Belonging First, John 10: 22-30
Sermon by Pastor Mark Siler 5/12/19
I think Jesus’ teaching today is another one of those moments that needs to be understood as a part of a bigger story. In chapter 9 of John, Jesus meets a beggar who has been blind since birth. Reflecting the accepted belief of the day, the disciples ask Jesus, “who is the sinner, this man born blind or his parents?” Surely, somebody has to be at fault, right? Jesus says neither and informs the disciples he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. Instead of a product of sin, he was a treasured instrument of God. And then Jesus, always embodying his teachings and not just talking, reaches down, grabs some dirt, spits on it, puts it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, after which he can see. Now despite this amazing moment, all the religious leaders can see is that Jesus just broke numerous religious rules. It was Sabbath. You can’t heal on the Sabbath. Jesus touched somebody who was deemed untouchable. Jesus told him to wash in water that he was forbidden to wash in. And worst of all, he did all of this in the name of God, essentially proclaiming that it was the religious folk who were the blind ones. When the Pharisees resist, Jesus launches into a rather long monologue about how he is the Good Shepherd and that we are to be his sheep.
Our text today is the conclusion of this Good Shepherd passage in John. As you hear it, here is my question, “What is it about letting Jesus be the shepherd and letting ourselves be the sheep that takes us closer to a life in and with God?”
- It’s like when my grandfather called us in from playing. I could not hear his words, but I knew his voice.
- The Good Shepherd is always going after the sheep who are lost, who are away from the flock.
- There is a closeness, an intimacy between sheep and their shepherd.
I recently learned about something called zoochosis. It is the unusual behavior that occurs when animals are placed in captivity. Maybe you have seen some of this if you have been to a zoo. Animals fall into repetitive behavior. Elephants can wear down their long tusks to nubs. Primates can pull out all of their hair. In short, the animal world can exhibit all kinds of painful and destructive behaviors when outside of their natural habitat.
Of course, we are animals too. Though we talk about the natural world as if we are not a part of it, we are. We, like everything, are wonderfully created by the Creator, and we, like everything, are created to fit into creation in a particular way. We too have a natural habitat. According to Jesus, our habitat is a lot like sheep’s habitat. We are created to be a part of flock, to live intimately connected to a group and a place. The problem is, unlike the rest of the natural world, we humans can opt out of this deep sense of connectedness, and we do. As we see from the beginning, in Genesis, Adam and Eve in essence removed themselves from their true place in the Garden of Eden, from the natural habitat God made for them. Perhaps the Bible can be seen as God’s attempt through scripture to lead us back to the garden, to living our lives as we were created to live them.
As recent as a few decades ago, when folks were asked “how many people do you have in your life with whom you feel close”, the most common answer was “5”. Today, the most common answer is “0”. What is happening? There is no one answer. Many point to the isolating impact of technology and social media. Other the out of control wealth concentration in this country that leaves so many people struggling to survive. Regardless of the causes, it is clear; we as a society are increasingly isolated and alone. Mother Teresa said it well, all of our social issues can be traced back to the problem that we forget that we belong to each other.
Today’s scripture reveals that while the particulars are new, the tendency to separate and isolate are ancient. The religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus so badly because he kept saying and showing that everyone, with no exceptions, are a part of God’s flock. He tells the Pharisees, “You do not believe, because you do not belong.” Belonging comes first. Can we hear that? Can we hear how often we in the church get it wrong. We tend to say, “believe this, and then you can belong.” We expect people to act a certain way, look a certain way, behave a certain way, and then they can join us. Jesus is saying we have it backwards. Belonging is first. Once we experience and offer that, only then will we be able to believe. Jesus appears to be telling the Pharisees that they don’t understand that they, and everybody, already belong and they don’t need to create a false world, an unholy habitat, where they think they belong because others don’t. That is fear, not faith
Now, there are some things you need to know about sheep. I tended a flock on my farm for years so unlike most things, I kind of know what I am talking about here. While it is true that sheep can exist and move in a beautiful flock fashion, sheep also get easily confused. Every spring, when I would shear my flock, the change in appearance was so dramatic that my sheep would flee from and fight each other. They did not recognize each other. They quickly forgot their relatedness, their kinship. They could not see past the external appearances, past what they did not understand.
Indeed, we are sheep-like. Yes, we hopefully experience moments when grace breaks in, when we feel this holy connectedness, when we experience the truth of our belonging. And, we must know, that our attempts to represent, to embody, this holy belonging do and will come up short. There will also be times we don’t see each other, when we stray and feel pushed from the flock because, well, we are sheep and not the shepherd. But hear Jesus today. In those moments of estrangement, let us not be tempted by all the Gods of false belonging. The Good Shepherd is always shepherding us, protecting us, always bringing us back to the deeper truth. Like the prodigal son and his older brother, we so easily forget. We try to find and earn our belonging when it has already been given to us, when it lives within us. God help us cease all our efforts to generate what you have already provided. Help us feel your staff, leading us all back to where we belong.