Tell us Plainly
a sermon based on John 10:22-30
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Each Sunday an interesting phenomenon
occurs. Weve all observed it. People are leaving their pews and shuffling single
file through the narthex and out to their cars. The minister stands by the door like a bus
driver having safely landed another tour group home from the casinos. Shes shaking
hands and smiling. Then it happens. "Great sermon, Pastor!" Like Mark Twain, we
clergy-types can live a week on such a delicacy. "Ive never thought about
__________ quite like that." So God has once again confirmed the Word if not with
signs and wonders, at least by compliment. I knew it! Someone out there was
listening. Never mind that an inside view of the cognitive process might have revealed
laundry lists of activities to tackle come noon. But, for the moment, we feel good about
our craft of preaching.
Most of us clergy truly are what we need to be in the parish-we are pastoral. We take
our preaching seriously. We take the entire work of ministry seriously. We want to help
folks move ahead in their faith; we want wholeness in family and soul; we want our
congregational members out and active in the community as salt and light.
What we eschew (a strong biblical word from the KJV) are grace-inhibiting remarks about
our sermons. "That sure was a long one!" "Your sermon really confused
me." "I didnt get where you were going." Ouch. Or, "That was a
fine sermon on the second coming," when in fact you had just delivered your magnum
opus on forgiveness. (Tim LaHaye is so helpful.)
At the heart of our disdain for such blunt negativisms is often a larger disdain for
conflict within the parish. We prefer not to envision ourselves in the pulpit like
Condoleezza Rice, who, for two and a half hours, fielded questions-many of them hostile-
from the congressional committee that is investigating the 9/11 tragedy, trying to see if
someone in the Administration dropped the ball and could have prevented those tragic
Were no Condoleezza Rice types. Were pastors who want to be appreciated and
loved and understood. So we need every once in awhile to return to the stories of the
gospels to see the variety of ways that Jesus responded to the after-church crowd leaving
the pews. Notice, for example what happens in the gospel lesson for this Sunday.
Like a scene out of Silence of the Lambs where a dangerous person lurks unseen,
leering at his victim through night-vision goggles, we can imagine eyes following a
mans movement through a huge stone hall lined with magnificent columns. Theres
always a window of opportunity-and so they grab their chance and step out of the shadows
of the columns. Closing ranks their group form a Stonehenge circle with the man now in the
center, surrounded by hostility.
"Okay, so how long do you intend to keep us in the dark, Jesus?" They want an
closed answer to their closed question: "Tell us plainly," they demand of him,
"are you-or are you not-the Messiah?" Apparently, Jesus has been a bit vague in
his sermons lately. They think theyve got what hes preached, but yet they
havent heard Jesus put it in plain
English Aramaic. Whats
wrong with that question? The leaders just want a clear, unambiguous yes or no from Jesus.
Who can blame them? Whats the harm in that?
Youd think that Jesus would put it out plain for them. Spell out what they
obviously had missed in the second point of his sermon. Yet, did you observe Jesus
response to their question? "I told you, but you dont believe," he begins
and then he launches into what must have seemed to them like gibberish. In a few short
words, he speaks of the works he does as "proof" of his oneness with the
Father-"Actions speak louder than words," he tells them, "so believe in me
because of the signs." In stark contrast, Jesus launches into greater detail
about those who, unlike his questioners, have believed in him: they are like sheep to him
and he as a shepherd to them. "The Father gave them to me and no one can pull them
away from me. The Father and I are one."
Certainly beneath the interview is an agenda that keeps Jesus answers vague: the
leaders want clear evidence to use against him, to do him in. Yet, remarkably he has
spoken much more eloquent sermons without words while theyve been in the pews,
quills poised to write down the yes or no answer. Thats the problem in the story. A
far greater sermon has been preached before their eyes-the healing of a blind man-which
preaches the sermon of spiritual blindness and how Jesus can heal our resistance to truth.
Yet, they seek an easy answer. One that they can take back to the rest-"See, right
here? Heres the exact statement he made-says hes Messiah."
Our lives are lived on both sides of this story. Sometimes we are the leaders who
demand a close-ended, quick, clear answer to a question that defies easy answers. This
week I spent several hours with a young man who framed his life as a seeker. It was the
easy answer that caused him as a high school student to reject God for nearly ten years.
He was at a church camp on the final night at a fire-side service. A nearby camper threw a
Styrofoam cup into the fire.
"Hey, you shouldnt do that-that damages the ozone," my friend said.
"Well, who cares?" the other kid retorted, "I believe that God will just
fix it." That was not a helpful answer for this seeker. He left camp that summer and
his faith thinking that if Christians had such easy answers, he would never be comfortable
as a Christian. A simplistic answer meant to quiet a hungering seeker, nearly killed his
The disciples fell into this kind of questioning in the previous story. Theyre
walking by panhandler. "Hey Jesus, which is it?" they ask. "What do you
mean, fellas?" Well, you know, this blind beggar guy. Which is it? Is this illness
the direct result of his playing with sin, or are we dealing with a family systems
thing-maybe his parents messed up and now the punishment has passed from them to their
son." Jesus must have sighed at their arrogance before uttering his remarkable
response: "Neither answer is correct. "Its not quite that simple."
Sometimes life doesnt provide us with close-ended Qs and As, so we
are given some "wiggle-room." We ask for specific directions to Wal-Mart and we
get instead, a picture of the Milky Way System with a tiny arrow pointing over our planet:
"you are here." Oh, now thats helpful. We are these leaders-tell us
plainly. We like religious answers like we like our food during work week lunch hour-quick
and prepackaged. But this story reminds us that even Jesus refused at times to reduce
complexity to simple, easy believism.
The real drama in the story, of course, is Gods action. For in the
"answer" that Jesus gives there is a clue that the leaders might be able to use
to lead them to the answer they seek. Heres my rough paraphrase of Jesus
"Okay, heres the answer," Jesus says, "Ready?
The proof is in what I do in the name of my Father! You think youll get all your
answers in this worship service! You think the answers you seek are in the pastors
study, lying in dusty commentaries? You think? Or in atonement theories, or in the Passion
of the Christ, or in the best seminary education? Let me give you a clue-try following me
around for a couple of days. Observe what you see me doing. I call them signs.
Call them whatever you want, but know that the real, rock-bottom truth of who I am can be
found in what I do-actions speak louder than words!"
What does that answer look like in our world today? Well, for one thing, Ive
noticed that people are not standing around to hear my answers about the resurrection.
(Okay, I was once asked what I thought of Mel Gibsons, The Passion of the Christ).
Ive even tried to prime the pump . . . "ever thought what was behind it
all?" "No." Oh. Well, "ever wonder what will happen when you
die?" "Not really." Oh. As one person has noted, "Christians and
non-Christians have one thing in common: they both hate evangelism." People who are
authentically seeking truth will rarely blink at our religious answers. But they are
watching us-what do our signs indicate about our relationship to God?
Steve Sjogren, discovered the effectiveness of signs in 1993. Like most of us,
he had the basic "answers" down for Christian faith yet, he too found that the
"answers" werent working. Thats when he discovered a truth: Jesus
did the gospel. He was more often out in the marketplace with people-healing, delivering,
helping, feeding, etc. So Steve took a risk. He went up to a gas station attendant.
"I want to clean your toilets!" "Youve got to be kidding,"
theyd invariably say. "No, really. No strings attached. No cult trying to take
your attendants hostage. I just want to share Gods love in a tangible way. He made
sure he cleaned the toilets better than the employees would.
Ten years later, all churches-mainliners and evangelicals-are practicing his radical
"Conspiracy of Kindness." Congregations are putting his 101 Ways to Help
People in Need into practice. They are doing signs instead of talking about
their answers. Sjogren writes,
God is seeking to enter the heart of every person on this planet, but
faces a significant obstacle to Gods conspiracy. The problem has never been the
message; we have that straight . . . the problem is the reluctant army called the Church.
God is looking for people who are willing to participate in acts of love and kindness to
those outside of their present circle. God is looking for people who believe that a humble
demonstration of love plants a seed of eternity in the hearts of others that will blossom
into faith . . .
What brought my young friend back into faith recently was not an adjustment of what he
heard. Now a physics major, he finally saw some signs of the resurrected life of
Jesus but outside of the pulpit and away from the campfire and that got him to thinking
again about God. And he has returned to the God who called him in baptism.
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them," Jesus says. They do. We just have to
practice the gospel which, in Gods hands, are turned into signs that allow people to
believe. May God help us in this church to create the signs of the gospel that will bring
people to the great Shepherd of the sheep. Amen.