Sunday, May 11, 2014
Texts: Psalm 23; Acts 2: 42-47 ; John 10: 9-10
Progressive Christians sometimes recoil from scriptures about “being saved.” That phrase reminds us of sweaty preachers warning about hellfire. Did you notice that all of today’s scriptures speak of God’s saving work in our lives—but in different ways?
According to Psalm 23, God saves as a shepherd saves sheep, by refreshing or “restoring our souls” with a sense of God’s presence and provisions. (By the way, it was only after this Psalm was much later Christianized that it came to have associations with Jesus and heaven. It was not commonly used in funeral liturgy until the 20th century.)
In the book of Acts we read about God’s saving work among the first followers of The Way who shared what they had with one another: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were begin saved.” Outsiders were astonished that hungry people who might otherwise have starved to death, widows and orphans who might have resorted to prostitution or been consigned to debtors prisons or lived as slaves or beggars—were being saved from these very real plights because their fellow Jesus followers shared generously.
In our Gospel reading the idea of salvation has this spiritual meaning: Jesus is like a saving gate that opens us to the realization of life’s abundance.
I know. Abundance is not the same thing as happiness. And my sermon title promised you happiness. And we’ve sung the “Happy” song this evening. We’ve wished some special people in our lives “Happy Mother’s Day.” We’ve invoked a scripture about giving with gladness. But the Bible doesn’t really say much about happiness. It talks instead about gladness, blessedness, joy, and abundance. So I’m going to use the happy hinge to swing us into the richer biblical concept of abundance, which our Gospel reading says is the hallmark of our salvation. Focusing on our Gospel verses, let’s consider that living abundantly is a saving spiritual practice—which has not only personal but also relational/social/political/environmental impact.
No one wants a constricted, meaningless, meager life. Like the writer of John’s Gospel, we, too, have glimpsed the infinite and unknowable More. We have perhaps intuited that a spiritual disposition of abundance can “save us” with an appreciation for our connection to life’s vastness and the universe’s ongoing creativity. Ironically, some of us have learned abundance after great loss, after we’ve had to let go of our own false identities and false gods, after we’ve stopped counting on things or titles or abilities or roles we play. Only then do we begin to recognize God’s love upholding us. Only then have many of us started to learn and practice these spiritual lessons in a caring community where immensity and intimacy meet.
The God who is More is a God beyond our simplistic dichotomies. God saves us not by a list of do’s and don’ts or by doctrines. Instead, according to John’s gate metaphor, the God we know through Jesus invites us into a life of balance, paradox, contradictions, and tension. Earlier in John 10 the writer images Jesus as the shepherd who guides the sheep. But this discourse culminates in a picture of Jesus as a gate, a means of access. A gate cannot tell us when and where to go, as a shepherd might, but simply marks transitions and reminds us of our choices—to go in, to go out. The gate of Jesus gives us access both to wild pasture and the safe sheepfold.
God saves us, according to John, by providing a gate that allows us to enter the protective fold for rest—and then adventurously move out again for activity and sustenance—so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The abundant life is both/and, a going and coming, a movement inward and outward. We need both the sheltered, safe times of rest as well as the daring times of doing; the return to the familiar and the brave forays in the unknown; the haven and the undiscovered territory; the self-care as well as the self-sacrifice. This in-and-out rhythm just might be the key to God’s abundance. It is perhaps both the musical notes and rests with which we compose our lives’ rhythm.
Think about the role of silence in music. Without pauses, a sustained note is just a constant noise. A rhythm is created only by breaks in the sound. The sound of a clap is both the noise and the pause that follows. If there’s no cessation of a sound, there can be no rhythm. Hear these different rhythms—all of which depend on the duration of the pause as well as the sound:
(Clapping several different rhythmic patterns.)
The sound of the clap is the same for each rhythm. It’s the space between the sounds that creates the rhythm. Music cannot exist without silence.
We require this rhythm between sound and silence, the musical notes and the rest, to be healthy and happy. The Spirit of abundance enables us and maybe entices us to move back and forth between the inner and outer worlds. The historic Jesus himself ministered nomadically, moving from periods of prayer to periods of activity and service. Jesus was not, even in the Gospel of John’s high Christology, the destination but the gate or way to abundance. Jesus was in contrast to the thief John mentions who steals our abundance. Most importantly, Jesus was not, as people have made him out to be, the gatekeeper.
I stress again the Bible makes no promises about God making us happy. I like to be happy as much as the next person. Yet despite the fact that we’ve clapped to the song “Happy” this evening, I am wary of “happy clappy” religion. I hope our worship life is marked by genuine, not manipulated emotions. A spiritual experience should take us deeper. Most world religions teach about an ecstatic state of enlightenment or nirvana or paradise that has nothing to do with our emotional responses to winning the lottery or going to theme parks or having a fun day at the beach. In fact, Richard Rohr says that as we mature spiritually, we carry with us a certain “gravitas” that is “a bright sadness and a sober happiness.” The spiritually mature develop a capacity to hold sorrows and darkness more “creatively and with less anxiety.”[i] But they have known sorrow.
Again, I wonder if our spiritual journeying requires just this kind of paradoxical movement, well symbolized by a gate that takes us in and out, that gives us access both to shadow and light. As I anticipate a few days of vacation at the end of this month, I am looking forward to a period of rest and renewal.
Earth itself requires both activity and replenishment. The human spirit and the fields and forests can flourish only when we balance periods of fallowness and growth. Giving and receiving, dying and birthing, resting and reengaging are life’s patterns—like notes and rests upon the musical score from which the world sings. Unfortunately, the natural environment has had far too little rest and has become one big pasture that we sheep are consuming, consuming, consuming. This past week President Obama, following yet another definitive study on climate change, announced new steps to cut carbon emissions, promote energy efficiency and boost solar power. We hope it’s not too little and too late.
Abundance in our natural world and in the human spirit requires discipline. Christian theology does not promise us prosperity. The Gospel of John does not describe a Magic God who intervenes to do our bidding. Abundance is not the oversimplified New Age twist on Karma. Abundant life, you see, has its discipline, as Wendell Berry well expresses in his poem “A Vision.”
Berry is telling us a renewed earth is not an impossible dream—and we know such a vision is possible because it will be hard. Such a vision will obey the cycles of seasons that lead to abundance: sacrifice and reward, work and rest.
Let us not neglect the work and exploration. But let us also return to the sheepfold . . . which for you might, I hope, be here at Open Table . . . or the comfort of your bed this evening as you pull the cool sheets over your shoulders, and curl into the darkness, and reenter the womb that shelters you over and over, and know that there is more work ahead. But not now. First you will be quiet and let go of the to do list. And then wake tomorrow to find the thing that speaks your name and requires your gifts and moves you to a pasture beyond the safety of the sheepfold.
We as a congregation have spent much energy and money the last few months providing events for the larger community. We are going to be a little less active during our summer months and then will gear up again with some new opportunities for fall. Faith communities—like people and earth’s creatures—follow seasons.
If we can utilize the gate God gives us—looking at the life of Jesus as a liminal guide—we might very well save our lives, our church, our planet from depletion. We might know abundance.
PRAYER: May we recognize the abundance of love and life and live into that abundance. Amen.
[i] Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 117