On Figuring Out What the Holiest Thing Is and Not Letting it Get Stolen

<Want to listen along? Click here. Listening is better than reading when it comes to sermons. It’s like the difference between hearing a piece music and reading a piece music>

John 10:1-10

This, literally, was the CD that was stolen.

[Jesus said:] 1“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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

On Figuring Out What the Holiest Thing is and Not Letting It Get Stolen

Gracious One,

You are the good shepherd

And we are grateful, because so often

We are poor shepherds

And even poorer sheep

Listening to a number of voices

In a world of voices.

Bring our attention to you today

That we might know your voice

As you know ours.


So, living in Chicago for twelve years, you get used to some things, many of which are good: public transportation, eating Thai food after 11pm, and in Rhonda’s first apartment we could open the windows and hear the cheer of the Cubs game even before it came through the TV screen.

Those are things we enjoyed getting used to.

But some of the things you got used to were not so good: 11% taxes on items bought in the city, paying 10$ an hour to park downtown, and, of course, having your car broken into.

Oh yes, all Chicagoans have their cars broken into.  It’s a right of passage.

My first year living in the city, I was teaching middle school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, and overnight my car was broken into, window smashed, glass everywhere.  They rifled through the floor boards, the glove compartment, and this was back in the day where tape decks were standard in cars, and so I had a portable CD player that plugged into my tape deck, remember those things?

And so, of course my CD player took flight, and for a teacher only making 12K a year, that was a rough reality.  But while they took my CD player, I found the CD laying on the passenger seat.  Which means the burglar looked at the CD player, opened it, spied my taste in music, and decided it wasn’t worth stealing…

And, to be honest, I was a little embarrassed that they thought so poorly of my taste in music.  When you’re filling out the report and the officer said, “What’s missing?” and you mention your CD player and they say, “And the CD’s” and you’re like, “No…they left those…” and the officer smirks, well…

That was the first time my car was broken into. It would happen three more times in Chicago.  Until we learned the ultimate trick, of course, to keep your car from being broken into.

What do you hold to be most valuable?

This is a question at the heart of many discussions going on in many arenas today, including the public arena of our shared governance. How do our policies and laws give voice to our common values?

What do we hold to be most valuable?  What is holy to you?

If we can get personal for a moment, judging by the way we act sometimes, you’d think we hold our mistakes and our faults and our flaws and those guilty regrets that we have in the timeline of our past to be the most valuable things in our lives.

Think on it, how we nurture the memory of our mistakes and our flaws or our various shames.  We tend them like shepherds tend their flocks, looking after their every need to be acknowledged again and again.  We invite our mistakes and our shame, often things we should feel no shame about, to lie down in the green pastures of our thoughts, there to graze peacefully at 4am.  We bring them to the cool waters of obsession, giving them life-giving sources of power to continue long past their expiration date.

We spread the table of our consciousness before them, even in the presence of those things that could probably kill them if we let it: like forgiveness that we don’t truly believe works, or forgetfulness that we secretly don’t want to take place because, well, if we forget our bad memories, what will we use to beat ourselves up with again when we get too happy?

The spiritual sickness of overblown pride is not balanced with self-hating guilt, Beloved.

The bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic, Richard Rohr says that sometimes we must “forgive reality for being what it is.”  We have a hard time doing that, keeping the reality of our mistakes behind the locked doors of our hearts, never letting them escape into the wide expanse of love and forgiveness that Christ, the Good Shepherd, offers us.

Instead we nurture them, guarding them through the valley of the shadow of death when really we should just let them die, by God.

You know, one of the dangers of not forgiving ourselves is that it prevents us from truly forgiving others.  If we cannot forgive our biggest faults, how are we to forgive the faults of others?  Theologian and author Karen Armstrong provocatively posits in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life that when we fail to accept the forgiveness of God and fail to forgive ourselves, we will also fail to forgive others, compounding sin upon sin.  She writes, “If we are unable to accept our shadow (those realities about ourselves that we’d rather weren’t true), we are likely to hold a harsh view of the (more difficult) side of others.”

And I find this to be largely true.  People who are unduly hard on themselves are often unduly hard on others.

What do you hold most valuable, anyway?  What is holy to you?

I’ve told the story before of finding my grandmother’s checkbook after she died, going through it and seeing an accounting of her morals. Our checkbooks truly are moral documents. She was not perfect by any means. Let’s just say, I would not have wanted to be her pastor…she rarely had a good thing to say about any of them (except my father).  But she certainly put her pocketbook where her values were, giving to her church, her charities, her families first.

Sometimes we hold things as being the most valuable, and so we collect our things in our homes, our attics, our basements, our bellies, and yes, our cars, storing them up, secretly believing that perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says that he gives us “abundant life.”

Abundance of things.

But, as the poet Wendell Berry rightly notes, “Abundance (when it comes to the Gospel of John) cannot refer to material possessions, because life itself does not require material abundance, but rather material sufficiency…life itself, membership in the material world, is already an abundance.”

When Jesus says, “I have come to bring life abundant,” he can’t mean more stuff, he must mean more of life itself. Truly living.

And that is one of the things we see most clearly post-Easter: God believes life is the holiest thing: us. You. Me. Humanity. Health. Truly living.

This section of John has Jesus calling himself two large metaphors, both the Shepherd and the Gate through which the sheep enter the fold.  In reality, it’s just one metaphor because in the ancient herding practices of shepherds, they’d often lie down between the fence posts of the pen, literally becoming the gate for the sheep.

I have to think Jesus’ hearers understood that.

Which means that in lying there the shepherd also became the first line of defense against the thieves and animals that would be prone to steal and harm the sheep, giving himself for the life of the sheep if need be.  After all, if the lion eats the shepherd, it’ll be full and won’t eat the sheep.

I mean, look, the reality is that God in Jesus has proclaimed you and me the thing that God cares the most about. Not our right dogma; not our correct doctrine.  Not even our correct behavior, if you believe the scriptures.  Think about it: nobody on that fateful holy weekend behaved with dignity. Everyone ran away, everyone scattered like…well…like sheep without a shepherd, even as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was hung on the rod and the staff of the cross.

And in that we are invited to take some comfort, by God.

If you can’t figure out what the holiest thing is to God, look at Easter.

Because the Good Shepherd, the gate, won’t let death and sin, our mistakes or our failures, or any material thing have the final say in our life.  We hear the voice of our Shepherd call alleluia from the tomb we threw him in, and even from our tombs, and we’re invited to know that voice, hear it, and follow out through that gate into new life.

So why, Beloved, do we treat our mistakes and our failures as the holiest things around, refusing them the right to die even as they keep us in the tombs of guilt and regret, when God in Christ treats us as the holiest thing around inviting us into a new life unencumbered by those failings?  Likewise, why do we treat material things as more important than life?

Look here: God has prepared a table before you in the presence of our mistakes and failings, and even in the presence of our accumulating material possessions, those enemies that try to steal away our lives and our attention, inviting us to eat and drink from a cup the overflows with mercy and hope and abundant life.  Surely goodness and mercy follow us from this table, so leave all that other stuff behind here.

All of that, like terrible soundtracks that replay over and over about things that we feel hurt or shame or regret over, they play and it sometimes feels like they can’t go away and we’re embarrassed.  Like the voices of thieves and bandits, they come before God in our hearts and minds, calling us to pay attention to them rather than to the voice of our Good Shepherd who repeats over and over again, “I love you. You are mine. I love you. You are mine. I’ll go to hell and back for you that you might live without that soundtrack…”

I mean, if you want to talk about the practical reality of Easter, it is that these voices no longer define us in the face of a God who will go through hell and back to be with us.

We must be worth it, even with all that baggage, or else why would God go to such lengths?  So we’re invited in light of Easter to unlock that door, to unbar that gate, to roll the stone away from wherever we’re holding that stuff, and let it be stolen away by the God who, like a Good Shepherd, like a good gate, calls to us and protects us from it and gets rid of it like the thief and the foe it is to our lives.

Because to God, we are the holiest thing, and God will do anything, even die, to make sure we’re never stolen away. Life itself is already an abundance.

Hey, you know how you prevent your car from getting broken into?

You leave the doors unlocked and just let it all go.  It’s not holy, anyway.



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