Monday, May 12, 2014

May 11 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Psalm 23
 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.


The traditional name for today is actually Good Shepherd Sunday, and considering the passages we’ve read, you understand why. It is instructive, I think, to read these two passages together, not just the Gospel. I’m asked to read this psalm more than anything else when I do funerals, and it’s no surprise, considering how comforting it is to those of us who feel pain, which is everybody. And I am all for accuracy, you know, using the most correct translation, but not for this one. Not for Psalm 23. I am pretty sure Jesus said that if you don’t read Psalm 23 in the King James, you don’t belong in church. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, I mean, you just can’t translate that into anything better. Maaaakeeetttthhhh. Ahhhhhh. And for those of us who sometimes feel run ragged by the responsibilities of life, is there anything you need God to maketh you do any more than lie down in green pastures so that God may restoreth your soul?
This is why we call this Sunday Good Shepherd Sunday, because today is the day on which we think about the ways Jesus is shepherd of our lives, and thank goodness, because my life—even outside the church—seems so busy I need a shepherd to keep things straight. Like sheep without a shepherd, I feel like the parts of my life go in so many different directions, I need somebody to show me the way. I mean, I am a pastor, but also a parent, and a son, and a spouse, and a friend, and sibling, and citizen, I mean I could go on for hours. In modern times we wear so many different hats that the sheep of our inner selves end up so confused that they don’t have any idea which way to go. It’s no surprise that we feel pulled in so many different directions, what with the many voices that shout at us from every direction. Put all your energy into raising your kids, says one voice, which sounds nice, until you realize that what you’ve done is worship your children. Raising your kids is incredibly important, but you can’t miss out on your own spiritual development because you’ve got to take the kids to soccer, or whatever. And then another voice says, religion is not worthwhile—we have science now—which is true, except that while I am a big fan of science and have no trouble believing in evolution, I’ve never seen a science book give anybody hope after losing a husband, a wife, a child. I’ve never read in a science book about what it feels like to lie down in green pastures. And there’s the voice of money, of course, that says you need to make as much as you possibly can, and I have to say that the church has not been immune to this voice, saying that as long as you give, we want you to make as much as possible, but then what good does it do if you fund half the ministries of the church but lose your soul?
The point is that there are hundreds of voices calling you in hundreds of different directions, and it is no surprise that we can feel lost in all of this. That’s the good news here, that even when you feel pulled so far you might break, God is there to restore your soul, to make you rest, to have you lie down and listen to the trickling stream, to breathe out and . . . breathe in the breath of God. For the mothers among us, I know this is especially important—because nobody seems to feel as stretched as mothers. I don’t know if you have seen the television show the Middle, but it is one of our favorites as it is a pretty good description of the difficulties of raising a family in this day and age, and Frankie, the mom to three children, finally gets to the point in one episode where she literally can’t remember anything anymore because she’s so busy tending to the needs of her kids. She forgets song lyrics, where she parked her car, everything, because so much of her brain bandwidth is going to running the family. So she institutes office hours and tells her kids they are only allowed to talk to her at five o clock or whatever it is, because that’s the only way she can keep the myriad of voices calling her in all different directions from drowning out her own.
And it doesn’t work, of course, because life isn’t that simple, even in a thirty minute sitcom. It is hard enough to keep the kids fed and the car gassed, and to figure out who put the dog in the dishwasher again, and even those of us without small children know that it can be enough of a victory to get out of bed in the morning in these complicated modern times that you feel like your reward ought be the permission to get right back in.
It is hard enough, and my God, do we have voices screaming at us from all sides: talk radio, 24 hour cable news, politicians, op-ed writers, spiritual gurus, musicians, teachers, and my God, preachers. It is enough to render you unable to move, like a sheep with no idea where to go, and so it is no surprise that we find ourselves needing a guide, needing somebody to help us discern which of the voices that seem to scream at us nonstop.
And, let me just say this, I wish the church were wise enough to be able to always be that voice, but let’s be honest, y’all. The church screams at you just as much as anybody else. You turn the television on, and you’ve got all sorts of people telling you all sorts of things. Name it and claim it. God wants you to be happy. God wants you to prosper. Give some money to our fledgling little religious television empire and we’ll send you this prayer pack so that you can be blessed by God. Some of the most ridiculous things that have ever been spoken have been spoken in the name of religion, and when you start to think of it that way, you understand why so few people come to church. It’s not that they don’t care about doing the right thing. It’s that they aren’t so sure that the church is the best guide, and of course, it isn’t.
God is the best guide. Jesus Christ is the best guide. You know, I hope the church has it together more often than that, like, you know, this one especially, but we sometimes get totally caught up in our own stuff, and I’ll own that. The church carries the worries of life in the real world just like you do. The church worries about paying the light bill, and whether anybody’s listening, about how to engage the community, about how to reach people outside the doors of the church. Just like everybody else, the church worries so much that pastors wish our brains had office hours, and all you have to do is walk into the religious section of the bookstore, or better yet, my office, to see the voices shouting at us with words like renewal and relevance and missional and incarnational. I hope we are all these things, but it can be enough to keep you up at night, to make you need to . . . count . . . sheep.
And so while it’s great that God promises to lead us to green pastures, to restore my soul, it can be the case that I can end up a little panicked after reading the twenty-third psalm, because I want my soul restored more than I want almost anything, but I can’t find time to get up and walk the ten steps it takes me to get outside, let alone lie down in green pastures. Taking time to smell the roses is a dream, let alone getting away long enough to appreciate the still waters. I read Psalm 23 and panic a little bit because I want to feel that kind of feeling so badly and yet, if I am honest, my calendar is so full that I just don’t know when to pencil it in.
This is why I like that we read both today, that we don’t just leave it with the rolling hills of Psalm 23, because it’s nice, and I need to hear it when I’m in the thick of things, but I also need to remember that while the Lord is my shepherd, Jesus also calls himself the gate, the way that people come in and go out and find pasture. My savior goes with me and gives me life. I may be surrounded by things that steal and kill and destroy, but those things are not of God, for whoever enters through Jesus Christ will be saved, will find pasture.
Now, this is all well and good, and I am grateful that Jesus stands at the gate, but I am left with this question: of all the voices out there calling me to something, how do I know which one to follow? When there are competing voices coming even from the church, how do I know where to go? The Gospel of John says that the sheep won’t follow a stranger’s voice—only the voice of the shepherd—but what happens when you can’t tell the difference?
I have mentioned this before, but I remember a seminary classmate who said once that his personal litmus test for right teaching was the sh’ma, Jesus’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. On this love, Jesus says, hangs all the law and the prophets. So that’s how you know. If it hangs on that hook, it is of God.
And the deal about the sheep following the shepherd because they recognize the shepherd’s voice? You can’t recognize something you’re not familiar with. It takes time to learn that voice. It takes going out and coming back in. It takes work, and we do well to remember that the life of the shepherd was not easy. They’d be out in the night guarding for wolves, subject to the elements, for days and weeks and months. And lest you feel the need to barricade the pen, to retreat to Psalm 23 and never come back, let me remind you that it is in the going out and coming in that the shepherd speaks! It is in the going out and coming in that you pass through the gate which, Jesus says, is the way we find salvation, the way through which in our comings and our goings we find pasture.
We all want God to be in the rainbows and the sunsets and the gentle breaking waves, but the truth is that while God is in these places, it is in doing the work of love, the work of going out and coming in that you’re most likely to encounter God. It’s in the work, the struggle, the business of being the church, together, that we meet God.
And so if this whole business is less about finding respite from the rat race and more about following Jesus, maybe it’s the case that we should spend less time trying to find the mythical rolling hills of Psalm 23 and more time trying to follow the voice of the shepherd.
I will end with this. I don’t know about you, but most days, I feel totally inadequate for this work. I know all I have to do is open the gate, that all I have to do is offer what I have and that Jesus will do the rest, but who am I to lead people to Jesus Christ? Who am I to teach kids, to lead others, to be the one to hold the gate open so that others may come in? Believe me, I understand that struggle. Some days, I wonder why God chose me.
But here’s the thing. God didn’t just choose me. God doesn’t just call ministers. God calls everybody to something, if you will just do the work of figuring out which voice is God and which isn’t. And unless you are holding the gate open so that the voice of the shepherd may come through, don’t be surprised when whole generations of people look at the church and say, “no, I don’t think there’s anything for me there.” Don’t be surprised if they find the gate to not be worth opening. If you aren’t willing to stand at the gate, inadequacy and all, don’t be surprised when the voice of the shepherd fades to the background with the rest of the noise that fills our day.
But if you will. If you’ll give it a try, I think you’ll find that the business of being the church—with all its responsibilities and frustrations—the business of welcoming others, of teaching them about Jesus, of serving them in the way God calls us to, that stuff will not lead you away from the hills of Psalm 23, away from the green pastures and the still waters. I think that kind of thing—that being the church, with all its warts—that kind of thing is the most direct ticket to green pastures you’ll find, and thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

May 4 sermon

To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Luke 24:13-35
13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I guess I am not surprised that the encounter between Jesus and the two disciples happens as they walk on the road to Emmaus, because every one of my major life events seems to involve walking.
I remember pacing around my apartment complex in December of 2007 as I made the decision to ask Stacey to marry me. Or a walk right about this time a year ago, as the Bishop and district superintendents met to decide which church I would be appointed to, as I tried to stay in a mode of prayer about where God would be sending me, but mostly I was just freaking out.
And I remember when Stacey went into labor with Emmaline, just after Christmas of 2012. It was three weeks before her due date, and Stacey had a doctor’s appointment that morning at which the doctor said, “you’re going to want to pack your bags. It could be next week, it could be tomorrow, who knows.”
And Stacey came home and told me what the doctor had said, and we both tried to stay calm, she had a little bit of a stomach ache that, you know, seemed to come and go every twenty minutes or so. And so I said, you know, maybe, just maybe, you are in labor. No, no, it couldn’t be labor—it doesn’t hurt. So I said what they teach you to say when you take the class where they teach you how to be a good husband during the labor process and avoid getting killed, which was why don’t we go take a walk. They say that one way to tell between false labor and true labor is to walk, as the labor pains are supposed to get more significant when you exercise.
I found this little app on my iPhone that measured contractions, and what do you know, they got more significant and closer together as we walked, so we went, begrudgingly, to the hospital, where they had us do more walking, literally around the nurse’s station, around the square-shaped corridors, two hours, two hours, during which time I kid you not the obstetrics nurses were taking bets as to whether Stacey was in labor or not.
Walking seems to be part of every big life event, and I remember that walk around the hospital so clearly, for two reasons. One is that Stacey spent those two hours laughing, and I would like to think it was because her husband is hilarious, but more likely because the whole situation was ridiculous, she, connected to all these cords, nine months pregnant in a hospital gown, walking the halls in the middle of the night the nurses took bets, me, the day before I was supposed to preach my ordination sermon, and so we just spent those two hours laughing.
The second reason I remember that walk, of course, was that it was a precipice moment, that nebulous time between night and day in which dawn appears, and you can’t really pinpoint exactly when it happens—you just know that morning has come. We were walking in circles around the nurses’ station, but we were walking towards being parents, with all of the diapers and joy and tears and everything else that goes along with that. And so while it was a precious time, it was also a time in which laughter seemed to be the only proper response. Tears wouldn’t do justice to the magnitude of that moment, nor seriousness. I am reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah, who so wanted a baby, and the angels that visited Abraham to tell him that even though she was ninety-nine year sold, Sarah would bear a son, and how, in her wise, old way, she laughed, not just because she found the whole thing preposterous, which she did, but also because in that kind of moment, on the walk toward that kind of experience, in that kind of encounter, laughter is the proper response.
And maybe laughter is the right response to something so hope-filled, but you have to forgive the two disciples, Cleopas and the other, for not laughing on the road to Emmaus. It’s a tough slog, you know, traveling between Jerusalem and Emmaus, seven miles of tough terrain, and there’s no telling who you’ll encounter on the way. It’s dusty and dirty. It’s hot. And it’s dangerous.
If laughter is what comes when you hope, disbelief is what comes when you despair. You can hear that disbelief in what they say to this stranger they meet, this unknown one, as they talked about Jesus as the one they hoped would redeem Israel, but who was handed over by their own religious leaders, who had been killed as a common criminal.
Disbelief is what happens, when you get the late phone call, or when you wake up in the middle of the night remembering again that he is, in fact, gone, but it just can’t be. It just can’t be. Disbelief is what happens, especially, it seems, when the thing to be disbelieved is so large you’d be crazy to miss it, but somehow, we do, and you can understand the disciples’ disbelief after the crucifixion of Jesus, after the women go to the tomb and claim to have seen an angel, how they are unable to see just who it is they are talking to, unable to understand that they’ve spent their walk in the presence of the living God.
It’s a tough slog, that kind of walk, and those of us who have walked difficult roads know how difficult it can be to see God when all you can see is tragedy, is heartache, is pain.
It is a tough slog, that kind of journey, and so it is no surprise that walking seems to be a part of many of our major life events, walking forward, moving through, traveling from one way of being to another. And if walking rough terrain is a good metaphor for life and change, so is the breaking of bread a good metaphor for the way we seem to ultimately be reminded of God’s presence. The time before a meal, of course, is the time in which we are most likely to pray, to ask God to bless the food, and maybe to bless our own bodies to God’s service. The dinner table is where we gather to share food, where we laugh and tell stories. If you have an old heirloom table, you probably understand more than most that when we gather to eat, we are calling to mind the relationships we have now, but also the dear saints who have long past, the divots in the table from the children demanding their supper, the burn mark from the romantic dinner in which the cat knocked the candle over, the leg that was just short enough to wobble when the kids crawled under the table. It’s no coincidence that Jesus was made known to the disciples in the breaking of bread. It’s the way in which Jesus seems to most be made known to me, the time in which I am most pulled out of my own stuff into God’s presence, into the presence of the great cloud of witnesses, in a glass of good wine, in a taste or smell that reminds me of the beauty found in the first bite of one of my grandmother’s biscuits, in an old memory brought forward to the present in the breaking of the bread. If you’ve been brought food after losing a loved one, you know the power that a meal can have. When all is death, when you’ve walked through hell, a meal has the power to bring you back to life.
Now, this is just me talking, and you won’t find this in your Bible, but I think that in some ways, the disciples who met the stranger on the road to Emmaus must have understood this, because as the stranger went on his way, they invited him to stay for supper. Even though he had called them both foolish and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have declared, even though he sort of insulted them, they said, no, it is late, evening is drawing near. Stay with us. Come and share a meal.
When you’ve walked through hell, a meal has the power to bring you back to life, and so it was, though it was not Jesus who was brought back to life that night. It was the disciples, Cleopas and the other one whose name we still don’t know. It was the disciples: demoralized and defeated, having put their hope in a savior who had been killed, a messiah who couldn’t even stand up to the chief priests of his own religion. And in that act of hospitality, in the act of inviting Jesus in, of sharing a meal, their eyes were opened and they found themselves alive and in the presence of God.
Now, I like this story because we seem to break bread a lot around here, share meals a lot, gather around God’s table on the first Sunday of each month and share in the holy mystery of Communion, a time in which we commune with God and one another, in which God’s presence becomes known to us in the breaking of bread.
It is powerful, the kind of encounter we experience in Communion. If you’ve come here today feeling like you’ve been walking through hell, I’d wager you are hoping for that kind of encounter, so that you may be brought back to life. It is a big reason most of us come to church. Why, I heard of a whole congregation recently that was experiencing tough times, and that’s all that unusual, of course. Churches all over the place find themselves struggling to figure out how to be the church in modern times. But this church, this particular church had been struggling for a while, getting older, dealing with changing neighborhood demographics, and complicated racial dynamics, and before long they found themselves doing the tough work of waking through hell, of trying to think realistically about the future. Maybe they ought to merge with another church, they thought, and they explored that option and all the unpleasantness associated with it. Maybe they ought to sell their property to the highest bidder, relocate in a more palatable area, start fresh with something smaller, something more suited to who they felt they were becoming, rather than who God might be calling them to be, right where they were.
They worried until their ulcers grew ulcers, and for a while, for as difficult as it was, it got demonstrably worse, and you could forgive them if they wanted to throw in the towel on the whole religion thing altogether. It was a dark time for this church, but they kept walking, kept hoping, as best they could, kept waiting to meet Jesus on the road.
And it took a while, but one day, as they gathered around the table to receive Communion, it was as if their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread. It was as if in that moment, they understood that when you’ve been walking through hell, a meal can bring you back to life. And they discovered that when you’ve been brought back to life, your eyes are opened so that you may recognize the God who has been in your midst all along.
Now, you may not have your eyes opened as suddenly as the disciples did. In fact, if my own experience is any guide, it happens like that walk in the hospital, like the nebulous line between dark night and dawn, like a precipice moment. You look around one day in the midst of your despair and you start to realize the Resurrection; you start to feel Communion. And when you experience Communion—in the breaking of the bread and the being together with one another—when you experience that kind of communion, your eyes can be opened to the resurrection that has already happened, even before you realized it, and the new life that springs forth from the crack in the sidewalk suddenly can’t be contained, for nothing is impossible for God.
When you are faced with that kind of Resurrection, you’d be forgiven if, like those two disciples, you felt the need to jump up from the table, middle of the night or middle of the day, and run the seven miles to town to tell the others. You’d even be forgiven for laughing, for when you’re faced with that kind of news, that kind of resurrection, it may be the case that there is no more fitting response.  And so may it be the case that we find ourselves laughing, as we give thanks that the Lord is Risen indeed, even, of all places, at North Decatur United Methodist Church.