Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Abundant Life for All

Grace to you and peace from God our Shepherd and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

If I were to ask you what your favorite Psalm was, what would you say? Yes, the 23rd Psalm, a very popular answer. It’s the one many of us know the best. How many of you memorized it in Sunday School as kids? Actually let’s see if we can remember the whole thing together!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Well done! We got through it, using one version or another. But the images that we find there are the same, no matter how we say it. Life-giving pastures and waters, safety through dark valleys, and feasting at the banquet table, all provided for by the Lord our shepherd, which is a great beautiful for God. It’s so awesome that every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear the 23rd Psalm and call it “Good Shepherd Sunday”!

The Gospel of John, which we are revisting, also has most of the well-known metaphors and “I am” statements” that Jesus uses for himself, including “I am the good shepherd.” Also included in John are I am the Light of the World, I am the lamb of God, I am the bread of life, and today we have…. I am the gate.

What? Huh? What happened to “I am the good shepherd?” So why aren’t we calling today “Good Gate Sunday”? I guess because it doesn’t have as nice of a ring to it. It’s not one of the more popular I AM sayings of Jesus. So what is it doing here? What is Jesus talking about?

Well, with Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter, and Doubting Disciples Sunday, it’s been quite a few weeks since we heard from John what came right before this. It was the story of the man born blind. Remember that guy?

Jesus saw him begging by the road, healed him, and disappeared for a while, while this poor man was grilled mercilessly by his neighbors and then by the religions leaders and Pharisees. No one could not believe that Jesus had healed him. The once-blind man was then cast out for a second time from the community by the very people who were supposed to be acting like shepherds on God’s behalf. The first time for being blind, and the second for believing in this upstart preacher from Galilee. But Jesus came back to this rejected member of his flock.

A shepherd takes care of his sheep. The sheep hear his voice and follow. This man heard the voice of Jesus and followed, even though it cost him dearly.

But what does a Gate do? And why is Jesus calling himself a gate?

An illustration from the “Revised Comic Lectionary,” which is of course a play on words from the Revised Common Lectionary, our three year cycle of readings, shows a man exploring all these Jesus metaphors. “Oh, wait, I got this one!” the man exclaimed so Jesus, “you’re the FENCE, keeping all the sinners from the good people!”  Jesus looked at him, aghast. “No! I’m not the fence!” He says. “Never the barrier! But, I am the Gate, breaking through the boundaries you set up!”

Gates are supposed to close AND open, letting the sheep INTO the safety of the pen, but also opening to let the sheep back OUT to follow the voice their shepherd to good pasture. OUT to experience abundant life.

This kind of abundant life that Jesus is opening up for us and leading us to is not just about what happens to us after we die. Green pastures and still waters and banquets and experiencing the abundance of God is for our lives right now, too. Yes, the 23rd Psalm gives us comfort when we have lost a loved one, after they have been led into the presence of God for their eternal rest.

But. Goodness and mercy are for our lives as we live them NOW. In fact, goodness and mercy are not just following us, like a game of Simon says or follow the leader. Goodness and mercy are CHASING us down, pursuing us with the intention of running us over with God’s abundant life, pretty much. This is the kind of shepherd that is leading us and calling us, one who is concerned about our lives RIGHT NOW.

We follow in Jesus’ steps, and are called to follow his lead in love, service, and suffering. But not all suffering is created equal. I was reading some material from the Lutheran World Federation Assembly I will be leaving for early tomorrow morning. Next week’s week’s theme is “liberated by God’s grace,” and one of the day’s themes is “Human beings are not for sale.” One of the essays I read was by Ebise Ayana is a lecturer at the Makene Yesus Seminary in Ethiopia, a country that sees a lot of human trafficking. This is not just a problem in places far away like Ethiopia. Human trafficking happens right here in THIS country too.

Ebise Ayana wrote in an essay that the idea of Christian women are taught that any kind suffering is acceptable, because Jesus suffered. This too often keeps women in harsh and dangerous situations, like being trafficked. They blame themselves instead of their captors, and lose their God-given sense of self-worth.

Instead, she calls on all women to resist oppression and exploitation in all its forms, because we are called to follow in the footsteps of a liberating God. We may be called to suffer in this resistance for the sake of following Jesus, but suffering does not save us - only Jesus does that. Ebise Ayana insists that when one person is oppressed, the whole human family is diminished. Abundant life means that all people get to live the way that God has created us to live – liberated by God’s grace to work toward the liberation of others.   

Choosing suffering for the sake of becoming like Jesus, in being open gates rather than building fences…..suffering for the sake of breaking DOWN the barriers of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, perceived disability, religion, and other things that divide us….THIS is the example that Jesus gives us, THESE are the steps we are to follow as part of Jesus’ flock.

There are plenty of other voices out there to try to lead us astray. Voices telling us to give into selfishness, fear, hate, closing our ears, & building fences instead of gates. The voices are everywhere, and they are persuasive, and they will lead you down the wrong path, and away from the abundant life that you deserve.

And at times it seems that we are powerless to resist them, and end up being led down the wrong path anyway, despite ourselves.

But Psalm 23 reminds us that Goodness and Mercy will always be there to chase after us, to pursue us even when we follow the wrong voices down the wrong paths. Even as we walk through the darkest, death-filled valley. They will find us.

So where is the voice of our Good Shepherd calling us to go, right here and now?
In a few weeks, we’ll be having a town hall meeting to check in on how we’re doing as a church so far this year. Between now and then, I will be greeting our Lutheran sisters and brothers from around the world in the city of Windhoek, Namibia. Between now and then, I would like you to think about the direction you think our Shepherd might be calling Family of God.

I believe it is a direction that causes us to lay claim to our name – Family of God – and to embrace who we are as PART of the LARGER Lutheran and Christian community, the ONE WHOLE family of GOD.

What if God used us to draw all those around us into that family? What if God used us to remind all people that there is a place for you here in this family, and that there is a place for you in this flock. After all, we are not a flock of ONE, but we are ONE flock, under ONE shepherd, whether we are in Windhoek Namibia, Delhi, India, or Buckingham, PA. Just as together we said the 23rd Psalm, together we can help each other in following the voice of our shepherd Jesus.

The gate is open, and together we are about to begin the next phase of our new and abundant life in Christ. Jesus is our Gate, too, because it is THROUGH Jesus that we are given this life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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