read Philippians 4 for some context.
We are in this season of thanksgiving, a time which we set apart as a culture to remember and to give thanks for all the many blessings we have in our life. It is a wonderful time for many. A time for family, for friends, a time to sit and reflect on our lives. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes this is a particularly difficult time for people. Persons who are lonely, folks who are caring for loved ones, people who are grieving. One of the added challenges is that we are told by our culture, during this season in particular, be happy, be grateful, be content.
But the thing is, and I can’t speak for you, but I know in my life, I just can’t will myself in or out of a particular way of being, a way of feeling or a season of my life. It just doesn’t work that way. I can keep showing up during that time. I can keep doing the spiritual work. I can keep on being present for worship and attentive in my life of prayer, I can be with my community, but I have to do all those things and then release the outcome over to God.
As a mentor of mine always says- we gotta do the work and stay out of the results. In other words, keep showing up, keep on keeping on even if your inner life feels a little bit off, even if you are carrying that extra weight, and I don’t mean that thanksgiving weight,
even if you don’t feel grateful in this very moment, keep on keeping on and release those feelings of having to fix yourself, release those things prayerfully to God and let God do what God does best- save us when we can’t save ourselves.
I know this is an odd way to begin a sermon about gratitude and thanksgiving, but I think it’s important for us as a community of faith to say sometimes we don’t feel grateful, sometimes we don’t see things in our life that we can be grateful for. There might even be people in our midst who are struggling this very moment to see the light shining through the darkness, even if they believe it in their heart of hearts, they are struggling to see it in their lives. And that is Ok. It is ok.
We all experience that in our lives, sometimes these seasons are short, sometimes they are long, but the one thing we believe is that God is in it all, at work in it all through Jesus our Lord, redeeming all things. That’s why we are people of the resurrection. Because we believe that Jesus, in his resurrection, proclaims that these things which happen to us , no matter how lonely and dark and twisted they might seem in the moment, they will not have the last word. Man. That is so amazingly hopeful. What a way to live in this world. To live this truth, this counter cultural truth in our world. What a blessing and what a challenge.
So having opened the sermon with all this I want to talk a little bit more about gratitude and why it is so hard to preach about in our churches, and why it is in fact a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline that we need to put into action in our lives.
It is tricky because gratitude is something that we experience genuinely and naturally as a response to what happens in our life. It isn’t always something that we can just manufacture.
Let me give you an example from my life as a parent to two young children.
Often I will get home after a long day of work and parenting and I will start to cook dinner. The girls will be in the other room watching a show and I’ll just be cooking away. I put together a simply but absolutely delicious meal and call the girls in from the other room. I’ll make their plate and we will all sit down as a family to pray and then, the girls will just start digging in.
Usually I will say something like, girls, “what do we say?”
To which they will look somewhat confused or baffled and say , “Please?”
I’ll say, “No girls, the other one.”
“oh, yeah- thank you.”
All this is to say something that is very obvious but needs to be pointed out, thanksgiving, gratitude, is a strange thing because it is something that has to be genuinely experienced but at the same time is something that we can cultivate or grow in.
That’s why parents teach their children to say thank you. It is something that we can learn and cultivate but almost paradoxically it is something that we just have to experience on this deep and profound level and then express.
That’s where the reading from Philippians enters in for today. The reading for this Sunday is taken from the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. The tradition goes that Paul was writing this letter to the church when he was imprisoned by the Romans for spreading the good news of God’s all inclusive and unconditional love in Jesus Christ.
I share this to say that Paul is someone who knew what it was like to be kicked around. He lived quite a life, a difficult life after his conversation he suffered a great deal for the sake of the gospel. But, sometimes when you read his writings you might think that his life was all honkey-dorey.
I mean listen to these words that he pens here:
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.
Do those words sound like words of someone in prison? Do they sound like the words of someone who is being persecuted for preaching that God is love? Do they sound like the words of someone who is living with the boot of the empire on their neck?
They don’t sound that way at all but they are the words of a person who lived this deep and spiritual life connected and rooted in God’s grace, so much so that he was able to say rejoice, at all times, again I say rejoice.
There is a spiritual depth here which is so inspiring to us as modern believers, modern followers of Jesus. A spiritual depth which empowers and emboldens us to find ways to be ok when things aren’t OK.
Paul then goes on to say that we as people of God are to rejoice in all circumstances and to hold in our minds, whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable. Paul says if there is anything excellent and worthy of praise, hold onto these things in your mind.
This gets to the heart of a spiritual life and a life of cultivating gratitude and thanksgiving, it is about what we notice. That’s really at the heart of the matter, what we notice in this life, where we choose to focus our attention. This makes an impact how we react, how we respond, it affects whether or not we have that genuine experience of thanksgiving in our heart.
Maybe you’ve had this experience in your life before. You woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You get out of bed and the coffee pot didn’t go off the way it was supposed to, and your walking in the dark and then all of the sudden you trip over that small step up which is always there but because you didn’t have your morning cup of coffee and you weren’t awake yet, so you missed it.
And your day goes down hill from there. It is just one thing after another. You hit every red light on your way to work so your late, your computer gets stuck in that never ending updating cycle, so you’re later getting that email to your boss which was supposed to be timestamped before noon and on and on and on. By the end of the day you are just a host mess of anger and frustration and resentment.
You went through the whole day without noticing anything good, anything that was unexpected, any signs of hope or connection or joy, and you end the day stuck up in your head, with a narrative of self-pity.
But Paul tells us here that we as Christians are supposed to shift our ways of seeing the world, we are supposed to put on the lens of Christ to see through his eyes and hear through his ears. We are called to notice the world for what it is, what it truly is, not a place of scarcity, a place to be feared or to withdraw from, but an overflowing creation of love and goodness, which God has blessed and continues to bless.
It is powerful to allow that Spirit of God, that Holy Spirit, to transform our minds and to shift our perception so that we can notice and see all the good that is bubbling up and emerging all around us all the time, even in the darkest places and the most difficult circumstances.
Paul believed this very thing when he wrote these words from a prison cell, celebrating the Philippian church and the love and the witness they were offering in their neighborhood and their city. He was celebrating even in the midst of his own personal trials, he was focusing on the excellent and the just and the commendable.
Now this practice doesn’t mean that we are called to be “Pollyannas”, for we know that Paul, and for the larger point Jesus, were not naïve about the real darkness we experience in this life. No we are called to name the pain and the suffering for what it is, name it for what it is in our life but to not let it have the last word. For we are people of the resurrection, we believe that love will always have the last word.
During this season of thanksgiving, this time where we reflect on our lives and our world, I was reminded of the words of the poet Mary Oliver who wrote:
Instructions for living a life:
- Pay Attention.
- Be astonished.
- Tell about it.
These are instructions we can carry with us into the coming week and the coming months. Pay attention to what is happening. Notice where you are feeling connected and inspired, where you are feeling depressed or stilted, notice where you feel deep pain and tremendous joy. Starts first by paying attention and noticing.
Then be astonished. Don’t ever forget that your life is a beautiful mystery to be explored, that you move about this wondrous creation, with this amazing body which is a gift, that you get to see incredible things and taste a thanksgiving dinner infused with love, be astonished at all that you see and hear and experience in this one life you are given.
And then share about it. Share the highs and the lows, share in words and in silence, share in songs that make you want to sing out loud at the top of your lungs and share through rhythmic movements of the dance you do when you know nobody is watching. Tell about it in how you share your love with others. And please for the sake of this world, this world which needs you to share, don’t be stingy with your story, the story of God’s saving love unfolding in your life, don’t be stingy with it. Share it generously. With everyone. Because everyone needs to hear it.
two scriptures to read: 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31
A few weeks ago I got the chance to visit one of my favorite places in the whole world: Costco. Every month or so my wife and I compile a big list of things we need from Costco. I usually am able to convince one or both of the girls to go with me, you know samples can be a compelling argument to a 5 and 2 ½ year old, and we load up and drive up on the 75 to Costco. I love Costco so much. There’s just something about it. The food, the household supplies, the hot dogs, it truly is a magical place for strange people like me.
I think I love Costco so much because of the feeling I get when I’m done shopping there….I am out in the parking lot loading up my SUV filled with 600 rolls of toilet paper and 3000 rolls of paper towels, the feeling I get is one of deep satisfaction, contentment, a feeling that this one trip is going to meet the needs of our family for a long, long time. I mean we once bought a box of trash bags from Costco that lasted two years. We didn’t need to buy trash bags for two entire years, that purchase was a purchase which satisfied…
I know it sounds a little silly to admit this aloud to you all, but hopefully you know me well enough by now to know that silly and strange are just part of who I am.
I bring this up because it relates to our texts this morning, and for this sermon I wanted to focus a little bit on each of the readings, the first reading from 1 Timothy 6 and the second reading from the Gospel of Luke.
First from Timothy. Timothy is a short Epistle, a letter, in the New Testament. Church tradition holds that St. Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, one of his younger colleagues, in order to give Timothy some guidance on how to organize a church community. The reality is that Paul most likely didn’t write this letter himself but the letter’s authorship is neither here nor there for us today.
In the section we heard read this morning the author is giving Timothy and his community some instructions on faithful living. The passage begins:
“of course there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these.”
One thing that I’m just so amazed by, struck by and challenged by, is that these spiritual reflections ring just as true today in our life and our world as they did over 2000 years ago. We still need this same instruction because we still struggle with the same human drive to accumulate, to build, to amass.
When I was a kid growing up there was this shirt brand called No Fear, which was super popular. I loved No Fear shirts. They were edgy and cool, kind of grungy and a little bit skater, all these things that I desperately wanted to be but wasn’t. I remember going into a store in the mall, which itself seems like a strange and foreign concept today, and looking at all the No Fear shirts I couldn’t afford to buy. I was sitting there looking at all the shirts when I saw this one which I still remember to this day. It was a simple black shirt with this sayings: “He who dies with the most toys, still dies…..No Fear.”
I wanted that shirt so badly. I was coveting that shirt so badly. I mean the irony of that is just too much to miss, coveting a shirt which essentially is pointing out that we came into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing, focus on being content with what you have, offer it all to God for service of God’s will.
Contentment is tough though. It’s a tough spiritual practice to take on and to cultivate. It seems like we are really prone to coveting, to desiring what others have, to seeing all the areas in our life where to lack and to focus on those instead of focusing on the abundance of riches and blessings we experience, each and every day. Maybe you don’t struggle with this, that’s awesome, you have a spiritual gift my friend, you have had great gain of Godliness through the power of contentment.
But for those of us who do struggle with this, I, for one, take comfort in the fact that Christians, even going back to the first and second generation, struggled with this too. So much so that they needed a letter with some spiritual reflection and teaching written just to them, addressed to them personally as a community, offering them some hope and a different way of life.
I think this is good news, great news actually, that although the writer of Timothy didn’t live in a world with Amazon Prime or a world of Instagram Influencers whose lives look picture perfect for all the world to see. But still, although the writer didn’t live in this world, the writer still addresses this same spiritual concern we should all be aware of- wholeness, fullness, the abundance of life doesn’t come from the things we own, the things we have, it doesn’t come from rearranging the external circumstances of our life- that can only be found when we experience God’s lifegiving love, God’s unbelievable and unconditional and underserved love for us, inside our heart of hearts- peace, contentment, serenity is an inside job turned out.
That’s tough though, at least for me. I still have this tendency to want to gain satisfaction and contentment from all the stuff I have around me, from the big old box of trash bags and toilet paper rolls from Costco, and not from that which is eternal but intangible, that which is always present and yet of which I remain mostly unaware- the ever beating heart of God for me, for us and for this world.
One of the spiritual practices that helps us to cultivate that heart of contentment, that life which is whole and rich connected to God’s life-giving presence, is the practice of making a gratitude list. See gratitude is the spiritual remedy to coveting. Whenever you start to covet, to look with desire upon someone else’s’ stuff or life, gratitude is just what you need, because gratitude draws you back into you, back into your life, instead of living in the fantasy of someone else’s life. And I’ve lived long enough to know that living in the reality of the present, even if it’s hard and difficult, is always better than living in a fantasy, because the present reality is all, we, have.
So whenever we might be particularly envious of another person, when our coveting is causing us great discomfort, perhaps we can find some time, to take out a pen and a piece of paper, and simply make a list of what you are grateful for. Make a list of all the things in your life you can give God thanks and praise for. Even if you can’t write it down, just take a moment and go through a list in your own mind.
For your breath, this quiet force which surges through your body, in and out
For the beauty of this world that we get to move around in. for the anticipation of this new season and all the changes we experience.
For the people in our life who love us, especially when we don’t deserve it. For the people in our life who love us with a love that is truly unconditional.
For the gift of a church, a place for us to come for prayer and community. A place where all are welcome, no matter who we are, what we’ve done, what we believe or don’t, a place of compassion, wholeness and accountability to the call of Jesus.
Here’s the thing about the list, even if you can’t find much to be grateful for, and there are those life moments, there are those times when things around you seem to dark that there isn’t much light shining through, even in those moments there is probably at least something we can be grateful for.
Gratitude and contentment are powerful because they bring us back to our own life, back into our own self, to the moment we are currently inhabiting, but at the same time they draw us out of that smaller self of desiring what we don’t have, and into our bigger self, our true self, our spiritual self, of seeing what we have and what we can share with others. Contentment, leads to gratitude, which in my experience leads to generosity.
This brings us to our second reading for today, the reading from Luke’s gospel. The story for this morning from the gospel is a parable, a story which Jesus tells us about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. It is a challenging text where the rich man passes by Lazarus every single day, sitting outside the rich man’s gates, asking for help, and the rich man ignores his cries of help day in and day out. The story goes that the rich man dies and goes to hell because he ignored the cry of the poor.
There are a couple things which are just fascinating about this story. First, the fact that Jesus chooses to name the poor beggar but leaves the rich man unnamed. Man, I love Jesus to much. That is like such a bold and counter cultural thing to do. See back in the day, well not too much unlike today, the poor homeless beggar would have been a non-person, an invisible person, while the rich person would have been someone who everyone would know by name or reputation. Think about our world, think about all the wealthy people who have been gone for year but whose names we still know- Procter, Gamble, Dater, Rockefeller, Carnegie. But Jesus flips this upside down, naming the poor, homeless beggar, Lazarus.
Alright, so the next thing that stands out is that this rich person ends up in hell, which is metaphorically depicted here as a place of torment, for what reason? For not acting in love. For not serving with compassion. For ignoring the needs of the poorest around him. He didn’t end up there because he didn’t believe the right thing. He didn’t end up there because he didn’t say the right prayer. He didn’t end up there because he couldn’t recite the right creed. He ended up there because he didn’t act beyond himself.
The rich man was blind to the neediest around him. He didn’t even try.
I think that this is what Jesus is getting us to consider in our own lives of faith, to ponder these question: who do we see? Who do we see? Are we living fully present in each moment as we move about this world, enough so that we are attentive to those around us? Are we living with a heart of compassion which is big enough to start with acknowledging the person who others ignore? Are we seeking to see and serve Christ, the presence of the holy, which dwells in each and every single person we meet?
In order to do this we need to be living that life of contentment and gratitude which leads us into Christian service, which leads us into lives of generosity, which leads us into living lives of life-giving love.
This story from Luke is an unsettling one for me and for people throughout Christian history, it’s another hard story that Jesus shares with us that can work on our hearts from the inside out. One of the things that can bog us down is when we start to think about the overwhelming needs that exist in this world, all the people who are hungry, all the people who are poor, all the people who are homeless. Sometimes these thoughts can lead us to withdraw because we don’t think we can really make a difference.
The reformer, Martin Luther, once preached on this passage and he said “we can’t feed every beggar in the world, but we can feed the one at our gate.”
Who is outside our gate? I tell you, our church is in a neighborhood where people are hungry, there are poor people in this community. I am so proud of us for serving our neighborhood through the pancake breakfast, for our support of the food pantry and all the other ways you all serve the beggar at our gate, but what are we missing, are there ways for us to not only serve but be in relationship with those who other ignore or push aside?
Let’s continue to dream together, to pray together, to serve together in love. And may Jesus, who sees the beauty and fragility of every human person, who sees us completely and wholly for who we are, may he work inside our hearts to give us eyes to see all people in this world. Amen.
Back in 2010 my wife and I bought a new to us, used 2004, Hyundai Santa Fe. We went to the dealership without having in mind what we were looking for and after test driving the car we really loved it. Now I didn’t know anything about Hyundai Santa Fe’s and to my best recollection I had absolutely no idea what they looked like before we drove off the lot with one. After driving the car around town for a little bit, the strangest thing started to happen: I started to see Santa Fe’s everywhere. I started to see them all the time.
So this begs this interesting question: did something happen right around the same time we bought our car? Did a million other people go out and buy the same make and model? Probably not right? Most likely the thing that happened is that all those people were driving Santa Fes before. What changed is that we had purchased one and started to love the car more and more.
Maybe you have experienced this phenomenon in your own life. You buy something new, like a car, and then suddenly you start seeing that thing out there in the world over and over and over again. So this is a version of what is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, which basically says that we are hard wired to find patterns and make connections in our existence. It’s just part of who we are as a people, that we seek out ways to connect things in our world to thing that are happening within our lives and within our very being.
So how does this relate to our gospel lesson for today? Just bear with me a little bit, I hope it will become clear.
In the gospel for today Jesus is continuing a series of teachings as a large crowd has gathered. As we talked about last week, one of the major themes from this set of teachings if our relationship to our stuff and our money. This theme of course continues in todays teaching. But it is worth noting that right before our scripture passage for today Jesus offers us this wonderful and inspiring teaching about releasing our worry, our anxiety, the things that we keep bottled up within us, all that stuff that eats away at us and keeps us up at night, he tells us to not worry about anything, because God loves us so dearly that God will in fact take care of us, even if it appears as though things are crumbling around us.
I find this part of Jesus’ teaching to be both comforting and challenging, mostly because it means that I have to give up some of the control I think I have over my own life and trust that God is in fact at work within my life and the lives of those around me, for the good. That is tough spiritual work, but it is truly at the core of what we are called to as Christians.
I remember when we were preparing for our move, before I knew about you all here at Mt. Healthy United Methodist Church. I was pretty anxious about whether or not I would be able to serve the church here in West Ohio. There was some uncertainty as I sat in this anxiety with my wife and some trusted friends and mentors. I remember talking with one of those mentors about my anxiety, sharing with him that I had yet to receive any news about a possible appointment and that I was concerned that I may not be able to serve a church here in West Ohio. My mentor kindly said to me- ‘ Robert, when has God ever NOT taken care of you?’
When has God ever NOT taken care of you? That’s a great question for us to ask ourselves when we walk through challenging times of anxiety, when we feel that weight of uncertainty, when we don’t know where we are or where we are going, to remember that question- when has God ever NOT taken care of you?
Our scripture passage for today picks up right after this teaching about giving our worry and our concern over to God, so that we can allow God into every part of our life, resisting that temptation we might have- to go it alone, or do it by ourselves.
And our passage starts off with this beautiful verse, Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good please to give you the kingdom.’
I want to pause right there and just soak in that. Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Man that is some good stuff! I mean just think about this: when you think about God is this the image that comes to mind. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, do not be afraid? I hope so.
I hope that after coming here for even just one week you will know that we believe that God is love and that this love is for you and for me and for all people before we even have the words to ask. I hope that you will see in the worship, the prayers and in this beloved community that we do in fact believe in a God who loves to give us the kingdom of hope, of mercy and grace. I hope that is the case.
But if I’m being honest, as Christians at large, we don’t always act like this is who our God is, we don’t always hold this belief in our own lives. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that there are some people in the church who believe that our God is a God of judgement and exclusion and not a God of life-giving, all embracing love.
And I don’t mean to separate myself as if I am above this- it’s hard sometimes to remember that it is God’s good pleasure to give you and me the kingdom, it’s hard because I know my heart and the heart of those around me, I know the challenges we face in loving one another, I know the challenges we face in loving ourselves and we project those challenges onto God and remake God into our image instead of looking to Jesus who is constantly pointing us to this truth- do not be afraid little flock, God loves you, God loves to give you gifts, God loves to give you a place to belong and be made whole.
Jesus then goes on to call us to sell our possession and give our money away to the poor and Jesus says that we should do this because of this, he says- ‘for where your treasure is there your heart will be also.’
For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.
You may have heard this quote from Jesus before. It’s one of the many that people are familiar with so we hear it pretty regularly. It’s an interesting little bit of teaching because like so many things that Jesus gives us it seems to upset the apple cart, it seems to just kind of flip everything over, it challenges the way that we often think things are supposed to work in our lives as spiritual people.
Let me explain. If you are like me then you like to think a lot about all the different things you do in this world. I like to plan and dissect and discern all the different ways that I am supposed to act. Sometimes this works out ok. Sometimes I can discern my way into being more like Jesus, more compassionate, more loving, sometimes thinking takes me out of myself in loving service of another human being. But if I’m being honest, more often than not I spend a lot of time stuck up in my head trying to figure things out instead of actually doing what I could be doing to make a better life for another person, or a better world for our neighborhood.
What Jesus says here is- for where your treasure is, there your heart will also be. Jesus says start putting your treasure where your heart should be and then your heart will slowly come into alignment. Start putting your time, your talent, and your treasure, where Jesus’ heart is, then your heart will slowly become more like Jesus’ heart.
See, it’s backwards. Jesus says act first and your heart will change because of your action. To put it another way- Father Richard Rohr once said- ‘“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.
Ok so what does that mean? It’s like that Baader- Meinhoff Phenomenon. When you start to put your treasure into things in this world, when you give something value, you start to see it reflected back to you everywhere. So I never saw Hyundai Santa Fe’s before we bought one because I never knew that I liked them and that they were great cars. Once I knew the value of the car, I started to see it everywhere.
So what if we did this with our spiritual life? What if we did this with how we give of our money in this world? What if we did this with how we use our talents, our gifts and our energy in this world? What if we did this with our precious time?
When we start to give away our money, trying to align that giving with the heart of Jesus, we start to see the world differently. We start to see the abundance in this world and this life, instead of having that mindset of scarcity- i.e. there isn’t enough. We start to look for the ways that the kingdom of God, which our Father is giving to us because it is God’s good pleasure, is bubbling up all around us, all the time, and how our financial resources can under gird that work in making a better world.
When we start to give our time and our talent in service of the poor in our city, we start to grow a more compassionate heart. When you spend time learning someone’s story, when you spend time learning to love someone and to meet them where they are and receive them just as they are, you go from a place of judgement to a place of grace.
It is amazing how God can in fact work within us to grow a more compassionate heart, God can unlock new worlds of love within our heart that we never knew were possible. It happens when we are in solidarity with the poor, when we start to serve first because Jesus commands us to, and our view, our world our perspective gets a little bit bigger, and bigger and bigger. This is the way it works. It’s like Mother Teresa once said, “if you judge people you have no time to love them.’ If you make time to love them, if you put your treasure there, there your heart will also be.
It happens, sometimes it happens slowly over time and sometimes it happens quickly, overnight, but it will happen if we are intentional about how we live in this world, if we follow the example of Jesus.
So the question is what can we do? Maybe a more direct way of putting it is, what will we do? What will you do to put your treasure where you think Jesus wants your heart? What will you do to give of your time, your talent and your financial resources to make a difference in this world and in the life of another person? If you feel like you just don’t know, maybe you feel like you’re in the dark, like you don’t know the way, or maybe you feel like you don’t have anything to offer, just take it to prayer and do the next right indicated action, the next right faithful step you can take in this world, give it to God and let God do the rest. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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.