• From Sheep to Shepherd

    From Sheep to ShepherdA sermon preached for Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, on Psalm 23John 10:11-18 & Acts 4:5-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on April 22, 2017

    The Children’s Message that took place before this sermon learned some new ways to understand Psalm 23 with gratitude for the commentary on

    The Lord oversees and guides my journey, giving me rest and nourishment when I need it (a temporary repose!);
    The Lord leads me in finding righteous grooves to travel or ruts in the ground to follow, so that I have right and healthy relationships with others that honor God.
    The journey doesn’t go from green pastures to the house of the Lord, I will go through hard times (like Jesus did), and I get through them because God is with me.
    I survive the hardest parts of my journey because God is with me to guide, protect, help, and comfort me.
    God provides me with everything I need, and even when I think all is lost, You remind me I am your beloved child and you sustain me.
    With God I know that only goodness and kindness will pursue and chase me every day I walk this journey.
    I will continually return to God’s presence in thanksgiving my whole life long.

    Have you ever wondered why Jesus calls himself the “good” shepherd in this Gospel reading from John? Why isn’t he the “Awesome” Shepherd, the “Most Excellent” Shepherd, the “Outstanding, Amazing” shepherd, or the “Greatest Shepherd the world has ever seen?” Surely Jesus fits all these descriptions. We do hear such lofty language in other passages of Scripture—In Isaiah 9 for example—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

    We just affirmed in Psalm 23 with the children, that Jesus really is the “wonderful, mighty, incredible” shepherd of our lives. He provides for all we need: strength in our weakness, rest in our exhaustion, guidance in our confusion, hope in our fears, comfort in our sorrow. He gives us rest when we need it, and a prod in the behind when we want to linger too long beside still waters. Life is pretty good as sheep with Jesus as our Shepherd wouldn’t you agree? That’s why Psalm 23 is the most popular and beloved Psalm, and probably the best-known passage in all of Scripture. As the Shepherd, he even provides salvation from our sins. Jesus even says so in verse 15 of our John passage: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

    So if he does all that, why does Jesus describe himself as just the “good” shepherd? I’m not sure we’re going to like the answer. Perhaps Jesus only refers to himself as “good” because Jesus is not the only shepherd he’s referring to. Our passage from John 10 foreshadows a later passage in John 21 when the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at daybreak after their night of fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. They enjoy a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. And then Jesus begins to quiz Peter:

    'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.'  He said to him the third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'

    Did you catch the shift? Who’s the shepherd now? Peter, and not just Peter, but all the disciples—who are called “apostles” after the resurrection. And not just the apostles back then, but all of us who follow Jesus today. Jesus calls all of us to follow in his footsteps and become a shepherd. It’s so easy to focus on how great it is to be the sheep, that we miss this part of the story. We love being sheep! We’d like to stay over there with the children’s message and remain sheep. They can stay sheep for now, but we adults, we apostles, we followers of Jesus the Shepherd—it’s time to step up and become a shepherd. Part of our experience as the sheep, is to prepare us to become a shepherd.

    For we know how important it was to be found when we were lost, to be guided when we were confused, to be comforted when we were afraid, and to be helped when were in the valley of the shadow. We know that WE would be lost without Jesus as our Shepherd, so Jesus calls us to use the truth of our own experience, as the motivation to shepherd other lost and lonely sheep into the fold.

    Maybe that’s why Jesus uses the word “good” shepherd. If he were the “extraordinary, out of this world, most awesome” shepherd, we would give up before we even tried to follow in his footsteps. We would come up with every excuse we could and say, “it’s not our job to seek and save the lost. I’m not extraordinarily awesome. I’m much happier just being a sheep, thank you very much!”

    But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook—the shepherd’s hook so easily. With Peter, he says to us, “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” You see, this whole good shepherd discourse in John begins with Jesus healing the man born blind at the beginning of chapter 8. Jesus finds the blind man, this lost sheep, where he’s sat his entire life—begging for anything that might keep him alive. Then he tells the religious leaders that Jesus healed him, and they kick him out! Jesus goes and finds him again! Jesus finds the blind man in his lostness and brings him back into the fold of his love, not once but twice—he kept on trying until he stayed! 

    That’s why in our passage today, in verse 16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in also.” And Jesus looks at us and asks, “Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd and bring in the missing sheep? Will you seek out the lost sheep, and welcome them, love them? Will be the shepherd who finds the rejected, the downtrodden, the refugee, the hungry, the lonely, and the homeless begging on your street corners? Will you make sure that those who have been previously rejected—people who are mentally ill, or have special needs, or are lesbian, gay or transgendered—will you go out of your way to reach them with my love, so they can hear my voice, and come into my fold? Will you? Will keep trying until they stay?”

    We don’t have to be the “most awesome, incredible, greatest shepherd the world has ever seen,” but Jesus does call us to be “good” shepherds who really do seek those outside the fold. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that the lost sheep that Jesus welcomed into the fold, were the ones the established religion hated the most—prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and blind people. It's the same issue in our passage from Acts. The apostles are in trouble  with the religious extablishment because they healed a crippled man--another outcast--and brought him into the fold. It’s why our inclusive welcome—on the altar and on the website—must be explicit. Because the people you don’t see among us have always heard that they are rejected, outcast, and should stay away.

    To welcome lost into the fold is uncomfortable, challenging, and can cause disagreements. But of course, you know that because you’ve done the hard work of creating St. Luke’s welcome statement. I hope we can continue an intentional, inclusive, transparent process to consider becoming a Reconciled in Christ congregation—the official welcome of LGBTQ-friendly congregations. A faithful process and conversation does not guarantee nor manipulate an outcome, but because shepherds are in the “welcome and protection” business, it’s important to continue the conversation and discern to whom God calls us to give an explicit and generous welcome.

    We need to have a similar conversation about welcoming homeless people—I met Kenneth at the corner of Belt Line and the North Dallas Tollway this week—and about how we will interact with our interfaith partners, and others to whom God sends us in this community. There will be times when we want to go back to being a sheep with other sheep who are just like us. And Jesus, our Good Shepherd will love us, and forgive us, and then prod us forward when we want to linger too long beside the still waters, and he will say, “try again.” Jesus will ask us if we love him and we will say, “yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that we love you.”

    And Jesus will say to us, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, yet. I must bring them also. Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd here at St. Lukes?

    “Will you tell the lost that I oversee and guide their journey and will give them rest and nourishment when they need it? Will you find the lost and tell them I have helped you find your righteous groove to follow so you can have healthy relationships that honor me? Will you? Will you find the rejected and the lonely and reassure them that I am with them through the darkest valley and that I will guide and help them as I have done for you? Will you, St. Luke’s? Will you tell the outcast that when think that all is lost and there’s no way forward, I will remind them they are my precious child and I will sustain them? Will you? And will you find the lost sheep and tell them that goodness and kindness are chasing after them, and I will keep chasing them until they’re found? Will you? Will you seek the lost and hungry and invite them to return with you here, to my presence so that I can love them as I have love you? Will you, St. Lukes?"

    And we will answer, “yes.”




  • 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!