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Belonging

St. John’s Lutheran Church
21 April 2024 + Fourth Sunday of Easter
John 10:11-18
Rev. Josh Evans


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Here are two words I never thought I’d hear together: “Swift scholar.”

As in: a scholar – not of 18th century Anglo-Irish priest and satire author Jonathan Swift – but of 21st century singer-songwriter Taylor Swift …

… who, in case you missed it, dropped her 11th studio album just this past Friday … which I did indeed listen to in its entirety on my drive back from Boston that same day.

On Friday, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly sat down with Dr. Paula Harper, assistant professor of music and “Swift scholar,” who describes the phenomenon of Taylor’s fan base:

“My favorite go-to example,” Dr. Harper says, “is that, at one of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour concerts, [her fans] literally caused a seismic event due to the combined force of their rhythmic jumping and dancing.”

As “Swifties” hosted listening parties across the country on Friday, even breaking Spotify’s record for the most-streamed album in a single day, it is clear that fans of the 34-year-old artist are a force to be reckoned with.

For many of the pop star’s devoted fans, Swift’s lyrics are powerful and relatable, as one fan at a listening party in Bethesda, Maryland, comments: “She makes songs about what you’re feeling, and you can associate your feelings with those songs.”

Put differently, you could say there is a strong sense of belonging among the Swiftie fan base.

***

Belonging and a yearning to belong are part of what it means to be human.

Everything – from music to sports – from professional organizations to niche hobbies – from high school clubs to college fraternities – provides an opportunity for belonging. When we belong, we’re among our “people” – our community. It feels good to belong to something bigger than yourself – to remind yourself you are not alone.

Belonging is at the core of the Good Shepherd gospel – read in some form every Fourth Sunday of Easter.

It’s unfortunate that the lectionary breaks it apart over three years, not to mention severs it entirely from the story that precedes it in chapter 9 – a story that underscores the belonging at the core of this text.

In that chapter, told only every three years on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Jesus and his disciples find a man who has been blind from birth, whom Jesus heals by making mud with his own spit, spreading it on the man’s eyes, and telling him to go and wash himself. What begins as a simple, if not unsanitary, healing story turns into an extended and convoluted dialogue about the nature of sin and Jesus’ identity.

The story follows a pattern already established in John: First, there is a “sign” (or what we might call a “miracle” story), followed by dialogue about the meaning of the sign, and ultimately a discourse, or teaching, of Jesus that interprets the sign.

Which brings us to the Good Shepherd in chapter 10: Jesus’ teaching on shepherds, sheep, and gates only makes sense because of the story that precedes it.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Jesus declares, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

Indeed, the man born blind hears Jesus’s voice before he ever sees him, and in listening to Jesus’s invitation to go and wash himself, his sight is restored – only to be driven out of his community shortly thereafter by those who resist Jesus and discredit the healing that has taken place.

It is there – driven out and cut off from his community – that Jesus finds the man, discloses his identity, and invites his confession: “Lord, I believe.”

I have other sheep … I must bring them also … The Good Shepherd finds his sheep and brings him safely into the fold, into a new sense of belonging.

The teaching of the Good Shepherd just played out in real time – even though those who witnessed it didn’t, or couldn’t, grasp it.

The signs Jesus performs are never for the sake of the sign alone – like some kind of neat party trick. The signs Jesus performs always point us to the abundant life Jesus offers for the sheep of his fold, standing at the center of his teaching in John 10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

There is belonging in the sheep fold.

There is salvation in the sheep fold – such as Jesus himself will demonstrate, several chapters later, stepping out of the garden, a buffer between his disciples, still safely inside, and the soldiers and police who seek to arrest him: “If you are looking for me, let these people go.”

“This was to fulfill,” the gospel writer parenthetically explains, “the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’”

No one will snatch [my sheep] out of my hand…

There is safety and belonging in the sheep fold.

Where Jesus’s own beloved are driven out, cut off from community, and left in harm’s way, the Good Shepherd offers refugebelonging, and new life.

***

Everyone yearns to belong. It’s a part of being human. A desire to belong to something bigger than yourself – to remind yourself you are not alone.

When we don’t feel like we belong, when we are cut off from our community, when we question our very worth, Jesus calls to us: You belong here.

Just as Jesus calls Lazarus by name and bids him to “Come out!” of his grave…

Just as the risen Christ speaks aloud her name – “Mary!” – at the tomb before she even knows it’s him…

Just as the man born blind – whose name we’ll never know – hears Jesus’s voice before he ever sees his face…

So too Jesus calls us by name, restores us to wholeness, and invites us to follow him: You belong here.

(Maybe that unnamed man is us…)

Human communities of belonging are important and valuable and even life-long. They draw us into something bigger than ourselves, among our “people.” They are powerful, seismic and earth-shaking, even – just ask the Swift scholar.

The Good Shepherd calls us into a community of belonging that’s even stronger – and timeless. In the community of the Good Shepherd, we belong, among God’s people, and no one can snatch us away.

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