A High Adventure


A sermon preached on May 3, 2009, based upon John 10:10 – 15, entitled “A High Adventure.”

In the Gospel lesson from John this morning Jesus contrasts the life of “thieves” with the life of the Good Shepherd, which he embodies. The thieves are just putting in time for a pay check. When any situation arises that calls forth from them any real sacrifice, they flee. Jesus the good shepherd, in contrast cares passionately about his sheep, and is willing to lay down his life for them.

So here’s a question to consider: is our religious practice leading us to a passionate engagement with life and the human beings God gives us to love, indeed, a willingness, if necessary to lay our lives down? Or is our religion just an accessory to our lives — there only as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us?

One of the great summations by Jesus of what he is about is found at the beginning of our lesson: “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” The thief, in contrast, diminishes life. If your religion is truly derived from Jesus, it will bring you more abundant, passionate life. In contrast, religion in this world all too often leads people to be consumed by guilt, fear and hostility, or simply boredom.

The early Church was short on doctrine. There was essentially just one doctrinal affirmation: Jesus is Lord, but this affirmation was one for which the early Christians were willing to die if necessary when the State pressed them to compromise their ultimate allegiance. Instead of a bunch of abstract ideas, the religion of the early Church was a way of life that consisted of imitating Jesus. It called people into a high adventure.

It was hard to miss the distinctiveness of this way of life, and its power to transform. Here is an early Roman commentator describing the early Christians to Emperor Hadrian:

“They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the person who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home as a brother or sister in the spirit, the Spirit of God.”

Even as there was in such descriptions a begrudging respect, there was also something that the authorities clearly recognized in the way of Jesus that was downright threatening to the social order. The early Christians practiced a radical equality that threatened the established hierarchy. They refused to succumb to the power of the Empire to make people cower into submission.

One of the distinguishing aspects of the early Christians was the way they responded to the plagues that left millions dying on the streets. They were willing to risk getting infected themselves in order to practice the compassion for the sick and dying they inherited from Jesus. It raises an interesting question of what the Christian response should be to the “Swine Flu.”

There is this joke that preachers tell. It involves a couple of preachers sitting around lamenting their common problem of bats up in the belfry. As much as they tried, they couldn’t get those bats to leave. Finally one of the preachers pipes up. “I had the same problem — that is till I figured out the solution. It’s simple, really. I took my book of worship, climbed up into the belfry and confirmed those bats — every single one of them. Haven’t seen them since.”

Usually confirmation class goes something like this: adolescents squirm in seats around a table for an hour or so each week for several months while the pastor tries to fill them with information about Christianity. The adolescents are bored silly, retain little information, stand up in worship one Sunday to make confessions of faith they know are expected of them, and then, shortly thereafter, quit being a part of church.

When I realized that we hadn’t had a confirmation class in a couple of years and there were several teenagers in our congregation of confirmation age, the standard scenario for how to do confirmation wasn’t too appealing to me. I enjoy the creativity of theater, and so I hatched an alternative plan. I wrote a play that gave an overview of my understanding of Christianity, and then I cast the youth in the lead parts. Adults would be recruited to play smaller parts and to help with the back stage work. We would work together for several months getting the play ready to perform, and along the way, hopefully, they would absorb information. More importantly, however, I hoped to give the youth a shared experience that would give them a taste of the high adventure Christianity was envisioned by Jesus to be.

Most of the youth and adults I recruited were novices to theater, and so there was a good deal of skepticism from the outset. I’ve been involved in theater productions for over thirty years, so I was pretty confident of what we could create if we just stuck to it.

It was slow and tedious early on, but it still beat sitting around a table with me piling information on them. In time the production began to pick up steam as the kids and adults bonded together and began to care about what they were creating. A willingness to sacrifice took hold.

By the end there was a tangible sense of adventure. The youth had helped created something beautiful and funny that was far bigger than themselves — something they could never have done alone. At the outset, several of the kids had been downright terrified at the prospect of getting on stage to perform in front of an audience, and in conquering those fears they experienced something of the power of faith to overcome fear, a thrilling lesson indeed. They took ownership of what the play was trying to express, a vision of Jesus and the faith that challenged the audience to take responsibility for the miraculous gift God had given them of their lives.

In short, I believe they got a taste for what Jesus meant when he said he had come to give life, and give it abundantly.

Youth is a tender time when the direction in life gets charted. My hope is that our youth are catching hold of a life-long vision of following Jesus as the life-giving adventure he had in mind.

May it be so for all of us.

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