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Monday, April 23, 2018

April 22, 2018

 John 10:11-18     
Acts 4:5-12          
1 John 3:16-24
     I got a call on Tuesday morning.  A student from George Fox. University wanted to interview me as a church leader for a paper he was writing for a religion class he was taking.  He lived near the church, so it would be convenient to come by.  The paper was due that day, so we made arrangements to meet after I got back from text study, where I do some of my sermon prep with the other pastors.  The professor had asked them attend a service or interview a pastor and address the meaning of our rituals.  He told me he knew a little about Lutheranism, after all, he was nondenominational Christian, which was also protestant.  He said he knew a little about Lutheranism from his class, that Martin Luther had posted the theses to the door of the Roman Catholic Church and translated the Bible into the common language so that we could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
     It's probably never a good idea to try to explain to someone who they are and what they believe because it won't ever be quite right.  But I thought, this is an opportunity to help him understand something about the way Lutherans think and maybe stretch him to see the Bible and faith from a different perspective.  That was part of the point of the assignment, anyway, right.  So I took a deep breath and I said something like, "For Lutherans, having a personal relationship with Jesus is not what it is all about.  Of course we believe in reading the Bible and doing devotions and serving God in your vocation, but the worshiping community is absolutely necessary as a means of experiencing God's presence.  The Christian community, the church, must be there to challenge you to grow in faith, to teach the stories, to help you in hard times, and to make sure you don't go off on your own little tangent and misuse the Gospel and misinterpret the Bible to serve your own needs."  He said to me, "Sure, the Bible says, don't neglect to meet together  in the Lord's name."  I said, "It is more than that.  It is that the community, the church, is the body of Christ in the world.  If a person is going to be in relationship with Jesus, we're going to be in relationship with his body, the community.
     The Lord is my shepherd.  This Psalm threatens to support us in our "Me and Jesus" wish to have him all to ourselves, to create him in our image and make him like the same we do and only comfort us but never challenge us.  Me and Jesus is an idolatry and I want to make sure we are seeing all that is in the 23rd Psalm so we don't misuse it and miss out on the richness it has to offer.  In this Psalm, we're never just alone with Jesus.  Jesus is not my shepherd, he's our shepherd, because we're always sharing him with the flock and with Creation in a way that is life-giving for us and for the other sheep and for the earth.  We're moving from pasture to pasture because that is what is good for all of us.  We need fresh food, and the grass needs a break from our grazing to thrive.  We're going beside the still waters so we don't foul it with our dirty hooves.  What is good for the waterways is good for us, is good for the fish, is good for the birds, and so on.  The well-being and restoration of my soul does not just depend on me and Jesus, it depends on our relationship with all creation that God made and which is very good in its own right, before we were ever created, apart from what it can do for us.  The creation the way God made it is good in itself and good for us, sharing its life with us and we with it as we go on our way, with our caretaking, our respect, and our fertilizer, our gifts in mutual blessing to the earth.
     Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," one of many "I am" statements in the Gospel of John (I am the bread of life, I am the gate, etc.)  He is reflecting the great "I am" God's name given to Moses at the burning bush.  When Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are the flock.  You never see a shepherd with just one sheep.  There is something greater, and not only this neighbor next to me in the flock, but there are multiple flocks, other flocks that Jesus speaks of that we don't know about, because one thing to know about sheep and flocks is that they don't see the bigger picture and that's why they need someone like the shepherd to lead them.
     On this Earth Day we have this comforting image of God healing, protecting, guiding, and nourishing.  And we have a challenge to be in relationship with the flock and with this Creation this world the plants the animals the air the water the land, this word God spoke which came into being in a relationship of love.  So this psalm reminds us that we can't have Jesus all to ourself, that it is never me and Jesus.  I always depend on others to share the stories of faith.  I always depend on others to see the bigger picture.  I always depend on others to grow my food, make my clothes, bring energy to my house.  It is never me and Jesus, it is me and the body of Christ in the world.  This Psalm is the most recognized scripture in the Bible, claimed by many, but it doesn't belong to me.
     And who is my shepherd, that the most powerful being in the universe, who made everything, who knows all and sees all, decided to make this flock, and decided to come among us, not to control or rule or demand, not to fix everything, but to be our shepherd, what a use of power, to empower others, to walk along side us in the mud and the dark valley, to sleep in the presence of wolves, to risk everything, to take all that power and to us it to love us, the one with the broken heart trying to hand it to us, every single day, until we're embarrassed, this is what the 9th week he's been trying to hand us his broken heart.  He's the shepherd standing there among us, hurting with us, counting the missing, his eyes peeled for danger.  And there are other flocks.  He stands there hurting with the animals who are hurt or missing, his scars mirroring the cuts we've made in the earth, his labored breathing matching that of a child with asthma, our shepherd suffering with us, our shepherd offering us new life.
      The 23rd Psalm is one that has brought comfort to people for thousands of years, a scripture most people would recognize whether or not they have ever read the Bible.  It is one of profound power-with, of leadership, of guidance, of understanding, of healing, of kindness.  It is a tender relationship between a powerful being of love and care, and a pretty vulnerable, oblivious, limited creature.  It is comforting to think that despite our limitations, we are valued and truly known, and we aren’t entirely clueless, we know the voice of our shepherd.  We know who to trust.
      The 23rd Psalm, like any other scripture, is one we can always learn more about.  This week I learned that instead of the word “follow” the Hebrew word there actually means “Pursue.”  Instead of “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” kind of a wandering, indifferent, slow action, but “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life,” a very active, persistent, focused action.  Also the word dwell may not have the same meaning we’ve always thought.  Instead it can be a kind of returning.  Instead of “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” it is more of this, “And I shall return to the house of the Lord forever.”  A returning is a homecoming.  It is a warm embrace from a place and family we have always known and belonged to.
     God is our shepherd, whether we are the vulnerable sheep or the hired hand.  We shall not be in want, but we shall not be in excess, either.  God makes us lie down in green pastures, and leads us beside still waters. God uses God’s power of love, power-with to guide us and give us abundant life.  That might mean leading us to peaceful situations of abundance, and it might mean challenging us to let other creatures approach places of abundance and peace.  God restores our soul—that we would be whole, part of a complex web of interrelatedness, accountable, sharing.  God leads us in right paths, not letting us trample or be trampled.  Although we all walk through times and places of danger, we are not alone.  Fear need not direct us.  God is the ultimate power, even over the darkest valley, our lowest point.  God’s rod and staff are ready, the rod to fight off the powers that threaten to destroy us and the staff to reach out to us and redirect us back to the safety of the flock and shepherd.  God prepares this table before us, a table for all God’s children, all God’s flocks, and we find ourselves at the table with friend and enemy alike and realize that we are one and that our differences are immaterial when we use our power for love.  God anoints our heads with oil, a healing ointment, moisturizer, salve.  Our cup is completely full.  We have more than what we need.  Our cup overflows to all those around  us, until all cups are full.  Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue us all the days of our lives, shall be part of each and every day.  And we will return to the house of the Lord, we shall find ourselves coming home to God’s house, God’s kingdom, God’s bosom, relationship of love. 
     God uses God’s power for love.  The King of Love my shepherd is.  When will we learn to follow our shepherd and do the same?  What is one loving thing you can do this week to share power, to share love with someone who could especially use it?

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