“A Gentle Shove”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
May 12, 2019: Easter 4
On a Tuesday several weeks ago, the strangest thing happened to me. The day started out as just a regular day, lunchtime came and went, and at 2pm I got in the truck to pick Theo up from daycare. After I picked him up we stopped at Sonic for a snack and then we were right back to my office to finish out the day. Theo was ambling around my office while I answered a few phone calls, sent a few emails, and double-checked the liturgy for the coming Sunday. It was the week after Easter so it was sort of quiet around here. When I finished the few small tasks I had in front of me, I thought I would get a head start prepping for Sunday’s sermon. So, I pulled out my study bible, of few of the commentaries that I read regularly, and I pulled up the internet browser on my computer so I could visit a website where preachers get together each week to talk about the texts for the coming Sunday. I don’t usually start prepping for Sunday’s sermon until Wednesday afternoon so it felt good to be a little ahead.
The good feelings sort of faded, though, as I turned my attention to the computer. You see, over lunch I had been browsing Facebook and my newsfeed was still up while the preaching discussion website was loading. There, right in the middle of my newsfeed, was a long post by a seminary colleague of mine ranting and raving about this thing and that. The post had a surprising number of comments so, silly me, I clicked on it to see what everyone was saying. That was the first and biggest mistake I made that afternoon. Social media has led us to believe that we are all experts on everything under the sun and the comments on this particularly post were nothing short of a wasteland of human reason and civility. Like a car accident on the highway, I couldn’t look away.
By the time I did look away and get back to the work in front of me, I was exhausted—mentally, physically, spiritually. Social media has also given us a certain amount of courage to say things from behind a keyboard that we might never say to a person face to face. I was sad after reading it all. Most of the comments were from friends of mine, fellow ministers and servants in the church. It was sad to see such ugliness and incivility coming from a group of people who were taught and know so much better. I’ve gotten into a few keyboard battles before so I’m not innocent, but this was just so different and so draining. I tried to put my focus on my Bible and some other readings, but I almost couldn’t even get my eyes to focus. I was in a tunnel. I just wanted to crawl into a hole for a while and hide.
But then it happened. All of a sudden, as clear as can be, I heard a voice whisper in my ear, “You’ve gotta get out of here.” You know, I didn’t even think twice. I packed up my things and Theo’s things and were out of my office within a matter of minutes. By the time we got to the truck, I had decided that we were going to spend the next few hours at Leonardo’s. It was a beautiful day and Theo and I played and ran around literally until it was time for the staff to lock the doors for the night. As I strapped Theo into his car seat to head home, I realized that I had nearly forgotten about the ugliness on social media from earlier. I felt lighter. My field of vision had opened up from just a narrow tunnel to a wide, panoramic lens. I felt full and happy and content and so energized even though we had been running around for almost two hours. Driving home, with all the widows down, with Theo babbling in the back seat, all I could say was, “Thank you.”
Today is called Good Shepherd Sunday in many Christian traditions because the lectionary texts appointed for this Sunday each year carry beautiful and deep images of shepherds. The prophecy we’ve just heard from Ezekiel is a stiff warning to all who claim to be shepherds over God’s people. Even though God may appoint shepherds over the people, God is the one true shepherds. Anyone who tries to harm God’s flock, anyone who tries to lead God’s people astray, any shepherd who does not watch out for the well-being of the flock—all of these are put on notice that God’s punishment will be swift. The Epistle lesson from the book of Revelation isn’t much different. God’s people have come through a great ordeal, led astray and into danger by self-interested, corrupt, dangerous shepherds. A loud voice from heaven calls out, “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Then, from early in John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the gate through which his sheep will enter and exit the sheepfold. Imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hills. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hills has been hollowed out and the sheep huddle inside next to sheep from several other flocks. That was common in Jesus’ day—many shepherds would often put their sheep together in one place. There would be several hundred sheep in one place, but there would also be 10 or fifteen shepherds to protect against predators and thieves. Jutting out from the hillside are two low stone walls that slowly come together to almost make a point. The shepherds lie down in between the space the two walls make, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.
When the shepherd rises in the morning, Jesus explains, “He calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” That sounds nice, right? The sheep know the shepherd and they follow when he calls. But that’s not really what is happening here. When Jesus says he has ‘brought out’ his own, that’s a unique New Testament Greek word that loses its bite in English. We hear this Greek word ‘brought out’ every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of his ministry as driving out the evil rulers of this world. In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising—the demon kind, not the Planet Fitness kind—, casting out. So really, Jesus is saying: “When the shepherd has shoved his own out of the sheepfold, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
Now, perhaps those dimwitted, wooly animals amble gently from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He is talking about us, about you and me. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking a word that shoves us out of our own sheepfolds. Because really that’s what it takes sometimes. Sometimes Jesus has to shove us out of those places of comfort and safety. Sometimes Jesus has to shove us out of those places where we get sucked into the worst that our humanity can offer. Sometimes Jesus has to shove us out of the tombs because, though they are places of death, we don’t have to think there or be challenged there. Sometimes Jesus has to shove us away from social media, from an online debate, away from the artificial relationships that our culture is so heavily built upon these days. We’re stubborn like sheep—or maybe like donkeys—and though we like to think of Jesus as a gentle shepherd, sometimes he has to push and pull and throw and yank and do just about anything until we get our wooly behinds moving.
Why? Why would Jesus be a little less than gentle with us? Well, he says it right there at the end of the passage today: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly. I truly believe, now that I look back on it, that the voice I heard in my ear in my office a few weeks ago was the voice of Jesus yanking, pulling, pushing, shoving me. I had willingly walked into a treacherous and dangerous sheepfold and I needed to be rescued. I believe that Jesus whispered into my ear, “You’ve gotta get out of here,” because the thing that I was doing was not helping me experience the abundance of his life. In fact, it was causing me to walk down a path to the very opposite of life. I believe Jesus whispered to me that day, and then directed me to play and run with my son even though the work day was not done. Why? Because playing and running is a part of Jesus’ abundant life and what I was doing was not.
Jesus didn’t live and die so that we could argue with each other online; Jesus didn’t live and die so that we could call one another names because it makes us feel better about our obvious differences. Jesus didn’t live and die so that some could claim to know all about him while forcing others out; Jesus didn’t live and die so that we could turn his church into a club for some instead of a house of prayer for all people. Jesus lived, died, and rose again on the third day to put to death everything that stands in our way as we claim life in new, transformed, and abundant ways. The abundant life that Jesus offers us is the knowledge that from the moment of our creation until the moment we return to God, we are deeply loved by God. The abundant life that Jesus offers us is the confidence that every breath we take, every step we take, each moment we are alive is not accident or a coincidence but a part of God’s much larger, glorious plan for creation. The abundant life that Jesus offers us is the right to worship God in spirit and in truth and to partake in the sacraments he ordained. The abundant life that Jesus offers us is the truth that only when love is given do we truly know how powerful it can be. The abundant life Jesus offers us is the comforting knowledge that God is still God when the ordeals of life challenge us or make us question or wonder what it is all for. The abundant life Jesus offers us is the assurance that our eternal future is secure so that we can get to work right here and now making a heaven a place on earth.
Ever since that day that Jesus whispered to me, I’ve made a promise that each day Theo and I are going to spend an hour or two doing something that is fun, something that is real, something that is intentional. And so far I’ve made good on that promise. It’s countercultural, really, and sometimes its even a little hard. Sometimes it means stepping away from another thing that is important; sometimes it means saying ‘no’ to one thing so that you can say ‘yes’ to something else. Sometimes its even tiring. But that’s the abundant life of Jesus life, and the more we lean into the things that give us this life, the better we will be—mentally, physically, and spiritually. It is true that Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins. It is true that he gave us commands to live a new and transformed life. It is true that following him, at times, is hard and can put as odds with the world and each other. But Jesus also came with good news that we can be whole people, people who are well, happy, and healthy, people who can touch and live heaven now and not just some day in the great by and by. Isn’t that wonderfully good news?
So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I call you today to be ready. I call you today to be ready to be shoved, because the time will come, and it may be here right now, when you find yourself in a sheepfold that is full of everything except the abundant life of Jesus Christ. Be prepared to be yanked, pulled, pushed, shoved out so that you can live into the expansive life of God. At the same time, keep yours eyes and ears open. Look and listen for the Good Shepherd of our souls, for how he might already be calling you to step out of death and into life. What gives you life? Where do you find God and the deep, abiding love of Jesus? Give yourself permission to lean into those things where the abundant life of God can be found. During this season of Easter, and even beyond for all the seasons to come, may we join with God in the expansive life that is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. May we all have ears and hearts that are ready to listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd. May we all give Jesus a chance to shove us out so that we may find the fullness of a life lived in him and for him. And when we’ve been shoved out, may we all have the wisdom to utter the only response that is ever really needed: “Thank you.” Amen.