Worst Enemies

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. Continue reading “Worst Enemies”

5 Years: Humor in the Bible

This June is the 5th anniversary of Wherethewind.com, and we are celebrating by looking back at some of the best of the last five years of this website. Today we have the the second of the four video Bible studies I shot in my house in West Virginia before I moved to Massachusetts. (Originally posted October 22, 2009)

If I were a superhero, this video Bible study would serve as part of my origin story. About six weeks after filming it, I received a phone call from Ron, an editor at the United Methodist Publishing House. The video had ended up on Ron’s computer by way of a complicated series of connections borne equally by the Internet and the Holy Spirit. This is the video that started my relationship with my publisher, and I am so thankful it made its way to them. (And now, a plug: remember my new book, Letters from Ruby, arrives in stores August 20th!)

The Sheepfold

(Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2011 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10; find it also on Day1.org as part of the series “Young Leaders of the Church” series.)

Having the flu changed my life. The day was Thursday, March 13th, 2008, and I was sitting on my futon with my computer on my lap. Quite suddenly, I realized how clammy and hot I felt. Half an hour before, I had felt just fine, but in just thirty minutes my insides decided that they needed desperately to become my outsides. I put my computer on the floor, leapt up, and staggered into the bathroom. I was ill for five days, and during that time all I did was sleep and watch my recently acquired complete series of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD. For those five days, I did not open the lid of my laptop. I did not press the power button. And I did not log in to the computer game that had dominated my life for nearly two years.

The following Tuesday, when I felt that I could walk around without gripping the furniture for support, I stumbled over to the computer and deleted World of Warcraft from the hard drive. I tossed the game discs in the trash. And in the three years, two months, and two days since contracting the flu bug, I have never logged back into the game. The flu acted as the catalyst for the breaking of my addiction to the computer game. The illness put me on the disabled list for a week right before Easter, but no matter how awful the flu made me feel, I thank God every day for the not-so-gentle push away from the stagnant life I was living. I thank God every day for yanking me out of the comfortable sheepfold that I had built up around me. I thank God every day for pulling me kicking and screaming through the gate, away from my dormant life and toward a life full of God.

This not-so-gentle shove out of the sheepfold happens in today’s Gospel reading, although I doubt you noticed any mention of being kicked through the gate in Jesus’ words. We’ll get back to this shove in a moment. First, notice that in John chapter 10, Jesus employs the imagery of first century shepherding practice in an attempt to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, the most experience I’ve ever had with sheep was in southern England, where I spent one windy afternoon dodging the sheep’s ubiquitous droppings while trying to appreciate the mystery of Avebury’s standing stones. If you’re anything like me, you have no clue about shepherding practice of any sort, ancient or modern. Therefore, in order to access what John calls a “figure of speech,” we first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus’ choice of image, and second we embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations.

So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside next to the sheep of several other shepherds who share this particular fold. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing 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 arises 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.” 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, in order to live.

Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English hides the special word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this 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 pushing, 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. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking the word that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don’t know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.

For two years, my sheepfold was the virtual world created in the computer game World of Warcraft. I lived there more than I did in the real world. I played every day. Often I ate all three meals in front of my computer. But during those stagnant months that stretched into years, I didn’t live. I existed. I simply settled myself in my sheepfold. My mind numbed. My heart hibernated. My spirit deflated. But I didn’t notice because I was safe and I was comfortable. Then the flu hit, and I was too weak to resist the pulling and yanking that God had been doing for who knows how long. God drove me out of my sheepfold. And my life began anew.

This is the message of the Resurrection: life cannot be conquered – not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens – fully, intensely, eternally. Indeed, Jesus tells us this morning: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to offer us abundant life.

And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds – whatever they may be – we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.

We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. Christ drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God’s unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.

Jesus throws me out

The following post appeared Friday, August 13th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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When he played for the Sox, Johnny Damon had the Jesus thing going, though he wasn't terribly effective at throwing people out.

On a certain Saturday in late July of 2006, I found myself sitting in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, waiting for a ten-year-old boy to die. I had sat with his mother by his bedside earlier in the day. We had cried the Rosary together. We had held hands and gazed upon the face of the little boy. When his mother asked for some private time with her son, I returned to the office and waited for the pager to ring. And as I waited, I jotted down the first verse of a song that took me the next three years to write. The words of John 10 echoed in my mind as I wrote the lyrics because for weeks I had been telling the Godly Play story of the Good Shepherd with children on my floor of the hospital.

Almost four years to the day, I sit at my computer. None of the urgency or the heartbreak of that day remains, and I am aware of the complacency that has crept in over the years. And once again, the words of John 10 return to my mind: Jesus is the good shepherd who calls his sheep by voice. They hear their names and he leads them out of the sheepfold. But a closer look shows that Jesus doesn’t necessarily lead them out (as many English translations say). Rather, he throws them out of the sheepfold. Here’s what I mean.

Jesus begins his discussion with something as close to a parable as the Gospel according to John gets. In the other accounts of the Gospel, Jesus often speaks in parables, but not in John. Instead, Jesus himself is the parable of God — the way God is made known in the world (John 1:18). Here in chapter 10, Jesus speaks in a “figure of speech” about shepherding and sheep and wolves and bandits. Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who calls his sheep by name and “leads them out” (NRSV). The word for “lead out” is one of my favorite Greek words: ekballo. This is a fairly prevalent verb in the Gospel according to John and in the other accounts, as well. In the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), when Jesus casts out demons, he ekballo-s them. In John 2, when Jesus drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple, he ekballo-s them. The man born blind is ekballo-ed from the synagogue at the end of chapter 9. And finally, in chapter 12, Jesus mentions that the “ruler of this world” will be ekballo-ed from it.

In each of these cases, the connotation of ekballo is to drive out or cast out or throw out. But in John 10, according to, say, the NRSV, the shepherd calls his sheep by name and “leads them out.” While Greek words definitely have ranges of meaning, I suggest that we should translate the instance of the word ekballo in chapter 10 not as “lead out,” but as “throw out.” Here’s why.

The first character Jesus introduces in chapter 10 is a thief and a bandit. This person climbs into the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate. The thief comes only to “steal and kill and destroy.” Furthermore, outside the sheepfold there are wolves waiting to snatch up the sheep and scatter them. Hired hands are no help because they run away when they see the wolves coming. With thieves, bandits, and wolves roaming outside the sheepfold, leaving the fold can be frightening and dangerous.

In contrast, the sheepfold is safe and secure — shepherds bring their flocks to these enclosures at night for safety. But the sheep can’t live their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe and secure they may feel. They must go out into the world beyond the gate to graze for food (which, as far as I can tell, is all sheep do). So the shepherd ekballo-s them. The shepherd throws the sheep out of the fold so they can eat and drink and run.

The sheepfold is a safe place, but everything outside the sheepfold is dangerous. Who would not want to stay in the fold? Being led out into the world can feel like being thrown out. What is my fold? What do I use to shelter myself from the world? Where do I feel comfortable to the point of intransigence? The answer to these questions is the thing from which Jesus throws me out.

Contemporary sheepfolds come in all shapes, sizes, and disguises. Perhaps my family is my sheepfold, or my work, or, yes, even my church. For me, my complacency is the fold from which Jesus constantly throws me. The fold of complacency is slippery and amorphous because it has no walls, no group of people with whom to identify, no action of its own. And complacency leads to complicity with all the bad things in the world. I am so entrenched in my complacency that Jesus has to throw me out of it. It is the demon in me that Jesus casts out, the ruler of my world that Jesus drives out.

And he throws me out of this fold with one simple word: my name. Jesus calls me by name and I hear his voice and I know that I have been in the fold too long. By calling my name, Jesus brings me into an intimate relationship with him. (Remember in middle school when you found out your crush actually knew your name? It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?) By calling my name, Jesus tells me he knows me, knows that I struggle with complacency, knows that I need a swift kick in the trousers (a new translation of ekballo, perhaps?) to prompt me to act in the world on his behalf.

When I listen for Jesus calling my name, I feel his hands continually throwing me out of the fold of complacency. When I hear Jesus calling my name, I know that he has given me life and given it abundantly. This abundance of life is made possible by the intimate relationship Jesus has founded with me by knowing my name. When I venture out of my sheepfold into the frightening, dangerous world, I know that Jesus, my shepherd, is guiding me with his voice. And I know that he will continue to throw me out of the comfortable folds I find myself in so I can, with his help, continue to do God’s work in the world.

Hear my voice

(Sermon for April 25, 2010 || Easter 4, Year C, RCL || John 10:22-30)

I’m sure we can all agree that making a real audible connection with Jesus is difficult. After all, our Lord ascended into heaven one thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven years ago, give or take. You can’t download his parables off of iTunes. You can’t watch the Sermon on the Mount on Youtube. You can’t get a podcast of the Last Supper. As Judas sings at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar: “If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”

Dr. Horrible is only a few weeks away from a "real audible connection" with his crush, Penny.

With no way to make that real audible connection with Jesus, we might be tempted to disregard this morning’s Gospel as an antiquated relic of Jesus’ own time. In the verses preceding our lesson, John records Jesus discussing his identity as the good shepherd who takes care of the sheep. Then, in today’s reading, Jesus returns to that image when he tells his opponents, “My sheep hear my voice.” The fact that you got out of bed this morning and decided to come to church tells me that on some level you identify as a member of Jesus’ flock. So, with no person to speak or recording to play, how do we, his sheep, hear Jesus’ voice? How do we listen to someone who lived nineteen centuries ago and who inhabited the other side of the world and who spoke a language that no longer exists?

All those barriers notwithstanding, we sheep still hear Jesus’ voice. We hear his voice in myriad ways, too many to list exhaustively during this sermon. We especially hear Jesus speak to us from within ourselves, from the collective voice of the community, and from the prayerful reading of his words in the Gospel.

Let’s begin with the reading of scripture. Did you know that in the ancient world in which the Bible was written, there was no such thing as silent reading? People read aloud even when they were alone. The Book of Acts presents a clear example of this. Philip is walking along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza when he happens upon an Ethiopian eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah. How does Philip know he’s reading Isaiah? Right – because the eunuch is reading out loud to himself. Now, we all grew up with elementary school teachers giving us cross looks if we accidentally began reading aloud when we were supposed to be reading silently. I also imagine that if I began reading my novel out loud on the T, I might engender some strong negative reactions.

Obviously, our culture no longer subscribes to the ancient practice of reading everything out loud. But in our efforts to be the sheep who hear Jesus’ voice, I invite you to attempt this practice. Read the Gospel slowly, prayerfully, carefully, and audibly. Listen to the sound of your own voice speaking the words of Jesus:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Hear the voice of Jesus welling up from within you. Feel your mouth and tongue and breath work in concert to form those life-giving words. When you encounter a particular verse or passage that strikes you, don’t rush through the words. Sit with them. Say them aloud and hear Jesus speaking through you to you. Make those words your breath prayer. Practice making the voice of Christ the first thing that comes to your own lips in idle moments and joyful moments and fearful moments. As Paul says to the church in Colossae, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” We sheep hear Jesus’ voice in the words of scripture when we attend to them and attune to them and orient our lives around them.

This orientation continues in our own interior lives, which is the next setting for hearing the voice of Christ. At the outset of his own trek through the inward life, St. Augustine says, “My God, I would have no being, I would not have any existence, unless you were in me. Or rather, I would have no being if I were not in you.” Because we are in God and God somehow dwells within us, we can access the voice of Jesus within ourselves.

Most often, we are too distracted by external stimuli to attend to this voice. And when we manage to find grace enough to silence the outward bombardment, we still must contend with the chattering voice of our own selfish desire. This seductive voice constantly eats away at us, eroding us with whatever idols happen to be fashionable this season. But underneath the artillery and the idolatry, another voice speaks. This is the voice of Jesus speaking softly enough that we have to strain to hear. And everyone knows that when you have to strain to hear, you must be listening.

This internal voice of Jesus is the same “still, small voice” that Elijah hears on the mountain after the wind and the earthquake and the fire pass by. This is the same voice that the psalmist hears when God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The voice of Jesus speaks truth into our souls every moment of every day, and every once in a great while, we might happen to stop and hear that truth.

I remember a time in my life in which each day, I asked God if I was in the right relationship. And each day, I felt the resonance in my chest of a deep and abiding, “Yes.” Then, on a day of no particular consequence, the resonance disappeared. But rather than paying attention to the change, I forced myself to remember what the voice sounded like. And for months, I lied to myself rather than making the effort to listen to Christ’s voice within me. When the relationship ended, I was shocked, although I had no right to be. The voice of Jesus had been preparing me for that outcome. The still, small voice speaks to us continually. All we need do is listen.

We sheep hear Jesus’ voice in our inner selves, but without that voice also speaking to us from a loving community, the dialogue is incomplete. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” says Paul, and he continues, “Teach and admonish one another with all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing…songs to God.” Without this conversation, this communion, with one another, we struggle to discern the voice of Jesus in our lives. God calls each one of us to ministry both within the church and in our lives outside these walls. The voice of the community and the internal voice within each of us coalesce to form our calls to serve God.

We will reaffirm our baptismal promises in a few minutes. One promise asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” When we answer, “I will, with God’s help,” we signal our willingness to listen to the voice of Jesus speaking through one another. If we are able to sublimate the chattering voices of our own selfish desire, then each still, small voice within us can join with the next, creating the voice of Jesus in the community. When we share in one another’s lives, when we take the time to know one another on deep, personal levels, we more readily serve as vessels for the voice of Christ to each other.

Christ’s voice in the Gospel forms and guides the other two voices – the interior voice and the voice of the community. Working together, this threefold voice of Jesus speaks to us across the barriers of time and distance and language. Jesus proclaims, “My sheep hear my voice.” This statement is both a declaration and a hope. As we struggle with our flurries of distractions and entanglements both externally and internally, I pray that we each find the grace to take seriously these words of Jesus: “My sheep hear my voice.” We are his sheep. I hear Jesus’ voice calling each of us to serve one another in love and reach out with healing arms to a broken world. What do you hear?