Sunday, May 31, 2020

Phil Kniss: “Yes, but how?”

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Pentecost Sunday: "Will the fire change you?"

Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

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Our worship theme today is a question: “Will the fire change you?”

I should do a deep dive into the question,
    explore its depth and complexity and nuance.
    Except, there is no nuance.
    I can answer the question in a word, and I did.
        The first word of my title is the answer: Yes.
        But for kicks, I added two more words.
            Just to complicate things.

Of course fire changes us. By definition.
    Fire is physical matter undergoing transformation by heat.
        Molecules are pulled apart and put together in new ways.
        From whatever it was . . . to carbon and hydrogen and water
            and who knows what all.
        Nothing that catches on fire—nothing—remains the same.

    So the two words I added, “but how?” is the real question here.
    Will the fire change us?
        “Yes, but how” will the fire change us?
    That implies we have some choice.
        What kind of change will we allow?

    But before we poke around in the embers of that question,
        we need to complicate it some more.
    Especially now.
    Because fire is a metaphor
        applied to more than the Holy Spirit.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a raging fire
    that is changing us.
    That fire is not the Holy Spirit.
    Oh, the Holy Spirit is absolutely present as we suffer in this fire,
        but that fire is a manifestation of evil.

Other fires are burning in our lives right now.
The most apparent one to this congregation
    is the fire of unexpected loss and grief.
    That fire is not the Holy Spirit.
    Oh, the Holy Spirit is certainly with us in this fire
        of sudden and unwelcomed death.
        But I will not equate that fire with God’s good Spirit of life.

Other fires are burning in our country . . . literally and figuratively.
There is the fire of racial injustice,
    still deeply woven into the fabric and structure of our society.
    The fire sparked in Minneapolis this week,
        and now spreading all over the country,
        is not only the story of a couple bad cops,
            and one victim,
            and a mob mentality getting out of hand.
    It can only be explained as the dry tinder of systemic racism,
        lying on the ground all over our land,
        lying at our very feet,
            which all of us have ignored for too long,
            have failed to really listen to those impacted by it.
        And the spark became a wildfire.
    Again, God is not absent here.
        The Spirit is present in this fire.
            God is close to those who grieve or are oppressed.
        But I would not equate this tinder-box
            with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

    The life-giving Spirit of God is in opposition to
        a lot of what this world experiences as out-of-control fire.

Yes, we know from the Pentecost story in Acts,
    that the Spirit does at times act like fire.
    Those disciples in the upper room
        had seeming tongues of fire fall on their heads,
            and they were empowered,
            they were transformed.
    But how do we know one fire from another?
    Because we must distinguish between them.

We must discern when to open ourselves to Holy fire,
    and when to fight un-holy fire that threatens to consume us.
    Yes . . . but how?

I suggest we walk toward the un-holy fire.
    Yes, we head toward the flames
        with purpose and intentionality and preparation.
    We prepare by opening ourselves more fully
        to the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit,
        and let that Holy-Spirit fire burn within us,
        so that God’s Spirit might be let loose
            to tame the wildfire all around us.
In other words,
    we fight fire with fire, spiritually speaking.

That’s exactly what forest firefighters are trained to do,
    when a wildfire is out of control.
    They know to walk toward the inferno,
        carrying other fire with them.
    And they intentionally start other fires, controlled burns,
        that essentially burn up all the available fuel,
        so when the wildfire reaches that area,
            there is nothing left to feed the flames, and the fire goes out.

Maybe there . . . is a lesson on living in the Spirit,
    in a world burning up with a spirit not of God.

Anyone of us are at risk of being consumed
    by the un-holy fires raging in our world right now.
You may justifiably be angered
    by the evil, the injustice, the oppression.
    That’s okay, stay angry at that.
You may be overcome with grief
    by all the unnecessary suffering in the world.
    That’s okay, lean into the grief, let grief do its work.
You may be incensed by all the inhumanity,
    all the poor excuses for moral leadership
        by those in leadership positions.
    That’s okay, don’t look away. Stay incensed.

    But you still have a choice in the matter.
    We still have options.
        Will we be consumed?
        Will we lose ourselves in the flames,
            because we forgot who we were,
            and only added more fuel to the fire?

    Or . . . will we receive this as an opportunity to open ourselves
        more fully to the Spirit of God dwelling within us?
    Will we carefully carry and tend to the holy fire within us,
        laying our small selves and our egoistic desires on the altar,
        and allow God to change us with this divine fire?

This is not mystical escapism.
This is the way a life in Christ works.
    If we are not intentional about tending the Holy Spirit fire within,
    If we do not purposely open ourselves for God’s transformation,
        we will be consumed.

Whether it be the COVID-19 fire,
    or the fire of racism and injustice,
    or the fire of political corruption and abuse of power,
    or the fire of untimely deaths and ravaging diseases,
    or any of the many flames of general human suffering and cruelty,
        we are at risk of being consumed.

If all we do is stand back,
    and gaze open-jawed at the inferno,
    the fire may change us alright,
        but it may not be the change we need.
    We may well cave in to the depths of despair,
        and lose the battle.
    We may well let our demons get the better of us
        and become callous and cruel ourselves.

On the other hand . . . we might also choose to open ourselves
    to the transforming fire of Holy Spirit,
    the Spirit that looks like Jesus.

Spiritually speaking, this is fighting fire with fire.
    This is clearing away the flammable underbrush,
        all the stuff lying at our feet that shouldn’t be there.
    And with the carefully aimed and intentional fire of the Spirit,
        it gets cleared away,
        leaving a fire-break of compassion,
            a fire-break of willingness to listen,
            a fire-break of a choice to be present with the suffering,
                of a dogged pursuit of justice,
                of a commitment to love sacrificially.
        Then, when the un-holy fire gets close to us,
            it has no fuel remaining,
            it can only spit and sputter and go out.

The fire-break must be intentional on our part.
    But it is not our doing.
    Transformation is what the fire of the Holy Spirit does,
        when it’s kindled in us, and allowed to burn.

Ruth Haley Barton, in her book,
    Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership,
    a book I’m reading right now . . . because I need to,
    says this about the transforming work of the Spirit.

I quote.
“In the process of transformation the Spirit of God moves us
    from behaviors motivated by fear and self-protection
        to trust and abandonment to God;
    from selfishness and self-absorption
        to freely offering the gifts of the authentic self . . .”

And then, just as my good Mennonite duty-bound work-ethic
    is about to kick in and say,
    “I can do this, I should do this, I will do this,”
    she shuts me down with these words,
    “This kind of change
        is not something we can produce or manufacture for ourselves
        but it is what we most need . . .”
    “Lest we are tempted to view this as a glorified self-help project . . .
        it is important for us to embrace spiritual transformation
            as a process that is full of mystery.
        It is a phenomenon . . . outside the range
            of what human beings can accomplish on their own.”

    In other words . . . It’s the fire. It’s not us.
    It’s about accepting the fire,
        being in a place of solitude and silence,
            soaking in scripture,
    It’s letting our souls be warmed by the fire that looks like Jesus,
        fire that fills us with compassion for the suffering,
        and a genuine tenderness and love for the other,
            even the other who might look like a threat.

Our prayer today is not,
    “God, give me a little boost, so I can manage to do this.”
Our prayer is more simple: “Come, Holy Spirit.”
    Come, holy fire, and burn in me,
        and burn away hatred and bitterness and self-absorption,
    Come, Holy Spirit, come.

—Phil Kniss, May 31, 2020

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Get your head out of the clouds

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 7 – “In the time of testing”

Psalm 68; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; Acts 1:6-14 

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     A few weeks ago my parents and I set our alarms for the wee hours of the morning, awoke in darkness and bundled ourselves up to go out into the night. We were looking, as I know some of you also did, for the meteor shower. We walked down my parents’ long driveway searching the sky.

    I wonder if the disciples looked a bit like our motley crew, sanding together staring into the sky, the space where Jesus was taken up. Were they longing as some of us might be, to be taken away with Jesus. Get us out of this moment in time. This world all feels too much for us. Jesus, we would like to escape with you!

    As we made our way back up the driveway we all started getting kinks in our necks from looking upward. We didn’t want to tear our eyes away from the sky; scared we might miss a blazing trail of light. We walked backwards so that we could keep our gaze fixed on the part of the sky where the flash of light might come.

    Was this the fumbling moment for the disciples when the angels showed up, two men in white robes? But instead of adding to their enthusiasm for looking upward the two men direct the disciples eyes in a different direction. They steered their minds away from a cloudy heaven and onto the task that awaits them here on earth. They remind us that our feet are firmly grounded here. We are not to get too engrossed by the sky but to look to the task Jesus sets for us. Jesus had just said: You will receive power from the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses here on earth.

    The disciples left that mountain moment and went back to the upper room to pray. Acts tells us that they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer”.

    As we think of these disciples praying, I want us to consider another group of followers of Jesus, as we look at the 1st Peter passage. We hear in verse 12 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you”. Wait, is the author of this letter talking to us, here in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic that has turned our lives upside-down – it feels very current to our situation.

But the first hearers of this letter were dealing with suffering of a different kind. They would have been part of scattered communities of believers, possibly with many women and slaves in their number who were seen as inhabiting the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. They would have truly felt like resident aliens, having a minority status and living in a “truly oppressive and hostile environment” (1-2 Peter, Jude; Believers Church Bible Commentary, page 20).

    Do we need to have a reality check on our suffering – to get our eyes and feet back on the ground?
    I have been sitting with the idea of holding our current state in two hands. In one hand we hold out to God the reality of our situation, how it truly makes us feel and how it is affecting us. All of our disappointment, the fear of the unknown and what confined isolation does to us. There are days when this feels like suffering.

Then we hold out our other hand, realizing our power and privilege. Naming how much we have to be grateful for. I have an income, internet, a non-abusive home life, health care professionals who are willing to care for me, the beauty of nature around me and space that I can work. I cannot look away from either of these realities. I know that what others are holding may look vastly different and that some day these things we carry may cause us to slip into feelings of aloneness.

    As I read 1 Peter I started singing a camp song: cast your burdens on Jesus, for he cares for you”. The next part of the song gets a little more theologically dicey. “higher, higher, life Jesus higher. Lower, lower, stomp Satan lower.” A group of campers approached me one evening at camp after I had led this song. They were concerned about the violent imagery and wondered why at a Mennonite camp we were talking about stomping or crushing something or someone as if it were a good thing. “Isn’t that song too violent for children” my campers asked.

    I’m not well versed in talking about Satan or the devil so these campers had picked up on something that makes me uncomfortable too. While this passage doesn’t say to stomp on Satan it does say to stay alert, to resist the power of evil and stay steadfast in your faith.

What I have been wrestling with during this isolation are my own demons – my cutting words that so quickly hurt others, my temper that flares as I rush to blame, my fears of what life might look like especially if I loose loved ones, my grief and guilt that send me into self doubt spirals to the point that I want to curl up in the fetal position and sob. I have tried not to shrug these things off but have attempted to turn and face them. I want to listen to the words of my spiritual directors who have counseled me to let myself hear and to feel the strong emotions. To humbly notice them and say “welcome, what do you have to teach me”.

This is hard work and not work for everyday. We need to remember that we do not face our suffering alone but with God by our side and in community. By the grace of God maybe I can face a little of what is ugly and in need to redemption within me. This is the place I find myself on my knees before God crying out in honest prayer. I find myself with the disciples in the upper room and listening to the words in the Psalms calling us to cry out to God.

This is where I come back to the Bible and find that it is not just some holy book with stories of long ago times. It is the story of God with God’s people through their tough times, their times of testing and the mundane ins and outs of everyday life. In the little details of the Bible, of who was in the room, what people were wearing and how long it took to walk some place, I see that God is in the little moments of my life as well as the big emotions. And that is where I need to see God right now. In the hugeness of this virus, how it is effecting so many all over the world and yet in the smallness of my little life.

We are called to examine ourselves in our suffering.

I’m drawn to the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer in her poem The Invitation that ends with:

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.


We are told to cast out burdens on Jesus. Verse 7 “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you”. Will we throw ourselves into God’s arms fully trusting our savior and creator?

    I have been helping my Dad carry fallen branches and trees down their steep hill from the woods so we can cut them as firewood. After half carrying, half dragging a huge log, when I drop it I feel first the huge relief but then the wobble in my body as I try to recover from casting off my load. Can we pray like this and are we ready for the adjustment in our minds and spirits to the heavy weight being lifted.

Jesus doesn’t leave us staring into the sky, just longing for a better future, waiting for some bright light and the passing joy that follows. We are left with the hope of the Spirit – spoiler alert we are being prepared for Pentecost – 1 Peter’s blessing for us is restoration, support, strength and that we will be established.

May we hear these words in our own situation – with one hand extended, grounded in our own reality of day-to-day life. And also with our other hand extended, holding a reality much closer to the suffering and hardship of those first hears of Peter’s letter.

What do God’s promises mean not just for us – this promise is for poultry workers, those in meat packing plants, for indigenous communities where the virus is striking hard, for essential workers who still have to use public transport, for African American brothers and sisters who are too well acquainted with the fear of something or someone who will hurt them entering their homes and lives unbidden. This is also for those in refugee camps, prisons and trying to cross a border that is rejecting them. What do these words of Jesus and the breath of the Spirit mean for them.

With our feet firmly planted on earth we say we see you. We look into the eyes of the other and say we hear you. We notice what has been pushed to the margins of our lives and the world; we pledge to use our power to amplify the voices of the outsiders. It is standing in that space with an open posture that we hear God’s promise to restore, support, strengthen and establish.

We need to be heavenly minded for the earthly good. We don’t have control but we are given the power of God’s Spirit to witness to the world. Lead us to prayer. Help us to trust in the God of all grace, who has called us to God’s eternal glory in Christ. Amen

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Testimonies: “Putting in a good word for God”

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 6 – “Toward the object of our worship”

Psalm 66:8-20; Acts 17:22-28; John 14:15-21

Sharing by Betty Brunk, Art Borden, Miriam Rhodes, Jane Eanes, Saloma
Furlong, Hannah Mast, Roy Bergey, Elizabeth Rohrer, Tristan Nussbaum, Greta Ann Herin, Ervin Stutzman

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We asked 11 people from our congregation to put in a good word (that is, to praise) God for what they have noticed God doing in their lives or in the world around them during these difficult times.

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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Phil Kniss: Housebound: Living and loving the tension

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 5 – “While being house-bound”

1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

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I think there are many people these days,
    maybe you are among them,
    who have kind of a tense relationship with their house.
Peyton talked some about that with the children.

It would be an overstatement to call it a love-hate relationship.
    Because I think, for most of us, we love our house.
        It’s more than a house.
        It’s more than a precision-built structure that meets code.
        It lives. It breathes.
        We have poured ourselves into it.
        We have attended to it lovingly,
            helping it express our personality
            and reflect our sense of beauty.
        In some cases, we’ve even blessed it and prayed over it.
        So we could say our house has spirit—
            the same as saying it breathes.

    But in the last two months
        some have become restless in their house.
    In it’s most innocent form, it’s a condition we all get in winter.
        Cabin fever.
    But what I am seeing these days
        is a more insidious form of cabin fever.
        Many have lost a sense of what home is about.

    If home is a place where we are grounded, secure, and safe—
        not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, relationally—
        then there a huge population of people right now,
        who are not at home in their houses.

    For some, sadly, the reason is something they have no control over.
        Either the house isn’t doing it’s job to protect them,
            because it is poorly built or dangerously in need of repair.
        Or the people in that house with them are dangerous.
            Domestic abuse is on the rise right now.
        Or, they have no house of their own.
        In all these cases, we who have houses and resources
            have a moral obligation to help, and advocate for justice.

    But others with adequate houses should be at home, but aren’t,
        because they are not at home with themselves.
        At one extreme, some are packing protest rallies,
            or carrying guns,
            or breaking into fights over wearing a mask.
        But in much milder forms,
            many of us struggle to be at home with ourselves.

Today, our lectionary readings help us examine
    our spiritual state of affairs, through the window—if you will—
        of life in a house.

As I looked at these scriptures,
    I couldn’t help but see the contrast between
        what many housebound people
        are feeling and experiencing now
    and the high view of house we have in the scriptures.

To be house-bound is assumed to be a negative state.
    It restricts us. Limits our freedom. Reduces our options.
    And too much of that can create anger and resentment,
        especially among those who
            value individual freedom and autonomy, at any cost.

But there is more than one way to look at being house-bound.
    I see one in 1 Peter 2, and another in John 14.

But first, what does the word “house” mean?
    It can refer to the building,
        the structure that protects and shelters what’s inside—
            whether it’s people, or a greenhouse, or carriage house.
    It can be a governing body—
        house of representatives, house of delegates
    It can be a business establishment—movie house, fish house.
    It can be a long family line, like the House of Windsor,
        or a biblical example, the House of David.
    But in all these examples, in fact, the house contains something,
        keeps it from spilling out everywhere.
        It helps give definition, helps protect, shelter,
            create continuity, preserve a value or a tradition.

So in the example of 1 Peter,
    we are told that God the builder is taking us, like living stones,
        and constructing a container for the living Good News.
    God is creating a “spiritual house” it says,
        a “holy priesthood,”
        in order to faithfully represent the divine,
            to be a conduit between God and the world, to (quote)
            “declare the praises of him who called you
                out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
        And as members of a household of God,
            we are not alone, not at all!
            We are bound to each other.
            Linked for life!
            We are house-bound, in the best sense of the word—
                we find our purpose, our identity, our best self,
                when we bind ourselves to this household of God.

    This is not an odious restriction of freedom.
    In this house we are free to be all that God ever intended us to be.
    Being house-bound in this sense,
        actually prepares us to live fully and gratefully
            with the kinds of physical restrictions
            many people are angrily rebelling against right now.
        Being bound together in God’s household,
            nurtures our love for all God’s people,
            it helps us love people the way God loves them,
                especially the most vulnerable.
        With love and compassion,
            we take up our cross and follow Jesus,
            choosing the servant’s place at the table.
        This is what puzzles me most
            about churches and church leaders who are strong and able,
            who resist the physical distancing
                that protects the most vulnerable people that God loves.
        In a church of Jesus,
            having our lives linked to the lives of others,
            should come natural,
            because we are bound to the household of God,
                because we are house-bound.

And then there is John 14.
    Here we see another take on the word “house” and “bound.”
    Here, Jesus encourages his disciples about where life is headed.
        Jesus is naming the trajectory of a disciple.
        So here, the “bound” is directional.
        We are bound toward a house where God lives.

In the translation, The Voice, Jesus says to his disciples,
    “Don’t get lost in despair . . .
        My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you.
        I am going to make arrangements for your arrival.
        I will be there to greet you . . . welcome you home,
            where we will be together.
        I am the path, the truth, and the life.”

In other words, relax.
    Life is challenging here.
    It always will be.
    But one thing you don’t have to worry about, now or ever,
        is where it’s all heading.
    You don’t need to worry about where you are bound.
        You are bound to a house where we will be together, always.
        You and me and everyone else who I will welcome.

This passage has unfortunately often been misused.
    This is not an excuse to check out of life here and now.
    This is not the escape clause,
        so we don’t have to invest in this life.
    This is not an explanation about who’s in and who’s out,
        so we can make those determinations now,
        and know who to love and accept, and who not to.
    No, this is a deeply encouraging and life-giving word.

Jesus is saying to us,
    “Stick with me, and I’ll get you there.
        There’s not a whole lot more to worry and fret over.”

Now, believe me,
    leaning on these scriptures today doesn’t resolve the tension.
    In any house, including our own beloved homes,
        the place we live.
    There is a benefit to being inside a closed-up house.
    And there is a cost.
        We gain protection.
        We lose connection to the outside.
        We gain security.
        We lose some freedom.
        The walls give us definition and stability.
        The walls also keep out the sounds of the birds,
            and the refreshing breeze.

    Same with a spiritual house.
        On the plus side, we know where we belong,
            our household gives life a definition and purpose.
            Our forebears in faith worked out a lot of things for us,
                what was good, and what was not good,
                and passed that down through the generations.
            That gives us a sense of who we are,
                and the values that shape our existence.
        But it also means we know who we are not.
            It can distinguish us from others.
            Keep us from being someone else.
            It can even create some distance from others.
        Not saying that’s always bad.
        I’m saying that’s a cost.
        That’s part of the tension
            of living in any house—
                either a spiritual house,
                or a house like the one we live in
                    on College Avenue in Harrisonburg.

So my prayer today is,
    “Thank you, God, for the houses we live in—
        the physical ones and the spiritual ones.
      Thank you for the protection and shelter they offer.
        Help us extend that shelter to others.
        Thank you, also, for the definition they give our lives.
    May we always live in our houses with grace,
        with compassion, in hope, and in love.

—Phil Kniss, May 10, 2020

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Sunday, May 3, 2020

Phil Kniss: The shoving shepherd

Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 4 – “In the manner of sheep”
Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

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Anyone tired of being in lock-down?
    Weary of the quarantine life?
    Had enough of being forced into a life you didn’t choose?

So . . . this would be a good Sunday to talk about the good shepherd,
    wouldn’t it?
    We can all escape, in our minds eyes,
        to those greener pastures,
        with still waters,
        and peaceful paths,
        where life is lush and abundant,
            and where we can, like a lamb,
            nestle safely into the crook of our Good Shepherd’s arms.

I can’t begin to tell you, in my 37 years of ministry,
    how often someone said Psalm 23 was important to them,
        in a time of loss, of distress, of chaos, of danger.
    And speaking of those times, we’re in them.

It’s not enough we’re dealing with COVID-19
    and lives are being upended.
    We still experience life’s routine stress and grief.
        Death of loved ones.
        Loss of income.
        Social instability.
        Serious illness.

So let’s all wrap ourselves around with this comforting image—
    Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

And as we do, let’s ask ourselves . . .
    what makes Jesus a Good Shepherd (capital G, capital S)
    and not just an average run-of-the-mill shepherd?
    Why do we call Jesus’ shepherding practices . . . good?

    Because Jesus protects us from every harm and danger?
    Because he scares off every wolf and foils every thief?
    Because he cradles us gently, comforting and calming us,
        that we might always live in peace. . . ?

    If that is why Jesus is a Good Shepherd,
        we might wonder if our Shepherd is on vacation right now,
            or walked away from the sheep pens and gone AWOL,
            leaving us to fend for ourselves.

No, the Good Shepherd does not guarantee either safety or comfort.
    Even this comforting Psalm 23 assumes hard times.
    It explicitly says we will
        walk through the valley . . . of the shadow . . . of death.
    It says there will be times that we find ourselves surrounded . . .
        in the presence of . . . our enemies.
    Life does not cease to be challenging or dangerous
        just because the shepherd is with us.

So what makes Jesus a Good Shepherd?
    Well, one place to look for an answer to that question
        would be today’s Gospel reading from John 10.
    Because here Jesus spells out the metaphor, in some detail.
    He identifies himself, right off the bat, as the Good Shepherd.
    And he paints a picture of sheep inside a sheepfold,
        a place to protect them overnight.

    The true shepherd of the sheep—that is, Jesus—enters by the gate.
    Others show up as imposters—
        thieves and bandits, Jesus calls them.
        They don’t use the gate, but climb in another way.
    But when the good shepherd comes to fold, he comes in the gate,
        he calls the sheep by name, they recognize his voice,
            and he brings them out for the day,
            and leads them wherever he wants them to go.

Just a little aside . . . Jesus mixes his metaphors here.
    In John 10, he says one place, “I am the Good Shepherd,”
        and at another, says, “I am the Gate.”
    So if anyone criticizes you for mixing metaphors,
        just say, “That’s okay. I’m following Jesus.”
    One image can’t say it all.
        Jesus used many different images to describe himself.

Here, I think Jesus the Gate . . . and Jesus the Good Shepherd
    is saying, “Come into the Kingdom through me,
        attach yourself to me,
        and I will lead you where you are meant to be.”

I thought about that, and figured,
    well, that ties this lesson up all very nicely.
    And then I found out something a little unsettling.

You see,
    we are very comfortable with the image as it appears—
    a sheepfold keeping us safe through the dangers of the night,
    until our shepherd comes calling in the morning,
        and gives a cheerful whistle or sheep-call or something,
        and then walks out the gate
            and all the sheep gladly trot after him.

    But there is a word in this passage that changes the picture.
    It’s the verb Jesus chose for “bringing them out” of the sheepfold.
    In v. 4, it says,
        “When he has brought out—brought out all his own,
            he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him.”
        After they are out in the open,
            then he gets in front of them,
            and leads them to pasture.

And by “brought out,” he meant “shoved out.”
    The verb Jesus uses here is “ekballo.”
    It’s used all through the New Testament,
        but never in the sense of gently walking in front
            and saying, “Yoo-hoo, here we go, come along now.”
    No. It’s the same verb used when it says
        that Jesus “cast out” an evil spirit.
    It’s the same verb used when it says Jesus took a whip
        and “drove the money-changers out of the temple.”
    It’s the same verb used when it says the Holy Spirit
        drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.

Virtually everywhere this verb is used in the New Testament,
    it implies pushing someone somewhere they don’t want to go.

That is not only interesting.
    It is disturbing.
    It is upsetting to our mental image
        of Jesus as Little Bo-Peep
            and the sheep wagging their tails behind them.

And here’s the problem.
    We sheep, if left to our own devices,
        might rather prefer to stay where it’s safe.
        Secure in the sheepfold. Behind sturdy walls.
        Far from the reach of wolves and other who do us harm.

But Jesus is pointing out an important truth here.
    As sheep, staying in a sheepfold is not
        where abundant life is found.
    Abundant life is found in coming in and going out of the gate,
        coming in and going out,
        coming in and going out.
    Seeking nourishment where there is some risk involved.
    Eating only out of a feed trough in a barn,
        will not result in strong healthy sheep.
        Sheep need to graze.
        On the same pastureland where live the wolves.

So out of love for us sheep,
    out of a strong and fierce love for us,
    Jesus shoves us out of the sheepfold.
    Jesus is a loving shepherd.
        And therefore, is a shoving shepherd, if you will.
    Jesus shoves us out from where we feel safe and secure,
        and into a broken and dangerous world
        that desperately needs what God’s kingdom has to offer.
    A world that needs the healing and reconciling
        and peace-building and justice-seeking of kingdom people.

And we need that, too!
    If we are to “have life, and have it abundantly,” to use Jesus’ words,
        we need to live into our created purpose.
    We were not created to live our lives behind stone walls.
    We were created for an active, dynamic life in the wide open,
        and dangerous, world.

So what does this mean for a people in quarantine?
    The answer might confuse us a little,
        because isn’t this what all the protests are about right now?
    People want to break out of their cocoon of safety,
        and explore the wide open world.

    Well . . . maybe not.
    It might seem that way on the surface.
        But I honestly wonder whether it’s the opposite.
    I wonder . . .
    Whether, for the protestors,
        and those yearning for crowded beaches and malls
            and theaters and sports arenas,
        that the secure sheepfold . . . is the frenzied life that was.
    Whether there is actually comfort in losing ourselves
        in a life of constant distraction.
    Whether the busy, striving, self-protecting, approval-seeking life,
        actually shields us from the wolf of self-examination.
    And whether the scary wilderness
        is being held inside our own homes,
            in a space too close for comfort,
            forced to confront the darker side of ourselves,
            unable to prove our worth by our productivity,
            being more raw, exposed, and helpless.

Maybe to apply this parable to our current situation,
    we should say those following the shepherd into the wild,
        and taking risks out of love for the shepherd,
    are the ones staying home,
        inconveniencing themselves, by choice,
        finding other ways to be present with others,
    or the ones assuming great risk to help those in need—
        like the first-responders, health workers,
        grocery-store employees, and others who serve us.

And then we might very well conclude,
    that those protesting the stay-at-home orders,
        or refusing to wear masks,
        or crowding the beaches,
        or taking automatic weapons into state capital buildings,
    maybe, in this parable, they are the ones
        resisting the shove of the Good Shepherd.
    They may be resisting the fuller life, the riskier life,
        of grazing in the open fields where the wolves are.

It remains up to each of us to apply this where it fits in our own life.
    You know where your sheepfold is.
    You know where the wild life-giving pastureland is.
    The Good News for today is that our loving shepherd
        not only shoves us out there with the grass and the wild things.
    That loving shepherd still walks out in front,
        still picks up the traumatized lamb,
        still walks with us all the way to where this life leads us.

    Sometimes we need to be cradled.
    Sometimes we need the shove.
    Both images are true.
    And both are love.

The other piece of Good News is that we are a flock!
    We are not solitary sheep.
    When one of is overwhelmed with the wilderness,
        there are other sheep nearby.

Right now is a time when there are many among us,
    who need some others of us to step into the gap,
        and give us courage to take another step,
        or to hold on to life a little longer.

Maybe you find yourself in the position of needing someone
    to hold on for you,
    maybe you are the one holding on tightly, on behalf of another.
In either case, maybe this song will be some encouragement to you.
    Join with us in singing, please,
        “When pain or sorrow . . . hold on”

—Phil Kniss, May 3, 2020

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