Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Groaning of Creation


Acts 2:17-21, Romans 8:22-25

 

        Once upon a time, Pentecost was the most important celebration of the Christian year. Easter might have been the High Holiday, Christmas eventually reached mythical status, but Pentecost was the day when folks gathered to remember the day the Church began. Christmas and Easter were God events. Jesus was born. Christ was resurrected. Pentecost was a therapeutic response to fear.

        I have been reading Jon Meacham’s newest book, The Soul of America, the Battle for our Better Angels.  His premise is, “Fear has forever been part of the human equation. While we as a nation have not always been heroic, America has been sustained by the belief that we will see progress even in the gloomiest of times.”

Meacham lifts up critical moments in our history where, inspired by angels, America has overcome fear by rediscovering its soul. When you read the book, and I hope you will, you might be surprised at the events chosen. More important, I hope you will pay close attention to his understanding of the soul as defined through quotes from Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes and a host of others. Meacham writes “Fear dominates by threatening pain, but the soul reminds us that there is always hope beyond our darkest of moment.”  Pentecost is about Peter discovering his soul even as his life was being threatened.

On the eve of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit arrived to inspire the disciples. There is no doubt most of us would be motivated if we got a personal visit from God. But God seldom shows up in person and inspiration does not always lead to instigation. Every preacher witnesses those “come to Jesus moments”, when a member of the congregation claims to be stirred by the spoken word.  That is why we used to have revivals. People love to come forward, Just as I am. Unfortunately too often they remain just as they were. More times than not, that which inspires the soul is overcome by the rationalization of the mind. We don’t have to be threatened by someone else. Fear, deeply imbedded in our psyche, sanitizes inspiration with reason. The moral arc of the universe is too frequently disrupted by the conjunction, “But”. Inspired by truth, how often have we been sidetracked by this infamous juxtaposition. “I want to stand with you, but.” “I know you are right, but.” We waver, we become fearful and we allow the best intentions of the soul to be dismissed. Pentecost is the day Peter eliminated anxiety and discovered salvation.

Life most Hebrew boys I imagine Peter grew up with the Torah in his right hand. Every Sabbath his mother made sure he attended the synagogue. He knew the commandments, the stories of Moses and the songs of David. On Passover, whenever possible, Peter made his way to Jerusalem. But all of that changed when he met Jesus. For three years Peter followed a man who placed love of neighbor before the sanctity of an institution. Jesus taught that every woman and man was a child of God. Jesus revered God’s creation and implored us to honor the miracle of nature. None of this talk seems radical, yet the leaders in the Temple accused Jesus of sedition. The Sadducees called for Jesus’ execution. Backed by an unholy alliance with Rome, these religious men crucified Jesus, believing his death would put an end to those who questioned the authority of the Temple.  They wanted to put the “fear of God” into the disciples.

But God had other plans.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Peter, the very man who denied Jesus, stood before his savior’s executioners and spoke from his heart. He began telling anyone who had ears to hear about the resurrection of Jesus. Once Peter had their attention he shared the vision of Jesus. Peter spoke of a new heaven and earth, a time when folks would come together, not as adversaries, but as friends. Peter claimed Jesus was the fulfillment of the hope of the prophets. Jesus truly was the Messiah.

The Sadducees were outraged by Peter’s words. They dismissed him, claiming he was drunk. Peter responded by quoting from the Book of Joel. “I will pour my Spirit upon you. Your youth shall have visions. Your elderly will dream dreams. The day of the Lord is upon us. Repent, and discover the glorious mercy of God.”

Thousands of people, on hearing Peter’s words, begged for hear more. The High Priest responded by threatening to arrest and kill anyone joining the disciples. His words were ignored as the mob followed the better angels, and became a community by worshipping God and caring for each other.

Every time we remember Pentecost we should celebrate it as a day when hope transcends fear, a day when we can believe anything is still possible. Each Pentecost Sunday we should cling to the truth that God’s creation, God’s love, God’s community, should never be secondary to any institution, including the church.

Peter stood against the Temple because the Priest had forgotten that God is gracious, merciful, and steadfast in love. Peter stood against Rome because Pilate refused to understand that the power of compassion and hope can never be enslaved by legions of fear and destruction.

Finally the Temple and Rome played their last card. “Peter, you are stretching the boundaries of faith into areas where it doesn’t belong. You are becoming political.”

Peter replied, “No, I am finally becoming Biblical.”

There is such a fine line drawn between what is political and what is religious. As Presbyterians, we don’t endorse political candidates from the pulpit. As a Presbyterian minister I have sometimes been encouraged to avoid anything controversial when I preach.  Peter would not have made a very good Presbyterian. Jesus taught Peter to love his neighbor. Jesus taught Peter to be in dialogue with his enemy. Jesus taught Peter to see God in creation. On that morning, fifty days after the resurrection, Peter, discovering his soul, asked why the Priests had turned their backs on the Torah. He no longer feared their threats. Peter was fully motivated by a hope discovered while reading the word of God. Peter is a prime example that sometimes you have to speak what God puts on your heart rather than fear the consequences of those motivated by power.

Our Psalm this morning was Psalm 104. It is a hymn acknowledging God as the creator of our beautiful earth. Our other text was Romans 8:23, “The whole of creation has been groaning in pain hoping for salvation.”

This week I drove up Reid’s Gap to take a bike ride along one my favorite stretches of God’s creation.  It was my first up close view of how human greed is raping Mother Earth. If Peter were standing in this pulpit he would ask Dominion, “What have you done to My Father’s World?” Then Peter would ask me, “Why have you remained silent?”

So would Peter be political, biblical, or both?

God gave us Christmas. God gave us Easter. On Pentecost, God expects us to give something back. Too often fear causes us to hesitate. I am thankful to folks like Jill and Cheryl and the better angels among us who have not remained silent. You are truly Pentecost people.           Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Joseph, called Barsabbas, but known as Justus


Acts 1:15-17; 21-26

 

        While stationed in Korea, I was a member of the 2nd Division. Our motto was Second to None. I rarely find anyone who relishes finishing second. We are a nation of winners. This means name recognition is very important to us. Too many times, due to laziness, I have gone into a voting booth and not recognized certain people on a ballot. I have voted for a name I am familiar with or the party they associate with rather than merit. I figure if I have heard of them, they must be important.

        I suspect we do the same when we read the Bible. How many of us know the story of anyone in the Old Testament other than Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David or Elijah. Those are the winners, the heroes. But what about Miriam, Caleb, Deborah, Hannah or Josiah? Were they not equally heroic?

        Of course we know the New Testament better than the Old. But other than Peter, John, Matthew and Judas, how many other disciples can you name? What were their stories? Why have we forgotten them? Is it because they were second division disciples, second to everyone else?

        How many of you are familiar with Joseph, called Barsabbas, but known as Justus? Don’t be upset if you don’t remember the name. He gets one verse in the entire Bible and that verse announced that he was a loser. So why are we giving him 12 minutes of attention this morning? I believe each one of us knows someone who has finished second or perhaps not finished at all and yet possessed qualities seldom seen or experience by others.

        Imagine the problem Peter faced. After the ascension of Jesus, Peter decided it was time to get the band back together. Unfortunately they were one member short. You might think eleven disciples were enough but not Peter.  Twelve was a magic number. It symbolized completeness. Jacob had 12 sons. Israel had 12 tribes. There were 12 months in the Jewish year.  Peter believed the disciples would be incomplete if they settled with eleven.

        A nomination committee was formed. It was made up of 120 folks. After much prayer and I imagine a little politicking, two men were nominated. And here is the weird part. Instead of holding an election, they cast lots. Basically they flipped a coin and Matthias hit the jackpot. Matthias took his place among the highly respected apostles. Joseph, known as Barsabbas, but called Justus, doesn’t even become the answer in a biblical trivia question. He just finished second. So what happened to Joseph, known as Barsabbas, but called Justus? Folklore says he became a Bishop. Scholars insist he was never heard of again.  I bet he just continued doing what he had done all along. Folks like Joseph, known as Barsabbas, but called Justus often go unnoticed by those who write history. But not by God.

Every minister arrives at their new call ready to set the world on fire. What we soon discover is that the spirit of God was there before we arrived. We first meet the movers and the shakers in a congregation. They quickly tell a new minister what needs to be done and what needs to be left alone. These are the folks who are serving or have served as elders.  They are the backbone of any church.

Then are the folks who seem to show up any time the doors are open, be it a workday or a church meal. They quietly carry the load. Yet these folks, these irreplaceable jewels, are folks seldom remembered when it comes time to elect elders. In one of my earlier churches there was an elderly woman who seemed to always be pitching in, never missed worship or Sunday School but had never served as an elder. I asked the nominating committee if she might be considered and the response was, “She was once asked, but she said no.” Curiously I asked, “How long ago was that?” No one could remember. So I went to see her. She remembered she had been asked twenty five years before but at the time she didn’t feel women should be elders. I asked how she felt about that now. She said, “Some of our best elders have been women.” Bravely I continued, “So would you agree to be nominated now.” She smiled, “O no, now I am too old.” She continued to work in the shadows and I always thought what an opportunity had been lost just because she was never approached a second time.

        I wonder what those 120 folks saw in Joseph, known as Barsabbas, but called Justus. Can you imagine what an honor it must be to be one of two chosen from a group that large? I am only guessing but I figure he was chosen for one of two reasons. Since Judas was being replaced, the group might have figured it needed a treasurer. After the Ascension the task of spreading the name of Jesus had fallen squarely on the shoulders of the disciples.   Donations would be needed to run the group. When Jesus was around he seemed to pull fish and bread out of thin air, but now the disciples had to get organized. They needed spread sheets, flow charts, balance statements, and someone who could make heads and tails of all that information. The person who replaced Judas would need a degree in mathematics.

        On the other hand, maybe the group desired someone who believed in and practiced the power of prayer. Judas often divided the group with his questions and questionable antics. Perhaps the best choice was someone a bit more spiritual, a person who loved the Psalms, one who had a grasp of the Jesus’ parables. After all, there is more to spreading the word than reading a spread sheet.

        Nomination committees face a similar problem when choosing church leaders. There is the practical side of wanting someone who is task orientated. There is the sometimes forgotten responsibility of seeking out folks who can offer spiritual guidance to the congregation. Sometimes we are so task orientated, or so name driven, excellent choices go unnoticed.

        I wonder if that is what happened on that day between the Ascension and Pentecost. Two men were chosen. One was practical, one was a dreamer. Both possessed qualities needed and both probably had recourses that had gone untapped. One was about to become an apostle, the other historically forgotten. No one wanted to make the choice between the two, so Peter flipped a coin. Is it any wonder the next day God sent the Holy Spirit to remind them what the church does is much too important to leave to chance?

        During the next couple of weeks your Nominating committee will be compiling our elders for the class of 2021. It has been a delight to work with the uniquely qualified folks who have served as elders during my tenure. Some have been task oriented. Some have shown mystical qualities. Each has loved and served this church admirably. Now the time has come to call on four more folks as a continuing source of inspiration. You are a congregation driven by faith. While paying bills and making budget is important, it is secondary to the compassion and mission of this church. Today’s scripture reminds us there are always folks who might not seem to be the obvious choice but they are the person God wants us to pick.  Hear at Rockfish we understand the power of prayer and the necessity to dream.

        I have come to believe in God’s eye no one is too young to dream or too old to pray.  There is a Joseph, known as Barsabbas, but called Justin among us who might have been overlooked or perhaps gone unnoticed. I entreat each of you to be in a season of prayer. Allow the Holy Spirit to open your eyes. Look beyond the obvious and open your hearts to a seedling ready to blossom. Then contact a member of the nominating committee. They are anxiously awaiting your prayerfully inspired wisdom. This community of faith deserves better than a coin toss.  

                    To God be the Glory.  Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Copain


I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-13

 

        I had a dear friend named Ruth Newton. She was a no nonsense, task oriented, farm girl turned school teacher from Eastern North Carolina. When she and her husband retired, Ruth ran the household, drove the car, and for a period of time was the most powerful member of the Presbyterian Church in Clinton, North Carolina. In a culture dominated by men, Ruth took no prisoners. But like most of us, she had an Achilles heel. She was the worst card player I ever met. The first couple of years I was in Clinton, about once a month, I would receive a call from Ruth. It was always the same. “Louie, I had a bridge table lined up for tomorrow afternoon, but so and so had to drop out.  Can I pick you up at 1:30?” No one said no to Ruth, especially a minister new to the congregation.  So I would go, and I would always be Ruth’s partner, and we would always lose. I am not sure Ruth knew there were 52 cards in the deck.  I am certain counting points was not something she saw as necessary.  Yet we somehow managed to have a grand time.  The card playing was embarrassing, but the snacks were great and by the end of the day, I had gotten to know the story of another woman who lived amidst the shadows. I once offered Ruth a book on strategies for playing bridge. She responded, “We are not playing bridge, we are playing life.”  Soon after Ruth died, her son told me she created those foursomes with folks who were a little suspicious of their new minister. I had spent twelve years in Texas, had a bunch of degrees behind my name and worst of all, they suspected I was a Democrat. Eight years later when Deb and I moved to Nellysford, those women were among our dearest friends. Ruth got us around a table where we ate food, told stories, and laughed at Ruth playing really bad bridge.  That is what Jesus calls, “Laying down her life for a friend.”

        Ruth loved the gospel of John and I understand why. At first glance the gospel of John doesn’t seem to be all that heroic. Matthew talks about giving a coat to a stranger. Luke celebrates finding room for the alien. Instructions on how we are to treat an enemy or a foreigner never comes up in John. But in this Gospel there is a whole lot of talk about loving each other. 

        The great theologian Linus, you know the little guy in Peanuts, astutely observed, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.”  I think the gospel of John was written for folks like me who can go on forever about the plight of children in Rwanda yet get our nose out of joint with the people who care for us the most. John keeps reminding  us if we can’t love each other, nothing else really matters.

        The French have more than one word for friend. The one most of us learned in French 101 is “ami”. But there I another word I ran across the other day. It is spelled, “c-o-p-a-i-n”. That makes a lot of sense because folks who love each other often share and cause a lot of pain. But for those of you who are better French scholars than I, and I suspect that is everyone here, you know the word “pain” in French does not mean to inflict injury but is the word for bread.   The word “copain”, origin of companion, means the one with whom I break bread. What a glorious thought.

        Think of all the places we break bread together. Memories are renewed as we break bread together during holidays. Families gather at the end of the day to break bread together. Folks hoping to find love begin their courtship by breaking bread. Ancient lovers find time for each other when breaking bread.

When we come together, stories are shared. When we come together, joys emerge. When we come together, silence is broken and grievances proclaimed. Around the table we find the courage to listen, we discover the strength to submit, we recognize the need to forgive and be forgiven as we grasp the very essence of this complicated emotion we call love. And when this happens, we remember.

Memory, for someone my age, is often fleeting. I glance at a book and wonder why it remains in my library, and then I remember. I hear a piece of music and it returns me to a moment of tranquility. Memories invite us back to not just the way it was but the way it can be again. Memories become the bond that repairs our brokenness. Is it any wonder that Jesus, while sitting with friends who would soon deny and betray him, gave them a memory?

“This is my body broken for you.”

As some of those former bridge partners, including Ruth grew old, once a month I would sit in each of their living rooms and share the Lord’s Supper. Those were holy moments. Sometimes we would remember how badly Ruth played cards. Sometimes I would listen to stories of how unfair growing old can be. All of the time we would celebrate this holy meal created to remember one who laid down his life for us. This wonderful group of copains allowed me to break bread and remember.

That is why I love the first Sunday of each month. You folks have become my copains. I marvel at the way you love each other. I treasure the way you care for each other.  I am amazed at your willingness to lay aside your time and energy for both friend and stranger. We celebrate this as we come to the table. We celebrate this as we break the bread. We celebrate this as we become a living sacrifice by listening to a friend, by baking a plate of cookies to share with a neighbor and even by swallowing our ego for the sake of another.

Around this table memories are shared. Around this table, new visions are realized. Around this table, humility trumps pride and brokenness becomes a virtue.

Come to this table of grace, love and peace.

My copains, let us break bread together.                               

        To God be the Glory.     Amen.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Do I Fear God?


Psalm 22:25; John 15:1-8

 

        Lynne Carson caught me last Sunday and wondered how she might respond to someone who had asked if Presbyterians fear God. It was a great question to which I gave a completely inadequate answer. I suggested Lynne substitute the word “awe” for “fear”. We certainly can be inspired without feeling fear particularly when it comes to our relationship to God. Isn’t it amazing when we speak without thinking we later regret speaking so hastily? The next morning I read this week’s text from the Gospel of John. “Abide in me. Those who abide in me will bear much fruit. But whoever does not abide in me will be thrown into a fire and be burned.” I quickly ran to the Psalms hoping to encounter something a little less frightening only to come across the words, “Blessings will fall upon those who fear the Lord.”  Houston, we have a problem!

        I remember as a child my fear of God was very real. Ever rearrange the brownies?   At the church I grew up in we would occasionally have dinners after worship. Folks would bring all kind of delicious food and deserts to be enjoyed at noon. Between Sunday School and Church my friends and I would sneak into the Fellowship Hall to steal a morsel or two. The treats were beautifully arranged. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to have them look so magnificent. We assumed this was done to keep us from eating them before the proper time. I would go to the tray with chocolate brownies and figure out how to remove one and yet make it appear as if nothing had been touched. Once I had captured my treasure I would quickly consume it, and then rush to the bathroom to make sure there were no crumbs around my lips. I gleefully celebrated my mischief.

        After the opening hymn and before the scriptures we always read a prayer of confession. It went something like this. “Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.” (stop)  I never heard the scripture or sermon. The brownie which had tasted so good earlier now became a cauldron of discomfort. I wanted to rush from the sanctuary to the nearest bathroom but the sermon seemed to go on and on and on. Here I was in the house of the Lord where God and God alone was aware of my transgression. I had sinned. My pain was real and my fear of God, intense.

        We can easily dismiss this as the confessions of a ten year overcome by guilt. I had no business taking the brownie, I knew I had no business taking the brownie, and in the midst of a prayer of confession acid reflux caused me to taste the fruits of my transgression. I had sinned and while only God knew of my transgression that was enough.

        Thanks to vigilant parents I was constantly reminded that whatever I did never escaped the watchful eye of God. I was taught what was right and what was wrong. Any variance from the prescribed path of righteousness would not go undetected. My God was like Dikembe Mutombo. For those of you who don’t recognize the name, Mutombo was a legendary NBA player best known for his shot blocking ability. His teammates knew anytime someone ventured near the basket Mutombo would send their shot flying in a different direction. Then he would wave his finger at the offending player as if to say, “Not in my house”. Such was the presence of my God. I might fool my friends, I might fool my parents but I could not fool God. Any attempt at deception was swatted away followed by the finger of God being waved in my face reminding me I knew better.

        At some point and time I outgrow this childish understanding of moral values. I became the captain of my own ship. The idea that God would zap me was no more real than those monsters I believed existed under my bed. But who or what became my moral compass?

        As I returned to the Bible to help me unlock the mysteries of my own universe, I discovered an amazing fact. In the Old Testament we encounter the message that we are to, “Fear the Lord”. But the emphasis of the New Testament is, “Fear not.” It would seem these statements lie in direct opposition to each other.  Remembering the Hebrew language can be a puzzle unto itself I researched the word “yare”, the word we translate as fear.

        The writers of the Old Testament lived in a primitive society which was ruled by superstitions and beliefs we would consider to be nonsense. Weather was thought to be directly related to the emotions of the gods. Showers represented God’s benevolence. Thunder storms or flash floods signified the rage of the Almighty. Fear of an angry God was a real component of daily life. Then I discovered “yare/fear” had more than one meaning. It was also the word used specifically to describe Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. The closest English equivalent would be trust. To claim to trust God is certainly a great deal different than being afraid of God. Imagine standing in the storms of life and declaring I will not fear for I trust God. This translation allows the Old and New Testament messages to be consistent.  So how was that understanding of our relationship with God lost?

In 1604,  King James called for an English translation of the Latin Bible.  Actually it wasn’t his idea but a ploy to keep the nation from revolt. The relationship between the King and his subjects was tenuous at best. A Catholic King ruled a Protestant nation. The King was feared but not necessarily trusted.  The translation took seven years to complete. Those loyal to the King were terrified that some Biblical passages would fuel their rebelliousness. When our beloved King James Version was completed in 1611 it was very monarchy friendly.  James saw his word and the word of God as one. Therefore “yare” was translated exclusively as fear. In other words, you will fear God and you will fear the king. Because of political unrest, the intent of the Psalmist was lost. Unfortunately, future translations, even through  today, have failed to return to the original intent of the Psalmist. Listen to the difference when read as intended.

 Psalm 67:7, “May the Lord continue to bless us. Let the ends of the earth trust God.”  Psalm 119:79, “Those trusting God will turn to God.” Psalm 22:25, “God will bless those that trust the Lord.”

        Fear is the great pathology of any society. I know that was true during the time of the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. I could make a pretty good case that we continue to be paralyzed by fears both real and imagined. The antidote for fear is hope. This is why it has always been the message of God’s people to proclaim, “Fear not”, an assurance grounded in a God who can be trusted.

        So who do we trust? I suspect, more often than not, we only trust ourselves. I am perfectly capable of determining what is right or wrong and if we happen to disagree, then obviously you must be wrong. What if trust begins with a relationship of mutual respect? And what if there are rules of behavior that lead assist in developing that relationship?

Take this as a start point:

Don’t work yourself to death. Take a day to remember what is important.

Remember the ancient ones among you. Their wisdom will guide you through turbulent times.

Preserve the life and the hopes of another.

Instead of taking from another, offer someone that extra coat that has never left your closet.

Do your best to speak honestly, even if it might not seem in your best interest at the moment.

If someone has a better house or car than you, rejoice that you have a house and car. Not everyone does.

Love your neighbor, but always remember there are boundaries which must not be violated.

The moral code we call the 10 commandments offers an opportunity to reside in a community based on trust rather than lies and deceit. When we disobey these regulations, more often than not something bad happens. Therefore when the writer of John speaks of God being the vine and we the branches, it is implied that a community will thrive when the branches live in harmony with each other. Discord abounds when members of the community are ruled by selfish ambition.

Do we seek harmony because we fear chaos? Perhaps. Will harmony abound if we live in fear? Probably not. God calls us toward a relationship of trust, not only toward God, but also with those with whom we live. There is an African proverb that states, “Because we are, I am.” In other words communities thieve when they do the right thing for the right reason. This builds mutual respect and interdependence.

That is easy to do when we all agree. But sometimes that is not the case. So who do we trust? So often, when we are only thinking of our own needs we devour the chocolate brownie. The bigger mistake might be closing our hearts to that inner voice that cries out, “You messed up, but trust me, I can help you through it.” If we fear the voice, we slide further into chaos and risk relationships which have taken years to build.  But if we trust the voice, if we live into hope, we open our hearts to the words of the Psalmist.  “For God alone our soul waits. Our hope is found in God. We can trust the Lord at all times for God is our rock and our salvation. We shall not fear.”            To God be the Glory       Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Goodness


John 10:11-18
 
        There aren’t many poems more beloved than Psalm 23. Metaphorically the Psalmist responds to the trials and tribulations of the human condition through the eyes of one who has found comfort in the everlasting presence of God. When Jesus declared, “I am the good shepherd”, the members of the early church and those of us who still claim the Bible as our holy testament, substitute Jesus as the shepherd beautifully described in David’s poem.
The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
This morning, I want us to look at two words, hesed and halos, both translated to mean good or goodness. We often understand the word “good” to simply be the opposite of bad.  The Greek and Hebrew offer a much more glorious understanding of this not so simple word.
The Hebrew word Hesed is a claim of enduring fidelity. Hesed is frequently found in the Psalms and the writings of Isaiah. God will not just bring goodness. God will remember us, rescue us, and restore us. The fidelity of God last forever. Even if we should forget God, the goodness, and mercy of God shall continue. It is an unconditional contract by the creator toward the created. God’s goodness, God’s love is not just for a moment. It is steadfast and everlasting.
The concept of good shepherd found in both the Old and New Testament retains that fidelity. The Greek word Halos is defined as being noble, competent, faithful, moral, and praiseworthy. No sacrifice is too great. The shepherd knows the cost of protecting the sheep and is willing to pay it. The fidelity of God and the integrity of the shepherd transcend our notion of just being good. God will act morally and faithfully, an action applauded by our praise.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be God. Using the analogy of shepherd gives us a glimpse into this complicated dilemma. Not long after I moved to West Texas I was invited to visit a working sheep ranch.  The first thing I learned was sheep are completely self-absorbed. Their primary motivation in life is the grass under their nose. They have to be prodded from spot A to spot B. They seldom follow directions and are prone to wander off looking for the greener grass anywhere outside the pasture. They are easy targets for predators because they never seem to be concerned with their environment. Getting them home is a difficult task because the sheep has no desire to move from where they sit.  A good shepherd is caretaker, motivator, and deliverer. The farmer told me, “You have to love sheep to be a shepherd because every other thing a sheep does is self-destructive. No one wants to admit they raise sheep. It is an all day job. I spend more time with my sheep than I do with people. Folks find me to be a bit odd.”
I innocently asked, “So why don’t you hire someone to watch them?”
He laughed, “Can’t keep anyone. After a week they see how hard the job is and quit.”
The writer of John has expanded the OT image of fidelity by insisting the Good Shepherd not only cares for his sheep but will lay down his life on their behalf. Jesus is no hired hand. Jesus doesn’t leave when we stumble into a briar patch. Jesus stands beside us even when we walk through the dark valleys. Furthermore, Jesus is not only competent but faithful. Jesus acts with moral integrity. Jesus will not leave us alone. Jesus has loved us to point of laying down his life. This is the personification of goodness as seen through the eyes of God. So how are we being asked to respond to this goodness?
We don’t know who wrote the Letters of John but we know they are commentaries on John’s gospel. The author of these epistles confronts us with the complex question concerning our covenant relationship with God. We could say, “Why ask us? We are just sheep. We are too stupid to understand.” That is a convenient response, but not one any of us really wants to claim. In John’s epistle the writer believes we have the capacity to choose to be good. But with this choice comes a responsibility toward the person walking beside us. The writer of the epistle encourages us, “to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action.”
I see examples of this every day.  I am overwhelmed by the goodness that abounds within this congregation. Tuesday night many of us were fortunate enough to be sitting in a session meeting as Jerry Wrenn delivered our opening devotion. He began by stating the obvious, “God is love.” Jerry suggested those are no more than words unless love is practiced. He told us that he was suffering from AFib,  a heart condition many of us will inherit as we grow older. His heart beat is not as consistent as it was when he was 25. He was given medication and some advice. “Don’t climb ladders, watch what you eat, and don’t watch the news.”
Jerry said giving up ladders was easy. He has not been so successful with the other two suggestions. Jerry suggested we are living is a culture of rumors and half-truths. Often there seems  little room for communication. He then reminded each session members that we each have experienced the love of God. This alone should inspire us to reach out in love rather than anger to those with which we disagree. Then he read I Corinthians 13.
The best sermons in our congregation don’t come from this pulpit. They emerge when each of you has the courage to love another as Christ has loved you. As Jerry reminded us, “We can’t shut down the noise, we can’t change the message but we are responsible for how we respond.”  When we act lovingly, we can be assured that nothing less than the love of Jesus is pulsating through our hearts and through our hands.  Through our goodness we become the shepherds of our community. Through our fidelity we become the standard bearers for our nation.  Through acts of moral courage we become a shining example for not only our friends and neighbors, but for those with whom we disagree.
As hard as that seems I would remind you that self-sacrifice, for Christians, should be ordinary, not extraordinary. Let me give you some examples. We lay down our lives when we put others first. We lay down our lives when we live for the good of others. We lay down our lives when we make time for others. How heroic would it just to listen rather than rant and rave? Is truth only unique to us? I wish I would practice that sermon more often.
Eugene Peterson suggests, “Love is the most context-specific act in the spectrum of human behavior. Acts of love cannot be canned and delivered off the shelf. Every act of love requires a creative and personal investment.” He continues by stating what should be obvious. “Love is not built into our genes. A lot of essentials in human life take place without being learned or practiced. We breathe, our hearts pump, we come out of the womb kicking and screaming and eventually we fall asleep, all without prior training. But we learn how to love by being loved.”
Some things we just don’t get instantly. I read about Dick and Jane before I tackled Dostoevsky. I caught a 1,000 groundballs before it became as natural as breathing. I experienced love through the actions of my parents and a group of adults who names I can longer remember.  Then it came my turn to reciprocate. I have stumbled and failed. I still do. None of us get it right the first time. But the words of Christ remain in our soul. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Those are hard words to implement yet Christ pleads with us to keep trying despite the results. The good news is God will never give up on us because we are more than just God’s sheep. We are shepherds in training. We are called the practice the art of loving, and loving, and loving even if we don’t always get it right.
I read somewhere that a glacier is the most powerful force in the world today. It forms by the accumulation of snow over a very long periods. An inch at a time the snow deepens, the weight compresses, forming ice. This continues year after year. Nothing happens until the glacier becomes sixty four feet thick. Then it starts to slide, and once it starts, nothing can stop it.
The shepherd loves us each moment, each day for a lifetime. Then the shepherd encourages us to slowly, consistently, sometimes even painfully, love each other. That might take a lot of trust in God’s grace, yet I suspect each of you can tell the story of a heart of ice that encountered so much love it eventually it began to slide. It might even have been your own.                           
To God be the Glory.                                Amen.