Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

I try to have my sermons finished by Thursday afternoon before being preached on Sunday. This allows me to truly experience Sabbath on Fridays and forces me to think about the scripture throughout the beginning part of the week rather than procrastinating until the end. But every once in awhile, something will take place during the week that necessitates a sermonic change.

Last Friday morning I woke up, read over the sermon one last time and it just didn’t feel right. With everybody online going crazy about the executive order for religious liberty and the House voting on a bill that would repeal and replace most parts of the Affordable Care Act, I felt like God was calling me to trash what I had written and start over. So I did (You can read that sermon here: “The Politics of the Church.“)

But I had already written an entire sermon and crafted a whole worship service around a central theme! So I asked the congregation to pray for me as I offered the new sermon, written later than usual, outside the normal connections through our whole service. And, because I wrote two sermons last week, I have included the sermon that wasn’t preached below…

 

Psalm 23

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. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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“Pass the wine.” The party was getting on into the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was having a great time. The food was good and plentiful. The wine flowed profusely. The stories kept bubbling forth. “Remember that time we walked into town and everybody just kept staring at us, waiting for something to happen?” “Or what about the day we ate by the beach and talked about the future.” “I’ll never forget the looks on everyone’s faces when we walked out of town that one time and wiped the dirt of our feet.”

It was a great party.

There’s something about the stories and the food and the wine that help blind us from the reality of what is to come. On Thanksgiving we fill our bellies in denial of all the money we are about to spend during the Christmas season. On New Years Eve we clink the champagne in ignorance of all the mistakes we made and we believe that this year will finally be the one we get it all right. On Easter we tell stories about the resurrection in hopes that hope will not fade in the weeks that follow, but the normalcy of life slips in and our hallelujahs don’t have quite the force they did a few weeks ago.

But what did the host think during the party? While the friends were passing around the bottle and giggling with memories of the last few years, what was going through his mind? Was he buzzed with the joy of his compatriots as he walked around the table filling their glasses? Was he nostalgic about all they had been through and in denial of what was going to happen in just a few hours?

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is forever quoting and referring to the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms. The psalms, it seems, are his prayers. They are familiar and well known and comforting. But while he sat at the table that night, that last night, when he told them the bread was his body and the wine his blood, I wonder if he thought about the 23rd psalm when he looked across the table and into the eyes of his friend Judas: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy preaching on well-known texts. Give me some obscure passage from Zephaniah or Joel and I will get up here and proclaim it with everything that I’ve got. In fact, I rather enjoy preaching on the passages we don’t know because we can all come to the text with a fresh perspective. But when we read a passage that everyone knows, a passage that we’ve all heard more times than we can count, the challenge becomes that much greater.

Like John 3.16 – For God so loved the world… As soon as the words hit the air most of us immediately wander in our minds to black tape under the eyes of sport figures, scratched notations in bathroom stalls, and college evangelists trying to save souls. And because of this we forget that John 3.16 is part of a much bigger story of Jesus meeting in the late hours with Nicodemus.

Instead, I could randomly flip open the bible, pick any verse, and I think we would receive it better than the well-known texts because we would not bring any of our own baggage to God’s Word.

But today we’ve got one of the most well known, perhaps the most well known passage in all of scripture: Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And already most of you have tuned out whatever I’m about to say. Because the moment we hear these remarkably familiar words, our minds jump back in time to memories of this passage. We start thinking about the last time we read the passage out-loud at a funeral. We remember sitting down on our Grandmother’s lap and hearing her repeat the words without looking in her bible. We are transported back to our childhood Sunday school classrooms where many of us were forced to repeat the psalm, out loud, from memory, in front of our peers.

Perhaps for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of joyfulness and peace. We think about the green pastures and the still waters and whatever stress we’ve got going on in our lives starts to fade away.

And maybe for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of strange and bizarre reflection. The green pastures and still waters are nice, but why in the world is God preparing tables for us in the presence of our enemies? Our cups are overflowing with many blessings, but why can’t we dwell with the Lord forever, and not just while we’re living?

It is remarkably difficult to approach this text with open eyes because it already means so much to so many of us.

But what did it mean to Jesus?

That night before he gave himself up, the evening of the Last Supper, did he think about the table being prepared before him with an enemy? Did he still believe that his cup overflowed with grace and peace and mercy even though one of his closest disciples was about to betray him for a couple pieces of silver?

In the midst of stress, fear, and anxiety the psalmist offers a strange alternative: the refreshing peace found in the Good Shepherd.

But is the Lord really a good shepherd? Yeah, God will set us down in the green pastures, and will lead us beside the still waters; whatever that means. God takes us down the right paths for his name’s sake, and even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.

Really? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have the kind of faith such that I could walk through a place or a time in my life described as the valley of the shadow of death and not be afraid. I get afraid every time I get a phone call from an older member of the church on their way to the hospital, every time I hear my son fall to the ground with a loud thud, and even when I’m hear at night in the sanctuary and all the lights are off.

And the rod and the staff? Those aren’t meant to be tools of comfort like a quilt or a duvet. Rods and staffs are meant to wring us and knock us back on to the right track when we’ve gone astray. And where does God eventually lead us? To a table prepared just for us in the presence of our enemies.

We love this psalm, we pray it and read it and hear it all the time. But sometimes, God sounds more like a bad shepherd than a good one.

Sometimes we hold it so close that we don’t think about what it really says, or even what it might’ve meant to the one we call the Good Shepherd.

I want to have the faith of the psalmist, I want to be able to look at the darkest valley, and the rod and the staff, and the table filled with my enemies with hope and joy. But this psalm isn’t really about me or us, nor is it about what we think of the Shepherd. It’s a psalm about who God is, and what God does for us, his sheep.

God’s protective power, God’s immense grace, is so great, so unimaginable, that God has the audacity to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. A good shepherd would prepare the table in the presence of our friends and our families; not with the people who want to destroy us. God’s table, provided for us, is not the table we would choose for ourselves. Like a middle school cafeteria, we would rather sit with the people we like than with the bullies eyeing us from across the room.

We read in the psalm that God transforms every situation. But we take that to mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. A good shepherd, we think, would protect us from every type of evil. But no, our bad shepherd says there will be deathly valleys and enemies galore; the difference is that our shepherd has done something that prevents them from destroying us.

We will absolutely experience hardships, and fear, and stress, but the bad shepherd is with us in the midst of them.

Our shepherd is only a bad shepherd in that we think we know what God should do for us. We abstract this psalm from the reality to which it speaks and make it out to be some kind of shield to protect us from everything in life. What makes our bad shepherd a good shepherd is that our shepherd will never abandon us.

Being a disciple is a way of life that we cannot know outside of being converted to it. For taking up our cross to follow Jesus changes every little thing about the way we live. It means that even though we talk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil because Jesus has defeated the very death that casts a shadow in our lives. We cannot live without that fear unless we’ve been converted to a way of life that constitutes knowledge of the bad shepherd who takes care of us.

Sitting down with the very people who hate us is not something we could do without being converted to it. All of us, sinners that we are, would choose the other table. But God in Christ chose to sit down at the table where his betrayer sat, offered him the same bread and cup that we are offered here in church knowing full and well what he was about to do.

Being a Christian is possible only through the grace of God empowering us to follow His Son on the way. We cannot do it on our own accord, and it cannot take place without a radical restructuring of what we know and what we believe. We cannot follow Jesus without sitting at the table, elbow to elbow, with the people who would rather betray us.

And, again, that makes God sound like a pretty bad shepherd. What kind of God would willfully send a child to the table with bullies? What kind of God would use a rod to knock us back into line? What kind of God would ignore the rest of the guests to make sure our cup was overflowing at all times in the middle of a party?

The very same one who was willing to take on our flesh in the incarnation. Our ­bad shepherd really is the good shepherd because Jesus came to live and to die and to live again for the sheep. Christ is the one who makes possible the goodness and mercy that follows us all the days of our lives such that we can sit at the table with hope, because Christ did the same thing for us. Amen.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (of Annual Conference)

Every year the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church meets for holy conferencing. This is an event whereby lay and clergy representatives from the entire conference meet to discuss pertinent matters facing the denomination in our particular geographic locality. Additionally, the Conference has a memorial service for clergy and lay representatives who have died in the previous year, we learn about campaigns and initiatives like “Imagine No Malaria”, we celebrate the licensing, commissioning, and ordination of clergy, and we worship together.

Every Annual Conference is filled with moments of holiness in addition to sinfulness. We are a church of broken people; therefore we fall prey to our own desires and forget to pray for God’s will to be done. At times, our “holy conferencing” brings out the best in us and the worst in us. Below are three categories of experiences I had from last weekend. And let’s go backwards…

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The Ugly

After joining together in one voice to proclaim the powerful and dynamic hymn “And Are We Yet Alive” (The traditional first hymn to be used since nearly the beginning of the Methodist movement), we jumped right into the business of Annual Conference: The presentation of the Rules Committee. This makes complete sense of course, we need to re-establish the rules of conference every year before we get to the important stuff, but this year we spent the first 45 minutes of our time as a denomination arguing about the color of our name badges.

Depending on one’s conference relationship, there are areas that are forbidden from being voted upon. For instance: last year I was a provisional elder which meant that I could not vote during the clergy session, or on constitutional amendments. But now that I am “an elder in full connection” I am granted to the right to vote in the clergy session and on constitutional amendments. In order to streamline who can vote on what, different name badge colors were distributed. And this resulted in chaotic responses in the forms of Robert’s Rules of Order. Specific representatives (both lay and clergy) were livid not about their name badge color, but that the conference did not trust them to know what they could and could not vote on. (even though it took ten minutes for the clergy to figure out where they had to sit in order to vote during the clergy session [something we do EVERY year]).

During the name badge debate I was sitting next to a couple that were attending Annual Conference for the very first time. I witnessed them shaking their heads in astonishment and disbelief for most of the 45 minutes and when all was said in done I heard them say, “No wonder people complain about coming to this every year.” What does it say about our church to new people when we can go from a beautiful hymn to an argument about name badge colors in the blink of an eye? What does it say about the future of our denomination when our first priority becomes the color of our name-tags?

Later during the conference a motion was made from the floor to propose a resolution regarding the recent tragedy in Orlando, Florida. The resolution called for all churches in the conference to be in prayer for the victims and their families from the shooting, to pray for the greater LGBTQI community, and to pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters so that they might not be lumped into the violent identity of the shooter. While the majority of the conference voted in favor of the resolution, there were a decisive number of people who vehemently opposed it. We might not think alike about the LGBTQI community or the Muslim community, but the least we can do is pray for them in the midst of such a horrific tragedy. So what does it say about our commitment to loving others the way Jesus commanded while some of us would rather remain silent?

Finally, our conference had the good fortune of hearing the proclaimed Word from Rev. Eun Pa Hong who is the senior pastor of Bupyeong Methodist Church in Incheon, Korea. Rev. Hong is one of the most dynamic leaders in Korean Methodism and under his leadership for the past 35 years his church has grown to include 5,500 people most Sundays. Rev. Hong spoke in his native tongue and was translated into English while he preached. And while I walked around later in the day, I overheard delegates complaining about having to listen to someone speak in Korean. What does it say about our church, when some cannot stand to witness the diversity that makes us who we are? What does it say about our future when we’ve forgotten the most beautiful part of the Pentecost story?

 

The Bad

The church continues to decline: Lack of new professions of faith, lowering numbers of baptisms, and more churches closing. Or to put it the way I heard someone else reflect on it: “Annual Conference is all about death.” The report of the Conference Statistician offers bleak prospects for the future and causes anxiety for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. At the same time we were reminded over and over again about the power of fear, and how is has limited us as a denomination without offering hope for new vitality. The frightening statistic that the average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years was mentioned on more than one occasion without any examples of how this statistic is being combatted.

Moreover, fears about the recent General Conference were made apparent through muffled conversations, uncomfortable responses to the General Conference report, and the apathy toward institutional change. More than ever, Annual Conference focused one what we have to fear, than what we have to be hopeful about; it felt more like crucifixion, and less like resurrection.

 

The Good

There is nothing quite like singing together in one voice with thousands of other United Methodists. As Garrison Keillor has noted, singing is part of our DNA. And so, when at the beginning of Annual Conference, thousands of us joined together with those faithful words: “And are we yet alive, and see each others face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!” you can’t help but feel the Spirit’s presence. When we mourned the loss of life over the last year, when we sat in profound silence in memory of the victims in Orlando, when we watched as new pastors were licensed, commissioned, and ordained, we felt the Spirit’s presence. Worship is always part of the “good” of Annual Conference. In worship we remember that God is God and we are not. In sermons and prayers and hymns we hear God saying, “Yes!” even though our hearts say “No.” In worship we let our baggage and preconceived notions start to fall away and we truly become Christ’s body redeemed by his blood.

Additionally, we celebrated the fruits that came from our commitment to “Imagine No Malaria,” we rejoiced in new faith communities that are planting seeds of faith across Virginia, and we recognized the 20th anniversary of the Order of the Deacon. All of these events witnessed to our commitment to serve the needs of others and the ways that we are making God’s kingdom manifest here on earth.

On Thursday night, before Annual Conference officially began, a group of United Methodists gathered for Pub Theology led by the minds behind the podcastCrackers & Grape Juice.” We met for an informal conversation about theology, toxic Christianity, and the future of the denomination. During that gathering a number of young people made it clear that they believe in the future of the United Methodist Church even while some of us remain anxious. In their willingness to articulate how their local churches helped nurture them in the faith, their witness blessed us all. Later we heard from voices largely missed at Annual Conference and all of us were reminded about the strange and beautiful diversity of this thing we call “the church.” As I was leaving, a young man told me (with a smile on his face), “This is what Wesley must have felt like when he gathered with his friends.” It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

On Saturday evening I was privileged to join an Ordination class of some of the most gifted pastors and deacons I have ever met. We submitted ourselves to the yoke of a stole over our shoulders and covenanted to serve the church with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. I witnessed countless people rise when names were read before the conference and I was reminded about the great communal effort required in identifying effective clergy. In the ordination service I saw the bright future for our church; not in our bureaucratic commitments to Roberts Rules of Order, not in our debates about nametag colors, not in our frightening statistics, but in the local church where the heart of God is revealed each and every day.

I have hope for the future of the United Methodist Church because the new clergy leaders believe in the power of the gospel to radically transform the world. They recognize that the local church is where disciples are formed (not Annual Conference). They see the bread and the cup of communion as our spiritual food necessary for the journey of faith. They have given their lives over to this strange and wondrous calling and will bear fruit for years to come.

But most of all, I have hope for the church because it does not belong to us. It belongs to God. The more we remember that we serve the risen Lord, the more we learn to pray for God’s will and not our own, the more our church will become what God is calling us to be: the body of Christ.

 

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Devotional – Psalm 1.1

Devotional:

Psalm 1.1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. 

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“Tell me something good.” This is one of my favorite ways to begin a conversation precisely because we tend to focus on the negative. As a pastor, it only takes a few minutes before people begin to open up about what is really going on in their lives and they share things that they have kept bottled up for a long time. As Christians, we are called to the ministry of presence with our fellow disciples to provide ears to hear. However, sometimes the negativity can be so overpowering that we neglect to focus on the good things in our lives.

I spent part of last week with other United Methodist pastors from the Virginia Conference. We met together in Blackstone, VA and shared reflections about our ministries and how we are continuing to respond to God’s call in our lives. For as much as people are ready to vent with their pastors about negativity, pastors are far worse when venting to other pastors. After spending so much time being present for others, we tend to neglect the importance of reflection and seeking out others to help us with our baggage. Within the first moments that we gathered together the conversation quickly turned to challenges and disappointments in the ministry.

When we broke away from our sessions to share meals together I tried to reorient the conversation toward the good, but my efforts were largely fruitless. It was as if we were trying to make the most out of our time together before heading back to our churches and we just kept dumping all of our worries and anxieties on one another. But then something amazing happened…

We were sitting in a circle when our leader told us to break off into small groups and share the names of people for whom we knew we had been fruitful. We were told to focus on the good and the positive as we shared our stories. Then when we regathered as a group we went around the circle praying for the names we had raised, gave thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then we thanked God for putting us in their lives.

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Why is it so hard to focus on the good? Psalm 1 affirms that happiness can be found in  those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or follow the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but we forget how important it is to celebrate the goodness of God in our lives. Instead we listen to the wicked, follow the sinners, and scoff from our chairs. How much happier could we be if we followed the advice of Psalm 1.1?

This week, let us strive to focus on the good in our lives. Instead of dwelling in the negative, let us give thanks to God for the people we have shaped and the people who have shaped us.