Where are the Teaspoons?

78be9d68-84a6-48ba-b774-88926714b006For a lot of years, I had a mish-mash of silverware. At one time it had all matched, but some got lost and replacements bought. I figured the missing/lost ones were because of the kids, so I didn’t bother to worry about the mismatched stuff until after they’d grown and gone. About 10 years ago, I bought two sets of decent flatware—16 of each item. I figured with just my husband and me, they ought to last for a long time.

But yesterday we ran out of spoons. All the spoons were in the dishwasher waiting to washed. It seemed hard to believe that all the teaspoons and all the soup spoons (32 spoons in total) were dirty at the same time when there are only two of us.

So this morning I counted all the silverware in the house. I still have all 16 knives and 16 large forks in the original pattern. There are still 13 salad forks. There are only 10 soup spoons left. And there are 15 teaspoons, but only 8 from the original pattern. The other 7 spoons are odds and ends that I either bought or just showed up.

In other words, the teaspoons have been disappearing.

It seems that teaspoons are like socks. They keep disappearing and no one seems to know what happens to them. They just slip away into some silverware nether world and we don’t really notice until one day there are not enough teaspoons.

I wonder how many other things we let slip away in the same manner. How many things/people/relationships slip away from us because of carelessness or indifference? Keeping track of things and people and relationships takes patience, intention, and effort. Sometimes it is not a bad thing for us to let go of things. But sometimes we look back and regret that we did not put in the effort and time to maintain what has been lost.

What in your life have you been letting go? Is it something you should put effort into retaining? Or is the letting go of one thing a gateway into taking up a new thing? I invite you to count your silverware (metaphorically) and take inventory of what’s left and what needs to be replaced and what is fine just as it is.

As for me, I think it’s time to buy some more teaspoons.

Recent Delight

outdoor worship
Some of the congregation on Aug 16

Are we tired yet? Most of us are. Too many changes, too much re-thinking of normal activities, too much worry, too much uncertainty. It takes a toll on us all. Pastors, too. We are weary with worrying.

So what a delight it was to gather these past two Sundays for outdoor worship. What a delight it was to see the faces of so many I have not seen for 5 months. What a delight it was to sing together, bask in the sun (or shade), and give thanks and praise to God. I do not know about the rest of my congregation, but I needed that worship very badly. It still wasn’t “normal” in many ways, but it sure was good to have some normalcy again.

first communion
Five First Communicants

Then this past Sunday afternoon, I had the pleasure of blessing and sharing communion with six children who are new participants in the Lord’s supper. (A 7th child will celebrate her first communion this coming Sunday.) I told the kids that the taking of Holy Communion was now their privilege no matter where they went. I taught them to put out their hands when they come to receive the elements, both as a reminder to the pastor and as a sign of being willing to receive what God has to give them. While it, too, was not the “normal” First Communion celebration, it was still a delight to my spirit.

And this coming Sunday, we will be confirming four young men in their baptismal promises. Again, this will be a special, immediate family-only service, and one three months overdue, but it, too, will be a delight. The four youth will give their testimonies and share something of their faith journeys with us, affirming for us the importance of their Christian faith as they navigate the challenges of life on earth.

All of these events are oases of joy and celebration during a time when there seems to have been too little to celebrate. They have been to me reminders that God is always at work, even when things seem bleak. Joy can be found in the midst of trouble, and hope in the midst of despair. It is these bright moments, these hopeful experiences that enable me to keep moving forward into the uncertain future before us.

I hope and pray that you, too, are finding moments of joy and celebration even as we struggle to figure out how to navigate the world in which we find ourselves. And we can trust in the promises of Christ to be with us always to the end of this age and all the ages to come.

Go First

squirrel-hawk_1504814iAs I was leaving church the other evening, a large bird—a hawk, I think—flew right by me and up into the trees nearby. Clutched in its claws was a squirrel. I ran over to the tree to see if my eyes had fooled me, only to have the hawk lift off from the tree when I drew near. The bird clearly was holding a squirrel, its black fluffy tail hanging down. I prayed the squirrel was already dead and mourned a bit at its passing. Surely the squirrel awoke that day expecting it to be just like any other day only to discover that it was its final day.

Even as I felt a bit disturbed by the incident, I reminded myself that the hawk was only doing what it needed to survive. Animals only kill what they need to eat. It is rare for an animal to kill or harm another animal except for food. Or mating, which is a whole other blog. Of course, without predators like the hawk, we would be overrun by squirrels and that would bring its own set of challenges. The hawk hunts to eat, but its hunting also ensures the harmonious continuation of the natural order.

As I drove home, I wondered why people couldn’t be more like animals. People kill and hurt one another for much less logical reasons. We hurt each other because we want to, because it makes us feel better, because we want someone else’s stuff. Most of the time, causing pain to others brings little benefit to us and even when it does, the benefit is short-term. Maybe hurting others makes us feel momentarily powerful or satisfied, but that feeling never lasts—which why we do it over and over.

When I speak about pain, I do not mean physical pain only. Most of us are much more practiced at causing psychological or emotional pain to others. This sort of pain is more subtle and can have much deeper and more lasting consequences.

Most often when we cause pain to others, it is from a sense of our own despair or anger or sense of worthlessness. We hurt, so we hurt others. Misery loves company, the proverb goes.

My colleague in my previous call used to talk about what he called “Rodney King theology.” Some of you may remember Mr. King, who was badly beaten by the Los Angeles police in 1991, an incident that was recorded by a neighbor near the site. That video was seen on television millions of time and sparked a series of riots in Los Angeles in 1992. During the riots, Mr. King pleaded with the rioters with his now-famous question: “Can we all just get along?”

While King was speaking a specific situation of unrest and violence, his simple plea resonates with many of us today. It is a plea for compassion, respect, kindness, and peace. It recognizes that anger and violence, hatred and condemnation offer no answers and no resolutions.

But getting along does not mean “go along to get along.” It does not mean downplaying injustice or hatred. It does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to violence and oppression. It means that we should make space for the other, that we seek to live in mutual respect and harmony with others, and that we work for the good of ourselves, our neighbor, and our community. Only when we embrace the values of respect, acceptance, compassion, and kindness for all people will “getting along” be possible.

It begins with us. One of the consistent messages throughout the Scriptures and especially in the teachings and actions of Christ, is that we go first. We show compassion first, we forgive first, we treat others as we want them to treat us, and we do it first. In this increasingly angry, divisive, and abusive time, let us seek to be those who go first in seeking reconciliation, in showing mutual respect, and working for justice, peace, and harmony.

 

Boots in the Garden

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Boots in a garden

I do not consider myself to be an artistic person. I can look at other people’s creativity and appreciate it, even imitate it, but few such ideas come from me.

As I have been walking my dog around town these past weeks, I have had a chance to see and appreciate people’s creativity on display. In particular, I have enjoyed seeing all the different landscaping choices and arrangements. And I have marveled at some of the unusual and creative things people have placed in their landscaping.

We have all seen people use antiques as part of their landscaping: old tricycles and wagon wheels and farm implements and headboards. Once I saw a perfectly nice rocking chair on top of a mounded area of landscaping. The chair has a sign on it (‘Welcome’ I think) so it was meant to be decorative rather than used.

Recently, I’ve seen a couple of new things. There is a house that has three large purple balls in their landscaping. I’ve been tempted to go touch them to see if they are concrete or resin, but have not. Who would think to create (or buy) three giant purple balls to place in their yard?

There are also numerous tributes to Percy, the Milan peacock, with peacock signs and wind spinners and the like. (Percy is a free peacock that wanders around Milan and is watched over by a variety of devoted Milaners.)

And another yard had a pair of worn boots sitting on a small landscaped mound in the front yard. The boots have a place of honor on the top of the mound, so it is a deliberate choice. The boots are well-worn and a bit dirty. I wondered if the boots symbolized something. Are they merely an unusually creative landscaping choice or are they intended to honor someone, perhaps a loved one who has died? I wondered what story was behind these boots and how many miles they had walked and how long they had served their wearer. At the very least, the boots-in-a-garden is a creative choice.

Human creativity and imagination are reflections of God’s creativity and imagination. We have only to look at the variety of life and beauty on our world to recognize that the height and breadth of the Creator is far beyond human conception. This vast and varied landscape of life should awe and amaze us, reminding us that God is always more than we can understand.

And because we are made in God’s image, we have the gift of being co-creators with God. God invites us to create our own sort of beauty and wonder and loveliness for the world. Whether it is a piece of art or music, a healthy and filling meal, a child, a garden, or a pair of boots in the landscaping, God invites us to use the gifts we have been given to create whatever beauty we can, both for ourselves and for the sake of the world.

What beautiful thing/act/thought can you contribute to the world today?

Weird Dreams

unnamedA few days ago, I had a weird dream. In the dream, it was Christmas Eve, only I had forgotten that it was Christmas Eve and nothing was prepared for church. There were no decorations up, no Christmas trees, no candles affixed to pews, no worship bulletins, no nothing. I had forgotten it was Christmas and then suddenly it WAS Christmas and I was unprepared. Oddly, in the dream, no one else had apparently realized that Christmas was coming. Nor had anyone put up the decorations, an activity that usually involves a couple dozen of us. I’m not clear if they all forgot, or had just outsourced all the work to me. I just knew that the lack of preparation was my fault.

In the dream, I was sure people would show up for worship and seeing that nothing was prepared, I would be fired on the spot. In a panic, I called the bishop and explained my dilemma, hoping he would offer me a solution. Our bishop is a calm, measured person, who deals with crises in a very composed fashion. However, in the dream, the bishop’s calm manner was of no help to me in my panic. He offered no solution other than to say he was sure everything would turn out all right for me. He said it over and over.

At this point, I woke up. Thankfully, the dream had not reached the point where the congregation arrived for Christmas Eve worship to find out what a hash I’d made of it, so today I still have my job.

I am sure dream analysists would have official interpretations of such a dream, but I have some ideas on my own. My first spiritual director, a Dominican sister, told me that dreams were often one part of our spirit or psyche speaking to another part. She said dreams were how our unconscious self imparted information and wisdom that our conscious self was unable or unwilling to acknowledge. I have always found that a helpful way to interpret upsetting dreams.

What I think this dream was imparting to me was that everything is not on my shoulders. I tend to be an overly-responsible person (and I have the psych tests to prove it) and frequently I take on more responsibility than is mine to take on. I often have a hard time letting other people help me and letting other people share the load. I also worry a lot, often about things over which I have little or no control. And I am a perfectionist, so when I fall short (which is nearly always), I am disappointed and frustrated with myself.

The dream, as ridiculous as it was, reminded me that I am not alone in this ministry business and that when I try do things by myself, the results are often unfavorable. It put before me my need for other people and the need for collaboration for the health and well-being of our congregation. The dream also reminded me that I cannot look to others to fix my character flaws, but must seek the answers within.

I believe firmly that God, who lives in us, provides each of us with the wisdom and insights we need to come to such self-knowledge. I also trust that God puts people in our lives to help us recognize these truths, people who will grow with and alongside us. We need both personal insight and the wisdom of others, so that we can face our flaws and with God’s help, grow beyond them.

I am comforted by the truth that if I actually DID forget Christmas, I am surrounded by dozens of people who would not forget and who would do their part to make our Christmas worship experience as joyful and lovely as it always is. And I am thankful to be surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, knowing that God has placed them in my life to support, help, love, challenge, humble, and work alongside me.

A Blank Sign

walgreens-signWhen I drove past Walgreen’s today, I noticed that their electronic sign was blank. Obviously, there was a technical issue. Now I will not know what is on sale unless I stop and read the store circular.

Technology is so much a part of our lives that most of us take it for granted. Television, computers, cell phones, tablets…the list goes on and on. I’m old enough to remember the development of most of these. I remember having a black & white television and using “rabbit ears” to get a snowy signal from Toledo. Our giant color TV (not a giant screen: a giant console) was connected to the big antenna outside so its pictures were less snowy. When the picture on our big television turned green, Mr. Miller came to our house and fixed it—several times—until the time he said that it was no longer fixable. So we watched a green TV picture for a while until my parents could afford to buy a new set.

I remember cell phones that only made calls, and no one had ever heard of an app.  I recall the days when texting was brand new and we only had limited texting and paid $.25 per text above our limit. I remember waiting 2-3 minutes for the computer to complete its boot-up sequence and if you forgot to hit “save” before you exited a program, you lost all your work. Getting on the internet meant a long wait to get connected through the phone line and when you were on the internet, no phone calls could be made or received. I remember the first computer game (Pong) and the first Commodore computer that my parents got (from Radio Shack) after I went to college. Meanwhile, they got me a typewriter as a high school graduation gift.

Now everything is faster, magic signals are sent through the air, and all of our lives are better/more complicated/more frustrating. When our technology goes out, we are often at a loss. We usually can’t fix it ourselves, so we are reduced to waiting for an unknown someone to fix it for us.

This is not a blog about the evils or frustrations of technology. Truthfully, I love technology and would hate to do without it. One of my standing criteria for a vacation is that wherever we stay, it must have decent wireless.

Nor do I want to talk about how technology has reshaped our lives and our world in ways both helpful and frustrating. You already know this.

I want to talk about a Walgreen’s sign that did not work today.

That blank sign made me think about how much that sign has become part of the background of my daily drive. It made me think about all the other types of technology that have become part of the background of my life, as well as the times technology has failed me. It made me think about the trajectory of technology in my own life, some of which I outlined above. It made me think about how much I depend on technology and how thankful I am for how that technology has enriched my life. Now when I want to know an answer to a question or need a new recipe for salmon or want a definition to a word, I can ask Siri or Alexa or Cortana or Google. For the most part, technology has been a blessing in my life and in the lives of most of us, I think. Most of us would hate to return to the Stone Age of the 1960’s.

Some may disagree. Some may long for the ‘good old days’ when life was simpler, and kids played outside instead of playing video games. But the good old days were not always so good. While we may wax nostalgic about the past, there were some real shortcomings as well. Do we really want to return to the days when we could only communicate with distant friends via letters or expensive long-distance phone calls? The days when women weren’t supposed to work, and a cancer diagnosis was pretty much a death sentence? The days when air conditioning meant opened windows and box fans? I, for one, do not long for those days.

Instead, I choose to embrace technology in a way that I feel enriches my life and to let go of technology that complicates my life. I choose to see technology as a gift that has been provided to me without my asking and I seek ways to use it to share kindness and love and wisdom in new ways. I choose to give thanks to God for the gift of technology and to seek God’s wisdom in using this technology to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. I choose to see technology as a blessing and to use it to bless others as I can.

And today I pray (only half in jest) for Walgreen’s, that their sign will get fixed soon, that they may rejoice in their restored technology and so that my daily drive goes back to normal.

Stranger God

Stranger GodI mentioned the book Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise (Richard Beck) in a recent sermon. It is a book that a friend recommended to me a couple of years ago. She said it was life-changing. And while I trust this friend’s judgement, I never made time to purchase or read the book until recently. And my friend was right. It is—or could be—life changing.

Beck’s premise is that God/Jesus comes to us in disguise, often as the stranger. He references the story of Abraham entertaining the three strangers (who are called “The Lord”) and the story of Lot protecting these same three strangers from the mob in Sodom. He also uses the story of the walk to the Emmaus in Luke’s gospel. In this story, Jesus is literally the stranger who accompanies the two disciples along the road.

Beck’s challenge to us is to view every “stranger”—regardless of the nature of their strangeness—as potentially being Jesus in disguise. In encountering the stranger, that is, people who are different from us, we are constantly being given the opportunity to treat them with Christ-welcoming hospitality.

But for me, the key takeaway in the book is Beck’s discussion of beginning this work of hospitality on a small scale. Most of us do not have time in our schedules to add anything else. While many people of faith desire to do something big for Christ, most just feel defeated by the idea. Doing something grand for Jesus sounds good—being a Mother Teresa or a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Max Lucado—but most of us simply can’t do it. We do not have the time, gifts, or abilities.

So Beck suggests we adopt St. Teresa of Lisieux’s “Little Way.” St. Teresa was a cloistered nun who chose to go about her daily life doing little acts with great love. Other than joining the convent, she did nothing showy or grandiose for God. She simply tried to do everything with love and patience. She was kind to the sisters that were unpopular, she performed her duties with integrity and faithfulness, and she even strove to transform irritating events into opportunities to practice acceptance and learn patience.

As we seek to be more hospitable towards others, especially the strangers we encounter in our daily lives, Beck suggests that we engage in little acts of compassion and kindness. Rather than seeking to engage in grandiose acts of faith, we should seek to do our daily tasks with love, patience, and integrity. When we encounter the irritated store clerk, we offer a smile and a greeting and perhaps a silent prayer for whatever that clerk is experiencing. When we weed the garden, we do it with an attitude of gratefulness for the bounty of the earth and the resilience of God’s creation. When we get tired of waiting in line at the BMV, we see it as an opportunity to practice patience and be an example to others around us. After all, getting angry does not shorten the wait or change the circumstances. It only puts us in a poor frame of mind for when we do engage with the BMV employee.

Doing little things with great love. Doing little things for strangers with great love. This is how St. Teresa encountered Jesus every day. And in these little acts of great love, St. Teresa also became Jesus for those around her. And so can we.

A New Way to Pray

Like many of you, I am a bit tired of everything COVID-19, so I have decided that I will try to return to “normal” blogging a few times a month. And while I can’t promise to never mention the pandemic in my blogs, I will try to focus on other issues as well.

DailyText2020Each year, the Bishop’s office gifts Synod leaders with a devotion book called Daily Texts. The Daily Texts come out of the Moravian Church, a church with whom the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The Moravians have been offering some form of the Daily Texts since 1731.

For each day of the year, the authors have chosen an Old Testament verse at random. Based on this random verse, a New Testament verse about the same or a related subject is chosen. Both verses appear in the devotion for the day, along with a prayer. It is a simple way to engage in daily devotion and you can take as much time as you wish pondering or praying over the verses and how they speak to your heart.

The prayers that are published follow a format that is patterned after Martin Luther’s way of praying. It’s call the TRIP form of prayer: Thanks, Regret, Intercession, and Purpose.

Thanks is an obvious one, but specifically the method invites the reader to give thanks to God for what the texts reveal to him/her. Regret is a time to reflect and confess the ways that you might not fulfill what God is asking of you in the texts. Intercession is a time to pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to help you with the inner change needed to deal with our regret. And Purpose is the time to ask God to show you what you can do this day to move towards the change. The Daily Texts prayers follow this format, but they also suggest that the devotee write their own TRIP prayer to reflect the impact of the Bible verses on their particular life and faith.

The TRIP method for the Daily Texts is focused on the two Bible verses, not on our lives in general. Of course, the TRIP method also works for one’s life in general. But in the context of the Daily Texts, the TRIP method focuses on one insight gained from the texts and how we might be called to act on that insight today. Even experienced pray-ers might find this TRIP format to be a new way to pray and could enrich their own prayer life.

Even Jesus’ disciples, who were constantly in his presence and who were faithful Jews, asked him to teach them how to pray. Jesus’ response was to give them the Lord’s Prayer. Even those who lived in the presence of the Holy One of Israel were looking for a new way to pray.

Here is the Daily Texts devotion for today, June 29, 2020:

Daniel said: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me.” Daniel 6:22

We are persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. 2 Corinthians 4:9

My God, you protect me from the evil one, even when I am unaware. Though I often fail to see them, you send angels and messengers to care for me. Though I may feel struck down, you never forsake me. I am your beloved child, marked with the sign of your cross. Therefore, I have nothing to fear. Amen.

You can get your own copy of the Daily Texts here.

May 31

I have been most remiss at posting my sermons as I said I would do. Apologies. I will endeavor to be more consistent. Here is the sermon from Pentecost.

elvis_has_left_the_building_tElvis has left the building. And when I say “Elvis” I mean Jesus. Jesus has left the building. By which I mean, Jesus is no longer in the building. But then, he never was in the building. Exactly. Jesus is always leaving the building. OK, I’m confusing myself. Let me start over.

We all know that the phrase Elvis has left the building is a sort of punchline for when someone has exited, often in a dramatic fashion. It can also mean that someone has left permanently—as in dying. I was curious and decided to look up the origin of the phrase Elvis has left the building, using the source of all knowledge and truth—Wikipedia. And I discovered that it was first used by a promoter in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1956 to calm down a crowd after Elvis had performed. Elvis was a middle act in a series of acts and other groups were waiting to go on stage. But the crowd kept calling for Elvis to come back on stage. So the promoter, a Horace Logan, told the crowd that Elvis had left the building, so they would calm down and the show could continue. And a legend was born. Since then, of course the phrase Elvis has left the building has been a part of our lexicon, found its way into songs and sports, and has been parroted by other singers using their own names. Frasier has left the building comes to mind. All that is just an amusing sidebar, but my first statement remains true.

Jesus has left the building. Jesus left this building when all of you left this building. After all, are you—are we—not the body of Christ? We are Christ in the world and we are not in this building—well, some of us are, but not most. We are not in this building and so we can rightly say that Jesus has left the building. Jesus has left the building before. In fact, Jesus leaves this building every time we leave it because as I said already, we ARE Christ in the world. We ARE the body of Christ in the world. Jesus doesn’t live at St Peter nor inside any church or any building. Jesus lives inside of us. So when we leave this building, so does Jesus.

I say that in part because of the push by some in our society and government to open churches so that—the say—we churches can get back to praying and doing our work. That’s nonsense, spoken by people who do not understand the concept of church. We are always the church, gathered or not. We are always the face of Christ, in this building or not. We are always the body of Christ. And we do our work in the world—Christ’s work in the world—no matter where we are.

Now the disciples didn’t have the advantage of our 2000+ years of faith in Christ upon which to call. So when Jesus left the building—that is, left them—they were likely afraid and confused. Last week we heard about one of those “Jesus left the building” moments when we heard the story of his ascension, 40 days after the resurrection. I told you last week that the disciples had gone back to Jerusalem where they waited and prayed and waited and prayed some more. And then, the Holy Spirit came on the 50th day—Pentecost—which we celebrate today. We heard that story in our first reading from the book of Acts, a story most of us know well.

And kudos to Michelle who drew the short straw and got to read all those fun place names.

Interestingly, in today’s gospel, we have a different version of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s not 50 days after the resurrection; it’s the very day of the resurrection. In John’s gospel—which often differs from the other gospels—the  disciples were locked in the upper room where they had been hiding since the crucifixion. Just that morning, the women had claimed that they saw Jesus alive, and Peter verified that the tomb was empty. Thomas was who knows where in the city and suddenly Jesus appeared in that locked room. He blessed the disciples and he breathed on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.

It’s a little different story of the coming of the Holy Spirit from what we are used to hearing. In John’s version, there’s no rush of wind or flames on heads or speaking in foreign languages. There’s no ten days of waiting and praying and no sermon from Peter and no 3000 people who are converted. Ok, so John’s version of the coming of the Spirit is a LOT different from the version in Acts.

Still, the outcome is the same. Jesus promised the disciples the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave the disciples the Holy Spirit, and then Jesus went away, this time for good. Jesus left the building. And by building I mean the earth.

Jesus has left the building. But the very Spirit that was given him in baptism, the very Spirit that gave him the courage to face the cross, the very Spirit he gave to the disciples is the very same Spirit that Jesus gives to us. Jesus may have left the building—he may no longer be physically present on the earth—but he is here on the earth because we are here on the earth. And Jesus has given us that same Holy Spirit which works in and on us so that we might continue to be the face and presence and love and mercy of Jesus in the world.

See, you and I, we can’t just decide to be like Jesus. We can’t just decide that we want to be the body of Christ. It is the Spirit—given to us by Christ himself—that enables us to declare that we believe, that we can forgive, that we can love, that we can make peace, that we can be the body of Christ.

That wonderful analogy that we heard in our second reading from First Corinthians reminds us that we are all the body of Christ. Not just me—I’m not the body. Not just you—you’re not the body. We—we—are the body of Christ. We look different, we have different functions, we have different gifts, but all of it comes from the Spirit, all of it is animated by the Spirit, all of it is possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in us.

It is the Spirit that makes us one. It is the Spirit that makes us the body of Christ. It is the Spirit that makes us Christ in the world. And it is the Spirit that makes it OK that Jesus has left the building. Because the Spirit ensures that Christ is still here, in us, working through us for the sake of the world. It is the Spirit that makes us the church.

[Norwalk Ministerial Association video–see it here: https://www.facebook.com/stpeternorwalk/videos/1014103719011120/%5D

Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. And whether you like John’s version of the coming of the Holy Spirit or you prefer the version from Acts, today’s the day when we commemorate and give thanks that we are who we are and what we are because of Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to us. So happy birthday, church. May the Holy Spirit fill us with peace and hope and faith; and may we seek always to be the body and presence of Christ in the world. Even—actually, especially—after we have left the building. Amen.

 

 

May 3 Sermon

171107-sheep-recognize-faces-feature1OK, so who’s on first? Or, actually, who’s in the sheep pen, who’s the shepherd, who’s the gatekeeper, who’s the gate, who’s the thief, who’s the stranger and what in the world is Jesus trying to say here? And which one is Jesus? Is he the gate-keeper or the shepherd or the gate or all of the above? Seems like a lot responsibility for one guy.

One thing that’s abundantly clear, however, is that we are the sheep. We’re always the sheep. That’s one part of the story everybody gets right. We are always the sheep. Ba, ba, ba.

Here’s part of why this gospel is a bit confusing. There are two metaphors included in this one teaching with two different messages, so we are going to have to unpack them separately. With a bit of luck good exegesis on my part, maybe we can make some sense out of all the different people and roles in these two metaphors.

But first, let’s talk some background. Some of it may be familiar to you, and maybe not. In ancient Palestine, shepherds were considered among the lowest of career choices, barely above thief or leper. Therefore, most shepherds were dirt poor. So in most villages, shepherds shared a communal sheep pen on the edge of the village. At the end of each day, each shepherd brought his sheep from the pasture and dropped them off at the communal sheep pen. One of the shepherds served as gatekeeper/ guard for everybody’s sheep that night. The next morning, each shepherd went to the communal sheep pen, called his sheep, and the sheep would follow him out of the pen to go to the pasture. Mind you, the sheep were not tagged or branded or marked in any way. They knew their shepherd by his voice and he knew his sheep by sight and by their response to his presence.

Before this teaching, Jesus had just finished healing the blind man and telling the Pharisees—who treated the blind man very badly—that they were the blind ones. Jesus then turned to the disciples and began this teaching about sheep and shepherds.

In the first metaphor, Jesus talks about someone who enters the sheep pen by a way other than the main gate. Jesus calls this one a bandit or thief. Since Jesus has just rebuked the Pharisees, and he starts his metaphor with the  remark about the thief and bandit climbing into the sheep pen by another way, it is commonly assumed that the thief or bandit refers to the Pharisees. They were the ones who were trying to steal or harm the sheep. The one who enters by the gate is the true shepherd, who is, of course, Jesus. Jesus enters the sheep pen, calls his sheep and they follow him.

But remember, this is a communal pen. Suppose a rival shepherd entered through the main gate and tried to steal some of the flock of another shepherd? On the surface, this shepherd appears to have every right to be in the sheep pen—and who’s to say which sheep are his and which are someone else’s? Remember, no ear tags or brands on the sheep.  In the metaphor, Jesus calls this rival shepherd the stranger. Jesus went on to say the gate keeper opens the gate for the shepherd and the shepherd calls his sheep and his sheep follow him because the sheep know the voice of their shepherd. Sheep may be pretty dumb, but they are smart enough to know and trust the voice of their shepherd. The sheep do not listen to the voice of the bandit or the thief or the stranger. The sheep trust their shepherd’s voice and it is that trusted voice they follow out of the safety of the sheep pen.

Since we are the sheep, we get the point of this first metaphor, right? We are supposed to listen for Jesus’ voice and follow only his voice and not the voice of the thief or the stranger. I hear you bleating at me—as sheep do—Preacher, how do we know which is Jesus’ voice and which belongs to the stranger? There are, after all, many voices out in the world, all calling us to follow their way.

 Truthfully, I do not think that it is all that difficult to tell which voice belongs to the Jesus the shepherd and which voices belong to the stranger or thief. If someone says “think only about yourself, look out for number one, disrespect others” that is the voice of the stranger. The voices that tout violence as the answer, the voices who think little of hurting others, especially the vulnerable, and the voices which encourage us to hate or discriminate against others—these are not the voice of our shepherd. Jesus never said such things. Quite the opposite.

But the voice says, “love one another as I have loved you” and “love your neighbor as yourself” and “what you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done to me” and “forgive as you have been forgiven” and “pick up your cross and follow me,” is the voice. We know that voice. It is the voice of our Shepherd, calling us to follow. And like good sheep, so we should, no matter how alluring the other voices may be. Those other voices should not be trusted, for they are the voice of the stranger. Only the voice of Jesus can be trusted. And let’s be honest: we DO know the voice of our shepherd even when it calling us to do the hard thing—like loving our neighbors by staying at home.

Now Jesus’ listeners didn’t get the point which quite frankly, since I do, makes me feel like a pretty darn smart sheep. So Jesus switches up his metaphor and gives them a second one: Jesus as the gate.

Now, many shepherds lived with their sheep in the wilderness, as in Luke 2, the Christmas story which says that there were shepherds living in the fields, watching over their flocks by night. There were no sheep pens in the wilderness like there were in the towns. So these shepherds in the wilderness would cobble together some brush, maybe back up against some rocks and create a makeshift pen for the night. Or they would find a cave and put the sheep in there. After the sheep were secured for the night, the shepherd would lie across the entrance to the pen or cave to keep out predators. The shepherd became the gate.

So in the 2nd metaphor, Jesus says he is the gate to the sheep pen. With him, the sheep are safe. With him, the predators are kept at bay. With him there is life. Without him there is death and destruction and wolves waiting. Jesus is the one who became the gate for all of humanity. He is the one through whom we go out and come in. He is the one through whom we have life. He is the one who defeats death, who overcomes all predators, and who offers not only eternal life, but abundant life now.

Mind you, when Jesus talks about abundant life, he’s not talking about having lots of stuff, no matter what those TV preachers may say. Anybody who tells you that God will give you stuff is the voice of the stranger. No, when Jesus talks about abundant life, he is talking about a life that is rooted and grounded in his goodness, in his teaching, in his life, in his love. Abundant life is Jesus-life. A life filled with Jesus. And that’s an abundant life we can experience right now, even in a time of pandemic.

But let’s be clear: Jesus being the Gate does NOT mean that we will never suffer or that we will always be safe from bad things or people. Again, pandemic. But it does mean that the bad stuff will not be faced alone and that it will not last forever. Jesus will bear it with us and will, in the end, bring us into the safety of the sheephold.

Gate and shepherd, Redeemer and Savior, Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus does it all. Compared to that, our job is simple: to be good sheep, following his voice, trusting in his protection, and living our lives in him. We can do that.  Amen.