St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter (April 17, 2016)

Liturgical Color: White

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


A Heavenly Throng

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in the abundant and joyful presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the seven weeks of Easter, we are challenged to clear our vision and begin to perceive the new creation begun in the Resurrection.

Last Sunday, the scripture readings prodded our imaginative reach in considering who might be worthy to participate in the new creation-and what makes them worthy. This morning, we are provided a metaphor that begins to add depth, color, and definition to the throng of peoples who share in this new life.

Let me reprise last Sunday just for a moment with a piece that reinterprets the Psalm for this morning-Psalm 23. It was written by Bobby McFerrin-the fellow who uses only his voice for his music. The song is dedicated to his mother. As we're only a couple of Sundays away from Mother's Day, it might help set our hearts for that as well. Some of my former first communion students may recognize it since I have used it with them.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I have all I need,

She makes me lie down in green meadows,

Beside the still waters, She will lead

She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,

She leads me in a path of good things,

And fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk, through a dark and dreary land,

There is nothing that can shake me,

She has said she won't forsake me,

I'm in her hand.

She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes.

She anoints my head with oil,

And my cup overflows.

Sure, surely goodness and kindness will follow me,

All the days of my life,

And I will live in her house,

Forever, forever and ever.

Glory be to our Mother, our Daughter

And to the Holy of Holies,

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,

World, without end. Amen.

Part of how we envision the color and definition of the throng of peoples who share in the resurrected life of Easter is revealed in images of those many in the Church have long ignored—among them too often have been women, people who have challenged society's mores, and those who are born with a skin color that is not that of the majority in a given place.

The metaphor before us of shepherd and flock may obscure this. After all, we have become a society far removed from the life of animal husbandry and farming from which this image is drawn. We understand little of the behaviors of sheep and know nothing of the skills connected with shepherding them. We would be pressed to recognize the types and colors, the health and physical needs of a diverse flock.

But perhaps there is something of this picture of our Lord as shepherd and we as sheep that clears our vision.

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Rev. 7:9-10)

This part of what John has to say is what brought back to mind the McFerrin piece. John envisions a group much wider than Israel. All racial and religious barriers have disappeared. People of all types, from every tribe and nation, gather with palms to welcome the king. It's a scene that echos the ancient feast of Tabernacles as well as the events that begin Holy Week.

John of Patmos makes further use of the image of the shepherd—the theme for this fourth Sunday of Easter—to speak of how it is that our Lord embraces and cares for the great and diverse throng of believers:

"For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within God's temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Rev. 7:15-17)

Okay. There's a heavenly throng. Decisively contrary to the accursed opinions of all too many television preachers who hawk their doomsday books supposedly based on Revelation, John of Patmos is not here speaking either of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by or of how our future will look. This is not foretelling. Scripture is not about some mystical revelation that inspires us to spend our valuable time unraveling it. Scripture is not a code to be broken. John and scripture are, rather, forth-telling-they are telling the truth about who God is.

Here in the complex and beautiful book of Revelation, John on his island of exile, is simply giving his beloved Christian companions the only gift left for him to give-hope.He misses the shared worship. He aches for the communal spirit, support, and celebration of communion.

John offers his Christian community a vision of hope in which Christians are no longer oppressed, beaten, ostracized, defamed, or sent into exile. John wants his readers to know, with the certainty of his visions, that God had not given up on them—that God would bring their lives to a new place. You can hear his personal yearnings giving it shape:

"For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Rev. 7:15-17)

There's no surprise here. What John imagines for himself and for his troubled sisters and brothers is everything they now lack. He knows Psalm 23 well, and it adds depth of color and excitement to his yearnings.

One day, they will no longer be in want and they will again enjoy refreshing vistas and cooling streams. One day, the temple will be rebuilt, and he and his friends in Christ will no longer need to huddle in fear. One day, all nations will know the Lord. One day, Christians will again worship. One day the hunger and thirst and heat of exile and persecution will be taken entirely away by the warmth and protection, like a mother, of a sheltering God. One day all tears will be wiped away and brows will be cooled at streams of living water. One day, the Lord will be known as their Good Shepherd again.

Perhaps some of you recall conversations we have held with our neighbors at Beth Shalom and University Baptist. In those conversations, we continue to struggle with the widespread understanding of Christianity that infects our public discourse and that influences the perceptions of our Jewish neighbors. I remember the rabbi speaking about atonement—how we are made right with God. Christians, the rabbi said, are other-worldly, with a faith that's about what happens after life. Jews, on the other hand, think of atonement as being about this world, and they work to make the world better.

I understand this perspective. If all we know of Christianity comes from the air waves and internet, where fundamentalist views dominate, an other-worldly focus would seem to be the primary Christian perspective.

And, don't misunderstand me. Essential to our faith is a certain hope that we will live with God forever, that death has already been overcome, that we have already died in baptism the only death that really matters. We are dying to sin and a resurrected life is taking root in us. Yes, as Paul says, "If for this life only we have hoped, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Cor. 15:19) That's something we affirmed together just this week at our "Living the Questions" study.

Let me emphasize this point with a story. I vividly remember sitting at the bedside of Mabel, an elderly and very ill church member several years ago. She knew she was dying, and so did I. We talked about the leg amputation that she was to undergo; the family was pushing for it, hoping it would give her more time with them. And I remember God giving me at least a few words. "Whatever happens to your body, remember that the Lord is your shepherd."

"What did you say?" she asked with tears in her eyes.

"Remember that the Lord is your shepherd, regardless of what happens."

Something let go in her. I could see the relaxation of body and spirit. She yielded to her Lord and to her family and agreed to the surgery that ended what non-Christians might call her life. But I know that she merely moved into a closer walk with Jesus.

Yes, our hope transcends this earthly existence. Christian hope is rooted in a faith that can carry us through our darkest hours.

Nevertheless, we are not a people focused primarily on the after-life. The life our Lord lived made that fact abundantly clear. He didn't sit on his hands waiting for the rapture; indeed, the very idea of a rapture was as foreign to Jesus as an airplane or an Oreo cookie. The life of Jesus Christ was, first and foremost a life of engagement-of caring, compassion, healing, serving, speaking good words, and loving. He was single-mindedly dedicated to the enrichment of human lives, individually and in community, on the path to ushering in God's glorious kingdom here on Earth. It is what he taught us to pray: "Your kingdom come on earth...".

What freed Jesus to be this way? The same thing that freed Mabel to yield herself—an intimate connection to God. Straddling heaven and earth, Jesus could see and work to effect what humans had not yet glimpsed. Knowing who and whose he was, he could whole-heartedly devote himself to ushering into this world a new way of perceiving and a new kind of world.

We are freed to behave in exactly that way. Having died with Jesus, we experience a resurrection like his. Our life—please hear this—is no longer about death in any way shape or form. We don't seek it, pay attention to it, or look forward to it. Death has, in this Easter life, no power whatsoever. Christiansare solely and completely about life, not death. This is the Easter message that we are trying to sort out during this Week of Weeks.

It is precisely this reality of ours—that of having one foot in heaven—which gives us the strength and the courage to deal with this sinful and broken world. Another way to say this is that our participation in the body of Jesus Christ, witnessed, strengthened, and re-membered most fully in the circle of fellowship around the Table of the Lord, empowers us by showing us a glimpse of what God intends for this world. It calls us fiercely to challenge those places where we find evidence of the kingdom poor, lacking, or partial.It makes it possible for us to live life the way Jesus did.

Yes, I know we can't do that fully. But that's okay too. The whole point is that we are freed to try, not letting our sinfulness or our failures or our negative self-assessments get in the way. Because those are all forgiven. And it isn't even about whether or not we make it. It's about the abundant and joyful journey along the way with our Lord, living already in the kingdom that has been fully ushered into our hearts, if partially realized in our world.

The heavenly throng, in this vision of reality that challenges us today, includes everyone. All are held securely in a net that does not break. But this morning, we learn more about life in the net. It is not, as some might think, confining or burdensome. It is not restricting or limiting. It is freeing, intimate, vision-clearing, hopeful, and spilling over with the love of One who knows us better than a Good Shepherd knows the sheep.

May that vision clear our heads and our spirits, and may it define our living. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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