Sunday, May 31, 2020

E Pluribus Unum

May 31, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Acts 2:1-21[1]

E Pluribus Unum is Latin for “Out of many, one.” You’re familiar with the phrase, of course, from the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the back of the One-Dollar Bill, among other places. It was considered a de-facto motto of the U.S. until 1956 when the United States Congress passed an act, adopting “In God We Trust” as the official motto.

At the time of the American Revolution, the phrase appeared prominently on the title page of a popular periodical, The Gentleman’s Magazine,[2] which collected articles from many sources into one “magazine,” an old-fashioned news aggregate website, if you will.

The meaning of the phrase was that out of many states (or colonies) emerged a single nation. It has also come to mean that out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries has emerged a single people and nation—the “melting pot.”

Now, I think the melting pot concept has a flaw, in that it suggests that, when we come together, we turn into a uniform material, that we all conform to one common culture. While this sounds nice, it’s not what really happens. I suggest that we – as a nation made of many different peoples – are more like a stew. The chunks of beef, carrots, potatoes, and other ingredients remain distinct while making one dish.

Most people adopt English as the language of interaction, while retaining their first language at home and in gatherings such as churches. For example, several years ago my wife, Felicia, led worship in Spanish at the First Presbyterian Church of Marengo. This church, like many of our sister congregations in the United Church of Christ, was formed by German immigrants, and worship services were, until the 1940’s, conducted in German.

In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, the Ad Council launched a public service announcement in which ethnically diverse people say “I am an American.”[3] Near the end, the phrase E Pluribus Unum is seen with the English translation underneath. This is who we are today, a people made of many peoples, yet one nation. As the musician David Wilcox wrote, “We are children of slavery, children of immigrants, remnants of tribes and of tired refugees. As the walls tumble down, we are stronger together.”[4]

As Christians, this concept of many becoming one takes us back to that moment, Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus when God’s Holy Spirit came like the rush of the wind. The church was born as the Holy Spirit entered in and rested like a tongue of fire on each of them. Though they, the disciples at least, were all Galilean Jews, the crowd that gathered were from every nation. The people heard them speaking in many languages, and each person understood, no matter where they were from.

Jerusalem is a crossroads of the ancient near-east. Travelers, merchants, and armies have long crossed through this region. And Jerusalem bears the scars of many invasions, as empire after empire conquered the land and ruled over the people. So, the crowd that gathered probably represented much of the region around Jerusalem, at least, and possibly from much further away. And within just a few generations, the Holy Spirit would be poured out, if not on all flesh, at least in nearly every nation in the Eastern Hemisphere.

The rush of wind, tongues of fire, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing something new, something that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. Though the disciples, I’m sure, had no idea what was to come, in hindsight we can see that the church was destined from the beginning to circle the globe.

Now, it makes me sad that Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. is the most segregated hour in this nation. Though we Christians share the same bible, are baptized, and share The Lord’s Supper, we have fractured into thousands of pieces. It is estimated that there are some 43,000 different denominations of Christians.

Now, it depends on how you count, of course. These “denominations” are defined in terms of being separate organizations, not necessarily separate belief systems. The largest component (something like two thirds to three quarters) are “independent” churches, mostly in Africa, which are not necessarily different in doctrine, but are simply independent. The estimate includes national branches of the same denomination, such as the Lutheran Church of Germany and the Lutheran Church of Australia, as separate organizations. And there are many so-called “non-Denominational” churches which have effectively the same teachings, just different locations, different leaders, etc.

Some sources suggest Christian denominations can be divided into 6 major groups: Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Protestants, Independents, and “Marginals”. Wikipedia[5] lists about 40 major divisions, each of whom have some variation in belief. And there are serious disagreements between our various churches. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

The differences among us, just as the differences among the members of the crowd that heard Peter preach that Pentecost morning, reveal the diversity of humanity united as followers of Jesus. Instead of dividing us, that diversity can provide a startling illustration of just how great the power of God is. Rather than dressing us each in a white robe and erasing our individual identities, God enters into relationship with us just as we are, wherever we have come from, no matter the languages we speak, and despite all that might cause us to turn away from one another.

Even as we have sheltered in our homes, worn masks when we ventured out, and avoided close contact with others, we have taken part in a global exercise in unity. “We are in this together” the signs read. By the simple act of wearing masks, meant to protect others from any droplets we may breathe out, we have engaged in a tremendous act of love for our neighbors. Most of us, when exposed to this virus, would survive. But, because a few of us would die, we have tried to save them by our sacrifice. And not just us, but people around the world. In a short video from late March, showing empty streets and closed shops, these words were spoken: “What you’re seeing in those empty spaces is how much we do care for each other… It isn’t the end of the world. It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness in our lifetime.”[6]

Today, on the birthday of a church called to spread to the ends of the earth, the love of God is given for everyone. Not just the disciples, gathered in a room, trying to figure out what to do now that Jesus has gone. Not just the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road or who witnessed him resurrected. No, at this moment, “all flesh,” male and female, old and young, slave and free, all are invited and included—all of us members of one body, indispensable.

The same Spirit of God that inspired the tongues of those gathered in Jerusalem is looking to inspire a rebirth within us. It is the same Spirit that led Isaiah to envision a holy mountain for all people, and gave the vision to John of Patmos of a city with no walls and no temple, where God dwells among us. It is the same Spirit that is breaking in to our cloudy consciousness renewing us.

The differences between us don’t matter to God. You’ve heard it said: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[7] The rules that are designed to keep us apart have been broken by this God who loves all people. God is bigger than one group or another. There is no longer Catholic or Protestant, there is no longer Presbyterian or Methodist, there is no longer Congregational or Evangelical. God is bigger than any denomination. God is the Creator of the entire universe and all that is within it. God’s love is not limited to this people or that; God’s love is for all people, no exceptions.

This can be a time of great renewal for our church and all churches, an opportunity to re-examine the essential questions of how we are the church. This is a time to re-commit ourselves to the idea that “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it”[8]. This is a time for our children to prophesy, for young people to dream dreams and older folk to see visions, a time to welcome the outpouring of Spirit that calls us into tomorrow.

Today’s story is our beginning story. The celebration of Pentecost, which began as a remembrance of God giving the Law to Moses at Sinai, now marks the giving of new life and the gift of the church, a new way of living for those who would follow Jesus in every land and in every age. Not just some kinds of people, but all different kinds of people, in all different places, different languages and customs, different cultures and backgrounds and experiences, different abilities and genders and races and orientations, all different kinds of people, loved by God and filled with God’s Spirit, a new creation just as it could and ought to be.

May you experience the fire of God’s Holy Spirit, anticipate it with joy and hope, give in to it with love. Live in solidarity with all people, so that they’ll know we are Christians by our love! Out of many, may we be one in living the gospel, bringing good news to the world that God loves.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[4] David Wilcox, “City of Dreams” on Into the Mystery © 2003.

[7] Galatians 3:28.

[8] 1 Corinthians 12:26.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Prayer for the People

May 24, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Psalm 1; John 17:4-21[1]

I wonder how the disciples felt, after supper, listening as Jesus prayed for them. He had washed their feet, a surprising thing for their master to do, demonstrating through this act that they were to live as servants to one another. Judas had left, though they did not yet know why. They had to understand that something big was about to happen; Jesus had told them he was leaving the world and going to God. He had given them a new commandment, that they love one another as he had loved them. And he had warned them that the world would hate them, and told them that they do not belong to the world.

It was a lot to take in. They may have felt like their world was being upended, and I’m sure they were afraid of what was to come. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells them, and he prays for them. “While I was with them, I protected them,” Jesus prays, “I guarded them… But now I am coming to you… I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” Jesus entrusts them to the care of God, and asks that they be sanctified, that they be made holy. They will be sent out into the world, a world that will hate them, and they will need one another like they never have before. Jesus prays for their unity, “that they may be one,” as Jesus and God are one, and that they may be included in that oneness. And Jesus prays that they may have joy.

This is what Jesus prays for them, and also for us. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” The prayer of Jesus for the disciples, a prayer for the people of God through all the ages, is a prayer that all of us need to hear. And in that prayer, we begin to understand what Jesus meant by “abide in me.” To abide in Christ is to trust, to love, to be one, to be holy, and to know joy.

Jesus began by turning the tables of the disciples’ lives upside down, and nothing would ever be the same. But after that supper, after all Jesus did and said in that moment, they must have felt that everything was about to change again, but this time they would lose the one for whom they had left everything behind. The disciples were facing what is known as a liminal time, a time of change and transition between one way of being and the next. They were uncertain of their future and the changes that would come.

I find it encouraging that the disciples experienced that liminal time. We, too, are facing change and uncertainty, a time when the ways in which we have always done things are being turned upside down. Hugging, shaking hands, offering a caring touch or a blessing, these have become risky. It has been a long time since we shared the kiss of peace in church, or drank from the same cup for communion, but now even breaking bread and sharing it must be done with caution. Coughing and sneezing have always been understood as having the potential to spread disease, but now we are learning that singing, speaking, and even breathing in enclosed spaces over the course of an hour can spread infection.

Many of us are anxious about our own health and that of our loved ones. We are more depressed, more easily angered, and frustrated by the limits imposed on us. We yearn for connection with others, we miss our families and friends, and we wonder whether it’s worth taking the risk to be back with our church family. We want everything to get back to normal, even as we know we can’t go back but only move forward.

It is natural to long for what has been, even as we realize that things are no longer what they were before. It is only human to be anxious when we are going through change. But we can take heart that other faithful people have been here before us. We can be encouraged when we remember that we abide in Christ, and we are the people for whom Jesus prays.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (v. 11). Jesus prays that God will protect us, and as we wear masks, wash our hands, sanitize surfaces, and stay home as much as we can, we are protecting ourselves and others. This is how we love our neighbors as ourselves. This is how we act as one.

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (v. 15). We can’t just leave, jet off to some safer place where there is no virus, but Jesus prays that we will be protected from the evil one. When some people fill their pockets and secure their power while millions of others get sick, lose their jobs, and hundreds of thousands die, evil is on the loose. Protect your people from evil, O God of goodness and love.

Jesus prayed for the disciples, and prays for us. Jesus prays that we will know that God loves us, God is with us, and we are one with God. This prayer assures us that even when the world around us is falling apart, even when our anxiety is justified and the future will be difficult and dangerous, God is with us. God is pulling us onward, asking us to trust that we will not be alone, we are in Christ and Christ is with us.

“I will not leave you orphaned,”[2] Jesus tells them, and promises that the Holy Spirit will be with them. Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, remembering that day when the Holy Spirit came like the rush of the wind, resting on each of the disciples like tongues of fire, and they were filled with the Spirit. That same Spirit fills us as well, sanctifying us, empowering us, and making us one.

There will be a time in the not-so-distant future when we will be able to move freely in the world again. But even now, as a people not of the world, but sent into the world, we are called live a life dedicated to God, loving God with all that we are, showing love and compassion for others, making hard choices and trusting that we are not alone.

God watches over us. We are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield fruit in its season, and our leaves do not wither. God watches over us, so that in all that we do, in love and in service, we prosper. We are the people that Jesus prays for, a community even when we are apart, uncertain of our future, but moving ahead as one, one with each other, and one with God.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[2] John 14:18.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

By What Power?

May 17, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Acts 4:1-11; John 14:8-24[1]

Have you ever been challenged to defend yourself, what you believe, what you have done, or what you have said? It can come as a shock, startling us into defensiveness. Sometimes we know what to say, but when we’re caught off-guard, we often draw a blank. How could the other person not understand things the way I do? How could my intentions not be clear? In the scripture passages for today, Peter is challenged by the high priests of Israel, and Jesus is challenged by Philip.

Peter has healed a man, and the priests are threatened. They are the ones who are supposed to hold the power. People are supposed to come to the temple to be healed. But this Peter person has side-stepped all of that. “Who do you think you are?” they seem to ask. “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (v. 7) We’re the authorities here, and we didn’t give you authorization. Peter answers, “I have done a good thing! This man has been healed by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” But the priests don’t see it that way. Jesus and his followers are a threat to their power.

Philip challenges Jesus in a similar way. He seems to ask, “Where does your power come from? If it is from God, then show us God and we’ll believe.” Jesus answers, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (v. 9) “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (v. 10) Power, real power, comes from God.

Power is often measured by control over others. It is control based on money, fear, and ignorance. Peter and Jesus have a different understanding of power. Power is love, healing, truth-telling, moral clarity, and love of God above all else. Power belongs to God alone, and we are merely the instruments of God’s power.

Most of us do not truly understand the power of God that resides in us. Jesus understood. He said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (v. 11) Philip did not understand, even though Jesus did many things to show him the power of God within him. Peter didn’t get it then, either. It was only after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after the Pentecost, when Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, that he understood the power that was within him.

If Peter and Philip didn’t get it, and they walked around with the living, breathing, Jesus, it’s no wonder we struggle too. But the power is there. The power of God is within each of us. And if we believe and trust in God, that power will be revealed. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (v. 12) By the power of God, Peter stood up to the powerful and brought healing. What works of love, justice, and peace might we accomplish if we believe in the power of God, and trust God to use us well?

Now, we can’t expect to become miracle workers like Jesus. Faith healers that put on a show for the TV cameras are doing just that – putting on a show. I haven’t ever been able to move a mountain just by having faith and praying for it to move. The storms on Thursday didn’t stop when I said “Peace, be still,” and I’m an ordained minister! However, by connecting to God, praying for God to increase my courage and strength, I have been able to calm the storm in myself, and help others move metaphorical mountains. With the help of God, I have helped others to connect to the love and grace of God in moments of joy and pain. And when others have shown their love and care for me in my time of need, I too have experienced the power of God’s love.

The greatest power Jesus possessed was love. As he nears the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus makes plain to the disciples the most important aspect of his mission: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[2] This commandment, so simple and yet so hard at times to follow. This is the core of all the teaching, the motivation for all the miracles, the source of the Savior’s power.

The Gospel of John was written in a time when the empire of Rome dominated the world of this budding faith, when violence ruled, and rebels might have raised a call to arms. In a striking contrast, the Gospel makes a different claim about power. Real power, the power to transform lives and relationships, is the power of God’s love, love that endured the cross, and even death, and will not abandon the disciples. As Jesus prepares to leave them, his parting message is that love abides. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (v. 21).

If this were simply the love of greeting cards and romance movies, the disciples would have been lost. This was not sunshine and roses but the lived reality of Jesus, a person they knew from Nazareth, who looked and talked like them, and lived as one of them. Revealed in that life of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, touching the lepers, and treating each person with compassion, was the powerful love of God. In challenging the ethics of legal scholars, and lifting up the value of each person, even sinners, even outcasts, Jesus made the powerful claim that each one of them, and each one of us, is worthy of love, respect, and peace.

In the command to love one another, to love our neighbor, to love God, is the call to recognize the image of God that lives in every other. Love requires that we see them, those people, the “other” as people whom God also loves and wants us to love. It is not a love that is hierarchical, superior, or condescending but mutual, understood in serving one another, sharing in common what is needed for life to thrive. Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the disciples’ feet, telling them, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”[3] As the early church was formed, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”[4] With love as the source and rule of life, the Christian community became known for their love.

My friends, you may not have magical healing powers, but you are connected to the power of God. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (v. 15). Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another as I have loved you. Ideas that seem so simple, and yet require of us all our heart and mind and strength. But if you love Jesus, if you love God, the Spirit of God abides with you.

In every act of compassion, in every work of kindness, we encounter the power of God. In our time, staying home and wearing a mask while out in public are simple yet powerful works of love. In every age, sharing what we have with others as they have need, listening as the broken-hearted pour out their grief, challenging the power of those who would use violence and hatred to dominate others, we carry on the mission of Jesus to reveal the powerful love of God to the world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[2] John 13:34.
[3] John 13:14.
[4] Acts 2:44-45.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

God's Dwelling

May 10, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 14:1-14

If you have been to a funeral, you have probably heard this passage. It is one that I have used many times. In this passage from John, Jesus is talking about leaving the disciples. He is trying to prepare them for what is coming. Jesus gives them this vision of heaven. When Jesus tried to describe heaven, he used words that meant home: love, and peace, and family. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… I go to prepare a place for you” (v. 2). There is a place prepared for each of us. We have a home that is beyond this world. A home filled with love and peace. A home where God welcomes us like a father or a mother.

When Jesus spoke of God, he used the word “Father.” Joseph, the human father of Jesus, must have been a wonderful father. His family must have been his true passion. Joseph loved his family so much, that when Jesus had to choose one word to describe God, he chose “Father.”

Jesus might have used the word “Mother.” After all, it was his mother who outlived Joseph, raised Jesus on her own for at least part of his life, and stuck by her son as he became a traveling preacher and healer. She even tried to get him to come home when she feared the authorities might come to take him away. Mary was even there at the cross, despite all the horror, pain, and loss. Mother was always there.

God’s love for us is unconditional, like the love of our mothers and fathers. Jesus assures us that we have a home with God, a home where we will be welcomed like a devoted child. There are many dwelling places in the house of God. There is room for everyone. There is a place for you.

These words of encouragement were part of the farewell message that Jesus gave the disciples in order to prepare them for what was to come. Their hearts were troubled, as Jesus is telling them he is leaving. What they had been expecting is not working out they way they thought. They have been following Jesus all this time and yet they still aren’t truly understanding his message, vision, and mission. They have found the Messiah in Jesus, yet he’s not what they expected.

They may have expected the Messiah to be immortal, but he is about to be crucified. They may have thought that he would lead them to liberation from the Roman occupation and restore the kingdom of David, but their defeat seems assured. Jesus isn’t rallying the troops, but saying goodbye. His death will mean the death of their hopes and dreams. Their understanding of who he is will be transformed; but in this moment, they begin to grieve the loss of what they have known and believed.

I have read some articles in a collection called “Quarantine Journal: Notes from Inside.” One letter by Justin Smith, who was experiencing the beginning symptoms of the coronavirus, addresses the changes we are all experiencing. He writes:

I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now.[1]

While we are experiencing the loss of some things, new things are being born. New ways of relating to one another, of understanding the natural world, of what it means to live and work and learn are coming into being. The changes in our lives may be painful, but they are part of the transition to new life.

In the upper room, death and birth are revealed. Rev. Shannon Pater, a minister in Atlanta, describes this moment as both the hospice and birthing room. “In both the maternity wing and the hospice room, the family is changed—all things are being made new.”[2] What is old – who they have been, plans and dreams now shattered – is dying. Their sense of self, built over years of following Jesus, passes away. In that moment, what is new – the hope of the resurrection, the church, the mission of the apostles – is being born. In that in between moment, Jesus is the hospice chaplain and the midwife, guiding the transition.

In our own rooms, our homes where we shelter, leaving behind an old way that is dying, and not yet knowing what is to come, we need the presence of one who reassures us as we transition. Just as Thomas asks “How can we know the way?” (v. 5), we too are unsure what the future holds for us. Like Phillip, if we could just see what lies ahead, that would be enough.

In the upper room, Jesus assured the disciples that no matter what happened, no matter the horror and loss to come, the most important thing would remain unchanged. There is a place prepared for you, with many dwelling places. I will come and take you there. The relationship you have with me, the relationship you have with God who is in me, will continue, even through all the change that is to come.

The change in the relationship the disciples had with God was a movement from outward seeking to inward dwelling. For all the time they had spent with Jesus, the still looked outward: who do we follow, where do we go, how do we find God? What they did not know, what they needed to be pointed out to them, was that God was always with them. Jesus begins with himself, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” I haven’t done all these things on my own. “The Father who dwells in me does his works” (v. 10). Are you looking for God? Look right here! “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (v. 6). You know God, and you know the way, because you know me.

In the days to come the disciples will lose much that they had known and understood. But they would witness the new birth of the God of resurrection. They would know the God of life that could not be extinguished. They would know the Holy Spirit, the presence of God dwelling within them. If we seek to know where God is, and how we get to the house of God, we need only look within. The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each of us. No matter what comes after this plague passes over, our relationship with God remains. Let the Comforter heal your hearts and strengthen you to stand firm in the coming transformation. Amen.

[1] Justin E. H. Smith, “It’s All Just Beginning” in The Point, March 23, 2020. Online at:
[2] Shannon Michael Pater, Pastoral Perspective on John 14:1-14 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 468.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Don’t Climb the Fence, Use the Gate!

May 3, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Psalm 23; John 10:1-18[1]

OK, here it comes again - getting compared to sheep.  We’re supposed to be obedient and passive, following the rules, going where we’re led, content with our lives.  Well, I’m not a follower.  I’m a leader!  I can fly solo and I don’t need anyone to tell me what I’m supposed to do or where I’m supposed to go.  I’m free and independent; I can do it on my own, thank you very much!
There are times, I’m sure, when we all feel like this.  Someone else wants to tell us who we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to do, how we should look, what we should buy, and how we should feel.  We get tired of other people controlling us, and we want to just shut out all the noise and just be ourselves.
It’s all these voices that surround us, pulling us in a thousand directions, which leave us feeling stretched, frustrated, lost.  Everywhere we turn there is another voice offering us better, bigger, faster, more.  “The world’s thinnest smartphone. Takes the best pictures ever!”  “The Super Duty truck – built stronger, tougher, better.”  “We make every aspect of rolling over your 401k as simple as possible. Make the smart choice.”  “The ultimate, collectible, special edition – available for a limited time!”  The volume keeps getting louder and louder, and we begin to start listening.
“Maybe if I buy a bigger TV I’ll be happier.”  “One more promotion and I’ll finally get to do what I want.”  “If I wear right jeans, maybe she’ll notice me.”  We start to listen, and we begin to follow those voices.  They are very seductive, and they sound so sincere.  And then we really lose our way, because those voices confuse us.  They don’t come from a place of love and community.  They lead us into the dark valley, charge admission to the green pastures, and bottle up the still waters.
It’s not that we haven’t heard the warnings.  When we stop to think about it, we know where the thieves and bandits are leading us.  But it’s so much easier to climb the fence than do what it takes to get through the gate.  Trying to do the right thing, to be the best version of ourselves all the time can be exhausting.  It’s so much easier to just give in to temptation.  We want so desperately what the thieves and bandits promise: contentment, happiness, joy – even when we know they can’t deliver.
I think that what we are all really searching for is abundance.  But it is not the abundance of material things.  It is not the abundance of wealth, power, or prestige.  It is not even the abundance of people who think we’re really swell.  I think what we are all really searching for is something that only the true shepherd can give us – abundance of life.  In the Psalm we hear the metaphor of the abundant life of the spirit – green pastures, still waters, the overflowing cup.
Jesus says “I am the good shepherd.”[2]  In the hill country of ancient Israel, a shepherd lived a hard life. There was little or no shelter, wolves and snakes to contend with, and all those sheep in constant need of fresh grass, water, and someone to lead them.  But a good shepherd loved the sheep as his own, and would lay down his life to protect them.
Jesus is the gate for the sheep – and when we come in and go out by the gate, we find pasture.  When we hop the fence with the thieves and bandits, we only end up being destroyed.  But, when we hear that one voice, the voice of the one who knows us each by name, then we know the one to follow.  When we follow the voice of the one who loves us, we know that we will be led by right paths to the abundant pasture.
It is lonely when no one knows your name, your story, the real you.  When no one knows you, it is as if you don’t matter, you don’t belong.  There is a challenge in that for the Church.  Most of us know the names of the people who join us each week for worship.  But even in our small church there are people who are not known.  There are people whose names are not called, whose stories go untold, who never know a real sense of community, of belonging, of being known.  It is a challenge to us, as people who are known, to seek out the unknown, to seek out those who are lonely and lost, and call them by name.  It is a challenge to us to welcome into our community those who don’t seem to fit anywhere else and open the gate so that they can belong, because they too have a shepherd who calls them by name.
One of the ways in which we name one another is something we do in worship each week.  We share our joys and celebrate the ones we love by saying the names.  We celebrate birthdays and lift up people who are sick and who have died.  We have postponed Confirmation Sunday until we can gather in person again, but on that day each of the young people being confirmed will hear their name spoken in the midst of the gathered community.  In normal times, at commencement ceremonies around the world, the names of high-school and college graduates are spoken as they step forward to be recognized, and we will recognize the graduates from our church family here.  On All Saints Sunday, we speak the names of those who have died in the past year, as we celebrate the lives they lived among us.
When Mary Magdalene went to the garden on that first Easter morning, Jesus called her by name, and she knew that voice.  In that voice she heard the love and care and hope that God had for her.  In that one word, “Mary,” she knew that she mattered.
In the early church the disciples had very little.  But they had at least three things they could celebrate.  They had a community where they were known by name, a community wherein they shared all things in common, and served one another’s needs.  They had the presence of the Holy Spirit as they spent time praying in the temple and breaking bread together with glad and generous hearts.  And they had an abundance of life as the goodness and mercy that filled their cups overflowed into their community and beyond.
I have enjoyed that abundant life from time-to-time.  I remember as a child going to church pot-lucks and festivals that filled the air with fellowship and celebration.  When I was in high school, I went to camp, spending a week or a week-end singing, praying, learning, and eating in sacred community.
Take a moment and see if you can remember a time when you had that powerful experience of fellowship, joy, and community.  Can you remember that feeling?  Can you remember that feeling of abundance – love, and joy, and peace?
Like you I’m sure, those moments have been fleeting for me.  They come around only from time-to-time.  I get pulled away, drawn back into the routine, the work that must be done, the pains and sorrows, frustrations and hassles of a life that seems everything but abundant.  Honestly, sometimes I think about climbing the fence and running off toward the false promises.
That is why it is so important that we remind one another that the life we seek, the abundant life, is found in Christ.  We enter by the gate when we listen to the voice of the one who laid down his life for us, yet rose again to life abundant.  We follow the shepherd because we know the voice.
And how do we know the voice of our shepherd?  It helps if we stay with the flock, or hang out near the gate.  We practice listening together and learning to tune out the discordant and dissonant noise that leads us astray.  We study and speak and sing the words of Jesus until we hear him calling to us, and we know his voice: “It is I; do not be afraid.”[3]  “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”[4]  “Love one another as I have loved you.”[5]  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”[6]  “Follow me.”[7]
When we practice listening, listening with each other for the voice of true, holy love, we begin to hear it through the din of all the other voices.  And when we become adept at following that voice, we become shepherds too.  We can help others to listen to the voice of the shepherd and to stop listening to the thieves and bandits who know us not.  We become guides for one another, shepherds in sheep’s clothing, if you will.  When we know the way through the gate, we can help others to find the way.  Listen!  I hear a voice calling my name.  Do you hear it too?  It’s saying “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”[8]  Amen.
[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] John 10:14.
[3] John 6:20.
[4] John 4: 14.
[5] John 15:12.
[6] John 13:35.
[7] John 1:43.
[8] John 14:6.