Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter + Sunday, May 3, 2020
Prepared for the Television/Online Broadcast of Trinity Church, Worcester
Pastor Nathan Pipho

Watch here (Minute 29:25)

In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.

Many are wondering what will emerge on the other side of this pandemic …

  • Our bishop this week released a document calling us to think of this pandemic as a long term event and inviting us to think how differently the church of the future will be than the church of January 2020 – the last month he said we were the church as we’ve been before the pandemic started changing our lives.
  • A clergy friend posted a video on Facebook this week. It was going to be a short video about how she couldn’t find grits in Nashville, TN, but it turned into a 30 minute passionate desire that this pandemic might be a giant “reset” for the United States and the world. She pondered, “Why rush back?  What are we rushing back to? Let’s take our time and work back to something that is in align with God’s will.”  At the same time, she recognized people are suffering economically, and there’s a financial need to get going again, but she said We are the church right now!  We are called to care for another, support one another, as together we take our time to work towards that new blessing God is working upon us.
  • I saw a tweet this week from poet and author Sony Renee Taylor who wrote this: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

As we move through this pandemic, and to the possibilities on the other side of a changed church, a societal reset, and stitching a new garment fitting all of humanity and nature … the truth is, there will be many voices calling us forward and describing that future. Some of those voices will be helpful and creative.  Some will be harmful and destructive.

Each one of us will be accountable and responsible for the voices we listen to. The voices we listen to will be the ones we respond to, the voices that will shape our actions and guide our participation in whatever emerges on the other side of the pandemic.  The voices we listen to matter as they guide and shape our behavior.

What voices are you to listening to?

In today’s Gospel reading (John 10:1-10) we read the closest thing in John’s gospel to a parable. In the teaching, speaks of sheep responding to the voice of a shepherd. Said Jesus: Verse 3 – The sheep hear his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Verse 4 – He goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

In the parable, Jesus referenced a “sheepfold.” A sheepfold has been described as “an enclosure, often with stone walls, where several shepherds would bring their flocks for safety at night.” I think of it as a u-shaped, or perhaps triangle/square shaped stone wall structure, behind which the sheep slept safely at night – with the shepherd, or shepherds, acting as a “living wall” and “gate” between the sheep on the inside and the enemies on the outside.

It has been suggested that multiple flocks were held together in one “sheepfold.” When it was morning, each shepherd would call out for his/her flock to lead them to pasture. The sheep, mixed together as multiple flocks, would recognize the voice of their shepherd, and would follow their shepherd, with their flock, out of the sheepfold and into their day. That’s the context for verse 3 – “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

In today’s parable, it is this relationship between shepherd and sheep, that Jesus points to as relationship between himself and his followers. Jesus, as shepherd, speaks and his followers, as sheep, recognize the voice and follow.

 But there is another important piece of context to this story. The audience appears to be the Pharisees.  The first verses of John 10, seem to be a response to the Pharisees’ grumbling in John 9 where the Pharisees labeled Jesus a sinner because he had healed a blind man on the Sabbath. For the Pharisees, this Sabbath healing was a clear violation of God’s will regarding the Sabbath, and therefore Jesus was condemned as a sinner.  Here, in these beginning verses of Chapter 10, in this parable Jesus poked back at the Pharisees.

It was the Pharisees who were the sheep who failed to recognize the voice of the shepherd and failed to follow. More provocatively, however, they were also thieves and bandits who came before Jesus with the purpose of stealing, and killing, and destroying the sheep. Lutheran Seminary Professor Barbara Rossing writes of John Chapter 10: “This chapter is divisive, even alienating. It widens the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees (“All who came before me are thieves and bandits”). It ends with the Pharisees attempts to stone Jesus because of his provocative speech claiming equality with God.  This is the last conversation that Jesus would have directly with any Pharisees. After this they plot to kill him.”

The faithful recognize and respond to the voice of the risen Christ, the shepherd. The thieves and bandits, not only fail to recognize and follow the voice, but they come to kill, and steal, and destroy the sheep, as they seek to follow Christ.

The question before us then, today, is how as faithful sheep, do we both recognize and respond to the voice of the shepherd?

How do we recognize the voice of Christ, speaking in the cascade of voices all around us? How do we distinguish between Christ’s voice speaking in the world today leading us to life and life abundant; from the voices of the bandits and thieves who come to steal, destroy and kill?

The answer is found in our First Reading this morning.  Our First Reading (Acts 2:42-47) describes a vision of Christian community. In this vision, Christians:

  • devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings, to fellowship,to the breaking of the bread, and prayer.
  • sell their possession and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. One commentator suggests this doesn’t mean private property was eliminated, but that rather that private accumulation yielded to public sharing and generosity for the sake of the neighbor in need.
  • give thanks – eating their food with glad and generous hearts and living with the good will of the people

This being said, Professor Gail Ramshaw acknowledges “Although early Christians were indeed known for their care for the poor, scholars have found no evidence that any such Christian communal economy existed in the first century. Even narratives later in Acts show Luke’s idyllic description to be an exaggeration. More than accurate historic reporting, Luke used the description to suggest the goal for the resurrection community.”

 These verses in Acts are not a journalist’s description of an actual historic community, but they are the ways followers of the resurrected Christ should live. Acts 2:42-47 is the vision for how we are called to live in faith in response to the resurrection of Christ.

We hear the voice of the resurrected Christ today, in voices speaking into existence this community presented in Acts. We hear the voice of Christ, in those calling the community to worship, bible study, fellowship, and to prayer. We hear Christ speaking in those calling for actions and policies of generosity and sharing so that all needs of the community are met.

We hear the voice of the shepherd in the voices calling us to be:

  • Less attached to self … and more committed to service
  • Less attached to private accumulation … and more committed to public generosity
  • Less attached to worldly pursuits … and more committed to worship and bible study
  • Less attached to individual accomplishments … and more committed to breaking bread and fellowship with others – especially breaking bread and fellowshipping with those others it is most difficult for us to do so with.
  • Less attached to holding on to grudges … and more committed to thanksgiving and gratefulness

 Friends in Christ, this is the Good News today. It is the Good News of a living Jesus Christ who speaks and calls us to life, life abundantly.

Barbara Rossing sees link between this invitation to abundant life and the story earlier in John’s gospel of the feeding of the 5,000.  When Jesus and the disciples looked out on that large crowd things didn’t seem so abundant at the beginning of that story. All the disciples could find were just five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd of thousands.

But looked what happened! When the five loaves and two fish were shared, and blessed, and given away in community, the small offering turned into a feast! And at the end of the story the disciples picked up 12 baskets full of leftovers – more at the end than at the beginning! In responding to the voice of the shepherd to live in community with one another, to give thanks and share all that they had with one another, the community experienced an abundance where more was left over than at the beginning.

The abundant life to which the shepherd calls us, is not the false and hollow abundance where some are privileged and others are excluded. Rather, it is abundance found in communities of sharing, generosity, and compassion, rooted in Christ and the apostles’ teaching, where food is shared with glad and generous hearts, and where the people give thanks.

This is the Good News today! The Good News of our risen shepherd, Jesus Christ, speaking to us, leading us into community of sharing, generosity, and abundance. On the other side of this pandemic, in whatever emerges for the church, in whatever ways society might be reset, in whatever new garment is being stitched together, we will know it is of Christ, as it reflects the values and visions of this Acts 2:42-47 community.

In faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit, may you devote yourselves to the apostles’ teachings, to fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to prayer.

In faith, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, may give of your money, your possessions, and your time, generously and freely, for the sake of all who have any need.

In faith, breathed upon by the Holy Spirit, may you eat your bread with glad and generous hearts, doing so in your homes, until that day we can be together again in the temple.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed.  Alleluia!