Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10
There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.
Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”
Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.
Like Luke, I am my own worst enemy.
The cave on Dagobah is empty save for what Luke takes with him; indeed, in the cave he fights himself. So I ask myself, what would I unconsciously take into that cave? What battles within me? First there’s my pride, which too often keeps me from asking for help. Pride battles with my goal to be a collaborator, to seek partners, to be part of a team. Next there’s my kneejerk desire for recognition; that same prideful piece of me assumes I should win every award, even ones for which I haven’t been nominated. This desire for recognition battles with my goal to build up others, to be a supporter and encourager. Finally, there’s my complacency, which seduces me to take as few risks as possible, to play it safe, to take comfort in the status quo. My complacency battles with my call to participate in God’s mission, a mission that dreams of something so much better than today’s brokenness.
Like I said, I am my own worst enemy. My pride, my desire for recognition, and my complacency make up three of the many pieces of myself that I wish I could be rid of but are just so hard to excise. I’d be willing to bet you feel the same way. I’d be willing to bet you have shadowy parts of yourselves that get in the way sometimes. I’d be willing to bet you are your own worst enemies, as well.
If so, then today’s Gospel lesson is for you. Jesus paints a picture that would have been familiar to his listeners but is less familiar to us. Imagine a windswept plain dotted with humps and hillocks. A shepherd leads his flock to their sheepfold, hollowed out of one of the hills. The shepherd lies down in the entryway to seal off the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.
When the shepherd rises the next morning, Jesus explains, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Obviously, the sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheepfold may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance.
Jesus’ choice of words here is telling: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them.” Unfortunately, this is another case of a weak English translation. The word translated “brought out” crops up again and again in the Gospel, and never is it used as benignly as here with the sheep. In fact, we hear this same word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this same word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this same word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.
Now, perhaps those dimwitted, wooly animals trod placidly from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He’s talking about us, about you and me, we who are our own worst enemies. Of course, we want to stay in our sheepfolds. It’s warm in there. It’s safe and comfortable. It’s predictable.
The worst parts of ourselves push us to remain in the sheepfold because they know they will always survive, even thrive, within us when they aren’t being challenged by the growth that happens when we venture forth, following our Good Shepherd. Our worst enemies are powerful, or else they wouldn’t be our worst ones. That’s why we need Jesus to cast us out of our sheepfolds, our comfort zones, or else we will forever battle our worst enemies, hoping at best for a draw. But what kind of life is that? Such existence is war, not life.
So it’s no wonder then that Jesus says the shepherd goes ahead of the sheep after throwing or casting them out of the fold. He knows us so well; he knows we are our own worst enemies. And so he promises in this story two things: he promises to throw us out of our comfort zones, those places where our worst enemies thrive. And he promises to go ahead of us when the status is no longer quo. He promises to blaze our trail into the unknown so that when we arrive, one thing at least is known: his abiding presence.
At the end of today’s passage, Jesus reveals his dream for us: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This life is available to all for all time. But we are not always available to it. Too often we operate as our own worst enemies, who reject such life as a matter of course because it is new and therefore unpredictable, and therefore a challenge to our worst parts.
I wonder what pieces of yourselves you would identify as your worst enemies? What do you bring with you into that cave on Dagobah, only to do battle with once inside? I bring into the cave pride, need for recognition, and complacency. Whenever I settle into their fold, I feel oh-so-comfortable. At least for a minute. Because after that brief moment of leaden familiarity, I feel something else. I feel the hands of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, grasping me by the shirt and yanking me out of their clutches. He sets me down outside my comfort zone, outside the status quo, outside the reach of my worst enemies. And then he goes before me, pointing out the riches of his abundant life along the way.
Along with the Star Wars reference, there is a sneaky nod to the Joss Whedon ‘verse. Can you find it?