Devotional – Psalm 86.10

Devotional:

Psalm 86.10

For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

Weekly Devotional Image

Yesterday, while the United Methodist Churches in the Virginia Conference gathered for worship, clergy and lay representatives were at the Hampton Convention Center to hear Bishop Sharma Lewis lead worship. In her sermon she brought together many of the ideas from the weekend of Annual Conference particularly regarding the fact that God is in the business of doing new things. And she concluded with our new ministry focus: “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners, who influence others to serve.”

But there was another line from her sermon that has been playing over and over in my mind more than any other: “Laity, do not say to your Clergy who bring fresh ideas, ‘But we’ve never done it that way before.’”

I count myself blessed that over the last four years St. John’s has largely responded positively to new ideas. Working together with the leadership of the church has resulted in new ministries and ways to serve the community that have allowed us to accomplish God’s will. But just as we embarked into new territory during my time as the pastor, you (and I really mean you) need to continue to have open eyes and open hearts to the new ideas from your new pastor.

editors-rant

Just because we did something a certain way while I was here does not mean that’s the way you have to do it forever. Frankly, you should probably change almost everything because that would be a better way of allowing the Spirit to move in new and bold ways. And that is what is at the heart of what Bishop Lewis said and at the heart of churches that are currently fruitful; a recognition that new ideas should be embraced because they ultimately come from God.

The psalmist boldly proclaims that God is the one who is great and does wondrous things. Pastors can do good things for their churches, they can help to point to what God is doing in the world, but God is the one doing the things in the world! God is God alone and a church can only be fruitful when it knows and believes that God is the one from whom all blessings flow.

So when you hear about a new idea, whether it comes from your new pastor or even from yourself, know and believe that God is the source of the idea, and prepare yourselves to be surprised by the wondrous majesty of our God who is in the business of doing new things.

I will miss all of you and all of the remarkable things we’ve done together over the last four years, but I am grateful that God will continue to do even more for you in this new chapter of the church’s life.

The Uninvited Guest

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

i-will-pour-out-my-spirit-on-all-my-people-marianne-gonzales-sims

I only have three opportunities left to proclaim God’s Word in this place. After preaching for 4 years from the Old and New Testaments, after listening for the Spirit’s movement for more than 250 sermons, I only have 3 left.

It’s hard not to think about what my final thoughts should be. I’ve been the pastor of St. John’s for some incredible mountaintop moments, and some frighteningly deep valleys. I’ve gone on a bunch of mission trips, taught lots of bible studies, and implored us to do some pretty strange things in this sanctuary all under the auspices of “worship.”

What do I want to leave with all of you? Should I try to whittle the entirety of the gospel down to an easily digestible sentence like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Should I use my last three sermons to build you up with stories of love and grace and generosity? Should I use these final sermons to break you down with talk of sin, evil, and repentance?

I’ve got to admit that over the last few weeks I’ve found myself far more concerned with what I want to say than with what God wants to say.

 

Here we are my friends, today is Pentecost, the so-called birthday of the church. I know some pastors who will spend part of this morning in worship gathering their congregations around a giant birthday cake and will encourage an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Others will spend the service talking about how it is our responsibility to offer gifts to the church for her birthday and will then not-so-subtly move to the time of tithes and offerings. And others will use the church’s birthday as an opportunity to talk about inviting others to celebrate and make the whole thing into a guilt trip about evangelism and church growth.

All of which don’t have much to do with what God is saying in the text.

But, of course, Pentecost seems like a party. There are people gathered together in one place, the house is filled with something that propels the guests to do something, and everyone leaves with a gift.

But if Pentecost is a party, how long had God planned it? Who was on the guest list? Is it the kind of party we would hope to be invited to?

Pentecost may be the birthday of the church, the beginning of the gathering of disciples to worship the living God, but it is NOT the birthday of the Spirit.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth… sound familiar? When nothing existed but chaos the Spirit of God swept across the waters and brought forth order. The Spirit is not new, it was there in the creation of all things, it rested on the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets. By the day of Pentecost in the upper room the Spirit had already overshadowed Mary’s womb, and called Jesus forth from the tomb. It was there at Jesus’ baptism, it compelled him to preach his first sermon, it fed the 5,000, it healed the sick, Jesus even breathed it on the disciples in the upper room shortly after his resurrection.

The story of Pentecost is not about the arrival of some previously unknown force that we call the Spirit; the entire bible is the story of the Spirit of God made manifest in and among God’s people.

What happened on Pentecost began long before that day, and will continue long after we’re gone.

Near the beginning, the people of God had grown restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began work on a giant tower. With brick and mortar, sweat and tears, they cut through the horizon in an attempt to reach God, and become like God. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to confuse our language and scatter us across the earth. The unity and connection at the heart of our species was ripped apart and never again would we so brazenly attempt to reach and control our Lord.

Or so we thought.

Later, while Moses was on top of the mountain with God, at a place called Sinai, the people down in the valley grew restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began forming a golden calf to worship. With a gathering of precious gems, with kneeling and praising, they chose a new god to put their hope in. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to wipe us from the face of the earth. But Moses pleaded with the Lord and instead only 3,000 were killed for worshipping the golden calf.

The Tower of Babel in Genesis and the Golden Calf in Exodus are stories we’d like to explain away. Not just for their strange and supernatural elements, but also because they don’t match with our anachronistic and modern sensibilities. We’d rather talk about what we think the text means than what it is actually saying.

But the stories of Babel and the Golden Calf do not end with a division of language or in a slaughter.

Pentecost is the undoing of Babel with God’s magnificent power reuniting God’s people under a common tongue: the Gospel.

            Pentecost is the undoing of the episode with the Golden Calf where, instead of 3,000 being killed, 3,000 were added to the budding church in order to redeem what happened in the valley long ago.

            The Spirit at Pentecost is the one who brings forth life out of death, hope out of despair, and a beginning out of an ending.

perfectchurch

We here in church like everything nice and orderly, or at least I do. I want to have a bulletin that is clear and organized, I want a theme that stretches throughout the entirety of the service, I want people like you to get exactly what you want and what you need.

But the Spirit is not one for white linens, and perfect bulletins, and calm consciences. On Pentecost the Spirit did not come with manners and a polite disposition. No, the Spirit comes with power that could knock someone to the ground, fill a room as if with fire, and even turn the world upside down.

The Spirit shows up at Pentecost like an uninvited guest.

During the height of segregation, there was a well-known church in the heart of Durham that was filled with proper looking white families every Sunday. They all made sure their children were quiet in worship, knew when to bow their heads, and stood to sing the hymns. Their clothes were always clean and coordinated, they always had plans for lunch after worship, and to them the church was perfect.

On one particular communion Sunday however, a young black man showed up at the main door and attempted to walk in. The ushers promptly blocked his path and used a few choice words to explain what they thought about his presence.

The next month he showed up with a few of his friends and there were even more ushers blocking the entrance.

Finally, in the deep heat of the summer, the young black community members decided to wait until the service started before walking in. They waited for the ushers to head inside and stand in the back and then they made their way through the doors precisely when the preacher stepped forward with the bread and with the cup and invited everyone forward.

At that cue the group pushed through the back pews and made their way down to the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus.

I wish I could tell you in that holy moment the white people of the church were filled by the grace of God to receive their black brothers and sisters in love.

I wish I could tell you that the whole congregation stood to sing Amazing Grace and gather with their new friends at the altar.

I wish I could tell you that the whole white community of Durham came to their senses in that profound moment and began working to end segregation.

            But that’s not what happened.

The nice people sitting in the pews with their perfect families and their perfect worship service saw the young black men and women as uninvited guests, and they did what some people do when the unwanted show up, they kicked them out.

A fight broke out that Sunday in the aisles and in the pews, clothes were torn, blood was spilt, and windows were broken.

The police were called to break up the fight, which made matters even worse, and the church was evacuated before anyone even got communion.

The Spirit does not always arrive as a still small voice or a faint stirring of the heart. Sometimes the Spirit is electric, atomic, volcanic, and even violent.

img_mouseover3

The human community divided by God at Babel, and punished at Sinai, was brought back together in the upper room on Pentecost. Instead of overwhelming confusion there was a new cooperation. At Babel and at Sinai the people of God wanted to move vertically to become like God. At Pentecost, God connected the people of God horizontally through the kingdom.

God, on Pentecost, offered us a new way, but sometimes we fall back to the Babels and the Golden Calves of the past. At that church in Durham, they believed that one’s skin pigmentation meant more than just about anything. And it took a fight between the pews to show them how far they had fallen.

For some of us we care more about what political party we’re affiliated with than anything else. We therefore ignore or even attack those who disagree with us.

For others we divide ourselves over ethnicity, race, sexual preference, age, socio-economic status, and a great slew of other factors.

But at Pentecost God did what God had to do to unite humanity back together. Like an uninvited guest God arrived as a violent wind rushing throughout the room and filled the entire house. Divided tongues like fire appeared among the disciples and a new tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that was there at the creation of existence, there in the virgin’s womb, and there in the empty tomb.

God interrupted the sensibilities and the gathering of the first disciples to offer a new way, a way filled with a frightening and powerful Spirit. God united the people under a common tongue of the gospel of His Son through the power of His Spirit and it forever altered the way we understand the world.

For at Pentecost we discover that WE are the church, and that “we” often includes people we can’t imagine; people who do not look like us, think like us, speak like us, or even worship like us.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the way we worship. I love our hymns and our prayers and even the way our sanctuary looks. I love the way we greet each other as we enter the building, I love the way we share signs of Christ’s peace, I even love how many of us are wearing red this morning in honor of Pentecost.

But the church should be a disruptive thing because that’s precisely what God’s Spirit did at Babel, at Sinai, at Pentecost, and it’s precisely what the Spirit did at that church in Durham, and frankly it’s what the Spirit is going to do to the youth of this church on our mission trip this week. The Spirit will upend our expectations and our hopes and our dreams. The Spirit is the one who will show us that WE are the church, all of us, and all of the people that we can’t imagine, they and we are the church, whether we like it or not. Amen.

On The Lordship Of Jesus or: How To Preach For Memorial Day Weekend

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension Sunday), Brian challenged us to make it all about joy (again) while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about preaching Memorial Day weekend, how Jesus is Lord and everything else is B@#$%^&*, identity, clapping in worship, Lee Greenwood, and why Ascension Sunday might be the most important Sunday of the year (even more than Easter???) you can check out the podcast here: Ascension Sunday – Year A

jesus_constitution

Can I Get A Witness?

Psalm 66.8-20

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net, you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us our to a spacious place. I will come into you house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.

 

What do you want for your funeral? It’s a strange question, and its one we would rather like to avoid if possible. But have you ever thought about what your funeral might look like? What hymns would you want your family to sing? What scripture has meant the most to you in your life? Do you want people to offer testimonies?

Every time I meet with a family to plan a Service of Death and Resurrection I avoid mentioning a time of testimony. I avoid it for a number of reasons including the fact that testimonies are supposed to be about how God has worked in the life of the person now dead, and that rarely happens, you never know what someone might say when they are invited to speak freely from a pulpit, and sometimes you don’t know whether anyone will get up to say anything at all.

To be clear, a lack of testimonial witness on behalf of the gathered body for worship is not an indication that the person lived a flawed or inconsequential life, it usually has more to do with how uncomfortable many of us are with public speaking.

But every once in awhile the family insists on having it, even when I didn’t bring it up. And every time we have a service and the time comes for the testimony, I invite anyone who would like to speak to come up to the pulpit, I sit down, and I pray that God taps on at least one person to come up and say anything, but I am always prepared to make something up on the spot should the pulpit remain uncomfortably empty.

If I were bolder, if I had more faith, I would just say, “Can I get a witness?” and then I would sit down in comfort knowing that God will provide.

8ff3283513b11bafb0653b3170d7d3b2

In Psalm 66 the faithfulness of God is remembered, offerings on behalf of God’s people are made, and then one lone worshipper offers a witness to all who will listen.

Bless the Lord your God! Let the sound of his praise be heard in this place and in all places. Our God has kept us among the living! What a great God is ours who has tested us, laid burdens on our backs, let people ride over our heads, and delivered us through fire and water. We remember, o people, how God journeyed with the people through the valleys of the shadow of death and brought them to the Promised Land. We remember, o people, how God has been with us in the midst of suffering and carried us through to the other side.

And because of what the Lord has done, we will come into this house with our offerings. We will present our money, and our gifts, and our time. Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.

The writer describes in great detail the types of offerings made to the Lord, the physical things brought forth as an act of faith. But it is also about far more than that: God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness to us, is the lens by which we interpret our own lives.

God has listened to the prayers of the psalmist; God has listened to us. And because God has listened we must testify.

Can I get a witness?

14890

Witnessing is a taboo thing in the church these days, or at least in the United Methodist Church. There was a time however when worship was all about testimony, moments when the preacher would step away from the pulpit and let the people of God proclaim the glorious works of God to the rest of the people of God.

But today, we don’t have time for any of this witnessing stuff. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We don’t want to evangelize anyone. Professional Christians like pastors are the ones meant to testify.

Or, we might say that we don’t want to talk about our faith because it is a private thing. Which is ridiculous since we can only understand and interpret our faith within the faith community.

Over and over again scripture bombards us with the call to testify, to witness, to our story because that is exactly what the bible is. The bible is the witness to the marvelous works of God.

The psalmist witnesses to the truth of God’s reign because the psalmist has experienced it and cannot be kept from proclaiming it. The psalmist has been so transformed by God that the only way to respond is to tell the stories to everyone with ears to hear.

Can I get a witness?

When we are lost and found by God, that is a worthy beginning to our witness. For it is when we are lost that we are most open to the possibility of being found.

And here’s the thing: Testimony, witnessing to God, is not limited to speech about what God has done. Testimony is speech shaped by what God has done. The psalmist witnessed to the works of the Lord and in so doing allowed others, people like us, to hear and even experience what the writer experienced in God.

We don’t care much for the idea of witnessing any more. It no longer matches up with our modern sensibilities, but telling our story is the means by which we come to understand our own faith. When we do it, when we are brave and bold enough to witness, we don’t simply tell what we have already come to believe… it becomes the means by which we believe.

And that is why we witness, that is why we testify, because in so doing we become the very community God has called us to be.

So, can I get a witness?

Seriously this time, who among us will stand to share what God has done for you?

 

(Time of congregational testimony)

 

My testimony:

I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions the ways and means by which God called me to spend the rest of my life doing what I do. You’ve heard about the sidewalk square where I fell to my knees and offered my life to God. You’ve been brought into the narrative of being marched to the front of the church as a teenager and attempting to proclaim God’s Word through my first sermon. But I want to testify to another of God’s marvelous works in my life: God sending me here to you.

I never would’ve picked St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Not because there was anything particularly wrong with the church, I just knew nothing about it. When I walked into the sanctuary that first Sunday morning I only knew about 5 of you, and even then I barely knew you. And yet God called me here.

When Lindsey and I arrived, it was really hard at first. We were a young couple plucked out of our community in Durham, NC and planted here. She couldn’t find work. I didn’t know what it meant to do this work. We didn’t make friends with people in the community. And, whether or not either of us would admit it, I wondered if God had called me to the right place.

And I got up in this pulpit every week to proclaim what God had placed on my heart. I prepared for Bible Study. I visited people in the hospital. I sat on the floor with our preschoolers and told them about the bible.

And slowly, you grafted us into the community. As the weeks and months passed we felt more and more connected to the people in the pews this very morning. We loved you, and you loved us. And suddenly, this church became our family. We wept when you wept; we celebrated when you celebrated.

God sent me here to you. And some might say that God sent me here for a reason, that this church needed me. And that might be true. All churches need pastors for different reasons. But for as much as this church needed me, I needed this church.

I know in my heart of hearts that God sent me here in order to rekindle my faith; after spending years reading about God in seminary it was too easy to be cynical about what the church might be. In coming here I needed to rediscover the wonderful power of God made manifest in a community of love that you can never discover in a book on theology; I needed to re-encounter the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And you provided that for me.

And I know in my heart of hearts that the time has come for God to send me to a new place. But when I got the call about moving, it came without knowing who would be the new pastor at St. John’s. And I’ll be honest, I’ve been nervous about it. I love this church because this church has loved me. And I want it to have a pastor that will love it, and receive love from it, like I have.

And today we can finally announce that the new pastor of St. John’s is Rev. Chuck Cole. When I found out Chuck was coming here I knew that God had answered my prayers: Chuck and I were ordained together last June and have interacted a lot before we knew he was coming here. Chuck and his wife Sarah have four children and they currently live in Covington where Chuck is serving two churches. Chuck is full of love for God’s church and I know that he will love this place, and that you will love him.

What has God done for me? God sent me to a church that listened to me, prayed with me, and loved me in spite of myself.

What has God done for me? God is sending me to a new place and is sending a new pastor to the church that I love to continue the good work of the kingdom.

What has God done for you? Amen.

 

132-DSC_0211

The Cole Family

On Stealing Sermons (and the similarities between Jesus and NT Wright)

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the sixth Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy (again) while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about stealing sermons, the difference between making disciples and church members, golden calf ministries, and how Jesus (in the gospel of John) is like NT Wright you can check out the podcast here: Easter 6A – Brian Zahnd

Concept: Copy paste buttons on the keyboard. 3D rendering.

On The Perils Of Preaching On Mother’s Day

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the fifth Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy (again) while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about the challenge of preaching on Mother’s Day, how to listen to those who are screaming, and what it means to be a holy nation, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 5A – Brian Zahnd

Mom_wide_t.jpg

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.

5132_Psalm_23_Cross-1