November 4, A whole lot of...what?

 A whole lot of…what?

John 10:1-15

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (That’s from the version that was read for us earlier, the New Revised Standard Version)  Or, as another translation puts it, “I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” (CEB)

This is Jesus talking in John’s gospel, and his statement about abundant life, or “life lived to the fullest,” comes in the middle of a parable of sorts in which Jesus likens himself first to a shepherd and then to the gate of the sheep pen.

He talks about the threat of thieves, of poachers, and the protection of a shepherd – a shepherd who knows the sheep by name and whose sheep know his voice. The shepherd protects and provides for the sheep; the sheep trust the shepherd.

Jesus says he’s the gate as well – the gate that keeps out the thieves, and through which the sheep pass safely to and from the pasture. Thieves, he says, are about stealing, killing, destroying life; he (as the shepherd, as the gate) is about preserving, saving, protecting, giving life.

What kind of life does he give? Is it just a mediocre life? The life of survival? A life kept safe and secure only because it is defended at all costs? A barely adequate life? No…Jesus says the life he gives is abundant life; it is life lived to the fullest.

That’s a tantalizing promise, even as it seems somewhat vague and submerged in this wandering description of pens and gates and shepherds and thieves and wolves and hired hands. This is a parable, a set of images, describing abundant life? It sounds more like a parable about building walls, locking gates, and knowing the secret password – all the things that might thwart the enemy.

But for all of our security-consciousness, all of our worry these days about threat and danger, all the talk of safety, at the end of it all, we instinctively know that what we really want isn’t a small space of safety, but a much larger space of freedom. We want more than what’s in the confines of the sheep pen. 

And in that, we are interesting creatures, aren’t we? We are very un-sheep like in that we are not content to nibble the grass that is immediately under our feet. We are much more likely to instead raise our heads and look off into the distance in search of what we desire. We are not content with the sheep pen, neither the size nor the security of it; instead, we want something more. We want the pasture, we want the green grass and the still waters – whatever represents to us freedom and hope and satisfaction. We want more. We yearn for more.  

So, even though it is tucked away in a parable that evokes fences and shepherds and thieves and gates, the word “abundance” rings a bell. The idea of “lives lived to the fullest” strikes a chord. And it’s because we want something more than what we have. We yearn.

Now, why is that? Why are we prone to thinking that we don’t yet have enough? Why are we never quite satisfied? Why are we determined to get out of the pen and into the pasture? It’s worth asking, because there is no denying that we aren’t content in the sheep pen – behind the fence, just kept safe (in that small space) from thieves and outlaws. That’s not fulfillment.

Instead, we want more. And the word abundance catches our ear, because it speaks to our deep desires; we are people who strive, who yearn, who reach, who grab, who covet, who seek, who want…more.

Sometimes the “more” we want is more stuff, more money, more possessions. But just as often, the “more” we want is less tangible, less identifiable, less clear to us. What is it? Is it more assurance that “all will be well”? More good times? More happiness? More peace? More ease in our relationships?

Is it more of just this sense that we are where we are supposed to be and we are doing what we are meant to do? More partnership? More ‘being accurately understood’ by those around us, and in that understanding, more ‘being accepted’ by those around us?

Think about it. You have a lot, right? You have a lot of resources and relationships. You have work to do. You have opinions to be shared. You have people who listen when you talk. You have a certain degree of privilege. You have a roof over your head. You have friends.

And yet you are as much defined and directed by your yearning as by anything you already have. So, when you are quiet, what stirs in you? What settles into place? Satisfaction, contentment, peace…or wishing, yearning? And if it is yearning, what is it that you really want? What is it that you imagine if you just had a full measure of it, would satisfy you? And then, what do you do to try to feed that hunger, to fill that emptiness, to heal that wound?

You might say that never being satisfied is what drives us to keep trying to do better, to do more, and without that sense of being dissatisfied, we would just let things run their course, we would be passive, apathetic, we would fail to good, we would stop trying.

But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about this feeling we have of “if only.” If only I had taken that other path; if only I had more money; if only people would listen to me; if only I had a really, really good friend; if only I had a chance to show what I can do; if only people would cooperate; if only people with my values, my perspectives were in charge, if only…

It’s any easy trap to fall into – this constant yearning for something beyond the present moment, beyond the gifts that we already have, beyond any sense of settled-ness.

I was complaining to my wife, Loyce, over lunch the other day about something that was bothering me. It had something to do with church – I’ll tell you that much. Although that probably doesn’t surprise you since the things that bother us the most, are of course often the things that are closest to us.

Anyway, I was talking with her and laying out the details of my dissatisfaction. She’s a good listener. She is sympathetic, but she gives me space to say what I need to say. She offers ideas when I ask for them, but she doesn’t trample over my complaints with ready-made solutions. She’s “on my side” when I’m having a hard time with something or someone.

Later that evening, our family and one of our kid’s friends had dinner together, and afterwards everybody left the house to go to their evening activities except for me. No meetings that night, so I sat down in the living room, turned on some music, and read for a while. And I found myself in that nice space when you feel pretty confident that at least for the moment everything is okay with the ones you love, they are doing what they like to do, and you have nothing urgent to take care of.

After a while, the first ones home were Loyce and Leyna, and while Leyna went upstairs to get her shower, Loyce and I sat in the living room for a few moments and I said to her that in contrast to what I had said to her earlier in the day, I had been thinking this evening that I really don’t have much to complain about.

And it was true: Although I had been complaining at lunch time, earlier in the day, by evening I was again aware that if I take a step back and think about it, I really can’t complain. My life is not difficult, not beset by crisis, not frayed and coming apart at the edges, not undermined by constant conflict, not damaged by any immediate tragedy. So, what do I have to complain about, really? Inconvenience? Disappointments? People not living up to what I expect of them or wish of them?

Over the last week we’ve all been trying to somehow process – not make sense of, but try to somehow find our emotional footing again – in light of the horrific killings in Pittsburgh in a synagogue during services a week ago Saturday. So that’s been on my mind. And then that evening when I was sitting there thinking about my own inclination to be less than satisfied with my lot – that was the evening of the same day when those poor children were killed crossing the road near Rochester to get on to their school bus. How could I complain about my little issues?

I have those moments of awareness, of awakening, from time to time. You do to. For whatever reason I am imagining that I have it tough, or that I am lacking in something I need or deserve, but then I come back to reality: I remember, I realize, that I have what I need, that I am fortunate – more fortunate than most. And when I recognize that, then my perspective is readjusted.

And that’s good. That’s important. But that’s still not living life to the fullest. Because I can’t help but think that we need more than a fresh perspective every once in a while. We need more than a momentary attitude adjustment, because all too soon – once the echoes of someone else’s very real suffering have diminished in our awareness –  we will too often go right back to that posture of dissatisfaction, to that practice of constant yearning for something more, something to fill the empty spaces.

Why is that? Is it the human condition to orient our thinking toward what we don’t have? To focus on unmet needs? To focus on our imagined deprivations? Why are we more inclined toward yearning than toward satisfaction?

Jesus talks about “Life lived to the fullest”? What does that even mean? And is that in any way something that is attainable? Or is it just another platitude? Another empty promise?

I don’t think it’s an empty promise, because I don’t think Jesus was given to making empty promises, and I do think that Jesus lived in the direction of fullness of life, of abundance. And yet I also think that we are skeptical of such a promise because more often than not we are trapped in our own reluctance: We are reluctant to believe, to trust in abundance. We are reluctant to embrace satisfaction. We are reluctant to say “Yes, I have what I need. 

Why the reluctance? I suspect it’s because we have been told over and over, that more is better, that someone else is responsible for our happiness, that somewhere there’s a magic pill or a magic potion that will make it all work out, that everyone else is happy and content while we are not, that fullness of life is more about being fed than acting in faith.

Maybe the key is somewhere in that mix of metaphors from this morning’s scripture – the shepherds and sheep and fences and gates. Jesus talks at one point about the shepherd who knows the names of the sheep and the sheep who recognize the voice of the shepherd.

So maybe once again, if we are going to lean in the direction of an awareness and an embrace of the abundance, of the fullness of life that we already have, it’s going to come back to this matter of relationship.

Because here’s the good news: Abundant life isn’t ever about acquiring. Instead it always has its foundation in belonging, in meaning-making communities, in mutuality, in kinship. So the important question for living well, for living life to fullest, isn’t “What do I have?” or “What do I need to get?” The question is “To whom do I belong?” or “How am I connected?”

So, my moment of settled-ness that evening last week wasn’t about anything I could have or hold; it was about the well-being I sensed in those around me, those to whom I am most closely connected. And Jesus, when he offers life lived to the fullest, is offering the very same thing: a well-connected, carefully-rooted, undisturbed, kind of well-being.

The skit the junior high youth shared with us aimed for humor as much as anything, but it had the right message too. Those youth had it right, don’t you know.

They told this story: Leyna and he friend Miriam are talking. Miriam is feeling kind of down; a little confused, a little uneasy, a little less-than. A salesman, played by Calvin, comes along and offers Miriam super organic, frenched fried cod liver oil. But of course, that’s not it. That’s not the answer. Two more salesmen, played by Evan and Luke, come along and offers her healthy heart snap bean oil imported from France. And of course, that’s not it either.

But then her friends Ayla and McKelvey and Sophie come along, and Ayla offers Miriam a time to get together with church friends tomorrow night for pizza and you-tube videos. And Miriam asks the simple, but oh-so critical question, “Will it make me feel better?” In other words, “If I find my place of connection, of kinship, of belonging, can I finally settle down, can I finally stop pressing for who-knows-what?”

Ayla is honest, “Well I don’t know, but hanging out with friends has always made me feel good.” And Miriam thinks about it. “That sounds kind of refreshing…invigorating,” she says. “You know I don’t need cod liver oil extract or snap bean oil. There’s something about just being with friends that feels like a good time.”

It’s that well-connected kind of well-being that gives us freedom and peace. Look for some of that this week. Don’t chase it, because you don’t need to chase it. Just keep your eyes open. There are good people all around you. There are gifts all around you. There are blessings all around you. There is grace all around you. There’s a whole lot of all of that all around you. It’s there in abundance.

 

Amen.

 

 Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

November 4, 2018