Sermon: Live. Die. Repeat.
Scripture: Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Date: November 20, 2016
A couple of years ago, there was one of these summer blockbuster movies starring Tom Cruise called The Edge of Tomorrow. It was about a military public relations officer who is sent to film the human counter offensive against the latest invading race of aliens and instead gets caught up in the fighting and is killed. But rather than stay dead, Tom Cruise is caught up in a time loop and finds himself back in time to the beginning of the day and so relives the day all over again. Well this happens again and again, and each time Cruise eliminates some of the mistakes he made that led to his death, until finally he leads the humans to triumph over the aliens and reaches a bright new tomorrow. And along the way he rescues others who were also caught in his time loop. But to get to tomorrow, Cruise’s character has to battle evil aliens, as well as incompetent and unresponsive superiors, and, of course, his own shortcomings and fears, until he finally emerges as the warrior who saves the world for tomorrow. In some places in the world, rather than being released under the title of Edge of Tomorrow, the film was released under the title of: Live. Die. Repeat. Not nearly as catchy but certainly much more descriptive of the time loop that Cruise’s character found himself in. Of course, this is science fiction and in no way based on a true story. Or perhaps it is, in a sense. Because let me suggest to you that in a way this is the story that is contained in the pages of this Book (the Bible). It’s the story of humanity caught in the time loop of: Live, Die, Repeat. It started with creation. God placed Adam and Eve in the garden of everlasting life. They were meant to live forever with God. But they sinned. They thought they knew better than God. And so they had to leave the garden of everlasting life and death came into the world. And eventually things got so bad, death and evil were in such control that God decided it was time for a reset. So along came Noah and a new day for humanity. But humans were caught in this time loop. We continued to live on the edge of God’s tomorrow but we were doomed to repeat the mistakes that led to our death and destruction. And so God sent Abraham. And then Moses. And then King David. And then Isaiah. All to offer a new day for His people. But the time loop continued. Live. Die. Repeat. The Aliens continued to invade. Goliath and the Philistines. The Assyrians. The Babylonians. The Greeks. The Romans. Every time God would raise up a hero to defeat the enemies, humanity would get caught again in the time loop. Because here’s the thing that we failed to realize. And that was that the real aliens that were defeating us were inside of us, not invading from the outside. Before Tom Cruise’s character could triumph over the external forces, he had to deal with his internal aliens. Before the Israelites led from Egypt could triumph over the forces that controlled the promised land, they spent a generation in the wilderness dealing with the aliens in their midst. And now eight centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah finds himself in the midst of the Biblical time loop. From the walls of Jerusalem, He can see the campfires of the aliens, the invading Babylonians to the north. Death is knocking at the gates of Jerusalem. But Jeremiah is already looking ahead to a new day. Live. Die. Repeat. And he finds his hope in the church. Look what he says here. It is the bad shepherds of Israel that are responsible for the death of the sheep. And by shepherds he does not mean the king or government. Or even the conquering aliens. The Shepherds of Israel refers to the priests – the religious leaders. Ezekiel, a younger contemporary of Jeremiah, also blames the fall of the nation on the “bad shepherds of Israel.” And centuries before in the 23rd Psalm David had made the link between the church and the shepherds when he wrote: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” So while Jeremiah was lamenting the impending fall of Jerusalem, his primary concern is the coming destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnnezer, due to the faithlessness of the bad shepherds of Israel. But in death, Jeremiah sees hope in the good shepherds that God will raise up when the Messiah comes. Live Die Repeat. Of course, when Jesus did come, one of the names that He took upon himself was Good Shepherd, no doubt with the words of Jeremiah in mind. What Jeremiah was saying was that after the fall of the nation and the Temple, a new day would be ushered in again, only this time by the coming of the Messiah who would also confront the Bad Shepherds of the Temple, and in their place He would lift up Good Shepherds to care for His flock. And so, in the fullness of the time loop, Jesus was born and He called the Disciples to establish His church. And in doing so, Jesus broke the time loop forever. So instead of Live. Die. Repeat. When Jesus came it was Live. Die. And then live forever. That is the hope of the church of Jesus Christ. That’s the hope of Jeremiah. And so when we become a part of His church, we become a part of the loop of eternity. We live out the hope of Jeremiah. We are swept into a day of new beginnings. And every time someone joins the church, that hope is affirmed all over again. These who come today step into a new day, a day that reflects the hope of Jeremiah. And so, as I have contemplated especially the young people who come today, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own confirmation experience and after all these years the reasons why I have remained a member of the church.
I was thirteen years old when I went through confirmation at the Immanuel United Methodist Church in Ft. Mitchell. Though I had been involved in church all of my life up to that point, Baptized as in infant. Sunday School graduate pre-school through jr. high. Sang in the children’s choir. My family in worship every Sunday no matter where we lived. But for some reason I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to church membership. And though I didn’t remember all that I learned about the church’s theology and polity in that confirmation class, I do remember the reasons that I chose to join the church. And I realize now that those reasons are contained in the imagery of the Good Shepherd.
First, there was the need to belong. We had just moved to Ft. Mitchell that summer and it was my ninth grade year in school and I was struggling to find a place to belong. My brother was a good athlete and so had found his place on sports teams. So in eighth grade I had been on the basketball team but that was because only 12 tried out and so the coach kept us all. But I wasn’t very good. I was the designated fouler. If there was a player on the other team who was scoring a lot of points, I was put in to “rough him up” a little. My stats were not measured in points or rebounds, but in the number of personal fouls. And if I fouled out, I bordered on being the star of the game. I was a bad player on a bad team. I didn’t have the skills to belong to the basketball team. So trying to build on my reputation as a bruiser, my 9th grade year I went out for football but I never made it beyond the winter conditioning program. Running and weight lifting were just not my things. I didn’t have the physical makeup to belong to the football team. You know if you think about it, most of the things that we try to belong to have some criteria that we need to meet in order to belong. Sometimes it’s income based. Sometimes it’s based on our ancestry. Sometimes it’s more ethnically based. Sometimes it’s the color of our skin that determines what we can belong to and what we can’t. Poll after poll show that one of the greatest needs that human beings express is the need to belong but yet so many of us struggle to find something to belong to. We struggle to meet all of the criteria. But the church at it’s best is not like that. The church of the Good Shepherd opens it’s door and invites everyone to belong. One of the most frequently used phrases in the New Testament is the phrase “one another”. It is found more than sixty times, mostly in the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul and Peter, as they describe the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ. The church of the Good Shepherd is a place for “one another”. In Jeremiah’s eyes one of the things that separates the Bad Shepherds from the good is that the Bad Shepherds seek to cull the flock of those who don’t meet the criteria. The sheep that are too weak, or whose wool is to thin, or who insist on challenging the shepherd’s authority are separated from the flock. Left for the wolves to devour or to fend for themselves in the harsh terrain of reality. But the Good Shepherd gathers the sheep from all over the world. Gathers the strays that have been turned out of other flocks. Is willing to lay down His life to save the weakest ones. And when one sheep wanders off, the Good Shepherd leaves no stone unturned until He finds It and restores it to the flock. I joined the church because I found a place where I could belong no matter what kind of sheep I was.. Even if I didn’t have any discernible skills, or a certain physical make up. And even though I was the new kid from up north. In the Good Shepherd’s flock, I was welcome. I belonged.
And I joined the church because it was a place where I felt I could truly make a difference. In my quest to find a place to fit in, to belong I became aware that there were a lot of other kids like me. And as I have grown older I have seen that there are a lot of people in this world who are struggling to find their place. And I found in the church a place where I could make a difference in peoples lives. Back to Jeremiah’s vision. You know sheep are among some of the most helpless creatures in all of creation. And in the countryside of Israel, sheep had many enemies. Sometimes it was the land itself. Hot and dry. It was often hard to find good grazing. And water sources were few and far between. But remember what David said? The Good Shepherd would lead the sheep to green pastures and beside still, cool waters. The Good Shepherd would help the sheep to survive the land.
And then sheep are defenseless against natural predators such as wolves and foxes and even lions which were in the wilderness in Jeremiah’s day. Sheep have no defense mechanisms to fend off such animals. And they have short legs and can’t run very fast. Sheep find their protection in the flock. When they stay together animals are reluctant to attack. And so the predators trail behind the flock and if one of the sheep for some reason gets separated from the flock, the predators attack. That sheep doesn’t have much of a chance. And unfortunately sheep aren’t very bright either. They often wander from patch of grass to the next patch without thinking about where they are in relationship to the rest of the flock and before they realize it they are alone and the predators are descending. We can make a difference as long as we stay connected to the flock. And so the sheep find safety in the Good Shepherd. He not only leads them to food and water, But He fights off the predators with his rod and staff. He builds the sheep fold to keep the predators away at night and He himself positions himself at the entrance, becomes the gate, through which no predator can enter and no sheep can exit. And when one sheep strays, he goes and finds it and often uses the hook on his staff to pull them to safety. All of that in contrast to the Bad Shepherds, who care only for the strongest of the sheep. In their flocks, it’s survival of the fittest. I joined the church because I felt it was a place that together we can make a difference in the lives of all of the lost and straying sheep, of which I was one.
And finally I joined the church because in it I saw the Hope of new life. Looking back on that year of turning thirteen I realize that it was very much of a crossroads in my life. I spent a lot of time locked away in my room, alone. At school I kept to myself. And then I nearly fell in with a bad group of people. That confirmation class was a beacon of hope and light in a pretty dark time for me. And in the years since then, there have been other dark times for me. Other crossroads. But the church has always been that beacon that has pulled me back to hope and new life. It’s what Jeremiah saw in the midst of the darkness that was closing in all around them. No matter how bad my days have gotten, the church has always been there to offer a new day. Live. Die. Repeat. It’s the time loop we get caught up in in too often in this world. But the church offers a different kind of loop, because of Jesus Christ. It is much more finite in its infiniteness. It is Live. Die. And Live. Forever. And for me the church has been there always. In life. In death. And in the hope of eternity.
Of all the pastors that I have come to know in my thirty five years of ministry, without a doubt, Howard Olds was one of my heroes. Because Howard was always so hopeful and full of life, even when facing death. And in one of his sermons, in the midst of his battle with cancer, Howard said this about hope, and life and the church.
Hope is the Church’s business. You see, we are people of hope because we know the final score. We know who finally wins in this riddle of life. And so, whatever the circumstances, we live as people of faith and hope. That is who we are and I want to be around people like that.
My favorite church member of all these years was a little guy by the name of Charlie Hitt. Charlie wore extremely thick glasses and a hearing aid in each ear. He didn’t own a car, so he hitchhiked six miles to church every Sunday morning. He sat on the front row near the center aisle. He always sang about three measures behind everybody else when we sang the hymn. On his way out every Sunday he would tell me a whole sermon related to the title of the sermon in the bulletin. He had not heard a single word I said, he just made up his own sermon. Often I wish he had called me on Saturday. It would have helped my sermons a lot. One day somebody asked Charlie, “Why do you bother to come to church? You can’t see, you can’t hear, you don’t have a way to get here. Why don’t you just stay home?” Little, short Charlie Hitt, with a twinkle in his eye said, “Oh, but come Sunday, I want my neighbors to know whose side I’m on so I’m always in church.”
On this confirmation Sunday, I think THAT above all else, captures why I joined the church when I was thirteen years old and why, after all these years, I keep coming back. Because I want everyone to know that I belong to the flock of the good shepherd. And that because of Him, I am caught up in the loop of Live. Die. And Live forever.