It consumes our time and our energy almost from the moment we’re born. Hazel knows all about it! Aiden, Gretchen, Gus, Helene and Jillian are already old pros. It’s the driving force—the motivation behind so much of our behavior—so many of our choices—filling our dreams—before we ever even know to name it: the desire—or the need to belong. It goes back to our very beginnings, it is not good to be alone (Genesis 2:18). And the Bible is full of stories of people who do and who don’t belong—full of stories about what it means to belong and what it means not to belong.
It’s the powerful strength of that desire (to belong—to be recognized, known and appreciated) that can lead us to make dangerous compromises—that can lead us to make poor choices—to value peers over values that disappear—to choose someone who is not right just to have someone right now. It’s how much we want to belong that can lead us to settle for belonging to the wrong group.
So here’s the sermon in a sentence: God comes to you and says you belong, and it’s up to you, amidst all the noise, to recognize that voice—to recognize truth in that voice. And it’s up to us as a congregation to teach each other and to encourage each other to wait for the voice we recognize—to hold out for the voice we recognize as coming from one who cares about us so very deeply.
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” Obviously—obviously the author here did not have children! And doesn’t know Teddy, Connor, Bennett and Sam. And I say that not just with the amusement due a child’s utter disdain for conventional entrances and exits (especially given the opportunity for climbing over, clambering through or sliding under), but also with some sense that that’s an important observation. The Bible—Jesus—says anyone who doesn’t enter by the gate is a thief. And we know that’s not true.
The problem lies in our tendency to take what sound like absolutes in Scripture as absolutes and make a point of something that’s beside the point. Because the point here is so not that everyone is either a thief or a bandit (entering other than by the gate) or the shepherd of the sheep (who enters by the gate), but rather, simply, that thieves and shepherds are so very very different—one caring for the sheep, and one wanting to exploit them for personal gain. And it’s important to know that. So we have a generalization presented as an absolute to make this point—to mark this contrast.
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice—who calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” We know that. We know not to follow strangers, right? Not to listen to a stranger’s voice calling. Christina and Daniel, Henry, Isaiah and Julia all know that!
Remember the sermon in a sentence? God comes to you and says you belong, and it’s up to you, amidst the noise, to recognize that voice—to recognize truth in that voice. It’s up to us as a congregation to teach each other and encourage each other to wait for the voice we recognize—to hold out for the voice we recognize as coming from one who cares about us so very deeply and doesn’t just want to exploit us—use us. As simple as that sounds, it’s a hard lesson. It’s often hard to discern who cares about me and who doesn’t—who just cares about him or herself. That’s not just something we want William and Jacob to learn, nor just our graduating high school seniors (as important as it is for for Audrey, Beth, James, Jon, Katie and Mark to know, heading off to college). It’s also something the parents of our graduating seniors and our children all need to remember, right? Wait for and recognize the voice of the one who truly cares.
And part of what we have going on in the way of Jesus is all kinds of recognition, right? The shepherd recognizes the right sheepfold. The gatekeeper recognizes the shepherd. The sheep recognize the sound of the shepherd’s voice. There’s a shared history here. They have all gotten to know each other. An integral part of be-long-ing has more to do with a commitment in and through time than any particular moment in time. Even if it’s just belonging to a pool, it’s more about the summer than any one moment—any one experience. And we’ve grown up with Alison and Charlie, Chrissie, Emma, Josh, Katie, Killian, Sarah and Wyatt. We share in their lifetime of stories. We recognize them. They recognize us.
Little digression here now. I want you to think about how much of what’s popular on TV—in the media—taps into this sense of belonging—this sense of community. Whether it’s Gilligan’s Island, Cheers, Friends or How I Met Your Mother. Whether it’s Star Trek, Star Wars, Star Gate or Firefly, Little House on the Prairie, the Waltons, Modern Family, Brothers and Sisters, one of the CSI’s, Law and Orders, Blue Bloods. Community is a key dimension to them all—and to the appeal of any one of them. People who have your back. People who are there for you. What else do you watch about people living life together—depending on each other, enjoying each other’s company, working through and supporting each other through conflict? Think Disney, think Harry Potter, think Rick Riordan. Think sports. If you like it, I’m betting, more often than not, there’s this communal dimension to it.
The importance of that communal dimension in popular media is part of the sermon made manifest in marketing! And so we need to help each other (even as we enjoy this desire made manifest in popular culture)—we need to help each other remain aware of how such a deep-rooted longing can so easily be manipulated.
“Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” It may be presumptuous to assume we do know what Jesus was saying, but we’ve been talking this morning about belonging. (cue music @ 0:02) We go together like—you know, I looked this up. I practiced it. I still can’t say it. “We go together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga a dong remembered forever like shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom chang chang chang-it-ty chang shoo-bop that’s the way it should be wha oooh yeah!” (http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/g/grease8951/wegotogether302647.html) (quick fade) I’m not even going to try! We go together … remembered forever … that’s the way it should be. Part of the sermon made manifest in a song—a song we hope Alec, Isabel, Josh, Lillian, Maggie, Meghan, Sam, and Sydney all know. We go together. Always will. That’s the way it should be.
“So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.’” Now that’s somewhat odd, don’t you think? Somewhat unexpected. The contrast made and developed has been between the thief and the shepherd and now Jesus is the gate? What’s up with that? Not personal. Not relational. But the way of Jesus is the way thieves and bandits avoid. The way of Jesus is the way by which people who care enter. The way of Jesus is not the way of those who care only about themselves. The way of Jesus is the way in and out for the sheep themselves.
“Whoever enters by me will be saved [shepherds—shepherds enter through the gate—shepherds and sheep, right?]—whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find green pastures—find still waters—find comfort, restoration, no fear of evil. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came [the good gate—just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it—as the good shepherd?]—I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Again the contrast between a concern for others and the desire to exploit others. Jesus came as the way to abundance—and the entrace into abundance is the entrance into community—to belonging. And isn’t that the abundance we pray for Amelia, for Audra and Nathan, for Henry, Jordan, and Philip?
Some of our children and youth are studying the story of Bartimaeus who didn’t belong in Jericho. He was sitting outside the city. He was different. He was excluded. He was blind. But he recognized Jesus’s voice. He heard the sound of Jesus’ voice, and he followed Jesus on the way (Mark 10:46-52). He belonged and he knew it.
Having pondered belonging this past week, I’d like to suggest two considerations this morning. One, if I belong to something or with someone, then I understand the mutuality of expectation. I have legitimate expectations of them; they have legitimate expectations of me. And two, I want to suggest to you that when we belong, we have something—someone—a reason—we have a reason that unifies us—keeps us together—regardless of all that would divide and separate us.
Our culture, more and more, begins to identify the reason for unity not as an overriding priority, but as the lack of things that would divide and separate us. Profound difference. And so we see more and more groups gathering defined by their similarity: whether that’s politically, theologically, educationally, socio-economically, ethnically: we belong together because we’re alike. Ask Andrew, Lara, Hannah, Mitch, Olivia and Tristan though. They know it’s precisely the differences that make the youth group the youth group.
Y’all know about TED talks? Technology, entertainment and design—TED. A series of conferences, many—most of which are available on-line, to develop “ideas worth spreading.” I watched one a few weeks ago, a presentation by Eli Pariser, an online organizer. Here’s the scary point he made. It may be familiar to you. Two people google one thing and get two very different sets of responses. Why? Because there are filter bubbles that decide algorithmically, what you want to see. This is based on what kind of computer you use. Based on where you live. Based on the sites you go to. Based on your other searches. It’s like when you go to Amazon and they have books recommended for you. They’re based on what you’ve bought and what others buy who buy what you buy. So these filter bubbles personalize what you see—tailor your web experience—cater to what math says you like. Not what you should see. Not what you need to see. What numbers say you want to see. Scary, isn’t it?
Pariser says, “I think we really need the Internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being. We need it to connect us all together. We need it to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one” (http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html). Part of the sermon manifest in a TED talk.
Now I’m not sure why we should expect the internet to do what we don’t. There’s a faulty (I think) assumption that we know the way and that we can go in that way—stay on that way—that way of compassion, grace and love. We, as church, are supposed to offer our world something different. To suggest there is a way and there’s a voice to lead us in that way, and that it’s either arrogant or foolish to think we can find our own way. The facts just don’t support that.
“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is both the way (the gate) and the one who leads us in that way (the shepherd). “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Now this is interesting (not that the rest hasn’t been!) but we tend to make the shepherd all personal: Jesus and the one lost sheep. We make it spiritual. It’s about religious relationships. The word “pastor” goes back to the word shepherd (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=pastor&searchmode=none). But the primary use of shepherd imagery in the OT was to describe kings (look up Numbers 27:16-18; Jeremiah 10:21, 23:1, 4; Ezekiel 34:1-10, for examples). Not priests. Not prophets. Kings and society at large. So what’s the political dimension of hearing leaders described as those invested in the well-being of others more than their own, because their own is tied up with that of others? What would it be like to have a politician say (and mean), “I can be a shepherd, but I cannot be a good shepherd and have a sense of well-being if my sheep do not as well—all my sheep—down to the very last one.” Imagine that. Imagine that!
“I 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.” A lot of conversation about that. Are the sheep of other folds those of other faiths? Other denominations? Other countries? As sheep, what do we care? Unless we’re sheep with delusions of grandeur! Uppity sheep! Presuming entirely too much is our business and getting all confused/mixed up—which is, I’m told, a very sheepish thing to do! Some of our youth are studying JB Phillips book, Your God Is Too Small. In today’s context, we might paraphrase that, don’t turn God into just another sheep!
And so here, one more time—one last time, that sentence that’s the sermon: God comes to you and says you belong, and it’s up to you to recognize that voice—to recognize truth in that voice. it’s up to us, as a congregation, to help each other. Because together we’re waiting for the voice worth waiting for—waiting to belong with the one worth belonging with—the one calling us together. And we’re to listen to that voice, not to our surprise at who all gathers with us! The point not being how well—how smoothly—how comfortably we sheep fit together with each other, but how we all belong with God. And in our joy—because more than anything, this is a sermon to be made manifest in your own life (it’s so good to not be alone—it is very good)—in our joy, the words of belonging run together with excitement into words that simply express excitement and don’t make any sense. “We go together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga a dong remembered forever like shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom chang chang chang-it-ty chang shoo-bop that’s the way it should be wha oooh yeah!” (http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/g/grease8951/wegotogether302647.html)