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the whole story

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Since today marks Ginger and my thirty-fourth wedding anniversary, I thought I would start my sermon with a story from the early years of our marriage. It’s actually a story about Ginger and our friend Cherry, who lived with us at the time in our little row house in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. It was so long ago, that they were watching a movie on our VCR.

You remember those, right?

The movie they were going to watch was Casino, a Martin Scorsese picture, and it took up two tapes. They opened the box, put the top tape in the machine, and the movie started without any credits or introduction. Ginger and Cherry thought it was just avant-garde film making, so they kept watching. When they got to the end of the tape, the credits began to roll. It was then they realized they had started in the middle of the movie, and became quite amused with themselves.

I tell you that story because that is exactly what we are doing this morning. For us to assume the story starts with Jesus saying he is the good shepherd is to start with the second tape. The story begins in chapter nine when Jesus and his followers come upon a blind man and the disciples ask, “Who sinned to make this man to be born blind—him or his parents?”

They assumed guilt was involved. It had to be someone’s fault. To show you how senseless the question is, how could an unborn child have done something worthy of being blinded?

Jesus answered quickly to say no one was to blame. That wasn’t the point. “Neither he nor his parents,” he said. “So that God’s mighty works might be displayed, we must do the works of God who sent me. I am the light of the world.” (another metaphor)

Then he healed the man, who then went to the synagogue to share his good news. The problem was it was the sabbath and some of those more committed to a gospel of guilt were angry that Jesus had “worked” to heal the man, and then annoyed that the man was so exuberant about the whole thing. The thing keeps swirling for the whole chapter with the annoyed ones finally asking Jesus why he thought he could offer that kind of healing, the now-sighted man becoming a follower, and Jesus speaking in metaphors—and that’s where we join the story.

To people convinced that the real power of religion was to condemn and shame, Jesus said, “I am the gate to the that opens to the sheep so they can find safety and nurture,” and then (our verses), “I am the good shepherd—or the real shepherd—whose sheep know my voice and know they belong, whoever they are.”

Instead of Jesus speaking as though he were writing text for a line of encouraging greeting cards, his words about shepherding were both incisive, speaking to a moment when a lot was at stake—and all of it said in front of the man who had gone from a lifetime of blindness and inferred shame, to the exuberance of seeing, to the pain of being excluded by those he expected to share in his joy, to coming back to Jesus who took him in as his own.

Psalm 23 has a similar context. The psalm before it begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—words Jesus quoted during his crucifixion. It begins as a prayer of desperation, even desolation, but then moves to where the psalmist could sing, “God is my shepherd,” and then on to Psalm 24, which begins, “The earth is God’s and everything in it.”

John’s gospel moves from Jesus’ words about being a shepherd to his calling Lazarus out of the tomb after he had been dead four days—another picture of hopelessness that was changed by Jesus’ words and actions. In the middle of it all, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

In these three chapters, Jesus made four strong statements about himself, all metaphors:

I am the light of the world;
I am the gate to the sheep fold;
I am the shepherd;
I am the resurrection and the life.

Even for a metaphor enthusiast like me, that’s a lot to take in. Yet, seen together they present a powerful statement of love and hope and belonging. Whether our blindness is literal or figurative, whether the wolves are real or just in our minds, whether we have been ostracized or we just feel disconnected, whether we are grieving an actual death or dying inside, we are not alone: God’s love does not let us go.

Those are easier words to say than they are to trust, I suppose. How do we know we are not alone? That’s a question that is answered by stories, not by a proclamation from the pulpit. Sometimes those stories are as dramatic as the blind man being given his sight, sometimes they are as basic as getting help to get through the day—the way a shepherd helps the sheep find their way home. Perhaps one way we can hear Jesus’ metaphors is less as huge statements and more along the lines of however it is that we feel found or recognized or embraced, God is in the middle of it.

You know the stories that make it true, so I’ll say it again: We are not alone; God’s love never lets us go. That’s the whole story. Let’s tell it every chanced we get. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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