All Is Lost

Matthew 18.10-14

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. 

I was sitting around a table with a bunch of adults who had agreed to give up a week of their summer to take a group of youth on a mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina. We had successfully made it to our site and as the kids were preparing to sleep, or at least pretending to, and the adults had to figure out where each kid would be working during the week, and what project they would focus on.

We ultimately decidedly to do it via a random lottery so that every person had a fair chance at any of the missional opportunities. One group would be spending most of the week working in a nursing home providing fellowship and entertainment for the residents. Another group would be doing simple carpentry for low income housing on the economically challenged side of town. And still yet another group would be responsible for keeping tabs on a group of younger kids through a very inexpensive summer camp program.

It took thirty minutes to separate all of the children appropriately, and as we prepared to leave the room the director informed us that we had omitted one important step in the process – we, as the adults, had to sign up for sites as well.

I, being the remarkably gifted, faithful, and holy pastor that I am, elected to pick last and was stuck with the glorified babysitting opportunity.

So the following morning I drove a large fan full of hormonal teenagers to meet with the program at a local museum. We were given very little instruction other than go inside, don’t lose anybody, and come back to the main entrance at 3pm. I decided to separate the more responsible teenagers and assigned groups of the camp participants to them, and then ended by striking the fear of God into them, “Do not lose any of your kids.”

And then I let them go.

Which, admittedly, was a big mistake.

Hours went by, I kept an eye on my little group and kept stepping on my tiptoes through all of the exhibits to see if I could see any of the other kids, many of whom I barely recognized from our brief encounter in the morning. And sure enough, when 3pm rolled around, a group of sweaty kids congregated by the main entrance, and I started a head count.

After I tapped every single head, I decided to start over again, just to be safe, and it was only after the third count that I had to admit the truth. 

We were missing one kid.

I immediately interrogated all of the students on the mission trip and berated them for losing a child in their care, but the clock kept ticking, and we needed to get the kids back to their families, and we were still missing one kid. 

I had a few choices: 

Send all the kids back through the museum with the charge to find the one who was missing, at the rick of losing more. 

Cut my losses and pretend like I didn’t know one was missing. 

Or leave everyone behind to find the kid by myself.

Parables-of-Jesus

Jesus predicts his passion for the second time, the Son of Man must be handed over, killed, and in three days rise again. And in response to the Lord’s declaration, the disciples enter into a lively discussion, what we might otherwise call a fight, about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God.

And why do they respond this way?

Because they’re idiots.

Jesus has just told them that he, the Lord of lords, Son of Man and Son of God, is going to die.

And they, apparently, can’t stand the idea of it, so they jump quickly to, “that’s fine and all, but how about we talk about who will be your next-in-command when you finally get the throne…”

Jesus then gives them one of the all time great theological punches: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be last, whoever is the least among you will be the greatest.”

It’s like Jesus just wants these disciples to get it through their thick skulls, that the work of God in the world is done by losing and not by winning. God loves taking the least likely and making them the objects of transformation. God has a knack for making something out of nothing.

Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, we hate.

Maybe hate is too strong of a word. We can be on board with Jesus’ project of being with and for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. But then we struggle with the idea of labeling ourselves in any of those categories. 

We, like the disciples before us, would rather be part of the first, the great, the found, the big, and the alive.

Think about it, even the way we practice religion is all about the myth of progress. We preach and teach a religion of “doing” and “earning” and “finding.” 

We are consumed by what we consume, and what we consume most of all are these fabricated version of our possible future selves. 

There’s a reason that self-help books are always at the top of the best-seller lists.

We are constantly works in progress.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to be better – it’s just that in spite of our desires for approval and change and growth, the work of the Lord remains steadfast.

Jesus saves losers and only losers. 

He raises the dead and only the dead. 

He finds the lost and only the lost.

The last, least, lost, little, and dead receive more of Jesus’ joy than all of the winners in the world.

And we can’t stand it.

And now we arrive at the parable. 

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What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

I stood by the main entrance the museum with a cacophony of kids when I, reluctantly, decided to head back into the museum by myself to find the one who was lost. I strictly ordered the youth from the church to keep an eye on the rest of the group and prayed under my breath with every step that nothing would go wrong.

Within ten minutes I had combed most of the museum – I flew through all of the exhibits and the kid was nowhere. I started shouting his name and even asked a few strangers to help me look. I was honestly starting to lose hope when I passed by the gift shop and I saw the kid sitting on the floor in the corner flipping through a picture book.

I promptly picked him up and prepared to march back triumphantly toward the entrance, and that’s precisely when the fire alarm went off.

So we ran, along with everyone else to the nearest exist, on the opposite side of the museum and we walked around the building looking for the rest of our people and they were all gone.

That’s the thing about going off in pursuit of the one lost sheep – the only real result will be ninety-nine more lost sheep.

Ultimately, going off for the one is pretty bad advice. It puts everyone else at risk, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found in the end.

For me, it took the better part of another hour to round up everyone as they had dispersed in different directions when the fire alarm sounded. We were almost two hours late in terms of returning home, and I made a vow to leave the sheep finding business to Jesus.

This story, this parable, just like the rest of them, is strange – it points at something greater than the sum of its parts. The lost sheep declares, oddly enough, that we are saved in our lostness. 

Unlike a novice pastor, even if a hundred sheep get lost it will not be a problem for our wonderfully weird Good Shepherd. Our Lord rejoices and is in the business of finding the lost.

And here’s maybe the craziest thing of all – the lost sheep does nothing to be found. No amount of good works, or faithful prayers, or money offerings, brings the Shepherd out into the wilderness. The sheep does nothing except hang around in its own lostness. 

And to make things all the more prescient – a lost sheep, in all reality, is a dead sheep. Without the shepherd, the sheep has not a chance in the world.

We might love the idea of always doing more, or finding that one right book or list or program that will finally enable us to be who we are supposed to be. But the parable of the lost sheep is a deadly reminder for us that we need not do anything to get God to love us, or find us, or even forgive us. 

God is determined to move before we do – Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. 

It is our lostness that is our ticket into the dinner party of the Lamb.

The parables of Jesus, though they greatly vary in form and even in function, they do point again and again to the fact that God acts first and God acts definitively without conditions. 

Well, there might be one condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit we are lost.

We’re all lost.

We’re lost in our ambitions, in our sins, we’re even lost in our faith. Last Saturday, a young man walked into a Synagogue and started shouting. He killed one and injured three others. And when these things happen, and they happen all too often, we are quick to point out how isolated the attacker was, or how damaging the ideology was that led to the violence. But this particular young man was a faithful Christian, he attended a Presbyterian church nearly every week.

His manifesto in defense of his actions against the Jews came from some of the theology he acquired in his church.

His is a radical example of lostness. It is extreme. And yet, all of us here, whether we want to admit it or not, are lost as well.

Which, paradoxically, is Good News. It is Good News because when God is given a world full of losers, a world full of people lost in our own journeys, lost in our own sins, that’s just fine. Lostness is what God is all about.

We may be determined to do whatever we do, we can try all we want to save ourselves, but it will largely only result in us becoming more lost. Thanks be to God then that the Lord’s determination will always exceed our own.

God is determined with an unshakable fervor, to raise the dead – to find the lost.

We can all be better, of course. And I don’t mean to knock self-help programs and books so much. But we are a people who have fallen for the greatest trap in the world and we believe, foolishly, that God is going to close the door in our faces unless we do enough.

We are a people moved by guilt. 

When the truth is entirely different. 

God isn’t waiting around for us to become the most perfect sheep. 

If God is waiting for anything its for us to admit our lostness, that we are dead in our sins. Because when can see the condition of our condition, then we begin to experience the joy of having no power over ourselves to save ourselves or to convince anyone else that we are worth finding.

And even if we can’t admit how lost we are, the shepherd will look for and find us anyway. That’s kind of the whole point. 

This beloved parable, and the image of Jesus returning to the fold with the one lost sheep over his shoulders, is but another reminder that our whole lives are forever out of our hands, that we really are dead, and that if we are to ever live again, it will only be because of the grace of a Shepherd named Jesus. 

Who will never stop looking for us. Amen. 

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.

Weekly Devotional Image

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.

Devotional – Jeremiah 23.1

Devotional:

Jeremiah 23.1

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.

Weekly Devotional Image

The last week has been crazy. People on both sides of the political aisle are filled with anger, fear, and resentment. Those who voted for Donald Trump are being attacked for the political opinions and those who voted for Hillary Clinton are protesting the results of the election across the country. Many Republicans and Democrats are being led astray by false shepherds who seek to destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture through calls for violence and manipulation.

However, there are some who are seeking to lead God’s sheep in ways that lead to life. One of those shepherds is a former youth, and now college student, from St. John’s named Danielle Hammer. While others were flocking to Facebook in order to shout their political joy or disappointment into the fray of social media, Danielle wrote a post that makes me proud to call her my friend and my sister in Christ. This is what she said:

“This election has caused so much uproar among our American communities. We have heard of the hate crimes and violence that has occurred. It is genuinely terrifying, and I think we need to take a moment and sit down with God and pray. Lend God your anxieties and concerns, because God is listening to your cries and God holds the future. How comforting it is to know that no matter what happens here on earth, our Lord God knows our destiny. And yet, we need to make peace in this world. Compliment someone, pay for someone’s meal, help someone carry their groceries, or any other act of kindness that will show someone that there is still kindness and love in this world. Volunteer in your community. Stand up for your beliefs. Be a listening ear for those who need it. These small but significant acts add up, and they brighten the day of people who might be upset. Showing God’s love is timeless, and no matter who is in office, we need to radiate God’s love to others. So keep on radiating kindness in your life, and pray for those who are living in hatred or fear.”

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Oh that we could reject the false shepherds who lead us astray, and instead remain steadfast in our willingness to follow the Good Shepherd! For the Good Shepherd is the one who goes before us on the way that leads to life. In our discipleship, in our following, we radiate God’s kindness toward all people. We look for the ways that we can speak up for the disenfranchised, the poor, and the marginalized. We seek the peace that allows all of us to dwell together in unity. We pray for the Lord to give us the courage to show God’s love toward all people.

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!

Weekly Devotional Image

“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.