Cultivating and Letting Go, Part 2

 

Copyright 2019. “Mother Hen” by Lauren Wright Pittman, Lenten Season, “Cultivating & Letting Go” A Sanctified Art, LLC/sanctifiedart.org. All rights reserved. Purchased for use by Emory Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Georgia.

A Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2019, Second Sunday of Lent,  Deut. 32:11-12a,  Ruth 2:12 and Luke 13:31-35

For Lent, we are exploring the theme “Cultivating and Letting Go”through curriculum created by A Sanctified Art—a team of artists who provide interactive resources for churches.

In the introductory materials, the team explains the theme by defining the two powerful verbs they’ve chosen to inspire people during the season:

Cultivate (verb): to prepare and use for the raising of crops; to foster the growth of; to improve by labor, care, or study; to refine; to further; to encourage.

Let go (verb): relinquish one’s grip on someone or something.

Then they expound further:

“Lent is a season of spiritual gardening, of inviting God to unearth in us what lies fallow, what needs to be tended, and what needs to die for new life to emerge. This Lent, we’re embracing the literal and spiritual practices of cultivating and letting go.”

As we continue the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, I’d like to invite you to keep reflecting on this concept of cultivatingand letting go. On Ash Wednesday, some of you wrote what you’d like to cultivateand let goon pieces of paper and nailed them to the chancel cross. If you haven’t had the opportunity, I encourage you to select a slip of purple paper (located in the hymnals and Bibles at the ends of your pews) and scribble your goals for cultivatingand letting go. Then take them home and put on the fridge or bathroom mirror or computer, etc., to have a visual reminder of your goal for Lent.

Last Sunday, we heard Luke’s Gospel account of when the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and how Jesus cultivatedfaithfulness in God’s provision and let goof the temptation to use power for personal gain.

This morning’s text, Luke 13:31-35, now finds Jesus in the middle of full-time ministry.  According to earlier verses, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” And he has been telling the townspeople “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Soon thereafter (and this is where today’s story begins) a group of Pharisees approach him, saying, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” as if he was some dog or… hen … to shoo away.

Jesus passionately responds:

“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! … And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

If there was any doubt about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry prior to this encounter, his proclamation in front of the Pharisees, the disciples and townspeople makes it abundantly clear:

Jesus is not running away from the cunning King Herod or avoiding the city of Jerusalem where Herod rules under the auspices of the oppressive Roman Empire. Jesus is going straight to them and nothing can stop him. He is cultivating resilience and courage and letting goof fearthe fear of harm and death.

Lutheran pastor, Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, puts it this way in a blog post about Jesus’ message to Herod:

Jesus is not afraid of dying, and he sends a message back with Pharisees that Herod doesn’t even have to come after Jesus.  Jesus will go to him, right to Jerusalem.  Because that’s what a prophet does – goes bravely into the spaces of danger to confront evil.[1]

One might wonder that if Jesus is ready to face evil head on, why would he describe himself as a mother hen instead of a lion or a bear? Why would Jesus choose to be a fox’s prey instead of its predator?

Lauren Wright Pittman, a member of A Sanctified Art, who created the art piece used for today’s bulletin cover, says this about her painting entitled “Mother Hen”:

The image of Christ as a mother hen is revolutionary. Instead of using a hypermasculine, militaristic, menacing image in response to Herod’s death threats, Jesus upends the expected posture of violence and chooses to identify with the nurturing, protective, feminine image of a mother hen. He explains his love for Jerusalem as a mother hen who desperately desires to lovingly shelter her young. This image drips of rejection, however, because the chicks are unwilling to be protected. In Jesus’ attempt to love the world he meets unwillingness, distrust, mockery, and violence.

Jesus’ use of this simile is wonderfully subversive because at first it seems like a harmless, warm, and fuzzy kind of reference—a cuddly, plump mother hen wanting to snuggle her young—but mother hens will protect their young at all cost. A mother hen will put her whole body on the line to keep her chicks safe; if danger nears, she will meet it head on … Jesus wants that fox (Herod) to know that death threats will not keep him from fiercely bringing healing and restoration to the world.

While preparing this sermon, I searched for videos of mother hens protecting their young, and learned that they are not harmless, warm and fuzzy birds. Mother hens are overprotective, intrusive, fussy and overbearing; they cackle and peck and are always attentive. Studies show that mother hens have good memory recall and are emotionally intelligent, meaning that they empathize when their chicks are distressed.

Mother hens stand their ground with cats, dogs, and hawks as well as foxes. They will always protect the chicks, even if it kills them. The same is true of Jesus: he will always protect God’s children, even knowing his actions will result in state-sanctioned execution.

And yet in this moment, Jesus laments that the people will only realize they need God’s steadfast love and protection after death on the cross. The prophets of old spoke out against cruel and corrupt authorities and called upon the people of Jerusalem to love God and neighbor, but their words mostly fell on deaf ears.

Similarly, Jesus is having little success convincing Jerusalem to embrace a kingdom of God that is vastly different from Herod and Caesar’s.

The people aren’t willing to be gathered under God’s parenting wings. They desire to cultivate resilience and courage to devote themselves entirely to God and to live out God’s commands. But they can’t seem to let go of their fears of what the government might do to them and their families if they pledge allegiance to anyone else. Even the disciples, who have witnessed God’s power to love, heal and restore, are unable to let goof the fear of uncertainty and thus, they abandon Jesus in his darkest hour. Simon-Peter goes so far as to deny he ever knew Jesus. Neither the disciples nor the citizens of Jerusalem care for the folks in charge, but they figure it’s better to be safe than to be dead by going against the system.

Thus, Jesus laments that Jerusalem won’t come to God on their own despite God’s deep desire to be in a covenantal relationship with them. And yet God in Christ continues toward the city, arms stretched out in love for a people who don’t want to receive it.

Renown author and pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor, offers this insight on the situation:[2]

“If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world—wings spread, breast exposed—but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand…

Jesus won’t be the king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first; which he does, as it turns out. He slides upon her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep.

When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her—wings spread, breast exposed—without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart…but if you mean what you say, this is how you stand.”

As Christians, we don’t look for danger and death, of course. We’re not fatalistic for Jesus. However, we do follow in the way of the loving, merciful and non-violent Jesus, and to serve others knowing that there are those who won’t like what we’re doing and who might try to harm us as a result.

We are mother hens who are called to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized—the sick, the lonely, the broken, the poor, the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast—in a world where foxes roam about.

We are the flawed, wonderfully made and gifted people who are invited by God to cultivatethe resilience and courage needed to share Christ’s love. We are the servant leaders, kingdom builders and dream shapers who are summoned by God to let goof the fear of uncertainty—failure, harm and yes, even death. …like,

*David Deutchman, known fondly as the “ICU Grandpa,” who for 12 years has visited the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospital twice a week to hold preemie babies in the pediatric and neonatal ICUs. [3]

*(or) The White Helmets–an unarmed, neutral organization of more than 3,000 volunteer rescue workers who have been operating in opposition-held areas of Syria over the last five years. [4]

*(or) Felicia Sanders, one of three survivors of the Charleston mass shooting at Emmanuel AME in 2015, who quickly pulled her 11-year-old granddaughter to the floor, shielded her with her body and whispered, “play dead, play dead.”[5]

*(or) Anthony Borges, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who during last year’s mass shooting was shot five times while holding a classroom door closed so his classmates could hide.[6]

*(or) 4-year-old Austin Perine who dons a superhero’s cape and then, with assistance from his dad, walks the streets of downtown Birmingham in the mid-afternoon handing chicken sandwiches to homeless men and women.[7]

*Or the members of this congregation who prepare and serve a meal to the men of Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, collect food for Decatur Emergency Assistance, participate annually in the MLK Day of Service and offer care in a variety of ways.

*Or the churches in New Zealand who are opening their doors to the families of Christchurch Mosque where 49 people died after a white supremacist opened fire as Muslims were praying and worshipping. [8]

*Or this church who will once again invite our siblings in the Muslim communities of Atlanta to join us on Saturday as we make meal bags for CHOA to help out parents who can’t afford to eat as their child lays in a hospital bed.

Blessed be all those who yesterday, today and tomorrow continue to cultivate courage and resilience and let goof fear—the mother hens, the servant leaders, the kingdom builders and the dream shapers.

Blessed be the ones who seek comfort together and who stretch out their arms to enfold others in God’s love. Blessed be the ones who are lost and need help and mercy.

And blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord and gather us each and everyone one of us under his wings.

Amen.

[1]https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/2017/05/jesus-mother-hen/

[2]https://www.religion-online.org/article/as-a-hen-gathers-her-brood/

[3]https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/29/health/icu-grandpa-childrens-hospital-trnd/index.html

[4]https://www.history.com/news/who-are-the-white-helmets

[5]https://www.today.com/news/survivor-stories-felicia-sanders-surviving-charleston-church-shooting-t137291

[6]https://www.si.com/soccer/2019/03/13/fc-barcelona-lyon-parkland-shooting-anthony-borges-visits-camp-nou

[7]https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/21/us/iyw-boy-helps-homeless-trnd/index.html

[8]https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/15/asia/christchurch-world-helping-muslim-community-trnd/index.html

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Cultivating & Letting Go, Part 1

A Sermon for Sunday, March 10, 2019, First Sunday of Lent, Deuteronomy 6:13, 16, 8:3 and 10:20; and Luke 4:1-13

The Wilderness by Stanley Spencer (2012)

In some indigenous communities, teenage boys participate in a rite of passage known as hanblecheyapi (hahn blay-chay-yah-pee) or vision quest. The young men go alone into the wilderness to receive their life’s calling and become a new version of themselves.The authors of the book American Indian Healing Arts explain:[1]

Endurance training and spending nights camping out alone with little or no food help to prepare each youth for the rigors of his spiritual journey. As the time for the quest approaches, rituals of purification…take place, accompanied by special prayers.

Then the boy goes off by himself to seek a vision. He spends four or five days and nights fasting, alone with his thoughts, on a windswept butte or within a shallow pit. He learns to deal with fear and find out about his own personal strengths. Each boy also looks for power and meaning in the natural world. The vision quest frequently brings on life-changing visions and dreams that provide glimpses into mystical and spiritual realms beyond his ordinary experiences.”

The hanblecheyapi (hahn blay-chay-yah-pee) provides a new perspective on today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus, following his baptism in the Jordan River, is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness.

A common interpretation has been to characterize Jesus as a stoic hero—someone with great fortitude and self-reliance who puffs out his chest and shuts the devil down without blinking.

But a closer look at Jesus’ words shows that he demonstrates tremendous humility and serves as an example of how human beings are made for a collaborative and unassuming fellowship with God.

Jesus didn’t enter the wilderness prepared to do battle with the devil and show off his supernatural gifts. He spent 40 days alone fasting, praying, and discerning God’s purpose for him, before the devil comes onto the scene.

Kaitlin Curtice, a Native American Christian mystic offers this insight about Jesus’ time in the wilderness:[2]

“I see a kind of communion with the wilderness that taught Jesus about himself, that prepared him for his coming ministry and journey.We cannot know what kind of conversations happened in that quiet, but I can imagine there were a lot of thoughts coming in and out of Jesus’s existence. And in his struggle with spirits– evil and good, past and present– he found himself, his voice, and his own spiritual journey unfolding.”

I like to think that Jesus reflected on the ancient stories of how God provides for Moses and the Israelites flee from bondage in Egypt and wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Jesus likely recalled how the Israelites learned hard lessons about the value of relying on God’s strength instead of their own. They were stories he had heard since he was a child, and he probably recited them over and over in his mind as he dwelled in the desert for more than a month.

With an empty stomach, weak muscles and fuzzy brain (made worse by the scorching heat of the day), Jesus may not have retained a whole lot. But he clung to those stories and the truth that God alone could sustain him. So it was with a humble heart that Jesus responded to the devil’s attempts to turn him away from God:

Don’t trust God to feed you, trust yourself.

Turn these stones to bread so you can eat.

“One does not live by bread alone.”

Don’t trust God to provide you with your needs.

Devote yourself to me, and all will be yours.

“Worship the Lord your God and only serve God.”

Don’t trust God to protect you.

God will abandon you.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

 Jesus let go of the temptation to rely on his own power and cultivated a willingness to completely rely on God’s power and might.

The devil’s temptations are an attack on Jesus’ baptism, the idea that Jesus is God’s beloved who is not only reliant on God but embodies God’s hope and love for the world. Jesus’ responses thwart the devil’s plan because they are an implicit declaration of the good news of the Gospel that “God loves us all! God is the One we are made to trust—with humility and grace—for nourishment, guidance and love.”[3]

Similarly, evil and sin tries to attack our identity as God’s beloved children claimed in baptismal waters. Author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way:[4]

“Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school—they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are.”

Like Jesus, we are tempted to be something other than what God created.

We are tempted to rely on ourselves and not live into God’s abundance. We are tempted to procure unlimited power and control. We are tempted to abuse faith and God’s authority to make others feel unworthy of God’s love. We are tempted to care only about ourselves and to ignore God and neighbor.

Kendrick Lamar who became the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018, knows intimately of being tempted. On the song, “For Sale?” the Grammy-award winning artist speaks openly and honestly about an encounter with the devil he calls “Lucy.” He raps:

“My name is Lucy, Kendrick…
Lucy give you no worries
Lucy got million stories
About these rappers I came after when they was boring
Lucy gone fill your pockets
Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton
Inside the gigantic mansion like I promised
Lucy just want your trust and loyalty…
I want you to know that Lucy got you
All your life I watched you
And now you all grown up then sign this contract if that’s possible”

Despite struggles with the trappings of celebrity and fame, Lamar makes a faithful effort to rely on God’s love and grace.  In interviews and at concerts, Lamar often credits God for helping him through career challenges, drug addiction and getting away from the violence and crime that plagued his hometown of Compton, California in the 1990s. Lamar even once dressed up as Jesus for Halloween and when asked about his choice by a music magazine, he said: [5]

“If I want to idolize somebody, I’m not going to do a scary monster, I’m not gonna do another artist or human being–I’m gonna idolize the Master…and try to walk in His light. It’s hard, it’s something I probably could never do, but I’m gonna try. Not just with the outfit but with everyday life.”

While he is far from perfect, Lamar lives out his beliefs by making a difference in other people’s lives.  He regularly makes donations to the Compton Unified School District’s music, sports and after-school programs to help students stay in the classroom and off the street. And he also raises awareness about mental health challenges, and domestic abuse. Kendrick Lamar has let goof the temptation to idolize himself and is cultivating devotion toward God.

Courtesy of Google Images

The practice of cultivating and letting gois not easy. For me, it’s something I have to work hard at doing in my struggles with depression and anxiety, which I was diagnosed with 16 years ago. I have to daily cultivatetrust in God who has claimed me in baptism; and who gives me strength to get out of bed every day, and go to therapy once a week, take prescription medicine; and cultivatea willingness to listen to the affirming voices in my life that say:

“It’s ok”

“You are not crazy”

“You are not hopeless“

“It’s ok to have hard days”

“You are worthy”

“I love you”

And I have to let go of the temptation to handle my depression and anxiety without help from God and others, and be ensnared by the negative voices that say:

“You’re weak minded”

“You’re a burden”

“You’re overly sensitive”

“You’re being selfish”

“Mental health isn’t real”

“Suck it up!”

Many of us have struggled at some point in our lives (possibly for days on end) with who the world says we are v. who God knows and dreams we can be.

We’ve had experiences in the wilderness when we were tempted to put our own needs ahead of others and to trust more in our own power than in God’s.

This season of Lent and journey toward the cross in Jerusalem is a wilderness time.  As we wander and contemplate how human sin leads to Jesus’ suffering and death, we seek to grow in our faith through communion with God (and neighbor) through prayer, study, worship, and mission. We look to Jesus as our model for living into that divinely created relationship. We look to Jesus who cultivates faithfulness in what God will provide and lets go of temptations to use power for his personal gain even unto crucifixion.

May we continue to learn to cultivate and let go as Jesus has, does and will always do for our sakes.

Amen.

[1]Jesus and Us: A Shared Wilderness by Kaitlin Curtice, 5-8-17, https://kaitlincurtice.com/2017/05/08/jesus-us-a-shared-wilderness/

[2]Jesus and Us: A Shared Wilderness by Kaitlin Curtice, 5-8-17, https://kaitlincurtice.com/2017/05/08/jesus-us-a-shared-wilderness/

[3]The Salt Project Blog Commentary on Luke 4:1-13 for First Sunday in Lent, 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/5/the-hidden-fountain-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-1

[4]Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jericho Books (2014) and 2019 Lenten Resources: “Cultivating and Letting Go” by A Sanctified Art.

[5]Kendrick Lamar article on Wikipedia., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kendrick_Lamar

Elevation

It called loudly to me with its bold title splayed over an alluring cosmic fireworks display, and the renown author’s name printed in large organ letters below: ELEVATION…STEPHEN KING.

A book by King is usually enough to grab my attention but typically I check them out at the library instead of buying them these days. I was so disappointed in his 2014 novel “Revival” from a few years ago that I have picked up and browse every book written since with a bit of skepticism. But this one, Elevation, made my heart leap and sparked curiosity and wonder. Right away I knew the story wasn’t centered around horror, but of that deeper magic found in King’s Green Mile, The Dragon’s Eye, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption, and The Body (Stand By Me). I scanned the description in the book jacket and was instantly convinced that this was a piece of literature to devour.

At less than 150 pages, it took just over a day to read. I finished it a few evenings ago, but I may re-read it before the end of next weekend. It is that marvelous of a tale.

The protagonist, Scott Carey, a 6’4 foot guy who weighs 240 pounds, suddenly discovered that he is losing weight, without his appearance ever changing. More curious is that the scale registers the same with our without clothes and even if he is carrying heavy objects like 2 pounds of quarters in his pockets or 5 pound dumbbells. As Scott continues to lose 2 pounds per day, he finds that he has more energy and literally more bounce as he defies gravity by leaping from his driveway to the stop step of his front porch, among other feats.

In brilliant fashion, King has given us a parable on what it means to let go of the things in life (the worries, the burdens and hardships) that weigh us down and allow friends, and even complete strangers, to lift you up.

The story stirred within me the following questions:

What do I need to let go of so I can have more energy and bounce…so I can be ELEVATED, so I can rise?

How can I stretch and grow?

How can I reach beyond myself and cling to the mystery of God and the love and grace that is all around?

This past week at the PC(USA) CREDO conference has led me to some answers.

More to come…

 

A Pastoral Prayer for 6/17/18

An acrylic painting on wood illustrating the bible verse in Mark 4 describing the kingdom of God like a mustard seed. Jesus is seated with a child under the yellow-leafed branches of a tree showing her a tiny mustard seed.

Pastoral Prayer, 10 am worship at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, June 17, 2018. “Sometimes It Just Seems To Be Too Much,” written by Ted Loder, author of Guerillas of Grace. 1981. Text in red are my additions.

Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much: too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken families and broken lives; too much of war and slums and dying and people being torn apart from loved ones; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much stale routine and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed in to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls; too much of turned-away backs and yellow silence, red rage and the bitter tastes of ashes in our mouths.

Sometimes the very air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion. Too much darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference…Too much, Lord, too much, too blood, bruising, brain-washing much.

Or is it too little, too little of compassion, too little of courage, of daring, of persistence, or sacrifice; too little of music and laughter and celebration?

O God, make of us some nourishment for these starved times, some food for our brothers and sisters who are hungry for gladness and hope, that being bread for them, we may also be fed and be full.

O God, make of us joyful children like those in Vacation Bible School last week who gave you praise and lived out grace through music, play, art, mission, story and the sharing of scripture.

O God, make us of us mustard seed and scatter us across the earth so that we may sprout and grow, putting forth large branches of love and mercy where your people, especially the poor, the oppressed, the stranger and the foreigner can find protection, solace and comfort.

We ask all these things in the name of Christ Jesus who taught his disciples to pray together saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

 

There is a Light

A Sermon for Sunday February 11, 2018, Transfiguration Sunday, John 1:1-5, 14 and 18; Mark 9:2-9

Whenever we consider the pairing of the words “light and darkness,” we immediately think of “good and evil,” and “hope and despair.” We associate “light” with what is positive and “darkness” with the negative.

It’s what we’ve been taught since we exited the womb. We’ve endured the “dark night of the soul” and understand intimately the notion that “it’s always the darkest just before the dawn.”  In the dark, we are seized with pain, and in the light, we are healed.

There are numerous books, movies, songs, and wise sayings that express that very message, reminding us again and again that the light shines brightly no matter how dark any particular moment seems.  Many of those artistic expressions point us back to the scriptures, which has assured us throughout the centuries that hate and darkness will never overcome light and love. 

That assurance is true and core to our beliefs.

But could it be equally true that the light might be just as scary and quite dangerous to behold and embrace—more so than we’d like to admit? The gospels seem to affirm this truth, which we don’t always notice right away.  

In this morning’s reading from Mark 9, we encounter Jesus and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, atop a mountain when an amazing event occurs. Suddenly and without warning, Jesus is transfigured before them—his clothes becoming “a dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (And no, this wasn’t a “Tide ad.”) [1]

Matthew’s version of the story adds that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun,” which would mean that it was intensely bright and difficult to see without squinting.  While Luke’s account says the “appearance of his face” changed, most likely indicating that it became ethereal. And appearing next to Jesus in this flood of illuminating transfiguration are two revered and long-dead prophets, Elijah and Moses, striking up a conversation.

Peter responds to this incredible supernatural spectacle by anxiously suggesting they set up camp and stay awhile.  On the surface, it seems to be a tone-deaf statement that highlights the disciple’s ignorance of what is occurring before him.

However, the reality, as Mark tells us, is that Peter, (along with James and John) is terrified and doesn’t know what to say. In an effort to calm his fear and cope with the magnitude of the scene, Peter starts rambling about dwelling places even though he’s probably aware that his idea is unrealistic and makes no sense. 

The transfiguration is not the special effects blockbuster film that persuades you to sink into a large comfy chair with a bucket of buttery popcorn for a two-hour thrill ride. Nor is it an opportunity to set up a picnic and watch an half-hour fireworks show.

The transfiguration of Jesus is much more compelling in its brevity and comes with a soundtrack straight from the heavens as God’s voice booms: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Peter, James, and John have every reason to be struck with terror. This is not the soft pink light of a sunrise that is easy on the eyes, or the flame of a candle that can be contained from spreading and quickly put out.  This is not a light that can be harnessed and controlled with the clicking of a switch, a swipe on a smart phone, or a voice-activated command.

This is God’s light in Christ arriving with blinding power and might that cannot be tamed.  The scriptures tell us that God’s light rescues people from dark places, protects them like a suit of armor, and reveals the things that were once hidden in darkness. [2] The writer of John’s Gospel, whose poetic words we’ve also heard this morning, proclaims:  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Even the natural light that God has created for our days is too potent for us to truly handle ourselves. Sunlight is the most powerful source of energy for our planet, crucial for growth and sustaining of life; for any human being to think it can be completely mastered and managed is quite naive.

Light will do what light does just as God and God’s light does what it will. The transfiguration is a mere glimpse of how God’s righteousness and justice radiates through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Transfiguration—this mysterious, extraordinary, transformative display of light—is a reminder that Jesus is the hope for ages, the One who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets—the embodiment of the Ten Commandments and the dreams of the prophets who proclaim God’s kingdom will overcome the corruption of earthly kingdoms. Jesus is the Divine Light-in-the-Flesh whose cruel death exposes the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion.  For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.

Transfiguration is God quickly flashing God’s hand to let us know that God has all the cards and is about to make the biggest play anyone has ever seen. Only it won’t be a royal flush of monarchs with swords who lay siege on the Empire. Instead it will be an unarmed Savior King who—through great sacrifice—peacefully conquers with unconditional love and steadfast mercy.

And while that is exhilarating to consider on one hand, it is also quite frightening as the disciple Peter can attest.  Peter, James, and John know that Chris is the light of God made manifest and still the prospect of being around and following such a force is scary.

Being a disciple of Jesus is no walk in the park. Ministry is not easy. It’s risky and challenging. Not everyone is fond of helping those who are on the margins of society—the folks who are deemed to be filthy and unworthy. You can be criticized, judged, condemned, cursed, bullied, beaten, arrested, and killed as evident in the stories from the New Testament and our history books.

Peter’s fear is quite reasonable and there are many days when I resonate with what the disciple is feeling. As an ordained minister of 13 years, I know who Jesus is in our lives and world. And yet as someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression most of my life, and who has been in counseling and taking medicine for more than a decade, I am regularly startled by the overwhelming light of Christ.

The best way I can explain what it’s like to live with the debilitations of anxiety and depression is to share a description from a meme being shared on social media:

Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time.

It’s the fear of failure but no urge to be productive.

It’s wanting friends but hating socializing.

It’s wanting to be alone but not wanting to be lonely.

It’s caring about everything then caring about nothing.

It’s feeling everything at once then feeling paralyzingly numb.

Following Christ, witnessing to and bearing the light, is something I feel deeply about; it is certainly my calling. However, I don’t always feel comfortable heeding my call because being a part of the Light means I have to take risks and make myself vulnerable to criticism, condemnation and rejection for showing love, practicing mercy and speaking truth to power. I also have to become vulnerable when I fail at not loving God and neighbor as I should and seek to make amends. I would much rather make a dwelling place in the darkness under the covers of my bed and never come out because it can be exhausting to swing out my feet and take a step forward.

 I suspect that many of you, regardless of whether you have anxiety and depression, would confess that you are also reluctance about fully bathing in Christ’s light like I am. Don’t we often present the best of ourselves, desiring to not be vulnerable or show weakness—to keep our flaws, heartache, struggles and pain deep within? We silently pray: Let a little light in God, but not too much, so no one judges us for a fool.

Like a lot of folks in the world, I feel a sense of inadequacy about myself.  I have great doubts about my abilities as a pastor, husband and dad. But then I recall one of my favorite quotes from the author Marianne Williamson that render this attitude absurd. She writes:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” [3]

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…”—it’s a lot of pressure to live into, isn’t it? It’s not surprising that I or anyone else wants to shrink and play small. The task sounds quite intimidating.

But I suppose that it’s not actually about dwelling in and embodying God’s light 24-7. It’s not about us putting pressure on ourselves to always have a glowing and sunny optimism.

Instead, it’s about coming down the mountain with a small flame in our hearts and kindling the hearts of others as we slog through the mundane, messy, demanding, dark and excruciating parts of life.

God is not asking us to be the light of Christ or immerse ourselves in the light every second of every day. God knows we experience suffering and pain and are incapable of being perfect and happy all the time.

But God does call us to listen to Christ and carry what we can of Christ’s light into a world that needs to be illuminated with love. The Rev. Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal priest, says there is no other way:

The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path…God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when your hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. So ‘get up and do not be afraid.’[4]

            Christ’s light finds us and moves us onward in spite of our anxiety, depression, fears, doubts and insecurities. Christ’s light sparks something hidden inside of us that inspires us to brighten the life of another.

Google Images/CNN

Like 15-year-old Gomez Colon, a resident of Puerto Rico who has raised more than $125,000 to help provide 1,400 solar lamps in 840 households that are without electricity due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in November.[5]

Google Images/Yahoo Sports

Like the former NFL player-turned-Baltimore teacher Aaron Maybin who inspired his community to donate hand warmers and gloves to students when Matthew A. Henson Elementary School lost heat and electricity during the winter cold snap last month, and who has also helped raise more than $80,000 to repair the problematic heat systems that exists throughout Baltimore Public Schools.[6]

Like the church members who lovingly insert quarters in the machines at Kim’s Laundromat to provide clean clothes to those in need.

Like the volunteers who spend a couple of hours every month reading to the children of the Burmese refugee families we sponsor.

Those lights seem like tiny flickers in the midst of darkness, but their affects are everlasting and inconsumable. There is a light even though the darkness always surrounds it, and we must shine that light, however big or small, in any way that we can.

            For when you shine the light of Christ that is within your heart, you free other people to do the same, immersing all in the warmth of God’s love.

            Amen.

[1] Super Bowl 52, “Tide Ad” with actor David Habour of the cult hit Nextflix show, “Stranger Things,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doP7xKdGOKs

[2] Micah 7:7-9, Isaiah 9:1-3, Romans 13:11-13, I Corinthians 4:406

[3] Marianne Williamson, Return to Love, HarperCollins Publishing,1992

[4] “Pastoral Perspective” on Transfiguration Sunday texts by Maryetta Madeline Anschutz, Feasting on The Word, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Pentecost. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010

[5] “Teen delivers hundreds of solar lamps to Puerto Ricans without power.” http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/01/news/economy/puerto-rico-teen-solar-lamps-power/index.html

[6] “Crowdfunding helps former NFL player bring heat back to Baltimore schools” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/crowdfunding-helps-former-nfl-player-bring-heat-back-baltimore-schools-n839951; and “NFL player turned teacher goes door to door to help students during Baltimroe cold snap” https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/nfl-player-turned-teacher-goes-door-to-door-to-help-students-during-baltimore-cold-snap-1142238275622

 

Where You Lodge

A Sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2018; Ruth 1:12-18 and Ephesians 2:19-22

Home.

The word has many meanings:

What makes a place home?

What does it mean to leave home?
What does it mean to feel like you don’t have a home?

What does it mean to make a home or engage in God’s kingdom-building for those who don’t have a place to dwell and who cry out for justice and mercy?

More than 1,000 people, including a group of 14 from Pleasant Hill, wrestled with these questions during the 2018 Montreat College Conference held earlier this month at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.

Montreat itself is “home” or a “home away from home” for many Presbyterians who have attended youth and adult conferences because it’s a sacred space where people come to enrich their faith, create community and discern how they are being called to use their gifts to serve.

In the College Conference video that beautifully captures the experience of being at home with one another and God, you probably noticed a cover of the hit single Home by Phillip Phillips playing in the background. If you weren’t able to hear every word or if you’re unfamiliar with the song, here are the lyrics. Listen carefully:

Hold on, to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Greg Holden, the musician who co-wrote Home for Phillip Phillips to perform after the Georgia native won American Idol, said the song was penned for “a friend who was going through a really dark time, and I wanted to write a song that sort of let them know that someone was there for them.”(1)

Home is immensely popular because of the way it emotionally connects with listeners. It’s been used in numerous movies, commercials and sporting events. When asked in an interview about the impact of Home on listeners, Phillip said:

“I hear the most incredible stories from people about how the song helped them through something tough in their life or was part of a beautiful celebration… ‘Home’ has these arms that can stretch so wide that people can relate to it in many ways.”

Home’s powerful message is particularly relatable to the beginning of the story of Ruth and Naomi. Hear again Ruth 1:14-16:

Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.”

Ruth’s actions in this moment are as important if not more so than the words she speaks to Naomi. The text says Ruth “clung” to her.  Now, for my of my life, whenever I’ve read this story, I’ve always pictured Ruth wrapping her arms around Naomi’s waist or her legs like a child who doesn’t want their parent to leave without them.  And if you do a Google search, you’ll find numerous paintings that depict Ruth as the one who seems to be clinging to Naomi out of fear and desperation.

But that’s not what is actually happening. We ascribe a modern day definition and image to the word “cling” that implies someone is desperately holding on for dear life. However, the Hebrew word for cling—dabaq—indicates the opposite is occurring. Dabaq means to keep close, to fasten your grip, to overtake, to stick together.

As Rev. Linda H. Hollies notes in her book on Ruth and Naomi:

Naomi did not quite “get it,” but Ruth was offering to shelter her from the storms of life, to stick by her side without fail, and to be her protection from harm and starvation… (3)

Ruth also takes a risk by protecting Naomi and taking her mother-in-law back to her hometown of Bethlehem in Judah. Ruth is a Moabite who has never left her home country of Moab. She was born there and raised there. She married one of Naomi’s sons in Moab and was planning to have a family and die in Moab.

Moab, by the way, wasn’t regarded highly by the people of Israel. Moab was renown for it’s sensual, sexually immoral habits, culture and mores. The Israelites, with a high sense of moral values, had a decree that other Gentiles could be converted to Judaism within two generations. However, Moabites had to wait ten generations to convert because of Moab’s reputation.

When Ruth leaves Moab with Naomi, she fully realizes that “her kind” will not be immediately accepted when she steps foot in Judah. And yet she still clings to Naomi and promises to go with her. Ruth is confident that the God of the Israelites will take care of them and lead them home.

During a sermon at the College Conference, Rev. Jill Vandewater Isola explained how Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her trust in God reminded her of a scene from a popular TV drama where one character, Leo, a recovering alcoholic is giving advice to another character, Josh, who is struggling with depression and has contemplated suicide. Leo tells Josh a story. He says:

This guy is walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey, you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription and throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. And then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. The guy says, “Are you stupid? Now, we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.” (4)

This is what “home” is about, Rev. Jill told the conferees. “Home is where you’re not alone in your doubt and struggles,” she said. “Home is where someone is in the hole with you to help find the way out.”

Naomi is in a hole. She left Israel due to a severe famine. Then, she loses her husband and a decade later, she loses both her sons, presumably from illness. Naomi is grief-stricken, feeling hopeless—resigned to spend her remaining days in loneliness till she dies. Ruth, who has lost a husband, had a hard life in Moab and is uncertain about how she will be welcomed in a new land, “jumps in the hole” with Naomi. Ruth knows the way out and it is forward with God.

One of the College Conference’s keynote speakers, Rev. Becca Stevens, shared how the organization she founded, Thistle Farms in Nashville, TN, shows the way out and forward for women who’ve fallen on hard times.

After experiencing the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was 5, Becca longed to open a sanctuary that offered a loving community for the survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. In 1997, five women who had lived life on the streets and in prison were welcomed home to Thistle Farms. More than 20 years later, Thistle Farms continues to welcome women by providing free lodging, medical care, therapy and education for two years. Residents and graduates earn income through one of four social enterprises within Thistle Farms, and the global arm of the organization helps employ more than 1,800 women worldwide—women who face abuse, oppression, hunger and poverty in their countries.

Three incredibly brave and courageous women, graduates and employees of Thistle Farms, came on stage with Becca Stevens to share their stories of transformation—of how Thistle Farms clung to them and sheltered them from their storms. Each woman expressed gratitude to Thistle Farms for giving them welcome, redemption, love and hope.

Becca reminded the conferees that “being in community means there will always be someone who needs help,” and that “radical hospitality is what the church needs to be about.”

Being in community by clinging to those who need comfort and protection—by jumping down in the hole to help someone who is stuck and in trouble—is our biblical heritage. It’s in our identity as people of faith, as the apostle Paul states in his letter to the early Christian communities in Ephesians 2:19-22:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Do you catch what Paul is saying in these verses? We are joined together in Christ to build a home for God.

Not a brick and mortar or wooden or steel structure, mind you. That’s fine and all, but the apostle isn’t talking about traditional materials used to construct a church building. Those things are not what make the Church; they’re merely a casing or outfit for what truly is the Church: people. Flesh and blood human beings who create room for God to reside within their very souls and who seek to grow holy temples from their hearts.

We gather together as people of faith in community inside and outside of these walls because we are citizens of God’s kingdom and members of God’s household, no longer the strangers and aliens that parts of society and the world deem many among us to be.

We go out to do the work of Christ’s ministry in neighborhoods near and far because God calls us to cling to others, to provide comfort and love to our brothers and sisters. The reason why we serve at Clifton Men’s Shelter, Laundry Love and the Duluth Co-Op or send mission teams to Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic is because we desire to be in solidarity with fellow human beings who are hurting and who clamor for God’s justice and mercy.

We welcome people all backgrounds and walks of life to discover their meaning and purpose and to seek protection from their storms. We help those who are a bit stuck and need direction so that together we can together find a way out and forward with God.

Joined together in Christ, we make a home for one another. A home where none are alone in their doubts and struggles. A home where all are loved accepted and cherished.

Regardless if you are in this sanctuary or a hospital room or an apartment or a classroom or an office or a shelter for the poor, or a city park or an impoverished village on a hillside thousands of miles away or even a hole in the street, a home will be found and made.

For where you go, we will go.

And where you lodge, we will lodge.

And so will God, who clings to all of us, now and forever.

Amen.


References:

(1) Greg Holden quote: http://www.mcall.com/entertainment/lehigh-valley-music/mc-interviewing-greg-holden-after-writing-phillip-phillips-hit-home-singer-finds-himself-chasing-the-su-20151024-column.html

(2) Phillip Phillips quote: http://www.songwriteruniverse.com/phillip-phillips-interview-2014.htm

(3) “On Their Way to Wonderful: A Journey With Ruth and Naomi” by Linda H. Hollies, p. 15. The Pilgrim Press, 2004

(4) The West Wing, Season 2, Episode 10, “Noel,” 2000. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0745664/quotes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sheep of God’s Pasture

Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40

Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd

Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.  Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.

One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:

A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa

A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum

A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck

A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act

And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.

The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:

“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”[1]

I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear.  Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”

The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage.  No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed.  And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.

To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult.  And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.

Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.  Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”[2]

 All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study  on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.[3]

There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach.  And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.

This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”

While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.

This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.

While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?

So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor.  As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!”  And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.

What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation.  The Church Universal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.

It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.

There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.

The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”[4]

We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.

The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.

I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.

But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.

Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.

The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.

The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.

The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.

The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.

And all God’s people said: Baaaa—amen!

[1] Conni Togel, Sheep Incognito, http://www.charisma-art.com/

[2] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[3] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[4] Feasting on the Word : Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, Christ the King Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, Karyn L. Wiseman