Sunday, May 15, 2011

Follow the Leader

A sermon for Easter 4a, May 15, 2011, John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-47
Occasion: Confirmation Class, Celebration of 50 year and 70 year members, Amendment 10-a

Sheepfold. Gate. Thief and bandit.
Shepherd. Gatekeeper. Sheep.

I’m confused. Is Jesus the shepherd or the gate?
Did the thieves and bandits climb over the fence or just shout?
Is the shepherd ahead of the sheep or with the thieves and the bandits?
Where’s Little Bo Peep?

We in the 21st century like answers not analogies and so we tend to arrive at pasages like this as if we’re part of CSI – Criminal Shepherd Investigators (duh).

How do we avoid the thieves and the bandits?
If even Jesus cannot decide if he is the voice, the shepherd or the gate, what chance do we have?
What are we supposed to hear?

One of my friend’s parishioners told her that she grew up on a farm and they had a pet lamb called “Baa baa”. This is what happens when you allow your 3 year old to name your pet lamb.
Another reason to not allow your 3 year old to name your lamb is because you no longer have the heart to make it dinner and instead it becomes a pet.

They soon moved from the farm and had to leave the sheep with a sheep farmer. When the little girl and her father would go to visit they would be looking out at hundreds of sheep, but her father would calmly call, “Baa, baa” and that one sheep came running to him. Over all of the chaos going on around her, the sheep knew the shepherd’s voice.

This week a rarity in our denomination ocurred in that in addition to all of the other voices clamoring to get our attention the secular media joined in, calling attention to our denomination by name. Was The New York Times trumpeting our disaster assistance teams already in place throughout Tennesse, Louisiana, and other areas hit by massive flooding? No.

Was the Wall Street Journal touting the precentage of expendable income that members of the PCUSA give to non-profits? No.

The Associated Press was reporting on one of today’s hot button issues, namely that the PCUSA has voted to remove the ordination standard that was used to keep those who are in committed, same gender relationships from serving in the ordained positions of deacon, elder and Minister of the Word and Sacrament.

The official language that will be placed in the Book of Order is this:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G‐1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G‐ 14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W‐4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

Just hearing those words, it may seem hard to understand what all the noise is about. A lot of it sounds good:
Submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ,
Examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation and suitabilty for the responsibilities,
Guided by Scripture and the confessions.

But it is controversial, not for what it says but because of what it doesn’t say. Not included in this new amendment are some very particular words that were approved by the General Assembly in 1996 and then ratified by 55% of the presbyteries, “Those who are called to office in the church are… to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.”

“It made explicit what had been implicit for many years before, that being gay and ordained was not okay1.” There have been a lot of voices heard over it and this cacaphony of grassroots movements for and against has been going on since 1978 – almost my entire lifetime.

That’s a lot of yelling.

If only we could be more like the early church – the one in Acts:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sounds nice and calm and peaceful and… quiet, right?

Except that this is the glossy brochure version of the early church. It’s the picture with the sound turned down because as the Adult Sunday School class knows you don’t have to go too much farther in Acts to see the VH1 Behind the Music version of the early church.

Two of their members, a husband and wife team, Ananias and Sapphira sold property and then lied about how much money they made (5:1-11). That didn’t go well for them. Then food was being distributed unfairly and the office of deacon was created to make sure that didn’t happen again (6:1-7). And the big question that nearly divided the early church was over circumcision as Gentiles wanted to be baptized as Christians but did not want to be circumcised first (10). (You’d better believe the men let their voices be heard on that one!)

So you see, not only is disagreement nothing new, it is downright Biblical.

One of the symbols of the office of Moderator of the PCUSA is a cross. It’s uniqueness is noticeable right away as you realize it is actually three celtic crosses riveted together. The crosses were bought in Iona in 1949 and then given to the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in North America. These three branches represented a split over slavery and other issues. The schism those divided voices created took 145 years to heal when in 1983 the three crosses were handed over as one to the 1st Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I vaguely remember the celebrations over the reunification of the Presbyterian Church. What I really remember is that it never, ever ocurred to me that I could not be a Minister of the Word and Sacrament. I grew up with numerous associate pastors who were women, some who were men, a youth director who was a woman… the thought that some may have an issue with women in ministry never even entered my head.

But today we celebrate our 50 and 70 year members and they probably remember. They witnessed the angry voices surrounding the 1956 decision to ordain the first woman in the Presbyterian Church as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament; that moment came 124 years from the time an amendment was passed forbidding the leadership of women.

So actually we are a lot like the early church. There’s just more of us, covering a larger span and with over 30,000 Christian denominations we have gotten louder and even more divisive.

So why even try to find what unites us. Why bother?

Listen to the voice of the Shepherd: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). There are no disclaimers there. There are no conflicting voices. There are no divisive categories. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Gay and straight.
Strong and weak.
Sad and joyful.
Faithful and sinful.
Graced and searching.
Young and old.
Married, single, divorced and widowed…

The Voice calls us to what unites us and points us to what will strengthen us if we stop with the yelling… and listen.

My friend and lectionary group colleague Michael Kirby wrote earlier this week:
“A brighter morning dawns on a new day in our little part of the church...and the hungry still need to be fed, the refugees still long for a home, the flood victims are still undone by loss and shock, the lonely and wandering still need to experience love and hospitality, and the oppressed and addicted still long for freedom. So back to it…”

It is our faith in Him that unites us,
work in His kingdom that strengthens us,
and hope in His peace that sustains us.


50 year members, 70 year members, confirmation class and members of the congregation:
Who is your Lord and Savior?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
I do.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
I do.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple obeying his Word and showing his love?
I will.

It is our faith in Him that unites us,
work in His kingdom that strengthens us,
and hope in His peace that sustains us.

These questions embody the voice of The Shepherd.
These answers embody the unity of the church.

The peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.


1. Anna Pinckney Straight. The Church of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. A sermon preached for University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC. May 15, 2011.

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