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.

ISHALLNOTWANT

 

“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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Eucharist as Exodus

Exodus 12.1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. You lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you make take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Death is inescapable. We know this to be true because we go to the funerals for the people we love. We know this to be true because we sit in church and listen to people like me talk about it. We know this to be true because just a few weeks ago we were walking around with ashes on our foreheads, and the words you are dust and to dust you shall return were stuck in our minds.

I talk about death a lot because it seems like the rest of the world is hell-bent on denying it. Movie stars and pop icons and even politicians do everything that can to ignore the inevitability of their own finitude; they’ll get the Botox, the facelift; they’ll even participate in culturally relevant memes like dabbing now, or planking a few years ago.

Even in church we like to deny death at times. That’s why far more people will be here on Easter than the rest of our Holy Week Services combined. But if Easter is all about new life, then why should we keep talking about death?

Here in the United States, millions of people gathered in churches like this one on Sunday for the Liturgy of the Palms. Christians, like us, lifted up their palm branches and said those all-too familiar words like “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here at St. John’s I tried my best to impart upon all of us the staggering nature of being able to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

Maybe you were here and heard the gospel. Maybe you didn’t.

But by now I’m sure that most of us heard what happened in Egypt on Sunday. While we American-Christians sat comfortably in our khakis and color-coordinated cardigans, while we shook our nursery grown palm branches, two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt were bombed. Two men strapped explosives to their bodies, walked up to the respective altars, and detonated.

Dozens of people were murdered.

They died doing the same thing most of us were doing: worshipping the living God who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

The only difference between them and us, is that they live in a world far more like Christ’s than we do.

What we’re doing here tonight is not a normal thing; it defies conventional wisdom. We could be anywhere doing anything, but instead we came to this place to share the Lord’s Supper. Being Christian is weird, it is strange, it is different. And in a lot of places, that’s enough to get you killed.

And so it was with the first disciples, who sat in a small room surrounded by their friends long ago. We are here tonight to remember what Jesus said and did in that room. The disciples were there that night to remember what God said and did on the first Passover.

The time had come to break free from the tyrannical and dictatorial rule of Egypt and to go to a strange new land. The Hebrew people were enslaved and worked to the death. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Pharaoh ordered the murder of every first-born male in every Hebrew family. Can you imagine the terror of the powers-that-be coming for your baby boy? But these were their lives, living under the shadow of subjugation.

And the time had come to break free.

God spoke to Moses and gave him explicit instructions on what to gather together, how to cook it, and even how to eat it. With specifics like an overly heavy cookbook, God laid out the plans for their deliverance: Every household shall cook and eat and lamb. Blood from the lamb shall be taken and adorned on the doorposts of the house where they eat it. You shall eat it hurriedly, with your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and staff in your hands. This will be the Passover, for the Lord will pass over the homes marked with blood and strike down every firstborn in Egypt, including the animals. But the blood shall be a sign, and nothing evil will come to you. You must remember this day every year, tell the story to your children, and your children’s children, for this is the day you will be delivered from slavery.

That’s the story the disciples gathered to remember. It’s a strange one, but they, like the generations before them, were a product of that story and it shaped everything about their lives.

And while they were sitting at the table, Jesus reached for a common loaf of bread; he gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the bread around the table, Jesus said, “I am going to do a new thing, I am giving my body for you.”

And then, before the supper was over, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the cup around the table, Jesus said, “This cup is my blood of the new covenant. I’m pouring out my blood for you, and for the world.”

In the frame of the blood of the lamb from the first Passover, Jesus poured out his blood as the Lamb of God.

christ-our-passover

Whenever we share this meal, we like to talk about forgiveness; being forgiven by God for what we’ve done. And this is good, and right, and true. But the first Passover wasn’t about God forgiving the Hebrew people for anything they had done… Passover was about God making a way out of no way; it was about freedom from tyranny and slavery; it was about the journey to a strange new land.

The Hebrew people took blood from the lamb and it was a sign for them to be saved.

Jesus took the cup and told his friends that his blood was to be their freedom from a different form or slavery, far worse than any power in Egypt then, or now. Through the Lamb of God’s blood, we are freed from death.

While sitting at the table with his friends, it’s as if Jesus is telling them that when they see him hanging on the cross, they should see a door with blood. It’s as if Jesus is telling them that his sacrifice, his death, is our exodus.

It might not feel like it at times, like when we gather in the sanctuary for a funeral or when we turn on the news and see what’s happening in Egypt or Syria or any number of places, but death no longer holds any control over us. For centuries the Hebrew people remembered how God delivered them out of Egypt, and for centuries Christians have remembered how Jesus delivered us out of the slavery to sin and death.

            Jesus is our Passover Lamb.

His blood has been spilled in the cup at our table and it covers the doors of our souls.

Tonight, Coptic Christians in Egypt will gather in their churches to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends, just like we are. They will remember God delivering God’s people out of Egypt, and God delivering them out of the bondage of death.

And we might wonder: Why stay in Egypt? As Christians, why don’t they just leave and go to a place where they can worship without the threat of death? Why not come to a place like the United States where they can be free to worship how they please?

Perhaps they will stay because they’ve already had their exodus. They’ve already been delivered from the reign of death into a strange new land we call the Kingdom of God. Maybe they’ve been shaped by the knowledge and faith that Jesus is their Passover Lamb.

I don’t know what you’re wrestling with tonight, whether you’re feeling God’s presence or it’s been a long time since you’ve felt anything remotely holy. I don’t know what sins you need to confess, or who you need to seek reconciliation with. But what I do know is that this meal is the beginning of our exodus; it is our journey to a strange new land.

So come and see that the Lord is good, let this be a moment of remembrance, and look to the cross as a door covered with blood. Amen.

A Place At The Table – Maundy Thursday Homily on 1 Corinthians 11.23-26

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this is remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

BouveretLastSupper

After the worship service ended, a number of us were standing around and enjoying the fellowship when I overheard a grandson talking with his grandfather. The young boy looked puzzled about something when his grandfather finally inquired as to what had happened. “So let me get this straight, when we have communion, everybody is invited?” the boy asked. “Of course” answered the grandfather. “And did the pastor really say that when we do this we are eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood?” The grandfather heisted for a moment but then confirmed the question. The boy stood silently for a moment, when all of the sudden a huge smile broke out on his face and he declared, “being a Christian is awesome!

body-and-blood-mark-jennings

That, my friends, is sound sacramental theology.

How strange is it, when you take a step back, that for the last two thousand years Christians have been regularly gathering around Christ’s table to partake in his body and blood. We are invited up to the altar to consume Christ just as Christ offered himself to the disciples in their last meal together, and as he offered himself on the cross. This really is an awesome thing that we do, because in doing so we remember and act into the life of Christ, committing ourselves to discipleship here and now.

For years I worshipped with a family that could’ve come from a Norman Rockwell painting. They always sat together in church, the kids dutifully listened to the sermons, and they were regarded with respect by nearly everyone in the community. Everything about the family made them seem perfect, particularly when it came to their first born son. Having cerebral palsy meant he was pushed in his chair into the sanctuary every Sunday morning. His parents were responsible for feeding him, clothing him, and changing him. And though he sometimes gathered stares from others in the congregation, to the family, he was just like everyone else.

I used to love seeing them enter church, I loved how they involved all of their children in everything they did, regardless of differences. It wasn’t until years later that I learned why they started attending our church.

They were a military family, and were moved every few years. This meant that whenever they arrived in a new place they had to lay the foundations for new relationships and social connections. After every move they would begin by finding a local church and would start participating in its ministries. They had been attending their church for sometime, creating new bonds with fellow parishioners, when the church had a communion service for the first time in a while. The family, like all the others, gathered in the center aisle and made their way toward the altar. Each child went forward and received the body and blood, but when the father pushed his eldest son forward in his wheel chair the pastor refused to serve the young man communion. “If he cannot understand what this means, I will not serve him,” was the response from the minister. That was enough for the family to never reenter that church ever again.

mixing-chairs-at-dining-table

On Jesus’ final evening with his disciples they gathered in the upper room and shared bread and wine, Jesus’ body and blood. Ironically, this sacramental meal which was intended to celebrate the unity of Christians with their Lord and one another has become the source of such division within the church.

Just imagine for a moment, that final evening the disciples had with one another; they had  come so far together. From their humble beginnings, called from their fishing boats and families in Galilee, these ragtag disciples had followed their Lord all the way to Jerusalem. They were the least likely candidates for the kind of mission that God would accomplish in the world, yet they were the ones called and invited to a new life with Christ. Around that table sat fishermen and  tax collectors, men who had abandoned everything they knew for a life of uncertainty following the light of the world. Even Judas, the one who would betray him in a number of hours was invited to the table and was given the body and the blood.

There is a place at this table for you. 

It does not matter where you’re from, who you are, what you’ve done. It does not matter how strong or weak your faith is. It does not matter whether you understand what happens here or not. Surely the disciples did not understand that first time, or they would not have abandoned their Lord the next day as he mounted the hard wood of the cross. I stand on this side of the table, and not even I completely understand what happens in the Eucharist.

It is truly an awesome thing to share this meal because it is mysterious. Somehow, in gathering together, the Holy Spirit is poured down upon us and these gifts of bread and wine so that they become for us the body and blood of Christ.

But even more mysterious than what happens here at the table, is the fact that people like you and me are invited to it. That regardless of our failures and short-comings, in spite of our desertion of Jesus at different times in our lives, and precisely because of our lack of faith, Jesus meets us here at the table.

I have to agree with my young friend from church; being a Christian is awesome