May 7, 2017
Our gospel reading is a bit confusing today. How many of you remember the Abbott and Costello routine, “Who's on First?” We get a little of that flavor in the reading. We know a lot about who Jesus is. He is the good shepherd, our window. He is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world; our banner. Today we get even more positions of Jesus.
We have the description of a sheepfold. Bandits and thieves are trying to get in but there is a gatekeeper who opens the gate so the shepherd can get in. The sheep follow the shepherd as they leave the sheepfold. So we wonder who's Jesus? Is he the gatekeeper? Or the shepherd? Then he says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” Then in verse 11 which we didn't read today, he says, “I am the good shepherd.” So who's on first and what's on second and who is Jesus in this parable? I don't know. Third base.
Lots going on in these two paragraphs. And I'm not going to examine every aspect. In fact, we are going to change our focus a bit and join into the reading from Acts. The passage that Julie read occurs in the time right after Pentecost. Pentecost, you may recall, was the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and Peter preached a sermon that saw 3000 people become Christ followers. Today's reading gives us a description of the very earliest days of the church. “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers... many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions... and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need... they spent much time together in the temple... praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
Now you may ask what do these two passages have in common? I'm going to suggest that the sheepfold of which Jesus talked is the church that started in the book of Acts. And I want to look at how our church should, and how it does, show the qualities of that early community of faith. And also look at the dangers of taking the sheepfold metaphor too far; of which the church has been guilty in the past.
The church is first of all a community gathered for study and worship. That is the focus of our Sunday mornings together. We have our adult bible study...which could use a few more participants. And we gather here in the sanctuary to worship the Lord. Have you ever heard complaints about a worship service that was too long or too boring? I try to get things done in a decent time; decently and in order. But an hour worship service is a relatively new phenomenon. For many years, services went on for hours. The first church services went right on through mealtime. Communion wasn't a special part of the service, it was a regular meal eaten together; bread broken, the cup shared. We set aside a part of our service for our sharing of the bread and the cup; a sacrament set apart to have something to handle to show Jesus is here. We really have no excuse to be clock watchers in our time of worship, even when communion runs us a little late. Although, I admit, I am a clock watcher. It is a trait I learned from Dad. He was quite concerned that things be done in a timely and succinct manner. I also learned it in St. Gertrude's at a young age as we had a priest for a time who was regularly fifteen minutes late for services...on a good day. Sometimes church is not the most exciting place to be, but remember why we are here. And remember that for many in the world today, they are taking their very life's in their hands just to attend a service where the word is taught and the bread broken. That would make it a lot more exciting, but I don't want that kind of excitement.
The second attribute we learn of in Acts is that the church is a place for fellowship. Acts says they met with glad and sincere hearts. Tertullian was a second century theologian. He wrote of pagans looking at Christians and saying, “Look . . . how they love one another (for they themselves [pagans] hate one another); and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).” Our fellowship can be enjoyed and shared with joy. But our fellowship is also a part of our witness to the world. “Look how they love one another.” We want that to be said of our community of faith. And my experience is that this is true of our church family. From sharing jokes on Holy Humor Sunday to eating Hero sandwiches from fixings contributed by one another to the true fellowship and openness found in our bible study groups, and our sincere prayers when needs are known, we demonstrate our love for one another. Because we truly enjoy being together and sharing.
Harry Goldman is a Jewish writer tells of a time in his life when he asked his father—who was not a believer—why he went to synagogue. His father answered, “Jews go to the synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend, Garfinkel goes to talk to God. I go to talk with Garfinkel.”
Not the best reason to go to church, but it reminds us that when we are baptized in Christ, we are baptized into the body of Christ—the church. There should be no such thing as a solitary Christian, fellowship is part of God's calling. Our Christian calling can also include fun fellowship; the Oak Ridge Boys concert was great, bowling is always fun, ice and roller skating, potlucks, fishing on Green Lake...all ways we share in the joy of fellowship.
But there is also a real danger here. Fellowship can become the goal, the purpose. We can be in danger of becoming a kind of social club. We can become so enamored with the fellowship and activities of our congregation that we turn a blind eye toward the needs of the world. We may become that metaphor I warned about, and the sheepfold can become something that is keeping others out. If we are just about the sheepfold itself, we cannot fulfill our full purposes. Many is the church that became so worried about protecting it's wonderful fellowship that it died a slow death by atrophy.
Dr. Eugene Brice tells a story that relates. It is about a tour of a factory billed as the world's largest grease factory. They toured rows and rows of machines with gears turning, wheels revolving, cylinders whirling, belts running, huge motors roaring away. Toward the end of the tour, the guide was asked, “What do you do with all the grease you make here? To whom do you sell it?” The guide answered, “Oh no, we don't sell it. We have to use all the grease we produce to lubricate the machinery here at the factory.”
That can be the story of the local church. When the church puts all its efforts into lubricating its own machinery, we miss the call to serve the world outside our four walls. This call to look beyond ourselves is what has led the Christian Community Committee to undertake a project that reaches out into the world; the world at its ugliest, and seeks to bring the light of Christ into the darkness. I've spoken before of beginning an effort to fight sexual abuses and domestic violences that are occurring in our immediate vicinity. As the hands and feet of Jesus, we are to move beyond our comfort zone of fellowship here and touch the world in the name of Jesus. We are excited as we make plans to present information to our community to help protect our youth and I am announcing here this morning that the committee applied for and has received a special grant from the church in Madelia church to help make this happen. More details will follow as the CCC meets tomorrow to discuss the next step and the ultimate vision.
Fellowship is wonderful, but the church needs service projects; like this and like working with the clients at WINGS, contributing to providing shelter to homeless families and individuals, giving to the food shelf so we don't become inward facing, stagnant and die.
Before my final point on the early church, let's look back to the gospel for a minute. We all consider ourselves to be a part of the flock, the sheep gathered in the sheepfold. It is a wonderful, comforting picture. But what of those people who have not had our church experience, those who feel unwelcome because of a lifestyle or a personal history that doesn't fit in with the picture of the perfect Christian? Our sheepfold can look pretty foreboding to someone like that. We need to be aware that not everyone sees the church as a good place to be. I challenge you to invite someone you know who doesn't belong to the flock and let them see our community of faith in action.
The final point from our reading in Acts, they devoted themselves to prayer. We need to recognize and act on the fact that the church is not merely a human endeavor. The church is God's people working with God. If we are going to be effective in God's work, we need to depend upon prayer. I hope we are being consistent in our prayer life. My hope is to put forward another plan to find prayer warriors, people willing to meet regularly to pray specifically for the direction and guidance of our church. Our next Bible study, as I wrote in the newsletter, will be on prayer. Prayer works in ways our mortal minds will never fully understand. But God has worked this creation so that somehow, in the mystery of God's wisdom, we have influence through prayer. Let's not miss our opportunities for prayer.
Who's on first? A classic skit. Our question today, just who is Jesus—gatekeeper, gate, lamb, shepherd? All these, but even this list doesn’t reflect all that Jesus is. And what is the church? A sheepfold built to keep us safe and others out? Or can we see the church as a place the good shepherd opens the gate that all may come in? That means that we the sheep are free to roam in the world and share the goodness and mercy the good shepherd brings. May we learn more of Christ in worship and study and the sacrament we share. May we share love of God in the fellowship the Holy Spirit. And may we be under-girded by the power of prayer. Amen.