Sunday, April 21, 2013,
Third Sunday after Easter
Kristin Campbell, Pastoral Intern
I am delighted to have this opportunity to share with you in these sermonic moments, and I thank Pastor Amy for trusting me to stand in this sacred space. Let me start by sharing a bit about my move from California.
I moved to the DC area in August of 2007. I had a mixture of emotions as I began this new chapter in my life. I was sad to say goodbye to my family, friends, and church home. I was excited to be closer my other friends who were already living in the area. I was happy about my new job and my new apartment – they were exactly what I wanted at the time; and I was anxious about the new experiences that I would encounter living on the other side of the country. In the midst of this swirl of emotions, there was one thing in particular that I was absolutely grateful for – my car’s navigation system.
Every day, I plucked addresses into my GPS to get to where I needed to go. I was able to get back and forth to work, to go visit friends, and to find my way to just about anywhere. My navigation system was great! It gave me step-by-step, detailed instructions to take me to each destination. I relied heavily on my nav. It told me exactly where to go and how to get there. At times, friends would begin giving me directions to get to certain locations, and I would quickly tell them, “I’ll just punch the address into my navigation system.” I relished the specificity with which the system directed me. Turn right at the second corner. In a quarter mile, turn left. Your destination is ahead, on the right. I did not question the system. After all, it was my ticket to knowing how to get around. It helped me learn my way. Or did it?
At some point, a friend asked me for directions to get to my home, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t tell her how to get there. I didn’t even know the name of my cross street. I realized, that I had relied on my navigation system so religiously that I lost sight of the purpose for getting directions in the first place. I didn’t know my way. I didn’t know the area. All I knew was how to follow directions – directions that didn’t even speak the names of the streets.
The Pharisees had become good at following directions, too. They followed their laws and traditions with great religiosity. They were confident that the laws and traditions would help them find their way. The problem was, that they had gotten so wrapped up in the rigidity of their rules that they had lost sight of God. What was originally designed to be the means, by which they maintained a healthy relationship with God and each other, became their unfortunate ends. They followed the laws for the laws sake and knew nothing of the character of God. They had lost their way.
Jesus then came on the scene doing things that seemed to violate the laws and traditions of the Pharisees. He healed a lame man and told him that his sins were forgiven; he spent time in conversation with a Samaritan woman; he touched a leper and healed him; his disciples ate without washing their hands, and they never fasted; and he healed a blind man on the Sabbath day.
Not only was this charismatic Jesus engaging in activities that the Pharisees deemed spurious, but he was also teaching others; and multitudes were beginning to follow him, seeking his guidance, his teaching and his healing. They were drawn to him. There was a murmur of the possibility of this Jesus being the Messiah, the very Son of God.
The Pharisees were threatened. They had lived their lives following the laws and had instituted traditions that they had come to cherish, respect, and serve. Their traditions defined who they were as Jews and as religious leaders. They used those laws and traditions to define the straight and narrow for themselves and for other Jews so that they did not lose their identity as a community. In the midst of a pluralistic society, it was their laws and traditions that set them apart as the chosen people. Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God and even insinuated that the kingdom was open to others outside of the Jewish community. Jesus was a threat to their status, their identity, their somebodiness.
So in the Gospel text for today, we find the Pharisees confronting Jesus in the Temple, and the situation is ironic. It is the Festival of Dedication. This festival was established to celebrate the rebuilding of the new altar and the purification of the temple after King Antiochus desecrated it in 165 BC. The temple was the place where the Jews came to worship God and to offer sacrifices for atonement. So ironically, it was in the place where the people could find atonement and renewal of their relationship with God that the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked him the question that to this day generations have wanted answered. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus responded telling the Pharisees that he had already told them but that they didn’t believe. He went on to say, “The works that I do in My Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” What did Jesus mean by this? Who were Jesus’ sheep?
Jesus was referring to those who heard his teachings and understood. Jesus came teaching people about the true person of God. He preached a loving God who had compassion on people. Jesus was trying to draw them from a focus on the law into a loving relationship. The Gospel is about us moving into relationship with God. Jesus was so thoroughly committed to doing the Father’s will and drawing us into relationship that he would even go to the cross.
In the beginning of the tenth chapter of John, in the verses leading up to today’s text, Jesus spoke about the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. He began by stating, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” What was Jesus saying here? He was telling the Pharisees that their traditions were insufficient to bring them into relationship with God. Their religiosity would profit them nothing. So caught up were the Pharisees in the laws, that they had instituted strict traditions to try to maintain those laws – traditions that held the people hostage in stringent rituals that even the Pharisees could not maintain themselves. Practicing the faith became a burden for people rather than a blessing. Jesus made clear that these false teachings were as illegitimate as thieves climbing over a fence to enter the sheepfold.
Jesus indicated that the shepherd calls his sheep and they hear his voice. He said that when the shepherd has brought out all of his sheep through the gate, he goes ahead of them and they follow him because they know his voice. The sheep follow in the shepherd’s footsteps, just like we are able to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
The Pharisees asked Jesus to tell them plainly what they felt they needed to know, but the fact was that Jesus had shown them plainly all that they truly needed. They simply needed to follow in his footsteps.
We often speak of the Pharisees as these horrible people who sought control, and fought against Jesus because they were afraid that he would take their control, but as I read the text for today, I began to recognize some of their concerns in myself. I realized that like the Pharisees, I often look for absolute answers. I want stability. I want to know the exact formula for how to live my life, how to find success, how to achieve perfection. I read the Bible and find myself asking at times, “Lord, make it plain.” I find myself uncomfortable with not knowing sometimes.
With so much happening in our world and so much that just doesn’t make sense, it is easy to find ourselves asking questions and looking for answers that don’t seem to come. Looking at the news we see one tragedy after another horrific tragedy. In the midst of such a tumultuous time, we want clear guidelines and absolute formulas for how to live our lives, for what to expect, for the answers to our unanswered questions. We want those answers to be clear and direct. Yet, God is so vast, so magnificent, and so complex, that we cannot possibly fully comprehend all of God’s mysteries. So, what do we do?
Jesus does give us an answer. He described himself as the shepherd and the people as his sheep. What do the sheep do? They follow in the shepherd’s footsteps. We may not have all of the answers to all of our questions but what we can do is follow in Jesus’s footsteps. We can live like Jesus lived and do like he did.
Jesus showed us the way. He prayed for the sick. He fed the hungry. He taught us to clothe the naked and visit the captives. He taught us to give of ourselves and to fellowship with each other, to be loving and kind, humble and honest, to bear one another’s burdens and share in one another’s hopes.
So, what of the Pharisees? Was Jesus condemning them when he told them that they were not his sheep? No. He was giving them an opportunity to recognize that they had gotten out of line. Let me give you an example to explain what I mean.
Before moving to the DC area, I taught in public school in Los Angeles. Each morning before school, the children would line up on the playground and wait for the bell to ring. The teachers would come out and meet the children at their line-up areas. When the bell rang, all of the children and teachers would walk to their classrooms, all at the same time. That means that about 700 children were all walking toward the buildings all at once. To make sure that everyone got to where they were going safely, the children had to walk in line.
I would greet my class at the line-up area and then walk in front of the line to guide the children to our destination. They had to follow in my footsteps to get to where they needed to go. Now, as we walked, I would frequently glance back to check on my children. If I saw that a child was veering out of line I would say, “Carlitos, you’re not in line.” Carlos would then step back in line, and we would continue walking. I might look back again and say, “Jessica, you’re not in line. Get back in line, honey.” Jessica would then step back in line.
You see, when Jesus told the Pharisees that they were not in his fold, he wasn’t excluding them, he was letting them know that they were not in line. He was giving them an opportunity to get it together.
We too have the opportunity to get it together when we are not in line. So when I find myself in situations that I shouldn’t be in, doing things that I shouldn’t be doing, I can feel the Lord nudging me saying, “Kristin, you’re not in line,” and I can then step back in line. When I find myself in moments of impatience and frustration especially when I’m driving in traffic on I-95 and my thoughts are not at all like those of Jesus, I can feel the Lord reminding me, “Kristin, you’re not in line,” and I can step back in line.
You know we don’t have to be alone in this. We are in a flock with other sheep. You see my children knew the drill of walking in line each morning even though some of them would start to stray from the line from time to time. In fact, there were times when I would hear little voices behind me saying, “Tina, get in line.” “Joseph, you’re not in line.” The children began to help take care of each other and help each other to stay in line.
Gathering together as a fellowship of believers, we can help each other to stay in line. So when you’re feeling unsure about what is going on in this world and you find yourself with unanswered questions you can find community among other sheep who can help you to stay in line and follow in the shepherd’s footsteps. Being within the fold provides you with opportunities to pray together and to learn together and to work together.
There are benefits of being in the fold. At Calvary, God has blessed you with an under-shepherd in Pastor Amy who reminds you about what Jesus taught. You are able to hold each other up in prayer. There is a blessing in being in the fold.
You see when you are in Jesus’ fold, you may not have all of the answers, but you will find your way. You just have to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. There is a blessing in being in the fold. You see there is fellowship in the fold. There is community here in the fold. There are those who will rejoice with you in you successes and cry with you in your sorrows. You are not alone in the fold. There is peace being in the fold, for though we may not know what will come in each new day, we do know that we don’t have to face the day alone because we are not alone. God is with us and we are in the fold, and if you are not in the fold today, know that there is room. You have an open invitation and you will be welcomed with open arms. You see, it is God’s desire that all of God’s children be blessed and be in communion with Him.
Jesus offered an open invitation for all to come to know the true character of God. To know God, not through laws and traditions, but through God’s love for God’s people. So though we may not know all of the answers, we can come to know a God that knows all the answers and already knows us and loves us so very dearly.