“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” -John 10:10
Last fall we finally broke ground on a new masonry garage in our backyard. A back hoe took up residence, demolished the existing structures, excavated the foundation, then, a cement truck appeared (I just love big equipment) and the foundation was poured. But, everything froze, literally, as soon as the weather turned cold. We learned the hard way that masonry should only be laid in temperatures above 32 degrees. Since our average temp was 22 degrees from Thanksgiving to April, my backhoe became a fixture, never moving. Snow accumulated. Ice. It was as if an unwanted and ugly animal had moved onto the property.
Several weeks ago, life changed. The backhoe miraculously started, spewing black smoke, but it finished its work. Now, we have several Polish masons who arrive at 7am to hoist blocks and bricks, throwing them around as if these concrete blocks were Styrofoam. With wide trowels they scoop and slap mounds of mortar in and around the blocks before they shove them onto the foundation. All the while, they are yelling at each other in Polish, saying who knows what.
After each row, they stop. Carefully, they will place a level on the just-laid row. Look quietly. If needed, tap, tap with a small hammer, check the level again, look at one another, and offer a quiet nod or mutter, once the line is true. There is another worker who will measure their progress against the drawings and, as the walls climb, against other points in the building.
It is fascinating to watch. Honestly, it is addictive to watch the combination of brute labor and precision. From the foundation up, each row must be true, or the entire structure will be off by the time they get to the roof. Such care is needed for this building to, allow me to say, stand the test of time. These are craftsmen.
Other professions demand exacting labor to create something that is true to their field. Consider the pursuit of justice by those lawyers and judges who seek to uphold the letter of the law. Academics labor over arguments and facts – even how to discern a fact in pursuit of the truth in a chosen field. Such work is deliberate, individual and collective.
Theologians are also in pursuit of a true understanding of God, with theology literally meaning theo-, God, and -logy, study. We’ve been in search of true theologies since the beginning of human history. But, there is a difference between articulating a theology about God and God’s truth.
One of the hazards of traveling with me on vacation can be summed in the acronyms ABC and ADC. Another bloody church. Another damn cathedral. I do not walk past a church, house of worship, temple or structure dedicated to religion: I always walk in. I love seeing how the architecture expresses the theology of the congregation. I gather any extra worship materials. Frustrating my traveling companions, I will wander into conversations with locals if possible and interior rooms. I do not discriminate between a cathedral and a store-front church. Both fascinate me. I want to experience as best possible, how others worship, where others worship and what they worship.
On a recent trip to a lovely southern city, I admired a variety of churches, well maintained on city squares. Unfortunately, all were locked during the weekdays and Saturday.
When Sunday morning arrived, as we were headed for worship, I had my chance to wander into all those churches whose doors were now open, as long as I could slip in without interrupting worship.
One magnificent structure captured our attention, with soaring steeple and historic plaque describing it as “upholding the torch of truth for over 200 years.” As I read such a bold statement, I caught my breath, but before I crossed the threshold, I encountered a gentleman, dressed in a choir robe, who immediately welcomed me, and encouraged me to stay. But, I was confused. A worship service was obviously underway, which did not match the service schedule listed on the plaque.
He was quick to mention that the congregation worshiping at the time was a guest in the sanctuary. Their church home had been damaged in a recent storm. Concerned this might be the congregation and church where I was headed, I mentioned its name. His face fell. “Oh no, we are not like them. We broke away from that denomination when they changed. We care about the truth.” He then sought to assure me it was appropriate for them to worship in this particular building by confiding “only our sacraments may differ from this congregation, our theologies are similar and they too are concerned about keeping and telling the truth.”
I offered my gratitude for his hospitality but left. Had I not been “in the business” so to say of religion and theology, I might have ditched the idea of church to head back to the coffee shop, which had easy-going baristas, great coffee and did not feel so threatening.
Truth telling. Upholding the truth. It was as if they placed a measuring stick next to ideas and behaviors, to discern if you would fit in or if your theology would cause theirs to crumble. From his tone of voice, he was confident theirs was rock solid.
I understand the desire to live into the truth and to seek the truth, but truth-telling churches do not allow much room for doubt or questions. Despite “being in the business” of church and ministry, and investing a great deal of time thinking, writing and talking about theology and God, I will profess; honestly, my faith is a mixture of faith and doubt, along with a bit of fear at times. I wonder. Is it arrogance or naiveté to claim to have cornered the truth, to be so certain you have captured and hold the truth, and then to be a gatekeeper of who gets in, who may remain, and who is out?
As I distance myself from the truth-telling churches, I know I need to check myself against, what Freud would call, “the narcissism of small differences,” feuding over details in the interest of feeding my pride. But, truth and grace are not details, these are the fundamental elements of life and eternal life. Any notion that we build our grace or what merits grace, denies them as God’s gifts.
John’s gospel seeks to convey the truth. In this gospel, Jesus’ incarnation is not a birth story, but one of creation, in which God’s “truth and grace came through him (1:14).” John promotes seeking the truth by stating “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (8:32).” Jesus tells us “I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6).”
Oliver O’Donovan is an Anglican priest and professor of Christian ethics at the University of Edinburgh. He writes, “ the claim of Jesus in John’s gospel…is uniquely uncompromising: not only to teach the truth, but to be the truth, the Word of God, revealed in human life.”
He argues John’s gospel message may be difficult to grasp, “(w)e know the difference between discovering something and inventing it ourselves. There it was, waiting for us, but we have only just come level with it. It did not begin with us, but came to us. It is a gift given us by reality itself. And as we have not achieved it, so we are not in control of it. The truer our discovery is, the more we have still to learn about it. Discovering the truth is like being shown a door that lets us in on a world.” (O’Donovan. The World in Small Boats. 110)
Discovering the truth is like being shown a door that lets us in. I love his last statement.
In our gospel lesson for the day, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. Religious leaders questioned how he could possibly restore this man to society. How did he achieve his authority?
Jesus responded “the gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them.” Although the metaphor needs to be unpacked, it was as if Jesus were speaking a foreign language, professing a concept so distant from their conception of what is right.
The Pharisees were a group of theologians with a particular point of view about God, salvation, and sin. They excluded those who did not fit into their construct of the world, or threatened their truth claims. They built their theology, one layer at a time, to suit their purposes.
Jesus slowed down and repeated, “very truly I tell you, I am the gate.” Some translations will state “I am the door.” However this metaphor is translated, Jesus reveals his ability to heal is grounded in the truth of an open-door community as opposed to closed-door communities. Jesus welcomes Samaritans, the woman at the well, Nicodemus, the man born blind…even Judas. Jesus reveals he is the gate to life, challenging the Pharisee’s notion of order, but more importantly, Jesus affirms the world God created is good and always worthy of new life. (James Martin. Interpretation, April 1978, 173.)
Jesus was the truth in ways that confounded all language and experiences in 1st century Palestine. O’Donovan writes, “the search for the truth is not a matter of finding words for what we really know.” He concedes we all, including himself, fumble for words and in our fumbling, we should become even more aware the truth is not of our making: “(t)he expression of the truth is beyond us; it is the truth itself, which must be given and cannot be produced. For truth is a relation between ourselves and what is not ourselves, and that relation cannot arise within the circle of our own critical exertions.” (O’Donovan. 110)
As the Pharisees had walled themselves in with their rules and laws, shutting out those with differences of skin, physical ability, gender, sexuality or marriage, they created a theology based on shame and guilt. God is never about shame or guilt.
The truth of Jesus is not a possession. Jesus’ truth is expressed as a mission. He is both the truth, in the word made flesh, and he is the emissary in bringing God’s truth as a reality for everyone. (O’Donovan. 111) Johns’ gospel is filled with healing and teaching stories in which Jesus’ actions teach us to care for one another and accept one another.
John’s gospel expresses Jesus in metaphors: “I am the gate, I am the bread of life, I am the vine, I am the light.” In today’s gospel lesson, we hear one more metaphor but also the clearest statement of his incarnate truth: “I came that they (you) may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd.”
This truth of God, that God seeks to give us life and life abundantly, has been present throughout human history and is evident in the long arc of our biblical narrative. Each of us is created with a divine image. We are planted into a garden, given all we need for life to flourish. When starving, we are given manna from heaven. We are saved from floods, pestilence. We are brought into the Promised Land, and after exile, restored. Whenever we stray, God pursues us to grant us abundant life.
Abundant life is not to be confused with a prosperity gospel, which professes if you pray well enough you will be rewarded with wealth and happiness.
Abundant life is living as God created you in full membership of this human community. Abundant life is swinging out wide, striving for your fullest potential. It is in taking risks. It is in dreaming big. It is in opening your arms wide to embrace others. Abundant life is in giving and caring, becoming Christ to others.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, when we hear Jesus proclaim he is the good shepherd, we can recall the Psalm from the earliest of time, Psalm 23 describing abundant life: “thy rod and thy staff comfort me, makest me lie down in still waters, and restores my soul.” Abundant life knows God’s presence in the light and fruitful periods of our life with new creation.
And most of all, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” Abundant life is also God’s presence in suffering, grief and messiest parts of our lives.
Good Friday was the worst day, but God took the worst that we could do, even hiding the evidence of Jesus’ body, as if it had not happened, and redeemed all of it by raising him on Easter morning. Even the darkest day we may have or the gravest error we may commit is never beyond God’s willingness to pursue us, be with us and redeem.
How fitting that we lift-up Congregational Care on Good Shepherd Sunday and give thanks to all who are quietly present with a meal, a knitted lap robe, prayers and their presence as a Stephen Minister. These people shepherd us through dark valleys.
The last verse in John’s gospel contains the purpose of the entire book: “these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” This is the truth we are asked to trust with our lives.