I will shepherd my people

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Sermon for July 18th, 2021

Readings:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23 
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jeremiah has some harsh words for the shepherds of Israel this morning, and rightly so. Because the people have gone so far astray through terrible, inept and unholy leadership, there are hard times coming to God’s people. I don’t have time this morning to go through the whole Book of Jeremiah, but let me just say that through much of the book, the Prophet Jeremiah paints a very dark picture about what is about to happen in the land. It’s a tough read, and Jeremiah has some tough words for faithless shepherds. But in the midst of these dire warnings and tough words is a promise. 

God says to the shepherds: YOU may have failed, but I will not. Not only will I appoint new shepherds for me people, but I myself will be a shepherd. I will shepherd my people. I will look for the lost. I will gather people in. I will appoint new shepherds. 

Do you remember last week how I said that our God reveals himself to us? Well, he is doing that today in this passage. God is giving us a glimpse here of who he is. God raises up and appoints shepherds, that’s true, but it is only to share in his work, because it is really God that is the shepherd. 

Some shepherds fail, yes that’s true, but God does not abandon his people. If you read the rest of Jeremiah you will see how God is sometimes abandoned by his people, but God is never the one that walks away. God’s people may get lost; God never does. And people are never so far gone that God can’t find them. There are tough words from Jeremiah about the present state of affairs, but within those words is the promise that God is prepared to do something about it. 

When Jesus looked out on the great crowd, what did he see? Sheep without a shepherd. People that were lost and suffering. People that had likely put faith in leaders that had led them astray. People that were oppressed and mistreated. Jesus saw all of this and he had compassion on them. He taught them. He laid hands on them and healed them. And…he appointed some new shepherds, his disciples, and he sent them out with instructions to do the same. 

That is our God at work folks. 

No matter what valleys of death our faithless shepherds may lead us into, we always have a good shepherd who will lead us right back out of it. God hasn’t just done this once, or twice. Our God has done this many times, because this is who our God is. 

If we keep reading in Jeremiah this morning, the prophet goes on to say: 

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he[a] had driven them.” Then they shall live in their own land.

What Jeremiah is saying there is that the days are coming when we won’t just look back on God saving us from Egypt, we will also look back on God saving us from this. Whatever this is. The God who led our ancestors out of Egypt is going to lead us out of this too. The God of Moses is the God of Jeremiah and that is the same God that we believe was incarnate in our Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus’s followers looked back on Jeremiah’s words they thought “surely this is the righteous branch from David” that Jeremiah was talking about. Surely this is God shepherding his people again.

We believe that’s true. God was shepherding his people in Jesus. And God is still doing it. Because that is who God is.

There was an Episcopal priest in Connecticut at the end of the 19th century, who died a very young man, just 35, but before he died we wrote this poem about how we often don’t experience God shepherding us until we are in the deepest valley or the darkest night. His name was Robert Clarkson Tongue and the poem is called “When the tale of bricks is doubled.”

When the tale of bricks is doubled,

“Moses comes,” the Hebrews say

When the night has grown the blackest

Comes the long expected day;

When our cares have grown so heavy

That we scarce can bear the load,

Then a hand is stretched to help us

On our weary road.

When the tale of bricks is doubled,

As our cares and wants increase,

Comes a double share of courage,

Though the battle may not cease.

Though the fight may rage the fiercer,

And the fiery darts be whirled,

If we will but call for succor,

We may face the world.

When the tale of bricks is doubled,

When oppression bows us low,

Comes a Moses who will free us,

Break our fetters with a blow,

And if we will truly follow

From the black Egyptian night,

He will guide us, He will lead us,

To eternal light.

You cannot shut God up

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Sermon for July 11th, 2021

Readings:

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

You cannot shut God up.

I really could just end my sermon right here, because that is the main thing I want you to take away from the scriptures this morning, particularly the Old Testament and the Gospel. 

We cannot shut God up. But we sure like to try. 

Now before I elaborate on that, let me say that we, as Christians, fundamentally believe in a God who reveals himself to us. We believe in a God of revelation. What we believe about God or what we know about God, is based on what we believe God has revealed to us. We do NOT believe that God is just some idea that we concocted, or that our knowledge of God is something that we have come to through our own brain power. We haven’t figured God out, God has shown things to us. We believe in a God that wants to be known, that wants to live in relationship with us; we believe in a God who speaks. God speaks through Holy Scripture, through sacred tradition, through priests and prophets, through angels, through the Holy Spirit, through miracles, through nature. God speaks to us in so many ways.

But here is the problem with that: we don’t always like what this God of ours has to say. 

Now it is great when God “walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own” like we sing in that hymn “In the Garden.” And don’t get me wrong; I believe that is true and I love that hymn. God does having loving words for us that affirm that we are his beloved children. But that is not all that God has to say to us. God regularly challenges us. God calls us out on our hypocrisy. God knows about that thing you did. And God has forgiven you for it, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have something to say to you about it. The scriptures can be challenging sometimes, and it’s not when I don’t understand them that they are the most challenging, it is when I DO understand them. Because that is when I hear God calling me out on my junk; pointing out to me those times when I have not been as faithful as I am called to be. Now this isn’t to condemn me; not at all. You don’t discipline children because you hate them. You discipline them because you love them and want them to have a good life. And that is what God wants for us. God wants us to have a good life, but in order for that to happen, sometimes God has to point out to us where and when we have gone wrong. 

But very often, we don’t want to hear it. As a matter of fact, we find all sorts of ways to drown out God’s voice so we don’t have to hear anything negative God has to say. I hasten to point out that this is NOT a modern phenomenon. We’ve been trying to shut God up for years.

Consider the Prophet Amos. Now Amos was from the South in the land of Judea and he was sent by God up to preach to a bunch of Northerners in the land of Israel. And poor Amos, God gave him a tough message to deliver. God was sending Amos to call out that kingdom for all of its unfaithfulness. They were not being true to their calling. They were being unjust. They weren’t treating each other like they were all children of God. They were getting into some idol worship, and one of the idols that they were worshipping was money. They were using debt to enslave people. I could go on and on. Amos ends up telling the Northern kingdom that because of their faithlessness, their kingdom is going to crumble, their king will fall and they will in fact, become slaves. 

As you can imagine, people didn’t like that. They didn’t want to hear what Amos had to say. Even their priest didn’t want to listen to this message from God. So the priest said to Amos: “Get out of town.” No, literally, get out of town. Off with you! Go back down South where you came from. So Amos heads back down South. 

And you know what eventually happened? The Northern kingdom fell just like Amos predicted, and all of its people were hauled off into slavery. You can silence a prophet, but you can’t shut God up. God always has the last say. And you would think that after hundreds and thousands of years that we would learn that lesson, but we don’t. 

You remember John the Baptist? He got into trouble, because he called out Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Now Herod was just trying to ignore that part of John’s message, but his wife Herodia was infuriated. This was publicly embarrassing. So she figured out a way to shut John up by having him killed. Had his head cut off. Did that spare Herodia further embarrassment? Well, no. Because here we are today, thousands of years later, not only still talking about her unlawful marriage, but what is far worse, the despicable way that she tried to cover it up. 

You know, sometimes I wonder if God laughs or cries when we try to ignore him. Maybe it is a bit of both. We so foolishly think that we can silence God. We tell God’s prophets to shut up. If that doesn’t work, we have them killed. We cut out or skip over the scriptures we don’t like, or we just shut the Bible altogether. Now I’m not saying that every quack out there with a Bible in one hand and a megaphone in the other is a legit prophet with a message from God. There have always been false prophets, God promised us that there would be. But just because some people spread untruth, that doesn’t mean that the truth has stopped talking. God never stops talking to us. Sometimes his message is sweet. Sometimes it goes down a little rough. We may think that if we don’t listen to what God says then we won’t have to deal with the message, or the truth that it contains. But we’d be wrong. It seems to me that Ol’ Pontius Pilate also thought that he was done with this pesky man Jesus when he had him killed and washed his hands. But he was wrong. No matter how hard we try and silence him, God always has the last word. You cannot shut God up. 

The First and Greatest Commandment

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Sermon for July 4th, 2021

Readings:

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In each of the gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, at some point somebody comes up to Jesus and asks him: “what is the greatest commandment?” And each time Jesus responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” And then Jesus adds: “and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now y’all are familiar with this because I repeat it at the beginning of almost every mass here, but I want to talk about it a bit this morning, because understanding the order of these two commandments is important for doing the ministry that we are all called to do in this world. 

Jesus says that the first and greatest commandment is loving God. That comes first. That is the most important. The second command is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is related to the first command, Jesus says it is like it, but Jesus does not say that these two commands are exactly equal. They can’t be, and I’ll explain why they can’t be. 

In order for a command to have any meaning or power, the person giving the command, the commander, needs to have some authority, or needs to be someone that you love or respect. If Jesus was just some dude on the street telling people to “love thy neighbor” we could just walk on by and say “well, that’s just like your opinion man.” And keep on going. But we don’t do that. We have recorded those words in our scriptures and we have enshrined them in our worship. Why? Because we believe that the man who said it is the Son of God. Those words are a command from God, so our love for God, our respect for God, our fear of God even, that is what makes those words so important. The first commandment is what makes all the other commandments possible or meaningful. 

If I don’t care about God or believe in God, then why should I give a hoot about any divine commandments? Why bother? Why not just do what I want? Some of this stuff that Jesus tells us to do is flat-out hard. Just look at the gospel today. Jesus gives his disciples authority over unclean spirits, well that’s fun, but then he says, don’t take anything with you. No bread, no bag, no money, keep your clothes simple, oh and by the way, whenever you get to where you’re going, some folks won’t listen to you or accept you. You’ll be rejected. Oh fun! Sign me up! You know from the original twelve that are mentioned in today’s gospel: Judas killed himself and John died in old age, but every other one was killed for doing what Jesus commanded them to do. It was a similar situation for the prophet Ezekiel. God sent him on a mission to preach his word and call people to repentance, knowing that some people would refuse to listen; knowing that this was going to be hard work. 

There are blessings that come with doing God’s work and doing ministry, that is absolutely true, but there are also challenges and trials. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians today talks about someone that he knows that had amazing visions of heaven; things he couldn’t even describe. What did Paul get? A thorn in the flesh. We don’t really know what the thorn in the flesh was, but we know it tormented Paul, and we know that Paul asked God to remove it from him and the Lord didn’t do it. Paul wanted to be strong and healthy and successful in ministry; Paul wanted to have it all, but the Lord’s response was No. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. Paul’s ministry was a response to God’s grace and in the end that grace had to be sufficient, because there’s no guarantee of miraculous visions, there’s no guarantee of comfort or safety, there’s no guarantee of having the big church on the corner, there’s no guarantee of a private jet. In fact there’s no guarantee that people are gonna like you or even listen to you. They might even try and kill you. All that we are promised is God’s grace. That alone has to be enough. That has to be the reward. It has to be our love of God that compels us to serve God’s people. 

And I mean all of us, not just ordained ministers. Jesus’s command to love God and love thy neighbor, they are given to all of us. We are all called to some ministry in this world. And undoubtedly some people will say: well can’t serving or loving my neighbor draw me into the love of God? Can’t I find God in the face of God’s children? Well yes, of course. Serving others can draw us deeper into the mind and heart of God, but I think we underestimate how much loving God makes loving our neighbors consistently possible. Because here is a big revelation:

People are not always loveable.

I’m not; you’re not. Nobody is. People can be incredibly unlovable. People do and say hurtful things. They don’t think like us; they don’t act like us. That love thy neighbor commandment is the harder commandment, and it would be so great if we could just make that the optional extra Christian add-on, but we can’t because if we are really following that first command of loving God, then that first command binds us to the second command, because it is the same God that is giving both. I love God, some days I’m less sure about my neighbors, but Jesus keeps pointing me back to them and saying “they’re my kids too. ”So God never lets us give up on loving them, tempting as that may be.You see, it is an abiding love for the Lord that makes the Christian life possible. There is no substitution for the first and great commandment. Loving God with heart and soul and mind, that has to be the primary motivation behind all that we do. That relationship is the horse that makes the whole cart go. The Christian life is a response to God’s grace and at the end of the day the day, God’s grace is its only reward. We cannot expect anything else. God’s hasn’t promised us anything else. Just his grace. And that is enough.