Let Us Preach: “Shepherds Act”

For two weeks in a row, people have asked me to put the text of my message online. This week I did a little extemporaneous preaching in the midst of this manuscript, but these are the bones upon which the sermon was based.

Date: April 22, 2018
Title: Shepherds Act
Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

We’re gathered in the season of resurrection. We’re gathered not in the shadow of the cross but in the light of Easter morning. The good Shepherd has come, has laid down his life for God’s flock, and has risen from the grave.

We are called to follow Christ not only through the season of struggle leading up to the cross but past the cross into resurrected life. We are called to lives of more than just speech. We are called to lives of action. Indeed, what does John write to us this morning from across nearly 2,000 years? In his gospel, John records Christ as stating:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

John records the words of Jesus as Christ lays out a vital part of who he is and what he will do. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but take note. Jesus is talking to a collection of the chosen people, the children of Abraham and Isaac. Jesus is talking to a group of people who have belonged to the flock of God for generations. Before the 23rd Psalm was the world’s psalm, it had been their song for generation after generation.

The people of God gathered with Jesus that day were told that the flock must grow. The people of God were told that Jesus was going to reach out to people who were in other folds of sheep. They didn’t know it then, but some of those people would speak Greek and not a smattering of Hebrew. Some of those folks would speak the roots of what would become English, French, Gaelic, and German. Others would one day speak Russian, Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. Some would one day speak Spanish, Portuguese, and the language of countless Indigenous tribes throughout Africa and the Americas.

I somehow doubt that the children of Abraham understood what Jesus was saying that day, but in hindsight it is incredibly powerful. The good shepherd will lay down his life and will take it up again. Jesus is claiming mastery over his own life, his own death, and proclaiming that he will take up that life again. He has been sent to care for the sheep who will respond from across the world.

This is a proclamation that should have rattled people. This is a proclamation that did rattle people. This is a proclamation that was bolder than bold. So, why doesn’t it shake us today?

Yesterday, the United Methodist Church throughout the majority of NYS and in two Pennsylvania towns gathered as the Upper New York Annual Conference to begin a journey. To be honest, I was dreading the meeting. I had no idea what was going to happen, what was expected of us, and I frankly assumed the worst. Call me a pessimist or call me a realist, but I have been to too many meetings where we talk being politically correct without choosing to do anything concrete. I believed in the intention of the meeting, but I was really nervous about how a church could change things.

Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church fought against alcoholism and helped to power the temperance movement. Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church preached the gospel out on plantations and caused riots and lynchings for teaching the “property” of slave-owners to read. Once upon a time we empowered Sunday Schools to teach children to read when they were forced to help on a farm or in a factory on every other day of the week. We have had a legacy of power and change, but honestly it has been a while.

I walked into a room believing that nothing good could come out of that meeting, especially on a subject as broad and powerful as racism. I have to confess to you that I may have jumped to the wrong conclusions. I saw something as powerful and overarching as bigotry and wondered how we could ever even begin to face it. I lost hope for a moment yesterday. I admit that and confess my own sin.

So, I confess I was more than a bit skeptical as the leaders led and told us about heartfelt conversations that they had participated in while wondering how we could begin to face such challenges. The leaders told us about how there was no way a mandate could ever force churches to be different and that there was an understanding this had to come from the people. So, the leaders began to talk about their own journey of discovery, even admitting that at times they would assume this was everyone’s problem but their own. I saw reflected in their faces a struggle with something that was bigger than any one of them.

My heart broke a little bit as I realized that this was the church being sincere. I heard echoes of the passages I had studied all week and was convicted. If we are a people of many folds, if we are a flock of many ethnicities, if God has called to all of us, then should we not seek to live at peace with other people in the fold. When they hurt, don’t we hurt? When they struggle, shouldn’t we struggle? When they cry out, shouldn’t we hear?

John wrote in his letter “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I heard leaders speak about how we have done wonderful work at saying the right words, but rarely have followed them up with concrete action. It remained to be seen how we could do something concrete, but I heard John’s words echoed. Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

So, we’re gathering to begin to talk about racism, privilege, and what we face. Soon, Pastor Dave from Union Center UMC, Pastor Taylor from Nanticoke and Killawog will gather with pastors and laity from Apalachin, Newark Valley, and other surrounding areas to start to look at how we can work together to begin to see beyond ourselves. Soon, I’ll be headed up to Syracuse to help lead the sessions in our group, partially because I was the one in our group willing to go and partially because it gives me tools to later have those conversations in churches. This will give me tools to bring here.

Soon, we’ll begin a journey which is intended to not just inform the clergy and active laity on how to see what’s going around us, but to bring that knowledge home to our churches. Soon, there’ll be opportunities for you to join in our work, and this is a work I believe can change the world because it starts at the right level. This is a work which begins with the journey for people to open their hearts, to learn tools for their daily lives, and to begin to work together.

These are the kind of movements that have changed the world in generations past and we are capable of doing right. We are the people of God, called in the image of the one who lays down his life for the sheep, and we, with Christ, can pick up our life and enter into the ministry with Jesus.

In his book “Strength to Love,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a chapter named “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” He wrote in that chapter on Matthew 10:16, which read in the King James Version he preferred “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Rev. Dr. King wrote that good Christian people need to work to have a heart that is tender enough to love others and treat them like people and a mind that is tough enough to realize the difference between what is right and righteous from what is undeniably wrong.

Speaking on the need for us to have strength of will and solidity of mind, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following: (pg. 5)

“There is little hope for us until we become tough minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”

Friends, we are a resurrection people. We believe that God is in the process of remaking our hearts and minds. Can we have the courage to be like the good shepherd and live with both conviction and love? Can we have the will to look in the mirror and ask difficult questions of ourselves, our society, and what we receive without realizing it? Can we be brave, bold, and love with more than words? Can we become tough-minded enough to break our shackles even as we remain tender-hearted enough to love?

I invite you to be in prayer with and for me over the coming months because I know this will not be easy personally. I invite you to be in prayer for what God might be calling you to do in the coming months. I invite you to hear the call of God and to respond.

Let us Seek: “All that is required…”

In pondering today’s scripture reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, I found myself thinking back to “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies” as first printed in the 1808 Discipline under the heading “The General Rules of the Methodist Church.” In reading the description of the societies which gave birth to churches, there is much to ponder.

The classes which comprised each society consisted of individuals who would meet with a leader weekly to talk about how their own faith journey was progressing, find what was needed for life (whether that be encouragement, reproof, advice, comfort, etc.), and to collect what each was willing to give for the relief of their preachers, the church, and the poor. Each week (or (as I understand it) as often as possible in a circuit where the preacher would travel long distances), the leaders would meet with the minister to talk about challenges, which challenging class-members needed individualized attention from the minister, and to give funds to the stewards of the society. Those were different times with different understandings of what was expected of church members.

Having now given a, extremely basic overview of what classes were within the societies of yesteryear, I will share why I was thinking about the General Rules while pondering the reading for today, which is 1 John 3:10-16. There’s a line in the General Rules about how a person could become involved with those societies which sticks in the mind. The line says:

“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”

The General Rules go on to talk about how those who wish to continue in the societies that they evidence their desire to be saved through following guidelines on how to live life in terms of doing no evil (don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t profane the Sabbath, don’t engage in drunkenness, don’t engage in slaveholding, don’t quarrel, don’t buy or sell illegal goods, don’t charge unlawful interest on others, don’t speak evil of others (especially governmental leaders and ministers), etc.). doing good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, exhorting all souls towards God, helping others within the household of faith, being frugal, having patience, etc.), and attending on the ordinances of God (go to church, spend time with the word, take communion, pray, fasting, etc.).

Some of these concepts are a bit foreign to us. A lot of our churches would be in trouble if we felt that speaking poorly of governmental leaders or our pastors was grounds for expulsion or reproof. We might raise an eyebrow at someone for drinking too much, suggest counseling, invite them to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or simply pray deeply, but to expel someone from the church for even buying an alcoholic beverage is not a common standard for expulsion from church membership these days.

Times have changed over the centuries, but I continue to believe that there are still standards which we hold as church that continue to evolve. In some ways, we continue to struggle with some of the original concerns of the United Societies, but our role in the world has called us to be more vocal on other concerns.

Forgetting our identity as those who seek to live in this life as God’s people has proved disastrous in the past, such as when we forgot our call to avoid slavery as sin in the midst of the centuries that have passed since those rules were recorded in 1808. Forgetting our identity led to massive quantities of evil and suffering for those who were enslaved and in the souls of those who enslaved others. Forgetting our identity led to a grim chapter in our history which still has an effect today.

It is just as easy to forget our continually changing identity in the present as it was for those folks who struggled with slavery in bygone years. Reflecting on this reality, I pondered the scripture deeply in light of upcoming events.

This Saturday, April 21st, the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will kickoff the “Imagine No Racism” Campaign. We are gathering as a Conference to seek to imagine a better world without racism and (hopefully) with equity, and this gathering came to mind as I read today’s scripture. 1 John 3:10-16 reads this way in the New Revised Standard Version:

“The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What does it mean to desire to flee wrath by fleeting towards God? What does it mean to evidence that continuing effort by doing no intentional harm through our actions? What does it mean to do what is right in a world that is marked by racial injustice?

The very first message we heard, according to the writer of this epistle, was that we should love one another. First and foremost, the message was to love. How can we claim to live in love if we see people around us suffering due to their genetic composition? If Christ laid down His life for our lives, are we not called to do the same for each other? Does the need have to be as drastic as a life and death situation for us to be called to act?

I know many people who grew up with racial biases who would have nonetheless laid down their lives in order to save the lives of people (that they thought less of due to their ethnicity) due to their own moral, religious, and even political beliefs. To lay down one’s life is often a momentary decision and many individuals would have the courage to make that sacrifice in a moment.

I would love to say that those brave folks would lay down their privilege, their comfort, or their well-being over the long-term for those who are suffering from racial injustice, but I am not always certain that they would do the same over the (much more challenging) long term. In honesty, I would love to say that I know that I am perfectly laying down self-interest myself, but there is something to be said for the fact that moving away from “thoughts and prayers” for racial justice towards courageous acts to reassert equilibrium requires more than a moment’s courage or conviction for those of us who have privilege. I seek the courage and endurance to do so perfectly, but I often fall flat on my face. These words don’t come from a “holier than thou” stance. I often do not know how to move forward myself.

To move towards equilibrium will require more than most of us, including me, currently possess. It will require… imagination! Movement towards that equilibrium will also require the courage and character to do more than imagine, but it is hard to do anything but spin our wheels until we have an image of that more perfect (united) society in our collective mind and heart.

Although I hate to bring in my readings for The Academy for Spiritual Formation into yet another blog post, I am reminded of the writings of George Govorov. Theophan the Recluse (yes, that’s George Govorov) taught that growth in prayer must go through stages. I won’t quote a specific paragraph, because (as a friend put it) that particular chapter (the second) is kind of like a broken record.

  1. Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
  2. Prayer of the Mind: Prayer that has a resonance in the mind. There are no absent actions here. The prayer of the body is caught up into conscious thought and action through the mind. Each word is pondered in the mind, each movement is done with intention, etc.
  3. Prayer of the Heart: Prayer moves beyond word, thought, and deed to a place where it comes from the center of our being. Prayer of the heart does not preclude physical actions or pondering words, but goes deeper. In Bishop Theophan’s view, prayer of the heart is at the center of true prayer.

In Govorov’s view, moving through each stage of prayer takes time, effort, and dedication. For some, the place where they belong is in practicing with their body until rhythm is established. For others, there is a moment for letting the words rattle through their minds until it takes root. For other, true prayer requires the heart to work in concert with the body and mind. A person united in body, mind, and heart could truly enter into God’s presence through prayer until their soul was set alight through the Holy Spirit!

It is my hope that we would continue to go on towards Christ through events like the gatherings this Saturday. I pray we move past dwelling in the midst of death into living in a place of love. For some, that may mean learning new words and new actions. Prayers of repentance in the body might mean learning new ways of living, new ways of acting, and even new ways of speaking. For others, this may be an opportunity to connect our mind to things we are already doing. What does it mean to speak out for justice with words that are not platitudes but are deeply pondered? What does it mean to ponder the words of others instead of just listening with one ear and letting those words pass out the other? For others, this may be a moment to let the heart take hold of deep truths.

I am not certain where I fall in that realm of prayer for repentance. In some areas I am likely in one place and in another place in other places. Regardless, as I ponder the scripture today, I am reminded of my desire to flee the wrath that comes from living in the midst of death. May God give me the courage to have open ears this Saturday and to enter more deeply into a prayer which may take a lifetime or longer to comprehend.

This church in Sawmill, AZ helped me to grow as a person as I faced my own racial biases while on two United Methodist Volunteers In Mission trips. I cannot tell you how much I was blessed by the people of this small but mighty Diné church.