May 2014 Sermons:
Jesus said: “I am the gate for the sheep.” Today’s gospel parable means that Christ is the doorway to God. When we enter it, we are saved from harm. We find this theme in another important passage from John’s Gospel, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” Life is a rich term for John. He uses it in reference to Jesus, at least twenty-five times. Life is at the beginning and the end of John’s concerns. It is the first and the last thing he writes about.
Most of us like this parable of the shepherd because it’s comforting and easy to understand. And yet, the symbolism turns me off. I like to think I am smarter than a sheep, and not like everyone else; don’t you? What’s more, I’ve never met a sheep herder. I know a lot of fishermen, but I don’t even know farmers any more. Ancient Israelites had no problem understanding what Jesus meant. They saw shepherds every day. They didn’t value their individuality as much as we do today.
In Palestine, at the time of Jesus, shepherds would bring their sheep down from the hills to protect them at night. Wolves and mountain lions prowled in the dark. So, when the sun went down, shepherds would lead the flocks into pens called sheepfolds. These pens had rock walls. They were about five feet high. Shepherds lined up prickly branches along the tops of the walls. The branches acted like barbed wire, so wolves couldn’t attack the sheep inside.
The doorway of a typical sheepfold was about two feet wide. It was one small gap in the wall. There was no swinging wooden door. In fact, there was no door at all, other than the shepherd himself. At night, the shepherd would sleep in the small opening of the rock wall. He literally laid down his life for his sheep. If a mountain lion would come, the shepherd would have to fight it off with his club. The shepherd himself was, literally, the door.
Jesus is the living door who invites His sheep. He beckons to us, “Won’t you come in to my Father’s house? Won’t you come into my Father’s love? Won’t you come into my Father’s family?” Jesus is a living door who invites us into eternity.
This past week, I have been thinking about the door to my office here at church. When I have the door closed, people normally don’t come in. When the door is closed, it sends a message: “I am busy.” If, on the other hand, I leave the door wide open, everyone feels free to walk right in, and that’s fine. I wish more people would.
But let’s take this metaphor a step further. Pastors are often compared to shepherds. Suppose I stand at the door to my office, addressing you and everybody that comes along by saying: “Good morning. What’s going on in your life right now? Won’t you come in to chat?” I am not only ready to talk, but I am inviting you, saying: “Won’t you come in?” I might challenge you to take on a job in the church that you never thought of taking. Watch out!
And it is through the door that Jesus represents, that we come into the sheepfold. Do you have this mental image of a sheep pen, with five foot high rock walls, with briars on the top of those rock walls, briars that act like barbed wire? Within the sheepfold, we are protected. We are nourished and loved.
My office is like a sheepfold, after a busy Sunday morning. For most of us, our homes are like sheepfolds, too. They are places of safety and security. We feel comforted when we get home from a trip or from a stressful commute. There is the same feeling of security in being inside the sheepfold of Jesus. Each week when we come here, we are, in a sense, coming home. I hope you all feel safe here. We all need protection from heedless predators—people who hack into computers, employers who replace humans with machines, drug dealers who harm our children. We find spiritual protection, within Christian communities at their best.
None of us are perfectly safe from harm. There is still cancer, there are still heart attacks, car accidents, hurricanes, economic recession, all the threats that are part of being human. There is safety within the protectiveness of Christ and Christian friends and Christian family. Christ makes our trials worth bearing for the sake of being fully alive to the blessings hidden within those trials.
Jesus stands at the gate. Thieves and bandits steal our hearts with false promises. They lure us away from God’s plans. Christ is the gate into the sheepfold where we find protection from the wolves and mountain lions. He is the gate by which we go out to green pastures and find abundant lives. His door swings both ways.
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Most of us want a comfortable home, a good job, a happy family, a safe neighborhood, and good health. Yet deep in our hearts we realize that money, fame, and good health won’t necessarily bring salvation. What we really want is someone who will keep us safe. The twenty-third psalm tells us that the Good Shepherd will make us to lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters. His Spirit will restore our souls. For me, a loving church family is like a green pasture. There is no greater joy than being part of the body of Christ. The church of Jesus Christ is the gateway to eternal life—life that is richly lived today, and filled with the promise of something more. Jesus affirms our desire for the well-lived life. When we live abundantly, we feel free from want, from fear, from false hopes, and from covetousness.
It’s Mother’s Day. May God bless the women in our lives who have been good shepherds---those special women who cried when we went to kindergarten, cheered when we graduated from high school, rejoiced when our children were born, and missed us when we left after holiday visits.
Can you remember your mom protecting you from the wolves? My mom was my door to faith, my best teacher, and my protector. She sometimes even acted as a mountain lion, on my behalf. But she also led me into uncomfortable new places—into wading pools when I was two, into voice and piano lessons and dancing classes, and, later, into leadership in the church. The Good Shepherd leads us into abundant life in the wide world beyond our personal concerns and habits. To that end, He even challenges us sometimes. The best way we can give thanks for good shepherding, is to share God’s love—not just today, but every day.
Let us pray. Lord, we thank you for guiding our steps over the rocky terrain of our lives, and bringing us safely to the pasture of your wisdom and grace. Make us shepherds to one another, following through the gate of your peace and compassion. AMEN
I Peter 2:2-10
Two thousand years ago in Rome, an old man dictated a letter to a group of people he’d never met. These strangers, to whom he was writing, were Christians living in colonial outposts of the Roman Empire. Most of them lived in the land we now call Turkey. The First Letter of Peter is what’s known as a “disputed” letter. In other words, historians don’t know who wrote it. We’d like to believe the writer of this letter was Simon Peter, Jesus’ best friend.
Ancient Christian leaders wrote their sermons on scrolls, to be read in worship services. Peter, or perhaps a follower of Peter, wrote this letter as a sermon. Readers of the Bible know it as the First Letter of Peter. In it, the writer compares Christians to living stones, no fewer than six times. He borrows the “stone” image from the Hebrew Bible. He quotes well-known passages that faithful Jews would recognize. Peter, himself, had a stony nickname which Jesus gave him: “The Rock.” Presumably he liked it.
Do you see yourself as a rock or a stone? I like the idea of being called a stone, even less than being compared to a sheep. Sheep aren’t smart, and stones are cold and dead. We want to be thought of, as intelligent and warm. I do, and that’s why I struggle with the symbols of the sheep and the stone from the Old Testament. But to Peter’s disciples, many of them Jewish, both symbols were positive and meaningful.
Peter lived in a part of the world which was completely different from the Lehigh Valley. We live in fertile farmlands with mountains and trees and grass all around. The stones around us are tombstones and quarries and garden pebbles. Stone doesn’t interest us very much, from day to day, unless we are landscapers or work in a quarry.
Pillars and cobblestones and crumbling walls are all that’s left of cities like Smyrna and Pergamum. When my husband and I visited Turkey in 2012, we were surprised to see so much limestone in the ruins. Limestone pillars are all you see in Asia Minor. It’s kind of monotonous. One pastor on our tour complained, “My photos of this vacation are turning out to be nothing but images of pillars and stones!” It’s not easy to walk in sandals on the cobblestone streets of Ephesus. The rocky debris can be annoying, even dangerous. You have to watch your footing so pebbles don’t get in your shoes. But ruined buildings are the attractions that tourists want to see in Turkey.
A stone is a reminder of our past as a people of faith. A cornerstone stays in place for thousands of years. We had a guide from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to tell us the history of those ruins. When we saw those stones, the New Testament letters—and the book of Revelation--- came alive for me. Can you imagine the stones and pillars of those ancient cities being alive? Think of the stories they could tell. In Ephesus, I could even imagine the pebbles I stumbled on, giving Peter or Paul blisters on their feet, two thousand years earlier.
Imagine Peter sitting at a desk, writing this letter while looking out of a small window in Rome. Picture him, trying to encourage new followers of Jesus. The little churches in Asia Minor were “bleeding members”—as we say in Presbyterian churches today—but for different reasons than congregations are now. It wasn’t just unpopular to be a Christian, it was downright dangerous. People of faith lived in constant fear of arrest by the occupying Roman army. Christians were being thrown into coliseums and eaten by lions, because they refused to worship the Roman Emperor as their God.
Imagine Peter looking out that window and seeing nothing but stones outside his house, and getting an idea for his sermon—comparing members of a church to building blocks of a temple, with Jesus is the cornerstone. He adds a quotation from Genesis: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood.”
The word, “priest,” is rare in the New Testament. In the Letter to the Hebrews, “priest” refers to Christ. Peter’s first letter is different from the Letter to the Hebrews in one important way. It uses the word, “priest” to describe the converts to Christianity, not just Jesus. The converts weren’t theologians by any means. Many had no education at all. Although a few little churches in Asia Minor had wealthy members, most people in their congregations were craftsmen and freed slaves.
What a revolutionary idea: every Christian can be a priest. That idea comes from the General Epistles; it didn’t start with Martin Luther. But Luther’s life was transformed by such passages, and that’s how the Protestant Reformation got started.
In his First Letter, Peter encourages followers to proclaim the mighty acts of Christ to the world. This is known as the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Can ordinary people save the world? As Peter looks at the broken fragments of limestone outside his window, he envisions them coming alive to form an amazing witness. He sees them as the building blocks of a living temple. He imagines them rising up, around Jesus as their cornerstone.
We are called to make disciples of all nations. This is the lesson I, personally, hope to teach young Christians. We have five seventh and eighth graders in the confirmation class at Hokendauqua. It’s one of the best classes I have ever taught. We’ve tried to appeal to the whole spectrum of learning styles when teaching them. But the most successful learning activities in our confirmation class this year, and in the past five years, have been competitive games. Kids are taught in the classroom, and in sporting events, to want to win. Winning matters to them, just as it did to us when we were kids. But Jesus didn’t see the world as a playing field. He was a man of love and peace. I hope our confirmands will remember that.
None of us are peaceful all the time. Conflict is part of church life. Compared to Jesus, we’re not all we should be. Jesus didn’t fit the Pharisees’ ideal of a rabbi. He was regarded by the Roman authorities as a no-account rabble rouser. But in giving His life for us, He became our cornerstone.
The sixties were prosperous times for churches. The congregation in which I grew up, was the only game in town on Sundays. Our Sunday School had hundreds of children. The pews were always filled. Stores were closed on Sundays. Local sporting events were scheduled only on Saturdays. Those days are gone.
It’s hard to be a Christian leader now. Congregations compete for funding, volunteers, and publicity. Birthday parties, baby showers and sporting events are held on Sunday mornings. Christians, whether or not they feel qualified, must lead. We may not all be the stuff that dreams are made of, but we’re all precious to God. Peter says, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” Every congregation is a dwelling place for the Spirit. Let us present ourselves as building material for God’s kingdom. The world needs the good news of Jesus Christ very badly.
On the night before His arrest, Jesus tells His friends that He will have to leave them for a little while. Then He tells them what God will require of them: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." They are to love God and obey God by loving others. Then God will love them. It’s a tall order, to say the least! Discipleship has to be more than just believing the right things, or feeling warm and fuzzy about God. The love of Christ must be a way of life.
Discipleship is a matter of obedience. But the word, "obedience," has negative connotations for us. We don’t want to obey anyone because we’re afraid of being pushed around. We get annoyed when someone demands that we obey. Brides don’t want to say they will “love, honor and obey” their husbands any more. And when our daughter was in elementary school, she often told us, “You’re not the boss of me” …even though we were her bosses. We live in a free country. As Americans, we value that rugged, go-it-alone individualism. We bristle at anyone who tries to be our dictator. We want to say, "who are you to tell me what to do?"
And yet, there it is, in today’s gospel passage. It comes straight from Jesus himself: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." A Christian who wants to be a disciple has to do as Jesus says. Actions speak louder than words. The ways we live our faith through obedience, mean more to God than our words.
Being a disciple means doing our best to act like Christ himself. So then, what does Jesus mean when He says, "keep my commandments"? Most of us, when we hear the word "commandment," think of the Ten Commandments. That’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He explains himself a few moments later in the next chapter of John, when He says: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
Jesus’ other teachings come from that commandment. But Jesus’s teachings are not themselves the commandment. Some of them apply to us today. And some of them should be applied differently, given the world and the times that we live in.
But the one commandment Christians must obey is to love one another, as God in Christ has loved us. If we could do that, there would be no need for other rules. But that’s where the problem lies. We don’t do well at obeying that commandment. We’re ordinary people with ordinary weaknesses.
It helps to think of love as more than feelings or thoughts. Feelings can’t be commanded. But love CAN be. To love is to be FOR another person, to be his or her advocate. Love expresses itself in obedience—in keeping Jesus’ example in the way we live.
In this world that we live in, how can anyone be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? It’s a good question. And it’s what the rest of this gospel passage is about. Not only does Jesus say that if we love him, we will keep His commandments. He also says that He will pray for God to send us the Holy Spirit.
Our lives place so many demands on us. As long as we stick together with the Holy Spirit, we’ll have enough power and courage to be disciples. We can’t do it on our own. It is humanly impossible. We may fool ourselves into thinking that someday, if we work at it hard enough, we will live like Christ. We hate to admit that we need help. But if we’re serious about living in a godly way, we need the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit will come to us with guidance, truth and gifts. If this congregation feels the Holy Spirit’s presence with us, we can be good disciples. We will encourage each other. We will encourage people new to the faith. We can do these difficult things, even while we are meeting tough demands in our lives. Several of you have told me about times when a friend confided in you with a problem. You found yourself saying wise advice, not being sure where your words were coming from. That was the Holy Spirit, speaking through you!
The Holy Spirit gave Jesus the energy to preach and to heal. It was the force of the Holy Spirit that pushed the first Christians out into every corner of the world. And it can give us the will and the way to be disciples. But here is the place where we need to be careful. The Spirit provides for our needs. It doesn’t necessarily give us what we want, or even what we think we need.
We can’t set conditions for God. We can’t say, "Okay, God, I promise to write a big check for the offering envelope every week, if you dictate to me the winning numbers for the lottery," or, "Okay, okay, I’ll be nicer to the people at work just as soon as you make them all nicer to me first!" The Spirit provides what we need to be disciples in the world, not what we want to make the world a happier place for ourselves! Christian love is not an easy love.
As Christians we live in a fearful world. Even our schools and offices and homes aren’t safe. Conflict swirls around us. On the news we hear of kidnappings and shootings. Men and women in military service give their lives so we might live in peace. And yet, our lives aren’t peaceful. God is not the source of the violence and the pain of life. Much of that pain is the result of human beings following their own way, instead of the commandments of Christ.
We live in hope, because of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Love is here to stay. If we believe that, we can receive the peace that Jesus brings us.
"Love one another as I have loved you," is the only commandment we need. Jesus tells us what to do when our own hearts cannot guide us. Embody love in action, and wait for the Spirit, who promises not to leave us alone. If we can just obey this great commandment, everything else will fall into place. It is the hardest thing in the world, and it is the easiest thing in the world. It is the only thing that matters.
Let us pray. Come, Holy Spirit, tie us to Jesus and to one another. Breathe into us not only memories but the very presence of Jesus that we may love one another even as Jesus has loved us. Amen.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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