2010?
Catherine wondered if the Bush years were this hard… and we all agreed they were. Which got me thinking that maybe things have always been this bad, it’s just that the technology we have now makes it feel that much worse.
I don’t know. What I can tell you is that there is an awful lot of rancor and disagreement in our reading for today, and Jesus – for all his teachings about loving God and loving our neighbor – is the one at the center of it.
He was living in a time of great violence and division and he himself was a deeply polarizing figure. In fact, in our reading for today, things have really come to a head. But you know, in Jesus’ example, I think there’s some hard won wisdom for us all about how to proceed in times like these. So let’s take a closer look and see if we can’t find a little good news to keep us going today.
It’s winter in Jerusalem when we catch up with Jesus, and the feast of dedication is underway, a holiday we now know as… (anyone want to take a guess?) Hanukah, right.
And this is not an insignificant detail because Hanukah – the festival of lights -is the holiday when Jewish people commemorate the heroism of the Maccabees. The Maccabeans were brave Jews who led a violent uprising against their Greek overlords in 2 BCE. They recaptured Jerusalem for their people, cleansed the temple, and rededicated it to God.
That’s important information to hold on to, because, as you can see from our reading today, Jesus has caused quite a stir amongst his people and there is a growing belief that he might be the messiah…the long awaited king who they believe will liberate them from the Romans like Judas Maccabee and his rebel army liberated their people from the Greeks.
But you and I both know that’s not the sort of liberation Jesus is after. I think he refrains from using the word “messiah” because he knows it will only serve to create false hopes and dangerous expectations. He has not come to liberate people from Rome, but from their hurts, their hunger, and their mistaken notions about the redemptive power of violence and the redemptive grace of God.
You also need to know that by this point in the gospel of John, Jesus has not only been teaching and preaching for almost three years, he has already preformed 6 of the 7 miraculous signs recounted in this gospel.
Jesus has turned water into wine, healed the son of a royal official, told the crippled man by the pool in Bethesda to “take up his mat and walk,” fed the 5000, walked on water, and healed the man born blind.
In spite of these miracles, or maybe because of them, there is a great deal of division amongst the Jewish people. According to John: “Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ 21(While) others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
And so, in the very next verse, a group approaches Jesus and says:
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Now let’s stop right there. How would you respond if you were Jesus?
I want you to really think about that for a moment.
After 3 years of preaching, what more could you say, to someone who does not yet believe?
After performing so many miracles, what more could you do to convince them if they are not already convinced?
And if you know full well that what you mean by “messiah” is not what they mean by “messiah” would you dare to use that word at all?
25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.
The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;
26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.
Now I know his words in this passage sound dismissive and exclusivist, particularly that line about these men not belonging to his sheep, but here’s the thing with people – people back then and people right now – people are going to believe what they want to believe.
No matter what you say or do, people are going to see what they want to see. And there are some things… things like the work of God, the presence of love, the life of faith… some things that can’t be explained or proved. There are some things that just have to be lived and experienced and you’re either open to them or you’re not.
For instance, you can’t prove that you love someone. You can’t prove it any more than Jesus could. You can’t posit your way into someone’s heart or argue your way into their affection. All you can do is show them how you feel through your words and deeds and hope they experience and receive what you’re putting out there as love.
Faith, particularly our faith in God, works much the same way. Our faith in God isn’t something we can rationalize. It’s more of a reality we enter into, when – all things considered – we entrust ourselves to God in the hope that God is real and God is good and find that more we trust in God’s presence the more we experience the presence of God.
You just kind of have to go with it in order to experience it. But if you’re not willing to really open yourself up to it you’ll never know it.
Which is where Jesus’ sheep metaphor comes in handy, because here is the thing with sheep: sheep don’t choose their shepherds. They don’t read up on them to ascertain which is the best or most effective. They don’t wait for a shepherd to come along and make them an offer they can’t refuse. They don’t look at the rankings and apply to be part of the best herds.
Nope. Sheep don’t get a lot of say in the matter. Sheep simply have an innate trust in shepherds. They go where the shepherd says to go. They stay where the shepherd says to stay. They rest where the shepherd says to rest. And if that shepherd is a bad shepherd they don’t last long and frankly neither does she.
But if that shepherd is good and worthy of their trust, if she’s the real deal so to speak, over time, they will grow as a herd and they will grow in that trust.
The sheep will rest in the knowledge that they are in good hands and know what it is to have life and have it abundantly. The shepherd and the sheep will thrive even as they learn to move through the world as one.
“([T]his kind of unity, intimacy, and goodwill, this kind of communion,” according to the good people at SALT Project, “is precisely (the sort of relationship) God longs to have with us… (This is what Jesus is after when he says) ‘abide in me as I abide in you’ (John 15:4).”
This is what Jesus is talking about when he says “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
“Come what may the Good Shepherd is with us, and won’t ever let us go” (https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/salt-lectionary-commentary-easter-4).
Which is good news for the sheep, but what of the others? I sat with this passage all week, and what I began to see is that Jesus never tells the naysayers that they can’t be part of his herd.
All he’s saying is that as long as they stay on the outside, they’ll never truly understand the life and faith of those on the inside. The door isn’t closed. The invitation hasn’t been withdrawn. God didn’t draw up a list of sheep at the beginning of time who get to belong and everyone else is a dingleberry out of luck. These guys can come to faith in Jesus anytime they want, but it’s a step they have to take on their own.
And by this point in the story, Jesus isn’t under any illusion that one more example or parable or prooftext or miracle is going to convince them. He’s done enough. He’s at the point where he’s ready to let his life, his teachings, and his works, do the talking.
The question is not: “Is Jesus the messiah?” The question they needed to ask back then, just as people need to ask right now, is this: Does Jesus’ way lead to a better life, a more abundant life, a more beautiful, restful, joyous, healing, compassionate life for those who follow in his way, or not?
Toward the end of this chapter he says:
37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.
And friends, I think that’s where I am at too.
I’m a big believer in the power of letting your life be your witness. I encounter Christians all the time who look at our church and our progressive values from the outside and wonder if we’re even really Christian.
And you know what I tell them?
I tell them to come and see. Because, like Jesus, I think our works speak for themselves.
I think our joyful welcome speaks for itself.
I think the love of this community: the way we nurture and feed one another, the way we share what we have with our neighbors in need, the way we show up for each other, speaks for itself.
I think the ways we devote ourselves to prayer and Bible study, spiritual growth and the beauty of worship, speaks for itself.
Can a woman be a pastor? Come and see.
Can you be queer and Christian? Come and see.
Can you be pro-choice and Christian? Come and see.
Friends, I know we’re not perfect. I know we don’t have all the answers. Just as I know that a better argument is not what’s going to win the day or heal the world right now.
But living out our faith with integrity, continuing our work of strengthening this church so that we can keep joyfully welcoming all people into the presence of a loving God, keep listening for the still speaking voice of God, keep working together to make God’s love and justice real… THAT can make a difference. That could make all the difference in the world.
So rather than tell, let’s keep showing the world that there is more than one way to follow Jesus – a progressive, inclusive, compassionate way that is as good for me as it is for my neighbor who isn’t like me. Let’s keep showing the world what God’s love looks like…together. Amen? Amen.