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Sermon for Sunday 25 April 2021

First Reading: Acts 4:1-12

1As {Peter and John} were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. 5On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by him this man is standing before you well. 11This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Psalm 23

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. 3He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake. 4Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  5You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. 6Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24

16By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

Gospel: John 10:11-18

11{Jesus said,} “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

Tales of the Field

One of my favorite fictional stories comes from the classic fairy tale writer Aesop; it’s the fable of the “City Mouse and the Country Mouse.”  Some of you may have read this as part of your middle school literature class.  For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a tale about two mice who have two very different assessments of the world, and separate preferences of how to live in it.  One day, the two meet up and exchange greetings and perspectives.  

In the course of their conversation, the country mouse invites his cousin from the city to visit him in the country.  But upon visiting, the city mouse is disappointed with having to hunt for his dinner and eat sparingly.  The city mouse explains that he lives in a plush home with plenty of cakes and ale each and every day.  Intrigued, the country mouse goes to visit his cousin the city mouse.  Sure enough, he sees what appears to be a tremendous feast of bread, cheese, fruits, and grains.  

But there’s a problem, no sooner do they sit down to eat, than a cat appears, and they must quickly scamper away and hide in a tiny, uncomfortable hole in the wall, where they must remain until later.  No longer impressed at what he finds, as soon as he is able, the country mouse declares, he’s returning home to his field, declaring that the city’s mouse’s “feast and heaven” is nothing more than an illusion, but in his home, in the field, he is truly free.

This story, although of Greek origin, has a biblical equivalent.  We call it Babel (Genesis 11).  In the story of Babel, the Babylonian people build a giant wall around the city with a huge watch tower in the center of it, containing the city to itself.  They said, “let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (vs. 4).  No longer would they roam the fields of God’s garden world, but they would instead fortify themselves, sequestering to protecting themselves from the other inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. 

Missionally speaking, they would keep their beliefs to themselves, no longer feeling the need to spread the Word nor plant the seeds of YHWH worship throughout all cultures and peoples of the world, instead, they would isolate themselves inside their own space with their own people exclusively.  We hear this story each Pentecost Sunday, and this story has context for us today.  How often do we, as members of Christ’s body, keep our beliefs and proclamation of God’s saving grace to ourselves, choosing instead to surround ourselves with the protective walls of the church building, caring more about the congregation than the kingdom? 

In our fear of the world that surrounds us, the ridicule, the possibility of sounding foolish to others because of the message of the Cross (1 Cor. 1:18), the difficulty of living out our Christian walk before others, do we retreat to the perceived safety of the church walls, sequestering ourselves to simply live among our own kind?  Are we simply content to build up a congregation, making a name for ourselves, instead of focusing on God’s mission field and God’s call to “Go into all the world” (Matt. 28:19)?  If this is the case, if this is how we truly feel, then God’s response in this story, is one we need to ponder seriously.

The answer to what does God does, comes just two verses later in verse 8: “The Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”  God also confused their language so that no longer could they be homogenous; God scattered them throughout the entire world, enforcing inclusivity, fruit-bearing, and evangelism upon all of them.  Think about this for a moment.  If we fail to fulfill our call to reach out to our neighbors, God could scatter us, in order to force us to do His will.  As I said, I think it’s worth exploring this story and how God responded in comparison to our current context and in light of our gospel reading for today.

I think it’s also worth noting that the word “scattered” in the Genesis text is the same word Jesus used in the parable of the sower who went out to scatter his seed (Mark 4:1-20).  In this passage, God is the sower and the four areas the seed fell upon is the people who received the message.  The point Jesus is making is clear: God sends us out to share His message in all parts of the world that surrounds us.  Sometimes the word is well received and bears much fruit, other times it’s initially received but other things, the cares and priorities of this world, prevent it from making a difference.  Still other times it falls on a hard soil, or a hard heart, and does absolutely no good.  What we must remembers is, the result isn’t up to us, we’re called to plant the seed and let God take care of the response.  Now with the story of Babel and the parable of the sower in mind, let us now consider our passage from St. John’s gospel for today.  

This time, instead of God the sower, we have Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Listen again to what Jesus says about the difference between fold and flock: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  To better understand what Jesus is saying, we need to look at the entire context of this passage, and the meaning of the language.  

Recall what Jesus said as He spars with some Pharisees: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (vs. 2-4).  This all occurs after Jesus had gone against tradition and opened the eyes of a blind man, who had been ostracized from the community for his condition (John 9).

Jesus first tells us that the gatekeeper will open the gate and the He, as the Good Shepherd, will lead the sheep out.  In this story, you and I are the gate keepers.  We’re the ones charged with watching over and caring for God’s sheep until Jesus returns.  Remember what Jesus said to Peter when He appeared to them on the beach?  Three times Jesus directs Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).  Then a few verses later in our gospel lesson, Jesus points out that there are many other sheep who do not belong necessarily to this one fold, and that all of them are part of His flock.  And, as the psalmist says, he will “lead them all into green pastures” (23:2).  Jesus, in this passage, is making a distinction between a “fold” and a “flock.”  Because of this, we need to take note of the difference Jesus is making between a fold and a flock?

According to the dictionary, a fold is an enclosed place.  Similar to Babel’s walls, an Israeli sheepfold was a square space surrounded by stone walls with a door somewhere to it.  While the sheepfold was meant to be a sanctuary for the sheep in the nighttime hours when predators would roam, it’s important to note that the sheep were never meant to remain within the sheepfold.  During the day, the shepherd would call them out to join the flock grazing on the hillsides.  Sometimes, many folds might join into one flock.

Sheep were meant to roam the hills.  Whereas a fold is a place of exclusivity, it’s the place where God’s people come to learn and grow; on the other hand, a flock is not a defined place but an inclusive community.

Jesus’ address to the Pharisees was clearly meant to point out that Israel had been placed under their thumb the “fold.”  The Hebrew nation had withdrawn into an exclusive community.  It had become a restrictive, homogenous club, excluding many from taking part due to diseases or family history or genealogy, or misstep of the many enforced monetary and legalistic impositions cast upon the people by the chief priests and Pharisees.  This Israel was no longer defined by their faith or their spirit, but by the tangible and external walls of the Talmud.  Their unity was made of a desire to stamp out difference and embrace sameness, to reject diversity and claim unity of practices and preferences.  Under the teachings of the religious leaders, the Hebrew people had withdrawn into themselves no longer fulfilling God’s will for them to be His priests to all nations (Exodus 19:6).

Jesus on the other hand was rejecting their idea of a fold, saying that as the Good Shepherd, He will be the One to lead the people “out of” the fold and into the world to join with other sheep that are not from their fold.  And all of them will be His flock.  Jesus’ flock is made up of people from all walks of life, from various cultures and peoples, from those of other languages, and traditions.  All will be unified in one thing: they will all be hearers and followers of Jesus.  Their unity will be in the one body, one in the Spirit.  Jesus’ flock, His church here on earth, isn’t subject to specific attributes, but are called to dwell in the fields of God’s world together in harmony, all honoring, worshiping and obeying Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  One can see how this is Jesus’ Babel story.

So I think Jesus would encourage us to ask ourselves, have we become victims of fold-ism?  We know that, from the beginning of time, human sheep love to build “pens” to separate out those who appear to be different.  Jesus, however, tells us that all true followers of Him, no matter what they talk like, look like, or act like, are all part of His diverse flock, all made in the image of God, unified in the one true faith.

By keeping our focus on Jesus, we become unified in Him.  But the moment we take our eyes off of the Good Shepherd, our focus can easily shift onto each other and the differences between us.  The inclination of human beings to separate sheep into “folds” is insidious and real.  It takes energy, faith, and focus to affect the kind of true unity that comes with focusing on Jesus, as He leads us out of the confines of our walls and borders and into the vast expanse of the world to sow the seeds of the gospel among all people, people who desperately need to hear Jesus’ voice.

We, as people of God, are called to stop building structures and hiding behind walls.  Whether city walls, sheepfold walls, or walls of our churches, the moment those walls confine and separate rather than provide sanctuary, homogenize rather than diversify, keep us in rather than sending us out, they have become our idol instead of our home.  The home of Jesus’ flock is on the hillsides of the world, where all people are equal, loved, and free under the sovereign hand of God, flourishing in mission, grazing together in unity.

Today, the question shouldn’t be, are you Jew or Greek?  But the meaning is the same.  Are you black or white?  Male or female?  Rich or poor?  Liberal or conservative?  Lutheran or Baptist?  These are questions that serve what I like to call the “membership fallacy.”  These are questions that support fold-ism.  These questions, when it comes to God’s kingdom, only serve to drive people into their individual folds.  The truth is so much greater.  Membership is a subject of the folds of life.  Discipleship isn’t about a single church or group, a small group of same-minded individuals who practice the same or want everything according to their own preferences and desires.  

Discipleship is about the gathering of God’s people, of responding to Jesus’ call to move out of our folds into the greater church and joining all God’s faithful people in the work of the kingdom.  Entry into Jesus’ kingdom means freedom from the fold, it means stepping out into the world to help spread the seeds of the gospel to all people.  It means following and obeying the voice of Jesus because this is what we’re called to do.  

We’re not called to build a congregation of likeminded people so we can sequester and shelter ourselves from the world.  We’re called to follow Jesus out into the world, listening to His voice, and living together as one flock.  Today Jesus is calling us out of the walls of the fold, the security of the congregation, out into the world to scatter the seeds of the gospel and to help gather others into His one flock.


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