Abundance is more than a platitude

I preached this without notes at the Parish Picnic, so the audio on the Christ Church website doesn’t quite match the text below.


There are two kinds of preachers in this world: those who get to choose their own texts and those whose texts are chosen for them.  I am the latter.  Our Prayer Book in a section opaquely titled, “Concerning the Proper of the Church Year” requires that we use the lessons prescribed in the Lectionary.  Most of the time, I love being a Lectionary preacher.  It means that neither I, nor you, are subjected to my whim and fancy when it comes to preaching.  Even if I wanted to preach a sixty-two-week sermon series on John 3:16, I can’t, thanks be to God.  Of course, this also means that some weeks, I’m stuck with what is set before me.  For me, this comes to a head every Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is affectionately called (by some) “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Good Shepherd Sunday marks something of a transition in Easter season.  We move from resurrection encounters like Emmaus Road and the Upper Room back into stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.   On Good Shepherd Sunday, in each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we hear portions of John 10 totally removed from their larger context.  It is here that I have the most trouble being a Lectionary preacher.  I have long lamented that bad theology lurks nearby when we read the Bible out of context.  And yet, this is exactly what happens on Good Shepherd Sunday when we take a small portion on one long story and split it into three lessons read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter over three years.  In the end, all we get are fuzzy platitudes like “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly;” “I am the Good Shepherd;” and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

According to Massey Shepherd’s Commentary on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Good Shepherd Sunday is a nod to the early Church in which, during the first waves of persecution, the most common image of Jesus in artwork was as the Good Shepherd, carrying his fold through hardship.[1]  This is all well and good, I suppose, but without the understanding of that hardship, we end up with a Google image search full of sappy paintings of a handsome, blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus carrying a single baby lamb with a long line of well-behaved sheep queued up behind him.

the-good-shepherd-wallpaper1

Instead, I’d like to suggest that we reclaim Good Shepherd Sunday for what it really is: a portion of a longer teaching by Jesus in which he uses the extended metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and sheepfolds to explain why he healed the man born blind on the Sabbath day.  During this teaching discourse, Jesus calls himself both the gate for the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd, indicating that he is the way into the Kingdom of God as well as the one who will lead God’s people there.  He talks of other sheep that do not yet belong to the fold who will come to hear his voice and follow.  He alludes to his crucifixion and resurrection, and how they are both completely within his power and control.  He promises that those who listen to his voice will follow him to eternal life.  All this is said in response to the Pharisees who find themselves so threatened by Jesus’ ministry that they will remove from the Synagogue anyone who claims him as the Anointed One.

This larger understanding of what is going on in John’s Gospel then helps us to understand what is happening in the specific portion that is appointed for Easter 4 in Year A.  This is especially true of the oft quoted but rarely thoughtfully considered promise from Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Abundant life can be defined in really unhelpful ways.  Abundance can mean material wealth, but it seems clear from Jesus’ life that this isn’t what he meant.  Abundance can mean happy and healthy relationships, but again, Jesus didn’t seem to have many of those himself.  His healing miracles were often done to those who were socially outcast because of their infirmity, but as we hear in the story of the man born blind, simply being healed doesn’t guarantee restoration of relationship as even his own parents are afraid of what his healing might mean for them.  Abundance can mean power and prestige, but Jesus’ very undignified death on a cross seems to preclude that.  So, what does abundant life mean for this man who was born blind and has received his sight, but as a result has been totally ostracized from his community?  And what does abundant life mean for us, who can follow Jesus with relative comfort and ease in 21st century America?

I think we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to answer these questions.  After the mass conversion of 3,000 on Pentecost Day, those who were stayed in Jerusalem got about the business of being the Church.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  For the early church, as for us, abundant life in Christ is the life of faith lived out in intentional community.  There is no I in church, and the only way we can truly live out our Christian vocation is through the regular pattern of gathering with other disciples.  The man born blind may have lost his community in the Synagogue, but Jesus returned to welcome him into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd.  It is in gathering as the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd that we can teach one another, enjoy one another’s company, share meals (symbolic here in this service, and really good barbeque to follow shortly), and pray for the needs of the world.

As the Church began to expand beyond Jerusalem, the importance of Christians regularly meeting together grew exponentially.  The young Church needed to develop leaders, needed to work out what discipleship looked like, needed to understand what difference Jesus really made in their lives, and the only way to accomplish those things was to be together, to pray together, to learn together, to break bread together, and to celebrate God’ grace together.  I might struggle with Good Shepherd Sunday, but even in my frustration, I am thankful for another reminder that abundant life in God’s love is truly experienced through discipleship in community.  When we commit to studying, to fellowship, to shared meals, and to pray together, we experience the fullness of abundant life in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  Amen.

[1] Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, p. 172.

Where the Shepherd leads

shepherd-with-sheep

A quick image search of the word “shepherd” will bring you any number of bucolic images of Jesus with a crook in one hand, a baby sheep in the other, and a flock of well behaved, perfectly aligned sheep following dutifully behind.  I don’t know much about sheep or shepherding, but I know enough to know those images are garbage.  Jesus didn’t teach the Parable of the Lost Sheep because sheep are well known rule followers.  Rather, as you can see in this photograph of a modern-day shepherd, sheep kind of do what they want, even as they reluctantly follow.  Notice in the back left, as a parcel of sheep veer off to find green pasture while those in front look eager to run off on their own.

This Sunday, we will pray not only that we might hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and hear him call us each by name, but that we might also, by God’s grace, follow where he leads.  That’s all well and good when the Good Shepherd is leading us beside still waters and right pathways toward the green pastures of Psalm 23, but what happens when the path of life leads us through the valley of the shadow of death?  Following the Good Shepherd doesn’t mean we will forever walk in green fields below bright blue skies.  There will be times when the grass looks a whole lot greener on the other side.  There will be moments when the path ahead looks dark and foreboding.  There will come a time when we have to make a real choice between following the Good Shepherd and forging our own path.  What happens when where the shepherd leads looks like a place we don’t want to go?

That’s where trust comes in, I suppose – trust that comes through an ongoing relationship.  When the path ahead looks scary, we can recall other moments when the shepherd safely brought us through moments of trial with care and love.  We can take solace in knowing that the goal is always green pastures and still waters, even if the natural course of life sometimes brings onion grass and dangerous rapids.  It isn’t the moment by moment promise of safety and security that God offers.  Instead, it is the ongoing presence of the Good Shepherd, who has a plan, who watches the skies, and who knows then and where to slow down, hold back, and wait for the storm to pass by.  The journey long, and arduous at times, but the Shepherd is good and there is a whole flock of other sheep who walk alongside to encourage us to stay the course toward the ultimate goal of life abundant.

What does abundance look like?

In 2010, the marketing team for DirecTV was hitting on all cylinders.  Back in those heady days, before Millennials ruined television with their tiny home, young-eyes-can-see-a-cell-phone-screen-streaming, cable cutting ways the war for our cable dollar between DirecTV, Dish Network, and your local cable monopoly was at an all time high, and TV ads where where the most compelling battles were waged.  One campaign, which was particularly ridiculous was the “Opulence, I haz it” ad in which a Russian sounding man strolled the gilded hallways of his mansion, surrounded by beautiful Russian looking models, soliloquizing on the joys of thrifty opulence and kissing a tiny giraffe.  Here, watch it for yourself.

I hate to admit it, but for the last seven years, anytime I hear Jesus talk about “abundant life,” my first thought is the “Opulence, I haz it” guy.  He, and the people from whom he stands in as a caricature, are, I’m afraid to say, the prevailing cultural image of “abundant life” for 21st century Americans.  Is this what Jesus had in mind when he told the Pharisees that he came to bring life abundant?

Of course not.

So, what does abundant life look like?  I think we find our answer in the idealistic narrative of the early Jerusalem Church in Sunday’s lesson from Acts.  After the mass conversion of 3,000 on Pentecost Day, those who were left behind in Jerusalem got about the business of being the Church.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  The first thing to note is that abundant living in Christ is only done in community.  There is no I in church, and the only way we can truly live out our Christian vocation is through the pattern of regular gathering with other disciples.

It is in those gathering where we can teach one another, enjoy one another’s company, share meals (real and symbolic), and pray for the needs of the world.  Like owning a tiny toy giraffe, abundant life can be messy at times.  Human beings being what we are, relationships aren’t always perfect.  In three chapters’ time, the perfect community described by Luke in Acts 2 will be torn apart by the fear of scarcity and lies of Ananias and Sapphira.  Rifts happen, and we have to work at forgiveness and reconciliation, but there again, those things can only happen when we are committed to being together: to living in community.

As the Church began to expand beyond Jerusalem, the importance of Christians meeting together with regularity grew exponentially.  The young Church needed to develop leaders, needed to work out what discipleship looked like, needed to understand what difference Jesus really made in their lives, and the only way to accomplish those things was to be together, to pray together, to learn together, to break bread together, and to celebrate God’ grace together.

What is abundant life?  Do I haz opulence?  I have faith, and I have community, so I must be pretty darn close.

Supersaturated life

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You may remember from high school science class that a supersaturated solution is one in which more of something is dissolved in a liquid than could be under normal conditions.  The solution sits in supersaturation unless and until something acts upon it to force the excess to precipitate out, or, more spectacularly shown in the gif above, crystallization occurs.  If you have ever enjoyed a piece of rock candy, you have experienced a crystallized supersaturated solution.  In two of our lessons on Sunday, we learn that the Kingdom of God is something like that.

Psalm 23, everybody’s second favorite Olde English thing (next to a good Thug Life tattoo) is often remembered for the “valley of the shadow of death” in verse 4, but I love Psalm 23 because of verse 5.  The Book of Common Prayer translation reads thusly,

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

God’s grace supersaturates our lives such that feasts can be enjoyed right in the midst of our enemies.  Our heads, like those of kings, are anointed with oil.  Our cup runneth over.  The Hebrew word there is literally translated as “saturated.”  Its root word carries connotations of abundance, soaking wet, and drunkenness.  The cup that God has prepared for us, even in the valley of death, right in the sight of our detractors, remains abundantly full.  In God, even in the midst of hardship, our blessings are supersaturated.

Our Gospel lesson from John 10 suggests something similar.  Jesus, you’ll recall, is standing in the presence of his enemies when he tells the man born blind, the Pharisees, and anyone who would here, that he has come into the world so that we might have abundant life.  The Greek here suggests excessiveness, superabundance, and even superfluousness.  God’s grace acts as a supersaturated solution in our lives.  When acted upon by outside forces, it sometimes precipitates out so that in the midst of hardship we can see it, taste it, and feel it.  Sometimes, the pressure to lose sight of it is so great that it might have to crystallize in spectacular fashion.  I think maybe that’s what miracles are all about.

This Sunday, we will hear about the overflowing love of God.  We’ll be reminded that even in the hard times, God’s grace does not shy away.  Once again, we will bring to mind the gift of abundant life that God offers each of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Even as we give up on resurrection accounts, we will hear of the power of Easter,  the abundant resurrected life that God desires to pour out on all of humanity.

The Rabble Within

Whether reading the Psalm from the Daily Office or Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the appointed Scriptures invite us to consider the plight of the wandering Hebrews.  Perhaps plight is too strong a word, after all, God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, God had saved them from Pharaoh’s army at the bank of the Red Sea, and God had provided them with water from a rock and manna from heaven.  And yet…

And yet, they complained.  They grumbled.  They gathered as a rabble to grouse about the fact that God had not given them enough, or, barring that, that God had not given them what they wanted.  They subscribed to a theology of scarcity, while God was pouring out abundance in the form of daily bread.

Perhaps I chose the word “plight” because I know the situation in which the Hebrew people found themselves all too well.  While I’m not often the member of a complaining mob, I have, on many an occasion, found myself getting stirred up by the rabble within my own mind.  Scarcity is way too seductive in our modern day and age.  We live in a world that is constantly convincing us to consume.  $20 a month, for the rest of your life, will ensure that you always have the latest and greatest iPhone.  That fancy 60″ HDTV  you bought last year is fine, I guess, but this new 4K TV is way better (even if your eye can’t tell the difference).  Subscribe to our internet service, it’s the fastest!  Buy our razors, they’re the cheapest!  Drink our beer, you’ll be the sexiest!

With a constant barrage of scarcity based advertising, it is no wonder that our minds are a nearly constant rabble in need of satisfaction.  It is not wonder that we work way too much, play way too little, and charge way too much on credit cards.  We’ve lost the ability to be satisfied with our daily bread.  I know because I’m just as guilty.  But what would life look like if we learned to be satisfied with what we have?  How would our lives be different if we chose to be thankful rather than gluttonous?  How might the world be more like the Kingdom of God if we subscribed to a theology of abundance and gave up the scarcity mindset?

Honestly, I’m not sure it is possible in this day and age, but I suspect we should be trying.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly, and as long as we refuse to see that abundance, we aren’t fully living into the dream that God has for us and for the kingdom.  I pray that God might pour out the Spirit upon us, might open our eyes to see our overwhelming abundance, and might help us to repent of the scarcity that leads to grumbling rabble within and without.