When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.
Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.
Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).
And then Capon brings the story home:
“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.”
Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:
Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.
Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.
“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with April Little about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 11.1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3.14-21, John 6.1-21). April is the co-host of the Reclaiming The Garden podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the buffet of scripture, exvangelicalism, The Me Too movement, agency, ordered theology, prayers of the past, charismatic Methodism, future hope, community meals, and holy moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Power
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for Trinity Sunday [B] (Isaiah 6.1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8.12-27, John 3.1-17). Sara is the lead pastor of Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including book titles, color-coordination, coal callings, humility and humiliation, fireballs in the sanctuary, authoritative words, nighttime questions, and theological grammar. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Trinitarian Pizza Party
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [B] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including older movies, promise keeping, Babel reimagined, different languages, the colors of creation, the gift of presence, holy hope, and diachronic pneumatology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5.9-13, John 17.6-19). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a trinity of books, the agency of Emmaus, ecclesial discernment, theological education, the confounding nature of the Spirit, reading in community, a full life, and the sectarian temptation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Internalizing The Eternal
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and bide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no name town and decided to pop in.
It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the short order cook. While Craddock sat at the count, making his way through some soggy eggs and very strong coffee, a black man entered the diner, sat down at a nearby stool, and ordered an asked for a coffee. The cook promptly turn around, looked at the man in the face, and said, “Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind.”
The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while point over toward Craddock. The cook remained firm and pointed at the door, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!”
And with that, the black man sighed and slowly removed himself form the stool and the diner.
Craddock continued to sit at the counter, he finished his meal, paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.
This is where I pause for a moment.
Did any of you feel any chills at the conclusion of the story? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the narrative and it’s enduring reminder about racism in this country, but for some of you this story will hit even harder. It will hit harder because it connects, deeply, with the strange new world of the Bible.
Fred Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism, bigotry, and belittling that happened a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before the crucifixion.
The story of Craddock’s experience becomes power particularly in light of its biblical connections. For, had Craddock been unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance and drove away without giving the whole thing a second thought.
But Craddock knew his Bible, he knew his Bible because he was one of the most important preachers of the second half of the 20th century and eventually became a teacher of preachers.
And when he heard that rooster all those years ago, it changed his life forever.
I read that story of Craddock’s for the first time in a collection of his sermons years and years ago and the story has always stuck with me.
Which makes me wonder: Can any of you remember any particular sermons?
Pause for a moment, if you don’t mind, and try. See if you can recall a particular phrase or story or major point. And, should it prove helpful, you can literally pause the audio or the video feed if it helps. Which, frankly, is not something I ever thought I would ever say in a sermon.
Can you remember a particular sermon?
More often than not we tell stories, or preachers preach sermon, in order that they might be remembered. Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke Divinity, believes that sermons and stories should actually function differently: She makes the case that a successful story, and a successful sermon, is one that isn’t remembered.
Sounds a little strange doesn’t it?
I mean, I’ve stood in this pulpit nearly every Sunday for the last four years in hopes that you all might actually remember at least some of what I’ve said. But, to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember much of what I said last Sunday!
Perhaps Dr. Davis is right – the best sermons are forgettable. They are the best because part of the Christian journey is showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear the Good News because it is the story that makes us who we are. We listen to it again and again because there are countless other narratives vying for our allegiances, but this story, the Gospel, the Good News, is the one that is the difference that makes all the difference.
And yet, there are some things we receive, from the pulpit or all sorts of other places, that do stay with us and reknit us into who we can be.
That’s what happened to Craddock. Somehow, someway, the story of Peter and the rooster from the Gospels stuck with him such that he could recognize something profound in his own life.
God, in a sense, worked through a story to speak a truth about Craddock that he needed to hear.
When Jesus gathered with his friends for their final evening before the crucifixion they shared bread and wine, Jesus washed their feet, and he left them with parting thoughts about what it would all look like on the other side.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. I’ve said all of this to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And you are my friends.”
Jesus calls the disciples, us, his friends?
It’s one thing to sing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” but it’s another thing entirely to think “what a friend Jesus has in us.”
The friends around the table that night with the Lord will shortly deny him, betray him, and abandon him.
In our own lives, like Craddock, we regularly fail to see the Jesus in one another as we constantly deny the value/worth of other people, we chose to look out for ourselves far more than we do for other people, and when all is said and done we’re far more content knowing Jesus is our friend than trying to imagine ourselves as Jesus’ friends.
The words we hear in one time and place can take on an entirely different meaning if we receive them in another time and place.
Imagine the times you’ve heard a friend remark, “It’s so good to see you.” We can easily brush that aside because we’ve heard those words countless time before. But now imagine getting to see a friend having not seen them throughout the entirety of the pandemic and they greet you with, “It’s so good to see you.”
It becomes something all together different.
Or think of Craddock – He probably heard, read, and even preached the story of Peter’s denial many many times, but it was only when he was in the diner that the words became real.
Consider those first disciples – on their final evening with Jesus, he calls them his friends. Maybe that meant a lot to them at the time, but chances are that it didn’t. It didn’t because within 24 hours Jesus was hanging on the cross.
But then consider the disciples cowering in the upper room on the evening of Easter when the resurrected Jesus returns to those so-called friends and offer them a word of peace.
“I have called you friends” takes on a whole new meaning.
In another part of scripture, Abraham is called a friend of God. That might not seem like much, but the friendship between Abraham and the Lord was made manifest in a bizarre and confounding set of dynamic moments.
Abraham is a content octogenarian who is told to leave the comforts of him behind in order to become a stranger in a strange land, he is told that he will become a father in the twilight of his life, he is told to sacrifice his son, the one he loves, all because of his friendship with the divine.
It’s all too easy to water down the faith into being a call to just love one another a little bit more. But that’s not what faith is about. Sure, we have to love one another, that’s literally what Jesus says to the disciples before and after he calls them his friends. It’s not a question of where or not we love, but whether or not we love rightly.
We, the church, exist to welcome all people with love. But that love usually looks like a bunch of judgments. We talk about one another behind each others backs, we make assumptions that really have no basis in reality, and we are far too content to let whatever those relationships look like remain within the realm of Sundays and never to be found Monday through Saturday.
We, however, can know what real love and real friendship looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Love, to put it bluntly, is cruciform.
Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life, being betrayed, and then returning to the betrayers and calling them friends.
“I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard form my Father.” In other words: friends of Jesus are those who share in the remarkable knowledge of what God is doing in the world.
And what is God doing?
God is intimately involved in the creation of a community predicated on a cruciform love, a love that really embraces everyone. A friend of God has this love and offers it toward other and it is not easy – it comes at a cost.
The world is not prepared for this kind of love and, more often than not, it will reject this love just as it rejected Jesus. Jesus, to use his own words, shows ultimate love by laying down his life for his friends, his friends who did not to deserve that title in the first place.
Jesus did that for us.
Chances are, you won’t remember this sermon. Frankly, neither will I. Our brains can hardly handle all of the information that we consume on a regular basis. But, at the very least, I hope we all rest in the somewhat discomforting knowledge that Jesus has called us his friends.
And I’ll end with the enduring words of Randy Newman:
“And as the years go by / Our friendship will never die / You’re gonna see its our destiny / You’ve got a friend in me.” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 10.44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including pastoral pandemic pandering, vacation, disco and disc golf, the serendipity of the Spirit, songs meant for singing, virtuous obedience, conquered faith, unadulterated joy, and divine apprehension. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Overwhelmed By Joy
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
I was a kid, not even in middle school, when my family went on a trip to France. We didn’t roam around Paris or wander around Versailles, we didn’t hit up the Louvre or climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, we spent the week exploring wine country in Provence and Burgundy.
It was beautiful, the food was incredible, and I remember not really understanding anything that anyone said.
On the penultimate evening of our trip, we traveled to a Chateau situated next to rolling fields filled with grape vines. The vineyard was owned and operated by family friends who insisted that we join them for a meal. My sisters and I were on our best behavior as we received a tour of the massive estate and then I was whisked away to the gigantic wine cave in the basement.
My father was unable to join us on the trip and, as the oldest male guest, it was (apparently) my responsibility to pick out the wine to be consumed with dinner.
Reminder: I was at the tail end of elementary school.
So I wandered the dimly lit halls filled from floor to ceiling with unlabeled bottles of wine, wine that was was grown, fermented, and produced mere feet away from where I was walking.
The further I walked into the crypt the dustier the bottles became and, somehow, I knew those were the bottles that were the most valuable so I tried to find a few near the middle, and without having any other criteria I selected the wine for the evening.
Minutes later, we were seated around a massive dining table and our host, Bruno, pulled the first bottle I selected, swiftly detached the cork, poured a finger’s width in a glass, and presented it to me to taste.
Not only was I required to select our wine, but I had to taste it to make sure I approved of it before it could be served to the rest of the gathered table.
I lifted the glass and spun around the garnet colored liquid as I had seen my parents do before, I brought it to my nose and sniffed, and finally I opened my mouth and took a sip.
I didn’t like it, but I knew well enough to not make a face or say that I didn’t like it. So I forced myself to smile hoping the exercise would finally come to an end when Bruno insisted I then tell him what I tasted.
“It takes like… the earth,” I said.
I quickly glanced over to my mother for a reaction.
She was crestfallen. Here we were, guests in a Chateau, drinking the wine from the nearby fields, and I told Bruno it tasted like dirt.
But before I had a chance to say anything else, a giant smile stretched across Bruno’s face and he declared to all within earshot, “Merci beaucoup! Tres magnifique!”
I had, unwittingly, payed the man a compliment.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says to his disciples on their final evening together before the crucifixion and eventually resurrection. They’ve already feasted on the bread and shared the cup, they’ve already had their feet washed by their Lord, and now it’s time for a brief discourse on what happens next, when all is said and done.
The language of abiding has been common since the very beginning of the church because it is, in a sense, a direct command from the Lord. And throughout the centuries we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to “abide.” Prayer practices, Bible Studies, small groups, Sunday worship, constant communion – they’re all attempts at abiding with the Lord who abides with us.
And why do we abide? We abide because Jesus is the vine and we are his branches. If we want to bear fruit in this world and in this life, then it will only be possible as a result of abiding in the One who abides in us.
Except, how can Jesus really ask the disciples (us included) to abide in him? I mean, consider when he told the disciples about being the true vine… It’s right after this little lecture that Judas will betray the Lord to death, Peter, disciple supreme, will quite literally not abide by denying his Lord when things fall apart, and the rest of the disciples will leave Jesus to die alone.
And yet, it’s these disciples who receive the call to abide.
Perhaps, then, Jesus is able to command this of the disciples, and all of us, because of his promise to abide in us, to never let us go, even though we don’t deserve it one bit.
Consider – The way the gospel story plays out runs against the grain of how we think things are supposed to go. Our life with God does not end at the cross on a certain Friday as we might expect.
In the time called life after Easter it all comes full circle – it ain’t over between us. The Last Supper wasn’t really the last at all – in fact, it was the first! The risen Christ, with holes in his hand and a wound in his side, shows up, again and again, transforming our painful and broken lives by abiding with us.
In steadfast and faithful love, God refuses to leave us or abandon us.
God abides, in us.
And then Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Fruit-bearing, then, seems to be the main point of this adventure we call church. So we establish programs and we make calls for action and we do whatever we think we can to make the world a better place.
But, that’s not the same thing as bearing fruit.
The purpose of church, though rarely discussed, is to meet and be met by God. It is, to use the words of John today, a revealing of how God already abides in us.
Being disciples, then, is not all about the work we have to do or responding to a list of requirements – being a disciple is about resting in Jesus. If anything comes from that, and it will, that’s Good News. But the only thing we are asked to do, is abide.
The goal of the Christian life, of following Jesus who is the way and the truth and the life, who is the vine, is not amassing a set of deeds (good or bad) but simply experiencing our life as the Word made flesh so wonderfully bestows upon us. It is sitting back at the table to which we deserve no invitation, tasting the wine that is the blood of the Lamb, and knowing that it sets us free for true liberty.
Jesus did not come to dwell among us in order to display his own virtuosity.
Sure, he tells us to be perfect as his Father is perfect, but then a few chapters later he goes on and on about how the only One we can ever call good is God alone.
Sure, he gives us some lists of dos and donts but then when the disciples do the things they shouldn’t or they avoid doings the things they should do, how does Jesus respond? Does he kick them out of the kingdom? Does he banish them to an eternity of torment?
No. Jesus abides in them.
Jesus comes to dwell among us in order to bring us home to his Father’s house and to sit us down as guests at the Supper of the Lamb. Jesus desires our contentedness, not our suffering. Jesus offers us the good wine, not sour vinegar.
And salvation, the thing Jesus comes to bring to fruition, it is not just a destination – it is our vocation. That is: salvation is not just something confined to what happens after we die; salvation is our calling here and now.
Life after Easter means today.
And yet, we can’t ignore Jesus’ language with the rest of his vine imagery. It’s all good and fine to talk about Jesus abiding in us, and bearing fruit in response, but Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
We might imagine the big take away is for us to consider what, or worse: who, needs to be cut off from our lives and then go out with some pruning shears and get to work. Perhaps there’s that one relationship that keeps bringing you down, or you have a bad habit you haven’t been able to kick, or you made a mistake and the guilt just won’t go away.
And then the church says, “Go and get to work! The time has come to cut away all that stands between you and perfection!”
But, that’s not what Jesus says.
You see, according to the teller of the tale, God is the one who does the pruning. God is the di-vinegrower (get it?).
It’s less about us finding what’s wrong within us, or among us, and then going out to get it all fixed and more about relinquishing what we needn’t hold on to, and let God do the work God is here to do.
It’s not about doing all that we can to become the very best versions of ourselves, but instead to consider how God is already working on us because God abides in us.
And maybe, just maybe, one of the things that God is working on, one of the things God is actively pruning, is our foolish belief that we must be able to make it on our own and that we can only trust in our strength alone.
We live in a society that is deeply drunk on the notion of independence and making something of ourselves no matter the cost. And yet, in another place, Jesus rather pointedly asks, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their life?”
Part of the Christian witness, something we avoid mentioning to our detriment, is that we cannot make it through this life on our own; we are desperately in need of help from one another and from the Lord.
That’s why, no matter how good of a job we do mucking it all up, God continues to bear fruit through people like us who can bear no fruit on our own.
God, to put it pointedly, works in mysterious ways and, in the end, the wine is offered at the table for a world undeserving.
Hear the Good News: God in Christ arrives in a world, in a vineyard, that cannot bear any fruit on it’s own. It has given itself over to disease, and abuse, and pestilence, and all sorts of other failures. But the di-vinegrower tills the ground, enriches the soil, and plants the seeds that are the Word to bear fruit.
Jesus, God in the flesh, enters into the muck and mire of this life, of this worthless vineyard, and becomes sin for us. We nail him to a tree and kill him. But then God gives him back to us.
The empty tomb is the fruit of resurrection offered freely to people like you and me for no other reason than the fact that God wants a full table at the Supper of the Lamb.
When Jesus comes, with holes in his hands and a wound in his side, he doesn’t come to see if we’re sorry. He knows our repentance isn’t worth all the effort we put into it because we continue to go on sinning no matter how many times we repent. Jesus doesn’t come to count all of our good deeds. He knows our sins will always outweigh our virtues.
And yet Jesus comes back to us, Jesus abides in us, Jesus forgives us, and Jesus offers the fruit of salvation to us.
We do nothing and we deserve nothing.
And yet the invitation still stands. We get to taste the earthy fruit of the vine and know that it is for us. What wondrous Good News. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 8.26-40, Psalm 22.25-31, 1 John 4.7-21, John 15.1-8). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including vine time, different perspectives, the vocation of reading, God’s agency, Christotelism, the grammar of love, faithful fruit, the three Bs, and longterm obedience. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Heavenly Buffet
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will life to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.
I was on vacation with my extended family and decided that, as a pastor, I should still probably go to church on Sunday morning. I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches,” picked the one with the least bad website, and announced my intention to the family. When Sunday morning arrived, the only takers I had for church were my sister, my son, and myself.
So we loaded into the car and left everyone to sleep in on Sunday morning as we prepared to worship the Lord in glory and splendor.
The church was beautiful, situated right in the middle of town (a town that will remain unnamed for reasons soon to be proclaimed), and when we pulled into the parking lot we were immediately greeted by a cheerful older couple dressed in their Sunday best.
Our little trio ascended the stairs leading into the sanctuary and were immediately bombarded by two things: an oppressive wave of heat wafting from the chancel area, and a slew of congregants who could sense fresh blood in the water.
Regarding the former: the AC had apparently died and the design of the sanctuary trapped the summer heat inside and we were to be treated to a sauna-like atmosphere for the service.
Regarding the latter: I couldn’t blame the church folk. Here we were looking like a new little family in town and they were all so happy to see people they’d never seen before.
And in that briefest of moments I had a choice. Well, I had a few. I could’ve grabbed my son and sister and made for the nearest exit so that we could find a church that had their air conditioning running. But seeing as I am a pastor, I felt that a tad impolite. Which brings me to the main choice I had: To share, or not to share, my vocation.
There’s something that happens when a pastor attends another church – people become, as my grandmother says, beside themselves. They want to pull out all the stops, and find you the best pew in the house, and they want to be their very best.
I’m not sure.
It’s not as if, as a pastor, I would ever come back on another Sunday. I have a job that requires me to be in a particular place at a particular time nearly every Sunday of my adult life.
Nevertheless, I had to choose. And, seeing as I was on vacation, I decided to truly rest, and allow the congregation to rest, and when the first person stepped forward to shake my hand, he sure enough asked what I did for a living. I opened my mouth to say something about being a librarian, or construction worker, or being a mid-tier manager at a sufficiently boring data company when my son, all of three years old at the time, stepped right in front of me and yelled, “I’m Elijah and this is my dad. He’s a pastor!”
And so it began.
15 minutes later, having received a tour that included a forgotten church library, three sets of bathrooms, and a hallway filled with more pamphlets than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time, I found myself sitting in what I was assured to be the best pew in the sanctuary, next to my sister and son and the three of us were completely drenched in sweat.
We stood for the appropriate hymns, we bowed for the requisite prayers, and finally we sat back for the sermon.
I love listening to other people preach. It is so much of what I do after all, and I don’t get to hear a lot of preaching, so I settled in to hear what God had to say through this particular preacher.
The text was John 10 – I am the good shepherd.
The preacher wax eloquently about John’s gospel in general, and the importance of the various I am statements (I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth, and the life). The preacher made various allusions to Exodus 3 when Moses encountered God as the burning bush who declared I Am Who I Am.
It was all well and good, until it wasn’t.
The preacher was wrapping up the homiletical insights and ended with this: “Jesus is the good shepherd who watches out for the sheep. All of you out there are the sheep. You don’t know what to do and what not to do which is why you need Jesus. But I am neither shepherd nor sheep. I, as the pastor, am the sheep dog. Now I know that John doesn’t mentioned the sheep dog but I’m sure that he just forgot to write that part down. As the sheep dog my primary responsibility is to keep all of you in line. I will nip at your legs to make sure you know what you can and can’t do, where you can and you can’t go. So let me do my job.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen?
The church universal has traditionally observed this, the 4th Sunday of Easter, as Good Shepherd Sunday. In all three years of the lectionary cycle, four different texts assigned for each Sunday, today is all about shepherds and sheep from both the Old and New Testaments.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of the perfect “life after Easter” message – Jesus returns to us, Jesus finds us, and Jesus will never let us go.
We are given an assurance from the Good Shepherd, just on the other side of rejection and resurrection, that we are loved, that we are cared for, that we matter not based on what we do or do not do, but on what Jesus does for us.
Which, to be clear, is rather counter to what I heard on vacation.
Consider the sheep: The sheep cannot do much of anything for themselves or their situations. The only thing sheep can do, really, is follow. And even that can be a trying endeavor. And when a sheep is lost, it is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep. The only hope a lost sheep has is being found by the shepherd.
Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, tell us exactly what he will do, how far he will go, to save a bunch of dumb sheep who can’t do anything for themselves.
Jesus, to put it simply, does it all.
Jesus gets all the good verbs in scripture and yet, in Christian preaching, he often feels like an after-thought. But Jesus, even here, warns us about that possible proclamation! The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away! Jesus is rebuking religious leaders then, and now, who neglect the people of God.
Do you see? Discipleship is all about the admission of our condition – we’re sheep; we are dead in our sins. It is all about coming to grips with the fact that we have no power to save ourselves or to convince anyone that we are worth saving.
Consider – More than 18 million children in the US live in food insecure homes.
For the first time since the 1960’s life expectancy in the US has gone down.
And, while people celebrated (or lamented) the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd last year, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a 16 year old girl named Ma’Khia Bryant.
I could go on and on.
We truly are sheep without a hope in the world unless we have a shepherd who is willing to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get in Christ Jesus.
God in Christ finds us in the desert of death, not in the garden of progress. God meets us right smack dab in the middle of our sins, not in the triumph of our accomplishments.
The life of faith is predicated on recognizing how lost we are, how our lives really are out of our hands, how if we will ever really live again it will entirely be the gift of some gracious shepherd who delights in putting us on his shoulders and carries us home.
We can call the Good Shepherd a good shepherd because while the hired hands run away at the first sign of danger, or puts all sorts of unhelpful (and unattainable) expectations on us, Jesus remains steadfast. And (!) Jesus does not merely care for the sheep within reach, but also gathers the whole flock together!
For all of the talk in the church today about inclusion (open hearts, minds, doors), the most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners, which includes each and every single one of us!
And that’s the most important part of whatever this thing is that we call church – its about proclaiming God’s grace imputed to sinners through the work of Jesus Christ. If that’s not the beginning, middle, and end of everything we do, then we’re not really doing anything.
But, instead of making that profound proclamation, we are far more likely to be consumed by sheep dogs nipping at our legs both inside, and outside, the church. We hear it from pastors, politicians, pundits, and everyone in between. Things like: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, thinking globally, don’t drink so much, practice mindfulness, inclusiveness, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, on and on and on.
And, all of things are good and fine, we probably should start doing that stuff – but they are not where we begin. If those things are anything, they are a response to what God has already done.
A Bishop, from another denomination (thankfully), used to be in charge of recruiting for a seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to lead the church and he would end every single interview the same way, with a role play. He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now, tell me why I should go to church…”
Every single person, throughout the years, would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.” Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. But the Bishop would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.” Then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”
He recruited for years and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.
The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the musical prodigies. Church may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus.
For the church today, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. We might think the main thing is convincing other people to adopt our positions on social issues. We might think the main thing is making sure that everyone falls asleep at night with a full belly. We might think the main thing is putting on the greatest performance in the world every single Sunday. But those are not the main thing.
The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified. The main thing is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born to dwell among us. The main thing is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who never ever stops tending to the sheep.
Friends, the only thing we’ve got that other group don’t, is Jesus Christ and him crucified, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; for us!
People can get everything they need, except Jesus, from other places and other people. And they might even be better at that stuff than we are.
But we’re in the Jesus business. That is: we are here to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all that we’ve wronged, that we are love in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be loved, and that, and the end of all things, we know how the story ends because we know Jesus Christ. Amen.