Sunday, May 7, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. I’ve got something for you that’s going to change your life! Do you have aches and pains? Do you have bruises and scars? Do you have trouble seeing right? Well, step right up and get this tonic because it’s going to take away all your troubles. That’s right; this special tonic is going to cure whatever is troubling you. You’ll be as good as new. It’s helped hundreds of people already. It’s guaranteed to work. You have my word on it. I promise.”
These and similar words were spoken by hundreds of dishonest salesmen in the early 1900’s. They soon came to be known as snake oil salesman. And that wasn’t a compliment. Snake oil salesmen were individuals who would go around and sell some crazy concoction – saying it was healing snake oil- and promise people that it would cure whatever was wrong with them. The problem was that it was all a lie. They were taking advantage of people. Telling them what they wanted to hear. They didn’t care about the people who were being cheated out of their money to buy this nonsense. They only cared about themselves.
You might wonder how they thought up such a scheme. Well, like most lies, it was based on a little bit of truth. In the 1800’s Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the railroad. It was hard, back breaking work. The Chinese have been known for thousands of years to treat illnesses with natural herbs. They actually made oil from the Chinese water snake, which is high in omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation. In fact, doctors today urge people to eat a diet high in omega-3 acids to help reduce inflammation and heart disease. The Chinese laborers used to use this special oil to treat arthritis and bursitis and aching joints from working on the railroad. When Americans found out about this they wanted to make their own versions. So they thought they could use the rattlesnake. However, their versions of this ancient Chinese medicine they were trying to duplicate didn’t work. It didn’t work because rattlesnakes are not Chinese water snakes, and so they ended up using other kinds of animal fat, red pepper, and even turpentine. As you can imagine. This didn’t heal anyone, and even ended up making some people sick. These salesmen were greedy, and tried to imitate something by cheating and lying in order to make money. They were thieves and bandits.
We still have snake oil salesmen today. No, they aren’t trying to sell us snake oil, but they are trying to sell people something that isn’t beneficial to anyone but themselves. If you look at any number of commercials or magazine ads, they are trying to sell us a false sense of security. “Buy this pill and all your troubles will be gone.” They don’t however, mention all the side effects. Or buy this product and you’re guaranteed to lose weight fast. There are any number of products these snake oil salesmen are trying to sell people to give them whatever their hearts desire. Just recently I saw that a major store is selling jeans with fake dirt on them – yes, fake dirt for anywhere from $450.00 – $800.00 for fake dirt, so you’ll look like you were out in nature, without actually having to get dirty. And why would anyone spend that kind of money for fake dirt? Because the voice they hear tells them they’ll be part of the in crowd. And people more than anything else want a sense of love and belonging. But all these products and all these voices are not able to deliver real belonging or security. These voices are nothing but empty promises.
That’s what Jesus is addressing in our gospel lessen. In the previous chapter of John’s gospel – chapter 9 – that we read several weeks ago – Jesus heals a man born blind from birth. Only when Jesus healed the man, no one believed that it was true. They thought that it was some kind of trick or hoax, much like the acts from these traveling salesmen. So the leaders of the religious community kicked this man who was born blind and now healed, out of their faith community. When he was blind they wouldn’t take care of him, and now that he could see they didn’t want anything to do with him either. Yet Jesus went back and found him and invited him to be his disciple. Jesus promised this man security- real love and belonging – when everyone else failed him. Our gospel lesson today is a continuation of that healing event. Jesus is addressing the religious leaders and the others who did not want to take care of this man, but instead told people that they could enter into God’s kingdom by following rules that didn’t help the poor, oppressed, and rejected. They were putting up gates to keep certain people out, instead of using the gates to let them in. Jesus called them thieves and bandits.
Yet Jesus isn’t just addressing the Pharisees and leaders of long ago, but He is addressing us today. Jesus uses a couple of metaphors to describe himself. He says he is the Gate, and the Good Shepherd. Jesus says that he is the gate, by which the sheep – God’s people – enter. Jesus invites people in. He does not push people away. And it isn’t just a certain group of people. It isn’t people who all think the same, or act the same. Jesus says, “ 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 on flock, one shepherd.” Jesus wants all people to enter through him – the gate – so they will all be together in him as one community – one flock. The gate is to keep Jesus’ flock together, so they will be safe. And the gate is flexible. The gate keeps the sheep in at night where they are safe with the shepherd, and the gate opens in the morning to let the sheep go out to pasture. Jesus is the gate that draws us all in to his place of safety, and then Jesus sends us out while providing for us with everything we need. Jesus – the gate – is a passage to abundant life.
Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd, unlike those who don’t truly care for anyone but themselves. Jesus always has our best interest at heart. Jesus compares us to sheep, by saying that we like sheep need to be cared for. We need someone to guide us who is trustworthy and won’t merely tell us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. Jesus will not tell us lies in order to deceive us and harm us. He doesn’t tell us that following him will lead to a life of ease, but that He will be with us through our joys and our sorrows. Jesus’ voice is the voice of truth, and if we stay together with him as one community listening to his voice, we will recognize his voice from the other voices – those snake oil salesmen – who try and deceive us in order to get what they want.
Jesus said that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” What does abundant life look like to Jesus? It’s not having everything we want, because the problem with that is that we always want more. And sometimes the things we think we want aren’t really good for us. Abundant life is having what we need, and sharing with others so they have what they need. It’s seeking first the kingdom of God. It’s knowing that if we have Jesus in our life we have everything. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will never lead us astray. The promises Jesus makes are true and they are never broken. Jesus’ abundant life is one of real protection, real freedom, real sustenance, real joy, and real peace that is beyond all understanding. The abundant life that Jesus promises and offers is a life of resurrection. Abundant life in Jesus is a life that transforms us to being more like Jesus, loving more like Jesus, and living more like Jesus. Abundant life in Jesus is not an empty promise. It is a guarantee, because Jesus laid down his life in order that we would live.
So what are you waiting for? Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. God has something for you that’s going to change your life- His name is Jesus! And we receive Him this morning in Holy Communion. Do you have aches and pains? Jesus is walking right beside you. Do you have bruises and scars? Jesus’ scars from the cross gave you salvation. Do you have trouble seeing right? Look at people through Jesus’ eyes and you will see them and love them all like He does. Trust in Jesus – the Gate, the Good Shepherd – because He’s the one to go to when you have trouble. That’s right, Jesus can cure whatever is troubling your soul. In fact, at your baptism he made you as good as new. He’s healed millions of people already, through his life, death, and resurrection. Death has been defeated; He guaranteed it. Jesus rose from the dead! He’s alive! His promises are true, and life in him is abundant life. Follow Jesus, live in His promise, and share this great news with others. Amen.