Sheep Without A Shepherd

Devotional:

Isaiah 53.6

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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My son’s preschool class announced a few weeks ago that there was going to be a school wide field trip to a farm in order to celebrate the season of fall. Parents were encouraged to attend and act somewhat like chaperones as the children would have access to most of the property including many of the animals. In the days leading up to the field trip, I didn’t give it much thought, until yesterday morning when we arrived at the farm and saw the hundreds of other kids and families descending on the farm.

The place was massive and filled with all sorts of activities – there were pirate ships to climb on, pumpkin patches to weave through, and a 45 min long hay ride through the whole property.

The best way to sum up the experience was something I overheard between a husband and his wife (outside of earshot from their children), “Who needs Disney World when we have this???”

All in all it was a great experience, and one that my son talked about all afternoon, evening, and even while I was putting him to bed last night. And I hope he will remember with fondness the slides, and the doughnuts, and the castles, but the thing I will always remember will be the wandering sheep.

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It should go without saying that sheep are dumb. They are some of the most simple minded creatures and they have to be taken care of with particular attention.

The sheep at the farm yesterday morning was wandering around outside of any fence or pen and no one seemed to notice. But the longer it paced back and forth, the more it commanded my attention. At least, it did until one of the farm workers walked over and presumably began directing the sheep back to its proper place, and when he saw me watching he said, “She’s nothing without a shepherd.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah, “we have all turned to our own way.” We modern people tend to think that we’ve got all of this life stuff figured out; we wake up day after day and go through the motions we presume give us meaning. But the hard truth of the matter is that, many of us, are no better than the wandering sheep. 

When we become so consumed by our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations, we become like that farm animal trapped in our own loop of isolation.

Thanks be to God, then, that we have a shepherd named Jesus – the one who comes when we are lost and guides us back to the flock – the one who pulls us out of our self-absorption and helps us to see that there is a better way.

The Problem With Kids Today – Sermon on John 10.11-18

John 10.11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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Happy Preschool Sunday! This morning we conclude our sermon series on our stained glass. These sermons were born out of a desire to recapture the importance of our windows and how the continue to speak into our lives. We began with The Methodists to my right: Susanna Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury. Last week we looked at The Johns: John the Evangelist, John the Presbyter, and John on Patmos. We now finish with the window behind me above the altar: Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

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Why St. John’s?” I asked. We were sitting in the living room and going over our respective histories when I finally turned to one of my favorite questions: “Why St. John’s?” With the overwhelming abundance of churches in our community what made you choose this one?

Her answer was familiar and sounded similar to the other responses I had heard: It was where all our friends were going; it was the closest church to our neighborhood; it just made sense; it was a place our kids felt welcome. But then her answer took on a life of it’s own in a way I didn’t expect.

“But we haven’t always been here,” she said. “There was a time that we no longer wanted to come to St. John’s.” Of course my curiosity was caught and I wanted to know all the details behind their departure, but as if she was reading my mind she continued, “The ‘why’ is not important. What is important is how we came back.

“We were invited back for a particular Sunday, and though it hurt me to enter the doors of the sanctuary, I reluctantly sat down in one of the back pews. Before I knew it my mind was  flooded with all of the friendships that we cultivated in the sanctuary, all the children I had vowed to raise in the faith during their baptisms, all of the good sermons and all of the bad. But at the same time my mind was flooded with all the old arguments, the disagreements, and the frustrations.”

“But then something happened. I looked up and I saw the Good Shepherd window and everything felt right. It was like all of my worry started to slowly dissipate, and I knew that I had to come back. This was my home, because this is where I discover how the Good Shepherd watches over me.”

People and situations had driven her away. The old arguments were enough for her to leave the church behind. But miraculously enough it wasn’t people that brought her back, there were no justifications or rationalizations that would have changed her opinion. It was this window. It was Jesus as the Good Shepherd that brought her back, and it is the Good Shepherd who watches over all of us.

More often than not, the Good Shepherd stained glass window is the first thing that people notice when they enter our sanctuary. Its colors and vibrancy draw our attention and captivate us even when the sermons make us want to sleep.

It shows Jesus at his finest: leading, nurturing, and loving. The sheep are at peace knowing their shepherd is there to guide them through life. Even the abundance of blue helps to convey the deep sense of calm that comes with Jesus’s presence.

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we are called to remember how much the Good Shepherd loves us. It shows how comforting it is to know that the Lord will hold us, and protect us, when necessary. The window exemplifies the power of the one who gave all that he had for his friends and for strangers.

Yet, even for as much as this window conveys the faith, it also muddies the waters. During the time of Jesus’ life the role of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. Shepherds were often the outcasts of society and were ignored by the masses. Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd” would have bewildered the religious elite and the powerful. It had a certain edge to it.

This week I gathered all of our preschoolers into the choir loft to teach them about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Like we all do, they noticed how beautiful Jesus looks in the image and how he cares for the sheep. “The sheep is like a baby” one of the kids yelled out. I remember thinking: “Yes yes, thats all good and true, but there is so much more to what it means to shepherd.”

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When describing himself as the good shepherd Jesus uses the hired hand as a comparison. The hired hand is someone who is only concerned with monetary gains, expends the minimum amount of work necessary, and will not risk life or limb for the sake of others. The hired hand is like the person who is so selfish that they ignore the needs of others.

Jesus, however, lays down his life for the sheep and promises to never let them, us, go. His voice will always draw us back because we belong to him. 

I love our preschoolers and this time of the year is always bittersweet for me. We are preparing for the end of year program, and our eldest class will be heading off to kindergarten in the fall. I spend enough time with them in the basement that I know the ins and outs of their little personalities, I know who to separate during chapel time for optimal focus, I know what jokes they will laugh at, and I know what to do and what to say to stop them from crying. I love them and I believe that I would be willing to lay my life down for them. I would do whatever it takes to protect them because each of them is a child of God.

But then I wonder if I would do the same thing for the adults in my life… I mean I love all of you too, but there’s just something about the desire to protect children that makes us stronger and braver than we normally are. For some reasons we value them as being more important than those who are older, and we prioritize their needs over others. We would do things for children that we would never do for others.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

After we looked at the window this week, I brought the preschoolers outside to demonstrate what it means to be a shepherd. I gathered a group in the middle of the yard, and I pulled four kids out to be the shepherds. I explained that I would be a wolf trying to get at the sheep in the middle, and the shepherds had to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

It worked brilliantly. Every time I rushed forward the shepherds converged on me and pushed me back, and when I tried to run around and juke them they rearranged and protected their friends; no matter what I did, the little shepherds were going to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

But that’s when I noticed something remarkable: The group of sheep in the middle had been holding hands the entire time. Now let me be clear, I did not instruct them to hold hands or to watch out for each other, but they did it on their own. Even more remarkable is the fact that the older kids placed the younger ones in the middle to protect them even more while they held hands. It was easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

In our little preschool rooms, and in our community, kids are the ones who are acting more like Jesus than the adults. While we complain and groan about those who are different than us, people who do not look, think, and talk like us, kids are going out to meet them where they are. Jesus sought out the lost, the ones who needed to be rescued, the ones who are forgotten in our society. In our preschool rooms the children do whatever they can to involve everyone and show them they are loved.

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If you want to know what Jesus was really like, spend just 5 minutes with one of our preschoolers. During snack time they are willing to give up their food for the person who mentions they are still hungry. When they are playing with different objects in different stations they will include everyone in the activity no matter what. When they work on art projects they pay one another the nicest compliments regardless of how well the finger painting actually turns out. And when we were outside this week, the shepherds took care of the sheep while the sheep took care of one another.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us. 

We should start looking to them more often about what it means to be faithful, than expecting them to learn everything from us.

We all hunger to know and be known. Many of us (adults) create virtual communities on the internet because forming real and authentic connections is hard work. It requires face to face intimacy, a willingness to listen, and vulnerability all at the same time in a way that a phone and computer screen can never allow. Kids don’t have the benefit of social networking to create friendships, they have to do it the old fashioned way, and they’re better at it than we are.

God’s community is open and inclusive. Jesus not only cares for the sheep but gathers them into the flock. Those who are curious about what it means to be a disciple are invited into Jesus’ community no matter what: the door is always wide open to the outcasts: You know, the people whose lives are messy, whose families are not the perfect “husband-wife-2.5-children” scenario, who live in fear between paychecks, and who wonder if anyone knows how they really feel.

Today Jesus is still welcoming and inviting people who are often excluded based on the standards of our time. Kids don’t have the benefit of immediately recognizing someone’s socio-economic status, they aren’t concerned with where their parents went to college or even if they didn’t, they aren’t worried about the color of their skin or the shape of their bodies: they just want to love and be loved. 

So how can we create an authentic and life-giving community? We begin by following the example of our kids…

Imagine, if you can, what it would look like if we stopped excluding people based on our warped standards: wealth, status, race, sexual orientation, and physical condition. What if we started treating people with respects regardless of who they were and what they had done? What do you think would happen if we really started to take care of one another without judgment or expectation of reciprocation?

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be more like the kingdom than the way we are living right now. Amen.

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.

Devotional – Psalm 95.6-7

Devotional:

Psalm 95.6-7

O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!

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“Have any of you ever worked on a farm?” my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) supervisor once asked during a reflection session. My group had been gathering every Monday for the past few months to talk about different interactions with patients from Duke University Hospital, and what it meant to be pastorally present in suffering. At the end of a particularly laborious day, our supervisor asked his question about farm life. Most us us had grown up in the suburbs, and therefore had limited experience of farm life. So as we shook our heads in response to his question, he continued on. “Well, when working on a farm you often get the chance to interact with a variety of animals. The cows have to be milked regularly, the chickens’ eggs have to be collected, and, at some point, you’d have to deal with the sheep.”

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“Sheep are by far the dumbest animals I’ve ever seen. They are pathetically dependent on a shepherd to watch over them. They are have no sense of direction, often wandering off into oblivion. They are defenseless, prone to becoming a easy snack for any predator. And they are just plain dumb.” (At this point in the conversation, the rest of us were waiting for him to make his point after having rambled about the idiocy of sheep) “And that why I love the fact the we are the sheep, and Jesus is our shepherd. We can be so dumb sometimes, and we so desperately need our Shepherd to help us figure out whats going on.

The psalmist writes, “We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!” In many ways, the analogy of discipleship to wandering like a directionless sheep is fitting. How often to we stray from the path that we know is right? How often do we succumb to the temptations (predators) around us in our daily living? And the psalmist tells us exactly what to do when we find ourselves acting like the sheep that we are: Listen to his voice.

As I have mentioned before, Lent is a great time for us to re-evaluate where we are with our God. Are we prone to wandering off like a defenseless sheep in our lives, or are we listening for the voice of our great Shepherd who watches over his flock? Today, let us all recognize our foolish ways that drive us away from God, reorient ourselves back to the great “I AM,” and above all, listen to his voice through prayer, reading scripture, and reconciling our relationships with those around us.