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Easter 4A Sermon
John 10:1-10
May
3, 2020

 

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John 10:1-10

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

My mother died six years ago this last Wednesday, and the following Sunday was not only Good Shepherd Sunday, like today, but that year it was also Mother’s Day. I am sure that some Clinton Heights folk may remember part of my sermon the following Sunday. I would like to share part of the beginning of that message today, because I think that it is so relevant to what all of us are dealing with in our world right now.

When I was younger, I remember singing a song at school and camp about going on a lion hunt. We would sit in a circle and someone would lead, and we would repeat the words, “Going on a lion hunt…I’m not afraid…I’ve got my gun….and (a friend’s name) by my side.” And then we would come to some kind of obstacle – like tall grass, a cold river, or a dark cave. And at each obstacle we would say, “Can’t go around it…can’t go over it…can’t go under it… gotta go THROUGH it!” And we would pretend to slosh our way through each obstacle in search of that lion.

Even though we call today, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” Jesus never actually refers to himself as the good shepherd in the assigned gospel reading. He does in verse 11, but we didn’t quite read that far. Rather, we have Jesus describing himself as a gate or a door through which the sheep enter and exit their sheepfold. As the gate, Jesus not only allows the sheep – which we have always seen as ourselves – in to the safety of the sheepfold, but also out into the pastures to enjoy the beauty of the valley, the coolness of the springs of water and the goodness of the grasses in the valley.
Returning to that little children’s song about the lion hunt … I cannot help but feel the immense warm comfort of the promise of the one who accompanies us through those experiences and obstacles that we would much rather go over, around or under, but that we know we have to go right through. When my mother passed, my entire family was given a gift – the opportunity to be in the room with a spiritual guide – our parents’ pastor – to be with her as her life here on earth ended. To be sure, some of us may have preferred to go around or under that experience, skipping it altogether; but we went through it … together … and as a result, I believe our love for each other, our love for our family, and our memory of our mother’s life has been strengthened, as well as our faith in Jesus Christ. The reason is that we could hear the voice of the shepherd in Pastor Gaston’s voice as he led us through that valley of the shadow of death. He was a physical manifestation of Jesus Christ, the gate for us sheep.
My sense is that all of you have had to go through something that couldn’t have been avoided – something you would have preferred to go around, over or under, but that you had to go through. Something that was very hard, but that resulted in a profound blessing. Maybe it was a difficult illness, surgery or long recovery. Possibly it was a divorce or the separation that you knew was necessary from someone who was causing you grief or pain. Maybe it was counseling to work through rifts in relationships that needed to be mended so that divorce and separation could be avoided. Maybe you had to make a few sacrifices to get out of a job that was killing you, or maybe it was a time when you had to watch a loved one die and let him or her go. The shepherding presence of Jesus Christ to redeem those otherwise futile, painful experiences in life is a gift that we celebrate whenever we proclaim the resurrection of our Lord. Suffering would be for naught if Jesus had not been raised – and so whenever we experience death or illness, job loss, separation or recovery, anything that is hard in life, the goodness that comes is on account of the free gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd, our sheep gate, the door through which we go for safety, security, healing and sustenance.

We are certainly going through a very hard thing right now. There are people who do not understand the reasons for the decisions that have been made and are lashing out at governmental leaders and the medical community for taking away our liberties as citizens of this country. I have even seen and heard some of those protesters use the phrase, “don’t be a sheep!” I feel that this is contrary to the promise that Jesus has made to call us by name and to be the door and gate through the transitional times in our lives. There is a term that is sometimes used called, “Liminal Space.” Liminal comes from the Latin word, “limen,” meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is a time between what was and what is next. It is a place of waiting, a season of waiting and dwelling in the unknown. Does this sound familiar to you right now?

Richard Rohr describes this space as, “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.” By our very nature, we human beings are prone to despise liminal space and we want either avoid it at all costs, or hurry through that threshold like a new groom carrying his bride to their honeymoon. We hear shouts of, “tyranny” and “re-open our state,” which reflect that natural tendency to resist these times and experiences. To be sure, lives are not only being attacked by this sometimes deadly virus, but lives are being threatened by economic hardship and psychological stress. Things that we thought we were entitled to – like sporting events, concerts, plays, and other gatherings of classmates, teammates, family, friends and strangers - have suddenly been cancelled, and we search out those voices that we like, that we can identity with to try to jump over that threshold from the safety of the sheepfold into the lush, green valleys of a free life. But we have other voices warning us that there are wolves and ravenous beasts close at hand in that beautiful green valley. And those voices are ones that speak for health and well-being and life in the midst of a threatening enemy. So, we are called to dwell in the discomfort of this liminal space, praying for those susceptible to this enemy, and lifting up and addressing the needs of those who are threatened by the impacts of life in this space has.

The gift of this liminal space, according to Richard Rohr, is that it is a good place for genuine newness to begin. This is not an evil place, but rather sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. Indeed, we are on the threshold of resurrection. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start to idealize normalcy. We might see this time as God’s waiting room, where we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.

My mother had a profound way to express faith in Jesus through these liminal times, which my family and congregation have heard me share many times … I apologize, but it is very appropriate; Whenever one of her children or grandchildren or any little one in her presence began to cry because of a smashed finger, stubbed toe or any other kind of cut or bruise, Mom would first of all gather the young one on a big hug to show her love and sympathy. Then as the tears began to stop a little, she would say, “You know it will feel a lot better when it stops hurting.” That should be our mantra for life in all the liminal spaces: it will feel a lot better when it stops hurting.

While going through this time I believe that we have a gift from Jesus, the gate, the door, the Good Shepherd. That gift is lament. Lament is the people of God raising our voices in grief and even anger, to express our pain and disappointment in healthy ways, with a foundation of hope to sustain us. The song which we will sing next is a typical lament which begins with complaint: “O God, why are you silent? I cannot hear your voice; the proud and strong and violent all claim you and rejoice; you promised you would hold me with tenderness and care. Draw near, O Love, enfold me, and east the pain I bear.” You heard a word of faith at the end of that first verse as complaint turns quickly to trust. The last verse, then, is a prayer for restoration: “May pain draw forth compassion, let wisdom rise from loss; oh, take my heart and fashion the image of your cross; then may I know your healing through healing that I share, your grace and love revealing, your tenderness and care.”

Jesus is with us in this liminal time. There is a new world to come on the other side of this threshold. Follow his voice to renewed, joyful life in the world that is to come. Amen.