Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
I don’t know if you’ve heard this news item but…next Saturday is the end of the world!
It’s true. A man named Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster, for some time has predicted that on May 21st, 2011, two hundred million people—three per cent of the world’s population—will be snatched up from the earth and taken up into heaven.
I have to say that I’m not happy about this. May 21st is my birthday! Why does the end of the world have to be on my birthday? Couldn’t God have chosen a better day? What kind of celebration will that be? Just my luck!
These kinds of predictions have been made for the past 2000 years. Many men and women throughout history have been convinced that one day Jesus will return to take the good people from the earth, leaving the rest of us to deal with the difficulties and hardships that follow. A person could make a case for this belief based on a few verses in the Bible. A person could use the Bible to make an even better case against such beliefs.
It’s easy for me to poke fun at someone predicting the end of the world. It’s harder to face what they might teach me about myself. Christians have become widely known for our tendency to speak of ourselves as those who have earned God’s favor; those who don’t believe as we do don’t have God’s favor—or so we think.
In today’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as the shepherd of the sheep. He also describes himself as the gate of the sheepfold: Picture a pen or enclosure into which the sheep are led at night for safety.
In this story it’s easy to think of ourselves as the sheep who follow the shepherd. We may not believe in Harold Camping’s end-of-the-world predictions but how many of us share his belief that God’s work is to reward the good and punish those who don’t measure up? This can be a slippery slope. If I’m the one who follows the Shepherd, who are those who don’t follow his voice? Presbyterians? Roman Catholics? Baptists? Muslims? Jews? Atheists? People whose race or sexual orientation or nationality isn’t the same as mine? Where do I draw the line?
Notice that in his story, Jesus doesn’t trot out categories or types of people who have his favor or a list of those who don’t. In fact, his failure to keep lists of insiders and outsiders is what got him into trouble with religious people. Religion in his day was all about keeping pure and avoiding people who didn’t measure up. What got him into trouble was that he taught there was only one rule to live by—one rule to measure whether we’re following the voice of the Shepherd or not. That rule is…love.
The key to this story is just that: Love. In the story Jesus is both the Shepherd and the Gate. The Shepherd loves the sheep—all the sheep. The sheepfold is a place of safety but Jesus says he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Notice that the sheep don’t stay in the pen! 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
This is what Love does for us: Love leads us beyond the walls of our safe havens and into a world in need. Whether those walls are the walls of a church or the walls of our hearts—love leads us out. There beyond the walls we continue to listen for the voice of the Shepherd. We follow the Shepherd who by his example shows us who to love and how to love.
Just as the sheep would think of the pen as safe we usually think of what’s familiar as safe. And certainly, the walls of the pen can provide safety. But did you notice? There’s another character in the story: the thief. Anyone, Jesus says, who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. If the Shepherd is ready to lead the sheep outside the pen but the sheep want to stay inside—the pen itself can become a dangerous place because the Shepherd has gone out ahead; by their own choice, the sheep are on their own. In other words, staying with what’s familiar can be more risky than venturing out into the unknown.
Even without thieves and bandits the pen can become a dangerous place. Think about it. What would happen if the sheep never left the pen? I come from Iowa, where farming has become big business. Chickens, pigs, and cattle are raised in confinement lots, or pens. Horrible conditions. Manure everywhere. If we knew the truth we’d probably all become vegetarians. There were no confinement lots in Jesus’ day, but imagine what it would be like for sheep in a pen. What would the sheep eat?
There’s only so much grass inside the pen. Soon it’s gone! No, Jesus says, the Shepherd leads the sheep out to find pasture.
Love leads us out from beyond our safe havens. Love leads us into a world craving love. The world craves love and being human, so do we. Our care for the needs of the world’s people is food for the world. And in the act of doing this work for which we were created we find pasture. When we live out our Christian vocation to the world, we ourselves are fed!
In February you voted to become a Reconciling-in-Christ congregation. This is what it means to be an RIC congregation: to be Christ’s love to the world. We are, as our Affirmation of Welcome proclaims, a spiritual community that celebrates the gifts of God that empower us to engage in the struggles of life, to care for each other, and to serve Christ where we work and live…We welcome the participation of people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, educational backgrounds, and economic conditions—all who want to join in community to honor God and be of service to people.
In other words—if you read between the lines—it’s all about love. We have committed ourselves to listening for the voice of the Shepherd and following that Shepherd out of the sheepfold and into the world. There— maybe even in the house next door–we might find sheep who really do need a safe haven. We have the opportunity to say, “I know of a safe place, where people will love you for who you are, as you are.”
This is who we are. While some who claim the name of Christ may choose to focus on the end of the world we choose to focus on the well- being of all people who inhabit our world in this life. While some may view religious faith as a means of ensuring their well-being in the life to come, we take our cue from the Good Shepherd, who leads us into the world, finding our deepest purpose and deepest joy in learning what it means to be fully human: created for love!