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Archive for June, 2013

The Lord Is My Shepherd

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Preached Sunday, June 23, 2013

Text:  Psalm 23:1-3a

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We’ve talked a lot in recent weeks about change… and we’ve been through some of the more unfamiliar passages of the Bible, especially the Old Testament… it is time for some “comfort food.”  Something familiar to anchor us.  And what could be more familiar than Psalm 23?

As familiar as this “shepherd Psalm” is, though, most of us aren’t all that familiar with its central image of sheep and shepherd.  Have any of you raised sheep, or been around sheep herds?

I haven’t, which is why I especially appreciate the insights of Phillip Keller’s book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.”  Keller grew up in East Africa, surrounded by native herders, and worked as a sheep rancher himself in his young adult years.  He writes about the 23rd Psalm from the perspective of one who knows sheep and understands the ways of a shepherd.

Keller begins his study of the Psalm by considering what it means to say that the Lord is our shepherd.  For most of us, those words bring comfort beyond expression; the emotion they carry runs deep within us.  “The Lord is my shepherd,” means I am cared for, wanted, protected, guided.  I am safe.

All of that is true because of the nature of our shepherd.  The wellbeing of a sheep depends entirely, Keller says, on the type of man who owns it (17).  We are safe in the Lord’s care because he is a shepherd who lays down his life for us, his sheep.  We are protected because our shepherd puts our needs above his own.

To say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is an affirmation of faith, a creed of sorts.  It is a statement that we trust this shepherd, that we believe he will provide for our needs.  It is also a promise that we will go where he leads, and a commitment to listen to God’s voice above all the others that clamor for our attention.

It is a statement of trust, and also of humility.  The Psalmist recognizes his reliance on God – there is no false sense of independence here!  Rather, the familiar Psalm assumes submissiveness and obedience to the shepherd.

Living in obedience, Phillip Keller says, leads to contentment and rest.  “I shall not want,” speaks to God’s provision, of course, but also to the sheep’s contentment with whatever God provides.  Sheep do not strain and stress over what they need or want.  They simply assume that the shepherd will provide it, and that it will be enough, whatever it is.

When my children were toddlers, just learning to walk and run and jump, Rob and I marveled at the depth of their trust in us.  They would leap from a chair into our arms without any warning at all, just assuming that we would catch them.  Or, before mastering stairs, would step off into midair, believing completely that because they held our finger in their little hand, they would be kept safe.  Their trust was absolute – almost foolish! – so certain were they that we would protect them.

That is the kind of trust that the Psalmist speaks of:  not worrying about what might happen, not anxiously taking stock of what could go wrong – just believing that the shepherd will provide for their needs, and their job is simply to follow.

It is only that kind of absolute trust that would allow a sheep to “lie down in green pastures.”  Keller describes sheep as naturally timid, anxious creatures.  They are vulnerable and easily spooked; they are often agitated by other sheep; they are bothered by flies and parasites; they become frantic when they feel hungry.  Sheep are not, by nature, calm and contented.

For a sheep to lie down in green pastures – rather than chomping frantically, or running away from a real or imagined enemy – requires the sheep to be free from fear, from tension, from aggravation and hunger.  And this freedom is a direct result of the presence of the shepherd.

When the shepherd is near, the sheep naturally feel safe from predators.  But beyond that, they feel safe from one another.  Keller describes a fierce “butting order” within flocks, with older or bigger ewes defending their position by head-butting younger ones, and adolescent sheep butting one another to get ahead or stand up for themselves.

Keller contrasts this sort of “standing up” – defending our own rights, getting ahead, one-upping another – with the Psalm’s image of “lying down in green pastures.”  Lying down implies humility – not grasping for what is deserved, but believing that the Shepherd will intervene when necessary to prevent oppression and correct injustice.

This sort of humble and trusting “lying down” is modeled by Jesus and described in Philippians 2:6-7.  Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing” (Phil 2:6-7).  Jesus trusted his Shepherd (after all, Psalm 23 would have been among the Scriptures that Jesus read and prayed!) to lift him up.  “Therefore,” Philippians tells us, “God exalted him to the highest place” (Phil 2:9).  The Shepherd set things straight and brought justice.

As sheep, we can trust the same shepherd to act on our behalf; we need only lie down in green pastures, and be at peace.

That same shepherd also “leads us beside the still waters.”  The image is a tranquil one:  a gentle brook running through lush green fields.

The truth is, though, that getting to those streams usually requires the shepherd to herd a flock along muddy paths cleared by many other animals coming and going to the water’s edge.

If the sheep follow the shepherd, they will be rewarded by the cool, clear water of the watering hole.  But many sheep don’t follow the shepherd all the way.  Keller explains that many sheep are distracted, instead, by the small muddy puddles along the path.  They can find water there in those puddles, but it is polluted water.  It may satisfy their immediate thirst, but in the long run it makes them sickly and rundown.

In our opening prayer today, we read a line that comes from St. Augustine: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  That often quoted line speaks of our longing for meaning, significance and purpose.  God our Shepherd offers us all of those things – but how often are we distracted like sheep who drink from the puddles?  How often do we search for meaning and purpose in our possessions, or our addictions, or our busyness, rather than going right to the source – to God.

To say with the Psalmist “he leads me beside still waters” requires us to walk past the puddles, recognizing that they will not ultimately satisfy us.

Walking past the puddles – continuing to search for God until our hearts find rest – takes practice.  It asks us to shape the kinds of habits and disciplines that keep us focused on God.  Traditional spiritual disciplines like prayer and Scripture reading, fasting, confession, Sabbath keeping – these disciplines keep focused on God, so that our appetites and desires don’t distract us like puddles.

Sheep learn, in time, that the best water – the most refreshing, most nourishing – is the water the shepherd shows them.  They learn to trust the shepherd, and let the puddles be.  In time, with practice, we learn the same.  We learn that our identity, our purpose and meaning, come from God rather than from anything we do or have.

That’s not an easy lesson to learn – to rest in God and God’s love for us, rather than depending on our own merits.  But there is good news for the sheep that drinks deep from the puddle and finds herself heartbroken or disenchanted or desperate.

“He restores my soul.”  When following our own plans and seeking our own purposes knocks us to the ground, God is the shepherd who lifts us and puts us on our feet again.  A “cast sheep” – one who has fallen over and can’t get its feet to the ground again – is a desperate, struggling, frantic creature.  It is easy prey for predators, and quickly left behind by the flock.  It is completely dependent on the shepherd to lift it up, steady its legs, and restore its health.

The Psalmist knows this kind of restoration – when God lifts us up and makes our life right again.  Peter knew this kind of restoration when he met the risen Christ after his denial, and Jesus restored and affirmed him:  “Feed my sheep, Peter.”  We know this kind of restoration when God brings healing to broken relationships, or leads us out of addiction, or opens our hearts to forgiveness.  God “restores our souls” when we cannot.

Indeed:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.            ~Psalm 23:1-3a

Thanks be to God!

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Welcome…and Go!

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June 2, 2013 (Our “Miracle Sunday” Celebration as we launch a new outreach ministry)

Text:  Luke 10:1-3, 17-20

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It is a week of celebrations!  On Tuesday evening, the Cornell High School class of 2013 gathered here in our sanctuary for their Baccalaureate service.  The preacher for the evening was Father Andrew Fischer from the St. Margaret Mary Parish in Moon.  During his message, he invited the students to share their career path.  One young women from the class said she is preparing to be a hotel manager by majoring in “hospitality.”

It got me thinking:  if the church had a major, hospitality would be it!  There is something fundamentally Christian about welcoming others and making space for them.  Isn’t that, at its very center, what God has done for us?  God made space for us – physical space in the created world, and spiritual and emotional space within God’s own loving self.  God made room for us to live and breathe and have our being.

You and I – we who try to follow the Way of God – we are called and instructed to make room for others.  We’re called to hospitality – especially of the stranger, the poor, the sick, the rejected.  The pages of the Bible are full of stories of hospitality:  In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah prepare a meal for the strangers at their door, and find them to be messengers from God.  In Exodus – and another 35 times throughout the Old Testament – there is the command to “love the stranger…”

In the Gospels, we find Zaccheaus, who is transformed by his encounter with Jesus, and eagerly welcomes Jesus into his home.  In Romans, we’re told to welcome the stranger (Rom 12:13), welcome those weak in faith (Rom 14:1), and welcome each other (Rom 15:7).  Hebrews reminds us, “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).  And the list could go on.

When I think about Coraopolis United Methodist Church, I think of hospitality.  You’ve learned the lesson of welcome well.  Over the past eight weeks, we’ve had 14 different members of the congregation share their reasons for supporting this church with their gifts of talent and resources.  Every single one of them mentioned, in one way or another, the welcome they received here and the warmth they felt from this congregation.  Well done!  I’m grateful for the way that you welcome others into our midst.

I think there’s another side of hospitality, too.  There is the welcoming into this space, our space – but there is also a way of being with others in their space and on their terms that makes them feel welcome, accepted, and at home in their own skin.

This is the sort of hospitality we see in Jesus.  God has already created a space where we are welcomed – in all of creation, that speaks of God’s handiwork.  Then God offers the Temple, where God’s presence drew near to human beings.  We are gathered in and welcomed us into God’s presence throughout the Scriptures.

But God’s hospitality goes a step further in the incarnation.  When God becomes flesh, God comes to us, and welcomes and affirms us for who we are here in our world.  Jesus willingly lays down all the comforts of home – his home – in order to walk the dusty streets of our home, where we feel most secure and at ease.

Jesus meets us here, on our home turf.  That is perhaps the greatest expression of hospitality, because it means giving up comfort and control.  Going away from the familiar comforts of home leaves us vulnerable – dependent.  On our own turf, we are the ones in charge, the ones with the power.  Others are welcome to come, even invited in – but we still make the decisions; we still set the rules.  After all, it is our home.

But that is the core message of the Christian gospel:  Jesus gave up all the comforts and security of home in order to come to us where we are.  Jesus willingly became powerless – submitting even to death on the cross! – in order to meet us where we are and offer God’s love.

Now that is radical hospitality!

And that is the kind of hospitality Jesus asks of his disciples in Luke 10.

 “Go on your way…carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!” and if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person…remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide” (Lk 10:4-7).

What do you think the hardest part of that command would be for the disciples?  Pack light?  Go knock on a stranger’s door and ask for a room?

You know what I think it was?  I think the hardest part of Jesus’ instructions was “eat and drink whatever they provide.”

If you have travelled internationally, perhaps you understand what I mean.  A friend of mine recently returned from a trip to Vietnam.  He was eating breakfast one morning, enjoying what he thought was “pork – p-o-r-k – with peppers.”  The first few bites were delicious – until he moved a pepper with his fork and found a large eyeball staring up at him from his plate!  Turns out he was not eating pork afterall, but prok – p-r-o-k – a kind of fish that is served whole, head and all.  It was a lot harder to eat what was provided when it was staring back at him!

I’m going to turn the tables on my dad this morning…when I was a child, he was the one who would use family stories for sermon illustrations.  This morning, I’m using one of his stories.

I remember the story my dad tells of visiting a crochety old recluse who lived up in the hollers in Kentucky.  (Perhaps I should let him tell the story!)  Dad had slowly built a relationship with this man and had found him an old school bus to live in up there in the mountains.  One afternoon when Dad went to visit, the man offered him a cup of coffee.  Now, you have to understand, my dad is very particular about his food.  He doesn’t like things to touch on his plate.  When we were babies, he wouldn’t sit anywhere within arms’ distance of our grubby hands at mealtime!  So when this man offered him a cup of coffee, Dad glanced around at the filthy kitchen with greasy dishes stacked everywhere and said, “No, thanks, I’m just fine!”  But the man insisted – almost demanded that dad take the coffee.  Dad watched with horror as he picked up a cup full of old coffee grounds, dumped them into a bucket, gave the cup a cursory swirl in a second bucket full of water, and poured coffee into it.  And – dad took it.  He swallowed hard and he gulped down that coffee.  He ate and drank what was provided to him.

That is a hard, uncomfortable kind of hospitality – but it is one that affirms the other person in the deepest kind of way.  It receives what is offered with gratitude – and in doing so, provides acceptance of the one who offers.

Jesus doesn’t promise that this kind of hospitality is easy – in fact, he warns them that it won’t be!  But he knows he has given them the skills to do well.  He knows he’s prepared them to be “workers for the harvest.”  He knows the time is right for them to go.

For every story of welcoming in in Scripture, it seems that there is an accompanying story of going out.  The God of the Bible is a God who gathers in, and also goes out.

  • God who created space for us also came to us in Jesus.  Welcoming in and reaching out, both a part of the character of God.
  •  Abraham and Sarah prepared a meal at the door of their tents – but they also followed God’s call to, “Go to the place where I will show you.”
  •  The Israelites were commanded to “welcome the stranger in your midst” because they had once been the stranger, called by God out of a foreign land to go to the land that God would provide for them.
  • The disciples’ were called first to “Come, follow me,” and then sent to “Go, and make disciples…”

In the book of Revelations, the author records a series of letters from to “the seven churches.”  Each letter begins, “I know…” and identifies the particular character of that church.  And then the letter from God continues with a command to take the next step in their life together.

If our church was on that list – if God was writing us a letter – I wonder if might say something like this:

“I know the hospitality you show, how welcoming and loving you are to those who come in.  I know you love and care for each other like family.  But I say this:  don’t just wait for them to come; get out and go to them!  Share life with them, learn from them, receive from them.  Expand your family out into the community.  Welcome, yes.  And also, go!

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