April 21, 2024

Series: April 2024

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon




John 10:11-18
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Acts 4:5-12
5The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is
     ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
          it has become the cornerstone.’
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”


            An image came to me last week that might be helpful, particularly if you are someone who has become stuck in your faith, hung up on some aspects of religion.  It came to me that religious life is made up of layers. The image may have been prompted by our recent spring break road trip through Death Valley, a park poorly named.  There, all these gorgeous layers in the rock faces are laid bare, each representing different time periods, each telling different stories. 

           Such layers make up our religious experience too.  There’s all this stuff on the surface, readily apparent and applicable.  These are the basic lessons of the stories and teachings which are helpful guides for life:  Be charitable, look out for your neighbor, don’t steal or hurt one another, be peaceable, stand up for justice, honor God and the other, know you are loved and share that love.  Surface, but not necessarily superficial.  Go a little deeper and it starts to get a little mucky.  A longer look at some of the same stories, teachings, and traditions, lead to questions.  Wait, am I supposed to believe that?  I don’t know if I buy this?  At this level, some people opt out, having become stuck; they leave altogether or go back to the surface.  If you can work your way through it, however, you may discover another layer altogether, one that reveals the truth behind the teachings, the Word behind the words. This is more experiential than something that can be easily articulated, a knowing beyond our usual ways of knowing. What you experience there redefines everything above it, making the muck less bothersome. 

            Today’s passages are perfect grounds on which to get stuck.  John’s Gospel talks of “one flock, one shepherd,” which rings of exclusivity.  This is the same John which contains that infamous line, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6).  That, of course, all depends on how you understand “me,” but we’ll get to that later.  The Acts passage concludes of Christ, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  What to do?

            We must be honest and acknowledge there is a flavor of exclusivity, a pledging of allegiance to Christ above all else, and there is some value in that clarity, especially for a newly formed people figuring out who they are. However, as Rabbi Kushner puts it, such religious proclamations are more claims of loyalty than of objective truth. He says we say our religion is the best in the same way we might say our spouse is the best, though, of course, in my case this is true.[1]  Homiletician Tom Long takes it a step further, pointing out this passage really means the opposite of what a superficial reading would suggest:

The final verse of today’s text…is often used to divide people into two camps: those who are for Jesus and those who are not for Jesus.  While the author of Acts certainly believes that God has acted decisively and uniquely in Jesus Christ, the function of this text is the opposite of division.  The purpose of this passage, instead, is to announce that no human being or human authority can erect a religious tent--a temple or a church or a movement--and say, ‘Unless you come into my tent, you cannot have God.’  God has acted on behalf of the whole humanity in Jesus Christ, and there is ‘no other name,’ no human channel, that can make exclusive claim to religious power--no denomination, no one theology, no sect, no franchise on the power of the Spirit.’

           It’s ironic, then, when Jesus is positioned as a control valve on access to God or truth or eternity, when Jesus is the very one who snatches that gatekeeping power once and for all from those who would seek to control it!  To borrow John’s imagery, every human institution is a “hired-hand,” potentially helpful, as I hope this one is, but ultimately only able to point to the true Great Shepherd who cares for the sheep in a way no hired-hand can.  You wouldn’t build a community based on rejecting others when your foundation is the rejected one! 

           Do you see how easily one can get stuck in the muck and leave before discovering the depths of these teachings?  Jesus is not there to keep people from God.  Jesus is wholly in sync with the one he calls Father and is showing us a path to be similarly so.  To use the image, as we have before, of Ilia Delio, Jesus is the unified one, one with God, and shows us how we can be too.  I know the father and the father knows me (Jn. 10:15).  This is the deep mystical layer that redefines everything.

            In Acts the Apostles are, at least at times, acting out of this same mystical union with God which enables them to engage in all kinds of healing left and right, acting outside the traditional power and authority structures.  It’s not a confining story, a limiting one; it’s a liberating, an empowering story that says the Spirit can move where it will, and we too can participate with it to offer healing, liberation, and justice.

            I was trying to think of a story or example to illustrate this kind of mystical knowing or experience of God, the kind that redefines our understanding of the world.  The best I can come up with is what we experienced last week with the eclipse.  It was amazing how particularly those in the path of totality—there’s a word for you—described experiencing the eclipse in spiritual terms, especially the scientists.  So many were brought to tears, led to pontificate about our shared fragile place in this universe, about our fundamental oneness in this world’s endeavor.  To those outside the path of totality, it may have been hard to understand, even silly, which is one mark of observing someone else experience a mystical union. It’s not something that can be described in a way that’s entirely compelling to someone outside the experience. 

            When you’re in it, however, the reaction is visceral and transformative. In conjunction with the eclipse, a spiritual teacher I follow shared a video of a man who set up a telescope out on the streets of Los Angeles, pointed at the moon.  Passersby were immediately drawn to it.  One by one, he invited them to take a look, and one by one they just blurted out one of three basic responses.  The first was, “Oh my God,” interesting that so many people would turn to God language when glimpsing the awesome.  The second,” “What?!”  They couldn’t believe what they were seeing, stretching their normal view of things as they saw craters clear as day, the moon looking close enough to touch.  Three, “Wow,” the ultimate expression that they are experiencing something beyond words. 

           That place beyond words, that experience of oneness or wonder, that’s the deep stuff, that’s where you want to get.  You get there by putting yourself in the path of awe, of totality, of beauty, which you can also experience in the ugliest of conditions.  This is not just about taking a vacation to some expensive exotic place. The act of helping someone in need, of giving yourself over in love to serve in the midst of ugliness.  It’s really about presence as much as setting.  The masters find it washing the dishes.  I am not yet a master.

            I don’t want you to get stuck in the muck of religious life and lose you.  I also don’t want you to disregard middle mucky layer altogether, where the questions and doubts come in.  It’s in their churning and turning over that the new life can be born.  As I explored this image of layers, I thought there must be an ecological parallel. Wouldn’t you know, there is.  Just this week, I came across an article entitled “The Climate Benefits of Mud” from the BBC.  It described how mud and bogs function as giant carbon sinks, handling what could otherwise be damaging to our collective life.  It transforms it into useful ground for growth.[2]  All from the muck!  The spiritual muddy places are often the places that ultimately lead you to those really deep places because they force you to abandon old structures to which you cling.  Don’t be afraid of the muck.

            Take the Gospel of John.  It’s apparent exclusivity gets sticky fast.  However, sinking into it exposes instead a path to a great universalism, or better phrased a universal recognition of the divine in the other, the very opposite of what we may have thought John was about.  “No one comes to the Father except through me” totally changes, once you’ve had an experience of the universal love or light that is the “me” at the heart of all reality.  That changes how you view the rest of the teachings.

            Celtic Christianity, which is especially animated by the Gospel of John, leans into this truth.  In Christ of the Celts, John Philip Newell tells this story:

A number of years ago, I delivered a talk in Ottawa, Canada…I referred especially to the prologue of the gospel of John and his words concerning 'the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world' (John 1:9). I was inviting us to watch for that Light within ourselves, in the whole of our being, and to expect to glimpse that Light at the heart of one another and deep within the wisdom of other traditions. At the end of the talk, a Mohawk elder, who had been invited to comment on the common ground between Celtic spirituality and the native spirituality of his people, stood with tears in his eyes. He said, 'As I have listened to these themes, I have been wondering where I would be today. I have been wondering where my people would be today. And I have been wondering where we would be as a Western world today if the mission that came to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find the Light in us.' "[3]

           Let me close with my own indigenous illustration.  I mentioned at the outset that Death Valley is a terribly chosen name for a sacred plot of land.  To the Timbisha Shoshone people, who still live there, it was full of life.  Their name means “rock paint” because of the gorgeous red rock found there in the layers and sometimes used for paint. Before Europeans arrived, the Shoshone accommodated the intense heat and dryness by inhabiting and gardening its fertile valley in the winter and then moving to higher cooler grounds in the summer.  When the “settlers” came, they imposed rules, which exist to this day, that require the Shoshone to inhabit their homes in the valley year round or lose them, even though the valley is hardly habitable in the summer especially with much of their water diverted away. 

            What a metaphor for the religious life.  Death comes by staying in one place.  We need layers.  We need the surface understandings of teachings that give us basic guidance for life. Sometimes those breakdown and need to be reconsidered, so we need the questioning and deconstructing what doesn’t make sense.  That can be a disorienting place, but if we’re open, and sometimes even when we’re not, we can encounter this presence we can’t quite explain, but somehow grounds us in a deeper reality.  We need the depths of mystical or direct experience of God or the divine that nobody else can control, though we can’t stay there forever; we have to do the laundry, pay the bills.  Each layer has gifts to offer.  What we really need is to learn to move through these layers, up and down, as life’s seasons require.  In doing so, we come to an ever-greater understanding of what it means to live well on this sacred land. 





[3]John Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation.