Sermon for May 3, 2020 -- "Practicing God's Goodness"

May 3rd, 2020

4th Sunday of Easter

via Zoom

 

WE LISTEN TO GOD’S WORD

 

GOSPEL READING John 10:1-10 (CEB)

I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” 

Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.

So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.

The gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

 

EPISTLE READING Acts 2:42-47

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

 

SERMON “Practicing God’s Goodness”  by Pastor Bill Dow

For anyone living in North America in the 21st Century and over the age of 65, this might be one of the hardest readings in the lectionary. I grew up with bomb shelters and Khrushchev pounding on the table of the United Nations with his shoe. The message was, “We will bury you!” I remember standing in the evening on a residential street in Cicero, Illinois with literally hundreds of other people as we watched Sputnik go by. We were not celebrating. There was mostly silence and deep concern about the consequences of losing the space race.

As a youth I remember encountering this passage from the book of Acts and thinking, “That’s communism!” And then things got really complicated because the face of communism claimed that God didn’t exist! In my family, which was struggling at the time, we didn’t discuss such things. We were mostly silent on the big issues. It was: go to school, keep your nose clean, get a good, respectable job, be an important member of the community, and retire at 65 without financial worries.

While my marching orders were clear, salvation, on the other hand, was kind of murky. It still is today! Many preachers have used the image of Jesus serving as our defense lawyer, mitigating our misdeeds and self-serving attitudes. The church has a fertile history of mixing guilt with legal consequence when addressing salvation.

In some Christian communities you will be asked, “Are you saved?” And then there will be a quiz regarding the time and place along with the circumstances surrounding the moment. I came across a guy who spent considerable time in contemplative thought and study on his faith journey. He was annoyed by this question. His mantra included the quip that theology in North America was 3,000 miles wide…and an inch deep. He had a prepared response for those who insisted on knowing if he was saved. “Are you saved?” He would reply, “Damned if I’m not!”

The New Interpreter’s Dictionary defines the core of salvation as “…God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need from that which impedes their well-being, resulting in their restoration to wholeness (see Shalom). Wholeness or well-being is God’s original intent for creation, and that which impedes wholeness (namely, sin, evil, and death in all their forms) is fundamentally anti-creational. Both the deliverance of the needy and their restoration to well-being in relationship with God, others, and the world are crucial to salvation, and the term may be used for either or for both together.” 

Wait a minute! It doesn’t say anything about landing in heaven on both feet when you die. Nor does it mention governance, which some believe is the source of our salvation. 

Lennon’s experiment with communism failed miserably at a staggering cost to God’s creation. And at the other extreme, the cost of unbridled capitalism has fortified the one percent and widened the gap between wealth and poverty. Human suffering and a planet on the path toward exhaustion is the terrible price. China’s emerging hybrid of communism mixed with capitalism doesn’t show much promise either.

Salvation, the movement from suffering to well-being, centers on God’s relationship with creation and creation’s response of thanksgiving. It makes me wonder if the earth is not rejoicing at this moment because our cars are parked, and the atmosphere has a moment of reduced hydrocarbon emissions. Is Mother Earth breathing a sigh of relief? 

Although there were many things we didn’t talk about, my mother shared an opinion with me about the very first word a baby comprehends. Oh sure, they say “mama” and “dada” and delight how everyone responds around them, but according to my mother, the first word a baby truly comprehends is “MINE!” St. Augustine agrees. He writes in his “Confessions” about watching a baby nursing at the breast glaring at the baby on the other breast of his biological mother. That’s MINE. 

This reading from Acts is not a call to any kind of governance. History has revealed that all governance for all time is fraught with corruption. In a democracy, the best citizens can hope for is to minimize corruption by voting appropriately. This passage is not about establishing utopia. It’s asking us to compare the blessedness of sharing with the curse of greed and the reluctance to share what God provides for all of creation.

Following Jesus into life requires some serious UNLEARNING of our default settings and replacing those defaults with the mindset of PRACTICING what it means to share in the joy of salvation. It’s a re-framing of our relationship with the source and nature of wealth. Shalom – God’s intention for the well-being of all creation, not just humans, hinges on the ability to share at a sacrificial level. Jesus said those willing to lose their life for the gospel receive life in return.

We are ALIVE! And the Holy Spirit is with us, just as Jesus promised. And it’s true, we will all die, but the message of Easter informs us that Almighty God, has yet another version of beloved community and is willing to share with those who are willing to receive.

Of course, the immediate human response is, “I’ll take it!!” But maybe it’s not for the “taking.” What if the core of eternal being is housed in the ability to share?

Our world is currently going to great lengths NOT to share germs. What we ARE sharing is the desire to LIVE! And as today’s reading clearly illustrates, LIFE is more than basic survival. We need blessedness. We need to be connected to something beyond ourselves. We need the security of the sheepfold. We need the love of neighbor. And we need to develop the ability to share.

This reading from Acts is so hard because it forces us to wrestle with question facing every practicing Christian on the planet. What is enough? When do we set aside the game of Monopoly and enter the blessedness of beloved community? Maybe it’s when we acknowledge that everything, including life itself, belongs to God.

One of the core elements of social media is self-promotion. Throw in some politics and it doesn’t take long for things to get nasty. Some simply decide they’re not going to participate. But it’s a little like mining for gold. Every now and then you find just enough to keep digging. I found this last week.

“I wear a mask in public, not for me, but for YOU. I want you to know that I am educated enough to know that, although I have been very careful, I could be asymptomatic and still give you the virus. I don’t ‘live in fear’ of the virus-- I just want to be a part of the solution, not the problem. 

I don’t feel the ‘government is controlling me’; I feel like I’m being a contributing adult to society and I want to teach children the same. I want them to grow up as I did knowing that the world doesn’t revolve around me... that it’s not all about me and my personal comfort...that if we all could live with the consideration of others in mind, this whole world would be a much better place.

Wearing a mask doesn’t make me weak, scared, stupid or even “controlled”; it makes me considerate.”

This is practicing God’s goodness. It’s learned behavior. It doesn’t come naturally. It’s an intentional mindset, reinforced by gatherings just like this. We are blessed with and by each other!

Last Friday, Nick Coenen, site director at Pine Lake United Methodist Camp, announced that there will be no summer camping program in 2020. He made a video and as he spoke you saw his grief and the love he brings to his ministry. Ruby and I have a lot of history with church camping and it broke our hearts to hear the news.

The Christian response to bad news is generosity. We are stewards…transient workers just passing through, managing what God has entrusted to our care…agents of salvation who understand that they are saved by grace…reciprocating with thanksgiving by mitigating situations of need as best we can with the resources at hand. Practicing God’s goodness.

 

“Morning by morning, new mercies I see.

All I have needed thy hand hath provided.

Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”

 

 
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