Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sermon: "The Shepherd's Song, or, Of Love, Grace and Peace"

"The Shepherd's Song, or, Of Love, Grace, and Peace"
Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Easter 4
22 April 2018

Texts: Psalm 23, John 10.11-18

Gospel Text:
11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."


Read by the congregation, prior to the homily, these are the first three of our nine recently discerned SWM values, which this homily covers:
1.Original Belovdness
2.Theolgoy of the Cross
3.Restoration fo All Things 

In love, God the Creator made the world good, and gifted all people with original belovedness;
therefore we will seek to delight in all things as God delights in them.
By grace, Christ the Redeemer has embraced the cross on behalf of sinners,
and this proves God’s refusal to refuse us God’s unending forgiveness.
God's Spirit of Renewal is actively at work still, mending the world and restoring all things,
healing all relationships and bringing about a kingdom of reconciliation and peace.


Grace mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God.

I’ve got to confess
when I looked at this week’s lectionary -
the calendar of assigned weekly readings that much of the church follows -
I was tempted to go against 36 years of conditioning
listen to my Baptist colleagues, 
and pick my own texts to help expound our first three SWM values.

It’s not that I hate Psalm 23 -
I actually really love it -
we just used it for my Grandmother’s funeral! - 
it’s just that it’s so well-worn; 
it’s in every single funeral scene in every single movie out there;
probably the most known Christian (or Jewish) text, outside 
maybe of Amazing Grace.
Couldn’t the lectionary have assigned something,
I don’t know, a little more, cosmic?

And yet, I must also confess:
I am a sheep at heart.  We all are, if we’re honest.
So I decided to just loyally follow the lead of the lectionary.
Not trying to say that God only works through the Lectionary -
But, like a Good Shepherd, the Spirit of Jesus
knows what I need, and leads us to the waters of life, 
that the rod and staff of these structures
can sometimes help us express, rather than repress,
sometimes against our better inclinations,
the longings and callings of our hearts.  

It’s also, incidentally, why we do have values as a community;
even though we highly prize the skills of creativity and improvisation
and owning the story for ourselves.
Those things we do not choose - that come to us from outside of us - 
can often help us remember, and enjoy,
the amazing grace, the still waters,
that are right in front of us, things here all the time,
things that are in our blood and our hearts and our practice,
that we might otherwise overlook.

I hope that by reading through this Psalm together,
and seeing how it unfolds the story of God,
it will also help you hear the story of the Gospel
whenever and wherever it pops up in the midst of life.

Note: Consider the following three mini homilies - we don't usually preach this much at SWM, but for the sake of getting these on paper, and having a chance to hear the whole story, we took extra time with them today.  

+Value #1: Original Belovedness (Ps 23.1-3)

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.

Our first SWM value, under the heading “the love of the Creator,”
is “Original Belovedness.”
We believe that God meant it, when at creation, God said, “this is good,”
and that’ it’s never stopped being good.

The imagery of care in the Psalm,
of abundant natural resources, sufficient provision, 
green pastures and still waters, 
evoke imagery of the paradise of Eden.
As we discussed last year talking about the genre of “pastoral” poetry,
almost every ancient religion and culture had a vision of a paradise,
a golden age of perfect love, peace and plenty.

What we can understand from this -
and what is easy to believe on a day like today! -
is that God’s original intention for this world,
it’s plants, animals, waters, skies, lands, stars, and of course, humans,
is for all to have their needs met, their dignity upheld,
their identity as beloved experienced.  
That we could truly and unapologetically say,
“the Lord is my shepherd,” and I know this because I want for nothing.
That when God said, “it’s good,”
God meant it.  God means it.  God doesn’t take back God’s Word.  

Notice that included in the Jewish picture of perfect paradise
is the presence of the Law, of practices, of “right paths,”
that lead us in the ways of God (call it Law, Torah, Love)
and also help to restore our souls when hardship arises.
Part of the way God provisions us 
is by establishing an order to things, and giving us a way to live
in justice, balance, generosity, dependence on the creator,
a way not to repress, but to protect and help us express, 
our original belovedness.
Think of the command not to eat the apple from the tree.
It’s Law, but to because we are bad;
It’s Law, as Peter Maurin wrote, “that makes it easier for us to be good.”
There are certain ways of living “with the grain of the universe”
where there is enough love, grace, peace and plenty for all.  
That’s what God wants for us
because God loves us.  

The world was made good, and remains good,
and as we are fond of saying here, following theologian Karl Rahner,
“every single human being is the unique and unrepeatable expression
of the creative love of God;”
and the glory of that love is a human being fully alive, 
in harmony with, respecting and caring for and sharing in
the goodness of all the world’s species and resources.

This is not a unique religious belief per-say,
but it’s a vital starting point - 
the world was made for joy, delight, abundance, harmony,
and that the intention behind the Creator was Love.  
This is not something that has changed,
regardless of how subsequent co-creators 
have tried to edit or exploit the Author’s Song.
Even when we forget how to say it, the fact remains,
the Lord is our shepherd, and the King of Love our shepherd is.
It’s good right now.
And we need to love, care for, and enjoy it,
so that love, peace and plenty may abound 
for all humans, for all species, for every generation.  

+Value #3: The Restoration of All Things (Psalm 23.5-6)

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.

Skipping ahead to the closing verses,
we discover that in many ways, 
as in many of the greatest works of poetry,
the end is like to the beginning, only better.  
Our origins are planted with Love;
the final harvest is meant to be one of Peace.  
We began with abundance in nature,
and end with an overflowing cup.

We believe God’s commitment to the “Restoration of all things.”
After all, if everything was made good and with love,
then surely the good, loving Creator, will want to finish the work.
As another one of our favorites, Lady Julian of Norwich said,
“all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
The book of Revelation envisions a tree
whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
Where all are gathered without tears or suffering,
in another garden, another paradise, perfectly at peace in love.

And like belief in an original state of paradise,
almost all religions and belief systems hold some vision of heaven.
Of the end being better than the beginning, 
or at least, better than the present.
The classless society of Marxism, 
the seamless re-integration of our atoms into the symphony of matter,
the sharing of democracy or equality or oppression across the world,
all of these are forms of a belief in paradise.

What I love about using Psalm 23 for this, 
and I think is worth nothing,
is that this “heaven,” this life after death, doesn’t wait for death.
Goodness and mercy follow us throughout our life;
we shall dwell in God’s house our whole life long.
These things do not begin after we die.
They are not pictured as a reward for all the good boys and girls
in the by-and-by, once this world is discarded and thrown away.
Nor is there any mention of hell, or punishment, 
only a table for reconciled enemies.

The kingdom of heaven - the restoration and fulfillment of all things,
is happening throughout our life.
It is now.  It is happening.
The Spirit which made all things good and in love,
will shepherd them to their fullness, 
to a place of Peace, of “shalom,”
which is not just the absence of conflict,
but the presence of restored and harmonized relationships,
of wholeness of love and justice,
between humans persons, 
between humans and the creation,
between humans and God,
and also between humans and their own selves.  

This is not an escapist picture of paradise,
but one that reminds us that we’ve never left the pasture.
Heaven is part of it - a glorious promised part of it -
God is at work, Goodness is still possible,
beauty and truth are still our destinies,
and peace is something we can taste, even in the hear and now,
even if not yet fully complete.  
The same Spirit that created the world Good,
that breathed and kissed life into the breast of the first ones,
is breathing new life into our dusty flesh,
and bringing the song of Love to its amazing climax.  

That’s what we believe about God -
God started it Good,
God ends it in Peace,
and we are part of it all.
we come to church, not to escape this broken world,
but to become more capable of loving and delighting in it,
with the Sprit and Heart of God.  

Interlude: So, It’s all good, right?

Now, so far, so good, right?
SO SO good in fact.  If we just stopped right there, 
it’s already a beautiful story, filled with peace and love
and all the things all of our God-imaged human hearts long for.

But as our own Tommy Wales says 
in an interview about songwriting on one of his records,
you can’t have a really great song
without a conflict.  
A story where it starts good, ends better,
and everything in between is just good…
it doesn’t compute.  
Doesn’t make sense.
Doesn’t tell the truth about our experience of life.

There is conflict in the world, right?
In my humble opinion, it is the most verifiable fact of existence - 
people suffer, people hurt, people hurt one another,
people take good things and misuse them,
people put their own needs before others, 
everything dies.  Right?
You’ve experienced these things.
You’re going to die.
We all are.  

It’s actually one of the reasons we don’t articulate “sin” in itself
as one of our values or core beliefs here at the Mission.
Not because we don’t believe in sin -
but because it’s so darn obvious, so damn prevalent,
we just assume it, that suffering is,
often without any real discernible “why” or reason.
We don’t have a theory of “utter depravity” or “penal substitution”
or “genetically transmitted original sin” or “purgatory and penance” - 
we don’t need to give sin more power than it already has.
We don’t wish to be defined by oppression,
or accept the dominion of evil.  

Our focus is not on the fact or the power of sin.
It’s on what our God of Love peace is doing about it, for us.
Our focus is on the Gospel.  And that’s why we need to turn 
to the theology of the cross; 
not just as our next value, 
but as the crux of what makes us a Christian church.  

Value #2: The Theology of the Cross (Psalm 23.4)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff - they comfort me.

Your rod and your staff, they…
smite me and throw me into hell because I’m not righteous enough
and managed to get myself lost and separated from the flock?
They comfort me.  
They give me grace.

I love that in this place, 
we believe that God is full of Love and Peace,
and that they are held together
by God’s grace.
I don’t talk often about being a Lutheran pastor,
or this being a Lutheran church (spoilers: it is!) -
after all, our denominational diversity is so worth celebrating! -
but its something I love and cling to about my own heritage,
that we are centered on this “theology of the cross,”
and the Grace that it reveals.  

Because again, we could focus on how bad human beings are -
on the “problem of evil” in the world.  
But grace, it really invites us to ponder
“the problem of good.”
How is it that when we would rather just let the wolves 
break into the pen and take away any of the sheep
that don’t really help or benefit our flock -
How is that when the world is dominated by violence 
and oppression and prejudice and injustice -
How is that when we feel like Love is a limited resource
and Peace is an impossible hope,
and that more grace for you means less grace for me, 
that we can only earn love and self-worth by what we do and own
and that security can only be won by violence -
How is that goodness exists?
Where does Love come from?
What keeps us walking through this deep dark valley
from the original goodness
to the promised peaceful end?

I want to suggest - 
and it may be an unpopular suggestion in our pluralistic world -
that Christianity offers an utterly unique answer -
an amazing, unbelievable proclamation and promise - 
to this challenge.
Because more importantly than how we define the origins of evil
is how we identify the source and Creator of the Good.

After all, Love, Peace, these words can mean a million different things
to a million different people.
Whose Love offers real acceptance?  Whose Peace truly ends conflict?
If we lived in 1930s Germany,
we might easily assert that the Creator’s Love exists for German people,
that the desired Peace is German people controlling the world,
that the solution to the problem of evil and achieving good,
is the removal of everyone who is not German.
If we live in 2010s Rochester,
we might assert that those who have property and white skin 
are the heirs of love and acceptance,
that the Peace we seek is one of prosperity 
without the blemish of poverty or violence,
and so we believe the solution is to get our kids out of the bad schools,
and into the good ones, the inequalities a mere side effect;
that the people under the bridge in tents
need to be removed for the sake of appearances and assurance.

We could go on and on -
how we define the Originating Love, and how we dream the Final Peace,
inexorably shape the paths we will choose through the valleys between,
the solution and the choices we will make
and the companions we will tolerate
through the conflicts and sufferings of life.

And I hate to say it; even our best intentions as humans
mean that some sheep need to be left behind 
for the sake of the 99.  
As Jesus points out, most shepherds freak out when the wolves arrive,
abandon the one lost sheep to the wilderness,
in order to protect their own lives,
and the lives and security of the ones they’ve chosen to love.
We cut our losses,
choose a lesser system or more convenient story,
because it enables us to be safe,
which only continues the cycle of scarcity and violence,
compromising the vision of peace and abundance,
practicing a love that is only for the worthy.

When we try to tell the stories ourselves.
Go off the lectionary, if you will,
and choose the texts which best suit our own desires.  
We are all sinners - because we are all humans,
and live inexorably entwined in the human experiment of survival at all costs.

And, here’s the thing.

The theology of the cross says, “exactly.  
All that.  Humans are sinners.
Y’all are part of it.  
We are all self-centered.  
We’re all focused on ourselves,
capitalism really does get that part right!”

And Christ comes anyway.

See, even though I walk through the valley,
I believe we can dwell in the world’s darkness without fear.
Without letting it become that which defines us and others,
and without shying away from the reality of its weight.
We can name the darkness honestly, 
partly because we know what Light is.
And we can know what Light is, as Christians,
because of our third value, “the Theology of the Cross.”

And while you may think it sounds like some scary German thing,
I think each of you who attends SWM already know it.
We say it every single week in our confession and absolution.
It’s from Romans 5: 
“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,
and this proves God’s love for us.”
Jesus says it in today’s Gospel:
I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.

That’s the theology of the cross.
Not when we achieved moral purity and perfection
so that everyone wants to be just like you;
not when our party is in power and controls the government;
not when our progressivism wills the world into a better state;
not when you or your product is successful 
or you have the best high or the best sex ever 
and are never coming down.

When we were messed up.
And confused and lost
and struggling
and hurting others
and hurting ourselves,
passing on the pain,
hoarding resources,
lost in the valley of the shadow of death
and could not find our way back,
Christ is with us.
And comes to be for us.
And embraces us.  There.  

Not in the achievements and successes.
But in the darkness.  The brokenness.
So that He can lead us into the Light.  

Did Jesus say, in the Gospel,
“I am the Good Shepherd, because…
I have the prettiest, most powerful,
successful, loyal, faithful, perfect sheep?”
“I am the Good Shepherd, because I lay down my life for them,
I do it willingly.
Because I love them.  I want their peace.”

Not what the sheep do.  What the shepherd does.
“I am the Good Shepherd because I will leave the 99
and go back into the darkest valley
and I find every single lost one
until the flock, the family, is restored to wholeness.
I will descend even into the depths of Hell, 
I will break down every gate and tear down every prison door
and I will seek and find and liberate every single soul
that is separated from me,
shatter the chains of prejudice, and justice,
oppression, self-hatred and self-harm,
I will not stop seeking
until every single sheep is seated around that table,
enjoying the abundance of creation.”

That’s the theology of the cross.
That’s why we need Jesus.  

God loves us.  God desires peace for us.  And it is Grace that gets there.

In many ways, the most historically provable event in the Bible
is the crucifixion of Jesus.  
Just as sin is the most verifiable human fact,
the point where we turn that sin
against the One who came proclaiming Love, Grace and peace,
is also eminently provable.  
Humans killing Jesus is history.  
It’s even in non-christian sources - even ones Christians didn’t change after the fact!

Faith says he was resurrected,
but even there, its the cross that matters,
and you know why?
Because God resurrected Jesus,
not just to show everyone that they get to go to heaven,
but to justify and to celebrate the kind of death
that Jesus died,
to declare his love right and true,
to say, “this is worthy of more life!”
The resurrection means that that guy 
who we killed
is God.
And the love that he showed,
the peace he proclaimed,
the grace he embodied,
those are the true story of the universe.

Despite humanity’s refusal of God’s gifts,
God refuses our refusal.
It is through death, and betrayal,
detail and rejection,
that God says, “I am happy improvise something
that is going to blow your mind,
and restore peace anyway
and all that justice, and all that love,
and I’m going to restore it,
better than it was before.
I am making all things new.  
I never stopped loving.   
I never will.

And this proves God’s love for us.
The cross.  
We know not only that God is love and peace, 
but that God is grace,
and that grace is FOR US,
that the Lord is MY shepherd,
that as the psalm says, “you are WITH ME,”
not from within the valley of the shadow,
but because the Living Light 
came to us while we were lost, guided us home to the feast,

No sheep left behind.
No sheep too far gone to save.

Postlude: Other Sheep? 

And that’s why we came to church, friends.
Not just because we get to go to heaven.
But because God is still gathering the sheep.
And God calls us to be gathered first
around this Gospel of Grace
sot that we can also become gatherers 
filled with love and peace.

God is indeed alive and well in this broken world,
and we don’t need to invent a story to paper it over -
the story’s already being told.
And God’s not using all the pretty perfect people to embellish it.
God’ using us.
And our faults, and our mistakes,
and ur need, and our brokenness,
and God sees through to our Original Belovedness,
and makes those things sing,
makes an even more beautiful Belovedness,
restoring us, transfiguring us,
making all things new.

That’s why this Psalm is so powerful, right?
Amazing grace.  
Even in the valley of the shadow, 
we still sing it.
Even people who cannot believe they’d find themselves believing
often know these texts:
Psalm 23, Amazing Grace.
They are part of our DNA.
They are our deepest longings for love and peace.
And they are our inherent surrender,
our acceptance,
that we simply cannot make them happen 
by ourselves.  
The we need something bigger than us,
a love greater than our own,
a peace we cannot manufacture,
to embrace us.

And we are called to tell them, “it’s out there.”
That’s why we need this values,
and why I took extra time to deliver
what amounts to three mini-sermons 
on this story of God.
Not so we can memorize theology
and have all the “right answers;”
they are there to remind us,
and to teach us,
to proclaim this Gospel.

To help a world that has forgotten its Original Belovedness
that there really is Peace,
that Amazing Grace is not just a song.  
And to say:
I’m willing to walk through the valley with you.
I’m willing to show you how this has been true in my life.
To show you the vulnerabilities that God is improvising 
into instruments of peace.
To walk through the shit and the mire 
as long as it takes
so that together we can have life in His name.

Notice the at the end of the psalm,
as the sheep are seated at the table,
the shepherd anoints their heads with oil.
We are ordained and called 
to invite others to join us at this table.
A priesthood of all sheep.

And not just to invite our friends 
and thus return to the valley of death.
Notice that it is a table in the presence of enemies.
God is reconciling enemies.
God is bringing together people we’d never expect.
God calls us to go out 
and invite, and gather,
not the pretty perfect and powerful,
but the most suffering,
the most broken,
the most in need.  
That’s why we are given the Holy Spirit,
to go forth,
proclaim the Gospel,
heal the sick,
free the captives,
raise the dead,
and be an agent of midwifing the Kingdom
into the here and now.
Through words,
and through your singing the story well
with our living.

And I hope 
that next time you hear this Psalm -
whether you’re sitting in a cafe,
or watching a movie with friends,
or grieving the loss of someone you love,
when you hear Amazing Grace
in a tv show or a rally,
and you see that look come over another’s face,
like they are trying to remember something,
like their deepest self is longing for love and for peace,
that you can bend near,
and whisper gently,
“it’s true.
and it’s for you.”

And then you can tell them the story.  
That the King of Love our shepherd is.