The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - April 17, 2016
Scripture Reading: John 10:22-30


The Rev. Robert Vodra


     I think I have told you before that some weekís sermons come fairly quickly to me.  I read the scriptures, choose one or two, read some commentaries, do some research, and when I have the plan in my head  I start writing, then revise, edit, and I am ready for Sunday.  There are other weeks were I get mostly done, or even completely done with a sermon, and say ďI donít like that.Ē  It didnít end up going where I wanted to go.  It didnít tell the gospel, the good news.  It didnít flow like I think it should.  Since I have already saved it on my computer, I just start a new file.  This is sermon B for this week.  Some weeks I have even gotten to sermon C or D before had what I wanted to say.  Of course even if Sermon A is OK, I will delete a paragraph and rewrite it a different way, or realize that this should go here rather than here.  Then it is ready for Sunday.

     And this is going to be good someday.  Maybe this is just my imagination running wild, but stay with me for a second.  When I become crazy famous, the Britney Speers or Elvis of the church, they are going to want to distribute my sermons.  Books will be old fashioned at that point, but distributed somehow to the masses of people.  Of course there will be some royalty fees somehow, and I will retire in comfort.  After I die, and the great sadness has passed, people will still be craving anything that I wrote.  All these un-preached sermons will be fodder for that sequel to my previous books ďThe unpublished works of Rev. Robert Vodra.Ē  And when those great theologians of tomorrow read those sermons they will be very upset at their poor quality.  OK, I will admit, just a dream, but makes me feel better about starting over. 

     And todayís scripture is hard, this is why this is not the first version of this sermon.  Jesus lays out a system with two options for us.  If we are part of Jesusí flock of sheep, we hear his voice, and follow.  If we are not part of Jesusí flock, we donít understand, we donít follow.

     The first part of why this is hard is that some of the images in the Bible are dated for our time.  I openly admit that I have extremely limited knowledge of sheep or shepherds.  The only sheep experiences I have had were in petting zoos.  I imagine that the sheep that were around when Jesus was on earth were not fed 25 cent cups of food 100ís of times a day, and were used to children running around them, trying to pet them.  As for shepherds, I have played one, more than once, in a Christmas pageant or two.  When we were in Israel we did see some shepherds.  They were off a bit, but honestly was not impressed.  They were modern shepherds, so had their lunch coolers with them.  Some still wore a traditional robe type thing, which could be pulled up for shade from the sun, or probably even serve as shelter.  But they were not actively shepherding when we saw them, they were sitting around smoking cigarettes, and talking to other shepherds if they were in a group.  And frankly they were not the kind of person I would want to follow, or have follow me. 

     So to understand this passage I first have to get past my lack of experience, and even my limited knowledge.  But when I can get past that, Jesus words do not give us any options.  You are my sheep or you are not my sheep.  When you start to tear into that, you get into the way we believe.  John Calvin would probably like this passage.  If you go back into the history of our church, there are several places were the church has split.  John Calvin was one of those reformers who took some, who understood what he believed and said and followed him.  In the US today, our Presbyterian brothers and sisters among others are some that group followed Calvin.  And Calvinís view of belief is that it is all on God.  In fact we have very little to do with our own belief, it was all predetermined before we were even born.  And everything that effects who we are was also predetermined.  We are predestined to be who we are and do what we do.  Now this does not allow us to act irresponsibly, if we do, we were predestined to act that way which does not mean that is right, it just means that God knew, before we were born that we would do that.  So our belief, for Calvin, was that God was behind it, and it was all predetermined.  We are Jesusí sheep or not, we have no choice. 

     Now there are others who believe that we have more will in our own beliefs.  So God has not determined if we are going to believe in God or not.  It is up to us if we believe or not.  God wants to be in relationship with us, but God is unsure if that will happen.  We have our own free will to believe or not believe. 

     Now I can get into this stuff.  These are the kind of issues you can really struggle with, stay up late at night laying in bed, trying to get to sleep, wondering how much, if any our will has to do with our belief.  If our will has nothing to do with it, if it is all predetermined, then why am I working in a church and trying.  Well, I am doing that because that is what God has predetermined I will do it, and God has predetermined who I will reach, what people will hear me say, and how they will react.  He also knows how our parents and grandparents heard and responded to things, and how our children and grandchild will hear and respond to things.  On the other hand, if it is all my free will, then maybe a really good sermon or a good discussion will spark someone to do something that they would not have done I had not said it.  Maybe today someone will go to the store, remember the food pantry, and buy laundry detergent to donate.  Maybe a family will come and bring that laundry detergent home, they will be able to wash that shirt for the interview, and because they looked just a little cleaner and better than another equally qualified candidate they will get the job.  They, in turn, will somehow realize that it was something the church did to help them, and will give thanks to God for your generosity.  But if it was all predetermined, then God knew that was all going to happen.  Still good, still could be caused by my sermon, but God knew that I was going to preach that sermon, and this was all going to happen.

     I believe I have found some middle ground in Martin Luther.  Not Martin Luther King, Jr. but the first Martin Luther, one of the reformers of the early church.  He is often said to be one who favored predestination, it is God who caused all these to happen, but I, and some who have more training than I, believe that this may not be fully what he felt.  He seemed to be a realist, what is happening today.  The reality of sin and forgiveness, the gift of grace.  He seemed to feel that those issues were more important than trying to answer the unanswerable question of the nature of our belief.  Rather than talking about predestination or free will, Luther talked about Godís election.  The difference, for Luther, was that election was not concerned with things God may or may not have done eons ago, but rather named a present-tense reality: Godís immediate and ongoing decision to choose us, to love us, to save us. And whenever we proclaim Godís promises, Luther believed, God once again arrives on the scene to elect people to abundant life.

     With that, let me go back to Jesus: ďMy sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Fatherís hand.Ē

     And that is what I want to share today.  While I do get going on all that background stuff, the nature of belief, when it comes right down to the core, it does not really matter.  What really matters is not how it happened in the past, but how do we know a living God, how do we experience Grace, how do we have an experience of the divine.  I believe it has to do with Theology. 

     When I was a camp director in North Carolina I had the opportunity to lead a week of Bible study.  Well truth is that we didnít have a chaplain that week, and someone had to do it.  So I looked over the scriptures that we had chosen earlier in the year for our chaplains to use, I think we had purchased some curriculum, which I looked over.  Monday through Thursday I had.  We did some fun stuff.  And then I had heard about one of our chaplains from earlier that summer, or maybe the previous summer who took boxes and cut little slits in the top, put out paper and pencils and explained that it was for any questions at all.  Anything you have always wanted to ask a minister but couldnít.  Anything that we talked about that week that you wanted to talk more about, or just something that has sparked a question in your life this week.  I did reserve the right to throw out any questions I didnít feel were appropriate, but would do my best to honestly answer any questions I got. 

     This was a great group, and some of their questions really impressed me.  I was expecting easy stuff, they were 6th through 8th grade.  I should say that only about 1/3 of these kids were from the Presbyterian church (USA) which owned and ran that camp.  About 1/3 listed no church affiliation, and the last third was everything else, and I mean everything.  Apostolic, Charismatic, Primitive Baptist churches.  Denominations I had never even heard of before, and at least a few from just about every denomination I knew about.  They asked about sin, about forgiveness, about the nature of God, and quite a bit about death, heaven and hell.  I am pretty sure I never even mentioned death that week, but the kids seemed to be quite interested in what happens after you die, which unfortunately I did not have a good answer for, but I tried.  And we shared.  It was not a lecture, I was sitting on the floor with them in a circle, and I started every answer with ďWell, I believe.Ē  And many of the kids were very open about what they believed, which sometimes was what I believed and sometimes was not. 

     We did good theology that week.  I would like to suggest that many people today are not very interested in what the theologians have said over the years.  My professors in seminary might not be too happy, but I would like to suggest that we are looking for an encounter with a living God, an experience of Grace, a relationship with the divine.  This requires us to think and even talk about what we believe, and also what we doubt.  This thinking and talking is doing theology.  Theology, in other words, is no more or less than the activity of seeking to know, experience, and understand God rather than passively receiving the wisdom of another era.  If we are in a group of Junior High kids, or in a church, together, as a community, we do theology. 

     And the message we give is the same message that Jesus gave us ďMy sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. Ē  No matter what is going on in your life today, right at this moment, no matter how much you may believe that you messed up, no matter what you are feeling, God has claimed you and wants to be in relationship with you.  That is the basis for our theology.

     We have a sign hanging right outside the door here, before you go downstairs that says ďNo matter where you are on lifeís journey, you are welcome here.  I think that is the best message for today.  No matter where you are on lifeís journey, you listen for Godís voice, and you follow it.  God already knows you, and gives you abundant or eternal life.  It does not really matter if God knew this all in the past or not, interesting to me, but most important is the here and now.  And here and now, no matter where you on are lifeís journey, we hear and see Godís actions around us, we recognize them, we do theology, and God give us grace and loves us. 

     I donít think I will ever really fully understand this shepherd and sheep stuff, but I do understand trying to follow the one that I know as God, Jesus the Christ.  I hear Godís voice in my life, I see Godís action around me, and I know that, because of that, I am promised abundance.