Monday, April 14, 2008

Thieves and Saviours - A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton, and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 13 April, 2008

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

The thief comes only to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

In light of today’s gospel lesson, I’ve been thinking about thieves and robbers. By chance (or by design?), as I was driving up to church this morning, I heard a news story about how the Ontario Provincial Police is setting up a task force to investigate over one hundred recent church robberies in South West Ontario. The story profiled one inner-city Toronto church that has decided to install a lock and buzzer system on its front door to limit access from the street, even though this will limit their ministry. That decision must have been a difficult one for that church, as it weighs its call to do God’s work in the world against its responsibility to protect the church and its people. So today I want to reflect on Christ’s potential to work in a world that still feels the need to lock doors and be wary of threats.

Jesus uses some puzzling figures of speech in today’s gospel. In a long and complicated speech to his disciples and to his enemies, he speaks of himself both as a gate and a shepherd. The sheep are presumably his followers, and the thieves and robbers are those who are opposed to Jesus’ message. The language in John’s gospel refuses to allow us to tie things into neat packages of understanding, but it is consistent with Jesus’ role in the Fourth Gospel as the one who brings light and life to a world that is full of darkness and death.

We may not understand exactly what Jesus is getting at in today’s gospel, but one very clear message is his statement that “I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). The world “abundantly” makes such a difference, doesn’t it? Life isn’t just cowering within a protected space, hoping that we don’t get hurt. Rather, life is about flourishing, about having all the conditions that we need to thrive. And, as is always the case in the gospels when words like “abundantly” are used, it means having enough to share (think of the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes, for example). On Friday I delivered two heaping baskets of your contributions to the Food Bank in Ailsa Craig - a wonderful example of our congregations living abundantly and sharing that life with others.

Having life abundantly suggests the opposite of the life chosen by thieves and robbers Jesus mentions. It means warmth and generosity and potential rather than killing and destruction. Now we all understand that fear of the thief in the night. We all want to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, but sometimes we can be so fearful and suspicious and self-protective that we risk denying the full potential of God’s abundant life to ourselves and to those around us.

My older brother Chris told me a story that makes this point better than I can. He lives out west with his wife Linda, who runs a daycare out of their home. One night, Chris awoke to find a stranger standing at the foot of the bed. Someone had broken into their house and was now in their upstairs bedroom. As my brother described it, a tidal wave of rage rushed into his mind. He felt compelled to protect his wife and home, and to destroy this intruder. As Chris put it, he wanted to hold the stranger's still beating heart in his hands and squeeze it.

Now Chris is a big burly guy, with the heart of a Highland warrior, and with a roar he threw off the blanket and charged the intruder, who happened to be a slender teenage male. The stanger did the sensible thing and turned and fled down the staircase, but Chris vaulted the top rail and dropped onto him from the height of the stairwell, flattening the thief under him. They stayed in this position until Linda called the police, who arrived and took the intruder into custody. I’m not sure if Christ read John 10 to the thief while they waited, but it would have been a nice touch.

As it turned out, the youth was a petty thief with a modest string of break and enters, and was not judged to be dangerous. He did a brief sentence and returned to the community, got involved with a girl, and they had a kid. In a while they needed a daycare, and guess where they came? Linda agreed to give their kid a space, and there were times when my brother Chris would play with the child on his lap and talked to the father when he came to pick up his kid. When Chris told me the story, he said that if he had had the means that night, he likely would have killed the intruder, and that child would never have been born.

I found this story helpful in trying to understand what Jesus means when he says that he is the door that opens into full and abundant life. I believe that God was working in hearts and choices of my brother and sister in a manner that led to fuller and richer lives for all involved. A bad situation could have ended badly, but instead new doors were opened and better things could happen.

The door in today’s gospel is an important detail. A good shepherd can’t keep the sheep locked and penned up. He knows that the sheep need pasture, just as we need to go from our sheltering homes into the world. That’s what doors are for, half the time. All of us make choices as to which doors we will open in life. Some people open doors unwisely, making bad choices for themselves and others. Some people never open enough doors, and allow themselves to be limited and isolated. Some people lock themselves into suspicion and bitterness, seeking a protection that stunts and diminishes them. Today’s gospel tells us that if we choose Christ and his love as as our door and our way into the world, then we won’t go wrong, even if we go into dangerous places.

Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor, tells a good story to end on. I’m sure our members who worked at the St. John’s meal program last night will relate to it. St. Anthony's Catholic Church in San Francisco ran a similar meal program to people in need. To get into the meal, you came in through a doorway over which was a sign with the inscription: “Caritate Dei” (For the Love of God). “One day a young mechanic, just released from jail and new to St. Anthony's, entered the door and sat down for a meal. A woman was busy cleaning the adjoining table. "When do we get on our knees and do the chores, lady?" he asked. "You don't," she replied. "Then when's the sermon comin'?" he inquired. "Aren't any," she said. "How `bout the lecture on life, huh?" "Not here," she said. The man was suspicious. "Then what's the gimmick?" The woman pointed to the inscription over the door. He squinted at the sign. "What's it mean, lady?" "Out of love for God," she said with a smile, and moved on to another table.”

Our service will end, as it does each Sunday, by pointing us to the door and telling us to “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord”. As we go today, let’s ask ourselves what doors God would have us open. Let’s look for doors that lead to life, that make it possible for God to work in our lives and, through us, in the lives of others. Let’s trust the good shepherd to lead us to good places where the love of God can lead to abundant life. Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2008

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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