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Life in all its fullness?!

Easter 4

John 10:1-10, Psalm 23

 Delivered by Rev Elisabeth R. Jones

“It’s all about helping people to find identity and meaning, it’s about responding to people’s need to belong, to make sense of the world around them, in the company of others.”

That quotation sounds good; a time, or a place where people together find meaning, identity, belonging. On our best days, I believe we’d like to think this is what we, the people of Cedar Park, are about as a community of faith. The quotation is not far from the characteristics described in Acts 2:42-47 (which Richard read): “finding identity and meaning, responding to people’s needs, including their need to belong to something of value, to make sense of the world around them in the company of others.”

Now, I really, really do wish that my quotation was from some deeply respected Christian, like a Desmond Tutu, or a Marcus Borg, but I’m afraid I have to disappoint, and confess that unlike the Good Shepherd, I have led you astray. For the quotation does not refer to the Church, or to faith at all, but rather, it comes from the brave new world of brand marketing, from the mouth of one of the best of those whom Terry O Reilly calls the “Persuaders” a man responsible for marketing, among other things, Tylenol, Tide laundry detergent and Saturn cars. This same man goes on to say that brand marketers have deliberately co-opted the language of faith in order to replace religion and faith as the captivators of our hearts and minds, our lifestyles as well as our wallets. Through products, their message proclaims, you too can have ‘abundant life.’

If that is the case, if these gurus of the marketplace speak truth,we really don’t need to be here today. As people living in Canada, we more than most of the rest of the world have limitless access to this abundance; we have light, heat, food, shelter, vacations to Jamaica,
treasures overflowing and crammed on the shelves of Loblaws, Walmart and the Bay, all apparently guaranteed to provide us with the meaning, the value, and the belonging we all crave.

Except we are here. Not because our wallets don’t quite stretch to get that last product required for blessedness, but because, thank God, we have this deep inner wisdom lodged in our souls and our heartsthat just knows that all these promises that flash across our TV, computer, and smartphone screensare like so many thieves and bandits prowling around in the night, promising a false abundance that will ultimately leave us empty cynical, and hopeless, if not a little dead inside.

This “deep inner wisdom” this saving grace,is something an ancient saint of the Church, Augustine, called “the restlessness soul that will not rest until it finds its peace in God.” Living during the final days of the Roman Empire, he, like us, had learned the hard way that the promises of the world – security through military might, wealth through commercial economy, power through globalized language, currency and policy, were ultimately incapable of delivering on their promisesof identity, value and belonging.

The predictable turn for this sermon would now be to proclaim that what the abundance of the market cannot provide, God can. “Put your trust in God, trust also in me,” Jesus says later in this Gospel of John.
“Christ is alive” we sang, “and comes to bring good news to this and every age, till earth and sky and ocean ring with joy, with justice, love and praise.” This I believe, in this I hope.

The trouble is, I read the paper this morning, I saw the flooded fields of Manitoba,I prayed for people, good people, faithful people whose lives are turned upside down by cancer, job loss, death, unfairness. I did not see too much to convince me that a life of faith leads inevitably, equitably, to pastures greenand to quiet waters, nor to a feast of abundance.

It is the question of the ages:How can we dare to proclaim, believe in and hope for a God who promises ‘life abundant’ in a world where the abundance of some spells grinding poverty for others?How can we teach our children to trust God’s promise of abundance when they go to school hungry, or poorly clothed? How come, if God is our Shepherd, is life often so hard for us, let alone for countless others who have a life harder than we can imagine?

For a number of years I served as United Church theologian on the Caribbean and North American Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, during the time of preparation for the World Assembly which was to be held in Accra, Ghana. Not far from the city itself stands the Elmina slave castle, a place where once free humans were held in dungeons awaiting a perilous fate as slaves in the New World.This castle cast its long shadow over our work which was to prepare some of the Bible study and worship materials for the Assembly. It was in its shadow that we chose the final verse of today’s Gospel reading as the guiding text for the Assembly’s work.In our own studies of the text, we noted what happens when we read Jesus’ promise in one of two ways: today we heard the verse as
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
we chose another English translation
“I have come that all might have life in all its fullness.”

There is a world of difference in the implications of each of the translations: “abundant life” conjures pictures of the grandeur of creation, African savannahs teeming with wildlife, South American rainforests resplendent with the calls and colours of all manner of creatures, and of barns filled to the brim with bumper harvests, and of tables groaning under the weight of a sumptuous banquet feasts.

“Life in all its fullness” on the other hand, is life lived in the shadow of Elmina castle.

Life in all its fullness, is, as the psalmist knows, one that walks along the banks of placid waters,but also through darkest of valleys, shadowed with death, with loss, and terror, and unheard-of disaster.

Life in all its fullness is one in which thieves in various guises prowl around outside the sheepfold seeking to steal, and to lead astray.

Life in all its fullness is one in which words and hands can sting and hurt as much as they can heal and nurture.

Life in all its fullness is one in which some cells reproduce to create new life, while other cells form cancers which threaten or take life.

Life in all its fullness is a shadowed life in which economic injustice,
graft, corruption and self-serving are as entrenched in the fabric of society as is the desire to foster communities of mutual wellbeing.

It is into this fullness of life that the promised of the Good Shepherd is uttered. “I have come that you may have life, in all of life’s fullness.”

This promise of the Good Shepherd is not a promise to those of us who have enough that we shall have even more. Nor yet is it an individually monogrammed promise of inner spiritual wellbeing or immunity from the pain of the world which surrounds us with darkness and despair.

Rather, it is a promise that in the fullness of life, there is, and always will be a Shepherd who protects, one who stands guard at the entrance to the sheepfold, a Gate, keeping out all those temptations and false promisers, who would seduce or threaten to lead us away
from the true abundance and safety of God’s pasture.

A few verses after the closing of our reading, we see the reaction of some to this promise. It is perhaps not so startling really, if we’re honest.John writes that some were cynical, calling Jesus a crazed fool,
making promises no one could possibly deliver in the fullness of the reality of their lives. But then again, the evidence of two thousand years, while patched at best, and full of failure, is also filled with the promise come true: the promise of life in all its fullness,of grace in the midst of grief, of blessings wrestled from curses:

– A small community sharing what it has so none will go without, as we read in Acts.
– And here right in our midst:
– A mighty group of dedicated teenagers who believe enough ‘free the children’ in countries half a world away.
– Women in rural Pakistan and coffee growers in Guatemala earning a living wage for their handiwork, thanks to the Fair Trade movement of which we are an integral part.
– Chronic pain and Healing Pathway clinics happening in our building because we believe enough in the healing energy of God to share it with others.
– Concerts of Voices for Hope, giving hope, giving life in all its fullness.

“I have come that all may have life in all its fullness.”This is both the promise, and the call of the Good Shepherd. As we are given, so may we give, In his name and for the world’s sake. Amen.

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