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 Most Hipster Passage From The Old Testament

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice went down to Durham, NC a couple weeks ago to interview Stanley Hauerwas for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Dr. Hauerwas gave us a lot to chew on. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn about the most hipster passage from the Old Testament, you can check out the podcast here: Year A – Lent 4

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Devotional – Psalm 23

Devotional:

Psalm 23.1

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
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I’ve done a lot of funerals. In my short time as a pastor I have presided over more services of death and resurrection than baptisms and weddings combined. And every funeral, much like every baptism and wedding, is contextual and different. Some families come in with a service already planned out in their minds with specific hymns and scriptural texts, and some families come in with their eyes glossed over and have no idea what they want the funeral to look like. I’ve read scripture from the recently deceased’s bible, I’ve been handed a tear stained eulogy to read aloud because the emotional strain was too high, and I’ve even been asked to sing a solo during a service. But one thing that has united every single funeral I’ve participated in has been the reading of Psalm 23.

Unlike other readings during funeral services, we print out the entirety of the 23rd Psalm in bold in the bulletins. When the time comes, I ask everyone gathered together to read the beloved words out loud and as we take a collective breath we begin, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” An amazing thing happens when this psalm is read out loud in the context of grief and loss. You can audibly hear the anxiety in the air as the first words are read aloud; people read at different tempos and take breaths at different moments. But as the psalm progresses, so do the voices. It is as if the entire congregation, through the psalm, is able to take a collective breath of fresh air and release a profound sigh of comfort. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful reminder of the powerful presence of the Lord in the midst of death, and encourages those of us who remain to live as faithfully as the person we have gathered to remember.

This week, no matter what we have going on, let us take a moment to faithfully proclaim the words to the 23rd Psalm with the knowledge that even after we’re gone, people will use these words to mark our Services of Death and Resurrection:

 

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 through 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 forever.

 

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My Cup Runneth Over – Sermon on Psalm 23

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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The 23rd Psalm. Many of you know that I am far more eager to preach on the lesser-known texts of scripture, than I am to preach on those that are remarkably familiar. I decided months ago that after my wedding and honeymoon, Psalm 23 would be the first text I preached on, precisely because it was familiar. All things considered, I have been very busy the last few weeks, and I thought that it would be easy to prepare a sermon on this beloved text; I was so wrong.

When we proclaim one of the best known texts from the Bible, there is an incredible amount of baggage that comes with it. If I wanted to preach on something from Obadiah or Nehemiah, I could say a whole lot about whatever I wanted because so many of us are unfamiliar with the texts, myself included.

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But when you hear Psalm 23 read aloud, many of us immediately have a memory or a determined understanding of what the text means. Its familiarity makes it challenging to proclaim because we’ve all heard it before; The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

What is it about this psalm that makes it so beloved? Perhaps many of us were taught to memorize the psalm when we were younger. Maybe some of us can remember our mothers and grandmothers whispering it by their bedside before they went to sleep. Is it the simplicity, the ease for memorization? It the use of this psalm in contemporary pop-culture? Besides the Lord’s prayer and John 3.16, this is perhaps the best known of all the Christian scriptures.

I believe what makes this psalm so compelling is not so much its brevity, but instead its realism. This is no happy-go-lucky, “everything is awesome,” kind of passage. Rather, it faithfully faces the dark realities of what life is really like, while at the same time calls us to honestly remember the delights of life. It has become so popular and beloved that many of us can recite it from memory, but have lost touch with what the passage is saying. Every verse contains a wealth of theological treasure waiting to be uncovered and enjoyed.

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The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. We of course remember immediately that Christ is the good shepherd, as our wonderful stained glass window portrays. God in Christ is the guardian of the church. The great I AM shepherded the Israelites through the wilderness, delivering them from slavery and captivity to the promised land. The Lord was the shepherd to the prophets who proclaimed the Word to the lost Israelites. God helped shepherd Christ throughout Galilee, even to the cross. Our Father was the shepherd to the disciples as they spread the gospel throughout the world. The great shepherd is now with us, guiding and keeping watch over all that we do as we witness to God’s love in the world.

God guards the flock as a whole, the sheep have been brought into the fold. Each of us are one of God’s sheep; we are safer if we stay connected with one another. If the church begins to stampede in one direction, some will be inevitably lost. If the church divides into factions, we will be like a panicking flock of sheep. We listen for the great shepherd who leads us.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. In our modern lives we seem to have lost the power to relax; we no longer know what it means to observe sabbath time in our lives. We succumb to the power of stress that overcomes us regularly, and lose the energy to live vibrant and fulfilling lives. So, God, father of all mercy, bids us to relax, to observe some sort of sabbath in our lives, and to find rest. However, notice that rest is not a end in itself, God restores our souls through rest so that we can continue on our faithful journeys. Life is filled with movement, following the paths of righteousness.

He leads me in rights 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. God leads us, as the shepherd, on the right paths. So much of the vital moments and decisions in our lives do not come from our choosing; we do not determine the time of our birth, the kind of parents that we will have, the culture in which we find ourselves, the opportunities that “come our way.” At times life is beyond our control, and that is a good thing! To so desperately seek control of our lives will eventually end in disappointment. In order for God to be the shepherd of our lives, we have to let him into our hearts to shepherd us and guide us on the paths of righteousness. We need to let God be in control. It is only when we let go that we can faithfully proclaim, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” It is only when we let go that we can know that God is with us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil. Like any good shepherd, God has brought his flock back home to safety, brought us to his table, just like the table that has been prepared for us here. Some of our truest enemies might be with us here in church this morning, but God has prepared the table for you so that you can feast with friend and foe. 

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And so now we come to an incredible collection of words that encompass God’s goodness in our lives: my cup runneth over

How often do we take time to look back and reflect on what God has done for us? How much time do we spend in prayer thanking God for all that he has done? Can we faithfully declare “my cup runneth over…”?

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Today, of course, is Mother’s Day. I am blessed and privileged to have a mother who has cared for, and loved me, every day of my life. A mother who is still so accustomed to attending swim meets, baseball games, and band concerts, that she will drive two and a half hours to attend church with us here at St. John’s. A mother who participated in my life and activities, but gave me the freedom to grow and experience life independently. A mother who sacrificed her own needs again and again because she loved me. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have had a mother like mine, some of you may have lost your mother, some of you might have grown up without a mother, but look around you. The call of the Christian is to be motherly to all that have gathered here. Though your mother might not have been like mine, I know that each of you have mothers in Christ that are here with us today. Our cups runneth over.

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On April 27th I stood at the front of Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, VA, waiting for Lindsey Rickerson to walk down the aisle with her father. I cannot tell you how nervous I was. I know that I was leaning from side to side, standing before all of my family and friends, my nerves attempting to get the better of me, but the moment Lindsey appeared at the back of the sanctuary I felt God’s presence surround me with a sense of calm I have rarely experienced. I covenanted with God and Lindsey to love, honor, and keep her with all that I am for the rest of my life. I am blessed to be her husband. Lindsey has changed my life for the better on numerous occasions, she challenges me to be a better man, and lives out God’s call on her life every single day. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have a spouse like mine, some of you may have lost yours, or never felt called to be married in the first place, but today and for all days I get the joy of sharing Lindsey with you. We are all called to love one another in such a tremendously wonderful way that people like Lindsey can be and live for those that have gathered as the body of Christ. Our cups runneth over.

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After the wedding, while Lindsey and I celebrated at the reception. I had countless staff members continually refill my glass to the degree that I literally learned what it meant for my cup to runneth over. I looked around the reception hall and saw joyful faces that conveyed endless memories of how much my life has been shaped by others. In that room I witnessed God’s incredible goodness manifest in the lives of so many that I have been blessed to call my friends. My cup runneth over.

Some of you might not have the opportunity to sit in a room surrounded by droves of friends and family to congratulate you on the newest development in your life. You might feel lonely and isolated in your current life situations. But look around the sanctuary. Being one in Christ means that we discover our newest and greatest friendships here at church. Christian friendship and fellowship is what made the church so appealing in the beginning, and it rests at the very fabric for what it means to be the church today. I look out from this pulpit and I see the friendships that will sustain all of us through the coming years. Our cups runneth over.

The 23rd psalm is filled with such vivid and realistic imagery, applicable for our daily living. The great shepherd tends to his sheep, keeping them close and protecting them from harm. Our God compels us to find rest so that we can continue on our journeys of faith. The Lord invites us to this his table so that we might feast on heavenly food and meet the divine. But today, the Lord asks us to look on our lives and remember our blessings.

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Because our blessings are everywhere; from the tiniest details of a perfect sunset, to a incredible wedding and the joining together of two people. God has blessed our lives over and over again. We have the choice to reflect on his goodness, or remain in our suffering. Today we remember what God has done, we remember our mothers, and the call of the church to be motherly toward everyone, we give thanks to the Lord our God for shaping us through those we call our friends.

It’s only when we look at our lives and faithfully say, “my cup runneth over” that we can begin to proclaim the final verse of psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.” Amen.