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the sermon for

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

14 May 2017

John 14:1-10
God loves us; we love one another!

04302017Well, last week was going to be the week! I came in here, Monday morning, to pick up a few pieces I'd left behind, the day before. My hymnal. The sermon. And for the first time – the first time in a long, long time – I, actually, looked up at the cross and saw the burlap arrow hanging there! It had become so much a part of the scenery that, for all interests and purposes, it had become invisible! Just like the pictures we hang on the walls at home. They become so much a part of our world that, after a while, we just don't see them, anymore. So, I decided to take it down. Fortunately, I didn't get around to it.

I forgot when, exactly, I put it up. Even why. My guess would be it was something I did to highlight something in one of my sermons... a year ago... two... I do know it was meant to stand for the essence, the spirit, of believing! The bottom line, so to speak, of our faith. Everything is a gift from god! Absolutely everything! How's the song go? "All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above!" And that arrow represents it all! Baptism is a gift from god! Forgiveness is a gift from god! The supper is a gift from god! Daily bread! Family! Neighbors! It's all a gift! Free and clear! Nothing we have to do to earn it! Nothing we have to do to deserve it! It comes to us, simply, from the goodness, from the greatness, of god's own heart! That arrow! Pointing down!

Well, I got back to my office, sat down, and began thinking about this morning's sermon. And the arrow did its work! Because that arrow – more than anything else – sums up John's gospel! "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us!" That's how the story begins. He came down! Jesus gave sight to the blind! Jesus fed the hungry! Jesus raised the dead! It's all a coming down from heaven! At that last supper with his disciples, on the eve of the cross, in John and in John alone, Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around his waist, and he kneels down before his friends! And being glorified? Being glorified, according to the fourth gospel, means descending to the land of the dead! And then, at the end of the New Testament, the Revelation – another book from John's community – comes to a climax as the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven as a bride for her husband! The arrow always points in one direction! Descending! Entering into! Becoming a part! And so, it was with that arrow in mind that I began reading the passage from John...

'Do not let your hearts be troubled,' [Jesus said to the disciples,] 'Believe* in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And as you might expect, on seeing those words, I, naturally and automatically, began to go in the totally and completely opposite direction! I read the words and I, immediately, lifted my eyes toward heaven! Up Jacob's latter! Through the pearly gates! Onto the golden streets! And I left everything I knew – everything and every body – far, far below!

In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places... And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

Like rubbing a magic lamp, those words conjure up images of heaven! Up high! Far away! You know what I mean! You've heard the sermons! Read the descriptions! And they're all around us! So much so, it's the only picture that comes to mind! Pie in the sky! Sweet by and by! And the arrow, always and forever, points up! Above! Beyond! But that's not the direction of faith! The tendency of believing!

Stop and think about it, for a moment... Chapter fourteen in John's gospel isn't something that happens AFTER Easter! It's not, even, something that comes AFTER Good Friday! It's something that is spoken, the night in which he was betrayed! Around the table! At the last supper! Of course, in John, there is no supper. Just a lot of words! So Jesus hasn't left his disciples the first time! To suffer under Pilate! To be crucified, to die, to be buried! To descend to the dead! So, if he leaves now, it's to do THESE things! And to return – to come again – would mean the resurrection! It would refer to Easter! Coming again, in this context, would be coming again in the garden, outside the tomb, on Easter morning! Coming again would be coming again to the house where the doors were locked for fear! It would mean the same house, a week later! And along the lake shore! Events where the arrow points down! Again! And again! And again!

But that seems to imply that "his Father's house," the house in which there are many dwelling places, the place to which Jesus will take us when he comes again... It seems to imply that place is right here, smack in the middle of creation itself! Not outside! Not beyond! But right here in the midst of it all!

What if that place Jesus was preparing... is your spot in that pew, this morning!

What if that place Jesus was preparing... is the place you were given in this community the moment you were baptized!

What if that place Jesus was preparing... is your position in the mission, in the ministry, of god's own people!

What if his Father's house wasn't something in heaven... but what if it's us! What if it's the church!

What if that place Jesus was preparing... isn't so much a place, as it is a purpose, a reason!

All those what-ifs demand an arrow just like the one hanging on that wall! An arrow representing, an arrow symbolizing, god's love, god's charity, god's grace! An arrow that points in one direction! Down! Down toward the lowest and the least! Down toward the down and the out!

"Love," Jesus said! "Love just like me!" I never noticed until this morning, but those words are spoken just five verses before the start of today's gospel, before the start of this week's good news! This is where Jesus is! This where Jesus has always been! Right here between us! Between us and beside us! Behind us and before us!

In John's gospel, there was no ascension! There was no second coming! Because, you see, Jesus never left! He came! And he stayed! Because that is what love does! Love comes down! And love never, ever goes away!

So, I guess, for now, the arrow will stay. At least, as long as it does what it was meant to do! Remind us of where love comes from! Remind us of where love goes! Reminds us of where love is found! From the Father to the Son! From the Son to creation! And here it stays! It never returns! It never leaves! God loves us and that will never change! And because of that, we love one another! Arrow on the wall or not!

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the sermon for

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

07 May 2017

John 10:1-10
God is who god is! And because of that, we believe!

04302017Fortunately, it's only happened a time or two, over the years. When I've written a sermon and, at the last minute, realized it just wasn't worth preaching! Well, this morning, at exactly 7:15, I dotted the last i, crossed the final t, leaned back in my chair, put my hands behind my head, and realized it wasn't worth preaching! It would be a waste of time! Mine and yours! Luther called preaching "wrestling with the angel" and, this week, it seems the angel got the better! And so, at 7:30, I started writing this one!

The problem was, since Ash Wednesday, for over a month, we had a focus to our journey together. A direction. A destination. One Sunday – one sermon – just naturally led into the one that followed. They were all connected, somehow. That goal is three weeks behind us, now. And I need to pick a new objective, to set a new course. Another challenge, this week, is the gospel reading itself. John 10:1-10 , Jesus the Good Shepherd. Here we are on the fourth sunday of Easter and there's nothing uniquely Easter about it! In fact, it's from the other side of Easter! The before side! It's, even, from the other side of the cross! Next year, at least, when we get to this day and read from the tenth chapter of John, we have the part about the good shepherd dying for the sheep! But for now, it's all about bandits and strangers and thieves! And, frankly, I don't find that all too inspiring...

You see, the gospel – the good news – isn't anchored in who Jesus isn't. It's rooted in who Jesus IS! And we can spend sermon after sermon, Sunday upon Sunday, dealing just with this handful of verses and never mention Jesus once! The one climbing in by another way! The one the sheep refuse to follow, who they run away from! The stealing! The killing! The destroying! Somehow, that's the stuff that attracts our interest! And yet, when all is said, that's not what gets us any closer to believing, to real, true believing! Because faith doesn't come from whom Jesus isn't. It comes from who he is. Let me repeat that. Faith doesn't come from who Jesus isn't. It comes from who he is.

I was looking back over something we'd been taught wa-a-a-a-ay back in seminary. Something by the psychologist Erik Erikson. He's the one that wrote about the stages of life. About the first stage – trust vs. mistrust – he said infants needed to know that their parents were reliable and dependable. If their parents' care for them was consistent and responsive, they trusted. If unpredictable and indifferent, they didn't trust. It was either one or the other. And it didn't matter which they weren't! Only what they were!

Faithfulness engenders faith! Trustworthiness creates trust! Believable causes believing! It's a gift! Not in the sense that something is given – like an offering, a present. It's a gift in the sense that it's not something we choose! God is god. . . and because god is god, we believe! And it doesn't really matter what else happens! Are there strangers? Sure there are! Are there bandits? Thieves? Absolutely! But that's not what produces faith! Only Jesus matters! Only Jesus and the love that comes to us through him! The only thing important is the Shepherd's commitment! The only thing meaningful is the Shepherd's devotion!

Think about it! Why do you think sheep – the real, honest-to-god, baa bas kind... Why do you think sheep know the shepherd's voice? Why do you think they know to follow? That it's safe? It's because the shepherd came to them, lived with them, and cared! He loved them! And because of that love, has given them everything they needed. Not out of expectation and demand, but out of the goodness of the Shepherd's heart! Life, he says! I came that they – that you – might have life! Packed down! Shaken together! Overflowing! And I will do anything, everything, to make sure that happens!

Again, are there strangers... and bandits... and thieves... Of course, there are! But that isn't what makes us a flock! That isn't what makes us the Shepherd's flock? And that, certainly, isn't what "makes" us trust! It's the shepherd's trust-worthiness that does that! It's not our will, our choices, our decisions that have done that! It's never been our will, our choices, or our decisions! It's what we have seen... and heard... and felt... It's coming to know the Shepherd that calls out our believing! And faith is never a prerequisite, a requirement, a condition. It simply happens because of who the Shepherd is!

It might be fun to talk about all the others. The strangers... and the bandits... the thieves... At some level, it might, even, serve a purpose. But know this... We can talk about all the false teachers in the world... We can talk about satan, about the antichrist, until we're blue in the face and nothing would ever change! That isn't what saves us! That isn't what redeems! Only the Shepherd – only Jesus – does that! Only Jesus and Jesus' love for us all!

I think that's why we feel like we do about the Twenty-Third Psalm! It sings about the things that really matter! About the things that are truly important! Not wanting! Lying down in green pastures! Being led beside still waters! Being restored! Guided! Not afraid! It's all about a shepherd who can be trusted! In whom we can trust and believe! Not threats! No ultimatums! No expectations or demands! Only love! Faith, simply, happens! Happens because of whom god is! Because of what Jesus did! Of what Jesus does! I came that they may have life! I came that they may live! Live extravagantly! Live excessively! Live abundantly!

I came that they may be loved! Loved totally and completely! Loved without limit and without measure! And I came that they may do the same! I came so that – through them, like through me – those others may believe, as well!

So, maybe this passage wasn't my problem, after all... or the fact that Easter is behind us... or that my sermons are lacking a common thread... Maybe, truth is, even preachers – now and again – get distracted by shiny objects! And just maybe, even the best of us – at times – end up chasing after squirrels! But when that happens, the best thing for all of us to do is set aside what we've prepared and go back to the basics! Actually, go back to the basic... to Christ and to Christ crucified! Because you see, my friends, for us here in this place... for us here at this time... there is nothing else that matters! There is nothing more important!

"In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us and for his sake..." For his sake god forgives us one and all! That's our origin and our goal! Our heaven and our earth! I came that they may live! That once and for all, they may really live! Dotted i! Crossed t! End of sentence!

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