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Tell us Plainly
a sermon based on John 10:22-30
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Each Sunday an interesting phenomenon occurs. We’ve 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. She’s shaking hands and smiling. Then it happens. "Great sermon, Pastor!" Like Mark Twain, we clergy-types can live a week on such a delicacy. "I’ve 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 didn’t 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 events.

We’re no Condoleezza Rice types. We’re 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 man’s movement through a huge stone hall lined with magnificent columns. There’s 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 they’ve got what he’s preached, but yet they haven’t heard Jesus put it in plain English Aramaic. What’s wrong with that question? The leaders just want a clear, unambiguous yes or no from Jesus. Who can blame them? What’s the harm in that?

You’d 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 don’t 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 they’ve been in the pews, quills poised to write down the yes or no answer. That’s 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? Here’s the exact statement he made-says he’s 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 shouldn’t 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 faith.

The disciples fell into this kind of questioning in the previous story. They’re 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. "It’s not quite that simple."

Sometimes life doesn’t provide us with close-ended Q’s and A’s, 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 that’s 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 God’s 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. Here’s my rough paraphrase of Jesus’ response:

"Okay, here’s the answer," Jesus says, "Ready? The proof is in what I do in the name of my Father! You think you’ll get all your answers in this worship service! You think the answers you seek are in the pastor’s 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, I’ve noticed that people are not standing around to hear my answers about the resurrection. (Okay, I was once asked what I thought of Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ). I’ve 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" weren’t working. That’s 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!" "You’ve got to be kidding," they’d invariably say. "No, really. No strings attached. No cult trying to take your attendants hostage. I just want to share God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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.