Sermon preached at St. C's, May 15, 2011.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(Preacher hides behind pulpit.)
Pop Quiz, are you ready?
(Re-emerging in pulpit.)
Good job. You confirmed my suspicion that you already know how to live this gospel out. Relax. The rest of this sermon is gravy. I mean, don’t fall asleep, but you can relax. You can rest in the knowledge that there’s nothing to which God is calling you this morning for which you are not already richly equipped. You’ve got all you need. You know it. You live it.
This morning, Jesus says that discipleship, the life of faith, is simple: a sheep hears her voice from the lips of her shepherd. And chases the voice. Like games we played as children. As children, closing our eyes tight and letting the world of sounds overwhelm and surround us, listening, really noticing, the chirps and swirls and breezes and clicks and children splashing in the water, listening for the voice that calls your name; moving without the benefit of sight or sign toward the one whose voice it is.
The life of faith is Marco Polo, no more, no less.
You close your eyes and listen and no one has ever taught you how to do this, but the sounds you hear when your eyes are closed, you can tell where they come from, when you listen. Pinpoint the direction, the location, the source. And whether your next move is bringing you closer to or farther from. And the point of the game is always closer. Closer to the one who calls. That’s it and that’s all.
In our gospel reading this morning: Jesus says, “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
The simple delight of the shepherd for his sheep.
I want you to remember and cherish the delight of the shepherd for his sheep, you and me.
Because every now and again, somebody’s going to tell you, tempt you, tell you that there’s another way to navigate the life of faith, a better way to find your way, and it just might steal your joy. Like the stranger whom you asked for directions to the market that day you were traveling in a strange city. “Take a right, no, a left, at the second light on the right, another left. Then look for the fork on the left, but veer right, and unless that street’s been closed – I can’t remember – unless that street’s been closed, you should be okay, the sign will be between the third and fourth oaks trees, but don’t blink, you could miss them. Got it? Good. So glad I could help.”
Has the life of faith ever felt like that for you? A thousand tiny details you can’t possibly remember for which the only natural responses are inadequacy and embarrassment? Trying to make your way without asking for help, lest someone discover that you’re lost, that you made a wrong turn, that you couldn’t keep up with the rest of the fakers whom you are certain – you are certain – are really just as lost as you.
Maybe not as bad as all that…for you…not all the time, but, from time to time? Sure.
Call it the tourist life of faith. Counting street lights and mile markers, tense for fear that you missed it already and there’s no one there to tell you. Not that you would ask them. You can’t. Lest you reveal to the others that you are as lost as you are sure they are.
Friends turned to enemies. Grace made to fear. And apart from all these things, you never find the goal for which you started in the first place.
But somewhere back behind the din of all these thoughts, the voice of the childlike Shepherd King, laughing, singing, moving, and all the way calling, “Liz, Nancy, Larry, Carol, Earlan, Debi, Jorge, Jon, Annie.” Marco. Polo. As if the life of faith were not so much about having a right answer, but about a right person, a Shepherd who is at the same time the Goal and the Way. Did you hear that? A Shepherd who is at the same time the Goal and the Way. So at every step the question is not, “What’s next for me? What’s my next turn?” but “Where is he?” Where is he? And he calls to you.
Let me give a concrete example: The gospel.
(Preacher walks to the center of the church, Gospel Book in hand.)
Every week, we process the gospel into our midst. And the liturgical goal is for each one of us to turn toward the gospel, until it becomes our center. Not unlike Marco Polo. You hear the voice, you turn, and move closer. But imagine, for a moment, that this turning could only be orchestrated by individual, arithmetic instruction. So, Larry, 45 degrees to your right. Sue, thirty-two to the left. And so on and so forth. Ugh. We’re gonna be here all day. The challenge is that there is no one instruction that would bring us all to the same place. And not only that, we’re going to be left with the impression that we don’t have anything at all in common. We’ll get caught up on our numbers. Everybody hanging on to there personal number.
On the other hand, we could achieve the same end by one proscribed order that centers not on each one of us, but on him: Everybody listen, and move toward the Jesus who lives in the center. And every week, that’s what we do. And as we do this, we find ourselves discovering Jesus and one another. If the Gospel were to duck, you’d be looking at each other.
(Preacher sits down in pew.)
There you are, do you see it? - the living Church of God.
We all have our unique roads, yes, the turning for each one of us is different, and yet we share one Lord and one life. We can even use the turning of the others as cues, as pointers, to help us find our way, our Lord, on days when we find it harder to hear for ourselves.
The Lord’s sheep hear his voice, and the call of his voice makes a flock of the sheep.
(Preacher returns to pulpit.)
So what does it mean for you, on May 15, 2011, if the most important question in your life is not “What’s next for me?” but “Where is he?”
Marco Polo. Pursuit of the Kingdom. Chasing the Shepherd. Finding ourselves and the world brought together, running into each other, make new friends, because there’s only One Shepherd to chase, One Shepherd who calls us to join in the Shepherd King dance.
And where is he? In Church, certainly, but only if we remember that you are God’s Church, that you encounter the Shepherd as you eat the bread, drink the cup, and become what you receive, the Body of Christ. Where else is he? Importantly, I think, the Church is not just the People who are where he is; the Church is also the People who are committed to going where he goes, as he runs through the world to be with the poor and the powerful, in palaces and in prisons, in Senates and in school rooms, with people who can’t hear him calling, and for whom you might be the pointer to his presence. Seeking and serving Christ in all persons.
Not “What next for me?” but “Where is he?” It’s not for nothing, I think, that the Greek word for repentance means turning. This means that our failures are not so much steps back - backsliding is the good old Methodist word - but pivots of misdirection for which the correction can be as simple as ears to hear and a tilt of the head toward him. Conversely, you can be as close as skin to God, but at cross purposes, if your face is turned from his.
Do you study your call in isolation from the One who calls you such that the uniqueness of your turning has become an obstacle to your finding a place in the flock? Remember that the call of every one of us is closer to the Shepherd and so closer to each other.
And if you don’t remember anything else, remember these two words: presence and playfulness. The way of the Shepherd King. The King who says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Presence and playfulness. Not taking ourselves more seriously than he does. But listening, and loving each other with the joy that is his and so also ours.
Let us pray.
“God, of your goodness, give [us] yourself, for you are enough for [us]. I may ask nothing less that is fully to your worship, and if I do ask anything less, ever shall I be in want. Only in you I have all.” (Julian of Norwich)