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Your Unique Relationship with God

blogpic GodandmeThis is based on a sermon preached at Gethsemane Lutheran, St. Louis on 6/20/16 using the texts 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Mark 12:26-27.

It’s hard to admit, especially as a Pastor, that I have struggled with prayer. It’s not that I don’t believe in God, of course I do. It’s not that I worry that God doesn’t love me—I experience God’s love in my life. It’s not even that I fear I am unforgiveable. I think sometimes I avoid prayer and time with God because there’s so much bigger, more important stuff going on in the world than my relatively minor concerns. Do you know what I meanHave you ever felt this way?

Can I really bother God with the minutia in my heart when half the worlds’ population lives on less than $2/day? Do I really need to take up God’s time for relief from my health issues when refugees and the ravages of war continue to tear apart countries and families? Should I really be asking God for help with vocational discernment when the family and friends of those shot in an act of hatred, are crying out in anger, despair, and grief and need to be heard?

Do I really need to involve God in the daily-ness, the issues, the concerns, the hopes and dreams of my life, when there are so many who are in so much more need than I?

I held this query in the quiet of my heart for a long time, when a response came from our former neighbor and dear friend, Zalman Stein, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. He came to do an Adult Education class at the church my husband, Dan served. He brought up the phrase Jesus quotes in Mark 12. Rabbi Zal looked at us and posed this question: Why doesn’t God just say, I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is more grammatically correct than I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?

I’d never really noticed it before, to tell you the truth, and I was a bit surprised by the question. Then he told us the conclusion of the Rabbi’s who gathered to study and ponder this very question. Zal said the reason it says, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob rather than just I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is because God had an individual and unique relationship with each one of these men, and I would add by implication, with their wives, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel as well. God had a different relationship with each one of them.

Abraham, for instance, left his home and family to go to the place where God was going to show him, but even though he took this leap of faith, he and Sarah had a hard time trusting that God would make good on his word to give them children. They kept coming up with their own solutions, so God had to keep reminding them of his promise. God was involved in the details of their life, even their faults, and worked through them!

Isaac and Rebecca had an arranged marriage and a beautiful love story, but their relationship fractured as they each chose their favorite son—Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah love Jacob—so much so that she helped him trick Esau out of his blessing as the oldest son. But God even worked through the details of deception and continued to bless Abraham and Sarah’s descendents.

Jacob, the trickster, was himself tricked by his father-in-law and, after 7 years of labor, had to marry Leah first, and then had to work 7 more years to marry Rachel, whom he loved. We can see early on in Genesis that that the patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith had an early corner on the market of the dysfunctional family. But God wanted to put the “fun” back in dysfunctional, so the details of their lives mattered to God. They mattered so much that God used this mess of a family to build a nation through the 12 sons of Jacob.

I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This phrase is repeated in the Bible several times –4 times in the book of Exodus alone. It reveals that God does in fact care about the minutia of your life and in my life. It turns out God is interested in a daily conversation about darn near everything!
• everything you think about,
• all the relationships and people you love and worry about,
• all of needs you have,
• every one of the talents God gave you
• each one of the dreams you hold,
• everything you want to change,
• each way you want to grow and learn
• all of the little tasks you undertake.

Because God is the God of Bob, and the God of Megan, and the God of Deanna, and the God of Richard, and the God of Gary and the God of Angie!

And that’s true of every one of the 7.4 billion people in the world- no matter what we’re dealing with, because you know, God can handle it!

And just to make sure that we get the message that God is a personal God who’s working out a unique relationship with you, and with you, and with you, and with you…God made it as personal as possible by coming to us in flesh and bone. God clothed the divine being in human DNA to make sure that we don’t miss the message, that God is eternally available to each one of us even in the minutia of our life, right down to the very number of hairs upon our head.

Again, to make sure we grasp God’s presence with us in the lowest of the lowest places of our human experience— famine and war, senseless killings and the muck of human life—Jesus suffered a horrible and senseless death himself so that we know that even there, God is with us; even there, God is the beginning and the end. God is in death and right there, in the details of depression and despair, God is bringing new life.

You see, we have one advantage over Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and that’s that we live in the reality of the resurrection! Jesus tried to explain this to the disciples in Mark 12:27 – He is God not of the dead, but of the living! Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were already in the resurrection before Jesus died and rose from the dead—but the disciples didn’t get it until they saw Jesus risen from the dead themselves! His resurrection is for us—that we might know and experience the Living God, the Risen Christ within every detail of our life—the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful—so that we might never doubt, so that we might never avoid prayer, so that we might never stop talking with God everyday about our life (Linda-listen to your own sermon!).

This is why Paul spends all of 1 Corinthians 15 talking about how important it is that we grasp the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Jesus' appearance to each one of them deepened their unique, individual relationship with the God who is the author, the progenitor, the one and only power over life and death. So there is the God of Cephas and the God of each of the 12 and the God of each of the 500 brothers and sisters, and so on.

And Paul himself also has a different, unique relationship with God than everyone else. Jesus appeared to him after his Ascension into heaven.: For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. Paul went from a persecutor of Christians to the chief evangelist—he had a unique relationship with God that gave him a unique witness, because his relationship with God was different from the God of Peter, and the God of Mary and the God of John.

So once we get it, that we each work out our own unique relationship with God in Jesus Christ—then what? Then we follow the example of Paul and the other Apostles—by sharing our unique relationship with God with others.

The disciples and apostles did not keep their relationship with God to themselves—they shared it with others! If they would have kept it to themselves, we wouldn’t be here today! We need to hear the unique witness of Peter, of Paul, of Timothy, of Mary, of Martha, of Lydia—because each one is different. We all grow and deepen our own relationship with God when we hear about each others’ relationship with God and what Jesus has done for others. When we come together as a community who all belong to Christ, then together we can begin to address the issues of our day and come up with solutions that embody that God is in the details of the despair and death of this world working to bring new life.

When we each bring our own relationship with God and come together - 
• We can relieve world hunger through collective action and help those living on less than $2 day.
• We can work with others of faith to help refugees and embody with and for them that God is working life out of death.
• We can stand as believers who love all people as God made them, including LGBTQ people, and make sure that our Church is a place whose proclamation of welcome is louder than anyone who hates.
• We can hold and comfort those who mourn and reassure them that God wants a unique relationship of love with them that can even be forged through holy rage and sacred tears.

For there is nothing more powerful than a person who is willing to share with the world, the meaning and the depth of their relationship with God.

• For the relationship that Abraham had with God changed the world.
• The relationship that Sarah had with God changed the world.
• The relationship that Jacob had with God, and Leah had with God and Rachel had with God, changed the world.
• The relationship that Mary had with God, giving birth to Jesus, changed the world!
• The relationship that Paul had with the risen Lord, the relationship that Mary Magdalene had with the risen Lord, changed the world.
• The relationship that Ghandi had with God, and the relationship that Dr. Martin Luther King had with the risen Lord changed the world.
• The relationship that Harriet Tubman had with God, and the relationship that Mother Theresa had with God changed the world.

Indeed, the only thing that changes the world is when people of faith deepen the conviction that comes from their own, unique relationship with God, and then they share it with others, and embody by the way they live and the way they lead.

So don’t stay away from God—bring every detail of your life to God in prayer and conversation and meditation. Go as deep and wide as you can. And you too, will change the world with your unique, individual relationship with God. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

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Jesus' Crucifixion and the Creative Power of Birth

blogpic crucifixion sadaowatanabeYou never know what’s going to come to you when you pray and meditate. Prayer is really an adventure to explore what the Spirit might say, show or give you. I have been pondering one such prayer adventure from just before Easter  two years ago, when I walked a Labyrinth with the intention of meditating on the crucifixion of Jesus (a labyrinth is pictured at the top of this website).

I have often wondered, why so much suffering? There were ways to execute people even in the first century that didn’t involve this level of torture, of extended pain.  In the Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, retreatants are invited to imagine themselves in the Bible story. I have pictured myself at the foot of the cross, with an overwhelming urge to push Jesus up and relieve the weight that pulls his hands and feet downward around the nails. As I held the image of his hanging in my mind’s eye and wound my way through the labyrinth, a new understanding came to me. It felt like it was so obvious, how had I missed it all these years?

Jesus’ crucifixion—the whole bloody, messy, suffering process—offers us a male archetype of birth and creation. Jesus’ crucifixion can be viewed as the labor pains of birth—giving birth to new life, both to an eternal resurrected life after death, but also to a new existence here and now. Such a sacrifice and the new life that resulted brought resurrection into human consciousness with the possibility that we can live within a new reality on earth.

Birth is a process of pain and blood, of dying to self, and of relinquishing control. This process necessarily means sacrificing oneself, one’s body, one’s self-focused plans and desires in order to make room for the developing life within. I thought it was funny when I was first pregnant, that I was rearranging my whole life, schedule and diet for someone I hadn’t even met yet. I found that birth itself works not by fighting the pain, by resisting the process and by conquering it, but rather by letting go. I needed to relax and enter into the pain, releasing my desire to dominate the experience so that my body was free to let the birth take place. This became easier during my second and third deliveries because I was more willing to trust my body (and the babies weren’t posterior with their spine against mine like the first one).

Mothers experience that the only way to have any chance at new life is through dying to self, through menstruation and birth, through labor pains and hard work, through being fully present in suffering with immense love. Even if we have no children, women’s monthly cycle accompanied by blood and often discomfort, does not let us forget that the only way to bring new life is to participate in the creative life force within our bodies over which we have no power. In this way, women can be co-creators with God.

Throughout history and in many cultures today, including our own, manhood is defined by aggression, by taking possession, by creating something new through conquering others to gain what one wants (Trump has become very skilled at tapping into this idea of manhood and American culture). Sadly, it should not be a surprise that our colleges still have a “rape culture” in which young (white) men feel entitled to take what they think is their due and not suffer the consequences either that their victims do nor that poor or men of color do (witness the Brock Turner trial outcome). A rape culture is a natural outgrowth of an environment that glorifies domination, aggression, barely-regulated gun ownership, and the demonization of perceived enemies. Of course some men feel entitled to take what they want, to use force to gain power, and see other people and the creation as instruments to be exploited for their ends.  The violence of rape and sexual assault is aimed at the very center of a woman’s creative power to bring life resulting in the horrific consequence of making her body a place of shame and death. In order deconstruct the rape culture, we need to offer an alternative vision of manhood, one we glimpsed when two men on bicycles stopped the sexual assault committed by Brock Turner. 

Christians of every stripe have not stood up and said that Jesus offers another definition of manhood, of creative power, of relationship, community, and enhancing all life. Instead, we as Christians participate through male language about God, church structures and stained glass ceilings, the belief that men’s power to create lies in domination and the maintenance of their acquired power.

Jesus came during Roman occupation and oppression—the epitome of this human model of creation through violent expansion. In order to birth new life, Jesus did the opposite:  he let go of domination and violence as a way to spread his message and bring about a new order.  Instead of military victory, the sacred presence of God came as one who dies to himself through pain and blood, embodying immense love and presence in the suffering and brokenness of the world. He conquered hurt by entering it, taking on pain rather than externalizing it to conquer others.

Jesus’ death makes clear that for men to become life-giving co-creators with God, they also must die to the self and sacrifice their body, their self-focused plans, and their need for dominance and power in order to create something new. In John 12, Jesus said, Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Like women, male creation and birth happens most powerfully through suffering, through the death of the ego, through taking on pain rather than lashing out and causing pain for others.

Perhaps this is why God came into human form as a male—we already had the female model of creation and birth.  Men needed to see that self-sacrifice rather than domination is the way to create anew. When we imagine Jesus on the cross experiencing the labor pains of birth while his mother, Mary watched, we behold two archetypes of birth. Mary gave life to Jesus through water and blood by surrendering to pain and a creative process beyond her power; Jesus gave birth to Mary’s eternal life through blood and water (from his side) by surrendering to pain and to a creative process empowered by God to end death and create a dominion of love.

Such dying to self in order to give birth mirrors God’s own self-sacrifice in creation. God could have remained an infinite, unfathomable ball of energy and light, but instead, God exploded out into trillions of galaxies with billions of stars in each one. Creation is in itself, a self-sacrificing birth in a continuous and evolutionary process of dying and creating new life. God’s whole being was undone to create something new. God is always on the birthing table inviting us to create new ways to manifest eternal love and goodness in the world. Women, through the cycles of our body and the process of giving birth, have a glimpse into how we participate with our bodies and our choices to bring life as co-creators with God. We all need men to embrace their co-creative power to birth new life.

Photo Credit: Crucifixion by Sadao Watanabe. Read more about his Biblical art here. 

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How to AMAZE Jesus

blogpic boywithfishA Sermon preached on May 29, 2016

Have you ever wondered what it takes to AMAZE Jesus? It’s a funny question because Jesus is always the one who amazes us. But in Luke 7, Jesus is the one who is amazed—he is amazed at the centurion’s faith. There is only one other time in the Gospels that Jesus is amazed and that’s in Mark 6:6 when he is rejected in Nazareth and he is amazed at their unbelief. The centurion, whose story also appears in Matthew, is the only person who AMAZES Jesus with his faith. I would much rather amaze Jesus with my faith, than with my unbelief, wouldn’t you?

So who was this centurion who amazed Jesus with his faith? He is the most unlikely person in Scripture to have an amazing faith.
1. For starters, he’s a foreigner, a Gentile and not a Jew— He most likely is a practicing pagan—which in Jesus’ time meant believing in many gods—a god of fertility, a god of war, another for weather and harvest and so on.
2. He’s a military man, and as such, he’s part of the oppressive Roman military that occupied Palestine during Jesus’ life. A centurion is a captain of 100 foot soldiers in a Roman Legion, whose job it was to subject the Jews to the Emperor’s rule. He was a man of war who achieved his rank by distinguishing himself above others in battle and in the Roman martial arts.
3. This centurion has no intellectual understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt and why the Messiah, arriving in the person of Jesus matters so much.

The centurion did, however, have some good points: He ruled not by force and terror, but through compassion and empathy. He built a Temple for the Jews to worship and cared for their well-being; he even cared about his slaves. And because he cared for the people’s well-being, the people cared for his well-being so they appeal to Jesus to heal is slave.

So what was it that amazed Jesus about this centurion? Was it just because he was a nice guy, unlike most of the Roman military?

No, it was more than that. The centurion amazed Jesus because through his own experience, he recognized Jesus’ power, his authority and his mission. The centurion used his own experience to see God at work in Jesus. He had heard the stories of Jesus healing people with a simple word, a simple command. He could understand this kind of power because he had experienced it himself: For I am also a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go” and he goes, and to another, “Come” and he comes, and to my slave, Do this” and the slave does it.

The centurion couldn’t use his authority to heal his slave, but through this window of experience, he recognized that Jesus’ words also did what he said. Jesus marvels in amazement that through his own experience, the centurion completely trusts in Jesus’ power.

Today, the centurion invites us into his story and asks us to reflect on our own experience, and how some of our experiences help us trust in Jesus’ power, recognize his mission and embrace his authority and presence in our lives.

I think sometimes as Lutherans, we can get too caught up in our intellectual understanding and reason, in correct behavior, in rote memorization and repetitive liturgy, forgetting that our experience is also a crucial part of our faith life! I’m not saying the Bible study, moral behavior and liturgy aren’t important—of course they are—and I embrace and practice all of them.

But our experience is also a wonderful gift of our faith that’s easy to avoid because we don’t want to be too touchy-feely, or overly emotional, or too spiritually far out and “oogie”. Well, the centurion uses his experience to embrace the mission of Jesus, and he isn’t too touchy-feely, emotional or gives us the oogies. Paul in Galatians affirms that the Gospel he preaches came not from humans, not from teaching, but from his experience of Jesus Christ. We also have to remember that Martin Luther himself embraced the grace-filled love of God in Jesus Christ because of his experience that he couldn’t achieve salvation through works, and that experience became the bedrock of the Reformation.

You may feel like the centurion, that you are the most unlikely person to amaze Jesus with your faith. But I would offer, that is not true. I want you to reflect for a minute about your own experiences and how they inform your faith. What experiences have helped you embrace, feel or understand the work of God in the world? We call this our spirituality in everyday life.
• Maybe you’ve served in the military or are a supervisor and you, like the centurion, have a window into seeing how Jesus’ words do what he says.
• Maybe you’re a teacher, you understand why Jesus teaches in parables because your experience gives you a window into the transformative power of stories.
• Maybe you work in the medical field, and every day, you get why Jesus went to the lepers, the sick, and the outcast, because you have a window into how isolating illness can be.
• Maybe you’re a mom on a tight budget and with a grateful heart, you can make one chicken give your family 4 dinners and your experience give you a window into how the loaves and fishes multiplied.
• Maybe you’re a coach and you encourage kids to try something they’re afraid they can’t do, and your experience gives you a window into why Jesus invited Peter out of the boat to walk on water,
• Maybe you’re a dad who lost one of your kids a 6 flags and your experience gives you a window into the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and you understand that desperate search in your guts.
• Maybe you’re a gardener and have insight into the created order of the universe from your own backyard.
• Maybe you’re a parent and you have sacrificed something for your kids to have what you didn’t and this begins to give you a window into the kind of love that motivated Jesus to die for us.
• Maybe you’ve suffered physical illness and your experience opened a window of compassion for Jesus’ suffering.

The good news is that Jesus is no longer a person bound by history--he rose victorious from the grave so that his resurrected Spirit is everywhere at the same time, and he dwells inside each one of us every second of every day!

Because of the in-dwelling presence of his Spirit, your daily life is full of experiences of God when Jesus makes himself known to us. And in order for us to receive the spiritual benefit from these experiences, it’s important that we identify them and share them. I had a seminary professor say, “we don’t learn from experience; we only learn from experience that is reflected upon and shared.” So I encourage you to share with your pewmates, your friends, your family today, one experience of your faith that came to mind. Make it a daily habit to share “God-sightings” and these experiences that inform your faith, your understanding of Jesus’ power and mission, and of God blessing you.

I had an experience that opened a window to a deeper understanding of what Holy Communion is all about: Our oldest son, Daniel was not quite 4 and we were at the community pool for swimming lessons. When his lesson was over, he said, “I want fish for dinner.” I said, “Okay, but why fish?” His response: “It will make me swim better.” When we got home, I asked my husband, Dan if we had any fish sticks in the freezer because Daniel wanted fish for dinner. Daniel piped up and said, “No! I want REAL fish—only REAL fish will help me swim better.” We went to the store and got some REAL fish!

It’s why we trust in the REAL presence of Jesus in, with and under the bread and wine in Holy Communion—only the REAL Jesus can help us live more faithfully. So, come to the table! Come to the table with all of your experiences and all of your faith, and the REAL Jesus will be amazed and fill you again. 

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Taking Psalm 23 to Heart

blogpic shepherd on the way to hampta pass1I shared this message on 4/17/16 with Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, MO as they enter a pastoral transition.

Psalm 23 is probably one of the best known and most beloved Psalms and passage of Scripture. Both Psalm 23 and John 10 portray Jesus as our Shepherd. It’s a popular, bucolic, and wonderful image of Jesus several places in the Bible. But I wonder how many of us have deeply delved into what this really means for us?

If Jesus is the Shepherd, what does that make us? Sheep.

I don’t know a lot about farming and cattle, but what I can tell you is being compared to sheep is not a compliment; in fact it’s a bit of a slam. This is not your ego-boosting-you-are-a-marvelous–creature-the-crown-of-creation-kind-of-image.

For starters, sheep are dumb. They’re not the sharpest tool in the shed. They’re a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.
• Sheep get lost easily. They find a yummy patch of grass and just keep eating and eating their way along and pretty soon their separated from the flock and out there all by themselves, vulnerable to wolves and other predators.
• Some sheep, especially in England have strong herding instincts, but others will forget that there’s safety in numbers and just go astray.
• Sometimes, sheep don’t know to move along to fresh grass and will overgraze the patch they’re standing on.
• Sheep do not have the good sense to get out of the elements—the barn could be right there next to them, but they will stand outside in the rain and the cold in the middle of the storm, unless the shepherd comes and shows them the way to protection.

But wait! There’s more! Sheep are weak; they’re not very strong at all.
• They have little or no protection, other than the flock against their predators. That phrase there’s safety in numbers? This probably was made up for sheep.
• They can’t run away from a wolf like an antelope or a deer can;
• They can’t camouflage themselves like stick bugs, butterflies, lizards, chameleons and so many other creatures can;
• They can’t fight back, spray, or poke like others animals—goats, geese, skunks, porcupines—caterpillars even have more defenses then sheep.
So they are very vulnerable. The really strong sheep with a herding instinct work their way to the middle of the flock since that is the safest place, but they don’t get much to eat there because it’s so mashed down and overgrazed, since everyone forgets to move. So once again, they are dependent on the shepherd to fight off their predators and move them along to fresh grazing grounds.

But wait, there’s more! Sheep are also stubborn, so stubborn that sometimes it’s hard to get them moving. Without herding dogs, a shepherd might use small rocks, tossing them at the sheep from behind to get them moving.

So what have we got here? Sheep are dumb, weak and stubborn. Sheep need to be shown everything—they need to be shown what, when, where and how to do just about everything to keep them healthy, safe and fed.

Now how do you like being called a sheep? The Bible might as well say that for the human creature, we are a few cards short of a deck; we’re a few bricks short of a load. How many ways can we say this? They light is on, but nobody’s home.

What’s so surprising to me about Psalm 23 is that it was written by David—King David of the Old Testament who grew up being a shepherd. So why does someone who knows how dumb, weak and stubborn sheep are, compare himself to one in this Psalm? He could have written about God as rock, fortress, mother, creator, fountain, protector, source of life, father—and all the other hundreds of images we can use for God.

But no, David was a shepherd himself, so he knew more than anyone what sheep were like. He knew more than anyone, what he was like, how much he needed a shepherd, how much he was like a sheep. For wasn’t David the youngest and the smallest of Jesse’s sons? And didn’t David lose his way as king and commit adultery with Bathsheeba? And didn’t David put Bathseeba’s husband, Uriah, at the front lines of battle so he would be killed? That’s pretty dumb and lost, pretty weak and stubborn. And didn’t David need Nathan to throw a stone at his behind to get him moving in a different direction? David knew he was a sheep more than he ever was a shepherd.

And isn’t that true for us when we’re really honest with ourselves? Sometimes, we’re dumb. Sometimes we lose ourselves in pursuit of greener grass and unawares, we munch ourselves away from our community.

It could be in the pursuit of our career, earning more money, or gaining recognition and popularity. Not that these things in and of themselves are necessarily bad, but then we look up and notice that we’re out there all alone, and have alienated ourselves from friends, family, church and community.

Sometimes it’s easy for us to get lost and we’re too weak to find our way back. Who among us have not wandered off at one time or another in our life, forgetting where we belong? Grief and loneliness, confusion about the direction our life is should take, or being overwhelmed by the demands that surrounds us can cause us to isolate ourselves. We stand in the storm alone when a barn full of friends, family and church members are right there ready to help us. All we have to do is go inside. All we have to do is ask. All we have to do is open our mouth.

But sometimes we don’t have the good sense to take care of ourselves, to ask for what we need, to exercise regularly, to sleep when we’re tired, to eat when we’re hungry and stop eating when we’re full. Instead we overgraze the pasture, hoping this aching tiredness and stress will go away. We leave ourselves exposed to dangerous elements, pumping our body with caffeine to keep going, and later alcohol to relax and wonder why we feel so unsatisfied, and can’t get a good nights’ sleep.

Other times we need help just to get moving. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, stubborn in our own self-righteousness and someone needs to toss a pebble at our behind to push and prod to get us moving in the right direction.

So when you think about it, being compared to sheep is not too off-base, is it? Jesus came because we do need to be shown everything— where, what, when and how to live.

And the good news is, given the way the shepherd takes care of the sheep, given the way our Lord takes care of us—it’s really not such a bad comparison after all. King David also knew how much God did for him, how much God does for all of us!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The shepherd provides everything we need—the what, when, how and where for our life. Just like a shepherd tending sheep, our Lord provides for us food, shelter, clothing, protections, family and community. When the Lord is our shepherd, we may not get everything we want, but we have what we need.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. God gives us rest and nourishment. When we don’t know how to take care of ourselves, God makes us like down in a restful place without anxiety, without fears, without dreams that wake us with a start—without worry about kids or family or money, but long rest that restores not only the body but the mind as well. Then we can come to a Lutheran potluck for the nourishment of the green pastures. God leads us beside still waters—it’s hard to drink from rushing waters, you can’t take a sip from fire hydrant. The Shepherd leads us to still, quiet waters that refresh us. Psalm 46 says, be still and know that I am God. Drink deeply of the cool refreshment, of the complete and constant presence of God. This kind of care revives us in body, mind and spirit. We can take the next right step with hope. 

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Jesus leads us in the right way so that we do not go astray, so we don’t munch our way out of the flock. Right paths are well-worn paths. They are the crevices from the wheels of a cart or like the wagons that headed west on the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails. Jesus, the Good Shepherd guides us along right paths that have been traveled by him first and then by the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. All we have to do is look to him for guidance and listen for his voice, and get our wheels set into the track of faith.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me. We live in a fallen world, and God doesn’t promise to take us out, but instead he enters into this world with us! Christianity is a “down” religion—God comes down to us, we do not have to earn our way up to God. So when evil stalks around and tempts us to do that which is not godly, when we experience death and loss, and illness, when we struggle with the challenges of this life—we fear nothing—for the Lord, the Shepherd walks with us. We never walk alone.

The Shepherd never leaves the sheep alone. For this reason, the sheep learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd—there could be multiple herds in one area, but the sheep will always recognize the voice of their shepherd. So Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. No one and nothing can take us away from Jesus! Jesus protects us from all predators, even the predator of death, taking us through death and into eternal life.

Your rod and your staff—they comfort me. The rod is what the Shepherd uses to keep the sheep in line—for us that is the Bible—the Word of God to guide us in the way of righteousness and grace. The staff is what the Shepherd uses to hook the sheep and bring them back in when they are wandering off—for us the staff is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter—who leads us back when we have wandered off.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Even when we are beset by troubles, God provides for us. We can even celebrate God’s goodness, God’s healing, and God’s abundance in the midst of difficulty (this is why we have funeral lunches with good food, laughter and sometimes music!).

I need God to do all of these things for me! Don’t you?! Well, the truth is, you can call me a dumb, weak, stubborn sheep every day of the week, if all of this is what it means to have the Lord as my shepherd. For with the Lord as our shepherd, surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life and we shall live in the house of the Lord, forever!

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.