By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 25, 2021
1 John 3:16–24 (ESV)
16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
John 10:11–18 (ESV)
11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
When we hear a story, any story, our minds are trained to develop some mental image. For some of us the mental image is one that is breath takingly vivid. Some people can imagine in ways that movie directors could only dream of, not only in color but one could almost get the sense that you were sitting within the story. You can feel the morning dew in the grass and smell the aroma of wildflowers in the air. The people that imagine like that are usually artists of some kind. They are the ones that write books that people read for centuries, they are the ones that write poetry, the ones that paint or sculpt. The people with those vivid imaginations are the ones that have such a deep understanding of something that they are compelled to make some attempt at communicating it in a manner that the rest of us might understand. Because the rest of us when we imagine we do not see the details. The rest of us hear the words and we might be lucky if we even develop an image at all in our mind’s eye.
I want us to imagine, I want us to develop this ability to some degree because it is important. When Jesus says that we must be like children to enter the kingdom, in some ways he is speaking about our ability to imagine. The skill of imagination allows us to see beyond. It allows us to explore and develop empathy as we mentally look at things from a different perspective.
Children imagine, they do this when they play. They imagine that they are professional baseball or soccer players. They imagine they are mothers or fathers. They imagine that they are astronauts on a mission to Mars or sailor on a pirate ship. Do you remember when you used to imagine? My parents have videos of my siblings and I playing, much to my embarrassment. In those videos you can see that the imagination can create things and situations that a child must figure out some way to overcome. It is the imagination that allows us to look beyond the known into the unknown, and we can solve the problems that we face.
We must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We must become like children because children can imagine. They can see what is unseen. They believe in the possibility of something amazing. They believe that they can figure out some way to overcome the great obstacles set before them. Adults we struggle with this.
I want us to imagine today’s passage. But first we need to close our eyes and listen. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What image do you see? Let that image develop in your mind and add some scenery. Jesus said these words to the religious leaders of his day. They were angry and irritated with him because he had the audacity to heal a man that was blind from birth, on the sabbath. Jesus goes on, “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and care nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”
Imagine the scene. Who are you seeing? Do you still see a shepherd or are you now seeing a crowd of angry men? Why are those men angry?
It is interesting how the imagination works. With just a few more words the entire scene changes. What we are seeing right now speaks volumes about where our mind is. When we see the angry men, we are identifying ourselves in a different place in the story. Why have we become that person?
I have been a hired hand on a farm. And often we get a distorted picture as to the personality of the hire hands from this parable. When someone hires people to assist in work, they are hiring those people to assist in the care of the entire scope of the business venture. In this parable the business is caring for sheep. Because of the wording we think of the hired hands as being cowards that see danger and run away. That is not a full picture. The hired hands were hired to help protect the herd. Their job is to help keep the flock from danger. When they see a wolf coming it is their job to get as many sheep away from the wolf as possible. They were hired for the herd not individual sheep. Their mindset is by default focused on preserving the as much of the herd as possible and the best way to do that is to avoid danger. But when a wolf enters the herd, seeking to devour the sheep, the hired hands must make a quick decision preserve some or lose them all. The hired hand must go with the greater number, preserve more and as a result they will lose some.
Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders; he is speaking to those that have been set in a place to care and preserve the congregation of Israel. Israel throughout their history has often be referred to as God’s sheep herd, so these religious leaders are the hired hands of God. They are set there to move and direct the herd to still waters and green pastures, but they are not the owners of the sheep. Do they care about the herd? Yes, they absolutely care about the herd. They are there to help keep the herd together.
These men that were listening to Jesus had just seen Jesus do something. They saw that he had worked a miraculous sign on a day that they were charged to preserve for God. As hired men, they were duty bound to move the sheep away from this dangerous act. If they did not distance themselves and the flock from this threat soon all the sheep would conclude that it would be ok to work on the sabbath. They enter a defensive mode. And they begin to sacrifice and distance themselves from those that have embraced this divisive teaching.
They, in their devotion, leave the healed man, who had never seen a spring flower bloom, behind. They removed him from the synagogue or exiled him from the community. This man who was shunned from his birth. He never once heard a kind word because people always regarded him as being sinful and cursed by God. He was excluded from the community and the moment his life changed, just when he was made complete by God, the community continues to reject him. Why?
The hired hands sensed change in the air. The hired hands noticed that the sheep were getting restless and their attention was being drawn to areas they were not leading them. The hired hands interpreted that change as being something treacherous that would cause harm to the herd, so they flee from the perception of danger. What they missed though was that the sheep were not sensing danger but the voice of their shepherd, who was approaching. Little by little, sheep by sheep begins to hear and turn. The hired hands try their hardest to keep the flock together. They are so focused on the flock, that they do not take the time to listen. They do not take the time to seek out what might be attracting the sheep’s attention. And because they fear the unknown, they instead of leading the sheep home, they lead them deeper into danger. They are unconcerned for the singular sheep, but instead more concerned with the organization.
“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Last week Pastor Bilengana spoke about living by the Spirit and being children of God. This is what that means. We focus on the Spirit of God. We seek the Spirit of God, and we listen to that voice. This takes discipline and effort both on our part and on God’s. Jesus spoke about leaving the ninety-nine to get the one sheep that strayed, that is God’s effort in bringing us in. Our effort is to listen and abide.
In the first reading today, John told us in his letter of encouragement, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s good and see his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
To love as John encourages us to love can cause some fear. We do not know what will happen, we are laid vulnerable before people that we do not trust and do not know. When someone asks us about our faith we are faced with a dilemma; are they honestly seeking or are they mocking? When we begin to see someone, we once regarded as sinful making attempts to change, how do we respond? Do we rush in to encourage or do we step back and continue to reject them from our community? How do we respond when the world and the church seem to be at odds?
Listen to the Spirit and abide with him. John goes on to encourage us, “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him; for whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we as we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, jus as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
What does that mean? If our heart condemns us? This means if we sense danger, if we sense that maybe evil is lurking before us, trust that God is there. Look for where God is in that place and encourage that little spark of light to grow. If we focus on that of God within those around us and contribute to that identity it will grow. And as it grows, we do not need to worry about sin because the Spirit will direct those in sin out of sin if we feed the light.
The religious leaders looked upon a man born blind with disdain and they rejected him. When Jesus come to that man and healed him the religious leaders again rejected him because the healing did not happen according to their accepted traditions. They saw danger where God was walking, and they fled from the presence of God. Jesus speaks to them in that place of rejection and tells them that he is the good shepherd that will lay down his life for the sheep. They understand fully what Jesus is implying. God is the shepherd of Israel; God is the one that will protect and lead those he has chosen from the beginning of time. He is telling these devout religious leaders, that they are missing the point. They are running away from God because they are not listening to his voice. They have forgotten to look for God in the stillness, and instead demand signs. And when they see the signs, they still run because the signs did not come in a manner they expected.
We can become distracted from God, in so many ways. Even the most spiritual among us can be distracted even while they remain disciplined in their faith. We should listen to our hearts. Listen with the very center of who we are. Listen in our weakness and listen from that place we know we failed. Listen with the strength that God has given us to overcome and listen with the strength we still seek. Listen, and then respond. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But while we were still sinner, enemies of God, Christ died for us, so that we could have life. Not just life but a fulfilling life. That life comes to us when we believe in the name of Jesus and love one another as he not only commanded but showed us to do. Let us live lives loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 4, 2021
John 20:1–18 (ESV)
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
Today is the greatest day we as Christians remember. It is the greatest day that all humanity, if they knew, would remember. Today we celebrate the restoration of hope!
If you have followed the Daily Meeting on YouTube, you with me have walked through the final week of Jesus’ ministry before his trial and execution. On Monday, like Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus coming into the Holy City triumphantly on his barrowed donkey. Often, we think of this image as being lowly. We almost consider Jesus as being the popper’s king because he is on a donkey instead of a great war horse. This is a cultural phenomenon, we regard the donkey as something lesser and lowly, but in other cultures that beast of burden has a different significance. This donkey symbolizes peace. Jesus came into David’s city as a king of peace. But as he approached the city, as his eyes first spotted the sun’s reflection on the alabaster faced temple. He came not in victorious pride, but in tears. He was grieved over the city that would fail to recognize their day of visitation. He was paraded to the very courts of the temple, where he became incensed at the corrupt business between the religious leaders along with the bankers and merchants. After destroying the market, he attracted a crowd with his teaching. And that evening he joined Simon the Leper for a meal where tradition tells us Mary anointed his feet with oil and tears.
Tuesday, Jesus returns to the temple and challenges the teachings of the religious elites, and praises the offering given by an impoverished widow. It is on Tuesday that we memorialize the God-fearing Gentiles that came to Philip with the hopes of speaking with Jesus, and Jesus accepted them joyfully into the crowd as he gave his last major sermon.
Things begin to change on Wednesday. The religious leaders have had enough. They have been challenged in public, in the very place that they should be honored and revered. And they convince one of the disciples that maybe Jesus is not what he seems to be. We do not know what went through the mind of Judas that day. For two thousand years Judas has been held in disdain because he became the one to betray Christ. But have we spent time considering it? He was a disciple, he too said with the others that Jesus had the words of life, but somewhere along the way Jesus just was not what he expected. And on Spy Wednesday we are reminded at how easy it can be to get distracted and betray even the ones we love the most.
Thursday, Maundy Thursday, I always wondered why the liturgical churches gave it that name. On Thursday, the disciples met together in the upper room and ate the holy feast. They began to gather and Jesus steps away, removes his clothes and wraps a towel around him, and begins to wash their feet. The disciples are sitting in shock, their rabbi, the one they believe to be the king they have been waiting for took on the role of the lowest servant. And at first, they reject his offer. Peter says, “You will never wash my feet!” only to have Jesus yet again scold him saying, “If you do not allow me to wash your feet, you will have no part of me.” Peter then, like usual, goes to the extreme, asking not only for his feet to be washed but also his head and his hand. You really must appreciate the humanity of Peter. Jesus finishes this task and he challenges the disciples to understand why he did that, honestly, disgusting, task. Then he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” This is the Maundy of Thursday. Maundy is derived from the Latin for commandment. We are commanded to live the love of Christ with others. And after this meal Jesus goes to the garden to pray and Judas proceeds to betray the one that just washed his feet.
This takes us to Friday, Good Friday. Imagine the fear and the confusion of the disciples. Just a few days ago, Jesus was being lauded as a king, and now he was arrested. Peter tried to fight, and Jesus told him to put the sword away. They stand around listening to the conversations around a fire, Peter even denies knowing Jesus, even when one man admits that he had seen him in the garden when Jesus was arrested. And we are told that that man was a relative of the man who had his ear removed by Peter’s sword. The disciples quickly realize that they have failed. Everything they thought they knew, everything they thought they had vanished before their eyes.
Why do we walk though this week? Why do we remember these things every year? We remember because it is so easy to forget. It is so easy to get distracted by things going on around us to the point we miss the most important things. This week as I prayed, I realized just how easy it is to be Judas. Some scholars have concluded that Judas was not as bad of a man as we often depict him to be. They have studied what is known about him, even the origin of his name, and some believe that Judas may have betrayed Jesus out of passionate devotion to Jesus. They think that maybe his betrayal was an attempt to push Jesus into the role of the victorious king many believed the Messiah would be. They theorize that Judas was colluding with the religious elites not because he despised Jesus, but because he wanted them to see Jesus for who Judas believed him to be. This scares me, because it shows that in my attempts to do what I think is right, I might be betraying the one I love the most. And I need to remember. I need to remember that even when I believe I am right, I can be completely wrong.
And on Friday, as I contemplated the crucifixion. As I looked on paintings depicting that cruel and inhumane manner of execution. I was faced with the injustices that I have not spoken out against. The death of Jesus is filled with injustice of the worst sort. People justifying the taking of a life because they do not agree. Priests saying it is better to get rid of this outspoken teacher that is drawing people away from them, than to have the attention of the Romans be turned to an entire nation. To listen again to the words spoken by the Pilate, I find no guilt in him, yet to keep a riot from breaking out he sentenced an innocent man to death.
We crucified Christ. We crucified him when we did not speak up for the kid being bullied. We crucified him when we like the religious leaders at the trial of Jesus cry out “We have no king but Caesar!” We crucify Jesus when we put our nation above the person sitting next to us, or living down the street, or across town. We crucify Jesus every day, when we fail to see that of God in the people around us, and do not promote true holy justice.
Then there comes Black Saturday. This day is the hardest day. We do not like remembering Saturday. Jesus is dead and he is sealed in a tomb. But even this dark day Jesus is with us in every aspect of our humanity. From the world’s perspective everything that Jesus stood for, everything that Jesus did was a failure. He was a failure because he did not conquer, his disciples ran away, his movement was not strong enough to resist even his own countrymen let alone the might of Rome. Jesus was a complete failure in the eyes of the world that Saturday.
We have been there. We have seen ourselves as complete failures. When I was in school, I had trouble in one subject. I was regarded as one of the best students in my class in everything but this one subject. I could get A’s on every test in science, and math. I could understand the deeper meanings in literature when we read books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Great Gatsby.” But no matter how hard I tried I could not spell.
Every Friday we would have a spelling test and every Friday I would go home knowing I was dumb, and I had enough of it. One Friday I decided I would cheat so that I could finally get a good grade. Unfortunately, well probably fortunately, I am a terrible cheater. I was caught. And I went home again with an F in spelling. That was the lowest I had ever felt to that point. I thought life was going to be over. I thought that teacher would cause every other teacher to question my grades and I would be put into some sort of academic purgatory. That is Black Saturday. When we feel as if life cannot go on. When we feel we had given all we could and received nothing in return. We took a chance and the world beats us back. That is Black Saturday, we are failures, without hope.
The disciple sat in the upper room in a depressed state like I hope we never know. They had given everything they had to follow Jesus. They walked away from careers, they abandoned their reputations, they had invested in what they thought was the best future they could imagine, and that future was crucified and sealed in a tomb. Then Mary comes running to the door out of breath saying the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
You run out to the tomb and when you get there not only is the stone moved but there is no body. The linen coverings are laying where the body should be and there is something odd. The face cloth, the hood that goes over the head and is held in place with the wrappings is not with the other wrappings but is folded off by itself.
The scene is bizarre if you think about it. As I read this to prepare for today my mind was focused on that folded face cloth. It was folded. Who would take the time to show that much care to a cloth, if they were going to steal the body? And I realized that they took the time to mention that it was folded for that purpose. It showed care and kindness. It showed that there was respect. It is recorded that when “the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first,” saw this he believed. When I sat with this passage this week, my mind went to a word I had heard my grandpa utter thousands of times. Welp. It is a nonsense word basically has no meaning except well now what, or well I guess we should just get going. I read this passage and I saw that they saw the folded cloth and all I could hear was my grandpa saying welp. And it is pretty much what I think went through their heads, because in verse nine it says, “for as yet they did not understand,” but they went back to the house.
Welp. That is the beginning of hope. You realize that there just might be something else to do and you might as well get moving. They did not understand what was going on, but they could sense profundity in a simple folded cloth. But Mary stayed at the tomb.
There is something interesting about the Gospel according to John. When we look at the major stories included in John there are ten primary characters named. Five of them are men and five are women. There are debates around why there is equality in this, but I think it shows that God can use anyone even if culture would dictate otherwise. Mary is one of those women that John focuses on. And she is regarded with the same care by Jesus as the other disciples, because she is allowed to sit in with the men while he teaches.
Mary stays at the tomb and she looks inside. She knows what the Peter and John saw when they went in, but now as she gazes in, she sees two angels in white sitting where the body should have been. And these angels speak to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” The word woman in this sense is the same that Jesus used when he spoke to his mother. It is not derogatory but endearing. They are there assisting her in this moment. Attempting to help her through this state of confusion. She is there weeping knowing that Peter and John sensed that God was at work, and here she is looking at two angels and she is weeping. She cannot get her mind around what is right before her eyes. Her mind is stuck, like so often ours get stuck. The body is gone someone must have taken it, but the face cloth is folded who would do that?
She turns around, and a man is standing there. She is standing out there weeping and this man asks, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Again, this is a term of endearment not derogatory. But Mary begins to take offense, she assumes he is a gardener so she lashes out, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She is anxious, confused, and terrified. Her emotions are waging a war within her. And like us when we sense all hope is gone, we cannot see a path forward. We lash out at those that try to help. But Jesus does not take offense, he simply calls out to her by name. “Mary.”
With a word, one word the desperation is gone. The hopelessness has vanished. There is restoration.
This past week basically takes us symbolically through life in general. We have highs and lows. We hit rock bottom and can be hopeless. But with one word everything can change. That one word is your name. The name your mother breathed on your forehead as she held you in her arms as a baby. The name your spouse cherishes. The name your friends scream at you when you step off a plane. Your name. It is the word God whispers in your ear when all hope seems to be lost. This is not the end, Mary, it has just the begun.
With a simple folded cloth, we can begin to see change, and with a whisper of a name the spirit can be quickened. The world thought that they could stop him, and seal him in a grave, but God will not be tamed. He lives! And because he lives, we can look at the injustice of the world and we can speak out. Because he lives, we can look at our lives that the world may see as failure, and we can stand up again. Because he lives, we know that the story is not over, the adventure has just begun. He lives!
And Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” Let us now enter this time of open worship. And let us remember, the hope that He has restored to each of us. And let us testify to the things he has shown us so that the world can know He lives!