The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
April 22, 2018
Before Donald Trump became a TV celebrity on his TV show The Apprentice, or made his successful run for the presidency, he probably was best known for his book The Art of the Deal. As I as I read today’s Gospel in preparation my sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, it struck me that Jesus could have written a book, or at least a major article. He might have entitled it: The Art of the Steal!
I have always thought of the 10th chapter of John as the Good Shepherd chapter. I have preached from this chapter on Good Shepherd Sunday a couple of dozen times since I was ordained. But as I reflected on this gospel the past few weeks I became aware that in addition to the good guy in the story, Jesus also says just about as much about the bad guy. Where you aware of this when I read the gospel this morning?
He opens his sermon by focusing on the bad guy. He says: “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate but by some other way is a thief and a robber.” Then halfway through his sermon in verse 10 he states it again: “The thief comes only to steal and destroy.” In each section of the sermon he then sets the bad guy in contrast to the good guy.
This morning I ask you: “Who is the bad guy that Jesus is talking about? Jesus doesn’t tell us in this sermon. My first guess is that he is talking about the Devil as the bad guy. In a sense, I would be right because our Lord traces all evil back to Satan. But as we look more closely at the larger context, we begin to get a sense that Satan often uses people to do his dirty work, and as I reflected on this context, I began to get an uneasy feeling, that it is possible that the bad guy in this story could be me. Let me tell you why.
Our Gospel begins by some Pharisees asking Jesus a question. “Do you think we are blind?” Jesus had just healed a man who had been blind from birth. But instead of being happy about the man's recovery, his friends and other folks around were upset. Jesus had violated a taboo by healing the man on the Sabbath. It was just not done. How can you listen to a man who does not respect the mores of your society? The people, God's chosen people, were furious. Had we been there living in their society we may well have been outraged too!
But the anger of God's people toward our Lord went far beyond this one violation of the mores of their society. For months they had been watching him and listening to his teachings. Who did he think he was anyway? He taught and acted like no one else they had ever known. Did he think he was the Messiah? Sometimes they thought so, but he seemed to speak in riddles. When he did things like healing on the sabbath or talking to a Samaritan woman or defending a woman caught in adultery, they were convinced that he had to be a charlatan. Surely the Messiah would not act like that. He would respect their traditions. They gathered round him. "How long will you keep us in suspense?" they asked. "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."
Jesus is unruffled by their demand. He responds by telling them that he is the Good Shepherd. The image evoked a memory from their days in Sabbath school. From the time they were knee high to grasshoppers, the people of God were taught in Sabbath School "The Lord is My Shepherd I shall not want." So well did they know the 23rd Psalm.
When our Lord used this image evoking the memory from their past, they knew what he meant.
Their God had promised always to lead them, to protect them and to teach them. But Jesus then stretches the metaphor in a new direction -- "I am the Good Shepherd,” he said. And just in case they didn’t get his meaning he continued: “I and the Father are one."
This was not only a new direction, but as with so much of our Lord's teaching, it was an unexpected direction. Sometimes the lessons we learn from the past no longer work in the present. To give a simple example, when I was growing up in the country, my parents warned me I must never go on the road in front of our house. Then one day, when I was about 5 years old, my mother must have been very busy for she said to me, “Billy, the mail man has just come, would you bring in the mail?”
I was confused. All my life to that point I had been told I should not go on the road. But to get to the mail box, I had to go across the road. My mother saw my confusion. She explained. “I think you are old enough now. When you go across the road to the mail box, be sure to look both ways. If you don’t see any cars coming you can go to the box. But if you see a car coming, even if it is a long way away, wait until it goes by.” I understood.
But the Pharisees didn’t understand. When Jesus said: “I and the Father are one,” he was just saying that he was the Messiah, he was implying that he was God. That was blasphemy!
The “bad guys” in Jesus story were good people. They loved God and wanted to do God’s will. They questioned Jesus because they thought his actions and teachings were in direct opposition to what God wanted. Their response reminds me of a lady who attended a church where I was the Associate Rector. She was an intelligent godly woman who had taught religious studies at one of the seven sister colleges on the East Coast before her retirement. One Sunday after church she greeted me with a smile and said “Last week, while in prayer, God told me that you are to be my spiritual director. I responded instantly, “Pat, if God told you, this. I’m sure he will tell me too.” Until He does, I simply don’t have time in my schedule. But if He does, I’ll make time.” She just smiled at me and said: “He will.” Months went by. One morning, during my devotions, out of the blue, I heard that still small voice speak clearly, “Bill, it is time for you to become Pat’s spiritual director.” When I told he the next Sunday, she again simply smiled and said: “I knew he would.”
We met together once a month for several years. Part of my requirement was for her to keep a spiritual journal when I would read before our meeting. Her insights were profound, and I am confident that I gained far more from her than she did from me. At the same time, it quickly became clear why God had asked her to have a spiritual director. Despite her deep spirituality she was a troubled woman. She was very angry at the changes taking place in the church under a dynamic young Rector. She acknowledged that the church was growing under his leadership but lashed out at the changes taking place. As I recall her journal included such lines as: “The Rector took the prayer books out of the pew racks and replaced them with Bibles.” “Instead of reading the liturgy from the prayer books as God intended us to, we have to read it off the screen in front of the church.” And “We are no longer able to sing the great hymns of the church. Instead we sing these stupid praise choruses. And they sing them over and over and over. It makes me want to throw up.”
She began to act out. She began looking for sympathetic parishioners to share her frustration about the changes. She attended vestry meetings and asked that they restore the prayer books. Keeping a journal had brought her anger to the surface and she began to plot how she could overturn decisions. At first, in her mind, she was doing God’s will. It didn’t matter than the changes were attracting new people and the church was growing. In fact, on one occasion she said: the next thing you know the Rector will think our church isn’t big enough and will want to build a new building. Sure enough, he proposed just that at the next Vestry meeting.
Having access to her journal also gave me a handle on how to confront her with her feelings and actions. When I confronted her, she was at first very defensive and sought to justify her actions. I then asked her to read the story of the blind man, the religious leaders reaction to it and today’s gospel. I asked her if she saw herself anywhere in the passage. She shook her head no. I asked her to read the passage again with that thought in mind. As she did, the light dawned, her face went white. “Oh my goodness,” she said, “I’m the thief seeking to destroy.” Pat had just encountered a chapter of our Lord’s playbook, “The Art of the Steal!”/
I learned a great lesson from that encounter. So many times I get upset with the way things are going as in a church. It would be so easy to vent and feel self-justified. It is not always easy to correctly discern the will of God. It is always possible that we are in danger of standing in His way. But I do not despair. The promise of the Good Shepherd in today's Gospel remains true for us today. "My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me, and no one shall snatch them out of the Father's hand." In the end I must recognize that in many ways I am like a sheep. My hope is not based on my ability to understand, but on the Good Shepherd who has promised to never leave me or forsake me and has promised to lead me into all truth.
Let us pray. O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people. Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name and follow where He leads. Amen.