[There is a Jenga game next to the pulpit as a visual aid.]
While I would love to say that today’s scripture passages fill me with comfort and peace, I have to admit that they do not. Well, at least not the type of comfort and peace that I might have if I listened selectively to the good parts. The Lord is my shepherd, [move Jenga piece] and Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life [move Jenga piece]. This Jesus is the cornerstone that pulls everything in line [move Jenga piece].
These simple truths are what I want to remember about these passages, but there’s a lot more to them than those simple words of comfort. When I read the rest of the story I suddenly find myself feeling like Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther. You may remember how he hired a butler named Cato and instructed him to lie in wait and attack him every time he came home just to keep his skills sharp. OK, so maybe that’s too strong. I’ve never actually had a sparring partner – but I think these passages may just have that kind of punch in mind for us.
Acts isn’t so bad, but it does remind us that there are times to speak up for our faith. More often than not, these opportunities carry a certain level of risk. You and I don’t have to worry about the temple authorities the way Peter did, but we can risk other things that may be just as personal. Relationships can vanish like smoke over beliefs about personal freedoms and civil rights. Whistle blowing over issues that require correction can end or stunt a career. And in the church, sometimes we can get caught up in the most inconsequential things. A recent article reflecting on why some people who have faith are yet rejecting the church said, “You chose lousy battles. Every day we see a world suffocated by poverty, and racism, and violence, and bigotry, and hunger; and in the face of that stuff, you get awfully, frighteningly quiet. We wish you were as courageous in those fights, because then we’d feel like coming alongside you.” [move Jenga piece]
Meanwhile, there are Christians that may share nothing in common with us other than a belief in Jesus as the one who revealed the good news of God to us who are being martyred for that particular shared belief.
We hear that and we hear the words of the twenty-third Psalm, and we say, “Thank you Jesus for still waters and green pastures!” This is good and right, but if it’s only because we believe, “There but for the Grace of God, go I” then we might be missing the mark a little. It is by God’s grace and mercy that we live how and where we do, but life is not more valuable to God in one place or another – even in one people over another.
So, while I think it is good to be comforted by the promise of a God that walks with us in the hospital corridor and gives us bread to break with those that we may not even like very much, the important thing to remember is that God’s love is not hiding like some forgotten Easter egg or wandering like some ghost of Christmas past.
God’s grace and mercy follow us – they pursue us! The word we typically use is “follow,” but the word in Hebrew is the same as “pursue.” It is the word used to describe predator and prey, and God’s grace and mercy are as persistent as a falcon on a clear day. Yet, instead of talons, we are wrapped in a love that will not let go. That’s important, because it reminds us that we are the object of God’s desire. We – simple and flawed as we are – are created in the image of God to reflect the heart of God.
And how do we do that? Simple. Jesus showed us how. Just lay down your life. Look and see if there are those with needs, and don’t refuse to help them [move Jenga piece].
This is where it starts getting tricky, isn’t it? We have to decide if helping others handicaps or empowers them. We have to get to know people. We have to care about problems that we know that we can’t fix, and that can be exhausting. And when we think about it that way, well it just doesn’t seem like something we want to do in the first place. Can’t we just stick to that thing where we’re the sheep and the good shepherd takes care of us?
Well, maybe. It is good to remember that Jesus is the one who literally gave his life by following God’s will. I don’t necessarily mean his death on the cross, although that is certainly central to our experience of God’s grace and mercy. I mean that he gave over control of his life. Jesus aligned his heart with the heart of God in such a way that his life demonstrated what had been written into the law and spoken about by the prophets. Jesus was living, breathing truth in action.
And so, for us to follow him, to be his sheep, we must do the same. We can’t simply talk about it. We have to do stuff, and we can’t just do it in here. Probably the most confronting thing about these passages is the fact that the sheep don’t stay in the stable. As another Pastor has noted, “We sheepishly say that Jesus simply “brings out all his own” from the sheep pen, but the Greek is so much more interesting. The verb used here is actually the exact same verb [that] gospel writers use to describe the violent casting out of demons.”
So we are “cast out” from a place where the resources are limited, because they are ours. We are sent into the world where the resources are abundant, because they belong to God. Like moving from feed corn to pasture, there is great joy in experiencing the providence of God. The risk is also greater, but the Good Shepherd is with us, and grace and mercy are pursuing us while we go [move Jenga piece].
In many ways, it is like the Jenga tower that I have been building. I realize that it may be distracting to some, and I imagine that some of you may be very anxiously watching to see if it falls throughout the rest of the service. But think of it this way. The tower can remain solid and have a limited function. It can also be changed and become something that inspires emotions that can result in actions. Changing it is risky, and we have to pay attention to the force that keeps it from falling – it has to stay balanced. But even if it falls, there is nothing that can destroy the belief that it can be even greater than before.
We are not here – in this sanctuary or on this earth – to build towers. We are here to reflect the heart of God. The Westminster Confession of faith [Shorter Catechism] says that we are here to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. In that sense, perhaps these passages can fill us with a different kind of comfort and peace than just our gratitude for the things God has done for us. They can convict us with a challenge to speak and to act in ways that demonstrate love and compassion that are so complete that they put us at risk.
These are things that we all must do in our own way. These are things we have done and will continue to do as a congregation. Last January I mentioned that our Session [governing church council] was looking into an opportunity through the PC(USA) called 1001 New Worshiping Communities. This idea was presented because starting up new things is part of the character of this congregation, and it fits with our previous conversations about redefining our mission through the New Beginnings program. It was presented as a way to highlight the fact that we are a life giving congregation, and that we believe that there are those in our area who are in need of spiritual community that we might reach in some new way.
As it turns out, after prayer and reflection, the Session felt that it would be a better use of our time and resources to focus on some new initiative that will help us to engage some aspect of the surrounding community and build relationships in ways that we have not been able to do in the past. We are putting together a team with some clear objectives and expectations for their work, and we will be sure to have some conversational opportunities for the congregation to give input before we commit ourselves to a new course of action.
And so, I ask you to keep praying for our congregation and its leaders as we move into the future together. Reading scripture and praying for one another are things that we all should be doing anyway. Praying for God to send us out – even cast us out – just allows us to listen for the voice of the one who like a shepherd leads us. Talk to our Ruling Elders about your conversations with God, and about who you think God is calling us to connect with and how. For God is already calling other sheep that do not belong to this fold. Remember that Jesus said, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I do not know what is next for us, but I know that we are being sent – just as we have been in the past. I know that we follow the one who gave over control of his life to reflect the heart of God, so that we can, too. I know that just as we are sent, God will provide, God will guide, and God will pursue you and me with a love that will never let us go. Amen.