Sunday, May 03, 2009

Easter 4 - Year B

How long do you think a sermon should be? How long is too long? How short is too short?

Most Sunday mornings, I know I’ve gone on too long when Neil Horvey holds up his watch and starts pointing at it. Or when the yawns from the youth in the back row begin to drown out my mountain top wisdom.

But its funny. I’ve never been told a sermon is too short. I never hear, “I’m sorry pastor, but you were just getting revved up when you hit the breaks.” I’m sure you’re just being polite.

Some preaching wag once muttered “sermonettes create Christianettes.” As of long sermons in themselves produce strong followers of Jesus. And short-sermoned preachers are being lax or lazy in their efforts.

But when I’m preparing each week, I’m challenged by some of the great words of history and our faith, words that we still remember.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was only 272 words and it helped shape a country on the brink of falling apart.

Shakespeare’s St. Crispin Day speech from his play Henry V, one of the most riveting ever written, is only 407 words.

The Ten Commandments has roughly 313 words (depending of which version you read. Some version have as little 170 words), and created a body of law that continues to nurture faithful people 5000 years after it was written.

So, do I think too highly of myself with a 1183 word sermon, like this one?

The cynical part of me thinks that some preachers just like to hear themselves talk. They luxuriate in the sound of their own voices. They love the power of pontificating in front of a captive audience.

The less cynical part of me thinks that, when some preachers sit down to prepare and stand up to preach, they - we, or I - don’t know when to stop because the story never seems finished. There’s always more to say. An abrupt turn in the direction of the narrative, a stray word that takes the flow of the message in a wholly different direction. A surprising phrase that adds yet another layer on to the point you’re trying to make.

There’s never a good place to stop because the gospel doesn’t stop. God doesn’t stop. God keeps moving so there’s always something more to say about God. Long sermons are a preacher’s occupational hazard. And long sermons are a Christian’s cross to bear.

I think the Jesus in John’s gospel had this problem. He talked a lot. And I mean, A LOT. Those of you who have a so-called “red letter” edition of the bible where Jesus’ words are highlighted in red probably have figured out that Jesus says a lot more in John’s gospel than any other. In Mark, Jesus wanders from town to town doing stuff. His actions are his words. In John, he doesn’t stop talking. There’s fewer miracles and more preaching.

If any of you have seen the movie from a few years ago called “The Gospel of John” you might have heard Jesus talk and talk and and talk....and talk. He doesn’t know when to wind it down, wrap it up, to take a breather. It’s like he has so much to say that he needs to get it ALL out so that none of it will be lost. He doesn’t want to misplace a single WORD. He sprays God’s message on the crowd and soaks everyone within earshot with his bizarre message about who God is and what God wants from them. A message they wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” he tells the crowd. An odd image. Shepherd’s weren’t exactly models of success. They weren’t models of ANYTHING, except what NOT to be when you grew up. They were loners. Roughnecks. Working at night when everyone else was snug and warm in bed. They’d go for months with no one but sheep for company. That’s the way they liked it.

And his followers probably didn’t quite care for being called “sheep.” Sheep were dumb. Smelly. A commodity. Things to be bought and sold. If Jesus was trying to keep a crowd, he might have wanted to try a different tactic.

It’s as if he told you, I am the rancher and you are the cow. Your are pig and I am the farmer. Not exactly endearing, is it? Maybe this would have been a good time for him to wind this sermon down, bring it to a close, lest he loose his listeners in the metaphor.

But he doesn’t. He doesn’t gather his papers and sit down. He steamrolls right over their objections. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep....I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father....For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again”

I know this is supposed to be good news, and that’s how John meant for it to sound. But I wonder if Jesus’ listeners were more confused than comforted. I think Jesus’ listeners might have been offended by this sermon, tempted to pick up some rocks and let Jesus know what they thought about him calling them smelly, old, sheep.

They wanted to hear how wonderful they were, how gifted, how full of potential. how to make their dreams come true in 6 easy steps.

But Jesus called them sheep. And he was their shepherd.

Again, that probably didn’t sound like good news. They knew they weren’t dumb or smelly. But they did need to connect with God. They didn’t know who God was, even if they knew some of the bible stories.

They may have been smart in the ways of the world, but they did wander off, away from the God who loved them, and from where their true value lay hidden.

Jesus knew that behind their practiced exteriors were children longing to be loved, people longing to be valued. He knew that they were sheep when it came to God, not dumb and smelly, but people needing guidance and tender compassion.

He knew that they couldn’t find God by themselves, they couldn’t learn what it meant to loved on their own, they couldn’t determine God’s plan for them and the world if all they had to follow was their own inner voices.

And they’re not alone. You are sheep. We are sheep. Not dumb, stinky, animals. But creatures who can’t find our way home without a shepherd, a Good Shepherd, who loves the sheep enough to lay down his life, to leave the 99 sheep to find the one lost sheep - to find YOU - when YOU are lost and frightened, when YOU are feeling unloved and unwanted.

The shepherd wants to find YOU, and wrap YOU in his arms, and carry you home. And maybe then, the story will finish. The words will end. And together, we’ll sit down and rest our weary voices.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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