Many Sheep, Many Folds, Many Favorites, Many Mansions (Ken Pennings) 12/29/2019

Through Jesus we come to discover the Way that embraces all Ways.

Audio version of Many Sheep, Many Folds, Many Favorites, Many Mansions

John 10:14-16 (NRSV) ‘I am the good shepherd. 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. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’

John 14:1-2 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions.’

Sermon: In general, “All things in moderation” is a good rule of thumb, except at Christmas! At our house at Christmas, we go all out, over the top, above and beyond! John with his cooking and baking; I with the presents for each member of the family, and both of us with decorations both inside and outside the house. Each year we cut down a sixteen-foot tree which we purchase from a tree farm in Middleton, huff and puff as we drag the tree from the back 40 acres of the farm, agonize to get the tree inside the house, and lifted and tied into position. Then John strings the hundreds of white lights on the tree and I put on the ornaments! We celebrate the full 40 days of Christmas, taking down the tree and decorations on Feb. 2th, the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple (the Anna & Simeon story). It’s a lot of fuss, but we love it!

Why not fuss?!! Ever consider how much God fusses over us?!!!

This beautiful world God created for all beings! God going all out, over the top, above and beyond! It’s almost too much to comprehend! We gaze and gasp in amazement; we lose ourselves in wonder! 

Only with the wonders of modern science have we been able to see the incredible beauty at the bottom of the sea or in outer space!

Look around you right now. Take in this moment….so much beauty, so much love, so much to be grateful for!

Last summer, eight of us read and discussed the Gospel of John. I was stunned by the superabundance of God in it. When it comes to God’s riches bestowed on people, they abound in plenty! This past week, I perused John’s Gospel looking for references to the fuss God makes over us!

I found 40 references, but I’ll only share 8.

We find many phrases and stories of abundance: 

  • In the prologue, John writes, “From God’s fulness we have all received grace upon grace. (1:16).
  • In three different verses, Jesus says something like “You think I’ve done great things?! In the power of the Holy Spirit, you will do ever greater things!” 1:50; 5:20; 14:12).
  • From six stone jars of water comes more than enough of the choicest wine to serve all the guests at a wedding party (2:6, 10).
  • In John 5:21 we find Jesus giving life to whomever he wishes!
  • Jesus takes 5 barley loaves and 2 fishes and feeds over 5,000 people, with 12 baskets-full left over (6:9, 12).
  • There are sheep which are obviously followers of Jesus, but then there are many other sheep which we can only guess about (10:16).
  • There is having one’s feet washed, but then there is the longing to have one’s hands and head washed also (13:9).

 

We also find Jesus taking ordinary things from everyday life, and turning them into symbols of the much-more-ness of God:

  • There is natural bread, but Jesus offers true bread from heaven (7:32, 40).
  • There is natural light, but Jesus offers the light of life (8:12).
  • There is regular drinking water, but Jesus offers “a spring of living water welling up to eternal life” (4:7, 14), and “rivers of living water that will flow from within us” (7:38).
  • There is truth, but Jesus offers truth that sets us free (8:32).
  • There is freedom, but Jesus offers true freedom (8:36).
  • There is seeing with the eyes, but then there is really seeing (9:1, 39)
  • There is life, but then there is life more abundant (10:10).
  • There is bearing of fruit, but then there is the bearing of much more fruit (12:24; 15:2, 5).
  • There is clean, but then there is “really clean,” or “clean all-over” (13:10).
  • There is peace, but then there is “my peace,” or the peace that Jesus gives (14:27).
  • There is joy, but then there is “my joy,” (15:11), or a joy that is complete (15:11; 16:24; 17:13).
  • There is the vine, but then there is “the true vine” (15:1).
  • There is being one, but then there is being one in the way the Father and the Son are one (11:11).
  • There is glory, but then there is the glory which is given the Son and all those who follow him (17:22).
  • There is power, but then there is the power that comes only from God (19:10).

 

Then we find extremes in John’s Gospel that suggest the much-more-ness of God:

  • The man wasn’t only blind. He was born blind (9:1).
  • Lazarus wasn’t only dead. He had been dead four days such that his corpse would stink (11:17).
  • It wasn’t just any oil with which Mary anointed the feet of Jesus, but a liter of costly perfumed oil the value of a whole year’s wages, the fragrance of which filled the whole house (12:3).
  • It wasn’t as if Jesus had committed a crime worthy of death, but Pilate found “no guilt in this man” (19:4).
  • The inscription on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” wasn’t in only one language, but in three (19;20); 
  • The disciples catch not just a few fish, but so many they were not able to pull in the net (21:6).
  • Jesus is leaving to prepare not only a place for us, but many places, or many mansions (in some translations) (14:2).
  • There is plenty written about Jesus in John’s Gospel, but the whole world could not contain the books that could be written (21:25).

 

This superabundance is summarized in the prologue of John’s Gospel “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” No wonder we make such a big fuss at Christmas!

In her book Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor ponders the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel, ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,’ and these other words, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansion.’

“Jesus does not elaborate,” she writes, “but I like imagining the God of many sheep, many folds, many favorites, many mansions. This is how far my holy envy has brought me: from fearing that Jesus will be mad at me for smelling other people’s roses to trusting that Jesus is the Way that embraces all ways.”

I just love her phrase — Many sheep, many folds, many favorites, many mansions – suggesting that our God of superabundance gives God’s very self to all, not only to a few. Many of us have come to believe God is not partial, selective, biased, or tribal, but favors all humankind!

Bottom line, the more we understand and experience the much-more-ness of God’s love, the more we extend ourselves to, favor, and embrace the other; the more we affirm our oneness with all people and all beings.

Barbara Brown Taylor marvels at both the diversity and oneness of God’s people, religious and non-religious – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahai, agnostics, atheists! All people God’s people! This view of God is consistent with the much-more-ness of the Gospel of John, and this is why we make such a fuss at Christmas. 

If ever we were brainwashed to believe that only those who named Jesus as Savior and Lord would receive eternal salvation, it is time to expand our thinking to embrace all humankind as the children of God. Indeed, the ministry and teachings of Jesus suggest this kind of expansive inclusive thinking!

When it comes to God’s people, oh my! So many of us! In fact, ALL of us! All humankind – God’s beautiful people!

During Advent, we pastors have been delivering sermons on the religious stranger, not only our welcome of the stranger, but our oneness with the stranger. Why welcome the stranger? Because every one of us, in one way or another, has been a stranger!

Think of an infant passing through the birth canal into the hands of a midwife – a stranger to be welcomed.

…a child walking into a kindergarten class on her first day of school – a stranger to be welcomed.

…a visitor to church – a stranger to be welcomed.

…an immigrant from another country – a stranger to be welcomed.

In Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor shares her journey of leaving the marked path in following Jesus to express oneness with the religious other. It’s a rich book, one I will return to again and again. I’m tempted to try to share with you all the good stuff in this book in one sermon, but that would be a mistake. I have time today to share only some of the ways Barbara began to make a big fuss over the faith of others.

When she taught World Religions at Piedmont College, she discovered she could not teach other people’s religions without loving them as she loved Christianity. It was challenging, but she became aware of how many ways there are to view reality; she learned to see the divine through other people’s eyes. 

From Hinduism, Barbara learned about the limitless possibilities for union with the divine. Some Hindus choose a scholarly path and others a path of service. Some choose a path of meditation and others a path of devotion. Some devote themselves to Vishnu and some to the Divine Mother. Some shun the worship of deities altogether striving to realize god in themselves with no decoys. Other mix and match. Realizing God in the self and endorsing more than one way to God are big problems for many Christians, but Barbara found it all fascinating. 

Barbara discovered she missed a lot when she reduced everything she observed in other people’s religions to her own frame of reference. When she thought she saw a Buddhist worshipping a statue of the Buddha, she yielded to the Buddhist when he told her that he was not worshipping the Buddha but honoring the Buddha’s example. When she thought she saw a Muslim woman constrained by her headscarf, she listened when she told her how hard she had fought to wear it against her family’s wishes.

In taking other people’s religions very seriously, Barbara began to scrutinize and rethink the exclusive truth-claims of her own religion, and how those claims affected people who stood outside of them.

Who had convinced her that faith was a competitive sport and that only one team could win for all eternity? With an attitude like that, who could blame a neighbor for sensing that Christian love was mostly charitable condescension?

As a teacher and a spiritual seeker, Barbara gained insight every time she put her own Christian faith to the test. Sometimes the results were distressing, as when she found the silence of the meditation bench more healing than the words of her favorite psalms, or when she took greater refuge in the Buddhist concept of impermanence than in the Christian assurance of eternal life. Yet this is how she discovered that she is Christian to the core. However many other religious languages she learned, she still dreamed in Christian. However much she learned from other spiritual teachers, it was Jesus she came home to at night.

By observing, listening to, learning from, and envying the faith of others, Barbara embraced Jesus in a new way. If Jesus had been a twenty-first century Christian, Barbara imagines, he might have told the members of his home church that God was free to heal anyone, including a Taliban fighter. Or God could choose to send someone with a bag of groceries to a Hindu widow living in a trailer park. Jesus might suggest donating some of their outreach funds to a local Muslim community trying to buy land for a cemetery or volunteering at an after-school program at the Laotian Buddhist temple (Holy Envy, pgs. 117-118).

At Christmas, we make a big fuss over Jesus! Not merely by baking sweet breads, exchanging gifts, trimming the tree, and decorating the whole house. But by reflecting on the full implications of the Christian story, a story of God making a big fuss over us by coming near to us in the vulnerability of human flesh, the vulnerability of a baby born in a lowly stable. And throughout the whole year, we continue to make Jesus a big deal, because through Jesus we come to discover the Way that embraces All Ways.

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