Weekly Seeds: Believe God

Sunday, May 8, 2022
Fourth Sunday of Easter | Year C

Focus Theme:
Believe God

Focus Prayer:
Faithful God, we want answers. We struggle with mystery, uncertainty, and lack of control. Help us to hear and to follow your voice. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 10:22–30
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 9:36–43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9–17
John 10:22–30

Focus Questions:
1. How does God respond to our questions?
2. What questions do you have for God?
3. What questions has God answered as you asked?
4. What questions might God have answered that you missed?
5. How can you be more attuned to God’s voice?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Standing in a parking lot, I attempted to calm the panic rising within me. The building was locked, and I did not have a key or the number to reach the person who was supposed to open it. The music ministry and deacons who had arrived early to set up were grumbling, which only added to my anxiety. I heard the words, “Gather them together to pray for the key.”

That Saturday afternoon, I was preaching in place of my pastor at a satellite campus we had recently launched. We used another local UCC congregation’s building, and a member of their board would open the building for us each Sunday. An emergency commitment meant that my pastor would not be present and was not reachable. Trust me, I tried. I called and texted to no avail to get the number of the person who had the key. I was panicking but trying not to show it. I was praying, silently, that the person would show up even though it was well past the agreed upon time. I heard those words in my mind and had no doubt who was speaking, but I didn’t want to do it. The grumbling was only becoming more intense, and I was trying to shut it out to focus on praying. To be transparent, the last thing I wanted to do was to invite this group of well-meaning but frustrated people into a time of prayer.

I tried to negotiate. I questioned why my prayer wasn’t good enough. The same words kept coming as if all my responses weren’t worth addressing. Finally, I–grudgingly–capitulated. I said to the group, “let’s pray.” They looked at me with every look imaginable except any degree of eagerness. Still, as I reached out my hands toward those standing next to me, I saw everyone grasping hands, bowing heads, and forming a circle. The prayer was brief, and I don’t remember much of it. But I do remember distinctly saying, “You know who has the key. Send the key.”

The prayer was over. We were still in the parking lot. The grumbling had abated and turned to idle conversation. A few minutes later, a woman pulls into the parking lot. We knew she, an African American woman, was not the board member, a white man. She came to the door after taking a box out of her car. As she approached, a member of our group said the door was locked in order to warn her that she wouldn’t be able to get in. She said, “That’s okay. I normally go through that door,” referring to a side entrance. As she turned toward another walkway, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a set of keys.

She had the key. My group was stunned into silence. We watched her unlock the door and come around from the inside to let us in. As she was leaving a few minutes later, I found out that she was part of another faith community that rented that same space on Sunday afternoons. She was driving in the area and “something told her” to drop off this box she had in her trunk now when she originally planned to bring it the next day. God sent the key.

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (v. 27)

Christianity, in many respects, has become known as a set of beliefs that one holds in order to claim belonging. If you have the right beliefs, you are part of the community. If you do not hold those beliefs, then you aren’t a “real Christian.” Yet, the reality of the Christian faith is that we hold a vast array of beliefs. How many denominations have emerged from doctrinal divisions? How many congregations have split due to differences in beliefs? How many attempts have been made to craft a simple and unified credal statement that all of Christianity could embrace?

In the gospel reading, Jesus has an interaction with a group from the religious community. They confront him on his walk with a demand that he reveal himself to them fully. Jesus responds by saying that he has but they do not believe. It’s a curious encounter because Jesus did not, by any of the gospel accounts, go around proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. In fact, the only instance we see of that in John’s depiction of Jesus occurs through the extensive dialogue that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She indicates her belief in the coming Messiah and Jesus reveals himself as the one who has now come. Other than that, even with his closest disciples, Jesus might allude to himself in mysterious terms. More often, he reveals himself through demonstration.

The incarnation of Jesus is a demonstration. The word is made flesh. God shows us rather than tells us. Jesus continues that through the miracles he performs, the signs that he uncovers, and the encounters that he has with people in the places that they live, worship, work, and travel. His teachings are important and the gospel records their significance, but they are continually punctured by his life. In addition, they often arise out of questions he received rather than as a desire to constantly use words to express what Jesus would rather demonstrate.

If that is the case, then why would Jesus accuse those confronting him with a lack of belief? And…how does the relationship of sheep to shepherd inform the relationship between believer and Christ? Christopher A. Porter offers some contextual insight that may aid our understanding:

[John 10] forms a bridge between the two final signs of Jesus’s public ministry: the giving of sight and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, which “embody dramatically the core motifs of life and light that emerged first in the prologue.” This rhetorical context drives the narrative that occurs within the entire section and highlights the symbolic meaning that “enables the reader to enter the story, identify with the characters, and experience the imagery at an affective level, firing the imagination in the cause of Johannine faith” (Lee 2020, 93). However, this imagery extends past merely identification and imagination, but drives a choice for the audience. In this narrative, the sheep and shepherd metaphor acts as a key (i.e., a significant cognitive memory prime) and serves to unlock various memorialized intertexts as background for the narrative at hand. This pattern of intertextual assessment and integration is common within the Fourth Gospel, despite the apparent paucity of direct citations (Chennattu 2016, 170). Rather, as Hays (2016, 284) describes, “John’s manner of alluding does not depend on the citation of chains of words and phrases; instead it relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture.” These images and invocations are subsequently marshalled in fulfilment and completion narratives to highlight the identity formative end goal of the Fourth Gospel (Sheridan 2012, 241). In turn, these narrative invocations encourage the listeners to make internal assessments as to the characters in the narrative with whom to identify (Boomershine 2013, 111). Will they identify with the sheep within the pen, or with those who are not entering appropriately? Or perhaps with the sheep from another fold?

Sheep aren’t concerned with doctrinal debates or creedal commitments. They struggle because their nature does not want to be confined. Even though the shepherd’s primary motivation is protection, the sheep fights against their own benefit. They wander off in different directions. They require work, attention, energy, and patience. The shepherd, however, never forgets the role they have undertaken. The shepherd employs strategies to ensure that the sheep respond to their invitation and commands. Sometimes, the shepherd has to provide a demonstration. Continually, the shepherd communicates with the sheep so that the sheep becomes familiar with the voice of the shepherd and accustomed to following that direction.

The sheep demonstrate their trust in the shepherd not through agreeing with truths about the shepherd. The sheep show belief in the shepherd by trusting the direction of the shepherd and by walking with the freedom of the boundaries established by the shepherd.

Jesus was questioned by people who were frustrated by him, but he was followed by people who were fascinated by him. Jesus was rejected by those who felt threatened by him and embraced by those who found hope in him. Jesus was confronted by those who challenged his authority but was approached by those drawn to his unique power. Followers of Jesus, then and now, don’t always know what to think about Jesus but have been convinced to some extent Jesus offers a way toward a future with hope and life abundantly.

I am reminded that the day I was so concerned about the key, I didn’t have time to prepare a brand new sermon. I preached one that I had delivered during a chapel service at my seminary, which I was attending at the time. That message was based on Jacob wrestling with God/an angel/a human. I had been wrestling in that parking lot in my own way. I struggled to believe that God would be concerned with the mundane. I fought against a simple solution–in part because it was so simple. I was confronted with the ways in which I have not and did not believe in the God who cares, acts, and intervenes.

Still, God met me there and did not stop speaking. I received no explanation…just a bit of guidance. God provided a demonstration of who God is and what God will do. I heard the voice of the Shepherd, who knew me enough to persistently call me. I followed. And, that was the key.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

“I Can Trust”
I can not see why trials come,
And sorrows follow thick and fast;
I can not fathom His designs,
Nor why my pleasures can not last,
Nor why my hopes so soon are dust,
But, I can trust. When darkest clouds my sky o‘er hang,
And sadness seems to fill the land,
I calmly trust His promise sweet,
And cling to his ne’er failing hand,
And, in life’s darkest hour, I’ll just
Look up and trust. I know my life with Him is safe,
And all things still must work for good
To those who love and serve our God,
And lean on Him as children should,
Though hopes decay and turn to dust,
I still will trust.

— Daniel Webster Davis

For further reflection:
“There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… Or so says the legend. — Colleen McCullough
“Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” — Mother Teresa
“As we grow our faith, we wait in silence. As we listen for His voice, we have hope that He will speak. It may not be a loud boom or thunder, but a soft whisper. He may use a song, a butterfly, a sermon, a stranger, or even a red cardinal, but there is hope that God will come through for us.” ― Dana Arcuri

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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