Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication[a] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[b]; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

I decided to get a jump on my summer reading, so I bought a copy of the Mueller Report.

The first problem is page after page of redactions, entire pages made up of a large blocks of black ink where the words are supposed to go. On one hand, I got more ink, so that’s good, but on the other hand, fewer words, that’s bad. And I have already spent too much time trying to guess what’s under all that ink—to no avail. And of course, after Carmen handed me my new book, I couldn’t resist saying, “hey, what did you do to my new book?” Who know redactions could be so much fun?

(Just as an aside, my friend and colleague is a pastor in Iowa, and he experienced some illness last year. He’s a funny guy, so he’s in the hospital and he says to his wife “I really hope that your next husband is healthier than me.” Without skipping a beat she says, “I’m not sure what Robert’s health is like.”
“Robert! Who’s Robert?” he says.
“Robert Mueller, of course.”)

I think of it as a 448 page trip down memory lane. That time Comey went to the White House and felt compelled to make contemporaneous notes. The meeting the Oval with Kislyak and Lavrov. Or the time Flynn lied to Pence about his conversations with Kislyak. Is it collusion or obstruction, or both?

(Just now you’re thinking that this is the strangest Mother’s Day sermon is human history, and you struggle to see how any preacher could possibly make a link from Mueller to Mother’s Day. But I think I know, so let’s look.)

First of all, consider Mike Pence. He’s the conservative governor who was selected to join the ticket in an effort to solidify support from the religious right. And he succeeded, partly by convincing his co-religionists to keep their eye on the prize—conservative judges—and partly by making a Bible-based argument for supporting the ticket.

The argument is to point to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, conqueror of Babylon, the very king who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. For Pence and for others, the parallels seem too clear to ignore: Cyrus was pagan, normally someone you ignore or revile, but he became an instrument of God’s desire to return the people to the Promised Land. Isaiah even calls Cyrus a messiah, an anointed one, sent to save the people.

So in a remarkable misuse of the Bible, conservative Christian voters were told that even though their candidate seemed to represent everything a good Christian should avoid—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—they should set this aside because he might be a modern-day King Cyrus. And if you think all this might be a bit of a stretch, remember that the Prime Minister of Israel made the same point about Cyrus the Great, in the Oval Office, after the election.

Clearly, this is a moment to review this idea of messiah. In our passage, Jesus’ religious critics want to know if he’s messiah. In Isaiah 45 we read about Cyrus as messiah, and for our Jewish sisters and brothers, they continue to wait. So how do we sort through all this? Just now, some of our Lenten study friends are remembering that just such a question came up, so they can go to their happy place for a moment while we look at this idea of messiah.

To begin, messiah simply means “the anointed one,” associated with kingship of the human and historical variety. David is considered the greatest king, anointed and given the promise of an enduring line. The Babylonians had other ideas, of course, so the idea of an Israelite king become a future hope, and eventually a messianic hope—in the sense that God will anoint another king to rule over them.

At the same time, the Bible begins to give the anointed king divine qualities, using language like Son of God (Psalm 2) as an honourific. So we have the idea of a messiah, a divinely anointed king, and he have the name “Son of God,” an important marker of divine authorization. Add this to the language of the Son of Man: beginning in Daniel and expressing a future hope someone more powerful than an angel (and in human form) would come on the clouds to liberate Israel.

So by the time Jesus arrives, the hope of salvation is described in a number of ways: Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, righteous branch (of the Jesse tree) and so on. And it follows that Jesus fits the part. When Jesus says to the twelve “but who do you say that I am?” we get Peter’s response: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Which brings us back to our passage. When asked if he is the messiah, he says “I told you that, but you didn’t believe me”—
and then he does two things. First, he reminds them that everything he has been doing should be proof enough that he comes from God, and second, he talks about sheep. I’m going to talk about sheep in a moment, but I want to underline here that the language of messiah is less important to Jesus than it might seem. Titles have a role to play in the story, but Jesus wants to people to see God at work through him and he wants to discuss sheep.

First, one final word on messiah. You may have noticed that within the mainline church we tend to use the word ‘messiah’ less than in other traditions. And the reason is simple: for our Jewish brothers and sisters, Messiah has yet to come. In many ways, it is a conflict that troubles the heart of both religions. Either we are mistake or they are mistaken. And this is so deeply dissatisfying that liberal Christians (and reform Jews) tend to say we’re both mistaken: we say that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah after all, and Reform Jews focus on a messianic age rather than an individual figure.* As compromises go, it’s a good one.

So we’ve looked at the messiah question, so what about sheep? Listen again to part of our passage, and I think we’re hearing the language of relationship: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow one will snatch them out of my hand...nor can anyone can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I am one with the Father.”

This is the Good Shepherd, tirelessly searching for the lost sheep, speaking that we might recognize his voice, and related to the Most High because Jesus and the Father are one. In other words, a relationship. The religious critics were busy trying to trip Jesus up with questions of messiahship and such, but Jesus just wanted to talk about the things God was doing, and the relationship God-in-Jesus wants to have with each and every one of us.

So we’re still trying to get from Mueller to Mother’s Day, and of course we have to talk about Confirmation too, since Olivia and Jenna are equally confused about how all this fits together. Truth is, we already have the answer: Jesus wants to talk about the things that God is already doing, like moving young hearts to join the church, and he wants to talk about relationship, like the lifelong relationship with the Christian church that begins (and continues) today.

Olivia and Jenna, you have made a profession of faith and helped us remember our own promises, but the real action today is relationship—joined to this fellowship and the Good Shepherd who makes us one. We hear his voice speaking through others, we know him through the good work of others, and we follow—together—never walking alone.

So one final piece in this puzzle: Mother’s Day. But before I share perhaps my favourite scholarly quote, I want to caution you on the misuse of scripture. It is a grave error to suggest that God would lift up a reprehensible person to further a narrow and intolerant agenda. And our role as believers is to vehemently make the counter-argument: that we serve a God of love and mercy, who lifts up the vulnerable, and seeks a just sharing of all the world’s resources. God works from below, through relationship, and by placing us in the midst of human need.

So here is the quote from Rosemary Radford Ruether, let’s call it a Mother’s Day card from the Bible:

In the story of the Exodus we find that the first acts of rebellion against Pharaoh are those of women. The mother of Moses refuses to obey the decree to kill her newborn son and hides him in the bulrushes. The sister of Moses seizes the opportunity to save him by presenting him to the daughter of Pharaoh who comes to the river to bathe. Pharaoh’s daughter also disobeys by accepting the Hebrew child and bringing him up as her own. Thus a conspiracy of women takes place across class and ethnic lines to save the child who will be the liberator of Israel. (Women-Church, p. 43-44)

May the things that God is doing in our midst be never more plain than today, and may you remain bound, one to another, in sacred relationship, now and always, Amen.



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