Leaving the Fold—Only to Return

This morning I want to talk about the two halves of life, and the faith we need for each. The sermon is partly inspired and informed Fr. Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” This book enabled me to see a much-neglected part of Scripture and to pick-out important elements in our Gospel lesson. Let’s talk about life as we know it.

The first half of life includes our all of our childhood and early adult years. It usually extends well into our middle years. Some of you think of the middle years as “the old age of youth,” others describe them as “the youth of old age.” I call it history. All work.

In the first half of life, we learn to live by the rules. Rules fence us in and give us a sense of safety and security. As children and even as adults, we prefer to live by laws like the Ten Commandments, and we love keeping the rules. If I may evoke the language of John 10, “We like living in the fold.” And we rejoice that the most common one-liner in Scripture is “Do not be afraid.” It occurs 365 times, one for each day of the year.

In his book, “The Art of Loving,” Erik Fromm the noted psychiatrist and psychologist says that the healthiest people he has known are those who have grown up with two strong parents, or parental figures. One of them offers unconditional love and acceptance. The other offers conditional and demanding love. Unconditional love and acceptance gives us confidence. It gives us the strength stand-up, speak-up, and, when necessary, stand-out. Conditional and demanding love keeps us on the straight and narrow and enables us to function in a society based on rules. Teachers, preachers, and other authority figures continue this creative tension; but we only help if the parents have done their job.

As children “we” believe that we are at the center of the universe, and everyone like us reinforces that opinion just by being like us. As adults many of us continue to believe that we and our group, or club, or clan are at the center of the universe. Rudyard Kipling captures the definition of “we” perfectly:

All good people say,
And all good people agree,
Everyone like us is “we”,
And Everyone else is “they.”

In reflecting on this division, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the world-famous astrophysicist has written:

Part the curtain of society’s racial, ethnic, religious, national, and cultural conflicts, and you find the human ego turning the knobs and pulling the levers.

For many thousands of years, the whole human race suffered from the same self-centeredness that affected us as individuals. God encouraged us to humility and disciplined us when we ignored Him. Then, in recent centuries, the cosmos, which is also a revelation of God, (“The heavens are telling the glory of God…”) has gradually put the whole human race in our place. For instance, we once assumed Earth to be the center of the Solar System, then we learned that the Earth orbits the Sun, not vice versa. Then, for a time, we presumed our Sun was unique, until, at last, the invention of the telescope enabled us to see that our Sun is just like all the other countless stars that hang as bright specs in the night sky. Our Sun is bigger than some but smaller than others. Then, for a time, we presumed our galaxy, the Milky Way, was the entire known universe, until astronomers discovered that the fuzzy clusters that we see between the stars in the Milky Way are other galaxies. In fact, our universe contains more than a hundred billion galaxies, and our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains more than a hundred billion stars. In addition, astronomers now tell us that there may be as many as many forty billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. All this is beyond debate. It is scientific fact. We may deny these facts, but this does not change them.

Of course, there are some religious people—Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others deny these facts most people accept, thinking that their denial will help preserve the greatness of God and help people of faith maintain our place at the center of the universe. There are other believers, and I count myself among them, who accept all the scientific explanations of creation as truth, see no conflict between faith and science, and insist that each time our universe—or multiverse, “grows” it only adds to the already immeasurable greatness of God and forces humanity to adopt and maintain the kind of humility we need to relate, not just to God, but to the creation itself, and to all our fellow human beings.

It is only when we have learned a little humility, and come to grips that we, as individuals, are not at the center of the universe, that we are ready for the tasks of the 2nd half of life,. In the second half of life, we have to come to see the truth of the freedom that God gave us in creation and restored to us by the power of his Holy Spirit in redemption. This is not easy. As Father Richard Rohr has observed, “Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable.”

Sooner or later, for most of us, our faith will take center stage. If we live long enough, and well enough, sooner or later we will be caught in a struggle between all the rules we have always followed and the necessity of breaking some of the rule in order to follow Jesus Christ into freedom. Our struggle before God (and sometimes with God) is always painful. We are like the bush that drew Moses, God will burn us, but not consume us. It is by this burning that we are refined and forged into the instrument that God wishes to make of us.

In the first half of life, we learned to live by the rules, and this was necessary, in the second half of life we learn to selectively break the rules and this is just as necessary. If the first disciples of Jesus had not broken a few rules we would still be keeping the Law of Moses, and still seeking to justify ourselves. And if Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists had not broken a few rules—including some written in the Bible, and insisted that all men were created equal, we may still be keeping slaves.People forget that in the time before the Civil War, preachers in Southern pulpits defended slavery as the creation, will, and blessing of God. And they proved it from scripture. I have given just a few examples, but I could extend this list of law breakers and law breaking for a long, long time. Of course, such an exercise would exhaust us all.

And someone will still say, “But, Worth, if we break the rules, especially the Law, don’t we sin against God.” There is that risk; but we must balance that risk against another, equally great risk. Writing in the 4th Christian Century, Gregory of Nyssa said, “Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.” God want us to keep growing. There are some things God wants to grow up to. In Ephesians 4 we are “to grow-up to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” And there are some things that God wants us to grow out of, including our own self-centerdness, and our we/they mentality.

Sometimes two things we hold dear can’t help but compete against one another. For instance, the Fourth Commandment declares, “Honor your father and your mother that you days may be long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” Yet when God called Abraham, he called upon him to leave his country, his kindred, and his father house to go to the new land he would show him. And Abraham and Sarah went out in obedience to God, not knowing where they were going. And the gospels, when Jesus called James and John the Sons of Zebedee to follow him, he called them away from their boat, and their nets, and their father, Zebedee himself. And what about this? In Luke 14 Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Sometimes, as painful as it is, we have to reject ways that have been dear to us, and dear to all who have gone before us, and, when we do, we often make the people closest to us, even members of our own families, very, very unhappy. Still—Jesus says we must sometimes do it. This gives rise to the saying, “It is easier to be true to our convictions than it is to be true to Jesus Christ.”

Now with this as background, consider our gospel lesson and the few verses that follow. In John10 Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd and he tells his disciples that the sheep know their shepherd’s voice and they follow him. And where do the sheep follow the Good Shepherd? They follow him right out of the fold. For it is only when the sheep follow the Good Shepherd out of the fold that they can “go in and out and find pasture.” Notice they never leave the fold for good—but they do leave it, repeatedly, leaving it over and over and over again, then returning to it, over and over again. The life of the sheep is one of continually going out, and risking, and growing., and coming in, both in obedience to the shepherd. In going out of the fold they find nourishment—for body and soul. In returning they find rest and security. If I wanted I could end the sermon here, but I wish to quickly make four additional points.

First, if the sheep follow the voice of the Good Shepherd they escape the hazard of waiting around the fold to be attacked by thieves who break in to steal, and kill, and destroy.

Second, I think it is interesting that Jesus described the thieves and false shepherds he mentioned stealing first, ahead of killing and destroying. There are some philosophers and theologians who suggest that stealing may be the basic sin that underlies all other sins. The Ancient Serpent attempted to steal God’s place and convinced the first pair to do likewise. Certainly they stole more than an apple. Today, thieves steal a man property, whether by robbing his house, or scamming him, or by besting him in some slick business deal. The murder steals a man’s life, and he steals the love the man would have given his wife, children, and friends. The rapists steals the right of a woman to choose her own mate, and also her confidence and peace of mind. Those who bear false witness against another steal that person’s good name. And those who lie steal our right to the truth.

Third, the thieves and false shepherds who break in to steal, and kill and destroy, do their best to sound like the Good Shepherd. They go out of their way to champion at least some of those things that the Good Shepherd himself teaches, but they do this only to distract the sheep, and keep them happy, while they are stealing from them, and planting the seeds of their ultimate destruction. Like the Devil himself, thieves and false shepherds often masquerade as an Angel of Light.” Given the chance they will fleece the sheep right down to the bone. Jesus says that those who recognize his voice will also know when the false shepherds speak—and they avoid them.

Finally, I want to reiterate that it is only when the sheep follow the Good Shepherd in and out that they find pasture, and and participate in the abundant life Jesus the Christ came to bring. When King David describes that abundant life for us in Psalm 23, he starts out by talking to us, his readers, about his LORD. Then, in verse 4, he directs his speech away from us and to Good Shepherd himself.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

For most of us the second half of life begins with some type of crisis, whether a crisis of family, or vocation, or health, or, God-forbid, faith. When facing a crisis in the second half of life, I would urge you to consider the words of Carl Jung who wrote:

One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

At all times, I would urge you to remember the words of Jesus who said, “I am the good shepherd—my sheep know my voice, and they follow me.”


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