Sunday, May 7, 2017

Unconditional Love and Nothing Else

May 7, 2017 – The 4th Sunday of Easter
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Both of our sons are playing baseball, and I had the chance to sit through most of Sam’s t-ball game the other day. I’ve been spending more of my time on the field with Edison since I’ve been drafted as his team’s first-base coach. I’ve always wanted to be one of my kids’ coaches, so I’m making more out of this invitation than I should and taking it way more seriously than any assistant assistant coach has any right to. Our boys often have games scheduled for the same time, so I haven’t seen many of Sam’s games up close, and the first thing I noticed about this t-ball game was how intense the parents were. Every single time the ball is put into play, everyone is yelling. Whoever’s child is hitting the ball is yelling at their child to run. Whoever’s child is already on base is yelling at their child to run faster. Whoever’s children are playing defense are yelling at their children to get the ball and throw it to the circle in order to stop the play. It was amazing. Not that you don’t already know this, but these are four- and five-year-old kids whose parents are screaming as if Game 7 of the World Series were on the line.

What I noticed, however, was how much louder t-ball parents are than the parents in the older leagues. I’ve been on the field for every one of Edison’s games, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the parents yell like that. At the beginning of the season, our coach sternly told all of the parents that their job wasn’t to coach from the stands but merely to offer words of encouragement. At the time, I was only a parent, and I told myself to take those words to heart, knowing full well that it would never happen. But somehow it seems to have worked in everyone else…or so I thought. I asked Elizabeth if she had noticed this phenomenon, and she just smiled at me. “Oh, they’re yelling just as much as the parents at the t-ball field,” she explained. “You just can’t hear them.” “Are you sure?” I asked her. When she nodded, I said, “Well, maybe that’s because I’m not in the stands. Maybe I just can’t hear them on the field.” And she replied, “No, you can’t hear them because you’re yelling louder than anyone else.”

Like all parents, I have become my father. Of all the voices that were yelling out from the stands, I could always hear what my father had to say: “good eye,” “hang in there,” “way to make contact,” “wait for your pitch,” “keep your eye on the ball.” They are comments made with the best intentions—loving words of encouragement offered to remind a child what he or she was supposed to be doing. But right there is the problem. It’s what the child is “supposed” to be doing, so, instead of providing real encouragement to the kid who is struggling in the batter’s box, they only serve to increase the pressure of an already pressure-filled situation. That voice, which cuts through all the others and makes its way right into the player’s year—his father’s voice, my voice—is the one that child hears when he strikes out. That makes me wonder what I’d rather my son hear from me when he’s standing in the batter’s box.

Jesus said, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus seems to think that the only voices we hear and follow are the voices of true shepherds—that we instinctively run from those with voices we do not recognize. And, while it’s true that there is only one voice worth following, I have a lot harder time in the moment of decision figuring out which voice I’m supposed to listen to. Parents, teachers, preachers, and friends. Experts, authors, pundits, and pollsters. Journalists, newscasters, posters, and bloggers. Physicians, scientists, trendsetters, and traditionalists. How are we supposed to know which voice to follow? In a world in which all of the wolves have been wearing sheep’s clothing so long that they have forgotten that they are wolves, how do we know which voices will lead us into abundant pastures and which ones will lead us into the barren wilderness?

One of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in all of scripture is that of the Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me.” For thousands of years, the people of God had thought of themselves as God’s flock of sheep, and they had waited for the day when God himself would shepherd them “through the valley of the shadow of death” into the “green pastures” where he would pour his blessings upon them until their cup “runneth over.” That is the message that Jesus has brought to God’s people but not in this passage. That’s the rest of John 10. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus speaks not words of comfort to his disciples but words of challenge to his opponents. The real shepherds whom God sends to care for his sheep will always come through the gate. Those who try to come in another way—by climbing over the fence or sneaking around to the back—are those who seek to steal and kill the sheep. The difference, as Jesus explains in this part of the story, is the way they reach the sheep. Are they coming through the gate, which is Jesus himself, or are they breaking in another way?

The passage right before this one is a passage we read in church not long ago. It’s the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. You might recall that some controversy arose over that miraculous healing. Jesus had performed that miracle on the sabbath, and, in their minds, the religious leaders of his day faced a difficult decision. Does that make Jesus a godless lawbreaker because he sinned by doing work on the sabbath, or does it make him a God-sent prophet because he could heal a man born blind? Today’s words about the sheep gate are part of Jesus’ answer to their question. Real shepherds, he tells us, are those who come to the flock through the gate—through him, the one who leads them into the life that God has promised them—and not those who sneak in the back way to lead them away from God’s promises and into a wilderness beset by empty legalism, fruitless striving, hypocritical judgments, and false hopes.

It is a lot easier to get the attention of the sheep when you scare them, and there are plenty of would-be shepherds out there who use fear in the name of religion to attract a following. It is a lot easier to get an impassioned response from people when you preach hatred, and there are too many religious and political leaders who use the power of hate to stir up unequivocal allegiance from their followers. It is a lot easier to get people to keep coming back by telling them that they aren’t good enough without you and your program, and most churches and preachers use the damning power of guilt to fill the pews and the offering plates. But where does that lead God’s people other than the futile, fruitless place where the peace of God is always beyond our grasp—the wilderness where the Promised Land is forever beyond that next horizon?

The riskiest thing that shepherds can do is also the most liberating thing that they can do for their flock: give them Jesus. Get out of the way, and let the people hear the unadulterated, unequivocal, unconditional love that Jesus speaks to them. The message that Jesus brings to the world is the gospel of God’s no-strings-attached, I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are approval. You can’t make people feel guilty when you tell them that God loves them no matter what. You can’t make people afraid when you tell them that God’s love will always win. There is no room for hate when you tell people that God loves everyone exactly the same no matter who they are or what they do or what they say or what they believe or how they vote or who they marry. You can’t build a business by giving everything away. You can’t build a customer base by telling people that they’re already fine just the way they are. But that’s exactly how you build a church.

Amidst all the voices that fill the airways, this is the only one that leads to abundant life, and the world is desperate to hear it. I am desperate to hear it. I want to know love that has no limits. I want to know the freedom of God’s unconditional favor. I want to know Jesus. If the voices that are cutting through the noise aren’t coming through him, if they don’t start and end with the good news of grace, it’s time to tune them out. And as parents, teachers, coaches, preachers, and friends, if the words we say to others are built on anything less than the unconditional love that Jesus represents, it’s time for us to stop speaking.

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