The video above includes the full service for today. You can click on the four arrows in the bottom right of the video to make it full screen. Clicking the three lines next to that will pull up the menu.
Special thanks to Elisa and Matthew Leahy for video production.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859
Peace Candle | Erin and James Neese
As we meet today in spirit but not in person, we gather around these Sunday Meditations offered by members of the CMC community. Just as we light the Peace Candle to begin our worship, you are invited to light a candle for these Meditations. The flame joins us in spirit across distance, along with our sister church in Armenia, Colombia.
Welcome, Opening | Julie Hart
Call to Worship | Julie Hart
HWB 519 | Shepherd me, O God | Jodi Quint
Scripture | Psalm 23 | Carolina Neese
Children's Time | Ryan Hoke
Mission Moment | Peace and Justice Support Network | Melonie Buller
Pastoral Prayer | Charlie Shenk
Special Music | Bright Morning Stars | Jodi Quint
Scripture | John 10:1-10 | Erin Neese
Sermon | We, like sheep (and chickens) | Joel Miller
Hymn | Could it be that God is singing?
Benediction | Julie Hart
Christian Education | A scientist’s perceptions of our present reality | Interview with Dave Denlinger
Cookie Sunday | 11:00 am via Zoom
Sermon | We, like sheep (and chickens) | Joel Miller
After several months of worship themes unique to our congregation, we’re back on the lectionary. We’ll stick with it throughout May and maybe beyond.
One benefit of the lectionary is the consistent cycle of the liturgical year. No matter what’s happening in the world, any given year, these Sundays between Easter and Pentecost always place us within the Easter season. With the headlines giving the appearance of an eternal Lent, this is a good thing.
Another lectionary gift is that the “our” and the “us” and the “we” involved are universal. This morning Christians around the world are looking at these same texts, pondering the same startling possibility of Easter’s extended appearance.
As a bonus, this year offers a wonderful liturgical convergence across religions with Muslims observing Ramadan, and Jews counting the days between Passover and Shavuot, what we call Pentecost.
What we’re observing today is this passage from John’s gospel in which Jesus is talking about sheep and gates, bandits and thieves, and the shepherd who puts his own life on the line.
John’s gospel doesn’t have the parables the others do, so this is perhaps the most parable-like teaching we have in John. “I am the gate for the sheep,” Jesus says. Never one to be confined to just one metaphor, Jesus soon adds, “I am the good shepherd.” He doesn’t come right out and say it, but it’s clear enough that we listeners, the people, now a global family still giving attention to these words, are the sheep.
This was an old and often used image, even in Jesus’ time. The prophet Ezekiel (chapter 34) talked about Israel’s leaders as false shepherds, feeding themselves rather than the flock. The Psalmist spoke intimately of the Divine with these beloved words: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” All throughout the Ancient Near East kings were referred to as shepherds. It seems that we the people have been likening ourselves to they the sheep for millennia.
As best we can tell, the experience of being a sheep has changed dramatically over the last 12,000 years. It was around that time that the ancestors of today’s people and the ancestors of today’s sheep started an experiment whose consequences are ongoing.
For ages sheep were fiercely independent creatures. They lived mostly on wooded mountains. They foraged and fought, mated and migrated.
At some point a group of people, in the Near East, had some success at containing these creatures within a confined area within their settlement. Eventually the people were providing added protection for the sheep against predators, and ensuring there was plenty of forage to keep them growing strong. From another perspective, it could appear that the sheep were running an experiment on the humans, seeing if they could train these bipedal primates to provide the labor for matters of basic survival, enabling the sheep to turn their attention toward the higher echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Either way, since that time, people and sheep have developed our ways of life together. Compared to those early days we are both less wild and more domestic. Less scattered and more concentrated in large flocks. Less locally independent, and more globally interdependent. Less roaming of mountains and woods, more directed by gates and shepherds.
The experience of being a person has changed dramatically over the last 12,000 years.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
In context, these words of Jesus take place within a confrontation with the Pharisees. John chapter 9 is an extended story about a man who had been born blind and the theological judgments pronounced, or assumed, against him. Like something was fundamentally wrong with this person, not just biologically, but morally and spiritually.
The overarching question of who is in and who is out runs throughout the story.
One way of ordering the world is to build a fence around you and your people. Declare yourselves on the inside, while everyone else is on the outside. At the end of chapter 9, Jesus makes a comment that flips this whole arrangement. He says: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” As if everyone who builds that fence around themselves is actually sealing themselves off from the spacious, gracious, inside of the beloved community, which spans across fields, nations, and continents.
This inside/outside mentality is familiar territory to psychologists, anthropologists, and religions. Isn’t that why we have religions in the first place, to decide who’s in and who’s out?
But the story is just hitting its stride . Today’s reading is a direct continuation of this exchange. It suggests a different orientation to life than insiders and outsiders.
Because if there’s one thing all sheep have in common, at least in Jesus’ time before we invented feedlots, it’s that they need to be inside the fence – for protection and safety. And outside the fence – for pasture, for sustenance. And we, like sheep, have our inside and our outside needs. To be well, we need the basic securities of inside the fence living, and the nourishment that grows on the other side of the gate.
This shift to a different kind of inside and outside is a bit abrupt for Jesus’s listeners. John says: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” To which Jesus makes it as plain as he can. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The point of life, the point of good religion, it turns out, is more life. And not just DNA combining and replicating itself to make more sheep, and more people. But abundant life. A fullness of life. Like the cup that runneth over in Psalm 23. Life bursting at the seams of these creaturely containers of our bodies. The depth dimension of existence. Abundant life inside. And abundant life outside.
What a strange time for us to be contemplating this passage. Right about now life seems to have been reduced to two arenas: The confines and hoped-for safety of the inside; and the potentially risky yet still essential activities of the outside. Speaking personally, I’m more conscious than I’ve ever been in my life of when I’m venturing from the inside to the outside, grateful for good shepherds giving us guidance for how to do this well. Upset with shepherds who seem concerned about protecting only their own interests.
Domesticated creatures that we are, we have become quite dependent on being fed by the labor of others. Any illusions of self-sufficiency and fierce independence we may have had, a blindness now healed. We all need nourishment and sustenance, physical, social, and spiritual, from beyond the confines of our necessary fences.
Even though we may not be thinking of it with this exact terminology, I’m guessing we have all been thinking a bit about what abundant life means for us right now.
And what does it mean?
Less scheduled lives with the fear of missing out all but gone because there’s nothing to miss out on except the whisperings of our own inner guide: Could this be abundant life?
Participating more than ever in our own child’s childhood, feeling more than ever the insanity and graces of parenting: Could this be abundant life?
Working long hours to guide one’s institution through who-knows-what kinds of adaptations that could be temporary or long term. Going out each day to provide an essential service without which our advanced civilization of bipedal primates could not exist: Could this be abundant life?
Giving one’s attention to the daily changes of spring’s emergence, from bare to bud to flower to leaf, with birds gliding and landing and moving on, some of whom we’re starting to recognize and perhaps even name: Could this be abundant life?
I’ve written most of this sermon outside on our deck that overlooks the back yard, in which there is a fenced in garden, in which there is a chicken coop and a smaller fenced area where eight chickens roam, peck, and scratch during the day. Mom and Dad brought us the chickens on Easter Sunday. If you can’t have a family Easter egg hunt you might as well make up for it by adopting creatures who can offer you an egg hunt for every day to follow.
Like sheep, and, I suppose, like ourselves, these chickens lives are defined by the safety of the inside, and the space of the outside. Every night we close them into the coop, and every morning we open the gate and throw them whatever food scraps remain from the day before, which they eagerly devour, returning the favor to us in the form of about one egg per day per chicken.
Aside from the eggs, I love living with chickens in my life. It’s like having a non-stop parable playing in real time. Often we’re in the place of learning how to be good chicken shepherds. Other times I’m just watching them, aspiring to be more chicken-like in the ability to transform weeds and waste into nourishment for us and others to enjoy. How their waste becomes fertilizer in the garden that will nourish other growth. How abundant life from a chicken’s perspective, and, I imagine a sheep’s, and perhaps from ours, doesn’t need to be all that complicated. I’m guessing the chickens will be making cameo appearances in more than one sermon.
When his listeners were confused about what he might be trying to say, Jesus summed up his whole purpose in these words: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus, the good shepherd of the sheep who speaks our name. Jesus the gate. Not the kind of gate that separates the in crowd from the out crowd. But the kind of gate that provides safety and refuge for our inside lives, and the kind of gate that swings wide open to the spacious outside, where there are no guarantees except occasions for life, and more life.
A scientists perceptions of our present reality: An interview with Dave Denlinger