Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Queer Process of Preaching: Easter 4b

This past week I received a phone call asking if I could preach this weekend so that a colleague could get some much needed vacation and rest.  I didn't have a prior commitment, so I was happy to preach!  Fast forward to Saturday and I still didn't have a sermon, just a concept.  I had queeried the text at the beginning of the week, but I didn't feel like it was my best queery, so that was only kind of helping.  Add in the pressure that I needed to preach that evening (!!) and I really needed something.  

Well, I ended up writing out a manuscript in about an hour.  It wasn't my favorite, but at least it was something.  I preached it out loud to my computer and recorded it and then listened to it a couple times while getting ready and heading over to lead worship.  

When I got to the building where the church worships, I asked for a sticky note and a pen and jotted down a few notes like an outline.  The pastor of this congregation usually doesn't preach from a manuscript and I didn't want to be awkwardly tied to or juggling my ipad while preaching, so I figured a sticky note outline would be a safe bet.  

I preached without the manuscript and it ended up being a sermon I'm quite happy with! (though, for the life of me, I couldn't tell you what I actually said ... #HolySpirit) So, when I came home Saturday night, I redrafted my sermon into my notebook and included the quotes I used, so it was a bit more intentional and so that I wouldn't have to search around during my sermon like I'd briefly had to do on Saturday during worship.

Sunday went well.  I feel more confident about Saturday's sermon than Sundays, yet they both contained law and gospel.  In both I preached the Good News.  I'm not sure what this means for future sermons, if the Holy Spirit will go back to giving me manuscripts from which to preach, if St. Stephen's will always be the unique one, or if, as I suspect, preaching cannot fit quite so easily into my expected boxes.

All this to say, below is the journey my sermon took this week.  My queerness is frequently a thing that I am aware of, sometimes intentional about, and oftentimes written/spoken or visual.  This process was none of those things.  This is not a usual path for me and it feels quite queer in the way it has journeyed from what is my norm into a briefer and then a less linear organization.  So, I figured I would share it with you.  

Initial Drafting:

Sermon Manuscript: 
The holy gospel according to John (10:11-18).

Jesus said:

11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The 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. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I 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. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

The gospel of the Lord.


After I graduated from college, I spent a year with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program (YAGM for short), serving in a small village in eastern Slovakia called Rankovce.  Slovakia is a beautiful country and its hills are apparently perfect for sheep—so much so that we not only saw shepherds with their sheep throughout the country, but even their main souvenirs and tourist gear feature a cartoon sheep enjoying each of the four seasons! 

Ever since my time in Slovakia, when I come to Good Shepherd Sunday each year, I think of Slovakia and the people I got to know there.  I worked through the local Lutheran church, helping with youth groups, religion classes, and an after school-type program, primarily for Roma kids.  Roma are also known as gypsies, although that is usually a more pejorative word.

Roma make up the largest minority in Slovakia and have been discriminated against for the many centuries that they have been living in Central Europe.  The Lutheran Church in Slovakia is primarily made up of non-Roma Slovaks, so my role straddled both communities.  I got to know Jesus’ sheep who weren’t Roma as well as the sheep who were and because I was a foreigner, I didn’t belong to either flock of sheep.  This actually meant that I received a unique welcome in both communities—neither as suspect as if I had been from the other group, nor as welcome as if I had been from their own. 

Even in Rankovce, where they were a considerable percentage of the population and the church had a specific ministry with them, Roma were not the kind of sheep that the majority of Slovak Lutherans expected.  They look different, they speak a different language, and they act differently.

But Jesus says, “14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Although the expectations of the non-Roma Slovaks as to who the sheep were might have been that all of Jesus’ sheep look like them, that is not how the Good Shepherd shepherds us. 

In today’s gospel, Jesus has just opened the eyes of a man born blind, stirring up a lot of attention, and is talking to the religious authorities.  Jesus is on a bit of a sheep kick and today’s passage is actually his third attempt to get across what he means with a sheep metaphor.

Jesus has been caring for and restoring communities, bringing hope to those he encounters, those who feel beat down by life—the sheep who are just trying to survive without enough defenses from the wolves.  And yet, for so many of the people Jesus encounters, whether they’re religious authorities or not, their expectations for Jesus, the Good Shepherd, don’t quite line up.  The response of many to Jesus’ statements today is to try to figure out if Jesus is possessed by a demon, if he’s the Messiah, or what. 

They feel a need to figure out these expectations for Jesus and yet Jesus resists being boxed into their definitions.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
It is like in The Chronicles of Narnia when Lucy and Susan are talking to Mrs. and Mr. Beaver about Aslan.  Susan asks, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Jesus, as his followers, the religious authorities, and the whole crowd gathered will soon realize, is the Good Shepherd, not the Safe Shepherd.  Jesus is powerful, yes.  And Jesus chooses to use that power to lay down his own life for the sheep, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t wolves or that there won’t be more wolves to come.

If our expectations, like many in the crowd Jesus was talking to, are that following Jesus will be safe or easy, then we will be disappointed. 
If our expectations are that the Good Shepherd’s other sheep will look, act, and speak like us, then we will be disappointed.
If we expect ourselves or others to be hired hands or Good Shepherds instead of fellow sheep, then we will be disappointed.

But if our expectations are that Jesus knows us “Just as the Father knows” Jesus, we will find ourselves dwelling in love.
If we expect other sheep to have different names for Jesus and to look and act differently from us, we will find that the flock of sheep is bigger than we’d anticipated.

If we expect to be sheep, following Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and bumbling along with each other, bleating for attention when a fellow sheep is in danger, gathering close to keep everyone safe, journeying and stumbling along the many hills, then we will find friends and support along our way.

During my last month in Slovakia, we ran a week-long camp for Roma and non-Roma youth.  At first, people, especially those who were non-Roma Slovaks, were surprised.  They had expected the camp to be only non-Roma youth—they had expected only sheep that looked and sounded like them—and they were disappointed.  

Over the course of the week that we spent together, expectations shifted and we learned that our Good (not Safe) Shepherd had many sheep.  While we went about bumbling along together, we learned about each other’s cultures.  Our experiences were richer, our learning deeper, and our conversations more meaningful.  We came away from that week together with different, perhaps more realistic, expectations.

The Good Shepherd cares for us and leads us not in complete safety, but in faithfulness and love.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday's Version:

Sunday's Version:

What about you?
What are your sermons like?  Are you ever surprised by a new style of sermon?  How are your sermons birthed?

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