Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Following a Shepherd

Sermon Notes for April 22, 2018 
Read Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18 ..

Have you ever spent time around sheep?

When I was younger, I was a member of 4-H. While I was mostly interested in horses, part of my education involved sheep and I learned a few things about these animals. Sheep are stubborn and are hard to force into things. They have been bred to the point of actually requiring humans to shear them in order to survive.  They behave very differently when they were alone as a opposed to in a group. While I learned to like individual sheep, once it joined the herd again all of the individuality went away. Sheep follow the rest of the sheep blindly - regardless of the results. There was a disastrous incident in Turkey awhile back when nearly five hundred sheep just followed each other off a cliff while the shepherd was having lunch.  Farmers tell stories about how when there is a flood, horses and cows will run away or try to swim to safety, but a sheep will just stand there until the water rises over it’s head. 

And these are the animals that we are compared to the most in the Bible. As a child, I was absolutely insulted by this comparison. 

There are so many other animals that God could have compared us to. Foxes because they are clever. Doves because they are peaceful and gentle.  But no, we are called sheep.  Sheep require a shepherd to care for them.  They require a shepherd to protect them.  They require someone who will look after their smallest needs and who will lead them to where they need to be.  Without their shepherd, sheep will follow each other to disaster.  And over and over again, the Bible calls us sheep.  Maybe God is trying to tell us something. 

The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  This is probably the best known psalm to modern day Christians, but we hear it so much sometimes we lose sight of what it actually means.  The Lord is my shepherd.  While this is a very useful metaphor in ancient Israel, it needs some translating for 21st century America.  We are not quite as familiar with what it means to be a shepherd.

Shepherds are responsible for the care and well being of their sheep.  They do their very best to keep them safe from all of the dangers out there.  There are thieves who try to steal the sheep. Wolves who try to eat them.  Sheep step into holes, get stuck in bushes and follow each other of cliffs. 

Looking at our own lives, I see some parallels.  There are dangers in the world, and we are constantly getting ourselves into trouble.  Yet Christ, our shepherd cares for us even in the midst of our troubles.

Shepherds have a close relationship with their sheep.  Sheep live for twenty to twenty five years. The sheep of this time were raised for wool, not meat.  The shepherd spent most of his time with the sheep.  The sheep live with the family. 

The Indian theologian D. T. Niles once noticed a young Indian shepherd boy keeping a huge flock of sheep.  He stopped and asked, "How many sheep do you have?"  

"I don't know," answered the boy, "I can't count."

Niles asked him, "How do you know if some of the sheep haven't wandered off when you get to the place where you're going to camp at night?" 

To his astonishment, the boy answered, "I don't know how many wander off, but I know each one.  I can't count, but each sheep has a name, and I know their names."

From our casual point of view, all sheep look the same.  Different shapes and sizes, but for the most part, if you’ve seen one sheep, you’ve seen them all.

But because a shepherd spends a lot of time with his sheep, he gets to know the different personalities and quirks of each one of his sheep.  That one over there, he might say, likes to stray away.  This one over here, he gets tired all the time.  And this one, well, he is very bad at finding pasture.  You gotta watch out for this one – he’s mean.  And that one over there is always running ahead – overconfident.  Each sheep has its own personality, different strengths and weaknesses, and a good shepherd will know what those different things are about his sheep.  He knows them.

Christ knows each of us, individually and by name.  One of the lessons of Psalm 23 is that every person who is one of God’s flock is individually cared for as one of God’s sheep.  Unlike most of the Psalms, 23 says the Lord is MY shepherd.  The other psalms say The Lord is OUR shepherd. Never forget that while you are also one of God’s flock, His care for you is an individual type of care, not merely as a number or as a series of perforations in a computer card.  David never lost his sense of individual pastoral care from the hand of his Shepherd.

I may be not be crazy about being a sheep, but the Bible keeps pointing out over and over the parallels.  One of my favorite passages is from Ezekiel 34:11-15. "For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.  As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day.  And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land.  I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.  I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God."

The shepherd brings his sheep to food and water.  The shepherd rescues his flock and brings them back together.  And the shepherd cares for us, just as Christ does. 

The tools of a shepherd are telling too.  The first tool of a shepherd is the staff, pointed on one end, crooked on the other.  A shepherd lovingly reaches his staff down into a hole and slips the staff under the sheep’s leg and gently pulls the sheep out of the hole.  When we get into holes during our lives, and God is forever pulling us out of our holes. 

The second, more powerful, tool of the shepherd is the shepherd’s voice.  Over time, the sheep get to know the shepherd’s voice.  In the middle east, there are many caves, and several flocks of sheep might be herded into one of them to escape a storm, or to weather overnight.  But in the morning, the shepherd doesn't have to look for brands or markings, he just steps away from the cave, moves away from the other shepherds, and calls to his flock.  And they come right to him, because they know his voice.

For better or for worse, we are God's sheep.  But is Christ our shepherd?  Is it his voice we follow?

There were two men were walking along a crowded city sidewalk.  Suddenly, one of the men remarked, "Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket," But the other man could not hear the sound.

He asked his friend how he could hear the sound of a cricket amid the roar of the traffic and the sound of the people.  The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to hear the sounds of nature.

He didn’t explain to his friend in words how he could hear the sound of the cricket, but instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a half-dollar coin, dropped it onto the sidewalk, and watched intently as a dozen people began to look for the coin as they heard it clanking around amid the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the city.  He turned to his friend and said, "We hear what we listen for."

What do we listen for?  Do we hear Christ's voice amidst the chaos?

Even when we do hear that voice, do we follow it?  Jesus leads us through hard places sometimes and asks us to do difficult things.  It seems like it would be so much easier to stray off the path.  To eat the grass that is right here rather than struggling through the difficult valleys.

My dog Dylan knows my voice.  When we go to the dog park people call commands to their dogs all the time, but he ignores those commands.  Yet when I tell him to come, he will race across half the park to respond.  I know he knows my voice.  Sometimes though, he decides what he is doing is far more interesting then what I am telling him to do.  He knows my voice, but he doesn't always follow it.

We know Christ's voice.  We know what he is calling us to do.  The question is do we follow? 

Jesus calls us.  And in the midst of this noisy world we hear him.  And so when we follow him, as he leads us through this world.  When we follow Christ we trust him.  We don’t always understand him.  But I don’t think sheep ever really understand what their shepherd is doing – why the shepherd is taking them here, or pushing them there.  Sheep have no idea.  But the shepherd knows his sheep, and he does what is best for them.

Christ is calling you to follow.  Whose sheep will you be?  Amen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Eating with Jesus

Sermon Notes for April 15, 2018 
Read 1 John 3:1-7 and Luke 24:36b-48  ..

Suddenly, Jesus appears among his disciples in a locked room. It sounds like the beginning to a murder mystery.

In normal circumstances this would be strange enough, but when you've watched the one who appears among you die, is it any wonder that the disciples first instinct is to think there is a ghost in the room? When he walks in, his friends are so frightened they forget to show common hospitality. They don’t offer him a place to sit, something to eat and drink, a traditional welcome.

But Jesus calms them. He says "Shalom." Peace be with you.  He proves that he is not a ghost by offering out his hands for them to touch. As a form of reassurance. And beyond the reassurance of being touched, Jesus asks for something to eat. What could be more physical or more comforting than a meal shared?

There is a part of me that wonders if that is why we seem to specialize in plentiful potluck dinners. I can’t remember ever going to a church potluck and not finding an array of taste sensations and calorie-laden goodness spread out like a banquet of acceptance and comfort. All are welcome to the table and there is always more than enough food. When we lack words, we often bring food instead. When we wish to offer comfort and care, it often comes in the form of casseroles and hot dishes, bread or brownies, all seasoned with the spirit of love and compassion.

It is precisely the sense of food as comfort that makes the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus so appealing to me. Wherever there is food, you’ll find God. Jesus breaks the bread after walking the Emmaus Road, and Jesus shares a shore-side fish broil with his still dazed and confused disciples.  Here, he proves his reality by sharing fish with them. Jesus shares fuel for the body with the disciples and gives them fuel for the faith. Both hunger of body and soul are satisfied in the presence of the risen One. Jesus provides both comfort food and true soul food—a plate of plenty for the hungry heart.

Spirituality and relationships are so often connected to eating. It makes sense. It makes us human. We talk about "being fed" spiritually, or we call friends and make plans to eat together. Eating is human. Relationships are human. Spirituality is human. Those things are linked by the realities of life. While we cannot exist without food, it’s also true that our existence is deeply impaired if we lack significant relationships or some type of spiritual awareness.

That’s why it’s rare to experience a social gathering without food: because we sense in some elemental way that feeding our bodies feeds our souls and moves our relationships to deeper levels.

There are those that argue that the physical is just temporary. That this body is just for the time being, and what we really need to focus on is the spiritual life that is beyond this life. The argument goes something like: since the world and human flesh are inferior and filled with evil, the goal of life is to rise above the world and eventually to escape from this world into the realm of the spirit where we really belong. If that’s true, it means that we can ignore the physical aspects of life in the world and focus all of our attention on spiritual matters, for that was where ultimate value was found. Therefore, physical hurts and suffering and pain of human beings, such as hunger, disease, or poverty, can be ignored as long as the souls are saved.

Luke is dead set against this argument and makes it clear that Jesus is bodily resurrected for a reason. Fred Craddock says "And Luke is saying no to those notions of spirituality that view the body and all things physical as inherently inferior or evil. Those who view themselves as just passing through this evil world tend to neglect the physical, economic, and political needs of other human beings. Luke reminds us that the risen Christ said, "Look at my wounds," and, "Do you have anything to eat?"

No one can follow this Christ and say that discipleship means only concerned with "souls." For Christ, what happens in the here and now matters just as much as what happens afterwards. Why else would Christ have spent so much time healing and feeding others? Why else would have he come back in his body?

Between these very physical offering of hands and the eating of fish, the disciples are convinced, it’s really Jesus who rose from the dead. It’s not a spirit. Not a vision. Not a hallucination.

You can’t reach out and touch a hallucination. Visions don’t eat broiled fish.  Jesus has been made new, somehow, but Jesus has a body.  Their God and ours proves to be a flesh and blood God, not a disembodied spirit. This God is vulnerable to everything that is human, including the capability of being hurt and spilling tears.  His body may be mistaken for someone else at first, but he is corporeal. The disciples can touch him. They can eat with him.

Then the text says "While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering." I just love this idea of being full of joy even in the midst of disbelieving and wondering. I mean, come on, Jesus was dead and now he is appearing to his friends in all kinds of places. Who wouldn't still be filled with wonder and some feelings of disbelief that it is all just too good to be true?

For the disciples, even though he died, their Lord is back again. And he appears over and over to the disciples, eating their food, allowing them to touch his wounds, to help them believe. That alone would be incredible enough, but Jesus offers even more.

Not only has Jesus been resurrected, now he is saying that the disciples can be forgiven for all that they have done wrong.  That with repentance, they can truly be forgiven for all of the dark parts, all of the mistakes. All of the hurts done to others. And so can everyone else.

This is a radical concept at the time. Until now, forgiveness came only through a number of deeds and sacrifices that varied depending on the sin. Instead, all they need to do is repent. And the awful things will be forgiven. Wiped away so that they can begin anew in Christ.

No wonder they had trouble believing in everything through their joy. I think there are days when we still have trouble believing. There are days when the story seems so incredible we can’t help but be doubtful, even as we are filled with joy.

We are experiencing the resurrected Christ, but it feels too good to be true. No one then and no one now really knows how to explain the Resurrection, so, like the disciples long ago, we can only try to describe our experience of it. When we read the story of the two disciples whose eyes kept them from recognizing him on the road to Emmaus (even though their hearts were mysteriously burning as he spoke), followed by this picture of a growing little community of questioning, wondering believers, we're reading about ourselves, too.

This week's passage speaks of an offer of peace, a request for food, a blessing and a commissioning. In both stories, Charles Cousar writes, the disciples experienced Jesus' presence as "mysterious but real. It eludes human perception, and yet is no human fabrication." Both of these stories describe the very earliest Christians hearing and doing the very same things that 21st-century Christians do: journeying, questioning, fearing, but also feeding and being fed, listening for and receiving God's call, and, of course, like many church communities, doing Bible study.

We are reminded through this passage that forgiveness and life that is really life can be ours, but we sometimes hold our breath waiting for something to go wrong. Like the disciples who were able to be filled with joy while struggling through their disbelief and wonder, we journey with Jesus as we struggle through our own disbelief.

Jesus comes to us after the resurrection still today. "Peace" he says. Let us respond in joy, even on days we struggle with our disbelief. Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


Sermon Notes for April 8, 2018 
Read Psalm 133 and John 20:19-31 ..

Christ is Risen!

  He is risen indeed!

The Easter cry isn't only for Easter Sunday; for the next six Sundays, we are invited to continue celebrating Easter. We are invited to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord until Pentecost. Today we continue that celebration by reading about Christ appearing to all the disciples. Their risen Lord comes in to talk with them all shortly after the resurrection. Well, all of them except for Thomas.

I have to admit, I feel for Thomas. I think he gets a bad rap. We have even turned his name from the Biblical "Thomas the Twin" to the later "Doubting Thomas." And that seems unfair to me. Peter didn’t get stuck with the nickname "Denying Peter." So why Thomas?

After all, Mary did not believe when she saw the empty tomb. She only believed when she saw her rabbi for himself. And the other disciples didn't believe when Mary told them of the miracle of the tomb. They remained searching and wondering until they saw their risen teacher for himself. Jesus appeared and showed them his hands and side before departing again. Thomas just had the misfortune of not being there at that time. Instead Thomas is told about it second hand again.

When he was given the news, he refused to believe it, perhaps because it seemed to be too good to be true. After all, Peter was known for believing things a little too enthusiastically. He was the disciple who tried to walk on water because he saw Jesus doing it. Peter was the one who swore that no one would betray Jesus, and that he would never deny him, only to be proven wrong twice before a full day had gone by. Thomas second guessing him is not all that surprising.  Thomas needed more, because he probably could not cope with having false hopes dashed yet again.

His Lord and friend died horribly. And he didn't believe when he heard it second hand.
Thomas saw his Lord die. He doubted the stories he had been told. And yet he stayed with the other disciples. He was there the next week when Jesus returned. In spite all evidence pointed to the contrary, Thomas stuck around, waiting to see if Jesus would return.

I wonder what made him stay after such a dramatic refusal to believe what he had been told. Perhaps he wanted to see if Jesus was true to his word, that he would, against anything logical return to the world again. Maybe he wanted to prove his friends wrong. Or maybe Thomas had something deeper than belief in the resurrection.

Maybe he had faith in his Lord.

See, Thomas was always a faithful disciple. When Jesus said he wanted to go to Bethany, a place he had already been driven off once, the disciples protested that he would be stoned and they should not return. But Thomas said "Let us also go, that we may die with him." (John 11:16) There was no doubt that he loved Jesus because he was willing to go with him to Jerusalem and die, even when the other disciples expressed their reluctance.

Thomas was not lacking in courage; he probably just considered himself to be a realist, or maybe a pessimist. What happened in the crucifixion was just what he expected and he was broken-hearted. So he waited, doubting, but hoping to be proven wrong. He didn't just surrender to his doubts, he wrestles with them.

And Jesus doesn't fault Thomas for his doubt. Did you notice that? Jesus simply appeared a week later when Thomas was there and showed him what he asked to see. "Here. Look. I am really here." And Thomas responds in joy, falling to his knees and exclaiming, no poking of wounds necessary.

Yes, Jesus blesses those who do not see and yet believe. But he's not talking about the disciples who didn't question, because all of the disciples questioned at one point or another. All of them got to see. Christ is talking about us today. We will very likely never get to see the risen Christ on this side of the grave, and we believe anyway. Yet, we might have our own doubts.

We have it in our heads that doubt is a bad thing. That doubting somehow takes away from our beliefs, from our faith. When really, doubt can serve to make our faith stronger in the long run. In his book, "What We Talk About When We Talk About God" Rob Bell talks about this connection of doubt and faith. "Take faith, for example. For many people in our world, the opposite of faith is doubt. The goal, then, within this understanding, is to eliminate doubt. But faith and doubt aren't opposites. Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it's alive and well and exploring and searching. Faith and doubt aren't opposites, they are, it turns out, excellent dance partners."

As humans we question, we wonder. We look for the truth. And by so doing, we grow. Thomas, did not believe the others when they first told him. He had questions. But he stayed anyway. And when Thomas saw Jesus, he cried out "My Lord and My God." My God. Thomas, the so called doubter, was the first one to call Jesus God. Not just Lord. Not just Son of God, but My God. Despite being the doubter and willing to question what he was told, Thomas ended up all the more faithful because of questions.

I think some people believe that their faith is lesser, not good enough, because they have doubts. They feel like maybe they really should just be able to believe fully without questions. That to be truly faithful is to never wonder. But we all have days when we have questions. When we too doubt as Thomas did. Some people just ignore those days, focusing on getting on to better ones. But shoving questions and doubts to one side doesn’t make them go away. We need to face them head on and try to answer them.

Doubts can strengthen our faith when we explore them. When we ask questions and try to find the answers through study and discussions.  This is one of the reasons I am a Presbyterian. We believe that God gave us our minds so that we would use them. We are called to question and then study. We encourage learning throughout our lives because there is always something more to know. Some other question we have that we need to learn more about.

Now when I talk about doubt, I’m not talking about the same thing as unbelief. Doubt is having questions, but still seeking. Unbelief is not believing and not being interested in learning more. When we let our doubts drive us away from seeking, when they make us abandon hope, then doubt is a destructive force. But when doubt drives us to learn more, to seek God in new places, doubt can do amazing things.

Before he saw, Thomas waited with the others. He waited with a group who all believed wholeheartedly while he still had questions. This can be more difficult and more courageous than the simple act of believing. That Thomas waits while doubting, shows great faith in his Lord, if not in miracles. I think many people in the church today find themselves seeking God in spite of their doubts. They may not believe like Peter did, but they show up to church each week, they turn to Bible study again and again, because they want that belief.

We are going to have our days when we believe as wholeheartedly as Peter. And we will have times when we doubt as Thomas doubted. But our Risen Lord greeted them both the same. "Shalom" Peace and blessings to you. Our God understands both our faith and our questions, and loves us throughout. We may have doubts, but we can let them dance with our faith rather than weighing it down, and come out all the more faithful through them.

Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you. Guide us in our doubts that we may continue to seek you. In your name we pray, Amen.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Easter Expectations

Sermon Notes for April 1, 2018 
Read Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18 ..

A pastor was speaking to a group of second-graders about the resurrection of Jesus when one student asked, "What did Jesus say right after hH came out of the grave?"

The pastor explained that the Gospels do not tell us what He said.

The hand of one little girl shot up. "I know what He said: He said, 'Tah-dah!'"

This may sound strange, April Fools day is the perfect day to celebrate Easter.

After all, we’re celebrating the greatest practical joke of all time: God overturned death. And not just any death, but a humiliating, painful, criminal death.  The very thing that the Pharisees and the Roman government and even the disciples thought would end the cause of this strange backwater rabbi, is what caused it not only to succeed, but to grow and continue to touch people two thousand years later.

And that laugh is only another in a long line of doing the unexpected that God seems to revel in. From all the way back to the beginning, God chooses a childless couple in their 90s to begin the family of "chosen people." Ludicrous! No wonder Sarah and Abraham laugh when God tells them they will become parents. When Sarah finally does bear a son, the parents name him Isaac, which translates as "Laughter." Sarah declares, "God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me."

Over and over again God does the unexpected. Instead of being born to a king, Jesus is born to a carpenter and his young wife, in a stable of all places. Instead of picking the best religious scholars in the land, Jesus chooses his disciples from all over, tax collectors and fishermen. People no one liked or expected much of.

He comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a noble steed, parodying the processions of the Roman emperors of the time.  His death is perhaps the ultimate absurdity. The son of God, this shining King, had submitted to abject humiliation, had, in fact, died while gasping for breath under the watchful gaze of idolatrous, hubristic foreign occupiers. This death revealed a suffering, humiliated man as the Lord of the universe, thereby inscribing defeat and suffering into the definition of what salvation is all about.

And even after the resurrection Jesus does the unexpected. Instead of first coming to his disciples or to the people who condemned and executed him, Jesus comes to a woman: someone who was a second class citizen of the day. Mary was the first one to actually see Jesus. In a world where she had no rights of her own and was still seen as a kind of property to whichever man she belonged to, Mary was the one given to tell the story first.

Easter is meant to be a day of celebration after a period of mourning. For Jesus was dead and is now alive! Easter is an occasion for joy, and collective laughter is one of the strongest and most direct expression of joy.  It was once customary for even the most dry and solemn of preachers to begin the Easter homily with a joke. Easter Monday especially was hailed as "God's Laughter Day" — a token of the Christian's scorn for the Devil, who had pretended to win victory over us through death. Easter, of course, proved that the joke was on him instead. Laughter Sunday, also known as Holy Humour Sunday, has its roots in a number of different Christian traditions.

Churches in 15th century Bavaria used to celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Risus Paschalis (‘God’s Joke,’ or ‘the Easter laugh’).  Priests would deliberately include amusing stories and jokes in their sermons in an attempt to make the faithful laugh.  After the service, people would gather together to play practical jokes on one another and tell funny stories.  It was their way of celebrating the resurrection of Christ – the supreme joke God played on death itself by raising Jesus from the dead

In the words of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh, the resurrection of Jesus was truly "a laugh freed forever and ever." That laughter has ever since echoed down the centuries.

Our God is a God who does the unexpected. When people spoke of the messiah, they were hoping for someone who would overturn the Romans and give them back their land. But instead, God gave them a Messiah who overturned their very way of thinking. Someone who refused to return violence for violence. Someone who insisted on healing those who hurt him. Who loved his enemies. Who died for the sins of a people who shouted to crucify him.

And when it was supposed to be over. When the stone was rolled in place and the tomb was sealed and the disciples were scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to do next, Jesus reappears and claims his place as the son of God.

It’s like the song from the musical offered up by our high school last week. "Once again it's topsy turvy day." That song has danced through my head all week as I worked on this sermon. Life in God is indeed a topsy turvy one.  The last are made first and the first are made last. The underdogs are lifted up to positions of honor and a humble carpenter who was put to death with criminals, defeated death forever and saves us all.

So on this Easter day, take time to laugh. Take time to rejoice. Take time to celebrate in the God who loves us so much, that God was willing to become as lowly as we are to save us all.

Laugh, for he is risen indeed!