More Than the Shadow of Death

A Sermon for Easter 4: Acts 9: 36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

 

My Great Aunt Hallie was an interesting lady. She never married. She had some sort of position at the University of Virginia, I expect in the Extension Service. One clue to that is that she was instrumental in starting the 4 H Clubs in Virginia. Another is she always had some tale or another about crops, trees, or animals to share. Though I only saw her infrequently, I learned a lot from her. I learned how to pack a trunk. They would arrive, the trunk would open, and it was completely loaded, not a single space left, and all was perfectly in place. Hallie would use her cane and point to which box to move to get to the cases she wanted; and when that was retrieved, everything went back into its appointed place, no exceptions, ever. She also knew very practical things. At some point, she and her lifelong friend build a six-unit apartment building. She was there when every load of wood was delivered; as each piece was unloaded, she would pick up one end, sight down its long edge to see if it was straight; if it was, on the stack to use it went, if not, she tossed it aside to be returned. Some years later, when they re-carpeted the halls, all the entry doors drug, so, at 80 or thereabouts, she got her skill saw and trimmed a ½ inch off the bottom edge of all the entry doors.

She died sometime after I was priested, and she left me a shepherd’s crook. It hangs off a bookcase in my office and I see it daily. I am often reminded of the story she would tell us; sheep are not particularly smart, they need shepherding – looking after, hence the crook had two ends; one hooked to drag them out of places they shouldn’t be, and a rounded end to prodded them down the road. I am not exactly sure dragging and prodding are great examples of ministry; but I am more and more sure those functions tell us, there is more to the 23rd Psalm than we tend to hear.

I’m not sure I have ever presided at a funeral the 23rd Psalm was not said, one place or another. Largely because of verse 4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, (or, the valley of the shadow of death. as in the King James)) I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me (Psalms 23:4 NSRV).

 It is a powerful comfort, as those who mourn seek to find assurance their loved one is in God’s hands; and also seek assurance that their lives, though forever different, will somehow be oaky. However, beyond this, there are numerous other themes to explore.

First is that that God is certainly a good shepherd, but in a time when fear, in its many guises, motivates, defines our behaviors, in so many unknown ways, is there anything such thing as a good sheep (Bostock)? If there are so few good sheep, then perhaps many, most of us, ~ (all of us?) seek a shepherd; someone, bigger, stronger, wiser, to take care of us, and to fight our battles, and win our wars for us (1 Samuel 8:20) (Hoezee).

The Psalm is full of motion, the verbs; makes, leads, walk, spread, anoint, follow, and dwell are connected with every day ordinary bits of life. This motion is a prompt pointing us see that we do not need to wait to be restored, God/Jesus/Spirit offers, has promised, to restore our daily lives; and that goodness and mercy peruse us, seeking to assure us the daily perils and evils do not pose a lasting threat (Morris).

Our returning to the house of the Lord is not a onetime event. Rather it refers to the constant going to and fro of life in and beyond: shadowed moments, behind closed doors, in gardens, by the well, abandoned, in loneliness, needing to escape, all places where God/Jesus/Spirit meets us, refreshes us, and reminds us we are never alone (Morris; Lewis; Hoezee).

The shepherd, who lays us down, restores us, comforts us, sets table for us, anoints us, is a shepherd on a mission:

  • A loving, giving mission (John 3:16),
  • a bring other sheep mission (John 10:16),
  • a blind man mission (John 9),
  • an “I am” mission,
  • a “come and see” and “I send you” mission,
  • a find the abandoned mission, and
  • a calling us to mission, mission (Lewis).

Finally, there is a royal association theme. In the Old Testament, the shepherd always refers to the Kings of Israel and Judah. The plasm expresses confidence in God to provide food, water, shelter, guidance, safety from violence, and a place of honor (Gaventa and Petersen). The implication is a job description for Israel’s kings, that very few live up to, and now is a job description for any and all governing structures, including republics and democracies.

The more I thought of it, all these themes are a description of good sheep.

Good sheep

  • are fearless, because they trust in God/Jesus/Spirit presence;
  • they take care to care for themselves, so allow goodness and mercy to catch up, and refresh them,
  • they are a source of goodness and mercy that refresh others,
  • good sheep return to the House of the Lord,
  • and lead other sheep who are caught up in shadowed moments, behind closed doors, in gardens, by the well, abandoned, lonely, or needing to escape, into God/Jesus/Spirit presence,
  • Good sheep know the Shepherd’s calling, so they know their mission, and
  • trust in divine abundance and from there provide food and water, safety, shade, guidance, protection from violence, respect and honor to the great uncountable multitude of God’s children, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Rev 7:9), journeying with all of them through their particular ordeals (Rev 7:14), guiding all to belief in the Lord, (Acts 9:42) that leads to eternal life, where they will never perish (John 10:28).

Being good sheep is not an enviable nor easy Way. It is a good thing we have a shepherd who loves us, a shepherd who knows us, each of us by name, a shepherd who devotedly pulls and prods us along The Way, who is ~ well ~ is not just a good, but The Shepherd, the Risen Shepherd.


References

Bostock, Jazzy. “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” 12 5 2019. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 5 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Psalms —. 12 5 2019. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. A Good Shepherd Perspective. 12 5 2019. <workingpreacher.org>.

Morris, Bobby. Commentary on Psalm 23. 12 5 2019. <workingpreacher.org>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

Middler Sheep

A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter:

Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30, Psalm 23

 

Thursday Liz Cato buried Joyce, her mother. Friday Moreland White, from Osceola, buried his mother, Peggy. Saturday morning, my brother in law, Gene died following a complicated recovery from bypass surgery. And as the 23rd Psalm is often read at funerals, and with all these funerals around us I am feeling remiss if I didn’t say something.

I remember about fifteen years ago when my mother died after a twelve-year spiral into the darkness of Alzheimer. My siblings and I had begun to speak of her already being dead because she couldn’t remember anybody or anything. And so I was taken aback, I was surprised at the sense of loss I felt at her funeral, and sometimes later; until today. Peggy and Joyce and Gene lived long lives; Gene’s not quite so long. And for some time, their lives were diminished in a variety of ways. Their death was a released of sorts. But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if their families were surprised by a sense of loss, today, and in future days.

The 23rd psalm is an expression of trust. It reminds us that we will lack nothing. We hear again that God sustains the flock’s life. More than “goodness and mercy” following us, it actually reads that “goodness and mercy” are pursuing us (Murphy). The 23rd Psalm is that perpetual assurance that we are never ever alone (Lewis).

So, I do not know what valley you find yourselves in today. I do not know what shadows may be moving across your lives at this moment. But, as we were just reminded, I do know that you are not alone, you never have been, and you never will be. The spirit of the Lord God is all of us. The God who made us from the dust of the earth, the God who breathed ruach, life-giving spirit, into us is always present.

Now to today’s reading and setting; both 23rd Psalm and the reading from John 10 are images of the shepherd, the good shepherd to be more precise. However, a couple of things that I read this week sort of tugged me toward a different direction. Remember when Jesus calls his friend Lazarus out of the tomb, he tells Lazarus’ friends to unbind him (John 11). Since we now see Jesus as the shepherd, we can now see how Lazarus’ friends are sheep (SSJE). A colleague of mine wrote a blog titled On Being Sheep (Pankey). One of the commentators, read every week, wrote on the nature of belief, pondering how much of our belief is dependent on God’s agency, and how much is up to us (Lose)? Another wrote that the Jewish leaders had no ability to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice (Hoezee). And another exhorts this morning’s preachers to help their congregation hear the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the others; acknowledging that the voices are legion and that often we do not perceive how contrary they are (Johnson).

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Both Psalm 23 and John 10 are clear; we are God’s, we are Jesus’ sheep. But the tug in the different direction for me this morning was: What does that mean? What are obligations of being a sheep? Sometime in the last 25 years or so, someone said that reading the Bible in the church is simply a matter of giving voice to God’s words. I can see how being sheep is similar; as sheep we vocalize Jesus’ voice, as sheep we manifest Jesus’ presence. Both of which are vitally needed in today’s world. Two Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times this week illustrate how.

In How to Fix Politics, David Brooks notes that after WWII, our community mindset began changing to an individualist mindset. Today’s primary ideology is that we can do whatever we want to do so long as we do not interfere with someone else’s doing whatever they want to do. This has led to a disintegration of community relationships. In one survey 47% of the people did not know their neighbors by name. Brooks writes that we spend less and less time in that middle-ring of community relationships such as the PTA, the neighborhood watch, volunteer fire and rescue, youth football, baseball and soccer leagues, sorority and fraternity organizations, all of that. And so frequently we hear the complaints about not being able to find anyone to help. One of the results of this of increasing isolation is the growing vitriolic speech that we hear in disagreements be it political or whatever. It turns out that these middle ring relationships are where we develop the skills to deliberate differing opinions of all kinds. Because even though you disagree with your neighbor, you still get stuff done together week after week after week that is to the benefit of both your neighborhood and to your larger community. (Brooks).

The importance of the middle was actually proven in a failed Air Force Academy effort to improve the worst performing cadets. The plan was to put best and worse cadets in the same squadron, building on the observation that the best have a tendency to help the worst. It failed, and the Academy went back to the to the traditional mix, that happened to have a bit of everyone, best, middle and the worst, in every squadron. It turns out that the middle cadets are the social glue that held the best and worst together in relationships with each other. And it is the relationships that allow the best to influence the worst (unknown). Without the middle social glue there are no relationships and without the relationships, there is no influence.

 

We are very good at getting together with people like us. But we are not very good at building bridges, to those who are different than we are. As we’ve become more and more isolated, for a variety of reasons, we’ve turned to politics to fill that void. Brooks notes that politics is now at the center of our psychological, emotional and even spiritual lives (Brooks). I would much prefer that our spiritual lives be the center of our psychological, emotional and political lives.

In another opinion column, Roger Cohen in The Death of Liberalism makes similar points. He cites Francis Fukuyama writings that the liberal emphasis on individuality which is not interfering with others too much, “is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats.”

However, such feats are required for the defense of liberty. Liberty stresses the need for us to accept each other’s differences; even when they appear incompatible. Cohen writes that a major contributor to the failure of the Arab Spring was the absence of a middle class ready to accept and mediate multiple truths. As inequality grows and angry discourses rant across social media, intolerance and the unwillingness to accept and mediate competing truths grow, and so does the threat to liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Cohen). We are so distracted by the cacophony of voices promising us perfect freedom and self-fulfillment that we are losing the vital foundation of our neighbors and our communities (Brooks).

So what does all of that have to do with being sheep? Well, it occurred to me that perhaps our calling is to be sheep in the middle. It is not about figuring out the compromise that will make it all workout; it is about allowing ourselves to be that middler glue that builds relationships that allow influence to do its work and for surprising solutions to arise. And we can do this because we know we are in that fold. We can do this because we know everything depends on belonging to Jesus. It is not how we feel; it is not about having the right experience, or being doubt free, or what we have accomplished, or what we have avoided, or always having the right liturgy; we know that the only thing that matters is that we are known by the shepherd (Johnson). And we should do this because we know Jesus is the shepherd to everyone (Lynch).

It also occurred to me, that to be middler sheep is going to require us to learn some things. Like how to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd in the midst of a cacophony of voices that pull us in a million different directions. It is not easy. We may have to stop some old stuff. We may have to start some new stuff. But I think mostly what we are going to have to do is to trust. Sheep trust the shepherd. We are going to have to:

• trust that we will lack nothing
• trust that just as God sustains the flock’s life, God also sustains our lives, even when            we wander away
• trust that goodness and mercy pursue us • trust that we are never ever, ever, ever                  alone
• trust that being in a relationship with God on the one hand, and being in a                                relationship with any other sheep on the other already puts us in the middle
• trust that ~ we are already middler sheep.


References

Brooks, David. “How to Fix Politics.” The New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/12/opinion/how-to-fix-politics.html?ref=opinion&gt;.

Cohen, Roger. “The Death of Liberalism.” The New York Times (2016). <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/14/opinion/the-death-of-liberalism.html?ref=opinion&_r=0&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 4 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Hoezee, Scott. John 10:22-30. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Johnson, Elisabeth. Commentary on John 10:22-30. 20 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection is Protection. 17 4 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Easter 4 C: The Electing Word. 17 4 2016. <http://www.davidlose.net/2016/04/easter-4-c-the-electing-word/&gt;.

Lynch, John J. “The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (C) – 2016.” 17 4 2016. Sermons that Work. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2016/03/28/the-good-shepherd-easter-4-c-2016/&gt;.

Mast, Stan. The Lectionary Psalms 23. 17 4 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Murphy, Kelly J. Commentary on Psalm 23. 17 4 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “On Being Sheep.” 17 4 2016. Draughting Theology. <https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/on-being-sheep/&gt;.

SSJE. 14 4 2016.

unknown. “unknown.” (n.d.).