Posts Tagged ‘Good Shepherd’

Tell Us Plainly 5-12-19

In this sermon, based on John 10:22-30, I explore the urgent request of Jesus’ opponents to “tell us plainly” if he is the Messiah. But to understand the work of God through Jesus, and to hear the voice of God through it can be difficult. But to be known by God, is a reassuring sense.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/tell-us-plainly-5-12-19

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

May the grace and peace of our Risen Lord be yours, now and forever. Amen

About a dozen or so years back…as I was in the process of discerning my call into ministry…I participated in an ongoing class aimed at leadership development…and one of the processes that we went through was an exploration of our inherent strengths…we did this through an assessment test known as Strengthsfinders…some of you might be familiar with it.

The point is kinda right there in the name…as the results of this assessment identify your top 5 natural leadership abilities out of a listing of about 30 or so possibilities. Now as I reviewed my own personal results, I discovered that Communication was one of my top 5, and with that I began to understand some of my own personal tendencies.  I hate being misunderstood…I absolutely hate it…and this manifests in my tendency to OVER-communicate…especially in written forms of communication.  Any of you parents who have gotten informational emails about confirmation have seen this first hand…and I’m almost ashamed to admit how utterly long and complicated my “helpful information” is when someone new is going to visit and provide pulpit supply.  I am the epitome of “too much information.”

Now, the longer I’ve been doing this, the more aware I’ve become of this tendency, and I have tried to take steps to simplify things and just “tell it plainly.” And maybe, just maybe this falls in line with the exasperated statement we hear from the opponents of Jesus in today’s story as they say “If you are the messiah, tell us plainly.”

Come on Jesus…don’t beat around the bush…don’t be so cryptic…are you…or aren’t you? (pause) That seems to the be sense behind their words. And maybe that strikes us as a little odd…why wouldn’t they know? Isn’t it a no-brainer? Of course Jesus is the Messiah…and they should all know that right?  Or should they?

By this point Jesus has been on the scene for a while. He’s gathered a following…the disciples are trailing along behind him. He’s been performing miraculous signs, both for individuals as well as for the crowds…he’s been teaching and debating and all that kind of stuff…and yet…the people can’t quite make up their mind about him…some of think he is the long awaited Messiah…some of them think he’s just some backwater Galilean quack…and some just don’t know. (pause)

For us, it’s a no brainer…but keep in mind that the people were in the midst of the story at that time…they didn’t have 2000 years of hindsight…and its very seldom that anything…especially matters of faith, are nice and neat…real life tends to be a little messier…and the messages that come from God are only apparent as we look back at them after the fact.

And, to the credit of the individuals who are asking him…Jesus hasn’t been overly forthright with this information either…in fact, to this point, he’s only come out and told 1 person that he’s the Messiah…1. The Samaritan Woman at the well. Many have suspected it…many have even made up their minds about it…but beyond that one instance for an audience of 1…Jesus has been pretty quiet on the subject. Jesus…tell us plainly… (pause)

But I wonder…why now? Why do they chose this particular instance to ask Jesus about it? He’s spent plenty of time in the temple…he hasn’t exactly been incognito…so why, here in the Festival of the Dedication, are these particular religious leaders so intent on Jesus’ messianic identity?

And to get to the heart of that question, a little history.  The festival of the dedication, which as we hear happens in mid-winter…has another name that you might be more familiar with…the festival of lights…or Hanukah…and it dates back to a period about 150 years before the birth of Jesus…and a bit of Jewish history known as the Maccabean revolution.  At that moment in history, Israel was under the control of the Seleucid empire…and the top dog came into the temple and desecrated it by sacrificing to his particular god…and this angered the Jewish people so much that a revolt started up under a guy named Judas Maccabeus…a revolt that succeeded in throwing out the Seleucids and for one brief period in Israel’s history…they were self-governed.  And they needed to rededicate the temple to God, which involved burning a candle that must never go out…and it burns special consecrated oil, and they only had enough for a day, but miraculously it kept burning for 8 days until more oil was available…that’s the whole point behind the festival of the dedication or Hanukah.

But then, if you know your history…it wasn’t long before the Roman Empire came to power, and spread through the region of Israel…and with that fall to foreign power once again…a condition so familiar to the Jewish people throughout their history…don’t you think they’d be looking for another great leader…one anointed by God to lead the people…to reestablish the glory of the past…and if this random guy that some say might just be the one…if he felt like making it official and declaring himself…wouldn’t the festival that originated with a successful Jewish revolt against foreign oppressors be the PERFECT opportunity? Seems logical…so Jesus…if you are the Messiah…tell…us…plainly. (pause)

But instead of finding himself a podium with some historic backdrop and getting a bunch of news cameras and a photo-op to declare his campaign like we tend to see these days…Jesus just says “I have told you and you do not believe…the signs that I do testify to me…you do not believe…because you do not belong to my sheep…My sheep hear my voice.  I KNOW THEM…and they follow me.” (pause)

Now there is a lot going on in that statement…but I think one way to understand it is to say that to be one of the sheep that belongs to the one who calls himself the good shepherd is to believe…and to believe is to belong…and to belong is to be known. (pause)

This implies a sense of utter familiarity…to be known and to know one another…the original language implies utter intimacy…to be known completely…and maybe you know that sense.  Like the way you can pick your kid out of the crowd on the football field, even covered up in full pads.  Or the way that can see the look on your mom or dad’s face and know that you’ve crossed a line.  Or the way you can hear a voice and know exactly who it is.

I was joking around last week with a few people…and commented about I can sit at my desk and can identify certain individuals just by listening to their footsteps as they walk towards my door.  You know what I mean…that total and complete sense of familiarity with one another.

That’s what Jesus is talking about…a sense that makes us pay attention because of how closely connected we are…even within moments when everything else is struggling to pull our attention away.  There are times when that still small voice of God is speaking…but it can be so hard to hear because of the countless distractions…

And on the flip side there are also times when the voice of God is silent…and we have the tendency to fill in the blanks with all kinds of stuff…things that make us feel like we’re still on the right track…things like rituals…or traditions that have gone beyond their intended purpose and have become the rule that must be followed…and I can’t help but think that was the very thing that God wanted to free us from in the person of Jesus Christ…the myth or the lie that only through what we do or what we refrain from doing will make us good enough to hear that quiet voice speaking.

That seemed to be the mission of Christ during his ministry…as we continually see him crossing the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out…those lines drawn by society, or by religion, or by culture that say “you’re not good enough.” Over and over again we see Jesus standing on the OTHER side of that line…sometimes quietly and sometimes quite forcefully…as the one who is also God tries SO HARD to show us that we are already loved and claimed by the one who lovingly made us in the first place.

There is no test to pass…there is no magic words to utter…there’s no perfect liturgy to recite or attendance record to make or dress code to follow or benchmark to achieve…right now…as you are…you are claimed by the one who calls to you…and this God who calls out to you does so in the form of a human being…this God who took on flesh and dwelled among us to show us…quite literally, that there is no length that God will not go to in order to be with you…and then…having claimed you through that familiar voice which lovingly says “you are mine,” we are called simply to follow.

That catches my attention today…as Jesus says “my sheep hear my voice. I know them…and they follow me.”  These are also the final words spoken by Jesus here in John’s gospel…following his resurrection as he appears to some of the disciples and finally tells Peter, quite simply…follow me.

We don’t know what comes after…because John cuts things off…but we do know that it wasn’t the end of the line…and this isn’t the end of the line for us either.

Admittedly, there are times in our lives when we want to yell at God…those moments of confusion or heartache when we long to scream “JUST TELL US PLAINLY!” And know that if you need to do so, that’s ok…God will take that.

And there are also times when it all seems so apparent…and let us rejoice in those moments.  (Pause) So regardless of where we find ourselves today…Let each of us listen for that still small voice which calls out to us…let us recognize it as the voice of the one who knows us and loves us…and let us follow where He leads. Amen.

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Being Known 4-22-18

In this sermon, based on John 10:11-18, I explore Jesus’ statement “I am the Good Shepherd.” This passage implies a sense of familiarity within relationship.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/being-known-4-22-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

I will be the first one to admit that I do not know much about cars. I know you step on the tall skinny pedal to go faster. I know you step on the shorter rectangular shaped one to slow down. I know you need to put fuel in or you aren’t going anywhere.  I can change a tire…I can check the oil and if push came to shove I could probably accomplish an oil change…but that’s about it.

However, there was one time in my younger years when I did pull something off that made me sorta proud. I must have been about 16 or 17, still living at home, and it was winter. Now my dad had a habit of starting the cars when he went out for morning chores, just to get them running against the chill that sets into an engine after sitting outside on a winter night…but this particular day, Dad wasn’t able to get my car started.

It was an old beater, typical of a high school farm kid. And somehow dad manage to flood it. So when I stepped over the car a moment later, not realizing that Dad had already tried it…I managed to start it without too much trouble. And Dad asked me “How’d you do that? I couldn’t get it to start a minute ago.” And my reply, “Well, I drive it every day. I know all the quirks.” (pause)

Now that sense of familiarity that we have with our old cars…that’s really something isn’t it? The way you just sorta know it. That’s why its always a little nerve-wracking when you start driving a new car, because you don’t have that sense like you do with an old one. You know the quirks…you know the bumps and the rattles that are just “normal” for that car as you buzz down the road. You also know the rattles that AREN’T normal, and prompt you to get into the mechanic. You know the buttons that don’t work. You know how to smack the dash board when the radio cuts out. Its familiar…you just…know…it.

We can develop that same sense of familiarity within our relationships too can’t we? The way we recognize someone’s quirks and their tendencies. The way we can anticipate their reaction to a familiar situation. Like the way you can tell when your spouse walks in the door at the end of the day if it was a good one or not. Or how you know when your child is going to be a little bit touchy by a certain point of the week because they’re worn out. You just know.

As I think about this, I’m reminded of the old days of telephones, back before caller id. When that phone hanging on the wall rang, you didn’t know who was on the other end…but you picked it up…and if it was the right person, you knew it as soon as they said the word “Hey” because you know their voice. Its familiar…its comfortable even.

Now all of these different things indicate a sense of community…of familiarity, we can even use the word intimacy to describe the relationship that exists…and because of this familiar nature…that we develop a sense of comfort with one another…trust…even love. That knowledge that probably goes without saying that this other person has your best interest at heart. (pause)

But what does all this have to do with shepherds and sheep…with gates and pens, and wolves and hired hands? That’s the gospel lesson…and it comes from a larger batch of teaching on the part of Jesus that we feature each year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, which has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

But this whole big teaching on the part of Jesus…its in response to something specific…as it follows the healing of the man born blind. Jesus happens across this random individual who’s been blind since birth…a condition that brings with it all kinds of hardships…most of which boil down to his lifelong exclusion from the joy of true community and relationship.
Now if you know that story, you know there’s a lot of back and forth for the guy as the religious elite continue to hound him about what happened before finally getting fed up and kicking him out of the synagogue. Its only then that Jesus finds him again and invites him into community…and with this the big wigs start butting heads with Jesus again.

And now he launches into a chapter long discourse talking about all these things. Sheep held in the pen…thieves and bandits trying to break in. But I am the gate…the shepherd comes through the gate and calls his sheep by name. He knows them and they follow him because they know him and they know his voice.

Then it goes it on. He stays in the same theme but changes it up a bit as we hear, not once but twice today. I am the good shepherd. And just as I know the Father and the father knows me, I know the sheep and they know me.  He even goes on and repeats the same sort of thing again after today’s portion when we hear “my sheep know my voice. I know them and they follow me.” (pause) Are you sensing a trend? I’m guessing so…of knowing one another…familiarity. Community. Relationship. Acceptance…trust. Its all in there isn’t it?

Now the imagery that Jesus uses here is interesting…and perhaps familiar. Anyone who’s ever seen, or better yet heard…a farmer calling their cows into the barn has witnessed this. I’ve told the story before of Dad sending out to round up the cows in the pasture…only to have them stare at me as I try to push them up to the barn…and then dad stepped outside and with one holler of COMEBOSS…they all go traipsing in….it was maddening for me, but it’s a great illustration here. (pause)

Think about those voices in your life…the ones that you instantly recognize…the ones that carry enough familiarity, or love, or perhaps we can even say authority that your ears perk right up and make you pay attention…who’s voice are they?  Who are those who fall under the category of shepherd in today’s story…the one who calls out and you trust them enough to follow…maybe metaphorically and maybe even literally.

Now as Jesus is talking today…we hear it, not once but twice…that he is the shepherd…he is the one calling…but we need to pay attention to how its worded.  I am…the good shepherd. I am…the one who calls.  I am the one who leads. I am.

Recognize that name?  You can bet the Jewish audience that heard him that day did?  Because I am is the name that God…the Lord…Yahway…that’s the name that God told Moses to use. And Jesus claims it hear along with the distinction of shepherd.  And this isn’t the only time. In fact he does 7 different times here in John.

And when we stop and think about it…that’s a pretty big deal…because I am…is also the one who made all of this in the first place.  God said let there be light.  God said let there be order…Let there be land and sea and sky…let there be night and day….God said let there be plants and fish and birds and animals…and finally God said let there be people…who’s the one who said this? I am…that’s who…and now the one who claims the name I am…the one who claims the identity of the one who made all of this and all of us…offers all of us a place in the flock…he tells us that we are numbered among those whom he knows.

(pause) You know what, I want to stick with the whole livestock imagery for just a moment. I don’t know sheep. I’ve never really worked with them…but I know cows. And in my younger days I could walk past that herd and at glance I could tell you which ones were the good milkers…which ones always went to the right stanchion. Which ones never raised a foot…I could tell you the good ones.  But I could also tell at a glance which ones had kicked me lately…which ones took extra work to get locked into place…I could tell at a glance which ones were frustrating just as easily as which ones were favorable…because I knew them.

Now apply this same sense to the one who calls himself I Am. He is the one who made you and he is the one who loves you…and this is a huge deal, because he loves you…he claims you as his own regardless of what category you fall into in any particular moment.

And this is the crazy, mind blowing thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ…that he claims us period. Now I don’t know about you…but I know me pretty well…and I know full well that there are many times in my day when I do not feel overly loveable…and yet…there is one who calls me by name because he knows me…and there is something about that call that makes my ears perk up and pay attention.

And it is perhaps BECAUSE of the familiarity in this voice that knows me at my worst and loves me anyway.  It is a far greater thing to be loved at our worst than it is to be loved at our best. And yet, while we were still sinners…Christ died for us.  While we were sinners Christ laid down his life for us…and no one has greater love than this, than to lay down their life for their friends.

That is the voice of the one who calls to us…and there is something in that voice that somehow, someway makes us sit up and pay attention. I can only think that it is through the power of God at work…through the presence of the Holy Spirit acting within us that would make us pay attention…because the story of the gospel is so utterly laughable, that reason says we should just ignore it…and yet something within us listens when the voice of the one who is called I Am calls us by name. This same one who calls us has named us and has claimed us out of his earthshattering love for the ones that he knows….and that’s you. You are known and just as you are right now, you are loved…and that’s really something isn’t it? Amen.

He Calls Them By Name 5-7-17

In this sermon, taken from John 10:1-10, I explore the promise of God given to us in baptism, that we are claimed as his children. This sermon, shorter than normal, is happening in the context of Confirmation Sunday in my congregation.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

 

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Full disclosure…as a preacher, I’m pulling double duty today. In addition to standing before you now, I’ll also be preaching this evening up at the high school for the annual Baccalaureate service. Now both situations have something in common…as they celebrate and honor a group of young people at the end of an educational experience. Baccalaureate, of course marks the end of high school for our graduating seniors…and Confirmation here this morning, which traditionally marks the close of religious education for our 8th graders…and because of the similarities between these two occasions…if you happen to be at the high school this evening, you may hear a similar theme…as I proclaim a message that, I hope and pray, will be moving and inspirational for those who hear it as they close one chapter of their lives and prepare to move into the next one.

That being said, earlier this week I was meeting with several other area pastors, discussing the gospel text for today, and the fact that it is Confirmation Sunday for at least a couple of us that were there, the conversation came around to a question that I have been thinking about all week.  What do you wish you had heard on your Confirmation Day?

I pondered on that question…thinking back over time to the day when I was confirmed…April 25th 1993 at Bethel Lutheran Church in Graettinger Iowa, under the guidance of Pastor Wilbur Holtz, just in case you were wondering…and as I think back to the message that was shared by that Pastor more than 24 years ago…I realized (long pause) that I can’t remember a darn thing…and realizing this, well it kinda took the pressure off for today…because 24 years from now, its pretty unlikely that the 8 of you sitting out there this morning will be able to remember what I had to say either.

But if my own history does teach me anything, its that you will very likely remember the people who were involved…those who invested in you to bring you to this point…many of whom are sitting out there in the congregation right now.  I myself remember that pastor…I remember the two other teachers who volunteered to lead my class through both 6th and 7th grade…and even if I don’t recall much about the lessons themselves that they taught me…I remember the interactions with those individuals…and the stern looks I got from that Pastor in class when I got a little too squirrely…which of course happened with fair bit of regularity…and I remember the statement he made years later when I ran into him at a Pastor’s conference… “Yah Scott, you were a handful, but I always had a feeling about you.” (pause) And let me state for the record that I’ve got a feeling about a couple of you 8th graders too. (pause)
Now, many of you sitting out there are familiar with something I do each year with the Confirmation class. During their very last time together, I have them write out a statement of faith…a personal creed…something that we call the “I believe” statements.  Before they write them, I always tell them “Don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear. Be honest…at this point in your lives, tell me what you think.” Year in and year out these statements are fascinating, and this year is no different.

What caught my attention this time around was how literal the 8th graders took the instruction to tell me what “I believe.”  Over the course of reading their 8 different statements, I found the phrase “I believe” 21 times…and the theme that emerged more than anything is that they believe in God…even going so far as to say that God is the greatest thing…EVER. (pause)

But now…lets come back around to it…what message do the 8 of you need to hear today…and to answer that question let me say this. You believe in God…Good…He believes in you too…and not only that…he loves you…and he claims you as his own.

Admittedly, this is gonna be a short message today…because sometimes you don’t have beat something to death to make a point. Within today’s gospel, Jesus is talking about shepherds and sheep and pens and gates and all kinds of things…a bunch of things that honestly can be a little difficult to wrap our heads around…but the main point that jumped out of Jesus’ words today.
He calls his sheep by name and leads them out…Whatever this pen is…whatever this abundant life is that he keeps talking about…I can only imagine that he’s talking about life lived in relationship, both with one another as fellow human beings and also, more importantly, a life lived in relationship with the Lord.

He calls you by name…because he is the shepherd…the one who is willing to lay down his life for you…and not only is he willing but he has already done it. Jesus Christ died on the cross…dying the most brutal death imaginable…and he did so in order to show YOU that there is nothing that God will not do in order to be with you.

Your name was on his mind…Your name was on his lips. Quinn. Taylor. Mason. Megan. Tommy. Blake. Brayden. Emma…and for everyone else sitting out there today, guess what…your name is in that list too.

But there’s one more point I need to make.  Not only does the Lord of this abundant life know you by your given name…but he has given you another one…Beloved Child of God. This is a name given to you in the waters of your baptism…a time when you were washed with water and the promise of God was spoken you…a promise that God has claimed you as his own…a promise which nothing can take away from you…and now today, in just a few moments, the 8 of you will stand up before this congregation…before this gathering of the body of Christ…and you will acknowledge that promise which God has made to you.

That’s what’s happening today…because the action is already done…God has already said this about you. God has already claimed you….whether you realize it or not. Nothing takes that name away from you…so own it…and not just today but every day…for Beloved Child of God, you have been marked with the cross of Christ in the waters of your baptism…and you have been sealed in his love forever. He calls his own by name and he leads them…whether they (Pause). Whether you…realize it or not.

That is what I believe…and it is my hope and my prayer that throughout the course of your lives, you believe it too. Amen.

 

Is It Good To Be A Sheep 4-17-16

Today’s sermon is based on John 10:22-30, in which Jesus speaks about being our good shepherd. But I guess that makes us sheep doesn’t it?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/is-it-good-to-be-a-sheep-4-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

With warm spring weather upon us, I’m getting back into the habit of walking over to the post office to grab the mail. It’s a win win situation. I get a little exercise and I get to spend a few moments out in the beauty of nature. Friday morning I did just that as I pondered on this week’s sermon…the gospel lesson rattling around in my head as I headed the few blocks over to main street and back.

As I walked, I enjoyed the wonderful sounds of birds chirping…I spotted quite a few squirrels bouncing around like they do…I even spotted a couple of rabbits hopping from place to place. And in those moments I realized the joy of spring and wildlife.

And as I thought about it a little more, I found myself chuckling at an old comedy bit from my youth, when the actor and comedian Denis Leary started talking about animals and animal lovers…and remarked…you know, it’s a pet-peeve of mine when people start in about loving the animals…I LOVE THE ANIMALS I LOVE THEM SO MUCH…but no you don’t…you only love the cute animals…maybe we should just have animal auditions…let them come in and plead their case…What are you? I’m an otter. And what do you do? I swim around all day on my back and do cute human things with my hands…you’re free to go. (pause) And what are you? I’m a cow…GET ON THE TRUCK! But I’m an animal…You are a baseball glove…But…your a t-bone steak…you are a delicious greasy hamburger…get on the truck.

That bit makes me laugh, because honestly there’s a lot of truth there…and if we consider the multitude of domesticated animals in our history…we keep most of them around because they are useful…or at least delicious. (pause) Cattle…hogs…chickens…all useful in their own right…and so we keep them around…and in my days of growing up on the farm I worked with all of them.

But…there is one type of farm animal that I am glad my dad never chose to get involved with. Sheep…because in my experience, such as it is…sheep are quite possibly the dumbest animal on the planet. I first experienced this fact when helping a friend of mine load sheep into a trailer when I was about 16. All we had to do was block off one open slot in the fence, and the only direction they could go was down the fence line into the trailer…but as I stood there, blocking off a gap that wasn’t more than about 3 feet wide…that batch of sheep, being chased by my friend…totally ignored the open path right next to them…and thought that their best course of action was to go over me…not past me, not through me…but over me…and 5 sheep all attempted to jump over top of me.

I’ve heard stories of sheep in a pasture standing in one place…eating every single bit of grass within reach…and then refuse to move, to the point of someone having to go out and chase them to a new spot, otherwise they’ll starve.  They are completely and totally reliant on whoever it is that has taken on the task of caring for them. Sheep are the epitome of helpless creatures. They need to be led to water…they need to be led to pasture…and if a predator shows up…the blasted things will just stand there quivering until the predator comes in and picks one off.

Its true today…and based on a lot of the various stuff we hear in the scriptures, I’m guessing it was the same exact thing in Jesus day…Sheep are dumb. (pause) And now, as we find ourselves celebrating what is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday…we hear a portion of the larger story known as the Good Shepherd discourse…and over the course of the 3 year lectionary cycle, we hear the vast majority of this passage…as Jesus talks about being the shepherd…the one who cares for the sheep…the one who brings them in and out of the pen…who leads them to green pastures…the one who protects them from the bandit who breaks in to steal…his sheep know his voice and follow him when he calls.

Now you know…that is an interesting thing to think about…the sheep knowing the voice of the one who calls to them…they hear “Follow me” and that’s exactly what they do…but if they don’t recognize the voice, they ignore it…and I’ve certainly seen that in action growing up on the farm.

Dad would often send me out first to start rounding up the cows for milking…and so I’d head out in to the pasture…and pretty much all I would accomplish would be moving them from one corner to another as they simply walked away from me, and went right back to eating grass…but then a couple minutes later, Dad would step out of the barn…and I’d hear a whistle and a “COMEBOSS” and sure enough…those blasted cows would line right up and go traipsing into the barn slick as can be…they knew his voice, but ignored mine. (pause)
And so, as we hear in the scriptures…Jesus here in the midst of opposition, as he often finds himself…facing the question “Are you the Messiah” which is actually a question of “Are you the one who is going to lead us and take care of us?” And Jesus…gets the tiniest bit testy…Am I the Messiah…I have already told you that…and the signs that I have done testify to the truth of who I am. (pause) And then he drops the hammer on them…you don’t believe it, because you aren’t my sheep. They know me…they know my voice and believe it…they follow me…and I take care of them. (pause)

Now most often, when I hear this passage…or others like it…as Jesus talks about caring for his flock, and the trust that they have in him…its reassuring for me…because I count myself within that flock….but I got to thinking about it this week…and I realized that if Jesus is the shepherd…which he is…and I’m part of his flock…well then it stands to reason that Jesus…God in human form…is calling me a sheep.

God…is calling me a stupid, idiodic, mindless moron who is totally dependent on someone else for my well being…and as true as that might just be…it almost seems a little on the insulting side doesn’t it? Think about it…as you are sitting here today…it would seem that you’ve also heard the voice of the shepherd calling in one form or another…and so you have followed here, to this place…and so I guess that makes you a sheep too. We’re all in this together…a bunch of stupid creatures who will stand there starving to death rather than to walk 5 feet to achieve that which will sustain us…that is unless…someone leads us there. (pause)
But you know what…as crazy as that might sound…isn’t it about right? We human beings…as smart and accomplished as we have become as a species…are still pretty stupid aren’t we? We do dumb stuff…we say dumb stuff…we think dumb stuff…and more often that not…even though we might know better…we choose the dumb choice…because its in our nature.

We are sheep…totally dependent on the life that the shepherd provides for us…we may not always think so, but I think when we take an honest look we’ll all realize it. We need to be cared for…we need to be looked after…because in the end we are all broken creatures, standing there timidly shaking in the face of whatever predator it is that’s stalking us.

What is it that you fear? Be honest with yourself…because we all do. What makes you worry, quaking in your boots with the “what if” or the “What if not…” What pain lies in your life…whether physical or emotional…because we all carry pain…we all have sorrow, and fear…and perhaps…maybe, just maybe, the one that we all share, whether we want to admit it or not…is the realm of death…because its out there and even though we might chose to ignore it, it rears its ugly head more often than we care to admit.

Earlier this week my son was reading the headlines, and discovered that a pro wrestler that he knows and watches has been diagnosed with cancer…and the very same day he shared that with me, I received word that a gentleman who has served as camp grandpa out at family camp in Colorado…a man that I know as Grandpa Dave over the past decade, lost his battle with cancer…and as my son and I sat there talking about both of these things, we both agreed that death…it just doesn’t care. You can be old or young…you can be rich or poor…you can be famous or a nobody…and yet death comes after us all…and the more often I face it, the more I realize that its true…and it is scary.

And as I think about all of that…I start to see the truth…and I’ll admit it…Jesus says he’s the shepherd of the sheep…and I’m a sheep….BAA!

But there’s hope here too…because Jesus makes a promise…a promise that not only does he care for the sheep…he holds them in his hand…and nothing will snatch them away from him…not even death…because of what he has done for us…we hold onto the hope that there is more…that there is life beyond whatever barrier death represents…

But even more than that…right here…right now…in the midst of everything in this big scary world that often times leaves me shaking in my boots…Jesus says tells us that his sheep know his voice…and that is true…but even more importantly HE…KNOWS…THEM. (pause) He knows you…he knows your name…he knows your every thought…he knows your fears and your doubts and your failures and your victories…he knows your pain and sorrow…and he see each and every tear that falls…and in the midst of all that…HE HOLDS YOU IN HIS HANDS…both in those moments that we recognize it…as well as in the moments when our “sheep-brain” takes over and we’re too dim to realize it…Just like in the All-State commercials…you’re in good hands…because you’re in his hands. You are held in the hands of the good shepherd.

And just in case you’re wondering what makes him so good? Well, because our shepherd that gives us life abundant…our shepherd that loves his sheep…was willing to become one himself. He’s lived this life…he’s overcome the forces that bind us within it…and he leads us beyond them. (pause)
The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. Yay though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…for you are with me…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  (pause)

Sheep are dumb and helpless…and I’m a sheep. BAA!

Part of the Flock 4-26-15

In this sermon, based on John 10:11-18, I explore what Jesus is saying when he calls himself the Good Shepherd. What does it mean to be in relationship with one that knows us?

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/part-of-the-flock-4-26-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
It never ceases to amaze me how little things will pop up that give me insight into preaching…conversations that occur, moments that I witness…things that I overhear…there are countless ways…and this time around it was a short video that made the rounds on facebook of a mom laying down with her quadruplet sons draped all over her. The dad is behind the camera making funny faces or noises or something that is making the 4 boys laugh uncontrollably….the video itself is hilarious…but as I watched it I remember thinking to myself “Wow…4 identical babies…how in the world do those parents tell them apart?”
In all honesty, this is not a new concept for me either. I have often times found myself in the situation of encountering multiples…typically when they are quite young…and being unable to tell them apart…most recently, the twin sons of one of the pastors at our church in the Twin Cities…now my wife, who worked with the pastor and encountered the boys more often, she could take a look at them and usually be able to tell which one was which, but I was lost…couldn’t tell one from another. (Pause)
But then I got to thinking some more about this week’s gospel lesson…a portion of the Good Shepherd discourse…a section of John’s gospel that is featured here on the 4th Sunday of Easter every single year…for it is informally known as Good Shepherd Sunday…and this year, we hear the go-to section when Jesus actually calls himself the good shepherd…and not just once but a couple times through the course of this brief section. (Pause)
Now the interesting thing about this whole passage, not just the portion we shared today, but actually all of John chapter 10…is the theme of sheep…Last year, during Lectionary year A we heard the first portion…that there are sheep, and they are in a pen…and some individuals try to climb over the fence and steal the sheep, but Jesus is the gate and the sheep know him and follow his voice. (pause) Next year in year C we’ll hear more of the same…of the sheep following the voice of Jesus and that by following him the sheep have eternal life. (pause) And this year, its really more of the same…sheep sheep sheep…but more importantly…in today’s portion, we actually hear the famous words. I AM…the Good Shepherd. (pause) This year Jesus actually says it…but even more importantly he talks about by being the good shepherd…he knows the sheep and the sheep know him…and that’s why we hear in the other passages from the other years that they are so keen on following him…because there is an intimacy there…a relationship.
And that’s why I am constantly unable to tell twins apart…something that their parents can so easily do…because their parents know them…they know everything about them…and can tell them apart easily. (pause)
But I thought about that notion a little more…and then since we’ve been talking about sheep so much I got to thinking about livestock. Now…how many of you have ever driven past a herd of livestock…or better yet walked up to the fence and looked at that herd…really any kind of animal…and thought to yourself…how can you tell them apart? They all look the same? Ever had that experience? (pause) I know I have…but I’ve been on the other side of things too.
Many of you know that I’m a farm kid…and in my younger days…up till I was about 16 or so, we milked cows…and it is certainly safe to say that I knew those cows…It didn’t matter if they were in the barn, locked into their stanchions…or out wandering around in the pasture…I could tell at a glance which one was which…even though someone unfamiliar would look and see a big mass of black and white animals that all look the same…I could tell you which ones were easy milkers…I could tell you which ones would always step into the wrong spot to eat the feed of another…which ones were old, which ones were young…and I could darn sure tell you which one had most recently hauled off and kicked me…and I could tell you all of this…I could distinguish between them simply because I knew them…I was familiar with them.
And that’s the important aspect of what Jesus is telling us today…he is the shepherd and we know this because he knows the sheep…he loves the sheep…he’s familiar with them…he’s in relationship with them…we can even say that he’s intimate with them.
That’s the basis for the word that Jesus uses when he says that I know my sheep and they know me…just as the father knows me and I know the father…this Greek word “to know”…it implies intimacy…not just casual acquaintance…in fact it is the same word that describes the intimate way that a husband and wife “KNOW” each other…and if you aren’t catching my drift there ask me after the service and I’ll be happy to clarify for you.
And this is how Jesus describes the relationship that he desires…and the truly amazing thing about all of this is that Jesus desires this relationship with those that have been cast out of other relationships. (pause) He tells us that he has other sheep that do not belong to this fold, and he must bring them in also…and while that may seem somewhat clear…its important to note that this entire story…every single bit of this is actually in response to something that Jesus has already done.
Prior to the good shepherd discourse, Jesus has healed a man who was born blind…and throughout the entirety of John chapter 9, this man who can now see is going back and forth with the religious leaders who flat out refuse to believe that Jesus should be able to work this miracle…and in the end…when the man refuses to throw Jesus under the bus, the leaders cast him out of the synagogue…essentially they kick him out of their church…telling him that he has no place among them anymore…that he is no longer worthy of being in relationship with them….and after all of this has happened…Jesus finds the man…and Jesus, brings him into relationship…
This whole discourse…all of this talk about sheep and pens and shepherds…all of this comes down to the simple fact that Jesus…the one who calls himself I AM…the one that is God in the flesh dwelling among us…Jesus…desires to be intimately known by those that HE…already knows intimately. (pause)
And that includes not only this one guy cast out of the synagogue…but that includes each and every one of us…across time and around the world. (pause) I love it that Jesus says that he has other sheep that he needs to bring into the fold…because this tells us that the work of Jesus isn’t done yet…its still going on…it didn’t stop with those 12 disciples and a few ragtag other followers….that work is still going on…because the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God in the world today continues to bring more and more into this one flock with Jesus as the shepherd…
If that wasn’t true…then none of us would be here today would we? If the work of Christ to continue to come into relationship with all of his sheep wasn’t still happening then we would have never heard of him would we? (pause) But we have…because the voice of Jesus Christ is still calling out…the gospel of Jesus Christ is still moving through the world and will continue to move through the world until that one glorious day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord…that Jesus is the shepherd for his sheep…that he is the one who loves and protects us…that he calls out to us and one by one we recognize his voice and follow along after him. (pause)
But at the same time, we know that work isn’t done yet is it? Because all we have to do is look around in the world today and we see plenty of hurt…and plenty of pain…and plenty of that pain is inflicted between us…from individual to individual…and this, painful though it may be to see and to experience is simply evidence that the work of our Good Shepherd isn’t done yet. (pause)
I once heard someone talk about happy endings…and they mentioned that it sure seems like real life doesn’t have happy endings…and you know what there’s something to that…but I also heard them say that in the end there is a happy ending, and God has already promised it to us…so if everything’s not happy then its not the end…and I believe that is the case because I believe that this life giving work of our Good Shepherd isn’t…Done…YET…but I believe that as his followers…as those of us who do recognize his voice and follow along after we are called to join in the work of spreading his voice around so that one day we will…in fact…reach that glorious day that I mentioned earlier. (pause)
Now there are days when this task that God has called us as believers into seems pretty daunting…and there are days when we look around at the world and think its too much…its too hard…its too far gone…truly those times happen…and perhaps we get discouraged in those moments.
But on the flip side…we have other days like today…days when we welcome new members into our congregation…new members into this little corner of the worldwide flock of Jesus Christ…and we have days like today when a precious little child is brought to this font…where in a few moments Sophie Thorne will come…and like Sophie that individual is washed in the water…and they are marked with the cross of Christ…and for the first time…they are called Beloved Child of God.
Today Sophie is claimed as Christ’s sheep…one that he knows…and more importantly as one that Christ is willing to lay down his life for…that is the power of our baptisms…that we join with Christ in a death like his so that we may also join with him in a resurrection like his…for as he has told us…He lays aside life in order that he picks it up again…and in the waters of baptism we believe that Sophie, along with every other believer, has her eternal life taken up by Christ…not out of anything that she has done…but because He knows her…and he loves her…just as he loves you. Amen.

I Am What I Am 5-11-14

Today’s sermon came from John 10:1-10. This is the opening portion of the text commonly known as the Good Shepherd parable, though I focus on the notion that in this portion of the passage, Jesus never calls himself that, rather calling himself the gate.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-am-who-i-am-5-11-14

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here…though note, there are some deviations from the text.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Individuality is an interesting thing isn’t it? There are certain aspects that shared between individuals or groups. For instance, we are all fellow members of the human race. Likewise, we are all alive now, at this time, in the early 21st century, and together, we are all present in this place, right now, in this time.

But there are also things about an individual that cannot be matched by anyone else that is either alive right now or that has ever or will ever live. And those are the aspects about the individual that are shaped by their experience.

Science would look at this as the formation of neuron pathways within the individual’s brain. Their experience forms connections within their brain that will forever be present and will forever influence how that individual experiences the world from that time forward.

I see evidence of this type of thing all the time as I interact with my family. My daughter knows things about the realm of dance that I cannot even fathom, and that’s after taking a single week’s worth of dance camp a couple years ago. My son, the sports nut can tell you the most random and obscure details about certain baseball players from several seasons past, and I’m lucky if I can tell the difference between the second baseman and the shortstop. My wife has an instinct for cooking that could rival any chef that I can’t even begin to understand, though my stomach certainly benefits from it.

I on the other hand, have those things in my life that set me apart. For instance, there have been many times when we’ve been driving down the road and Emily will ask me what kind of bird is flying overhead…I can take a quick glance, pick out certain visible characteristics like size, shape, wing pattern, and flight characteristics to tell her that in fact that isn’t a chicken hawk…it’s a turkey vulture. As a former ecologist in training during college, I’ve learned to look for those sort of things.

Likewise, having grown up on the farm, I’ve developed a certain skill with my nose…on many instances, I have impressed my family by following a livestock trailer…taking a sniff…and being able to correctly identify the type of animal inside it, simply by their odor.

These are some of the things that make me who I am. And they are unique to me, but there are other things that I am as well. I am 6 feet tall. I am a runner. I am a father. I am a husband…the list goes on and on of things that identify me…of things that paint a picture of just who…or what…I am.

Now those two words…I am…I have to admit that they catch my attention…they are such simple words and yet they convey so many truths…and importantly, they convey a different set of truth about every individual that says them. Because what I am…is a completely different reality than the one described when you say the very same thing. (pause)

The author of John’s gospel seems to be very aware of this simple fact…although perhaps it would be better to say that Jesus himself is aware of it. The phrase “I am” is quite common throughout the entirety of John’s gospel, and each and every time it is stated, it is by Jesus. Now sometimes Jesus uses it to convey an idea, calling himself something abstract. For instance Jesus says “I am the light of the world” or “I am the vine.” At different times, Jesus simply identifies himself when people are looking for him…saying quite simply “I am.” (pause) And if your knowledge of Old Testament history is perking up there you’ll recognize that as the very same way that God identifies himself to Moses. I am what I am. (pause)

And it probably comes as no great surprise that we see another example of Jesus saying I am in today’s passage. Now, in a personal note, I cannot read this passage without my brain instantly screaming out “GOOD SHEPHERD…IT’S GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY!” And with good reason…the 4th Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday within the lectionary, and over the course of the three year cycle we hear this passage in its entirety…and perhaps if you are anything like me, you listen to the words I shared a moment ago from John’s gospel…words about the shepherd entering by the gate…and calling his own sheep by name…and sheep following because they know his voice…and because this is such a familiar passage your brain instantly goes to what is likely the most famous phrase from this entire parable…when Jesus makes yet another famous I am statement…the one that summarizes the entire story in one simple phrase…I am…the good shepherd. (pause)

Did your minds go there? (pause) I’m guessing so for many of you, if not all of you…but I’ll pose the question…should it? Because in our story today…John chapter 10 verses 1-10…does Jesus ever say it? (pause) Go ahead and look through the gospel text and see…go ahead…I’ll wait (pause).

Nowhere…Nowhere in the midst of all the talk about sheep and bandits and thieves and gatekeepers and shepherds and strangers and sheepfolds and gates and pastures…nowhere does Jesus actually say I am the good shepherd…we have to wait an entire year, and until verse 11…before we hear him say that.

Now admittedly, this is one of those weird moments in the lectionary, when the story cuts off at what seems to be the most important part…and believe me, as a preacher…that can be really frustrating at times…to have Jesus get cut off right about the time he’s going to make the point that straightens out all the ambiguity of the parable itself.

And parables are confusing aren’t they…we’ve seen that time and time again…Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God, and in order to make things simple for his audience he uses a parable, something familiar that they’ll be able to relate to but that vast majority of the time…this one included, we hear that his audience fails to recognize just what he’s talking about…and you know what…I think that inability to really understand has come right on down the ages to us…because as we think about parables, we are supposed to listen to the story and figure out just who it is that we relate to…but in this story…I find that pretty hard to do, particularly in this first portion.

As I mentioned a moment ago we’ve got all kinds of things going on. Sheep hanging out in a pen, guarded by a gatekeeper of some sort…we’ve got random thieves and bandits trying to hop the fence to lead the sheep away…we’ve got a shepherd that comes through the gate and calls out to his sheep. (pause)

So who are we? And who is God? What about Jesus? Is Satan in there? Or false teachers? Maybe, sounds like it…but are we the sheep? Or are we the gatekeepers blocking others? Is God the shepherd, or is that Jesus? Or is God the gatekeeper and we’re the shepherd when we proclaim the gospel? (pause) No wonder the people listening got confused.

And so Jesus…tries again…and its at this point…the second half of today’s story that Jesus gets a little more blatant…You may have noticed about midway through, when Jesus tries again…he begins with the statement Very truly I tell you…but the actual language is truly truly I say to you…or as anyone has that has sat through confirmation class has heard me say…AMEN AMEN I say to you…and when the original language repeats itself…you better pay attention because its important.

And here…in today’s passage, Jesus actually does tell us just who he is in the story…and the amazing thing is…he is not…anyone…he is not a single character within the original parable…rather, this time when Jesus busts out those two simple words about himself. I am…we hear him say…I am…the gate…and not only that, but he says it twice…guess that means its important right? (pause)
I Am, the gate…and whoever enters the sheep pen by me shall be saved and will go in and come out and find pasture…and if that’s the case, well I guess we really are the sheep aren’t we…but then if we’re the sheep that enter and exit the pen through the gate, what exactly is this pasture that we find? (pause)

Well, think like a sheep for a second…pasture is where they find food…where they run and jump…where they flock together…quite simply pasture…is where the sheep finds life…and as Jesus himself tells us, he came to give us life and to give it ABUNDANTLY.

And just what is an abundant life? One free of sin and death…and that my friends is the life that is granted to us by Christ himself…for not only is he the gate…but he also says that I am the way, the truth, and the life…no one comes to the father except through me…and so we see that our abundant life is one that we live in relationship with the Father…and there is no other way to get there then to follow the one that leads the sheep…the one that calls them by name.

And that’s an important point right there…that we are called by name…and you’ve heard me preach on this before…that the name which we are called by is beloved child of God…a name granted to each and every one us in the waters of our baptism…when we hear the promises of God that through Jesus Christ our sin is forgiven and we are no longer subject to the power of death…because in our baptism we join with Jesus in a death like his so that we might also join with him in a life like his…a life that he has promised to be abundant.

Today, Julie Hedegaard will affirm the promises made for her in her baptism…just as a week ago 5 of her peers did the very same thing…today, Julie will affirm the fact that she is a beloved child of God, named and claimed by her Father in Heaven. Today…she will declare for herself…that I am…a child of God…a distinction given to her through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ….and one given to you all.

Because He is the gate…and whoever approaches the pen, which I believe to be the kingdom of heaven, which is present here and now, present when we live our lives in relationship with the father…then we are living the promise that Jesus has made that whoever enters through him will be saved. And so I ask you today, who is a child of God, it is my hope and prayer that you will raise your hand…and declare with confidence…I AM. Amen.