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Easter 4

Being Found, Being Known, Being Enough.
John 10: (10),11-18

by Rev Elisabeth R Jones

As I wrote on the blog this week, no matter which year of the Lectionary we’re in, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is littered with sheep on every side! Those lectionary compilers must have really liked this image of God and Jesus as Shepherd to us sheep. It’s a church musician’s dream, and a preacher’s nightmare.
It’s the perfect opportunity to sing again the much-loved Crimond version of the 23rd Psalm, organists can riff on Bach’s or Beethoven’s or anybody else’s “Pastoral Symphony.” There are gazillions of anthems to choose from, including the lovely one we sang a few moments ago. But how many years in a row are people willing to listen to a preacher say “Jesus loves us like a shepherd loves his dumb, ornery ungulates with weird eyes?” That “We, like sheep, have a recurrent habit of getting caught in thickets, and a propensity to block the highways, run round in circles and stamp our feet at anyone attempting to herd us in the right direction.” ?
I thought not!

After preaching last week about the blessings hidden in the discipline of “hosting a text long enough for it…. to begin to ask us questions, that open up new possibilities”i for the way we see God at work in the world,
I thought I’d better practice what I preach, and host these blessed texts.
I’m glad I did, but I have now to make a public confession:

I thought I knew this passage well.
I’ve preached it, taught it, and I’ve even written an article on the meaning of the verse that immediately precedes it.ii
But until last week and this, while hosting this text,
reading it forwards, backwards, and in context,
I’d never made the connection between this famous
“I am the Good Shepherd” passage in John’s Gospel,
and the story that happens just before it.

I was tempted to have Martha read the 9th chapter as well as the 10th, but she’d still be reading now, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t.
So, let me fill you in….

….. But before I do, let me remind you,
John was not a videographer following Jesus around
recording his every word and move.
John is more like a movie editor, cutting and pasting clippings of Jesus’ actions and sayings, and adding a voice-over theological commentary to create a particular portrayal of Jesus as Christ, God’s anointed.
Therefore, what John chooses to insert before the Good Shepherd speech matters.

What he’s chosen to insert is this:
Jesus, plus his followers are “walking along”
and a man born blind sits beside the road,
holding out his Tim’s cup, begging for a nickel…..
You’d think Jesus would not only throw him a quarter, but heal him on the spot, and move on.
But no! First we have to witness a theological debate
between students and their professor…
“Erm, Jesus, sir, before you do anything,
we have this question:
was it the fault of the blind man or his parents that he’s been born blind?”

People still ask that question don’t they?
“What did that nice person do to deserve cancer?”
“Why do only the good die young?”
“Lung cancer, eh? Well, he/she is a smoker….”
“Isn’t HIV a judgment of God?”
Despite everything we know in the 21st century about the origins of disease, we still attach moral cause and effect to it.
It seems this habit is as old as the hills,
and that two thousand years later,
we still have trouble with Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question.

“Neither! It has nothing to do with punishment for sin, past, present or future. The man is not blind because he sinned, nor because his parents did.”
That’s sermon enough right there.
But not the sermon for today…
Jesus doesn’t stop there, or John doesn’t let him.
[Remember, John’s portrayal of Jesus is as an all-knowing wise sage whose every word and action is a deliberate “sign” of God’s work in the world, and of Jesus’ relationship to God as divine power made flesh.]
So Jesus carries on and says
“But, let me show you what happens when God’s power and love are unleashed.”
……You guessed it, the incurably blind man can now see!

Humans have trouble with miracles;
if we can’t dismiss them with science or logic,
we apparently dismiss the recipient of the miracle.
This man born blind is now accused of fraud.
Jesus is hauled out for ‘working’ on the Sabbath to cure the man
(even though they refuse to believe a miracle happened). A lot of effort is made to squash the story
before it makes the evening newsreels,
before it trends on Twitter.
Jesus is told to cease and desist,
and the poor “blind-but-now-I-see” man,
through no fault of his own, is driven out of town, banished!
Cut off from his family, community, and livelihood!
Jesus of course, does not cease and desist;
he preaches loudly and not particularly gently
about spiritual blindness,
and promptly goes off,
into the seedy wasteland beyond the gates of town, seeking, calling out for,
and eventually finding the banished outcast.

The encounter between them is beyond words:
a moment of mutual recognition,
the lost and the found,
the healer and healed,
the broken and whole,
and neither knows who is which, and it doesn’t matter!
Being known, being found, is enough.

Coming back to the gathering crowd,
— with the now sighted, newly minted disciple in tow—
Jesus resumes and ends his sermon with
“For pity’s sake, I was sent by God into this world
so that all people can have life,
and have it abundantly!”

“Don’t y’all see? I am the good shepherd.”
Words that now take on substance, flesh and bone,
not merely as an abstracted ancient middle-eastern pastoral metaphor ,
but words grounded in this action,
of healing, defending,
seeking and finding one to whom he has given
an abundance of life undreamed of,
and un-hoped for.

“Do you see, I am the Good Shepherd”
– who goes looking for those sheep of God’s fold,
those too often lost and left behind by bad shepherds and hired hands of soulless religion and society,
and who brings them, giggling,
into the community of God’s abundance.

“I am the Good Shepherd”
– who lays down his life for this flock of God’s beloving. Words of truth we cannot hear without filtering them through the noise of crucifixion.
We know he would, and did, and does,
and knowing that we begin to see, even in ourselves, both how hard, and how easy it is
to act on a bone-deep belief that God’s promises
of abundant life are to be trusted,
not only for ourselves, but for all people.
God’s abundant life of community, of healing,
of growth in wisdom and compassion,
of freedom through care
this abundant life community is worth living for,
laying one’s life on the line for.

I confess that it’s only been by hosting this text
that I’ve realized that John’s often ‘wordy’ Jesus
is not just all talk,
not just all theological theory,
not a proponent of a ‘spiritualized’ faith divorced from human reality,
but one who walks this talk.

I will never now read this text of the Good Shepherd without seeing,
superimposed on the traditional icon of Jesus
holding a lamb about his neck,
this deeper icon,
this window into the Dream of God,
of Jesus, his arm around the shoulders
of a once-blind, once outcast man,
who is rubbing his sainted, sighted eyes,
above a grin broader than that of a Cheshire cat.

That’s a shepherd I’d follow. Wouldn’t you?
………
Amen!
 
 
©Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones    Easter 4    2012


1Quoting last week’s sermon


2“Abundant Life: implications for the full ministry of people with disabilities” WARC working paper, 2003.

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