Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C, "Finding Easter: Shepherd and Sheep," Psalm 23


Sermon 4/17/16
Psalm 23

Finding Easter: Shepherd and Sheep             

            Last week, we heard Jesus tell Peter the task he had set for him: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Today, we’re taking a deeper look at this biblical imagery of shepherds and sheep as we look at a most beloved passage of scripture. We’re not very good at memorizing scripture anymore. Not us at Apple Valley in particular, but rather in the larger church. Most mainline Protestant churches don’t emphasize memorizing scripture the way that we might have experienced even a few decades ago. When I was a child, we’d get a nickel in my Sunday School class for every verse we could memorize, and that was pretty much enough motivation for me!

            Do you know any verse of the Bible by heart? If you do, among them, one that many people still know by heart, and many people know at least in part, even if they can’t remember where it is from or why they know it, is the 23rd Psalm. Most people know it, in fact, in the Kings James Version, even if they have rarely used the King James translation for anything else. Let’s share it together in the King James Version:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will 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 mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

            Of all the parts of scripture, there are not many passages that have been set to music as frequently, or used in movies and TV shows as frequently, or adapted and paraphrased as frequently as this 23rd Psalm. And of course, most funerals that I’ve presided over in my years of ministry – the vast majority have included the 23rd Psalm. For some reason, in the face of death, these words are so very comforting to us. What exactly makes them so comforting? Well, I suppose that is up to each person’s interpretation, but I’m guessing first of all that the psalm paints a peaceful, beautiful image for us. Green pastures and still waters – this sounds like an Eden, a paradise to relax in. Plus, there is the constant presence of God, the shepherd in the psalm. Wherever we go, even through the valley of the shadow of death, the shepherd is there, not only with us, but leading us and guiding us. We all know that we must walk in that dark valley – but we don’t do it alone, the psalm tells us. And of course, the ending: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I think we picture ourselves eternally home with God, in God’s heart. Again, both when we think about our own death, and when we think about the death of a loved one, these images are comforting.

            Still, I wonder about a couple of things. First, I worry anytime we so closely associate a certain text with a certain ritual that we’re losing out on the powerful meaning of the passage. 1 Corinthians 13 is a great example. It is chosen for many weddings, which isn’t surprising, with its focus on love. But the apostle Paul was writing to a community, a new church, telling them how to treat each other. He didn’t have married couples in mind at all. And while it certainly works well for couples about to commit their lives in marriage, I wonder if we remember what else it means when we tie it so closely to weddings. I wonder this about the 23rd Psalm too. How often do we study these words outside of a funeral? How often do we examine them in the same way we study other passages, and pull them apart to seek their meaning? That’s what I want us to do today, so that we can truly know more fully the words that we know by rote already.

            The other thing I wonder about is: why is it that we find this pastoral image of a shepherd guiding us so compelling? If God is our shepherd in this text, then that makes us the sheep. Why is that such a powerful image for us? Undoubtedly, the scriptures are full of imagery of shepherds and sheep, and Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd in some of the most beloved passage of the gospels. He teaches a parable about a shepherd seeking out the one sheep, separated from the other ninety-nine, the one who is lost. He talks about how we know his voice like the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. We call Jesus himself the Lamb of God, connecting Jesus’ offering of his life with the animals once sacrificed as offerings to God. We think of the shepherds that play such a significant role in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth – they’re visited by heavenly host, and they’re the first visitors to the Christ child.

            And yet, for all their presence in the scriptures, how much experience do you have with real-life sheep or a real shepherd? I’ve seen some sheep at a petting zoo. But I have never met a person whose life’s work was as a shepherd. From a quick search online I learned that a shepherd might carry two weapons for protection against predators and enemies - a sling shot, like David used against Goliath, (David, who started out as a shepherd), and the crook, like you would envision, as described by the synonyms rod and staff in the Psalm. One end would have the big hook for sheep that were wandering away, the other would have a hard round knob, to be used like a club against attacking animals. The shepherd would lead them to a place good to eat, with water to drink, sometimes going in front, sometime prodding and guiding from behind. At the end of the day, the shepherd would lead them back to a safe place. It was not a glamorous life - shepherds were definitely in the lower class. But still, many of the figures in our formational stories, from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and his sons – they all made their living at least in part as shepherds.

            So, what does this psalm say to us? Can we read beyond our visions of puffy white sheep and pretty green fields? After all, the very first line packs a bit of a punch. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I shall not want. I love the hymn we sang just before the sermon, and I love how it phrases this line. “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants.” A shepherd provides everything that a sheep needs, not by feeding them, but by guiding them to places of abundance where they can get everything they require. And the sheep depend on this. Do we let God lead us beyond our wants? More than saying “God is my shepherd, I shouldn’t want anything,” I see the psalmist saying that when God is truly the one leading us, we won’t want. Not when we have put our lives entirely in the hands of the shepherd. Try to make note this week of every time you think, “I really want ______,” while you’re in the store, or watching commercials, or noticing ads everywhere you look online. How much does wanting consume your life? I like to consider myself pretty non-materialistic. But a couple of times, as a spiritual practice, I’ve limited my spending entirely to gas and groceries (and paying bills, of course.) And I was shocked to find how many times I day I was thinking about buying something. And that’s just thinking about the material stuff we want. Can we let God lead us beyond our wants? Calling God our shepherd is actually an act of deep trust and faith. Certainly, God is up to it. Are we?

            The psalmist also talks about what kind of journey we take when God is the shepherd. We read that God “leads [us] in the paths of righteousness” and that “surely goodness and mercy will follow [us] all the days of [our] life.” When we see that word “paths,” what it actually means is something like “deep ruts.” They’re like the grooves that a wagon would make as it traveled the same path in mud over and over. This is a path that is well-worn from frequent use. And righteousness – that’s a synonym for justice, for God’s vision of our right relationships with God and others. The psalm tells us the when God is our shepherd, justice is such a way of life for us, right relationships, seeking wholeness in the world – that’s such a way of life that our path is well-used and making deep tracks in the ground. And when we read of goodness and mercy following us, a more literal translation is “only goodness and mercy shall pursue us” our whole life long. If God is our shepherd, and our wants are already cared for, then the focus of our life is seeking God’s path of justice, and goodness and mercy pursue us, follow behind us. Are goodness and mercy pursuing us? Can we see the marks of goodness, the impact of mercy behind us, each place we’ve been?

            The psalmist describes a life of seeking justice, following God the shepherd, even knowing that sometimes we’ll be led into the very darkest valleys. The dark valley of this psalm isn’t death, or at least, not only death. Our darkest valleys are part of life, aren’t they? The challenges, the struggles, the pains we experience physically, emotionally, spiritually? The shepherd leads the sheep into the darkest valleys. But the shepherd stays with them, and the sheep, trusting the shepherd, ever in the company of the shepherd – they are not afraid. If God is leading us, we will sometimes head straight for the darkest places – in the world, in our lives. But as we grow as disciples – as we grow into our sheep-hood – we follow with such trust in God that there is no room for fear. Imagine what we might do that we hold back from because we let fear be our shepherd instead of God? 

            Finally, the psalm ends: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We can read this as: I will return to the house of the Lord all the days of my life. In other words, we keep coming back to God. We keep grounding ourselves in God’s ways. Again and again, we choose God and God’s path.

            This is a powerful psalm, if we let it be more than pretty words. Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life. Lead me in the well-trod path of justice. Even though you lead me into the darkest places, you never leave my side, God. Instead, you guide me on, with me always. My cup is overflowing with the abundant life you have given me. My prayer is that I can leave goodness and mercy wherever I’ve been, so that justice is before me and goodness and mercy are coming up behind me. And God, I’ll keep returning to you, returning to you, returning to you, every day in this life, and in the life to come. Amen.

* Translation comments from Chris Haslam, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments, and Joel LeMon, Working Preacher,


 

 

 

Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, "Finding Easter: Called (Again)," John 21:1-19

Sermon 4/10/16
John 21:1-19

Finding Easter: Called (Again)

 
How many of you have seen the Bill Murray 1993 movie Groundhog Day – gosh, did that really come out 20 years ago? The premise is this: Bill Murray’s character, Phil, isn’t really enjoying life. He’s a news reporter, and he has to report on Punxutawney Phil, and whether or not he sees his shadow on Groundhog Day. The day doesn’t go very well as a whole. He’s kind of a jerk all day long. He finally goes to sleep, wakes up in the morning – and instead of being the next day, it’s the same day all over again. He finds, for some reason, he has to keep living the same day over and over. And at first, he doesn’t really try to do anything differently. Presented with the same day, Phil does basically the same thing. Eventually, eventually, dissatisfied with the life he is experiencing, dissatisfied with the way he’s spent this day, again, and again, he starts to make changes. Finally, when he’s changed his life, inside and outside, he wakes up to February 3rd and a new beginning.

What would you think of such an occurrence? If you repeated a day over and over again, until you got it right, would you think of that as a blessing, or a curse? There’ve been days in my life when I’ve wished I could get a “do over.” But then I wonder: we might not have the opportunity to repeat a particular day. But we have the opportunity on each new day to try again in many of the tasks we desire to complete, in many of the ways we wish to live. We might not be able to undo that chocolate cake, but we can not eat so much cake the next day. We might not make it to the gym today, but we can tomorrow. Maybe we said or did something hurtful today. But tomorrow, not only can we not do something hurtful, but we can apologize for what we have done the day before, and seek to make amends. If we failed to pray or spend time with God or spend time reading the scriptures today, the next day is open to us. Do we take the opportunity to make change? Or are we living our lives as if we are caught in a perpetual Groundhog Day, even though each day comes to us brand new?

Today, when our gospel lesson opens, we find that Simon Peter has decided to go fishing, along with a group of the disciples – Thomas, James and John, sons of Zebedee, and two others unnamed. They go fishing all night and catch nothing. At daybreak, Jesus stands on the beach, but they don’t recognize him. He points out that they’ve caught no fish, and he tells them to try casting out to the other side. They do, and then their nets are so full of fish they are not able to haul them all in. Peter exclaims, like Mary did on Easter morning, “It is the Lord!” He swims to shore, the other disciples following behind with the boat.

Up until this point in the narrative, if things sound familiar to you, they should. Because this scenario is very near to the scene where Jesus first calls to the disciples. There, too, they are fishing. There, too, they catch nothing. There, too, Jesus redirect them to try another way of fishing. There, too, the result is a miraculous catch of fish. There, too, Peter responds, moved by Jesus’ demonstration of authority.

Our text could have ended there. The disciples all gone back to fishing, despite Jesus being resurrected. Maybe it was even tempting. It certainly seems to take a while for the new reality of the risen Christ to hit them. I wonder, how easy, how tempting would it be for the disciples to go back to a life of fishing, what they knew, just occasionally reminiscing about the good old days, when Jesus was around?

This time, though, something different happens next. Jesus and the twelve share some breakfast on the beach. And when they are done, Jesus says to Simon, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” The “these” in that sentence is open to interpretation, but I take it to mean “more than all else.” Peter answers that he does. Jesus responds, “feed my lambs.” And then this exchange repeats twice more: Jesus asking if Peter loves him, and Peter affirming. The second time Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” The third time, Peter is hurt, thinking Jesus is unconvinced by his responses. “Lord,” he says, “you know everything. You know that I love you.” And Jesus tells him again, “Feed my sheep.” He continues on to tell Peter that his discipleship will bring Peter suffering. But, Jesus concludes nonetheless, “Follow me.” A few verses later, and John’s gospel is at a close.

The two scenes – when Jesus first calls the disciples, and now after his resurrection – are so similar in their set up. But something has changed: before Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter denied knowing Jesus, being associated with him, three times. And now, thanks to Jesus, he has the opportunity three times to recommit himself as a disciple. Each time he tells Jesus he loves him and agrees to serve him, he’s making the choice, choosing the path he was too afraid to take before. Karoline Lewis writes that Peter’s response this time around is not so much an act of forgiveness by Jesus for Peter – Peter is already forgiven by Jesus. Rather, it is a second chance for Peter to respond to the invitation. When he denied knowing Christ, he didn’t deny who Jesus was, but rather who he, Peter, was – a called disciple. This time, Peter accepts the invitation again to participate in the mission of Jesus, and he doesn’t turn back. (1)

The season of Easter concludes when we reach Pentecost, the day that we celebrate the birthday of the church universal, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples in the form of tongues of fire and rushing winds. We’ll celebrate here by participating in the confirmation of some of our young people, who will complete this part of their faith journey, and begin their journey of faith as full members of our community. Fifty days stretch between Easter morning and the day the disciples finally start preaching and teaching and carrying out the work that Jesus has been equipping them for and training them for and calling them to do. That might seem like a long time for them to get moving after all they’ve experienced. But slowly, with a little more help from Jesus, they turn the page on their years waiting for direction, and they start actually living as disciples, carrying their crosses, on fire with the Spirit, committed to live each day as people changed by the life and work of Jesus. How long do we need between Christ impacting our lives and we, in turn, carrying out the work of Christ to reach others?

God calls to us, each in our own way. To serve. To love. To share. To risk boldly. To offer Christ and grace. To pour out our lives for others. To follow. How that call comes to us is different for each one, but we are called. How many times have you pushed off answering the call til tomorrow, only to find that tomorrow never quite arrives? In my experience, God will renew that call again and again until we answer. God’s call doesn’t expire. We don’t age out. We can’t disqualify ourselves. How we’re called might be shaped around the seasons of our lives. But I’ve found that God is quite relentless when there is something that God wants you to do. What is it God wants you to do?

I don’t know about you, friends, but I am tired of living in my very own version of Groundhog Day. I am tired of saying I want God to make all things new in my life, but then refusing to live in a new way each day. All the while, Jesus is asking me, is asking you: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Feed my lambs! Tend my sheep! Feed my sheep!” I want to stop living like I can’t quite make out what Jesus is saying! I think we’re called to stop living like our life in Christ and because of Christ must be the same tomorrow as it is today. It took the disciples fifty days – but eventually, they decided to turn the page, and change the world in Jesus’ name. If we need to, if we insist, God gives us endless new beginnings. But instead, with God’s help, let’s choose to not live the same day in our faith journey over for fifty years.

What’s on your calendar for tomorrow? Something new? Something more? Amen.



 

 

 


Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter, Year C, "Finding Easter: Doubt," John 20:19-31


Sermon 4/3/16
John 20:19-31

Finding Easter: Doubt

            I know some people have been brought up, one way or another, in a spirituality that discourages asking questions, that looks on doubts and questions as disrespectful sometimes, or dangerous, or at least discouraged. I’ve told you before about the weekly Faith Chats I lead in Rochester where I work at the retirement community. This week, we were talking about the different accounts of the resurrection in each of the gospels, and one of the woman, a woman in her late eighties, raised in the Catholic tradition, said that she had never asked some of the questions we were asking together before. She found it both compelling and unsettling, asking questions, studying the text, sometimes encountering no easy, clear cut answer, but only, instead, uncovering more questions. I don’t want to push her or the others too hard – but I do I hope that they all experience the freedom that comes from being able to, encouraged to, even, ask questions about our faith. I consider myself pretty lucky – I was encouraged, if anything, to ask questions about my faith. And  I was lucky to find people in my life that were willing to talk to me about my questions, to try to share their own answers, or, blessedly, to sometimes say the most honest words, the too-often underused words: I don’t know.

            I think our faith grows through our questions and doubts. At the least, our questions and doubts at least show we are interested and engaged. I would rather have a Bible Study group, for example, full of people with questions to discuss, rather than a room full of people who just want – or already know – the answers. And at the best, I think our questions can lead us deeper in our faith, lead us beyond a surface level faith into a real relationship with the living God who created our very questioning minds! If our faith cannot withstand our questions, or wondering, our doubts, our curiosity – why would we pin our whole lives on a faith that was so unable to withstand examination? I’ve invested too much of myself to commit my life to something that will collapse under the slightest breeze of doubt. 

            I can point to my own life, my own faith questions, for some moments that were really pivotal, that could have led me in one direction or another, that really formed who I was, who I am. I’ve shared with you a couple already: When I was very little, and I wrote my note to God in crayon: Dear God, You know I have many questions. Please write the answers here. And then in elementary school, when my Sunday School teacher answered my question about “how could dinosaurs have been extinct millions of years before humans showed up, if the world was created in seven days” by telling me that maybe God’s time and our time were different. When I was asking questions, my mother and my Sunday School teacher were both so helpful. My mom helped me figure out the best way I could get answers to faith question – by learning to listen for God's voice. My Sunday School teacher helped me learn that science and faith could work hand in hand, rather than be at cross-purposes.

Another Sunday School incident came later, when I was in Junior High. It was in junior high that I became obsessed with Jesus Christ Superstar. In particular, I became very intrigued by Judas. Was he in hell, even if he was part of the plan that ultimately led beyond the crucifixion of Jesus to his resurrection? Was the betrayal necessary for Jesus to fulfill what he seemed sure he must do? I asked my teacher, and she told me: Judas was in hell because he committed suicide. End of story. No room for conversation. I had a really hard time with her response: for Judas, for suicide, and because of the promises from God that we’re loved in life and in death. I wrote in to a Christian youth magazine that I loved and asked the same questions. The editor wrote back a full page letter, sharing his belief in God's inexhaustible grace, in only God knowing us enough to judge our lives, and in God’s power to extend grace to us beyond any walls we erect, even the wall of death. I don’t mean to make this sermon just a trip down memory lane. But I mean to point out – questions and doubts – they can be, when handled with care – doorways, openings, pathways to a faith, a relationship, a spiritual richness that is yet unknown and unimagined.

Today, we encounter a gospel lesson that focuses on the most famous doubter of all, one forever known by his act of questioning: Doubting Thomas. So few of the twelve disciples are singled out in the gospels. We know quite a bit about Peter, but about the others, hardly anything. And for Thomas, virtually the only mention of him in the gospels is this scene today. Thomas doesn’t believe Jesus is raised until he sees Jesus with his own eyes, and he’s forever after known as Doubting Thomas.

            Our text opens on the evening of Easter Sunday. At this point, only Mary Magdalene has seen the risen Christ. Peter and another disciple had seen the empty tomb, but left before seeing Jesus. Mary had told them that she’d seen Jesus, but we see today that her news apparently had little effect on them. The disciples are locked up in the house where they’re staying, afraid because of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They’re not rejoicing. They’re scared. It seems, perhaps, that they are filled with doubt and uncertainly. They’re certainly not acting like people who believe that their loved one is not dead, but alive after all. Then suddenly, Jesus appears, and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds, confirming that he is the very Jesus they saw die. He again blesses them with peace, and tells them they will be sent as he was sent. He breathes on them, and speaks of the Holy Spirit, and gives them authority.

            But Thomas isn’t there with them for some reason. The disciples share what they have seen – that they’ve seen Jesus. But Thomas says that unless he sees for himself, he won’t believe. A week later, the disciples are again in the house together, this time with Thomas too. Jesus again appears, with words of peace. And this time, Thomas sees for himself. “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

            And so Thomas, then nicknamed “the Twin,” finds himself a new nickname: Doubting Thomas. Peter didn’t have this same bad luck – he denied Jesus in the critical moment, but we know so much more about him and so we’re able to see a better picture of the ‘full Peter’. We know he’s more than that one event. We know him as Peter the Rock of the Church, not as Peter the Abandoner of Jesus. But we don’t have anything much else about Thomas in the Bible. So for us, Thomas’ whole discipleship is summed up in this one event – Doubting Thomas. Imagine if your life was summed up in a label like that, based on one event, one action you took, one question you asked. What word would describe you fairly? Fully?           

Besides, “doubting” is hardly a label that Thomas deserves more than any of the others – he was the only one asked to believe for sure that Jesus was alive without the benefit of seeing him. Would the others have been convinced without seeing Jesus themselves? Peter and another disciple had already been to the tomb, as we read last week, and they were still confused and locked in fear in this room until Jesus appeared before them. Apparently, they weren’t so full of faith that they were ready to venture out of hiding. I think given the chance, we would have seen all of the remaining eleven disciples do just what Thomas did – ask for some more convincing proof.

            Importantly, though, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind Thomas’ doubt, as long as that’s not where Thomas ends up. I think we’re a bit afraid of doubt, or how God will react to our doubts and questions about faith. There’s so much we don’t understand about God or how God works in the world or about what God wants us to do. But sometimes, we’re afraid to admit that we don’t get it. Maybe we’re afraid that God will punish us for having doubts, or that we’re the only ones with doubts. But this passage, Thomas’ encounter with Jesus should put our fears to rest. Jesus says that those who believe without seeing are blessed. But he doesn’t say Thomas is bad or wrong or a failure because he has doubts. In fact, Jesus just gives Thomas what he needs to move from doubt to faith. He shows Thomas his wounds, a reassurance, and brings him peace, a comfort, just as he did for others. Like so many people have in my own life, Jesus just used Thomas’ questions to move him, and the rest of the disciples, to a deeper understanding of how God was at work.           

            Easter isn’t just a one day celebration for people of faith. It isn’t over. Christians call themselves Easter people, because we’re always people who believe in new life and resurrection, every single week. But we’re also in the midst of the Easter Season – the great fifty days of Easter. This season goes from Easter Sunday to the Day of Pentecost in May. It represents the time that Jesus spent with the disciples after the resurrection, preparing them to do the work he’d set out for them. They were filled with doubts and fears, and worries, and a lack of understanding, even still, even after the resurrection. But they believed in God, in Christ’s ability to shape and guide them. So whether you are the one asking questions, or the one trying to open a door for a curious mind, know that God always meets us where we are, and leads us on.

            Amen.