Sermon: A Fresh Spirit

A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Yesterday some 23 million Americans rose early to witness the wedding of Prince Harry of Great Briton and Megan Markle of the United States. Those 23 million Americans were joined by a worldwide audience that thought they were tuning in to watch a young couple in love exchange their vows and begin their married life together. But what they got was a stirring sermon about love from an American bishop.

It has to be mentioned that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Michael Bruce Curry, is the descendant of slaves and sharecroppers from North Carolina and Alabama. It should be noted that this “son of slaves” although born in Chicago and educated at Yale, returned to North Carolina as the Episcopal Bishop in 2000. This “son of slaves” was elected as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States in 2015 on the first ballot. And this “son of slaves” was asked by a young couple to preach at their wedding, at St George Chapel in Windsor England.

Now it should also be noted that in 2016 the Episcopal Church of the United States was sanctioned by the world Anglican Communion for its stand on inclusivity. You see the Episcopal Church, as our United Church of Christ, does not believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else who they can and cannot fall in love with. But the world Anglican bishops gathered in London and kicked the Episcopal Church, and its almost 2 million members, out of the club for being inclusive. And on Saturday, the Presiding Bishop of that church, the “son of slaves” stood at not only the heart of the British political system but at the center of the British religious system. I tell you all of this because for Bishop Michael Curry it is all about love.

Bishop Curry began his sermon with a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King:

“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and when we do that we will make of this old world a new world. For love is the only way.”

As Bishop Curry began to speak the internet exploded with Tweets and quotes of “amen” and “preach.” Now, Bishop Curry did not say anything that many of my fellow preachers and I have not been saying. If you have listened to me preach these last three years, or so you know that for me the central theme of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is the love of God and love of neighbor. You know that I believe, as Jesus did that everything is central to this concept of radical love, radical welcome, and radical inclusion. But what many other Tweeting preachers and I were the happiest about, is that Bishop Curry preached a message of love so radically different from that of many Evangelical preachers in the United States today. In one very short sermon, and I am not sure if this was his intention, Bishop curry snatched back Christianity from fringes, on both sides of the theological, political, and ideological spectrum and told the world that enough is enough and that “love is the only way.”

About the halfway mark in his sermon, Bishop Curry reminded those listening that love has power:

“Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial. And in so doing, becomes redemptive, and that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love, changes lives. And it can change this world. If you don’t believe me, just stop and think or imagine. Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.”

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Fifty days ago we celebrated the fact that Jesus Christ overcame death and set us on a new path, not a new way of righteous indignation but a path of love, radical love. Jesus was not hung on that cross because he was a timid preacher who was afraid to say anything about the way the world was going, no, Jesus Christ was killed because he stood in the face of everything that was wrong and he told them no and show a new way forward.

Some call Pentecost the birthday of the Church and well, I think that is wrong. The Church was not born in that Upper Room on that day when Holy Spirit came rushing in like a wild wind; no, the Church was reformed on that day. No longer was it to be a church of exclusion, but it was to be a church of inclusion a place where it did not matter how much money you had or how your clothes looked. A church where it did not matter where you came from, where you were going, or what job you had. A church where it did not matter whether you were a saint or a sinner all were welcome. A church that says “No matter who you are, No matter where you are on life’s journey, You are welcome here.”

One of the first commentaries I read yesterday afternoon regarding the Sermon by Bishop Curry mentioned how stoic the British people, especially the Royals are. The article went on to speak about the younger generation of Royals, the likes of William and Kate and now Harry and Megan and how they are breathing new life into an old institution. As Bishop Curry preached, and the camera panned around the Chapel, there were a lot of dower faces in that room, but there were also some smiles. The conclusion of the review and it seems funny to read a review of a sermon, but the conclusion was that Bishop Curry brought a breath of fresh air into an otherwise stale system. In other words, he brought a Pentecost into the room.

The message of Jesus Christ was that the only way we had to transform the world was through this idea of radical love. Bishop Curry ended his sermon by saying that we need to discover love. We need to rediscover the redemptive power of love, that same redemptive power of love that was shown when Jesus Christ willing went to the cross. The cross is a symbol of inclusion and the redemptive power of love and not a symbol of exclusion and hate that so many have turned it into. Jesus believed, Dr. King believed, Bishop Curry believes, and I believe that the only way we have of ever beginning the process of healing and transformation of the world is to discover that redemptive power of love.

Jesus told his Apostles that he was leaving them with a new commandment and that new commandment was to love one another. Let us pledge on this day, this day of rebirth and regeneration, that we will go from this place to simply love each other.

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

I am not sure when it began, but I have been researching my family tree for as long as I can remember. From the days of getting in the car and driving to cemeteries and town halls in Maine to sitting at the kitchen table looking at records on the internet, this journey has been fantastic and frustrating all at the same time.

The hunt for clues and the mystery, being on the verge of discovery and a breakthrough only to have it dashed at the last minute, after months of research keep me coming back time and again to find out all I can about my family and where we came from.

Genealogist and blogger Amy Johnson Crow (I wonder if we are related) issued a challenge a few months ago to blog, tweet, write or whatever about 52 of our ancestors over 52 weeks. I heard about this challenge on a recent episode of the podcast Extreme Genes, and although I am coming late to the party, I am jumping in with both feet, and I am hoping I rise to the challenge.

As I understand the mechanics of it all, each week Amy will send an email to the participants, she asks that you register, but I don’t think you have to, with a topic to write about. For example, last week was “Mother’s Day” and this week is “Another Language.” The idea is we write about an ancestor that fits the theme and then tweet or share on other social platforms with the hashtag #52Ancestors.

So, I am taking the challenge and see if I can complete it. Wish me luck.

Hey, why not jump in and write about your family.

The decline in Religion, Blah, Blah, Blah

Another week and another poll showing what we already know, religion is on the decline in the United States.

Recently, ABC News and the Washington Post released a poll about adherents to the Protestant Church in the United States. The poll shows a shift from 12 percent in 2003 to 21 percent today in the number of people who say they have no religion, the question is, how are they defining religion?

Poll people and asking if they belong to a church is not an accurate gauge of where or not they have religion. Church attendance, or membership, is only one way to determine if someone “has religion” or not. I am amazed that this is still the only marker we have to determine this.

As a church leader, for the last 15 years, I have watched the steady decline in church attendance, but I have also noticed an increase in the amount of spiritual activity in the people around us. Sure, people do not walk inside the brick and mortar building on Sunday but when are we going to realize that that is not the only way people have of expressing a belief in something more substantial than themselves.

With that said, we, and by “we” I mean church leaders at all levels, only have ourselves to blame for the decline.

I regularly hear from people who say that “the church” has no relevance in their lives. We do not speak to the issues that they are grappling with in their lives, and we hold to an outdated sense of who belongs and who does not belong.

A hundred years ago we built these massive church buildings that take an enormous, almost grotesque amount of money to maintain and operate. Church leadership spends most of their time focusing on how to keep the building open and less and less time on ministry in their community where the building is. These vast temples to a once great thing mostly stand empty during the week. People walk past them without giving them a second thought as they have no relevance in their lives. Church leadership is paralyzed with fear of being sued, and other such nonsense that they will not open their buildings to community groups or other support groups and God forbid they open their doors to the homeless population that often sleeps on the steps of the church.

The more significant problem is, and this goes to the relevance statement above, more people know what churches are against rather than what they stand for.

Not a day goes by that some church leader somewhere is releasing a statement condemning this or that behavior. They stand there, in righteous indignation, as they pronounce that God has spoken to them and they “feel compelled” to call out sinners. That is funny; I thought our job was to love people and serve the “least of these” as Jesus commanded us to do.

No surprise, but the poll shows that the largest segment of the population with no religious affiliation is the 18-29-year-olds, 35 percent.

I was recently in a meeting of church leaders, including someone from this group, and I mentioned that if we had any hope of reaching that age group or being relevant in their lives we had to start speaking their language and be interested in what they were interested in and caring about what they care about. We cannot hope to reach a generation that is focused on social justice issues like gun control, poverty, education costs, and the like if we still preach the “Leave it to Beaver” message of the 1950’s those days are gone!

The bottom line is this, the church is not dying, the institutional church might be dying but spirituality and community are on the rise, and we need to figure out how to be part of it. Dinner and table churches, pub theology, interactive Bible studies and discussion groups, listening sessions with young folks, taking a stand on issues, and not being afraid to preach the gospel that we need to love everyone and that all people have inherent worth and are created in God’s image.

We need to stop condemning and start celebrating like the Easter people that we are!

ABC News/Washington Post Poll on the Decline in Religion

The world needs properly trained clergy

Certain professions, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics require a certain level of education and competence. One would not consider hiring a lawyer or going to a doctor that was not adequately trained and licensed. When building a house we employ licensed contractors who use skilled and licensed tradespeople to do the work necessary, so it boggles my mind that people would attend a church with a pastor and teacher that has little or no education. What we need today is an educated and professional clergy, and we only harm message and ministry of the church when we think otherwise.

A friend came to me one day and told me that he felt called by God to go into the ministry. We sat and talked about his call, and I discussed that pathway toward ordination, and that included some time in school namely seminary. He told me that he was not able to attend seminary nor could he afford it. I mentioned that is my belief that if he were indeed called a way would be found for him to attend. He ended up not going to seminary, and I am not sure if he pursued his call or not. The point is seminary or some professional theological training in important in ministry.

When I step into the pulpit each Sunday, I face an educated congregation. The level of education of the average person today is much different than it was 50 or a hundred years ago. The preacher was often the most educated person in the community, and it was their responsibility to understand how to convey the message of God to the people. But ministry is much more than preaching, and that is where the training come in.

Now I will admit, the modern seminary education does not prepare students, well, for the practical arts of ministry. Seminary does not leach leadership, accounting, plumbing, website and bulletin design or any of the other myriad of tasks that the 21st-century ministry is called upon to perform. What it does is give one a solid foundation in theology and religious studies and some programs will give one the skills necessary to preach and teach. But the church of the 21st century is a very complicated thing and the minister today needs to be a multi-disciplined person.

The Gold Standard of seminary education is the Master of Divinity Degree. This terminal degree is the professional degree that gives one the educational qualifications, educational only, for ordination. A student needs more than “book learning” to be a minister and those skills are learned in the field. Most programs balance “book learning” with field education.

A recent article featured on the webpage of the Religion News Service points to a recent study by the Association of Theological Schools, find that more and more students are opting for a Master of Theology rather than the traditional Master of Divinity. One reason, the Master of Religion, can be completed in two years where the traditional Master of Divinity takes three years of study. The study found that one of the main reasons for this was cost, that is understandable. But another reason was that the Master of Religion allowed a broader study of religious topics where the curriculum of the Master of Divinity is usually a set sequence of courses.

The bottom line is the church needs an educated clergy and needs to find a way to make that happen. The church and her people deserve clergy that has the best training possible, and the congregations need to realize the cost of this and come to grips with salaries to cover those costs.

Read the entire Religion News Service piece here.

A Pentecost is what we need

On the liturgical calendar, this Sunday is the feast of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and others in the Upper Room. Some call this the birthday of the church. I am not one of those. The Church was not born on the day of Pentecost since the church already existed. The Church was given its marching orders and came together on the day of Pentecost. The Church was “gathered together in one accord” on that day, and they were of one mind. It is that Spirit that we need in the church and the world today.

Princeton Theological Seminary Professor Keri L. Day has a piece in the Christian Century Magazine this week titled, “We need a Pentecost.” She writes about our divisions, political and theological, and how we need to get back to unity and not division.  Here is a little selection:

In our social and political moment, we need Pentecost. Division, hatred, and pain mark our nation. Hearts must be transformed and attuned to practices of divine love. Debates over immigration persist even as we witness immigrant parents being torn from the arms of their children and grandchildren. People disagree over the presence of guns in this country as we grapple with the insufferable experiences of death within our schools. White and black communities disagree over our systems of policing and criminal justice. Tensions continue to rise over the presence of Islamic communities in this nation. This political moment is colored by a complete loss of mutual understanding and civility, causing many to feel resigned to the status quo.

Even more painful, hostility and bigotry characterize Christian churches, which have more of a tribal ethos, often ignoring or demonizing those who are different from them. Consider how Mexican immigrants are often depicted by President Trump’s administration, an administration that is supported by a record number of white churches. These immigrants are represented as criminal, lazy, and dangerous, in need of deportation to save the body politic. White ministers often suggest from pulpits that African Americans in urban areas are responsible for whatever injustices befall them because of their own sins, both personal and social. Such tribal perspectives fuel a culture of doubt and fear. And people feel a sense of helplessness. Such churches tend to embody Babel rather than Pentecost. We need a miracle.

Read the Rest Here

Sermon: Abide in my Love

A Sermon on John 15:9-17

I am continuously amazed at how we can take something so simple and make it monumentally difficult and confusing and the writer of the Scripture passage we heard this morning is no different.  The Gospel of John lays out the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ. Of all the Gospel writers this is John’s singular focus and is why this Gospel is often referred to as the Spiritual Gospel. For John, the incarnation of God in Jesus happens throughout his entire life from his birth, to his miracles, to his ministry, and even his death and resurrection.  For John, and therefore for us, we cannot separate these realities, and we need to continually remember that Jesus was both human and divine.

Jesus starts us off by telling us that his father, God, has loved him and therefore he loves those who were listening and by extension us as followers of Jesus.  He says that we are to abide in his love as he has abided in God’s love. What does it mean to abide in something?

We are told that we have to abide by the rules and regulations of the various organizations and societies we belong too. So we follow, we obey, we conform to these rules and regulations, and by doing so, we keep the order of the organization or group. But to abide in God’s love goes a little deeper than that. Yes, we follow, obey, and conform to God’s love but we also dwell in God’s love, we hang around, we sit with it, it becomes a part of us. We do not conform God’s love to fit us; we conform ourselves to God’s love. It is a deep sense of feeling that only comes over time.

Jesus then goes on to tell us how we will abide in his, Jesus’ love, and consequently God’s love; we do this by keeping his, Jesus’ commandments just as Jesus has kept God’s commandments.  Now, just so there is no confusion Jesus tells us what his commandment is, also keep in mind that due to our Trinitarian theology, Jesus is God, Jesus commandment is to “love one another as I have loved you.” There it is, it is written right there, my commandment = “love one another as I have loved you.”

Many people struggle with this concept of loving as Jesus has loved us.  You have heard me say before, and I will continue to say, that the love Jesus is speaking of is unconditional love and I come to this understanding by reading John 3:16, we all know it, God loves the world, notice the passage does not say the Christian world, those who believe in him world, the Middle Eastern World, the passage simply says God loved the world, the whole world. Because he loved the world and desired that all be reconciled to him, he sent Jesus, not to judge, but to show us the way. This is a difficult concept and hard to understand.

This love concept of Jesus is all about inclusion but we have taken this to mean we can exclude some folks, we can judge them no longer worthy of God’s love, and we can cast them out. It has become fashionable for some to believe they have the authority to decide who gets God’s love and who does not and for those folks I simply will say, you need to read and understand this passage we heard this very morning and if you desire to abide in God’s love then you need to obey his commandments and that is, “to love one another as I have loved you.” Without conditions.

I will admit that it is difficult to love those we have judged not worthy of our love. It is even more difficult to love those who do not love us back or who are our “enemies,” but the bottom line is we have no other choice if we hope to abide in God’s love. The very act of thinking we are doing God’s will by casting people out of God’s love as in fact cast us out, although I believe that God continues to love us no matter what we do. We have placed such a narrow definition of who deserves God’s love and who does not want that often we exclude ourselves.

Back in the 1970’s Coca-Cola introduced a commercial around the season of Christmas. The commercial began with a shot of a single candle burning against a dark background. The shot fades to a woman who begins to sing about buying the world a home and furnishing it with love. As the song continues the focus shifts to different people of different races, an Asian woman a black man. The shot widens, and we get a glimpse of a chorus of people, of all races and nationalities all sitting and singing together about bringing love into the world. The song goes on to say that all of these folks would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Harmony requires different parts to make it work. If everyone sang the same note, we would all sound the same, but if we sing different, complementary notes, a beautiful melody will be born. The idea is we celebrate the diversity because when brought together we produce something beautiful.  Oh, and we have to buy a coke as well. In other words, we love everyone.

Jesus then goes on to say that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. Now, this has been interpreted in many different ways over the years, but I would like us to focus on the spiritual aspects for just a moment.

Right after Jesus says that the most excellent show of love to lay down one’s life for a friend, Jesus says, “You are my friends,” and we all know that Jesus lays down his life for us. But he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And what is that?  Se previous verse, “love one another.” So if we love one another, we are Jesus’ friends, and it is us that he is laying down his life for. But, it goes deeper than that.

If we follow the example of Jesus, and that is the entire point of the Gospel, then we have to lay down our lives as well for a friend, now, keeping this on the spiritual plane, we are to lay down our lives for Jesus. We are to die to self, to self-desire, to self-interest, to using people as objects to get what we want, we have to die to “looking out for number one” and focus on the greater whole of humanity. We are to take up one’s cross and follow him. We have to die so we can live. We have to die to conform our lives to that of Christ.  Too often today we try and conform Christ’s life to us, but the way is narrow, many are called, but few are chosen.

In the end, Jesus reminds us that we did not choose him he chose us and he has appointed us to go and bear fruit, not for our own glory, but for the glory of God. Nothing Jesus did was for his own glory but always brought glory to God.

And he finishes off with, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” That is it, that is all we have to do, love others unconditionally. That’s the word, and that is the example. Now go, and do.

Sermon: Growing in God

A Sermon on John 15:1-8

“I am the vine, and you are the branches.” This is another of the great “I am” statement by Jesus. Last week Jesus told us he was the shepherd and we are his sheep. We discovered that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and will only go where the shepherd has gone before out of fear of what lies ahead, and we are reminded that we have to place our trust in God all along the journey of our life.

A good preacher and teacher will use illustrations that the people hearing the sermon or lesson will understand. Jesus uses examples for the lives of the people listening to him, and so he uses a lot of illustrations around fishing, sheep herding, and now gardening or vine growing. Growing anything that to produce the maximum yield is difficult in the best of circumstances, and today we get gardening tips from Jesus, the master grower. The soil conditions need to be right, there needs be to the right amount of water, too much and the plant will drown, not enough and the plant will dry up. Conditions need to be perfect.

Jesus uses the illustration of the vine, the vine grower, and the branches of the vine. Jesus is apparently the vine as he says so in the passage.  God is the vine grower and we, of course, are the branches. There is an assumption that the soil is perfect since God is the grower God would have already prepared the ground.

An excellent vine grower knows that the best grapes are produced closest to the central stalk on the vine. The best fruit is produced there because that is where the nutrients are the richest. The further away from the central stem the lesser the yield and taste. With careful pruning, the vines are made to produce the best fruit possible but, if the vine grower prunes too much it will destroy the plant. So caution is always needed.

I am not the best gardener in the world.  I like the idea of gardening and often think of myself as the victory gardener, but that is often not the case. I prepare the soil, select the appropriate plants for my area, stick them in the ground, and hope they produce. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, but that is farming. But I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago regarding tomato plants; they have to be pruned to produce the best yield. Sure, one can let them grow wild, and they will provide, but for the best return one needs to take the pruning shears to the plant.

Okay, but what does this have to do with our spiritual life?  Jesus was not making a Saturday afternoon gardening show after all, and he was not telling them anything that they did not already know. But, he was using the illustration of the vine to point us in an essential direction regarding our spiritual life.

As we have already established, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. We are commanded in the Gospel to go and make disciples. The gospel command is not to go and create programs or sit and wait for people to come to you. No, the gospel command is to GO! Action, we have to do something. But we cannot make disciples until we are disciples right?

So if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and we want to produce the best fruit we have to stay close to the central stem of the vine meaning Jesus. If we desire a fruitful spiritual life then the closer we are to Jesus the better off we will be. So we have to spend time every day, with Jesus. It does not matter how much time we spend as long as that time is quality time and produces fruit. Daily scripture reading, meditation, and prayer are the best ways to make this happen in our daily lives. I get that we are busy but we make space for all sorts of things that we find necessary in our lives, and this is very important.

But today’s gospel also speaks of pruning the vine and throwing those branches into the fire. Now, like many other passages of scripture, this one has been used to point to other and call them the withering vine and saying that they will be cast into the fire.  Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it, but I want us to look at it from a personal perspective keeping in mind that to make disciples we first have to be disciples.

So the pruning Jesus is speaking of is not other people, although that can be part of it, it is all of those things that prevent us from having a fruitful spiritual life, all of those distractions that call us in another direction and pull us further and further away from the central stem of our spiritual life. These are the things that we need to prune out of our lives, and yes, sometimes those things are people.

In last week’s sermon, I spoke of the sheep, us, knowing and understanding the shepherd’s voice. I mentioned that in all of the craziness of the world a sheep could distinguish between their shepherd’s voice and another shepherd’s voice and they know who to follow. But I also mentioned that sometimes, if the sheep is sick, they will stray off and follow another voice that is not their shepherd’s voice. The same is true in this illustration today.

The world is pulling us in many different directions, and there are so many voices all vying for our attention. They give us advice and tell us what we should and should not believe. Those voices want us to exclude others from the vine, or the heard because they are different then we are or think differently then we do. Sometimes those voices make us afraid of the other and draw us away rather than towards, and it is up to us to know the genuine voice over the false voice, and that happens when we stay close to the central stem, Jesus, and pray for guidance.

I have a rather extensive collection of bibles. English language Bibles, Romanian language bibles, Gaelic, Scots, Russian, and I even have one in Sanskrit. I have study bibles with extensive footnotes that help me drill down on a verse, and I have the Good News for Modern Man version for those days when I just want to read. But some of my favorite bibles are the ones with the red letters in them, you know, the red letters are the passage when Jesus speaks, and the editor of that particular version put those verses in red, so they stand out.

Those are the actual words that Jesus spoke, and there are a lot of them, and I tend to gravitate to those words, not the words about the words that Jesus spoke but the actual words. In historical language, this is what is called a primary source, the words right from Jesus. I guess I would consider myself a Red Letter Christian and only focus on what Jesus has said, the essentials of the faith if you will. When I encounter a contradiction in Scripture, and there are many, my default is to head to the red letters and see what Jesus has said about it. Why do I mention all of this? Because in the world of competing voices the red letters are the voice we need to hear, and we need to understand, all of the others need to be pruned off the vine. When we hear something that calls us away from the red letters, prune it off the vine and throw it in the fine.

In the end, if we stay close to Jesus we will produce the most fruitful spiritual life, and we will be fed with love, joy, and peace that we can bring to the whole world and that is the goal.

 

Sermon: Enfolded by Love

One of my first jobs after joining the community at Glastonbury Abbey was to work with the guys that cared for the animals at the Abbey. There were not as many animals at that time as there had been and most of them were strays that one person or another had dropped off over the years. Nevertheless, the animals needed caring for. There were some ducks and geese who were very nasty, and there were sheep and one goat. I used to walk the goat on a leash around the Abbey property.

I hated working with the ducks and geese, they always tried to bite me, so I worked mostly with the sheep and the one goat. Sheep are skittish at first if they do not know you but after you have worked with them the warm up to you. Our small flock of sheep was dependent upon us for everything. We did not have a significant pasture for them, and the pen they were in was rather sparse on grass for them to eat so we had to feed them each day, twice a day, rain, shine, snow, sleet, and the rest. I learned a lot working with sheep.

This Sunday is the Sunday we call Good Shepherd Sunday. All of the Scripture readings from the lectionary, including the Gospel passage we heard this morning, have this theme of the Good Shepherd. But, this passage is not always what it seems at first glance.

Show of hands, how many of you work as shepherds? How many of you know someone who works as a shepherd? How many of you have ever really been around sheep for an extended period? As I figured, not many of us have so the imagery of the shepherd and sheep is somewhat lost on us. Perhaps we have an idealized image of rolling fields and puffy white sheep scattered about and the shepherd standing high on a hill watching over them. As pretty as that picture might be it is not reality.

The life of a shepherd was anything but ideal. It was dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending most of their time in the fields rather than in polite society. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” This would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim he was making had an edge to it. If we were to put this in modern day language, we might hear Jesus say, “I am the good migrant worker.”

But, as Jesus usually does, he takes things a little bit further. In this passage, we hear Jesus speak of the false shepherds, the hired hands that did not care for the sheep but ran away at the first sign of trouble. In this statement, we hear echoes of the Old Testament Prophets who spoke out against the religious leaders who were neglecting their people. This image of the shepherd is meant to remind us that God is chiefly concerned with those at risk, and those who are vulnerable. As I learned, sheep are lost without constant, vigilant care by their shepherd.

So if Jesus is the shepherd, we must be the sheep.  How do you feel about being called sheep?

There is a myth that sheep are stupid this is anything but the truth. It seems this myth of sheep being stupid was started by cattle ranchers.  Cattle are herded from the back. The cowboys, on horseback, ride behind the cows pushing them forward. Other cowboys ride alongside to keep the stragglers in line. Sheep are herded from the front.  You can stand behind sheep and make noise, and all they will do is turn around and run behind you. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their true shepherd- has not already gone. The shepherd is out in front of the sheep showing them that everything will be okay and that there is nothing there that is going to harm them. Cattle, on the other hand, will walk right off a cliff if the cowboy pushed them in that direction, so who is the stupid one?

In her sermon, “The Voice of the Shepherd,” Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”

The shepherd’s voice is critical in the relationship. Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me.” Not only that but Jesus gives his life for the sheep. The shepherd intentionally becomes the sacrificial lamb. But Jesus makes it clear that he is doing this willingly.

But the message today gives us hope. Sometimes we go astray, just like sheep do. Sheep that are ill might follow the voice of a stranger. Sheep wander off and fall in ravines and get caught in all sorts of things. There are many voices that are trying to get our attention, and many distractions lure us from the right path. But Jesus promises that he will never let us go, and his voice will bring us back. We belong to him. This is the word of assurance to us that in life’s struggles, and they will come, we have to remain faithful. In the choices that we make each day we practice our faith by saying yes to some voices and saying no to others. Jesus is right there, going before us, to lead us.

Jesus seeks out the lost, those in need of rescue, the often forgotten in our society. Those lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were the first to hear the good news of the birth of the savior. The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does and not on what the sheep do. It’s all about who the shepherd is rather than who they are. The sheep feel secure just to hear the shepherd’s voice. Our job is to let that voice speak through us as we reach out an encounter the lost and hurting along the way.

Sermon: Talladega Nights and the Image of God

A Sermon on Luke 24:36-48

This past week, as I prepared these words, I have been giving a lot of thought to the idea of image and what I mean by that is, what image do we project to those around us and, what image do we see? These are important questions that, for our spiritual nature, we need to be able to answer.

On Thursday I had the honor of officiating a funeral for a 97-year-old woman called Helen. As so often is the case, I received a phone call from the funeral home asking if I was available for a funeral.  I did not know Helen and had no connection to the family, and they had no relationship to Bethany. In my preparation, I spoke with Helen’s daughter Sharon to try and get some information about her mother for the service. She told me about her childhood and some of the memories of her mother. We spoke about Helen’s love of golf and gardening and of course, the love of her grandchildren all the way to her great, great grandchildren. This information allowed me to paint a picture of Helen in my mind and allowed me to see an image of her.

While I was waiting for the funeral service to begin, I was speaking with the funeral director and about Helen. The funeral director had been involved with this family for years and knew them rather well. We started talking about our grandparents and memories that we had of them. He told me about his grandmother who was blind and the only way she knew which of her grandchildren were there was by touching their face.  He said when they would arrive at her house, she would call them each over so she could “see them,” and she would feel their face with her gentle touch.  She knew each person by the shape and feel of their face, and from that, she would form an image of them in her mind.

In today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke we hear of Jesus encountering his followers on the road. He suddenly was with them, and he said, “Peace be with you.” Scripture tells us they were “startled and terrified” by this and at first they did not recognize him. He showed them, as he did with Thomas, his hands, his feet, and his side the wounds of his crucifixion so that they would recognize him. Their mind would not allow them to see Jesus in front of them, after all, they witnessed his death shortly before this encounter, but now he was standing there and showing them his wounds, and they recognized him.

In another place, we read about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and encountering who she thought was the gardener of the cemetery.  It was not until he called her by name that Mary recognized that it was Jesus and not the gardener standing in front of her. And in another place, we read of yet another appearance and those there did not recognize Jesus until he broke bread with them. These were all images that Jesus projected, and they were able to see him face to face.

But what about us?

We all have different images, husband, wife, father, mother, friend, minister, brother, sister, etc. Each of these images is different and the same from the other. Out image in our work in perhaps very different from our image at home or in a social environment. Believe it or not, most ministers, including me, are introverts and it takes an enormous amount of energy to be in social situations and because of this we often come off very aloof and unapproachable. It is an unfortunate image that we project.

But the image that I am most interested in is in the image of God and the image of Christ.

I was once asked how I saw God. Think about this for a minute, if a sketch artist was sitting with you, and the artist asked you for a description of God what would you say? I was asked this question shortly after the movie “Oh God” with George Burns had come out. I am not sure how many of you remember this movie but George Burns was God so for me, at that moment, God looked like George Burns. We call God father, but what if the person we are talking to does not have a good father image? Maybe their father beat their mother or abandoned them when they were very young so to call God “father” is not a positive image. The point is, we make God in our image and we see God as we need to see God, and there is nothing wrong with that. Theologically God has no gender or form except when God became and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, the Word of God.

Over the last 2,000 or so years there have been many images of Jesus in all forms of art. I think one of more famous is the one that shows Jesus with the long flowing blonde hair and the piercing blue eyes. Now, this is where we have to separate the historical Jesus from the image of Jesus that we have. Historically we know that at the time of his death, Jesus was approximately 33 years old. He was single; he was a rabbi of some renown. He was from Palestine in the Middle East. Chances are he did not have blonde hair and blue eyes. Because of his age and his position he would have had a beard and traditionally long hair. So we have a historical image of a 33-year-old male from 1st century Palestine. If that same sketch artist asked us about Jesus, this would be the historical picture.

But we also have the spiritual Jesus. Theologically Jesus was human, and he was divine. Our Trinitarian theology says that he shared the same nature with God. The Gospel of John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, Jesus, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” So Jesus is God in human form but how we see that form is much different.

Time for another movie reference. The movie is called Talladega Nights and is a film about a race car driver. Now the movie is a comedy and for some, not a very good one, but for me, it was a pivotal movie in the theological education. About halfway through the movie the main character and his family, along with his best friend, are sitting down to dinner and they are about to pray before the meal. During the prayer, Ricky Bobby, that is the main character played by Will Farrell, prays to “baby Jesus.” I wish we had a projector in here so I could show this clip but later on, today google it….

Anyway, Ricky Bobby’s grandfather objects to the prayer to “baby Jesus” he says that Jesus was a man with a beard. The counterpoint to the argument is that for Ricky Bobby, he lies to picture Jesus as an infant. At that point, now bear with me here, Ricky Bobby’s friend jumps in and says that he lies to picture Jesus in a “tuxedo t-shirt.” Now you might be sitting there looking for something to throw at me, but the point of the illustration is that we see Jesus as we each see Jesus and for some of us it might be Baby Jesus, for some it might be full grown adult Jesus, and for some, my guess is a small minority of you, you like to see Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt and all of that is just fine.

We need to spiritually see Jesus in a way that brings joy and comfort to us and if that means he needs to have blonde hair and blue eyes, I am okay with that. But the real question I have for you today is, do you see Jesus in others and can they see Jesus in you?

We are, all of us, created in the image and likeness of God we have been given the divine spark. The creation story from Genesis says that God breathed his breath into the nostrils of the first humans; we contain the very breath of God. I am not sure we truly understand what that means to be created in God’s image and to contain his very breath.

I often speak of the command to love God and love of neighbor. For me, this is the Gospel, and nothing else matters if we do not practice that sort of love. And that love is unconditional. We are also commanded to love our enemies and those who wish us harm. These are non-negotiable in the life of the Christian, and they are also challenging. But we are commanded to do that because of the divine spark, that image of God in us and the other. Someone once told me that we may be the only Bible someone ever reads and we might be the reason they come to Jesus or the reason they flee from him.

So we need to think long and hard about something today. Do we honestly see the image of God in others and by others I mean everyone because how we treat them, what we say to them and about them should be influenced by that image? If that was Jesus standing there in front of us would we treat them like that or would we say that because it is Jesus standing right there in front of us and he tells us that himself? Matthew 25 the righteous ask him “lord when did we see you hungry and feed you or naked and clothe you.” And he answers, “as you do it to the least of these you do it to me.” When we insult someone, when we mistreat them, when we lie or gossip about someone, when we refuse to help them because we do not think they are worthy or when we drop bombs on them, we do it to Jesus.

The question for this week is, do I honestly see Jesus in the other and I am projecting the image of Jesus so others can see it?