Text: John 10:1-18, Title: tension

I attended my second Annual Recreation Workshop, in Montreat, North Carolina, back in 1998. Before the conference there was a creative writing seminar that I, along with about 8 others, decided to attend. Just out of college and a newly appointed youth director, I was the youngest in this group and also lacked much of the experience of my counterparts.

Throughout the daylong seminar, my particular form of creativity had caused me some undue embarrassment. But towards the end of our time together, we began talking about the use of stories in creative worship.

Excitedly, I told to the group that our youth had created a worship service with another youth group from an African-American Presbyterian Church. Towards the end of my explanation, I mentioned that we had used a poem from the popular children’s writer, Shel Silverstein.

At the mention of his name, the room grew silent and this look of righteous indignation came across the face of a woman twice my age. I can still see her face contort into this twisted mass of flesh as she spit out the words, “Your church let you use the poetry of an atheist in your worship service?” I didn’t know how to respond, so I said nothing, and the words just simmered in my mind every time I encountered her during the week. In fact, I it wasn’t until I was on my way back to Charleston that I finally came up with a worthy response. But it was too little, too late. So instead, you get to hear my response today, one that is seven years in the making…

The scripture we just read has often been interpreted as a “my way or the highway” kind of passage. And for that reason, I believe Christians of all stripes have abused it for a number of years. Conservatives generally pick one part of it and use it exclude others who don’t believe the same thing they do. Liberals pick the other side and seek to include everyone, sometimes watering down the importance of the life of Jesus. Today, I would like for us to pick neither side and both sides at the same time.

Scholars believe that in the context of this passage, the sheep Jesus talks about are Jews and Gentiles. One of the questions I have, and there are many, is who are the modern day Jews and Gentiles?

Secondly, modern interpretations of this passage, for conservatives and liberals alike, have centered on salvation. I think we may be wrong about that.

When we choose that form of interpretation, we open ourselves to another series of questions, such as: are we willing to guess, to put words in God’s mouth, to tell God who is in and who is out? Are we willing to forsake the entirety of the Gospel witness of Jesus Christ for this saying?

When I think about the framework of modern interpretations, the only answer I can find is, yes.

And thus, I believe we have taken these words out of the broader context of the canon and used them to hurt, to malign, and to separate ourselves from one another. In other words, this has become a passage about arrogance and superiority rather than a passage about the witness of Jesus Christ in the world.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of this type of interpretation; I am tired of the rhetoric that accompanies it; and I am tired of the millennialism that dominates the interpretation of Scripture in public Christianity. I think it time for us to reframe and re-imagine these words, and thus re-interpret them for the modern world.

What would you think if I told you that I believe this has nothing to do with who goes to heaven? What would you think if I said that I believe this passage has nothing to do with salvation? What would you think if I said that I think this passage could be interpreted faithfully without seeming exclusive? It might sound too good to be true, and in the end it may be, but let’s give it a go anyway.

It is an interesting thing, doing research on sheep. Most of the stories I found marvel in their lack of intelligence. They talk about sheep as being merely followers in life, not thinking for themselves but looking at what the crowd is doing and wandering along.

Farmers say that if you take the leader away from a pack of sheep, they won’t move. They could follow the same route to pasture for years, but if the leader is suddenly removed, they forget how to get there. This is especially true for young sheep. Most of the stories I read say that sheep under the age of two have the mental capacity of a brick, those over the age of two have the capacity of an intelligent brick.

But what amazes the farmers is the sheep’s capacity to remember voices. My wife, who spent a great deal of her childhood on a farm, often tells stories of the lamb she raised after its mother died. This lamb would come running when she heard the sound of her voice. That sheep would rarely listen to anything else, but it could hear her and come when called. However, despite that amazing devotion to one voice, being called a sheep isn’t the grandest of compliments from the one we choose to call Savior.

In order to interpret our passage today, we must begin with the sheep. We are sheep who graze within a larger flock, people who live amongst other people. Think about all of the differences we display daily. We are black, red, yellow, brown, and white. We are European, African, South American, Slavic, Middle Eastern, Australian, North American, and so on.

We are, as individual sheep, one amongst many who live and breathe and move in the same pasture. And like the little lamb that my wife raised, we hear the voice of one particular shepherd, and we come when we are called. Now, does the fact that we answer to this particular shepherd, make any of the other sheep less important? Does it make them less than sheep? I don’t really think so.

Even Jesus, later on in this passage states that there are sheep that do not belong to this fold. They are still sheep, they have the same characteristics, same tendencies, they just hear a different voice when they are called out to pasture.

That said, there are two important ideas that we must understand if we are going to re-imagine this passage for the 21st century. The first, I think, can be explained this way.

There have been a lot of fights and fears recently concerning the words “one nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance. People bicker back and forth over four words that really hold little meaning in today’s culture, and that actually were tacked on after the original version was written.

Ironically, we are fighting about the words, one nation under God. And, if we are fighting about them, then are we really “one nation?”

And here is the first concept, if you want to make a real and radical statement about God, then one nation is not enough, instead we should be reading “one world under God.” If we truly believe that God is the God of this world, then we cannot limit God to one nation, one people, one race, one sex, and maybe even one religious dogma. God must be higher than all human constructs in order for God to be worthy of worship.

Additionally, God is the God of all the sheep in the pen, and just because we listen to Jesus as our good shepherd, doesn’t mean that all of the other sheep are forgotten.

This leads us into idea number two: reconciliation with God is Jesus’ business. If we look at the statements in this passage, Jesus states that “I must bring them also, they will listen to my voice.”

Almost every major religion today makes room for the voice of Jesus. For us, Jesus is Lord and Savior, for Jewish people Jesus is a great rabbi and teacher, for Muslims Jesus is a witness and prophet of God, for Hindus Jesus is a Sadhu, a holy man who preached about God’s love and walked in humble non-violent ways in the world. Buddhism makes room for Jesus’ voice through his endurance of suffering and again his non-violent ways.

Now, granted, these are gross over-simplifications of their points of view, but the issue at hand is this, it is Jesus’ responsibility to make his voice known to other sheep outside the fold, and he has done so. Our responsibility, on the other hand, is to treat all other sheep like sheep. To love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

When we interpret this passage through the lenses of these two ideas one message seems to fit. We are called into a community with all of the sheep in the world.

Basically, if God is God of all, then who can escape? We are all called from the same pen, and we all have the same owner.

Does God care more for us because we hear the voice of Jesus and come running?

Do we really want to believe that we are more special than those sheep that do not wander over to the familiar voice of our good shepherd?

Do we really want to stand behind a God that grants special favors to particular sheep, just because they might bleat the loudest or follow more quickly?

I think or I hope that what most people want, is to believe in a God that believes in us. A God who looks down upon the world and sees the joy and pain and hope and sorrow and remembers who we are and is present in all times and places.

I think we want to believe in a God that sees the world in its entirety as well as each individual that inhabits it.

I think we want to believe in a God that is continually working beside, behind, and in front of us to bring about a peaceful world where sheep no longer need to fear and separate themselves, but can instead live knowing that we are all one community under God.

This does not absolve us from listening when our good shepherd calls, because that is how our particular flock gains access to life and life abundantly. We live within the tradition that hears the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, therefore, within that history of being called we must answer and answer responsibly. We are not to bemoan our calling, nor are we to be haughty, we are simply called to behave like sheep surrounded by other sheep. We are love one another as we love ourselves.

I began this sermon with a story about a woman who was aghast at the audacity we displayed by reading the poem of an atheist in worship.

First things first, Shel Silverstein was a non-practicing Jewish person as best I can tell. I spent all week researching his life, trying to find out if what she told me was true. As far as I can tell, he was not an atheist.

The second thing, even if he were an atheist, I would use his poetry anyway. Not out of spite, but because it is good and it speaks to the heart of who we are as people. So for the second time, I am going to use a Shel Silverstein poem in worship, and I am going to use the same one I used seven years ago on that Youth Sunday.

As we close with the words of his poem, I cannot help but grin on the inside at the irony of what he has written and how that conversation seven years ago went.

The title of the poem is: No Difference

Small as a peanut
Big as a giant,
We’re all the same size
When we turn off the light.
Red, black or orange,
Yellow or white
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.
So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to just reach out
And turn off the light



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