Sunday May 11 - Easter 4
This sermon draft includes Bible Readings and Hymns, and concludes with the Eucharist.
Readings: Psalm 23, John 10: 1-21
In John five there is a man who has been lying at the pool of Bethzatha for 38 years. He knows what to do. When the water in the pool is stirred up he needs to get into the pool first to be healed. But because he is sick and he has no one to help him, someone else always gets there before him. So he is never healed.
There is a lot going on in that story, but here is part of it. The man is us, we are sick. According to the story he is blind, lame, or paralysed. Like us. And like us, so often, he is alone. There is no one to help. And like us he can never get healed of his sickness. It's lifelong; 38 years— not quite 40 years. That's a hint he is near the end of his time in the wilderness.
So there he is trapped in a wilderness of sickness... by the Sheep Gate, it says. The Sheep Gate was where all the sheep that were sacrificed in the Temple were brought into the city; by mentioning the Sheep Gate, the story is hinting that religion wasn't helping him either.
And then, on the Sabbath, on the day when, traditionally, God is not working, along comes the man called Jesus. In our reading for today , John Chapter 10, Jesus says, No... I am the gate for the sheep. I AM the Sheep Gate.
This says more than it seems. In John's gospel, when Jesus says I Am it is saying it is saying that in me you see God. I AM is the name of God. In Chapter 8 he says before Abraham was I AM. So in John 10 he is saying, "You go through me to be healed, not that other sheep gate." Jesus is the real sheep gate, the real gate into life for the sheep.
In the Bible sheep are a symbol for us people; the people are the sheep. And although we leave sheep pretty much on their own in Australia, sheep in the Bible always need a Shepherd. The king, and the other leaders of the country, were the shepherds.
Israel's experience was that most of those shepherds were bad shepherds. This is why in John 10 the shepherds are called thieves and bandits who come to steal and destroy. Listen to some of Ezekiel Chapter 34.
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them....
7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep;9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds...
11 I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered...
15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Jesus said, "I AM" the Good Shepherd. It's that I AM statement again; God is the good Shepherd, and we the promise that God would seek the lost and bind up the injured is in John 10, too. The good Shepherd says, "I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly." That's the promise of heaven on earth, also known as the kingdom of God, also known as eternal life.
This is the easy part of the reading. We probably know all this. But there is some nasty stuff about us sheep, which we'd rather not hear… ... and it makes for a long sermon. But it is really important, and it's life changing, and lifesaving. So we'll sing a hymn, and then we'll get started.
Hymn: Jesus the Lord said, I am the bread (TIS 239)
Just about every human culture has sacrifice of animals somewhere in its history, and usually, also the sacrifice of people. Why is that? Let me tell you a story that shows one big difference between us and the other animals. It's what starts us on the road to being human.
Mary is playing with a stick that looks a bit like a person. She's six.
Tommy doesn't care about sticks and dolls. He's never thought about playing with a stick and pretending it's a person before.
But she's got it, so he wants it. And they fight for it.
It gets so serious that they forget all about the stick, and just start hitting each other. Just as it's getting really bad, the plump little kid from next door, the one with the red hair, walks around the corner.
"Look," says Mary, "It's fat furry Freddy reddy."
"Let's get him," says Tommy, and they go for him.
Suddenly, innocent little Freddie is the victim that lets Mary and Tommy make peace, forget their fight, and be friends again.
Freddy becomes— here is a loaded word from our tradition— Freddy becomes the scapegoat.
What we humans found was that the desire to be like other people, and have what they have, is terribly destructive. It destroys families and tribes. What we also found was, that if you could tip the blame for all that grief onto someone a little bit different, who couldn't fight back, and even kill them, then all the destructive forces seemed to disappear for a while. In fact, we felt a lot closer together. It was like magic.
We don't really like killing people, so we developed a system that made the scapegoats sacred. The first Kings, it seems, were often sacrificial victims who were... sort of paid off... by being favoured as the King and getting the best of everything for a while. Maybe it helped them feel better; it helped the rest of us pretend we were not murdering them at the end of it all. This murder was so powerful in keeping the peace, that we could pretend that God wanted it, and that God had ordained it!
Well, God had other ideas..., thank God.
You remember that story of how Abraham goes out to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then finds the lamb trapped in the thicket? That's God teaching Abraham there is a better way to be human and to serve him. You're not hearing me right. Instead of killing people, use an animal. Use a scapegoat.
But the best, most powerful scapegoats, are still people. We are still that primitive. That's why countries go beserk and lose their heads every so often, and gang up and crucify an innocent victim like Lindy Chamberlain, or murder 8000 people in the Srebrenica massacre.
It's also why we vote politicians out, very often. They are not keeping the peace and making us feel safe.... although we have a funny idea of what safe and peace are... we blame them for all our problems.
And the politicians…
well, being a good shepherd means looking after the poor. And that means the rich and powerful people who have most of the money have to "man up" and do their God given duty, and look after the poor. But of course, they don't want to…
So the politicians, who are owned by their richer and more powerful electors, find a scapegoat. They pick on refugees, or unemployed people— there are more people than jobs, you know— and blame them, and attack them; put them in concentration camps; lie about them; cut their pensions. The innocent victims of society are made into a scapegoat.
And then the rich and the poor tend to forget the real problem, and the argument between them, and become friends again. The politicians keep their jobs, the economy grows, and it all seems... peaceful.
This means that our whole society is built on violence and oppression.
It's built on blame...
which makes us blind and lame,
because if you tell the truth about this game,
you'll be the next victim.
We are trapped, stuck at the sheep gate needing healing, and never able to get to the healing pool of God in time.
Hymn: Ah holy Jesus AHB 254 Tune HERZLIEBSTER JESU
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
For me, kind Jesus, was Thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.
Now all of this stuff about victims only works if we think the victim or scapegoat deserves it. As soon as we see that the scapegoat is innocent, the system doesn't work properly and begins to fail. If we understand that the scapegoat is innocent, then we realise that person is just like us, and they didn't do anything, and then we won't buy into the system.
That's why dictators don't like people who cry out for Justice. It's why they persecute Christians, because in the gospel the truth of what's going on is being shown. It's why politicians hate whistleblowers. Whistleblowers expose the truth. I AM the Truth said Jesus. He is The Great Whistleblower.
All through the history of the Bible people are oppressed, and victimised, and killed. The Bible is an incredibly violent book. It's because it doesn't try to hide the violence of humanity. It tells us the evil that is going on. And at the same time, all the way through, it shows us that God loves us, and is on the side of the victims. Prophet after prophet comes, but the people don't listen, and killed them…. Ah Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! (Luke 13, Matt 23)
Finally, God sends Jesus, the last prophet, the great prophet; a good Shepherd who loves, who heals, who includes, and gathers in all the victims and scapegoats. And they— we— kill him.
That should have been the end of it.
But there are two things that were different this time.
First: he comes back.
Second: he still loves us.
You remember how when he appears to the disciples and says, "Do not be afraid?" That's because when you kill the Son of God and he comes back you expect real trouble. You expect revenge, violence, murder, blame, scapegoating.
But he forgives. Do not be afraid. Peace be with you.
Jesus the Good Shepherd has blown the whistle on the whole sorry system of blame and murder upon which our world is built. He has shown we don't have to live like that. We can forgive. And when we forgive, murder and blame cannot not destroy us. Listen to his voice… His sheep hear his voice and follow him.
Hymn: TIS 648 Help Us Accept Each Other TUNE RUNNYMEDE
Let's put it all together now.
The problem with this whole story is that the world is still not listening. People are still scapegoating and blaming despite the death of Jesus and what has shown us about forgiveness. In fact, in Australia we know fine, inspiring politicians, who have ended up joining the mob screaming for the scapegoat.
From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and forgiveness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others…
There is more of this in an inspiring maiden speech by the same Minister for Immigration, who this week not only turned back a boatload of asylum seekers, but outside the law even put on that boat extra people who had come to us hoping for care and protection. The correct name for this is extra judicial deportation. There was a time when the entire nation would have been outraged.
We are naive if we think for a moment that we are immune from being just as hypocritical in our little patch of Australia. And we are naive if we think blowing the whistle on such sins in our little patch of Australia, might not result in someone deflecting the blame on to us, making us the scapegoat.
With Jesus' death and resurrection everything has changed,
but with us people, a lot has not changed.
Here is one difference.
The Shepherd, who is the gate does not abandon us at the sheep gate to be the latest victim of society's violence. He doesn't leave the sheep to be slaughtered, and go home. The Shepherd goes ahead of them through the same gate. He lays down his life for them and with them. He takes it up again, with the promise that our life will be taken up again, too. We are not left alone.
At Communion we will remember his last meal.
We will symbolically take part in a meal of betrayal— Judas went out and it was night. We are all Judas, sometimes.
And we will remember that he still comes back and eats with us.
He forgives us.
Each time we trust him and love others; when we serve, even when it costs us dearly, we are opening our hearts for him to come among us at the table and free us from the fears of life. We are that little more enabled to step out of the cycle of murder and violence, and become human,
and be saved,
and know that other, eternal life, God has always wanted to give us.
Hymn: 240 all go to God when they are sorely placed.
All go to God when they are sorely placed:
they plead to God for help, for peace, for bread,
for mercy, for them sinning, sick or dead.
We all do so in faith or unbelief.
We go to God when she is sorely placed,
find him poor, scorned, unsheltered, without bread,
whelmed under weight of evil, weak or dead.
We stand by God then, in her hour of grief.
God comes to us when we are sorely placed,
body and spirit feeds us with the bread.
For everyone, the human one hangs dead:
forgiven life God gives all through his death.
[This hymn was written by Rev Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who refused to be part of the Nazi scapegoating of World War II. He too was God’s whistleblower. He was imprisoned for two years and then hanged a few months before the end of the war.
From Wikipedia: Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer's, writes of a man who saw the execution: "I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."
We have made some alterations to the language of Rev. Walter Farquharson's translation as it appears in Together in Song]
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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