December 18, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Out of the House, Into the World
(third in the series “Animals of the Nativity”)
Beloved in Christ, I wonder how you are doing these days…
This is the season when our compassion deepens and our sensitivity sharpens. The mornings get colder; the lights get brighter; our anxiety gets amplified. One reason for all this intensifying might be the pressure that comes from the unspoken supposed to’s. You know about these supposed to’s.
Nobody says you’re supposed to put up a tree and put lights on the roof, or bake cookies, and send out cards, and get gifts for the teachers, and make the cupcakes that look like reindeers. It’s not that we’re supposed to do these things. Except it can feel like we are.
Nobody says you’re supposed to get in the Christmas spirit, or dazzle the wonder of your grandchildren, or carry on the tradition your grandparents began. It’s not that we’re supposed to. Except it sure feels like that.
Nobody says you’re supposed to have a big, healthy, happy family. Where nobody’s grieving and nobody’s sick. Where everybody gets along. Where there are children, and grandparents, and cousins all in the same house at the same table. Nobody says this is what a family is supposed to be. Except it can feel like that if your family is different. And the truth is, every family is different.
A few years ago around the holidays, I noticed that a lot of television shows had the same kind of ending. Didn’t matter if they were sit-coms or dramas. Didn’t matter what the conflict was that occurred during the episode. On show after show, at the end, it would go something like this: The main cast of characters would find themselves sitting around a Christmas dinner. The dialogue would fade into Silent Night playing in the background. The camera would slowly move out of the dining room, and out of the house, through the frost-covered window. The closing shot would show a glimpse of everyone in the house together, warmly-lit through the window behind the wreath-adorned, definitely-closed front door. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Look, it’s not that this isn’t a heartwarming image! It’s lovely to think of families cozy and safe in their homes. But when it comes to what we hope for, what if there is something better? What if the problem is not that we might fail to meet all the unspoken supposed to’s… What if the real problem is that these supposed to’s might fail us? Maybe there’s something more to hope for…
Today our scripture is the Good Shepherd passage from the Gospel of John. It rings some familiar bells of those classic Christian supposed to’s. They say we’re supposed to hear a message of comfort, that Christ will save me if I believe in him, that saving me means I will get enveloped into heaven. It’s not exactly wrong to hear these themes in this passage. But what if something else is going on — something much more frightening and more hopeful than the prospect of me getting into heaven.
To begin with, there are three sections to this speech Jesus delivers; today’s reading is the third. The speech begins when Jesus tells the disciples that the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. It’s like he’s saying, “You are mine.” The shepherd calls the sheep by name, and they follow him because they know him. “Like you know me,” he’s saying. But the absolutely splendid irony is the disciples don’t get it at all. They don’t understand what he’s saying.
So Jesus tries again. In the second section Jesus says, “I am the gate of the sheepfold.” You want to go in, you’ve got to go in through Jesus. So often in hearing this part, we focus on Jesus’ work of gathering us in. As Episcopal priest Rick Morley points out, the gate is also what makes it possible for the sheep to go out. His commentary reminds me of a joke told by the observational comedian Demitri Martin. He says this: “I saw a sign on this door. It said, ‘Exit Only.’ So, I entered it and went up to the guy working there, and I was like, ‘I have some good news. You have severely underestimated this door over here by, like, a hundred percent, man.’” Exit Only…
Jesus says in verse nine: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture.” The gate goes both ways, as though having life, abundant life, is not just about getting in.
This sets us up for today’s scripture which seems like it should be pleasantly reassuring. This scripture helped inspire the painting in the lounge of Jesus holding the sheep; it helped inspire this mural. But right after Jesus delivered the passage that Bob read, the people became divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” while others disagreed.
Because this is what he told them: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And that is not what’s supposed to happen. Shepherds might kill a wolf or another predator. In those days, it was not even uncommon for a shepherd to kill a sheep. Now Jesus is the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep?! As if that weren’t enough Jesus goes on to say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd…” whose love is known in laying down his life and taking it up again.
The people who heard him say this thought he might have a demon.
See the guy who’s supposed to kill is threatening to give his life instead. The gate that’s supposed to bring all the sheep safe inside, is what lets the sheep go out to pasture. As though the promise of Christ is not getting into heaven but going out into the world, not just staying in the house and being a family on Christmas, but going outside to meet somebody new. It’s not that we fail to live up to all the supposed to’s. The real problem is all these supposed to’s might fail us… There’s a better promise.
A few summers ago, I got to spend an afternoon “helping” move sheep from one part of a barn over to a fenced-in area where they were being given medicine one at a time. There were about sixteen of us —teenagers and adults— and it took us a solid two hours. I am quite certain that one border collie could have gotten the job done in about eleven minutes. But the farm didn’t have a border collie; they had a suburban youth group.
I learned a few things from these stressed-out sheep. First, sheep are not stupid. We might not always understand their intelligence, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking. Second, I learned that the sheep are highly attuned to each other. One young male sheep was definitely not going along with our plan. Then one person on the staff went and got his sister. Once he saw her, he stopped panicking. He needed to see his sister; then of course he would follow her into the pen to get the medicine.
That’s the thing about paying attention to each other. It makes it possible for us to go places we might never have dreamed of going. I’ve seen that happen here. People from Church of Peace bring Christ’s love into an elementary school and a hospital room, to the visiting room of a prison, to a nursing home, to a children’s musical —all because somebody we love is there. We will go right into the danger of the world, right into the weeping of grief. Because somebody we love is there. Because Jesus is not just standing around waiting to meet us in heaven one day; Jesus goes with us all the way into the world. Even here.
So maybe it’s time for us to change the Christmas TV show ending. Instead of a closing shot on a street of warmly-lit houses with the families safely shut up inside, maybe the people could pour out of their houses. We could meet our neighbors and go some place just outside our comfort zone. Imagine where we’ll find ourselves as we keep watching out for each other and listening for the voice of Christ.
Today I’m thinking of those sheep out in the fields of Bethlehem. I’m telling you, those sheep aren’t stupid. I’m pretty sure they heard every word the angels sang to their shepherds. And you know how sheep are. If the shepherds get up to leave, well, the sheep are going with them. They’re looking for a manger with a baby in it, and surely sheep know how to find a manger. They’ll stay together, and if one sheep starts to panic a little, it’s okay. She just wants to see her brother. You know she just wants to nuzzle that baby.
This was definitely not the night to stay home! Thank God. Amen.