Monday, May 16, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 4 Easter A (05/15/11)

May 15, 2011 – Easter 4A
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

I’ve got some bad news for y’all: this is the last Sunday sermon you will ever hear at St. John’s. That’s because the world is scheduled to end this Saturday, May 21. Or, more precisely, this Saturday is Judgment Day. That means that the true Christian believers (like me) will be raptured up into heaven, while the rest of you will be left behind in the “horror of horror stories.” [1] At least that’s the way that Kevin Brown described it during an NPR interview. He’s one of a substantial number of religious fanatics who have spent the last several months proclaiming to anyone who would listen that the end will come just six days from now. Since I’m not planning on being here next Sunday and since Grace Haynes, the preacher scheduled for next week, will almost certainly not be here either, the rest of you will just have to figure something out on your own. Good luck with all that.

You’ve probably heard these most recent calls for repentance. They’ve made their way into the news—mostly portrayed in a mocking tone that the subjects themselves don’t seem to pick up on. Apparently, Harold Camping, the founder of Family Radio, has discovered coded messages in the bible and used them to calculate that May 21, 2011, is exactly 7000 years to the day since the flood sent Noah and the animals into the ark. Actually, Camping made a similar prediction almost twenty years ago, but he claims that that earlier prophecy, which had the universe scheduled to end on September 6, 1994, was based on “incomplete research.” This time, he says, he’s absolutely sure. “It’s going to happen. There is no Plan B.”[2]

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who have bought into his prophecy. NPR interviewed several who have taken to the streets to spread the gospel according to Camping. One of them, twenty-seven-year-old Adrienne Martinez, was headed to medical school until she started “tuning in to Family Radio.” After hearing Camping’s prediction, she and her husband quit everything to spend the rest of their time here on earth with their infant daughter. Describing her decision, Martinez said, “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.”[3] And she isn’t alone.

When Pittsburgh-resident Thomas Sayers walked passed another of Camping’s followers and heard the doomsday message, he was fascinated. After being told that “on May 21 at about 6 p.m., an earthquake of proportions which have never been known since man was on the Earth will occur,” Sayers replied, “This coming 21[st]?...Oh, this is going to be awesome!” He didn’t buy it. With pity in his voice, he said to the reporter, “I kind of feel bad for them because they do believe the world will end on the 21st. As a Christian, I also believe that there’s a certain date that nobody knows. I’m on the same journey they are—they just think it ends the 21st and I don’t think it does.”[4]

I think Thomas Sayers put it well. Both he and the doomsday prophet are Christians. They both believe that one day the world will end, but they have radically different understandings of when and how that will happen. As Christians, we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices that cry out to us in the name of God: street-corner prophets, late-night televangelists, even Sunday-morning preachers. Sometimes those of us in various pulpits share the same message, but often our words are diametrically opposed. How can you know which voices are articulating the Word of God and which voices are empty proclamations?

In today’s gospel lesson, we are reminded by Jesus that many of the voices we hear belong to strangers and that only one voice—that of the one who enters by the gate—belongs to the shepherd. He’s the one who knows the sheep by name and whose voice the sheep will follow. Only the one who comes to the sheep through the gate speaks with a voice that the flock recognizes. And that gate, Jesus said, is himself. Anyone who comes in through another way is a thief or a bandit—a stranger whom the sheep will not follow.

I think that’s supposed to be comforting. Jesus seems to have said that we, the flock, will recognize the voice of our shepherd and not be led astray by false prophets. But there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians and yet believe that individuals such as Harold Camping are preaching God’s word. And given that these “prophets” often say things in the name of God that sound totally contrary to my understanding of who God is, I’m not so sure Christians can always tell the difference between the voice of a stranger and the voice of the shepherd.

But misleading voices aren’t always troubling. Sometimes they can be hilarious. Last week, I came across the stand-up comedy routine of Kevin Pollak, a master of impersonations. He recalled for the audience a time when he was flipping through the channels and noticed that Alan Arkin was being interviewed on Larry King Live. Sure enough, Pollak picked up the phone and called the show, asking the producer to hide his true identity from the host. When Larry unknowingly put Kevin on the air, the comedian launched in with a flawless impersonation of Alan Arkin, producing a brief moment of total, hysterical confusion. At first, Larry King didn’t know whose voice was whose. He was looking at Alan Arkin in his studio, yet Alan Arkin’s voice was on the phone, claiming that the man sitting across the counter from the host was an imposter. Eventually, it all got sorted out, and the comedic moment concluded with the real Alan Arkin looking into the camera and saying of Kevin Pollak, “The man stole my soul.”[5]

Sometimes we can’t tell whose voice we’re listening to. And often that’s because, like Larry King, we’re caught up in a moment of confusion. Sometimes we’re stuck in a situation that has us convinced that the one speaking to us is the shepherd we know and trust when actually it’s the voice of a stranger—one who has tricked us into following him down the wrong path. That’s because we allow the world around us to define what sort of voice we’re supposed to be listening for. What is today’s world telling us? That the economy is wrecked. That uncontrollable inflation is upon us. That the political system is broken. That hose in positions of power are leading this country into ruin. That the future of our nation is bleak. That the Episcopal Church has lost its way. That the world is crashing down around us. That maybe even the universe will be destroyed in the coming months. 

How different that is from what Jesus is saying to us! Jesus said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The world is telling us to be afraid. And, when we assume that position of fear, the voices we hear are anything but the voice of the shepherd—the one who leads us into abundant life. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear suggests that God is not in control. Fear tells us that everything is spiraling into chaos. But the voice of the shepherd says, “I will take care of you. Do not be afraid.”

What voice have you been listening to? Is it the voice of the shepherd or the voice of a stranger? One way to tell is to ask yourself whether you are living in fear. You don’t have to believe that the world is coming to an end this Saturday in order to be plagued by anxiety. Whether it’s this Saturday or next Saturday or some undetermined time in the near future, if you’re living your life as if everything could come unraveled at any moment, then you haven’t heard the voice of the shepherd.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That means life to the full—overflowing, plentiful, and bounteous. That doesn’t mean that we will escape without any economic trouble or personal hardship. That’s not what an abundant life means. But it does mean that we can and should live our lives free of fear. If we know that the shepherd has come to lead us into salvation, why would we follow a voice that leads us into fear? Amen.


[1] 2011. Hagerty, B. B. “Is the end nigh? We’ll know soon enough.” Weekend Edition Saturday; NPR. 7 May 2011. Accessed at <http://www.npr.org/2011/05/07/136053462/is-the-end-nigh-well-know-soon-enough> on 13 May 2011.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] 2011. Hagerty, B.B. “Divining doomsday: An old practice with new tricks.” All Things Considered; NPR. 12 May 2011. Accessed at <http://www.npr.org/2011/05/12/136239062/divining-doomsday-an-old-practice-with-new-tricks> on 13 May 2011.
[5] 1993. “Alan Arkin on the golden age of baseball.” Larry King Live; CNN. 22 January 1993. Accessed at <http://www.alanarkinfans.com/articles/king93.txt> on 13 May 2011.

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