I don’t usually post sermons here, but this one was interesting because although it had a single point to make, the round about route and variety of images meant those who heard it or read it reacted to very different parts of it. This reminded me that it is the same in the stories we tell, perhaps even the poems we write. It is true that some events or images may take us too far from the main arc of the story, but the richness of texture can provide a variety of entry points.
On another note, before I provide this particular sermon, my daughter often writes about what Chimamanda Nzozi Adichie calls “The Danger of a Single Story.” Check out the blog “Unfinished Stories” at unfinishedstories.net to ponder the importance of telling complex stories about poverty and development.
But here is this sermon which I would not have given as an example of great preaching except for the way to reached the farmer and the intellectual, the activist and the contemplative…..I wonder….
There is a book that comes back up in popularity from time to time called In His Steps. It’s the story of a minister who challenges himself and his church to enter every situation asking, “What would Jesus do here?” It is a transformative experience for them to try to imitate the steps of Jesus.
Imagine going through a day doing what Jesus would do. We would talk to the person other’s avoid. We would speak with love not anger to the person who cut in front of us in the grocery line, or took our parking space or our promotion. We would speak of what we know of God’s vision and hope at a lunch break at work when the topic of the election comes up. We would take time apart everyday just to pray, to sit aware of God’s presence.
If we set out each day to do as Jesus would do, we would be like the followers Jesus described, the sheep who hear the shepherds voice and follow.
That isn’t exactly what my sheep do. When they are on the pasture and I call, they run away. So to get them to go to the barn, I have to get behind them and then shout. In the winter, when they hear our footsteps or our voices, they start to bellow, calling us to come and feed them. When we put down grain, they trample us to gobble as much as they can before the others get their share. As church people, we tend to be more like my sheep. We call on God to fix things for us. We demand our share of God’s help. We hide when God needs someone to take on the tough tasks.
Shepherding in Jesus’ day with the shepherd living among the sheep was a better model for discipleship. It was the shepherd’s voice that kept the flock together, where we use fences. The shepherd would move the flock from place to place for fresh grass and water. The sheep had to follow the shepherd. If we practiced listening for Jesus’ voice every minute of the day, if we watched for his footprints and followed them, we would act more like he would have acted; we would be better disciples. At least as far as our behaviour went.
Jesus’ followers were somewhat confused by what he said here. Part of that might be that shepherds were not admired in their day—they lived among their sheep, remember. They were thought of as unclean, in a rather literal sense. Part of it was the people still expected Jesus to point to the law of Moses, to show them how to do a better job of following the law. They still were not used to the idea that he was pivotal.
So they get even more confused when he goes on to say, “I am the door for the sheep. The sheep must go in and out through me.” Generally speaking, I agree with them that I haven’t got a clue what he is talking about when he says, I am the door; go in and out again through me. I know one of the standard interpretations of this line is that Jesus is the way into God’s family, but he says “you will go in and out,” so that interpretation does not quite cut it.
But I started reading Carl Jung on Alchemy as research for a story I want to tell, and he talks about the dangers of our modern, protestant way of imitating Christ. We think that we just need to do as Christ would do, act as Christ would act, but that puts the religious transformation outside us never touching our inner spirit or mind.
What would it mean to think as Jesus’ would think, to feel as Jesus would feel?
Obviously Jung is more interested in our psyche, what goes on inside our heart and head, but it occurred to me that this might help make sense of what Jesus says here. He is the door to go in and out; he is the path to change our actions and heal our spirits.
If we think about forgiveness, this makes sense. If we say, “I forgive you,” the person who hurt us feels better and senses that the relationship is restored. But if we do not feel the forgiveness, if we hold on to the resentment, the hurt, the relationship is not restored. We might hide it from the other person for a while, but the feeling we hold on to will poison the relationship. On the other hand, if we just let go of the hurt inside us and never tell the person we forgive them, they will keep their distance from us. We have to find the feeling of forgiveness and express it; we have to do both the inner and the outer work.
It is the same with anger. It matters if we speak in an angry way, but it also matters if we feel anger but speak in a loving supportive way. If we hide really well, the relationship may be fairly whole, but our inner self will be torn by the discontinuity.We need to deal with the anger not just bury it.
A modern therapist might say we should express our anger, let the other person know we are angry, get it out. But I don’t think that is what Jesus modelled; that just makes the other person responsible for our emotion. Instead, we need to see what it is in the world that makes us angry and understand if it is wrong or if we are hurt by something because of our own pride or desire. If it is wrong—as the tables of the moneychangers in the temple were wrong—we do something about it. If it is our own pride, we deal with our pride. We address what is outside us and what is inside us in order to find the path away from anger to love, in order to find healing and wholeness.
For Jung, the path to healing means holding together the opposites of good and evil, which are real. It takes a kind of crucifixion. For Jesus, the path to love and servanthood required the crucifixion. For Paul, the path to life in Christ required that he be crucified with Christ. To live in God’s grace, to live the life of Christ, he had to die to the old ways and live in Christ. This was not a kind of self-immolation, a way of beating yourself up until you learn. Rather, it is the path of inward and outward healing over time, maybe a long time. It is letting the grace of God guide our actions and heal our inner turmoil.
Paul spoke of living in grace. For me this suggests we can live in God’s presence in a way that it is God’s grace that fills our spirits and inspires our actions, fills our actions.
As we think of our families, our current relationships as well as our birth families, we can identify places where there is hurt and places where there is joy. We can identify mistakes we’ve made, mistakes others made. We know where there is enduring hurt, and where there are gifts of love.
Jesus provides a model for how to live our relationships in a stronger, more loving way. It does help if we act in the way he would act if he were in our shoes. But being attentive to God’s grace also means our hurt can be healed so that we feel more as Jesus would feel, think more like he would think. Being in God’s grace is more like being Jesus than being like Jesus. I don’t mean that we are usurping his place, but that we are letting the imitation of Christ be an inward as well as an outward experience; we let God’s Spirit into our spirits so that we can live from that place.
If we think about the ministry of Jesus, he did not just want people to act in the right way. He spent much of his time healing people. That healing is still the gift God would offer us by the power of the spirit.