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 Preach: “A Different Kind of Audit”

This open letter to St. John was shared from the pulpit this Sunday morning. Several folks requested I put it online for them to read again. Improvisational changes that were made on the fly are not included here. This is the manuscript that I read and adapted from this morning.

Date; Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Scriptures: 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Message: “A Different Kind of Audit”

April 15, 2018

St. John
Patmos Island
Greece circa the end of first century CE

Dear John,

(No friends, this isn’t that kind of letter…)

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. I am writing this letter to you today from the community of the saints found many centuries and many miles from Patmos. Tradition tells us that you spent your last days in exile in Patmos, although people wonder if you are the same John who scribed the book of Revelation. In fact, to be entirely honest, many scholars wonder if you wrote the three letters which have been ascribed to you. Did your students write those letters after your death?

To be entirely honest, while authorship is an intriguing discussion for a Bible study, I’m writing today because our community is celebrating the season of Eastertide. We’re looking at stories of the resurrection, pondering the words of 1 John, and wondering what is expected of us. We live in a different age, a different time, and in different circumstances. It has been nearly two millennia since you witnessed Christ’s death and resurrection. It has been nearly two millennia since Jesus told Thomas that those who did not see but believed would be blessed. It has been a very long time.

I’m the pastor of this flock and that means a lot of different things in this time and age. I am here to encourage and to train people in the ways of faith. I am here to educate and inspire people to seek after Jesus. I am here to proclaim mysteries that seem ancient to many of the people in my church. I am called to witness to the life, the teachings, and the blessings of life with Jesus. I am called to witness to the life, the warnings, and the challenges of life with Jesus. I am called and ordained to baptize, to share the Lord’s supper, and to proclaim the word of God.

Yet, I wonder… What must it have been like to have seen Christ in the flesh? What must it have been like to see him take fish and eat after he had died? It must have been much easier to say to people “I have seen these things with my own eyes!” How much power rested in your lips when you proclaimed these truths which are now considered practically ancient to people for the first time? How much did it change their lives?

In a world with such high infant and pregnancy mortality rates, did grieving mothers and heart-broken widowers weep with joy to hear of one who had shown there was life after death? In a world without modern medicine, scientific method, or basic understanding of things like germs, was it awe-inspiring to see people be changed by stories of Christ’s healings? Could you see the hope show in their eyes?

The people I minister with have their own struggles. We’ve figured out a lot about germ theory, but cancer has become a faceless horror in many life. We’ve learned many mysteries about the human brain, but we have people who are still lost in the midst of depression, anxiety, and grief. War still remains and I sometimes wish we had swords to beat into plowshares instead of bombs, bullets, and grenades. We still face a world filled with challenge, sorrow, and pain.

John, how did you get the people to understand? Was your personal witness enough or was it an insistent, consistent, and powerful reminder of who God was in their lives? When the world would not recognize them as God’s children, did you invite them to remember God’s claim on their lives? When they themselves lost hope, did you remind them that even the darkness of the grave could not overcome Christ? How did you get them to see? Was it all God’s work in their lives or was there something they needed to claim, to grasp, to believe in order to find hope?

John, I’m a Methodist and our founder John Wesley believed that God gave grace to each person to help them come to a place where they could encounter Jesus. He called it prevenient grace and it was a grace that was poured out on all people. He taught God’s love was a source of light to all people and to me that grace is hope. The world can come to know a God who can change people.

The letter we read invites people to become pure as Christ is pure. The letter we read invites people to understand that they are invited to live lives marked with righteousness and goodness. The people are invited to live lives which are desperately needed in my world John. How do I convince them to see the truth of this life? The world is dark, but they are being remade into the likeness of the invisible image of God. Jesus told them that they are the light of the world and sometimes it seems they forget that concept.

In our day there’s something called an audit. An audit is a very close examination. For many folks, this word makes people especially nervous around the date I am writing you this letter. Today is traditionally the day that taxes are due in this country and occasionally the tax collectors will audit what an individual says they owe. Yes, tax collectors are still unpopular nearly 2,000 years later. Some things must be cross-cultural.

I bring up the idea of an audit because audits are meant to keep people honest. A tax audit is a close look at how one calculates what is owed to the government. Do you remember when Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? A tax audit is meant to make certain that our Caesar is getting what our Caesar claims for things like roads, protection, etc.

How do I convince people that we all might need to do a different kind of audit for our own sake? If we are made to be in relationship with you, if our hearts and souls are meant to be filled with love for God and neighbor, if we are meant to be remade in the image of God, doesn’t it make sense to slow down and see where we are on our faith journey? Does it not make sense to take a close look in seasons like this one?

To put it in practical terms, let’s look at a scripture Jesus said he came to fulfill. Jesus said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). If we were to take a close look at our lives, do we see ourselves in the midst of Christ’s mission as people who are being remade in Christ’s image?

Christ came to proclaim good news to the poor. Poverty is about more than money. My people and I live in a world where substance abuse is claiming lives all around us. People are addicted to alcohol, opioids, narcotics, and a host of other substances. Some of the people who are in the midst of these addictions open their eyes in sobriety and only see hopelessness and death. When we look in ourselves, do we see people who have experienced the risen Savior? Do we see in ourselves children of God who walk in hope? Can we dream of a world remade in your image where the hopelessness they feel is overshadowed by life? Can we share with them a world in which death has been overcome by life? Can we dream of a world where people look at one who should be dead or a ghost and find a Savior who is alive?

Christ came to restore sight to the blind. Blindness is about more than sight. Blindness is a way of life. The blind are often forced to trust others with their safety, their wellbeing, and their journey from one place to another. The blind are vulnerable in ways people with sight are not. Can we proclaim a world where people truly see the way and find hope beyond death, a place where none of us can truly see? When we examine ourselves, do we see beyond the curtain of death? In other words John, how can I invite people to ponder resurrection beyond their sight?

Christ came to set prisoners free, to break oppression, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor. John, how do I invite people to take a close look and see if they are shackled to things that just drag them down? John, you knew favor. When we celebrate the Lord’s table, we do not often draw attention to the fact that you were right there, sitting by Jesus’ side as the powerful words we remember were spoken…

Actually, that’s not true. You were not just sitting by Jesus’ side. You were reclining with Jesus. You were at peace with a teacher you loved and who loved you back. For all the oppression of Romans and pressures from religious leaders that might stand outside the door, you were at peace with Jesus. For all of the people who were planning to bind up Jesus in chains and for all of the challenges ahead, you were at peace with Jesus. You, John, of all people, knew what it means to be at peace with the person who was revealed to be the very image of God made flesh.

How do I invite people to be at peace like you? How do I find ways to cultivate that peace within myself? There are so many things we let take us captive John. We live in fear of war and sorrow. We live in fear of cancer and heartbreak. We live in fear of loss. We have been taught that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). As one who reclined with perfect love, saw that love resurrected from the grave, and as one who spent his life teaching others about that love, how do we believe like you believed? How do we live as you lived?

John, I realize that you cannot really write back. Patmos is another time and place isolated by nearly 2,000 years and a world of cultural differences. Still, perhaps the Holy Spirit can help us with answers to these questions. Your gospel did tell us that Christ would leave an Advocate who would teach us on God’s behalf. While I await God’s response through the Holy Spirit, I will say that I look forward to seeing you at the resurrection on the final day. Until then, may you rest in God’s peace.

May all honor, glory, and power be given to the God we both love,

Rev. Robert Dean
Maine Federated Church
Many miles and years in the future.