my sermon from Sunday on Psalm 23.
Today, of course, is Mother’s Day, but it is also a day in the life of the church we call Good Shepherd Sunday. The reason for this is that the scriptures assigned for this week, the 23rd Psalm and this portion of John’s gospel give us this image or metaphor of God and Jesus as the good shepherd.
I think that it is fitting that this year Good Shepherd Sunday falls on the same day where, as a culture, we celebrate and give thanks for mothers, both biological and those who have loved us with a mother’s love.
It’s fitting because sometimes each of these things: motherhood and the image of the good shepherd, are really, really layered and complex even if we have a simple image that we can conjure in our minds.
Let me explain. So usually when I think of this image of the good shepherd it brings to mind images of a beautiful pastoral countryside and a kind and gentle shepherd herding his sheep. It’s all this idyllic, peaceful scene.
Or like when I think of motherhood I think of a woman lovingly rocking a sleeping newborn while she sings a sweet lullaby, or a woman, beaming with love and joy, as she swings a toddler playfully up into the sky.
Of course these images are part of what it means to be a Shepherd or what it is sometimes like to be a mother, but the truth is they do not tell the entire story, right?
Being a mother, whether biological or not, is hard. Loving a child unconditionally is tough work. Raising a loving and responsible a human being is hard work. It takes patience, it take time, it means making mistakes and being wrong, it means celebrating those sometimes seemingly small things that go right and also feeling like you have no idea what you are doing- and in the end it requires an unbelievable amount of love, like the hard kind of love, the love that Jesus talked about over and over and over again.
Well the interesting thing about this image of the Good shepherd is that it is just as layered and complex. When I was in seminary I went to school with a woman who, before coming to study to be a pastor, raised sheep. She gave me some valuable insight into the world of being a shepherd. See, when I think of sheep I think of cute and animals who need a protector because they are so innocent and weak.
Well, according to my friend from seminary, sheep aren’t the smartest, they’re stubborn and strong willed. They are the type of animal that needs someone to look out for them because they will get themselves hurt or into trouble. She told a story about herding her sheep onto the back of a platform truck to transport them from one pasture to another. It was one of those tasks that almost seemed futile, you get 3 on and one runs and then they all break loose. It’s crazy because all of the sheep were in it for themselves and at the very same time they had this herd mentality.
All this is to say that for me as an urban guy, who really only sees sheep when I take my girls to the Cincinnati zoo, I miss out on the layers of meaning associated with this image. Of course the original audiences hearing these scripture passages would have picked up on these nuances and a deeper understanding of this relationship.
They would have understood that the image of the good shepherd is this image of a God, who loves and cares for us, who protects us and is near to us when we are struggling through the dark valley, when we need someone to help guide the way.
They also would have understood that the good shepherd is the one who gets us to move beyond our stubbornness, the one who saves us from our own stupidity, the one who risks their own safety for our inability to make the right decision. It seems like this metaphor of human being as sheep is pretty spot on, right?
Maybe this is one reason that these passages have resonated with us so much over the centuries. I mean think about these words of the 23rd psalm. They are so deep. The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he lead me to the still waters, restores my soul. These words brings us into a different way of being.
I think that these scriptures hit upon the reality of our lives, they hit on the reality that things are not always easy and smooth, things are not always honky dory.
There will be times when the ground falls out from under us. We will have times where we struggle through a day, a week, a month, a year. We will have times where we are hurt and where we suffer. We will have times when this is self-imposed and times when it is circumstantial.
Years ago when I was in seminary our professor took us through a bible study on this psalm, pointing out there is this shift in this relationship between the speaker and God in the psalm. In the beginning of the psalm the poet is speaking about God in the 3rd person. The poet is describing their understanding of who God is, God is a shepherd, leading me to water, restoring my soul , making me walk in straight paths.
Then there is this powerful shift, as the darkest valley is upon the poet, suddenly the poet is addressing God directly, not in the 3rd person, but in the 2nd person. Oh my God, you comfort me, you provide for me, in the face of my enemies your set a table for me, my cup overflows, my cup overflows. As we move through those darkest valleys, as we are staring our adversaries straight in the face, these are the times where our God is the most close, the times where God is comforting us with a rod and with a staff. This psalm is intimate; it is the relationship between a person and God, a relationship between a shepherd and one single sheep, it is a relationship of love, of mercy, of grace.
I was reminded of a video that circulated on Facebook of Pope Francis and this interaction he had with a little boy. The Pope took some time to answer questions of young people who are going through confirmation. One little boy named Emmanuel stood up at the microphone, but he was too shy to ask his question. The Pope invited him to come forward and to whisper it in his ear. The boy came and asked the Pope quietly if his father, who had just recently died and was not a believer, is in heaven or in hell.
The Pope told the boy that his father was a good man, he was a good father who loved his son, he was a good man who had his son baptized in the church and cared for him. The Pope asked the boy if he thought that God would ever keep a good man away from God? The boy said no. Then the Pope asked all of the confirmands, Emmanuel’s friends and peers that same question, would God ever keep a good man away from God? All of the children cried out, no!
What a witness to the love of our good shepherd. This motherly love which we celebrate this day in our human relationships. This the love of Jesus who was willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
This love which walks through the darkest valleys, when life hits us with things we never expected, when we find ourselves stuck in that same pattern or loop of self-destructive thinking or behavior, when we’ve turned away from love and goodness, especially in these moments this love which like a rod and staff comfort us and always draw us back into relationship with God, they draw us back into new and abundant life. We are members of the flock, every one of us, we are known and called by name, we are loved intimately before we even have the words to ask. That my friends is some good news. Amen.
I wanted to share part of my sermon from Sunday. The reading is Luke 6:27-38. It is Luke’s version of Jesus’ beatitudes. I rewrote and paraphrased Jesus’ beatitudes to fit our context. I borrowed this idea and some phrases from two sermons, one by Nadia Bolz-Weber and the other by Doug Gay.
In these blessings Jesus is uplifting those in this world who have been ignored, forgotten, trampled or pushed to the side.
Blessed are the poor, those who live below the poverty line, not the poor in spirit, but those people who don’t have enough for this week, people who aren’t making ends meet and are desperately scrounging together a life for themselves and their loved ones. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the hungry, all those who know what it’s like to skip a meal, the school children who don’t eat when we have snow days and all those folks who are standing in line at the Alliance Food Pantry or who are first in line when we host a pancake breakfast . Blessed are all those who flood the Kroger at the first of the month because the food stamps just hit their account. Blessed are the hungry for you will be filled.
Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who know what loss feels like. Blessed are those who are white knuckling life, trying to hold it all together for others while everything around them is falling apart. Blessed are those who occasionally have to go have themselves a good cry. Blessed are those who weep now for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when people exclude you and defame you on the account of the Son of Man. Blessed are those who are innocent and wrongly accused, those who are dismissed and discredited as they work for the common good. Blessed are those who know that the way that the world is, is not the way the world should be. Blessed are those who speak the truth in love no matter what the cost. Blessed are you when people exclude and defame you, rejoice in that day, leap for joy, because your reward is beyond this world.
These blessings, these beatitudes, give us this glimpse into what the kingdom of God looks like in this world, this kingdom of God that Jesus calls us to acknowledge, to see in our midst and to live into. The challenging part of this vision that Jesus casts is that this kingdom of God looks so different from the vision we get from the world of what our life is supposed to look like.
I don’t know about you, but this seems pretty counter cultural to me. It seems like Jesus is teaching us to live in this contrary way in this world, he is blessing human weakness and vulnerability instead of power and wealth, he is uplifting those moments where we don’t get it right and don’t have it all together and where our life is hanging on by a very thread. He is saying to us in these moments you are blessed, you are favored, you are beloved, I am with you, loving you into the fullness of life.
So Jesus once said that the kingdom of God belongs to children. It’s one of those Jesus quotes that people usually familiar with even if they aren’t particularly religious. It is also one of those pieces of scripture that comes with a formulaic interpretation that I’ve not only heard over and over again but also, if I’m being honest. Usually it goes something like this: children have a sense of awe, wonder and innocence about them which all of us adults lost because of….. well life…. so we all need to be more child-like in how we see the world.
This isn’t a bad per se except but I wonder if there’s more that Jesus is getting at? (instead of just using kids as an object lesson for all the adults in the audience)
I’ve been thinking a lot about my two kids and what it means for the kingdom of God to belong to them. I think that there is definitely a sense of awe and wonder that they carry for this world which inspires me, but also, I’ve found that my kids (and a lot of kids I’ve known over the years) seem to effortlessly embody grace, i.e. unearned love. They are disciples, followers of Jesus, each in their own way. They are learning to fail, learning to feel, learning to get up & try it all again and they offer this unearned love and forgiveness to others and themselves along the way. It’s something to behold, to cherish and to emulate. I only pray for enough wisdom and courage to not hinder them or stop them in any way from knowing this grace, naming it and claiming it as their own.
Read Luke 1:39-45
This is the third Sunday of Advent. The days seems to be moving more quickly as we approach that sacred night and blessed Christmas morning. Traditionally the third Sunday of Advent belongs to Mary, the mother of Jesus, blessed among women, bearer of the light of God which shines in our darkness. It is a day of joy as we rejoice with her at the news of such a blessing, the blessing of a child, a son born to a lowly woman, who will bring salvation and light to the entire world.
I love this text where Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth to share the news of her pregnancy. I can still remember the anxious joy my wife and I felt when we first shared the news of Allison’s pregnancy with our daughter Olivia with our loved ones. We intentionally plotted out each of the different ways we wanted to share our joyous news. As we shared, the look, the reaction, the tears, the love, the abundant joy. All of these are moments of deep and profound grace that we were able to share with those who are most dear to us.
I love in this story how Mary moves with haste, with purpose and with joy to visit Elizabeth. Upon entering into Elizabeth’s house Mary greets Elizabeth. And in that moment something wondrous happens. The child within Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, leaps with joy. The text says: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’”
What a moment. An intimate and loving moment of pure joy with undeniable hope. It got me thinking as I prepared this week for our worship this morning, what sounds bring you joy? Think about it for a moment, what sounds do you hear in your life that bring you joy?
Maybe it’s the sound of your grandchild’s voice the very first time they learned to call you learned to call you Grammy.
Or maybe it’s the sound of your coffee pot brewing in the morning, as you go about your daily ritual, doing all the things you need to do to prepare yourself to face a new day.
Perhaps it’s the way your spouse’s voice changes when they tell you about something they are just absolutely jazzed about that is happening at work. And as they share with you their energy and that life that they are sharing is just infectious.
Or maybe it’s all the quiet sounds of the woods in fall, as you walk through them lightly on a brisk morning, the wind blowing through the trees, the remaining birds softly singing their songs. And the world just feels right.
These sounds make up our life. They surround us and come to us in expected and unexpected moments of grace and love and they fill our hearts to overflowing with a joy that comes as a gift from the most high God. These sound are a gift of God’s grace, that unearned love, which undergirds and underlies our entire existence, that love which makes itself known in big awesome holy moments of awe and wonder, and in everyday kind of moments of connection, love and hope.
This is one of the moments we have pictured in our text this morning. A moment shared between two women, each expecting a child, each filled with all of the anxiety, fear, hope and excitement that comes with news that you will become a parent. Each filled with joy for themselves and one another.
These are beautiful and sacred moments and sounds, but if we are being honest, our lives are also filled with a different kind of sound. The sounds that don’t fill our hearts, the ones that annoy and frustrate us to no end. Those sounds that we encounter in our world that are like the nails on a chalk board they send a shiver down your spine, they fill you with anger, frustration and sometimes even despair.
The sound of that one person honking their horn when you’re stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. And they are honking and honking at you, even though everyone knows you can’t go anywhere or do anything.
The sound of your child who starts to cry in that moment right when you were about to fall asleep, it wakes you up as they fall back asleep quickly and easily, but that rush of adrenaline that hit you means you’re sitting up in bed fully awake desperately trying to get back to sleep.
There is the sound of the doctors voice as they share with you that diagnosis that you’ve been dreading, that your loved one does in fact have cancer.
There is the sound of another customer who is annoyed with something totally beyond your control as they share, at length, all the things you and your company just can’t do right.
The list could go on and on and on. These sounds populate our existence, they are part of this thing that we call our life and the truth is that sometimes these sounds of frustration, anger, despair or loneliness, they seem to be a little bit louder than all the sounds that bring us joy. Sometimes these sounds of darkness seem more pervasive, more normal, more ubiquitous, so much so that we start to believe that these are the true soundtrack of our universe, the soundtrack to the way the world actually operates.
But our story today, the story of two young women steeped in hope and love, overflowing with joy for one another and for themselves, it reminds us that the story of Advent and Christmas tells us that this isn’t true, that the sounds that take us away from hope, the sounds that bring us to a place of despair, the sounds which fill us solely with irritation, these are actually a detour, a blip, from the way the world actually is.
Because the story of Advent and the story of Christmas is a story about a God who loves us so much that God came to be with us in the flesh, God came and made a home among us, right in the midst of the cacophony of annoying noises, redeeming all things, saving us by the wonders of his love, and making our joy complete.
And as people of faith we are called to live with that complete joy, to choose joy in our lives, to let that joy shine forth for others and the whole world. But what does it mean for us to have our joy made complete, or to live with our joy right out there for all in the world to see?
When I think about this I think of a story I once heard a pastor tell about two spiritual giants in our world. This pastor, who is this famous mega church pastor relayed a story of being invited to a panel along with Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama. They were all asked to speak together. And in case you don’t know, and I didn’t, the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu are good friends, like really, really good friends.
So this mega church pastor is in the green room waiting and preparing for this panel conversation he is going to have with these two spiritual and intellectual giants of our time, when all of the sudden he sees Arch Bishop Tutu and the Dali Lama have each entered the room from opposite side. The men spot each other and their faces light up with love and joy. And the pastor said they started to playfully creep across the room toward each other, meeting right in the middle of the room where the pastor was sitting and they started to have a tickle fight with one another. Right there, in the green room, just before they went out on stage as part of this prestigious panel, talking about injustice and oppression and all the ways they present themselves.
I am sure you know the history of what these men have endured and all that they have led through. The persecution, the fear, the violence, the hatred. The Dali Lama and Arch Bishop Tutu have seen the worst of humanity, the worst that we have to offer. And yet, here they are, they are not hiding their joy, they are not living in despair, they are filled with a joy that overflows in love for one another, a joy that is truly infectious, a joy that has been made complete.
Do you ever find yourself wanting to hide your joy? Maybe it’s because you think you don’t deserve to be happy. Or perhaps you are worried about being joyful because someone in your life is experiencing pain. Or maybe you’re just unsure if you are actually allowed to be happy.
Our story today tells us that we are allowed to be happy, we are allowed to be filled with joy, we deserve it not because of how great we are, or all the wonderful things we did to earn it, we deserve it or better yet, we are worthy of it because our God is a God of grace who proclaims that we are unbelievable worthy because we are cherished by him. Because our God looks upon all of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, and proclaims that we are loved.
So let your joy shine, let your love out. Be that presence for others in this world, not just during the Advent and Christmas season, which is a great start, but live your life filled with joy all year long. And if you find yourself feeling lost, alone or maybe this season of joy is particularly hard because your are in the midst of deep grief, don’t feel guilty that you aren’t there right now. It’s ok to feel sad, just like it’s ok to feel joyful, just know that you are not alone even though it might feel that way. Allow your church family to hold you in love and light even if you can’t and know that no matter what you are going through it will not have the last word.
So as we prepare to go forth, may the light of God’s grace shine in our hearts, filling them up to the brim with all the spiritual gifts of the season, hope, peace, love and this day especially joy and may our joy be made complete. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Read Luke 21:25-36
Moving to a new city means that you spend a lot of time noticing all the things that are different about your new home. My recent move from California to Cincinnati has provided ample opportunity for me to notice all the differences between these two places, and let me tell you there have been quite a few. Cincinnati is weird y’all. This is the first fall I’ve ever experienced in my life so I’ve been just a little bit baffled by the weather pattern: 50 and sunny one day, 20 and snowing the next day. I’ve been amazed by what happens to trees here in the fall. The leaves, the colors, amazing is the only word I can use to describe it. The changing of the leaves has also been a good reminder that even in death there is beauty and wonder to behold, to cherish.
And then after those leaves have changed they fall off of those trees that were once lush, rich and full of life, you have to rake them, and rake them and rake them. But you get to create these massive piles that 4 year olds love to run and jump in.
But also as the leaves fall you start to look at the woods in a different way. The other day I was walking through Parker Woods nature preserve in Northside where we live and I was noticing how now I could actually see through the woods to the other side.
The other thing that I have noticed about my new home here in Cincinnati is this: it gets dark here really, really early in the fall. The other day my family and I were out to dinner after our older daughter’s gymnastics class and it was pitch black as the sun had set hours ago. I was thinking to myself, we’ve got to get these girls fed because it must be late and we really need to get the girls home and get them in bed. Then I looked at my watch, it was 7 o’clock, even though it felt like midnight. But, the hidden joy as the nights growing longer and the days shorter, I regularly see the beauty and wonder of a Cincinnati Sunrise, the first light of a brand new day.
When we move to a new place, a new city, a new environment, the way we see our life, the world and our place in it shifts significantly. It gives us a brand new perspective.
And let me tell you, that is the heart of the season of Advent, getting a new spiritual perspective.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of year we set a part in the church to wait for a new revelation, a time we set aside to look for the light of God’s love shining in hearts and our world. Advent is also the start of a New Year for the church so happy New Year everyone.
We begin the church year with a time for prayer, for silence, for meditation, a time to acknowledge and let go of whatever might be holding us back and holding us down, a time to clear out the cobwebs and to make a little room inside the inn of our hearts, to simply receive, receive love, receive hope, receive joy and receive the peace of our God which surpasses all understanding, surpasses all time and place and circumstance, the peace of God which comes when we finally let go enough to recognize that we can’t save ourselves, we can’t make ourselves whole, only God’s unconditional love can.
And so we have this season of Advent, a season which is contemplative and quiet and a season of contradiction, a time to slow down enough to find the already present indwelling of Emmanuel, God with us and at the same time recognizing that love’s redeeming work is yet to be done.
Advent is a weird time of year as a Christian because the world speeds up at the same time we try to intentionally slows down. There’s that long check-list of things that need to get done and there seems to be very little time to do it all, especially this year given that Advent starts on the first Sunday of December.
We’ve got to get the house decorated, the tree up, the ornaments out, we’ve got to solidify travel plans, party plans, we’ve got to get all the shopping done, which of course is super easy because of Amazon Prime and yet it still seems to stress us out,
we’ve got to get emotionally prepared for all the various celebrations, the time with family, falling back into old family systems and dynamics which no matter how healthy are slightly dysfunctional, because well it’s family, there’s always a hint of dysfunction.
And in the midst of it all we have the various spiritual obligations we feel which sometimes become just part of the to do list which we feel we desperately need to check off in order to make sure our heart is right, our spirit is prepared, our condition is in just the right order to welcome Christmas with all its blessing.
That’s why we need Advent, in the midst of our wild world, a world filled with pressure for our lives and our families to look picture perfect, to look the way they look on our Facebook,
a world filled with the empty promises like that we need to buy our way into happiness,
a world filled with real human suffering and a weariness as it seems like things never change.
We need Advent to help us cultivate that Jesus perspective, that holy perspective, which tells us to seek the light, to find the light shining in the midst of the darkest dark of night, which by the way is where the smallest of lights shines the brightest.
It’s always a little bit jarring to start off the Advent season with a text like the one we have today, a text where Jesus gives a vision of the end. And yet visions of the end are never really about the future but about the here and now and this text is no different. Let me say that again, in the bible whenever there is a passage that talks about the end times, it is never really about the end times, it is about how we live here and now.
See Jesus gets us as human beings and he knows that we are future oriented people. He knows that we would prefer to live in the future, in the yet to be realized, in the anxiety of uncertainty rather than right here and right now. So in this reading he lays it out this way:
in the end, no matter how dark it may be, no matter how much suffering may exist in this world, no matter what you or we may go through, in the end God is always with us, redeeming all things and bringing about a new creation. The kingdom of God is always near.
And so, Jesus gives us this simple, very profound, unbelievably difficult spiritual practice for us all:
he says, stay awake, keep alert, be attentive in this moment, experiencing all the joy and agony of life and this world, don’t escape, don’t inhabit some other moment, be here, stay in this moment and you will find your hope, seek the light shining in the darkness and you will find God.
That is a powerful word for us today, in the midst of the times that we find ourselves in. As a culture we are still grieving the mass shootings at the Tree of life Synagogue and Borderline Grill, we are still seeing pictures and hearing stories of the unbelievable destruction of the Woosley and Camp wildfires in California, and this last week we saw images of children being tear gassed at our border. We see all of this happening in our world and on top of it we have the joys and struggles that we each carry with us and it’s hard to see any kind of light, any kind of hope in any of this mess.
This last week my wife Allison rented that new documentary about Mr. Rogers that came out a few months ago, Won’t you be My Neighbor? This documentary is an incredible testament to an incredible life lived following in the way of Jesus. I’m sure many of you know already that Fred. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian pastor. His life’s work was about living in the light of God’s love and letting that love shine through him for as many children as possible. What a life and what a ministry.
I often think of this quote he said when this world is, well, being the world, when things are getting almost too dark, too dark, to see. Mr. Rogers said: “when I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news my mother would say to me ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
The story of Advent, the story of our faith tells us that God is here, present in the messiness of life, the light enters the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it.
The story of our faith says that God so loved the world that God came to be with us, light to all people, all people, so that all would know the fullness of grace, undeserved love, and the abundance of life made new in him. As we journey through this season that has been co-opted and hijacked by our culture, may we become more aware, more attentive to the movement of God’s Spirit at work redeeming all things even in the messiest of moments we may find ourselves in, may we move about these days cultivating the spiritual perspective of hope which never gives up, may we look for the helpers, look for the good, may we seek the light which shines brightest in the darkest nights. Amen.