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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What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?

Mark 10.2-12

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of you hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Le divorce

This morning we continue our sermon series on Questions. After polling all of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we will strive during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we continue with “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?”

 

 

Good morning. It is so nice to see and be with both of you for this premarital counseling session. I am really excited about your wedding and I considerate it a privilege that you’ve asked me to preside over the service.

Before we really get started, let’s pray… Amen.

So, tell me about your last fight… Uh huh, interesting. And would you agree? … Okay. So let me get this straight, your mother keeps offering her unsolicited opinion about what you two should do with your money, and then your mother keeps inserting herself into wedding plans? But the fight really started when you began arguing about where you would be spending your first Christmas as a married couple. You think you should be with your parents and family? And you think you should be with your parents and family?

This is going to be a great session!

Marriage is a strange thing. Out of all the people in the world, out of all the conversations and friendships and relationships, you two have been brought together (somehow or another) and you are now about to make a public covenant that you want to be together for the rest of your lives.

Let’s talk about why you want to be married. Everything in your relationship seems to be going fairly well, so why do you want to move toward marriage?

Because you love each other… How precious. We’ll talk more about love later. What else? What makes you feel like the person next to you in the one you want to wake up next to forever?

You trust each other… nice. You feel complete when the other one is around… good. You want to start your own family together… great.

Marriage is a public union ratified by God in heaven. In gathering together before your friends, families, and the Lord you will make a covenant to embody Christ’s love for us with the person sitting next to you. It is just about the most serious decision and commitment that you will ever make.

So you know why you want to get married. The next question, then, is why do you want to get married in the church? Because the three of us could get in the car and head down to the courthouse right now and you could be married within the hour. It would be a legal marriage in the eyes of the state and it would probably cost a whole lot less. So, why get married in the church?

I love that answer: You believe that marriage is bigger than just the two of you, and you want to the community of faith to be there with you. Wow.

Have you all thought about what scripture you want to use in the service? I encourage all couples to spend time in the bible and search for a verse or a passage that has special meaning for you. My only caveat is this: I will not preach on 1 Corinthians 13. Do you know it? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”

Why won’t I preach on 1 Corinthians 13? Love is not enough to make a marriage work.

A successful marriage will never be contingent on your whims or your romantic feelings for one another. There will come a day, I promise, that you will not look or feel as good as you do right now. Love is not enough to carry you through the changes and the frustrations that will occur. Marriage requires more than love.

Between this session and the next, take the time to dive deeply into your bibles and find a scripture you want to use in the service and we’ll go from there. Just stay away from 1 Corinthians 13.

Have you thought about any hymns you would like to use in the service?

Number 408. Wait… is that “The Gift of Love”?

Were you not listening to anything I just said? Love is not enough. A successful and faithful marriage is based on qualities like endurance, patience and hope, conversion and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation. (sigh)

Anyway. Have you all considered the seriousness of your marriage? Which is to say, have you talked about divorce?

Both sets of parents are currently divorced? And it happened when you were a child, and when you were in college? How do you feel about divorce?

Interesting. You believe this covenant is so important that you will never get divorced? That’s rather admirable.

But here’s a dose of reality. 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In our country there is one divorce every 36 seconds. That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces per year. Divorce is so remarkably prevalent in our culture and society to the degree that we have become numb to it.

For too long the church has refused to confront divorce. We’d rather talk about every other controversial subject under the sun, but bring up divorce and you start making people really uncomfortable.

Bride and groom figurines standing on two separated slices of wedding cake

And let me be clear, there are circumstances that occur in marriage where divorce is probably the best possible solution. Situations like physical abuse or traumatic adultery, but people get divorced for the most mundane reasons. “Our interests have grown apart” “We no longer effectively communicate” “We’re not in love anymore.”

As a society, we no longer take the covenant of marriage seriously. Some of us are too quick to end the relationship whenever we feel those first hiccups. As Christians, however, we are called to hear the bible and Jesus who are quite clear in their reflections on divorce.

The pain and complications of divorce cast a great shadow across almost every family and congregation, yet we fail to talk about it. Jesus once told his followers “What God has brought together, let no one separate.” God is the one who does the joining; it is we, with our fallen and broken natures, who do the separating. Marriage is a serious thing, perhaps the most serious, and we need to start taking it seriously. Divorce will always be a possibility, but it should be a last resort.

I have some tips for you. They’re not full-proof ways to avoid having your marriage fall apart. But they are practices that you can initiate now in order to help when things get rocky.

Accept the fact that you two are different. Opposites tend to attract and each of you are not only physically different, but have different backgrounds and outlooks to particular situations. God designed these differences for a reason. The more you learn to celebrate the things that make you different, the stronger your marriage will become.

Leave and cleave. Don’t let either set on in-laws dictate how you will lead your new family. Decide in advance that no one will become a wedge between the two of you. Every couple has lots of other relationships, including the possibility of children at some point, but none of them should be allowed to interfere with the oneness God will create in your marriage.

Make a commitment to the marriage no matter what. Couples usually assume that everything in their marriage will work out, when the reality is that many couples only commit until it becomes difficult or until the love starts to fade. If, and when, you struggle, you need to learn to ask for help. Remove the fear of asking for professional counseling if necessary. It would be better to get help early than to see your marriage disintegrate beyond repair.

Model after the right couples. I encourage both of you to find a couple whose marriage you admire, and follow them closely. If they are as good as you think they are, the probably have stories to share about how they got there. Things may not have been as wonderful throughout their marriage as it is right now.

Put Christ first. This is the one that you were probably expecting me to say, but it’s not just the preacher in me talking, it’s the best way to ensure a lasting marriage. Your individual and collective relationship with Christ will enable you to move through the toughest days in marriage. When I stand with you before all of your friends and family, you will make a vow, but it is not a private one. In marriage, the two of you will enter into a union that is not your own, but will be received in participation with Christ and properly lived out in the church.

Are you still feeling like you want to get married? I know I’ve made it sound like one of the hardest things in the world, but that’s because it is. If you are serious about committing to your marriage, then you have to recognize that the only way it can be done well is with the grace of God. There will come a day when you wake up next to the person you are sitting next to right now, and you will have no idea how it happened. You will move through tragedies and hardships, you will celebrate on the mountaintops of joy, and if you are still married it is because you have found the true nature of marriage through the God of hope.

Marriage, and I mean Christian marriage, is committed and covenanted. Marriage, seen this way, is about as counter-cultural as can be. Marriage can only be sustained in a community, like the church, which understands itself as something strange compared to the world. Marriage is one of the ways the community of faith embodies the surprising hope of new creation.

If you want to know the real secret to a successful marriage, is begins with discipleship. As disciples, you learn about how God’s commitment to us is so strong that God will never divorce himself from us; God will never abandon us. As disciples, you learn about the sacrifice Christ was willing to make for us and therefore we are able to sacrifice for one another. As disciples, you learn that the only way to make it through this thing called life is to have a community around you to support you through it all.

I want to thank both of you for taking the time to meet with me in preparation for your wedding. Over the coming weeks and months we will meet again to talk more about marriage, the church, and your actual ceremony. It’s going to be great. Throughout his ministry, Jesus loved comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. This means that your wedding will be one of the rare times that we can experience a little bit of heaven here on earth. Thank you foe inviting me into this holy and remarkable moment in your lives. But I have to warn you, if you chose to invite me to the reception following the ceremony, I will dance the entire time. Amen.

 

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