To Life!

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, October 5, 2014

John 10:1-18

I begin this sermon with a dangerous request. I invite you to close your eyes (that’s the dangerous part) and allow yourself to be transported to an Orthodox seminary in Armenia. You are standing within the stone-walled compound, where Armenian women and men are sitting and visiting on benches in the warm sun as their children are laughing and playing. The seminary compound is like a type of park, open to the community. Armenians are a beautiful people, tall in stature, with dark hair and large eyes. You catch a coordinated movement at the other end of the compound and you see a procession of young men in long, dark robes, walking two abreast as they come into the compound, accompanied by these church bells. (play bells)

You may open your eyes. This is a recording of the bells from The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia that welcomed our World Council of Churches committee. As we planned worship for the assembly, at various times throughout each day these bells brought the holy into our midst.

On the Sunday of our meeting, His Holiness Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Orthodox church, invited us into a side room of the cathedral. There, he told us that, if we knelt in confession right then, we would be invited to partake in Holy Communion. We were stunned. The Orthodox, like the Roman Catholics, do not allow open communion, but here we were, invited by an equivalent of the Pope to do so.

I was determined not to let my broken knees prevent me from this incredible, rule-breaking gesture of acceptance and hospitality. I must have had a combination of grimace and grin on my face as my knees crunched on the flagstone. I will never forget this moment of grace.

It is too easy to let rules, rather than the gospel, dictate our decisions. There is always a good reason for rules and our Presbyterian background ensures that we will do everything in good order. But, we need to always ask ourselves if our order serves the gospel or if the gospel serves our order.

The United Church’s manual has grown in size with each new General Council, as rule upon rule has been created in response to some discontent. General Council finally recognized the problem with becoming increasingly rule-bound and has now produced a manual that is considerably smaller, allowing more discretion and flexibility—at least in some areas.

I imagine that Jesus must be a tad impatient with our rule-bound tendencies. He often broke the rules, especially when those rules, intentionally or not, created barriers that excluded people. To be the hands and feet of Christ, as our new mission statement proclaims, means that we need to let our rules and good governance be guided by the grace of Christ.

“I am the gate for the sheep…I am the good shepherd,” Jesus taught, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them, also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”[1] On this day of World Communion, we remember sheep from various folds who all remember Jesus’ last supper and share in this one, holy meal as the one body of Christ. There may be rules that still separate us, but there are also the brave rule-breakers who take a risk to include all.

Jesus didn’t throw out the rule book altogether. He did follow, rather religiously I might add, a couple of overarching Jewish commands. The first was to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. The second was to love others as ourselves. If one subsumed all of the other rules and regulations under these two, what would be the result? L’chaim! To life! “I have come that my sheep may have life,” Jesus proclaimed, “and have it abundantly!”[2]

The Armenian cross, which we used at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches last fall, is the tree of life. You’ll find it pictured in the bulletin. It helps us focus not on the tortured death of crucifixion, but on the greening life of resurrection. It speaks to joy and life that is abundant when we subsume everything to the love of God and of one another. The Armenian cross is based on John 15 in which Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

As we approach the Table of Communion today, let the Armenian bells remind us of grace that welcomes all humble hearts to the table so that, together, we may lift the holy cup of communion to life!

[1] John 10:16

[2] John 10:10b