THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
MAY 12, 2019
JOHN 10: 22-30
Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
It’s a bit strange that we imagine God up there in the sky somewhere.
Because God-in-Jesus is down here. And Jesus did not talk all much about anything up there.
His first words are “The kingdom of God is among you.”
His parables about the Kingdom of God are about the planting of seeds and weeds growing among the plants. He has stories about fig trees and worker in vineyards. He speaks of finding treasure in a field and a pearl of great price. There’s a whole lotta fish and sheep and goats. He turns water into wine so a party can flourish and points to water as the way into the Kingdom.
Rather than looking up there, Jesus walks around down here, saying “Look around you.”
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, he says. It’s all right in front of us if we’ll only wake up, be present to our own life, and pay careful attention to the world around us.
The poet Mary Oliver writes: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
So, I don’t know any better way to summarize a vibrant religious outlook: It’s all right in front of us if we’ll only wake up, be present to our own life, and pay careful attention to the world around us. “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
This morning, I’d like to share some lessons from paying careful attention to my lawn. Actually, three of my lawns—two in Bloomington, Illinois and one here in Pittsburgh.
Within the near east end of Bloomington, I am known for planting grass. In fact, Jeff and Lynn, the brotherly owners of A.B. Hatchery, once gave me a bag of grass seed as a Christmas present. Since I purchased so much grass seed from them, it was rumored I sprinkled it on my cereal. And since the two houses Deb and I lived in for a combined twenty years were both just a few blocks from A.B. Hatchery, I did buy a ton of grass seed there….
When we moved into our first house, a four-square on Clinton Street, I knew nothing about lawns except they needed mowing.
Then, Deb’s Uncle Bob and Aunt Arlene visited us from Pittsburgh and Uncle Bob, made what I now see was a purposeful aside: “Scott, they make a product called Weed and Feed.”
And, my eyes were opened. I became aware that our lawn was full of weeds and that there was something I could do about it.
Now if you were here last Sunday, you know I spent time uncovering the meaning of fish within the teaching of Jesus.
That fish represent bits of knowledge that are pulled out of the great sea of the unknown.
What Uncle Bob did was dangle this bit of fish on his hook, hoping that I might snap it up and do something about my lawn.
So, Lessons One and Two: First, there are countless opportunities to deepen our knowledge about everything. If you are bored with life, then your eyes and ears are shut. “Get being living or get busy dying,” as Andy Dufresne says in The Shawshank Redemption. It’s a great big beautiful world just waiting to be discovered.
And, second, as Fred Rogers’ mother told him, “Look for the helpers.”
Uncle Bob was a helper….
It’s Mother’s Day and I wish all our mothers a Happy Mother’s Day. If we’re blessed, we had a mother who was our biggest helper.
But not everyone has a great mother. It almost seems like blasphemy to say this on Mother’s Day, but the truth is the truth.
That’s one of the reasons we look for the helpers. These are women and men who provide good mothering (and fathering) for us.
When we find these good mothers and fathers on whom we can depend, we get all of it we can. Within spiritual teaching, these people are called the “Masks of God.” Ways in which God appears to us in the form of helpers, mentors, and guides.
In my first congregation, there was Lillian, who was like a second mother to me after the death of my mother. There was Mary, a spiritual director in Cincinnati, who helped me work through a life-changing series of dreams.
So, when we find a helper on whom we can depend, we get all of it we can….
My three lawns taught me Lesson Three: we all have to play the hand we are dealt.
A lawn is a lawn is a lawn. That first lawn on Clinton Street had enough oak trees to form its own forest. Working in the yard, I kept digging up the foundation of a house that once stood on our property where a man had murdered his wife with an axe.
A century-old black walnut stretched over our second lawn on Jefferson Street with a huge grassless area under it. All through the lawn I dug up army soldiers, trucks, and toys from the three little boys who had lived there previously. Prickly bushes ran the east side of the lawn, looking as though they had been planted by the wicked witch of the north.
When we bought our house in Pittsburgh, our lawn had a sickly Magnolia with mud, rocks and weeds under it. A pile of debris stacked in a southern corner of the property. Bare spots, dandelions, and six years’ of renters who hadn’t cared for a thing.
We all have to play the hand dealt us.
When I returned to Bloomington, I talked with Lynn and Jeff about the magnolia tree. They thought there was no way for grass to grow there. Surrounded by a retaining wall, they figured the Magnolia would consume all the ground water, especially during any dry period.
Well, I’m a stubborn German and Taurus the Bull, so don’t tell me I can’t do something. You’ll just get me fired up.
Take a look in the bulletin and see what is growing under the Magnolia Tree.
There is also grass under that Black Walnut tree on Jefferson Street and under the Oak trees on Clinton Street.
But under the Magnolia it has taken four years to establish a stand of grass. And I’m still working on it.
Lesson Four: It takes time. I don’t care what “it” is, it takes time.
To learn your profession, it takes time. For a couple to work out all the twists and turns of a relationship, it takes time. To raise children into functional adults, it takes a lot of time. To create a healthy congregation, it takes time. To work through a significant life issue, it takes time. You name it, it takes time.
Over the years with these three lawns, I have been challenged, had to compromise with, and lost battles with new drivers ripping up my lawn, our hundred pound Great Pyrenees who loved to run the perimeter of our fences, squirrels who loved to bury their nuts throughout the lawn, snakes, delivery trucks ending up on the lawn, drunks walking through newly sown grass, shade as dark as night, to name only the most obvious challenges, compromises, and battles.
So, these lawns taught me Lesson Five: life is tough.
If I think of the one truth that I find many people resist and refuse to accept is this: life is tough. That’s the baseline.
Somehow, we hold onto the illusion that life should be fun or easy or happy, but life is tough.
And yet, each of these challenges, compromises, and lost battles made me a better caretaker of my lawns. I had to learn, improve, work things through, back up and try again and now, I’m getting pretty good at it. How do we learn and mature as people without the challenges, compromises, and battles?
So, along with time and tough, there is something to be said for Lesson Six: Stick with it….
Tuesday was a long day. The days are always full before I head to Bloomington, and so this week has been a bear. Oh, I just remembered: life is tough!
Tuesday I was pushing on a deadline for the newsletter, working on bulletins, and other office tasks. I then finished mowing the grass and completed a problem area of staining our deck that is another entire story of trouble and grief.
Oh, life is tough! I keep forgetting.
I then had five appointments at the church, working on songs for this week and next. At 6:00, Alayna and I went to the Millvale Borough Council meeting and then I headed home.
And there was the lawn staring me in the face. The last thing I wanted to do was to spread Grub-x. But the termite guy, who we called last week because we had a swarm of termites in the house, found grubs in the gardens. Did I mention life is tough?
So out I went. Some trimming and raking needed doing, along with some dog waste that needed taken care of. Oh, and new grass seed needed watering. Because, of course, the predicted Pittsburgh rain had not arrived. What a surprise!
So, I fought through and did it all. Deb helped me learn this lesson. Early on in our marriage, she drove home the point that if we were going to get anywhere, we—meaning I—needed to go beyond just taking care of the basics.
Sticking with it, fighting through, going the next step, and taking care of what needed doing. Doing it when you didn’t want to do it….
Lesson Seven also comes from Deb, which may be a lesson in and of itself. Listen to your spouse. He or she knows things you don’t.
But Lesson Seven is prune it. I resist pruning. It almost hurts to whack down our Smoke Tree or take the old wood of a Lilac down to nothing. Deb usually attacks them when I’m not around so she doesn’t want to listen to my whining.
But, slowly I have learned the wisdom of pruning. The old is removed, new growth is supported, and living things become healthier and, I presume, happier. Or, at least, my wife is happier.
And on Mother’s Day it is good to remember: if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
But with pruning, even Jesus himself tells his friends that if that old fig tree doesn’t give good figs by the end of the year, take it down.
Pruning is painful, but we don’t get through life in any healthy way without the old in our lives being pruned.
Pruning is change and the only person who likes change is a baby with a full diaper. But pruning is a way of life and we are better for it….
I leave today for Bloomington for my last week with clients in my psychotherapy practice.
This will be a painful pruning. I have been with some of these people for years. A few for decades. When I say life is tough, life is almost unbearable for some.
If we think of the shepherd metaphor, these people have been my flock. In the scheme of things, these people came to me for my care, my expertise, and I have done the best I can do. And now it will be pruned.
But, I think it is time for pruning so I can devote my time to you, my new flock.
And by the way, we’re going to have to do something about our lawn. It needs work and I’m feeling the itch to get out there.
Because if you don’t know me by now, my lawn has taught me Lesson Eight: There can always be improvement.
And I invite you to think about our flock in this way: I am a shepherd in a specific way. A shepherd raising up other shepherds, so that we are all shepherds together caring for and loving and guiding all those who need our care and expertise. Even as we care for one another. Even as we gather to be taken care by the spirit of the risen Christ among us.
As the CLC flock, we’re in it together. Being part of the flock, we walk in same direction trying to get to the same place.
If you catch the spirit of Christ, the Good Shepherd—you want to shepherd whatever falls within your kingdom and do it the best you can. Not just do it. Do it the best you can. It’s about this wonderful field of life in which we’ve been given the gracious opportunity to build up one another and make a difference here and in our community.
As a shepherd, I see you all as shepherds—in your homes, at work, here at CLC, in the community. We need each one of you to become a shepherd/leader….
Where can you grow in your life as a shepherd for others? How can you make your own unique positive contribution to the flock of clc?
As shepherds together, I want each of us to walk out of here every Sunday knowing two things: We are okay just as we are. God loves us as we are.
And there is room for improvement.
God is among us loving us as we are and loving us into being better. Better as human beings and better as shepherds together.
MOM BY GARTH BROOKS