Psalm 23 If the Lord is my Shepherd, what does that make me?

The Lord is my Shepherd.

What does that bring to mind? Funerals?  A long-ago Sunday School class when you had to recite the psalm for your teacher?  A time when you found comfort in the middle of crisis? When you recite that psalm, what are you saying about yourself?

The Lord is my shepherd

; You, Lord, are my shepherd.

You must need a shepherd, if you’re putting God in that position.  You must not be able to go it alone. You’re also professing that you believe in one God, a God, that you are not an atheist.

Shepherds are associated with authority, but also with violence.  A shepherd had to protect himself and his sheep from bandits and wild animals.

 It is not a sit-down job.  Maybe you imagine a shepherd sitting on a rock catching a few rays. In fact, a shepherd has to be constantly alert, constantly moving, watching both over his sheep and for danger.

I like to think of myself as a cuddly little lamb being caressed on God’s lap, but in reality, God has a much tougher job taking care of me. Like most sheep, wandering comes naturally to me. I don’t see danger or I ignore it.  I need my shepherd for my own survival.

I shall not want.I will never be in need. (KJV/CEV)

You are admitting that you don’t need anything, that you have everything you need when God is your shepherd. What do you need right now?  I think I need some flowers to plant in my flower bed.  I think I need a new dress before Thursday when I have to make a speech in front of people I don’t know.  I think I need to take a trip to Colorado and another one to California. I think I need to win the lottery. But if I think about it, I don’t need anything.  Here, I have to say that there are plenty of people–in fact, most of the people in this world, who are in need of what I take for granted: food, shelter, health care, dignity and respect. What does the Psalm mean to a Christian living in Palestine or Syria or Indonesia? I cannot say with any authority, but I believe that this Psalm still brings comfort to people, no matter what the situation. One of the gifts of scripture and of faith is that it looks forward rather than back.  The promise is still there and sometimes a promise is enough to live on. Amazing but true for those of us who have this peculiar faith.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: You let me rest in fields of green grass. (KJV/CEV)

Two things: First, if sheep lie down, it’s a sign they feel safe enough that they don’t have to stand to defend themselves.

We are declaring that God makes us feel safe.

Second, what is the big deal about green grass? Think about the pictures you have seen of Israel and Palestine and Egypt.  Do you visualize green grass…or rocks and sand?  Sheep were the main livestock in Biblical times because they knew how to find food when there wasn’t much of anything growing in the rocky landscape.  So, God gives something beyond the bare minimum we need for existence: lush green pastures. We are pretty special.

he leadeth me beside the still waters. You lead me to streams of peaceful water,

(KJV/CEV)

Again, God provides us with the necessities, like water. Speaking metaphorically, God gives us the luxury of still waters, not some muddy puddle, not some rocky torrent that requires risking falling into rapids. We drink from still, clear water, safely.

3 He restoreth my soul: and you refresh my life.  (KJV/CEV)

God does more than keep us from starving or drowning. God restores and refreshes us.  Again, look at how God goes above what is required to keep us alive.  One of the benefits of worship is that we are refreshed to make it through the next week. We get a shot of hope, a shot of love to send us on our way.

he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths. (KJV/CEV)

God is not watching from afar; God is actively involved not only in rescuing and protecting us; God is a hands-on God, helping us to be the people God created us to be.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid.  (KJV/CEV)

Yes, even with God on our side, we walk through bad times, dangerous times, fearful times…but we have this amazing ability to trust God, to actually know that God will find ways to keep us strong, even when we are not safe. In fact, we often come through that valley even stronger and wiser. Another thing that amazes me is that we can face our battles without fear.  That is not true for everyone.  We all know people who face illness or loss with fear, rather than trust. We walk through our valleys with pain and discomfort and anger, but fear is strangely absent when we put our trust in God..

for thou art with me; You are with me,  (KJV/CEV)

Again, God is with us.  God doesn’t work part-time or play favorites. If we can’t find God, it’s not because God is hiding.  If we can’t find God, it is because we are emotionally or physically blinded. Nonetheless, God sticks by us, no matter where we wander.

thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.  (KJV/CEV)

Having spent a part of my lifetime with sheep, I’m always interested in the husbandry as it is practiced in different parts of the world.  I never used a rod or a staff; about the only tool I had was a five-gallon bucket full of oats, which was a good way to get all the sheep in one place. However, the rod and the staff both have specific uses. My favorite book about Psalm 23 is A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 By Phillip Keller. As well as spending time as a shepherd, he also observed shepherds in the Middle East. Here is his description of the rod and the staff.

The rod was what he (the shepherd) relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger. And it was, furthermore, the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that insisted on wandering away.

There is a second dimension in which the rod is used by the shepherd for the welfare of his sheep — namely that of discipline. The club is used for this purpose perhaps more than any other.

There are three areas of sheep management in which the staff plays a most significant role. The first of these lies in drawing sheep together into an intimate relationship. The shepherd will use his staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother if they become parted. He does this because he does not wish to have the ewe reject her offspring if it bears the odor of his hands upon it.

…the staff is used by the shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old, and draw them close to himself for intimate examination. The staff is very useful this way for the shy and timid sheep normally tend to keep at a distance from the shepherd.

The staff is also used for guiding sheep. Again and again I have seen a shepherd use his staff to guide his sheep gently into a new path or through some gate or along dangerous, difficult routes. He does not use it actually to beat the beast. Rather, the tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against the animal’s side and the pressure applied guides the sheep in the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of its proper path.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch.  (KJV/CEV)

As far as I know, I’ve never had to eat a meal while my enemies watched me.  I think that would be extremely uncomfortable.  I’ve led a privileged life in that I’ve always been able to do what I wanted when I wanted.  But there are plenty of people who are often surrounded by danger, from the bullied kid on the playground, whose teacher won’t let him stay inside during recess, to the teenager who lives among gang members, to the whistle blower who gets fired for reporting mismanagement in the work place. In other words, there are lots of people who don’t feel safe, whether it’s in the home, the classroom, or the workplace.  The bullies, the gang members, the co-workers may not consciously think of themselves as enemies, but they are certainly not friends to someone who is abandoned. How does God pack a lunch for us or protect us from people who want to harm us?  We all know that there are some horrible examples where God does not seem to be present. Maybe those are the times when God is trying to lead us in the paths of righteousness, so that we can be the hands and feet of Jesus. That’s above my pay grade.  I don’t like it and I don’t pretend to understand it. If I rationalize, it’s because I’m want God to be omnipotent.  In other words, God disappoints me sometime. But that works both ways, so I’ll hang in there.

thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows. (KJV/CEV)

I’ve always focused on “my cup runneth over” as a sign of abundance. But the important gift here is the anointing. To be anointed is to be honored, to be given the gift of respect.  God honors me…of all people!  I’m not just a lowly subject; I’m important!

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life,  (KJV/CEV)

In verse 6, goodness and mercy do not just “follow.” They pursue. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, the Hebrew verb…has the more active sense of “pursue.” God is coming after the psalmist. The bad news is, we have enemies. The good news is, God has our back. Ordinarily in the psalms, it is precisely the enemies who “pursue” the psalmist….Here the enemies are present but have been rendered harmless, while God is in active pursuit.”

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. and I will live forever in your house, Lord.    (KJV/CEV)

Based on how this psalm is used and on the most popular translation, the King James Version, I’m guessing that most people interpret this “house of the Lord” to mean “heaven.” However, listen to the New Revised Standard Version.

“I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV)

Joel LeMon, Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, points out that because of “the prevalence of images of traveling throughout the psalm, it is most appropriate to read the last line this way: “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.” Thus the journey does not end at the end of the psalm. Rather, seeking after God’s presence is a lifelong enterprise, a long-term journey.”

Because so much of the Psalm is about protecting us in our daily life, it makes sense to me that our expected reaction should not be a passive waiting to die, but an active engagement with God each day of our lives, daily connecting with God, to praise God, to talk with God, to act with God.

This Psalm is well-known, not just by Christians, but by people who hang out with Christians, by people who watch television and movies and read books and magazines.

Here are a few examples from the media:

  • 1961: In The Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man”, the Psalm is recited by an “obsolete” librarian Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith), while awaiting capital punishment in his apartment.
  • 1997: In the film Titanic it is recited while the ship is sinking.
  • 1997: In the film Paradise Road, the WWII story of a group of European women held prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp on Sumatra, the missionary Margaret, played by Pauline Collins, recites the King James version as she dies in the arms of Adrienne Pargiter (played by Glenn Close)
  • 2002: In the film We Were Soldiers, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” is referenced multiple times
  • 2006: In the ABC series Lost, in episode 2.10 “The 23rd psalm” Mr. Eko recites the Psalm when the plane with the drugs and his brother is burning, and in episode 2.12 “Fire + Water”, he recites it while baptizing Claire and her son Aaron.
  • 2009: In the film Terminator Salvation, verse four is read by a preacher to Marcus Wright, before the latter is executed via lethal injection.
  • 2010: In the film True Grit, Mattie, the narrator, recites part of the psalm
  • 2011: In the film War Horse, a British soldier recites the beginning of the Psalm whilst crossing no-man’s land.

Of all the thousands of  pieces of literature in the English language, this is the one that has established itself as an anchor in times of trouble. Not Psalm 51.  Not the Beatitudes. Not John 3:16. Psalm 23, over and over and over.

Musicians as diverse as Duke Ellington, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Judy Collins, U2,  Bobby McFerrin, Cissy Houston,  Marilyn Manson, Kanye West, Megadeth and Jay-Z have referenced Psalm 23 in their lyrics.

Todd Beamer was a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked as part of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He was one of the passengers who tried to reclaim the aircraft from the hijackers, leading them to crash it into a field in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Just before the crash,Beamer recited  the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm …. prompting others to join in.

Later, President George W. Bush quoted Psalm 23 in his address to the nation after the September 11 attacks.

Scott Fitzgerald, John Milton, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Edgar Allan Poe all used the image of the valley of death in their literary works.

The Lord is my shepherd.  How many people even know what a shepherd does? Many people live in cities far removed from pastures and hillsides and sheep. Yet somehow, this Psalm endures. It is woven into our culture as well as our faith history.

Even if we know nothing about sheep or enemies or pastures or rods or staffs, this Psalm tells us clearly and beautifully that we are protected. It is no wonder that it is shared in so many venues, no wonder that so many people can recite it from memory. Six lines of poetry have passed over the lips of millions of people for thousands of years.

The Lord is my Shepherd. I am the sheep who gets lost, who goes in the wrong direction, who puts myself in danger. I am the sheep who is always protected, never forgotten, always found. Amen.

1 King James Version

2 Contemporary English Version

3 http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-the-kings-shepherd-psalm-231-6/The Politics of the King’s Shepherd—Psalm 23:1-6 20 Apr, 2015 Alastair Roberts

4 http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_psalms#sthash.HZpzEneC.dpuf

Psalm 23 Author: Doug Bratt

5 http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_psalms#sthash.HZpzEneC.dpuf

Psalm 23 Author: Doug Bratt

6 Excerpts from: A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 By Phillip Keller

7 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2175Nancy Koester Adjunct Professor Augsburg College Minneapolis, MN

8 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372Joel LeMon

Associate Professor of Old Testament Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Ga.

9 Wikipedia

Business as Unusual

Luke 24:13-49Contemporary English Version (CEV)

13 That same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to the village of Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 As they were talking and thinking about what had happened, 15 Jesus came near and started walking along beside them. 16 But they did not know who he was.

17 Jesus asked them, “What were you talking about as you walked along?”

The two of them stood there looking sad and gloomy. 18 Then the one named Cleopas asked Jesus, “Are you the only person from Jerusalem who didn’t know what was happening there these last few days?”

19 “What do you mean?” Jesus asked.

They answered:

Those things that happened to Jesus from Nazareth. By what he did and said he showed that he was a powerful prophet, who pleased God and all the people. 20 Then the chief priests and our leaders had him arrested and sentenced to die on a cross.21 We had hoped that he would be the one to set Israel free! But it has already been three days since all this happened.

22 Some women in our group surprised us. They had gone to the tomb early in the morning, 23 but did not find the body of Jesus. They came back, saying that they had seen a vision of angels who told them that he is alive. 24 Some men from our group went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said. But they didn’t see Jesus either.

25 Then Jesus asked the two disciples, “Why can’t you understand? How can you be so slow to believe all that the prophets said? 26 Didn’t you know that the Messiah would have to suffer before he was given his glory?” 27 Jesus then explained everything written about himself in the Scriptures, beginning with the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets.

28 When the two of them came near the village where they were going, Jesus seemed to be going farther. 29 They begged him, “Stay with us! It’s already late, and the sun is going down.” So Jesus went into the house to stay with them.

30 After Jesus sat down to eat, he took some bread. He blessed it and broke it. Then he gave it to them. 31 At once they knew who he was, but he disappeared. 32 They said to each other, “When he talked with us along the road and explained the Scriptures to us, didn’t it warm our hearts?” 33 So they got right up and returned to Jerusalem.

The two disciples found the eleven apostles and the others gathered together. 34 And they learned from the group that the Lord was really alive and had appeared to Peter. 35 Then the disciples from Emmaus told what happened on the road and how they knew he was the Lord when he broke the bread.

36 While Jesus’ disciples were talking about what had happened, Jesus appeared and greeted them. 37 They were frightened and terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost.

38 But Jesus said, “Why are you so frightened? Why do you doubt? 39 Look at my hands and my feet and see who I am! Touch me and find out for yourselves. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

40 After Jesus said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 The disciples were so glad and amazed that they could not believe it. Jesus then asked them, “Do you have something to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of baked fish. 43 He took it and ate it as they watched.

44 Jesus said to them, “While I was still with you, I told you that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Books of the Prophets, and in the Psalms had to happen.”

45 Then he helped them understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them:

The Scriptures say that the Messiah must suffer, then three days later he will rise from death. 47 They also say that all people of every nation must be told in my name to turn to God, in order to be forgiven. So beginning in Jerusalem, 48 you must tell everything that has happened. 49 I will send you the one my Father has promised, but you must stay in the city until you are given power from heaven.

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Jesus had a lot of explaining to do. Between his resurrection and his ascension into heaven, he had to get his staff trained and transformed. He was in the process of turning the most radical movement in the history of humankind into a business model that would allow him to govern in absentia. He had forty days, no budget, and a few hundred uneducated employees who were motivated only by his personality.  When that personality left the room, what would remain?

He had no fax machines, no photocopiers, no training videos. None of his employees could be reached by email or text. And what good would that do? Most of them couldn’t read. He offered no compensation packages.  The only pension plan was a final retirement party sitting next to Jesus, in a neighborhood no one had ever seen. One thing that was appealing about the pension plan was that it would last forever. The other good thing is that Jesus would be there…forever.

So what tools did Jesus have at his disposal?  He had his personality, his reputation, and his teachings.  And he had the authority of Scripture to back him up.

27 Jesus then explained everything written about himself in the Scriptures, beginning with the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets.

44 Jesus said to them, “While I was still with you, I told you that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Books of the Prophets, and in the Psalms had to happen.”

46 He told them:

The Scriptures say that the Messiah must suffer, then three days later he will rise from death. 47 They also say that all people of every nation must be told in my name to turn to God, in order to be forgiven.

The challenge is that Jesus understood Scriptures one way; his followers understood the same scripture in a very different way.

19 “What do you mean?” Jesus asked.

They answered:

Those things that happened to Jesus from Nazareth. By what he did and said he showed that he was a powerful prophet, who pleased God and all the people. 20 Then the chief priests and our leaders had him arrested and sentenced to die on a cross.21 We had hoped that he would be the one to set Israel free! But it has already been three days since all this happened.

For how many centuries had this scripture been understood as a political prediction?  How many Jews had looked for a Messiah who would have the strength and cunning of David and Gideon, of Ahab and Joshua?   Nobody was hoping for a social worker, for an intellectual, for a bleeding heart.  If anything was going to bleed, it had better be Roman soldiers.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus typified the Jewish hope of salvation. Jesus had a different definition of salvation. Lucky for us, who have not felt threatened by the Romans. Lucky for us, that Jesus could see beyond his own life span, beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.  Lucky for us, that Jesus could see beyond the worth of capitol investments and gross national products and military policy. Jesus restored to humanity the vision of Creation. Jesus restored to humanity the connections that bring more joy, more good, more benefit than the possessions and passions that threaten to usurp our time and our intentions.  Jesus restored to us the knowledge that we are created in the image of God.

Jesus understood that human governments and institutions are structures that organize us. They help us to manage whatever possessions we have, but when the possessions become the reason for our existence, we are wasting the very essence of our humanity. Any animal can accumulate possessions, like a crow or a raccoon. Any animal can reproduce and raise its young. Animals can build nests and inhabit dens. Animal life is limited. Because we are created in God’s image, we have gifts that make our lives more than a journey from birth to death, more than a predictable record of survival. 

We have beauty and creativity and compassion and love and kindness and discernment.  We see beyond the physical body, we see beyond the threat of competition, we see beyond the hunger and the hurt.

“We had hoped…” the disciples tell Jesus.  They had hoped for what their limited experience could interpret.  Jesus expanded that experience of the universe as created by God, with all its nuances of color and fragrance and texture and music. Jesus expanded the experience of relationships, with all their complications and expectations. Building on the authority and the tradition of Scripture, Jesus brought a deliverance that was fool-proof.  Conquering the Romans would have lasted how long?  The Roman Empire did fall, but so have dozens of empires since then.  None of those defeats–or victories–guaranteed anything for anyone.  Some survived, some thrived, some perished.  There has never been liberty and justice for all, no matter how we try to legislate it. 

The only liberty and justice for all comes from Jesus. Jesus taught us ways to overcome earthly injustice,  to survive the failed systems of humanity, to grow closer to the Image in which we were created. Jesus’ Mission Statement was not really new: it, too, was from the original Hebrew Scriptures.

Leviticus 19:18 “Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”;   

Leviticus 19:34 “But treat them just as you treat your own citizens. Love foreigners as you love yourselves, because you were foreigners one time in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”.

As it is later transcribed in the Christian Scriptures:

  Matthew 7:12 “Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.” 

Luke 6:31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

One other element that makes these rules easier to follow is the forgiveness of sins.  It would very hard to love anyone if forgiveness were not part of loving.  It is much easier to forgive someone else when one’s sins are forgiven by the ultimate scorekeeper, God.

Listen to how John explains this in today’s epistle lesson.

1 John 3:1-8Contemporary English Version (CEV)

Think how much the Father loves us. He loves us so much that he lets us be called his children, as we truly are. But since the people of this world did not know who Christ is, they don’t know who we are. My dear friends, we are already God’s children, though what we will be hasn’t yet been seen. But we do know that when Christ returns, we will be like him, because we will see him as he truly is. This hope makes us keep ourselves holy, just as Christ is holy.

Everyone who sins breaks God’s law, because sin is the same as breaking God’s law.You know that Christ came to take away sins. He isn’t sinful, and people who stay one in their hearts with him won’t keep on sinning. If they do keep on sinning, they don’t know Christ, and they have never seen him.

Children, don’t be fooled. Anyone who does right is good, just like Christ himself.Anyone who keeps on sinning belongs to the devil. He has sinned from the beginning, but the Son of God came to destroy all that he has done.

This love knows no borders, recognizes no governments or institutions.  This love never ends. 

Yes, it would be wonderful if we lived in a perfect world where Jesus micromanaged every detail.  It would be wonderful to live in a world where no one was ever hungry or malnourished, where no one was ever threatened or harmed by anyone, where any illness could be treated quickly and effectively.  But those afflictions apply only to this earthly life. Jesus gave us something much bigger, much more amazing.  Jesus gave us the ability to live his teachings in this world.  Jesus gave us the ability to let love rule the world.  Our love is administered in personal, intentional doses and portions, often without government interference, under the most stressful of situations. Jesus gave us the ability to operate according to his Mission Statement.  Jesus has commissioned us to continue the work he started.  And that pension plan–what could be better than spending the rest of your life—your real, God-blessed, God-guaranteed life hanging out with Jesus?

I wish I could have been one of the disciples listening to Jesus.  I can’t imagine having only forty days to prepare for world domination.  That’s what Jesus did.  He didn’t stockpile weapons or draw battle plans.  He taught love, compassion, forgiveness.  The church has been growing ever since. Yes, I know about declining membership and people who choose to stay away from the church. Yes, I know about terrorists and poverty and the 99%.

Jesus brought us a radical new way to live. It supersedes the power structures of man-made systems. It supersedes the selfish ways of the those who are fearful for their own existence. It overpowers illness and death. Some call it foolishness. Some call our way of life delusional. But in the face of illness, hurt, rejection, it is very real.  Jesus harnessed a power that cannot, in the long run, be defeated.  Jesus used love.  Jesus taught us to love. Jesus showed us that love is deliberate and intentional. God so loved the world.  Jesus taught us how to use love in the same way that God does.  It’s like having the president give each one of us our own personal nuclear bomb.  It’s that powerful. Obviously, what we have is much better for humanity.  We restore and build up. We comfort and encourage.  We don’t legislate our strategies; we don’t put embargoes on our mission: we share it without a thought to who is deserving and who is not deserving.  We share Jesus’ Way of life without police watching for us to make a mistake. 

Now…you can probably think of ways that Christians do police each other, of legislation that does seem to have the same goals as Jesus. Like any good employee, we use what we can to get the best product.  You know that I am big on using the political system for the common good.  Likewise, I know, from our times around the table with coffee and cookies, that we can all use our tongues for criticism and sarcasm.  But we have a company policy that says, no, you’re not fired because you screwed up.  You’re forgiven, and you are loved.

In three years and forty days, Jesus put together the most effective, long-lasting, far-reaching business plan ever devised. Empires come and go. The love of God lasts forever, not in a museum, not in a bank vault, but as a living breathing work of art that is meant for the eyes and ears and hands and hearts of humanity.  I’m not looking for world domination by an man-made institution, which is the Church with its buildings and offices and administrators. I’m looking at the kingdom we can build one person at a time, through our example, as we walk with and like Jesus. 

I encourage you to continue to live your life as the hands and feet and words of Jesus. Let the knowledge that you have the power of the Holy Spirit within you to support you as you share the gifts you have been given.  Your only marketing strategy is to show that love that Jesus shows us. Yes, you can text: “I’m praying for you today” That would be a great text to receive, would it not?  Yes, you can have meetings: “Come over and let’s play cards, but let’s begin with a Bible verse and a prayer.” Yes, you can have a strategy: “Would you like to go to church with me? I can pick you up.” “Do you need a ride to the doctor’s office?  You can have office hours: “Tell me about your troubles. I won’t interrupt and I won’t give you advice.”

We will never have a going-out-of-business sale.  We will never downsize. We all have the same benefit package.  Liberty and justice for all…we’re working on that, one person at a time, one hug at a time, one handout at a time, one act of forgiveness at a time.

Jesus put together the system that mankind has tried to organize and legislate and construct and conquer for centuries.  The only capital required is a loving heart.  The o nly operating manual required is two sentences: Love God. Love your neighbor. Every neighbor, the neighbor who “gets it” and the neighbor who ignores you.

The grace of God passes all understanding and yet the grace of God is a breath away.  Inhale……exhale…..live, breathe as a child of God, a disciple of God, as the shareholder of eternal love and life.  Amen.

Daredevils Acts 4 & 5

The apostles were still talking to the people, when some priests, the captain of the temple guard, and some Sadducees arrived. These men were angry because the apostles were teaching the people that the dead would be raised from death, just as Jesus had been raised from death. It was already late in the afternoon, and they arrested Peter and John and put them in jail for the night. But a lot of people who had heard the message believed it. So by now there were about five thousand followers of the Lord.

The next morning the leaders, the elders, and the teachers of the Law of Moses met in Jerusalem. The high priest Annas was there, as well as Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other members of the high priest’s family. They brought in Peter and John and made them stand in the middle while they questioned them. They asked, “By what power and in whose name have you done this?”

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13 The officials were amazed to see how brave Peter and John were, and they knew that these two apostles were only ordinary men and not well educated. The officials were certain that these men had been with Jesus.

23 As soon as Peter and John had been set free, they went back and told the others everything that the chief priests and the leaders had said to them

29 Lord, listen to their threats! We are your servants. So make us brave enough to speak your message. 30 Show your mighty power, as we heal people and work miracles and wonders in the name of your holy Servant Jesus.

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32 The group of followers all felt the same way about everything. None of them claimed that their possessions were their own, and they shared everything they had with each other. 33 In a powerful way the apostles told everyone that the Lord Jesus was now alive. God greatly blessed his followers, 34 and no one went in need of anything. Everyone who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money 35 to the apostles. Then they would give the money to anyone who needed it.

36-37 Joseph was one of the followers who had sold a piece of property and brought the money to the apostles. He was a Levite from Cyprus, and the apostles called him Barnabas.

Acts 5 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

Ananias and his wife Sapphira also sold a piece of property. But they agreed to cheat and keep some of the money for themselves.

So when Ananias took the rest of the money to the apostles, Peter said, “Why has Satan made you keep back some of the money from the sale of the property? Why have you lied to the Holy Spirit? The property was yours before you sold it, and even after you sold it, the money was still yours. What made you do such a thing? You didn’t lie to people. You lied to God!”

As soon as Ananias heard this, he dropped dead, and everyone who heard about it was frightened. Some young men came in and wrapped up his body. Then they took it out and buried it.

Three hours later Sapphira came in, but she did not know what had happened to her husband. Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you sell the property for this amount?”

“Yes,” she answered, “that’s the amount.”

Then Peter said, “Why did the two of you agree to test the Lord’s Spirit? The men who buried Ananias are by the door, and they will carry you out!” 10 At once she fell at Peter’s feet and died.

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I was all set to preach on the traditional Sunday after Easter gospel–the disciples trying to stay under the radar of the temple authorities, Jesus appearing to them, blessing them with the Holy Spirit.  But the more I read the lesson from Acts, the more my social justice mindset tugged at me to study this “rest of the story” narrative about the disciples’ radical change from cowards to dare devils.  Apparently, the Holy Spirit that Jesus delivered in that locked room was the tonic, the dynamite, the catalyst that kick-started the whole Christian movement. 

I had never thought before about the dramatic change in the disciples’ lives, or even about the timeline of events that changed them from itinerant, uneducated laborers to dynamic, fearless preachers.

Furthermore, I had never considered all the aspects of their new lives as radical.  Having heard these stories practically from the cradle, I tend to take them for granted.  My childish understanding of Scripture….and I think this is true of most people who grew up listening to scripture…is engrained in me as foundational. Every time, I prepare a sermon, I’m reminded that every foundation exists for supporting more than air.  That foundation of childhood Bible stories is just the beginning of building a structure on that foundation.  That’s why preachers and teachers provide Bible study, why scholars write books, why preachers preach on the Bible, not on the latest news events (although news events of the 21st Century connect pretty directly to Scripture from the First Century), not from the local newspaper, and not from a novel.  (I have considered preaching from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead.)

What is so daring about the post-resurrection apostles?  The words that I read from Acts are bookmarked by confrontations with the temple authorities.  In the first part of Acts 4, Peter and John are jailed, then brought into the temple to defend themselves, and in the last part of Acts 5, they are again arrested and jailed for their actions and beliefs.

I can easily imagine Jesus arguing with the high priest, but Peter? John?   They have come into their own, as we say.  Now that they can’t depend on Jesus to represent them in person, they represent Jesus brilliantly and bravely. Would you like to go before a Committee on Ministry or any group of ministers to argue that your ideas about Jesus are important and better than theirs? Not me. Yet that is exactly what we see in the disciples.  They were no different from any of us.  They did not come from wealthy or politically powerful families; they were not even priests or rabbis.  They were as ordinary as any of us.  How do you feel about taking your complaints all the way to your governor? or even the Board of Supervisors? We don’t like confrontation with those who have more power than us.  If your neighbor is dumping trash on your property, do you call the sheriff or do you put up with it and complain to your other neighbor? Peter and John were forced to confront those who had much more power than they. Only they weren’t complaining; they were proclaiming.

The other part of the story that I find daring is found in verse 32: The group of followers all felt the same way about everything. None of them claimed that their possessions were their own, and they shared everything they had with each other.

This idea that no one owns anything and shares everything hardly even works in families, let alone communities.  To ask everyone to sell their possessions and put all the money in a common pot so that no one suffers is pretty far-fetched.  Notice that it’s not so that everyone has an equal amount of “stuff.”  It’s so that no one goes hungry or lacks for any need.  The purpose is not to make sure each person has ten pairs of shoes or that each person has five gold bracelets.  It’s not about possessions or averages or quotas. It’s strictly and simply about making sure everybody has enough to eat, a welcoming place to sit, and a safe place to sleep. 

Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin had a similar idea.  They envisioned a government where everyone would have enough. Part of that vision included the destruction of social classes.  Communism and socialism have been embraced in many countries, in many eras, as the answer to poverty and hunger.  It never seems to work very well, at least on a large scale. One of the better examples of communism is just down the road from us: the Amana Colonies.

In the seven villages, residents received a home, medical care, meals, all household necessities, and schooling for their children. Property and resources were shared. Men and women were assigned jobs by their village council of brethren. No one received a wage. No one needed one.

From 1855 to 1932, this system worked.  But even this ideal society was no match for the Great Depression, and the system was abandoned.

In our time, communism and socialism have become code for oppression and big government.  The theories seem benevolent, but the reality is that our human tendencies toward fear and selfishness prevent such systems from achieving an ideal society. 

As we read in Acts, this tendency toward fear and selfishness was present in the early Christian community.  Shortly after the lovely picture of everyone sharing all that they had—and being happy about it!–we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  They were generous—they had land to sell, which made them well off, and they sold their property. However, they did not share all the money they made from the sale; they kept some back, just in case.  They did not have enough trust to throw themselves onto the charity of the fledgling Christian community.  When their dishonesty was exposed, they dropped dead.

Please forgive me, but what if God thought any of us wasn’t being generous enough? Would our lives be at risk? What if I put the offering on the table, turn around, and see some of you lying on the floor, ready for your funeral?  My husband was on some committee at one time that required him to look at the individual giving habits of the congregation’s members.  He was flabbergasted.  If he were God, a lot of people would have dropped dead.

So, do we need to switch to the Communist party to be faithful to this vision of the early church?  I wouldn’t recommend it. 

As I see it, the Church is equal to and better than any political theory.  After all, our motive is not economic stability. We are not driven by dollars; we are driven by love. It is so frighteningly simple—and naive. What is love against the power of the 1% in the money-crazed culture in which we scramble and struggle? Let me rephrase that: what is the power of the 1% against the love of Christ in this place, at 8:30/10:00 this morning?  Where is love found?  What fills food pantries? What runs homeless shelters and free clinics and social services?  What motivates teachers to do more and more with less and less?  Why do nurses and doctors work twelve-hour shifts? Why are friends and neighbors on call for each other 24-7? Why do we call each other when someone is ill or in need?  There is no economic gain in any of these actions.  Even in the issue dear to my heart, education, we know that we have a choice: we can put money into schools now or into prisons later. Either way, it takes money. There is no profit, no future dollar figure to show how much money our government saved.  It always gets spent, now or later. 

Jesus gave us a new way to live. It does not require setting up a separate governing or economic system. It assimilates into any kind of culture, any kind of society. We do not have to buy a hundred acres and live separately from Toronto or Big Rock or Lost Nation or Wheatland or New Liberty.  We can live anywhere we want.  Our community has no boundaries, not even any citizenship requirements. Our only covenant is with Jesus—the Covenant we celebrate in Holy Communion, the covenant that Jesus established with his death and resurrection. Our community has the power to overcome evil and hunger and greed.  Our community is so small that we can each have our own pew to sit in.  Our community is so large that we are in every country, on every continent.  Our community is so diverse that some of us are constantly in danger of the soldier’s bullet and some of us are blessed with peace and plenty.

Are we daredevils?   Do we dare the devil to stop us?  Yes, we are.  With the early church as our model, with scripture as our guide, with Jesus as our Ruler, we have the ability to add our own stories of courage and compassion and generosity to the history of this planet.

May God give us what we need and bless us when we succeed.  Amen.

The Real Easter Story 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 Easter Sunday 2015

1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,  of the good news

that I proclaimed to you,

which you in turn received,

in which also you stand,

2 through which also you are being saved,

if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—

unless you have come to believe in vain.

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:

that Christ died for our sins

in accordance with the scriptures,

4 and that he was buried,

and that he was raised on the third day

in accordance with the scriptures,

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle,

because I persecuted the church of God.

10 But by the grace of God

I am what I am,

and his grace toward me has not been in vain.

On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—

though it was not I,

but the grace of God that is with me.

11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

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Easter Sunday has so many traditions. New Easter outfits for kids, dying Easter eggs, Easter grass, Easter Egg hunts, Easter candy, Easter dinner. Some of these items are found long after Easter.  One year, my brother saved his Easter eggs— in his closet.  My mom found them a couple months later…not in very good shape.  Our extended family seems to have developed a new tradition–finding one egg a year later.  Somehow, every year, one egg is missed, survives four seasons of weather and is discovered the following year. Some things are accidentally hidden. Have you ever found Easter grass under the furniture around the Fourth of July?  Or Easter Candy when you’re getting out Christmas decorations?  Lovely surprises that remind of us of a gathering of family and friends, of happy times together.

As your preacher, I’m supposed to remind you of the REAL meaning of Easter. The older I get, the more I celebrate the mixing of secular and sacred traditions. WhenI was raising my own kids, I tried extra hard to emphasize the Jesus side of Easter. I was a real snob about religious observations.  But, as I gain some wisdom, I realize that the joy of Easter can spill over into everyday life in many ways.

Of course, I realize that Jesus is supposed to be a part of our everyday lives–every day!  One of my responsibilities is to remind you of that. On the other hand, I wouldn’t take first place in a Jesus-on-my-mind contest, nor would I expect anyone else to exhibit such faithfulness. 

But here’s the good news.  Jesus knows us, understands us. Jesus’ understanding us is just one of the amazing things I can share with you.  There are so many things I like about Jesus that it’s hard to focus on one thing. 

Usually, on Easter, we preachers like to expound upon the gospel assigned for the day.  Today’s gospel is taken from Mark.  It would be really fun for me to look at the controversy that this particular version of Easter provides, but Easter Sunday is not the time to drag you through my version of a scholarly argument.  We’ll save that for another time.  Easter Sunday is supposed to happy, not solemn. 

So what is it we are happy about?  I chose today’s epistle lesson for the sermon text, because Paul explains in a few verses what Easter really means.  Truth be told, if you read just the gospel accounts of Easter, the resurrection might seem like just one more super-duper miracle.   By the time Paul writes his letters, the impact, the influence, and the larger meaning of Jesus’ resurrection had been shared, formed, defined, debated,  repeated and taught to hundreds if not thousands of people.  By the time Paul wrote these words, there were plenty of ways to tell the story.  The church had not yet evolved or devolved into denominations, but there were still plenty of opinions. 

The Corinthians, the recipients of this particular letter, were already coming up with their own ideas. Paul writes to straighten them out, to make clear to them that Jesus is more than a mascot, more than a good guy.  Some Corinthians were saying that the resurrection of the body was not possible, not important, not real. Frankly, I’ve never worried about resurrection too much. It’s the one thing I cling to most fervently in my Christian faith. I have questions about plenty of other issues and topics, but resurrection is, for me, a sure thing.

The fact the some of the first Christians could doubt the resurrection makes telling the Easter story imperative, not just for Paul, but for every one of us. What is it that we  Christians believe or are supposed to believe?  What can we agree on, at least on this Easter Sunday?

I’d like to review the main points of the passage.  You never know when you’re going to be asked to explain or share your Christian beliefs.

1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,

Verse 1: we have received the Good News because somebody told us about it.  Many of you learned it right in this building when you were a child. Raise your hand if you first heard the good news here. (Great response!)  Raise your hand if you were one of the teachers. (Again, great response.)

2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

Verse 2: If you believe what you were taught, you are being saved.

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,

Verse 3: Christ died for our sins—and that death is in part authorized by ancient scripture and prophecy.  I find it interesting that we still need, still read the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible.  After all, Jesus “made all things new,” which might have made the Old Testament obsolete. But in fact, the Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation on which Jesus preaches, as well as the authors of the New Testament, or Christian Bible. Paul uses the prophecies of the ancient prophets as validation for Jesus’ authority.

4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,

Verse 4.  Christ was buried after he died, AND he was raised on the third day, again according to scripture and prophesy.  Notice that Paul separates the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Forgiveness of sins is as amazing as the resurrection.

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Verse 5: There were witnesses to these improbable events…to Peter, to the 12 disciples,

6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

Verse 6–in case that number doesn’t satisfy you, Jesus to more than 500 people before his ascension into heaven. So, if you thought the disciples were just covering their posteriors by claiming they had seen Jesus, maybe you’ll believe 500 people all at once seeing Jesus.  How can you second-guess that many witnesses?

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Verse 7. Paul was impressed that Jesus appeared to his own brother, James, and to the newer followers of Jesus that hung around with the disciples and picked up on sharing the Gospel, people like Stephen and Timothy and Barnabas and Lydia. Verses 5-7 validate Jesus’ appearance. He didn’t appear just to a few die-hard followers who might have been the victims of wishful thinking or hallucinations.  He appeared to hundreds of people. Paul is arguing that no one could claim that God had not raised Jesus from the dead. There were too many witnesses.

8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle,  because I persecuted the church of God.

Verses 5-7 lead up to Paul’s own claim to apostolic authority. He was very sensitive to the fact that he never saw Jesus during the 40 days of Jesus earthly time between resurrection and ascension. Therefore, he emphasizes his own conversion story: he still saw Jesus when Jesus appeared to him, personally, unexpectedly, uncharacteristically, on the road to Damascus.

Paul dealt  with an inferiority complex for two reasons. First, he was not one of the original twelve.  Jealousy was one of the thorns that plagued him (my opinion). The other thorn was that Paul had done his best to annihilate Christians, to destroy the followers of Jesus and thus destroy the reality of Jesus as Messiah. However, this grievous sin is Paul’s own lived experience of God’s grace, of Jesus’ salvation:

10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.

On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

Imagine the guilt Paul must have felt when he realized how wrong he had been to hunt and kill Jesus’ followers.  Perhaps that explains why he worked harder than the other disciples and apostles to tell the Good news.

The words of Paul, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and of the other writers of Christian Scriptures have proclaimed, first through word of mouth, through preaching, then through the written word, then, through the centuries, right up into our own 21st Century, what they knew and observed as eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus.

11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Sitting in Sunday School as a child or discovering Jesus as an adult, we have had the Word proclaimed to us, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, that Word has become a meaningful part of who we are, as individuals, as family, and as community.

By bringing  your children together for baptism, you are continuing that tradition of proclaiming Jesus as Savior.  You are testifying that you believe that sin is real, that Jesus is real, and that Jesus is the reason that sin does not win. And of great comfort is the fact that not only did Jesus die as expiation for our sin; he conquered death for us.  Yes, we could be grateful enough if we had our sins forgiven, but God took it a lot farther.  God loves us so much that not only does God remove the stigma of sin; God loves us so much that God has made it possible, through Jesus’ resurrection, for us to be resurrected from the dead.  That is why we can rejoice on Easter, even as we remember those who are not with us today.  God has even made it possible to continue this sweet earthly life with those who are with us in memory only.

The real story of Easter is not just one day on the calendar. It is not just Easter eggs and Easter bonnets. Easter is every day, after the eggs have all been deviled and creamed or lost in the back of the refrigerator, when the candy is nothing but an empty wrapper, when the new outfits are too small, when the baskets are put away for the next year, we still have the real story of Easter. Every minute of every day, Jesus is our Savior and our Hope for this world and the next. Let us pray.

Thank you, God for the teachers and parents and pastors who have proclaimed your Good News through the years. Thank you for nurturing your message in our hearts and minds and souls.  Help us to hold firmly to your message, We praise your for your love and devotion to us. May we show our gratitude to you in praise and proclamation.  Amen.