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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

John 10:22-30

“Folks Like Us: Folks Not Like Us”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA

Sunday, April 29, 2007

All this month, we've been looking at characters in the Bible who show up in the story of what happens after Easter. We've talked about the people in the crowd who praised Jesus on Palm Sunday, and then less than a week later, shouted, “Crucify!” We've talked about Mary Magdalene, who found (or was found by) the resurrected Christ on Easter Morning. We've talked about Doubting Thomas and how doubt can be considered a gift from God. And we've talked about Simon, better known as Peter, who's also known by the same nickname as that professional wrestler, “The Rock.” The concept for the series of sermons has been that these folks were, in many ways, folks like us. We could identify with them. They could teach us about their faith because their faith is so much like our faith: Rocky, doubting, disbelieving. And, then, sometimes our faith, like theirs, is on the mark. Like them, we do get it, and we get it right.

Today's the final Sunday in this series of study, and I'm glad the scripture leads us here. I don't pick these scriptures; they come to us from the Lectionary that most mainline Protestant denominations, and the Catholic Church use. If you want to know what's coming up, you can connect to the Lectionary from our Lake Hills web site and see the next three years worth of scriptures. It kind of kills the suspense, but it's also kind of like doing your homework. OK, maybe doing homework isn't such an attractive analogy. If you like reading the Bible and you're curious about where we get our themes for sermons, anthems, hymns and prayers, go to the web site, click on “Worship” and then click on the Lectionary.

So anyway, back in March, when I was thinking about some unifying theme for these scriptures I didn't choose, it looked as though each Sunday of April we'd be talking about folks who could be examples for our own faith development. And then I came to this Sunday. This Sunday, Jesus is talking to people of his own faith – Jewish people (and yes, Jesus was Jewish) – and he says, “You people” - not all Jewish people, because most of the people who followed Jesus were Jewish – he says to this specific group of people, “You're not my sheep.” He says, “I have told you; and you don't believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you don't believe. Because you do not belong to my sheep.”

The choir sang today about how far Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will go to seek out and bring home that one lost sheep who's wondered off from the ninety and the nine. But here, Jesus is telling this group of people, “Sorry. You're not in the flock.” It's not that they're not in the flock because they don't believe; they don't believe because they're not in the flock. Here is a group of people who don't get Jesus, and won't get Jesus. What about them?

Isn't this the question of 21st century faith? It used to be that with a few exceptions, most of the people around us were folks like us. And for the most part, they still are. But the world's getting smaller as we speak. You can go online (in your own home) and watch Mullah Hader al-Kadimi reciting the Qu'ran. (That's if you get bored reading the Lectionary.) You can go on YouTube and see live Jewish prayer services at the Western Wall of the Jerusalem Temple. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Different faiths, different languages, different skin colors – whether or not there are more people around us who aren't like us, we're certainly more aware of the people who aren't like us because we see them, hear them, talk to them -- more than ever before. What about them? What about people who aren't Presbyterian, or aren't Christian, or who don't even want to try to be friends? What about them? Should we try to convert them? Should we say, “Sorry, you're not in the flock. Hope you enjoy the smoking section in eternity”? How do we interact, or do we interact, with folks not like us?

I can't accept – I won't accept – that the souls of the people who don't believe in Jesus the way I believe in Jesus are condemned. I can't accept – I won't accept – that God (who can do anything) doesn't have a means of salvation for the people who don't or won't or have never had the chance to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I believe in a God who's bigger. Bigger than any human division. Bigger than any nation, even bigger than any world. Speaking of which, just last week scientists announced they'd discovered another planet that might be capable of sustaining life. Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra. Sadly, it's still 20 years away if you're traveling at the speed of light. Could there be people on Gliese 581? What about them? Are they in Jesus' flock? Or are they illegal aliens?

Again, I didn't choose today's scripture, and I probably wouldn't have. Scriptures like this are dangerous. They've been used to justify violence and discrimination against Jews, Muslims, and all sorts of other people-types. This scripture steps on toes, because Jesus steps on toes. Jesus steps on the toes of people who want to be uber-politically correct and say, “We're all part of one big, happy flock, even if we don't know it yet.” And Jesus steps on the toes of anyone who thinks that if you're not a card-carrying member of his flock you'll be consigned to eternal torment. Look at what Jesus does instead.

I think the key to this passage is found in one little word. It goes by fast. The word is, “again.” Verse 31: “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.” Verse 39: “...they tried to arrest him again.” This isn't the first time Jesus has met up with this group. He keeps going back. From what he said about these people not being in his flock, I don't think Jesus went back to try to convert them. I don't think he was trying to “save” them. And yet he goes back to them. Again. The ones who want to stone him. Again. The ones who want to arrest him. Again. The ones who obviously hate him. Again. Again and again and again, Jesus goes back to these folks who aren't part of his flock. He challenges them. He debates with them. And the Bible doesn't say this, but I'll bet you that if one of them tripped and fell down, Jesus would have helped him up. Because that's the kind of guy Jesus was. He said to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He knew what he was talking about, firsthand. Jesus didn't have to go into this dangerous territory, but he kept doing it – again and again. Because for some odd reason this dangerous territory is where God was.

I wonder how you'd respond if your doorbell rang tonight there was a man who said, “Hi. My wife and I just moved in down the street. We're Shiite Muslims from Iraq and we wanted to invite you over for dinner tomorrow.” If he said, “Don't worry, we're not going to try to convert you, or nuke you, we just wanted to have dinner and talk with you and get to know you.” What would you say? I know you folks, you're good Presbyterians; you'd say, “Dinner, sure! I've got some casseroles in the freezer. Can I bring one?”

Would you go out of your way to make a similar invitation to someone who's not like you? Would you go out of your way to make such an invitation to someone who doesn't like you? Maybe you have. Do it again. And again. Do it not because you're trying to convert them, not because you're trying to save their souls, not because of anything else on their behalf or even on God's behalf. Do it because no matter what our differences, everyone likes to eat supper and talk about themselves. Do it because Jesus did it. Do it again and again and again.

So what about the people who aren't folks like us? Are they going to be in heaven? Does God love them, too? Ideologically and theologically it might be entertaining to debate questions like this. But on a real life, day-to-day basis, for the most part, we either don't know people who aren't like us, or we're afraid they're going to come take our stuff. How can we even pretend we know if they're going to heaven if we don't even know their names?

We know Jesus spent an awful lot of time talking to people – and eating with people - who weren't in his “flock.” Did it make a difference to them? Sometimes yes, but a lot of times, no. I wonder what Jesus learned from talking to people where weren't like him (which would be, pretty much everybody). I wonder if the human side of him enjoyed the debates and being challenged to think in different ways. I know he enjoyed the suppers. For myself, I know that the more I learn about people who are different, the more I learn about myself. Even if all I learn is, “I'm not like that,” at least I have a better understanding of why.

The entire incarnation of Christ is this: God so loved the world that God came to this very hostile place. And even after the people who weren't like God crucified God and put God in a grave to die, God came back. Jesus came back. Again. And again. And again. Has God given up on folks like us? I hope not. I believe not. Are we really part of the authentic “flock?” I hope so. I believe so. But even if it turns out I'm not, Jesus still leaves not only the ninety and the nine, Jesus leaves the whole one hundred to come and talk to sinners like me. Folks like me. Folks like us.