The greatest gifts a person could ever own

I hold in my hands one of the greatest gifts a person could ever own. It is one of those items that can be passed down from one generation to the next. From father to son, mother to daughter. It's like a photo album or scrap book that has been carefully maintained and updated. The story of your ancestors, your genealogy.

It is a collection of documents that can connect us to another era as fast as any time machine ever imagined. It is history, law, model government, and moral deliberation. It is poetry, wisdom, and song. It is a love story, a mystery, an apocalypse. It is full of adventure, war, killing, and heroic rescue. Devoted friendships, tragic mistakes, international spies and intrigue. It is a resource to understand our world today and the answer to every dilemma

And, every Sunday you get to hear four - (not just one!) installments of the greatest epic adventure ever. And, that my friends is exciting! Bible writers were skilled at their task, too. God didn't just inspire common fishermen, herdsmen and carpenters….God talked with literary folks, educated folks, multi-linguists, and highly traveled people. The texts are littered with metaphors, sarcasm, enthusiasm, passion, double entendre, poetic devices, rhythm and meter and the latest social and political imagery. The Bible is a vivid mural of life, yet somehow, over the years it appears that something has lost its sparkle.

I watched some of your faces from where I sat. And, you know, y'all have great masks that hide what you are feeling as these stories are read. So, I thought we could focus a bit on our four readings and try to enter into the dynamics of these passages. It is easy to take the path of least effort, to read the obvious and assume that is what God intended. But what I want you to try to do is enter the story, receive its fullness, gather the richness and be changed. And when I say story, I do not mean fiction, but rather a teaching method that takes you out of the classroom setting and into reality, beyond memorizing dates and facts and being controlled to connecting what you need to learn with your own life experience. And, Jesus was expert at it.

Three of our readings speak of the very familiar and comforting identity of Jesus as Shepherd, the one who protects, feeds, guides and brings his sheep to life itself. Yet, is that all? I ask that because very few of us encounter many real shepherds.

Let's look at the 23rd Psalm. "He makes me lie down in green pastures." That phrase kept going through my head as I looked at acres and acres of fields yesterday, unmowed spring grasses waving in the breeze. I thought of lying down, partially hidden, staring up at the blue sky, watching the cloud formations, hearing the buzzing of the bees as they fly from blossom to blossom under the hot sun. I could see my dog lying in the yard, glad to see winter is over for now closing her eyes as she naps contentedly. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. There's a movie out right now, called "Big Fish." It's a superb movie about the power of story. In one scene the main character, as a young boy, has an opportunity to look into the future and see how he will die. He says it is a means of strength 'cause he knows he can get through any of the other things life throws at him, since he knows how his story ends. At one point, he was literally walking through a valley filled with dense trees that were reaching out to trap him. He vainly struggled, until he remembered "the rest of his story." At that point, he triumphed. We, too may triumph because we know the rest of our story. We can weather just about anything because, like the Israelites we trust in God's promises to uphold us. We - know the end of our story - sustained and loved by God.

The story of Tabitha is all too familiar for those who have family or friends who have gone home to God. We could summarize this story as a miracle that the faithful apostle Peter was able to accomplish because of prayer and the commissioning given to him by Jesus. Yet, then we would miss the amazing value of community support in a time of grief and a time of need.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a 16 year old boy who had taken his life on Wednesday after school. We arrived a half hour early but already the cars lined the street on both sides and the church was standing room only. I witnessed first hand the truth of the verse…. "All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them." The teen's mother, father and young sister told each of their stories of Kyle and people wept. Displayed in front of the railing were photos since infancy and items from his life by which he was well known. Pastor thanked them for sharing because it allowed us all to work through our personal grieving together. And, a woman from the back came forward. 22 years ago, she had lost her child and reminded us how these stories allow Kyle to continue to live in our hearts and not become just a memory.

In the gospel passage from John, Jesus reveals the deep relationship he has with the Father. How close in purpose and the strength of the bond they have with one another and with those who are of the fold. But it is told in a very real setting that illustrates just how safe those sheep are. You can imagine how crowded Jerusalem is during any festival. Kind of like New York City on New Year's Eve. It would be easy for members of any group to get separated from one another by all the hustle and bustle. Jesus uses a curious phrase that fits the situation then and now. "No one will snatch them out of my hand." In Jesus' day, wolves and other predators would sneak in and take an unsuspecting sheep at a moment's notice. I envisioned pick pockets from the movie Oliver because several times when I had been a tourist in Europe, beggars would surround you on the steps of cathedrals asking in broken English for money while the children easily slipped a hand in your purse snatching valuables. Think of today's moms with several little ones in a crowded mall. The anxiety of a loving mom…the worry of the kids wandering off, getting lost, and being snatched up by a complete stranger never to be seen again.

But Jesus says his voice is known by his sheep. The deep bond that is between the Father and the Son becomes the bond with those who are loved by them.

I've saved Revelation for last. I do this because it has been for centuries the playground of those fortune seekers who like to play on the fears of every man. With its mind blowing imagery we are easy prey for those who seek to know the future of humanity by equating historical events, computer generated patterns, or simply writing exciting novels that have lots of thrills but no theological depth.

Instead, Revelation is a book filled with hope. This passage describes for us a scene where all peoples not just Jews and Christians are gathered in the presence of God. It does not say they all converted but it does say they came to understand the source of all life, knowledge and wisdom as coming from God and the Lamb. And this truth comes to us in the form of a paradox. The Bible often brings together images that seemingly cannot be reconciled with each other, that cannot exist at the same time in the same place. Can you imagine citizens of the United States standing side by side with Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghanis, North Koreans, South Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, French, Spanish, Germans, Cubans, Mexicans, etc, etc, etc before God on an equal footing? Considering the current state of affairs in our world, it would seem improbable.

If you want to know the future, there it is. "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."

Now if you think about it that is an absolute paradox. Everyone knows that if you wash something in blood, it does not come out white. But this image is so powerful, that I want to illustrate it for you. I want it to be one of the things you take home with you. This is especially meaningful since we are about to have communion.

What I have in the bottle is NOT blood, but red food coloring but it stains just as much. My hands will be stained as I hand you the body of Christ for I too am a sinner.

Jesus died - not just for the sins of those who were his contemporaries, but for us who would come two thousand years later. We are just as guilty of nailing Christ to the cross as the fanatical Pharisees and or the Roman soldiers doing what they had been trained to do. We cannot escape the sinful nature of our existence. The sins we commit are but symptoms of a greater systemic problem that only our God can resolve. This scene before the throne of God declares that most emphatically. Our God is an awesome God. No matter how many holy wars we think we are engaged in. No matter how many people of this earth we watch starve to death. No matter how many medical conditions are created because of our tampering with creation, no matter how many people we shun because of their differences. God ultimately gets God's way. Jesus will bring his sheep home - all of them together - to stand before God - washed clean because of what Jesus has already done for us.

We know the end of the story.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan