sheep of the good shepherd
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 26, 2015: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 4:5-12  +  Psalm 23  +  1 John 3:16-24  +  John 10:11-18

In the prelude to his 2011 book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer writes,

Parker PalmerIf American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we — you and I — became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.

Or, put more simply, if community built on the ideal of power emanating from the people for the sake of the common good fails, it will not be because of how others used their power, but because of how we gave our power up.

How do you give your power up? Under what circumstances do you find it easier to point the finger and blame others for the plight of the present, rather than to acknowledge your own participation in creating the situation you lament?  Is it in your workplace, in your relationships with your colleagues?  Is it at home, with your spouse or children?  Is it here at church, as we face some of the most challenging conversations of our life together?  Where is it that you notice yourself telling a story in which everyone else has all the power, and you are a victim of their actions?

We come by it honestly, our inclination to give up our power. We live in a world that creates wealth by assigning blame. Our litigious society rewards people for seeking out lawsuits that might enrich them at the expense of others by assigning blame for every harm. The constant ideological battle that passes for the news paralyses the nation by blaming elected officials and political parties for every ailment suffered by society, creating a culture of fear and mistrust. Rarely are we invited to consider how we ourselves have participated in creating a climate of mistrust, blame, and powerlessness through our own tendency to gossip, criticize and slander rather than truly listen, discern, and collaborate in building the world we need. Instead we settle for tearing down the world we have and wondering how others allowed things to get so bad.

Power is at the heart of the readings that surround us this Sunday, readings filled with images of shepherds and sheep, readings filled with conflict between people assumed to have power and people challenging the arrangement of power.

In the reading from Acts, we hear that Peter has been brought before the high priest to account for actions that have landed him in jail. If we go back to the preceding chapters we learn that Peter and John had healed a man whom scripture describes as being “lame from birth.” Each day he would rest near the gate near the temple, begging for just enough to get by. Peter tells him, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:6) Immediately the man leapt to his feet and entered the temple, praising God. Peter begins to speak to all who had witnessed the miracle, declaring God’s power to restore people and places left for dead. His preaching lands the disciples in prison, and it is against this backdrop that we hear Peter being questioned by the authorities, “by what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)

Of course, the name by which Peter and John have acted, their authorizing agent, is Jesus of Nazareth, a human being located in space and time, living under empire and challenging the collusion of church and state; and also God’s own beloved, the anointed one, the messiah, the Christ — the two natures being inseparable: a human being acting in space and time and the beloved child of God revealing God’s own self to all the world.

Jesus is navigating a very similar situation in the gospel of John. We get only a snippet this morning of the much longer speech in which he names himself the good shepherd. It is an image that pervades the Christian imagination, Jesus carrying the lamb over his shoulders, a shepherd’s staff in hand.

This mural, designed and installed by the Rev. Louis Valbracht at St. John's Lutheran Church in Des Moines during another period of deep racial divides and unrest in the 1960s was intended to be a visual reminder that the good shepherd gathers all sheep into one flock. (John 10:16)

This mural, designed and installed by the Rev. Louis Valbracht at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, IA during another period of deep racial divides and unrest in the 1960s was intended to be a visual reminder that the good shepherd gathers all sheep into one flock. (John 10:16)

Growing up in Des Moines there was a mural in the fellowship hall that depicted just such a Jesus cloaked in an orange robe holding two sheep, one in each arm, one black and one white. The artwork was created by Pastor Louis Valbracht in the mid-1960s as an intentional meditation on the nation’s deep racial divides. Pastor Valbracht, who grew up right here in Logan Square, whose father was the pastor here at St. Luke’s from the late 20’s through the mid-50’s, wanted to remind my home congregation in Iowa that the same sweet shepherd who called to them by name was also the shepherd of black women and men beaten and bleeding in the streets. The same shepherd who assures us that  “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

Again, if we read back, behind the passage assigned for this day, we discover that the incident which has precipitated Jesus’ speech about sheep and shepherds was another healing miracle. In this case, a man born blind. When Jesus heals him of his blindness it creates a scandal as those in power demand to know by what power the man has been healed. As the authorities get tangled up in questions of power, the man who has been healed finds his voice and praises God. Jesus explains the miracle using this metaphor of the shepherd whose job it is to find those who have been lost under the present arrangement of power, and to bring them back inside the fold, to be the gate, to be the guard, to do the work and to pay the price, which he does willingly, of his own accord, because of the great love that exists between the God who creates the world and God’s own beloved who redeems the world.

But it does raise a question for us this morning. The Jesus who declares, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, for they will listen to my voice” (John 10:14) is also the Jesus who lays down his life and dies that we might live. This Jesus is both lamb and shepherd, both savior and sacrifice. This is a thorny truth we struggle with as Christians, uncomfortable with the idea that there is a cost to discipleship. That God issues both invitations and commands, which we are free, we are empowered, to act upon or to ignore. Often our objections are framed as resistance to the notion of a God who demands sacrifice. I wonder, however, if our resistance is actually to the reality that all change comes at a cost, the price of which is not determined by a wrathful God but a greedy humanity, which resists all efforts to curb its consumption with threats of violence. If the God revealed in Jesus Christ will not rest until there is “one flock, one shepherd,” then we, who live on this side of the resurrection, bathed in promises made at our baptisms, must listen to the author of 1 John who reminds us:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)

Truth and action, both of which require us to acknowledge our power and to use it in service of those caught up in the world’s lie that the goodness of God’s creation was only meant for some of us, that a safe home, and an abundant table, and a loving family, and a fruitful marriage, and a rewarding vocation, and a peaceful city, and a just nation, and a redeemed creation are entitlements of the few rather than an inheritance for the whole.

Easter life requires us to understand that the risen Christ rises in each of us. That the Holy Spirit breathed onto the church empowered the Acts of the Apostles. That the only hands and feet God has in the world are ours. This is not a form of “subtle works righteousness,” as Lutherans have sometimes worried. Works righteousness is the idea that we earn our standing before God, we earn our place in the reign of God, through our own actions, by our own merit. This is the exact opposite. This is the acknowledgement that we stand under the grace of God, as citizens in God’s commonwealth, because of God’s goodness and mercy and love. That all that we have and all that we are comes to us as a gift, and that to allow others to suffer second-class citizenship in a world intended for equality is to collude with a world order already governed by a hypocritical myth of meritocracy in which we pretend that everyone has gotten what they deserve while we all suffer the tragic consequences of structures of oppression, but some pay with their lives.

Good Shepherd Sunday is not some sweet, sentimental song to make us feel safe and secure. It is the assurance that God sets a table for us, even in the presence of our enemies, and that we live this life in the valley of the shadow of death, but that we do not walk through the valley alone. It is a reminder that the power of God is not the power of this world, which seizes and hoards, but the power of love, which willingly sacrifices.

To acknowledge our power, and to use it, to spend it, to give it up for the sake of those other sheep, those other human lives, those other creaturely habitats, the whole creation called into being by the God who breathed over the waters and made something out of nothing, is what it means to act in the name of Jesus. It is the movement that gives his name any power at all. It is the life of God coexisting with the fragile humanity we all share.  How will you use the power of the name given to you in baptism?  How will your life, how will our life together, be a testimony to that power?

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 24, 2014: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Exodus 1:8 — 2:10  +  Psalm 124  +  Romans 12:1-8  +  Matthew 16:13-20

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For the last week or so I have been binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix. I don’t know if it’s my way of dealing with a summer of brutal news, or just a television addiction that’s moved on to new material, but I can’t get enough of Senator turned Vice-President Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire.

If you’re not already a fan, House of Cards is a political drama that follows the political career and personal life of an ambitious, and I would say sociopathic, politician. I don’t want to spoil the show for those of you who haven’t gotten around to watching it yet but still plan to. Suffice it to say, those who hinder or oppose Frank Underwood have short careers and sometimes shorter lives. He uses the full power and authority of his position in government to shape the world in his favor, giving very little thought to the lives of the people he uses and destroys along the way.

I get the sense that the story from Exodus we’ve heard this morning is an early form of this kind of political drama, as it merges the storylines of the powerful and the powerless in a way that’s intended to evoke in us comparisons to our own time and place. In the role of Frank Underwood we have Pharaoh, a title for the king of Egypt that originally referred to the royal palace, but over time came to signify the king who lived there. The word “pharaoh” literally means “Great House.”  It’s very similar to the way we hear news reported as coming from the White House or the President interchangeably.

The news coming from the Great House in this story is just as horrific as anything I’ve seen on House of Cards, and just as terrible as anything we’ve seen this past summer.  Power has changed hands in Egypt, and the new king has forgotten allegiances made by the former regime with the people of Israel who’d made a home there during a time of famine. They go from being guest workers to slave labor, used to build cities for Pharaoh’s empire. South-SlavesAgain, the points of comparison to our own nation’s history of using enslaved labor to create an economy and an infrastructure that allowed us to become a world power should set us to wondering which roles we are playing in this ancient-modern drama.

Soon people begin to worry that the Israelites are outnumbering the Egyptians. The people who’d fled to Egypt looking for a better life in the face of hardship and danger in their homelands have become a threat to those in power, who fear that they will realize their advantage and rise up to claim a better life for themselves. It reminds me of exit poll analysis that showed how the growing Latino community in the United States helped elect and re-elect President Obama, and was “changing the face” of electoral politics at every level of government.

Then comes the horror. Responding to the threat of an ascendant minority, Pharaoh commands that all the boy children will be sacrificed at birth, thrown into the Nile River, which in Egyptian religion was imagined as the conduit from life to death to the afterlife. And again we hear the parallel with our own experience of this summer of tears. police-brutality1These young Israelite boys being thrown into the river could be young men of color in Chicago, or Ferguson, or Oakland, or Florida. We know what a culture that treats minority youth like a threat looks like, because we live in just such a culture.

But the Nile wasn’t only the watery highway to the world after death, it was also the source of all life. It was the Nile’s cycle of annual flooding that dredged up rich soil that kept Egypt fertile while the rest of the Levant starved. It was the river of life, so it’s no surprise that this story finds the hope of the people of Israel being drawn up out of the river. The child is named Moses, whose name in Egyptian means “Son,” but in Hebrew means, “to be drawn out.” He is the child of two cultures, the son of power drawn out of the water.

What is a surprise is how this future savior is spared from certain death upon the Nile. At the river’s edge, far away from the Great House, a group of women divided by race and wealth come together to save the life of a child. On one side of the river a heartbroken mother sends her child on a dangerous voyage in the hope that he will be spared the fate that awaits him if he should stay at home. She places him in a basket and sets him on the river, much like mothers who send their precious children north to the United States in search of a life they can never have at home. On the other side of the river a woman of power and privilege, a daughter of the empire, finds the child and knows that he should have died in the waters. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. She also takes a risk and defies the will of Pharaoh, bringing the infant into her home. Then she brings the child’s mother and daughter into her home as well to nurse and care for the child who is, in fact, her son. An act of sedition, a strategic use of privilege, creates a new family and saves a life.

Border-Migrants-crossing-river-2Which side of the river are you on? Where is the Great House, and who makes the rules? On what bodies of water are you floating, are you drowning, are you being drawn out?

There are so many rivers dividing us. Rivers of blood and tears on the streets where children are being shot by those sworn to protect them. Rivers that draw the borders between nations of wealth and opportunity and nations of poverty and perpetual violence.

But there are also rivers drawing us together in acts of loyalty to a law deeper than any issued by the Great House, or the White House, or whatever house tries to rule us. DSC05630There are baptismal waters, waters we are dipped in and drawn out from that erase any distinctions between the privileged and the dispossessed. Waters that carry us from death into life. Waters that make us allies instead of enemies.

Where have you seen people gathered at the river, crossing the lines that divide us, acting like we all belong to one another? 

I saw it just this past Thursday, as neighbors from Logan Square and across the city gathered in front of the Milshire Hotel to show their support for those who have been evicted and have until the end of the month to get out, calling on our elected officials to ensure that this location be rehabbed as quality, affordable, supportive housing so that our community might continue to be a home for all people.

I saw it online as I followed through social media the preparations and then the leave-taking of the cohort of young adults in global mission who were with us in worship last week; who, living out their baptismal call, have now shipped out to the far reaches of the planet determined to reshape the geography of power by creating lasting relationships built on love, mutuality and accompaniment.

I see it here again this morning as we welcome and commission a new crew of Lutheran Volunteer Corps workers who have gathered here from all across the country, and who will spend the next year living in intentional community as they join with a wide range of organizations building up our city for the sake of the common good.

There are all kinds of power in this world. There is the power of Pharaoh, the Great House, the halls of power where policies are made that toss real lives into the river. Then there is the power of God, that obliterates any line we might draw to separate ourselves from one another, making us one body, one neighborhood, one community, one world. In our baptism, God hands us the keys to the halls where this kind of power reigns supreme and invites us to tell a new kind of story, to become actors in a different kind of drama, where we testify with our lives to the reality of a world we have only seen in glimpses but know is breaking in. Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 7, 2013: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  2 Kings 5:1-14  +  Psalm 30  +  Galatians 6:1-16  +  Luke 10:1-11,16-20

When I was in junior high, or sometime very early in high school, the guidance counselor gave us all a vocational aptitude test to get us thinking about what kinds of work each of us might be best suited for.  When the results came back, my answers indicated that I might have the right set of interests and talents to be a performer, a politician, or pastor.  I remember wondering what those three jobs had in common, then finding the answer in the lyrics of a song by the Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da:”

Poets, Priests and Politicians have words to thank for their positions, words that scream for your submission.

That made sense to me.  Even at a pretty early age, I’d figured out that words were my friends.  I knew how to use them to get permission, to bring a smile, to avoid a fight, to win an argument.  I saw how they fit together to direct lines of thinking and steer conversations.  I could tell there was power in them.

In high school I joined the debate team.  I loved doing the issue research and coming up with arguments, filed away on index cards with quotes and citations that could be deployed like pieces on a chess board to defeat the opposing team.  That sense of power was irresistible to the brainy kid who did well at school, but not at sports, at an age when it seemed like real power was completely out of my hands.

We were all trying to find our power at that age.  Some of us found it in words, others in fists, or in appearances.  It’s tempting to look back and try to rank which kinds of power were more noble, more enviable.  I think the truth is that power itself, no matter the form, was value-neutral.  It was the ends towards which we used them that gave our powers their meaning and worth.  Mostly, at that age, we were using whatever powers we’d begun to master to try and protect ourselves as we maneuvered through the treacherous path from childhood to adulthood, deploying them like a shield against the dangers of our neighborhoods, our schools, even our homes.

Childhood is such a terribly vulnerable time.  Physically we are weaker than most of the people that surround us.  Emotionally we are defined by dependencies to others who may or may not have the resources to nurture us or meet our needs.  Intellectually we are always playing catch-up, learning the rules of an incredibly complicated game as we go.  It is entirely understandable that we cling to whatever powers we discover early on, and begin to identify ourselves with them.  They are our ticket out of the vulnerability of youth.  We are no longer geeks or nerds, but techies and entrepreneurs.  No longer jocks and cheerleaders, but managers and marketers, turning childhood pass-times into professions and careers.  We learn to tell stories about ourselves in which we identify our personhood with our power as professionals or parents.  What we are in charge of becomes what we are.

So I become a pastor, and you become a teacher, or a banker, or a lawyer, or a musician, or a nurse, or a manager, or a parent, or an editor, or a soldier, or a spouse and it becomes clear who you are…

… until the day you get called into the office and told that your position is being being eliminated, or your place of employment — a school, a factory — is being closed.

… until the day your doctor sits you down and gives you the diagnosis you’d spent your life dreading: the cancer your mother had, the virus that killed your friends.

… until the day your spouse dies, or your partner leaves you, and the relationship that defined you is now in your past.

Who are you then?  Where is your power?

This morning is our last with the prophets of First and Second Kings, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories have formed the first unit in our summer school for prophets.  Next week we’ll be moving on to the prophet Amos, then Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Last week we studied the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha as the former was taken into heaven and the latter was left with the company of prophets to continue his work.

Today we are reminded that, for all his power, Elisha was a prophet to a conquered people.  Israel may have had a king, but there were other kings in other countries with military forces far more powerful than Israel’s.  Aram was one of those countries, and the commander of its army, Naaman, kept a slave girl in his house who’d been taken from her home on one of Aram’s successful raids of Israel.

Can we even imagine how powerless that girl must have felt in her position?  Stolen from her family, taken from her land, forced to serve the very people who had invaded her home and destroyed her way of life.  Even the story conspires to disempower her, robbing her of something as basic as a name.

By contrast, Naaman, the master of the house in which she serves seems blessed in a variety of ways.  He has strength, he has wealth, he has connections to the king of a powerful nation.  His victory over Israel is described as divinely ordered, yet this man has leprosy.  His flesh is infected and he may well be contagious, which is why those with leprosy were quarantined away from the rest of the community, so that the illness would not spread.

Naaman, a man defined by his power, faces becoming a pariah.  So he, like the unnamed slave girl in his house, faces having everything he knows and loves taken from him by a disease over which he has no power.

It not difficult to imagine the enslaved servants in Naaman’s house secretly delighting in their master’s misfortune.  Perhaps they saw it as divine justice, humbling the man who had humiliated them.  Or, perhaps they were terrified as well, since their well-being now depended upon their master’s well-being, their future on his future.  However she felt about it, the young Israelite slave girl knew firsthand what it felt like to stand before your future feeling utterly powerless.

She in her slavery and Naaman in his illness had learned the same lesson: that despite all illusions our lives are not entirely in our own hands, and that we will all be forced to rely upon one another in this life.

So the slave girl uses what is, perhaps, her last remaining power — her faith — to assist the very person who has robbed her of the rest.  She gives her testimony to Naaman’s wife, her knowledge that there is a prophet in Israel through whom God had acted to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to raise the dead.

In this act, this nameless servant of the Lord exemplifies the counsel Paul gives in his letter to the Galatians, where he writes:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith … for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:10,15)

Circumcision, you may remember, is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.  So, the point Paul is making to the Galatians is that we are called to work for the good of all our neighbors, local and global, those who share our faith and those who do not.  Like Naaman’s slave, whose own vulnerability gave her compassion for the vulnerability of even her master.

But we are not quick to give up on our power.  When Naaman hears that there is the possibility of a cure for his weakness in Israel, he gets permission from his own king to go to Israel, where he shows up with a royal letter of reference and deep coffers — ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  When he arrives at Elisha’s door he seems determined to hide his weakness behind his connections and his wealth, as he pulls up on his horse and chariot.

Now it is Naaman who is in a foreign land, among foreigners, even the very people who he’d previously conquered and defeated, and he has to ask one of their prophets for the cure to his illness.  Even now, at his weakest, Naaman tries to cover up his vulnerability with the things he’d come to believe made him powerful.

Friends, I’ve been playing Naaman’s game since I was a child.  The more trouble I was in, the faster I talked.  Word after word after word.  I know I’m not the only one.  I wonder what power you’ve put your trust in, what source of strength you’ve relied on, even when it was clear to you and everyone around you that it was no match for the magnitude of your circumstances.  At some point, all our strengths fail us: clever words, gruff exteriors, piles of money, beauty and charm, even hard work.

In that moment, let’s pray God sends us to someone like Elisha, who refuses to play Naaman’s game.  Knowing that the deepest form of healing will not only cure Naaman of his leprosy, but will also relieve him of his isolating self-sufficiency, Elisha offers a treatment that forces Naaman to strip himself of his illusions of power and to learn to trust in God, the source of all power.

Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river seven times.  It sounds like a terrible bedside manner, but Elisha knows that Naaman needs to be relieved of his sense of exceptionalism.  So he gives the military commander something to do that is so simple, anyone could do it.

This is the power the church offers to people like Naaman, to people like you and me.  Washed in the same common water that bathed our parents and grandparents, our friends and neighbors, waters that have baptized enemies and allies, the elite and the unknown, we are sent with the power to relieve the world of its false distinctions and to heal the sickness caused by the false superiorities that infect us all and so quickly spread between us.

Here at St. Luke’s we are just a little more than one week away from the launch of a new project that will bring all our neighbors together, the hungry and the well-fed, for a weekly meal in Haberland Hall.  The tagline for these Community Dinners is “hospitality, not charity,” because we recognize that the deepest form of healing we can work for is more than food in the belly, it’s freedom from the bondage of slavery to our separations from one another.

As we prepare to begin this work, we are challenged to reach out to our neighbors, some of whom will enthusiastically support this work, others who may be frightened by the presence of strangers, who are really unknown neighbors, showing up on their doorsteps.  Our hope is to lay the groundwork for this project by showing up on their doorsteps first.  Sent out in twos, just like Jesus sent the seventy, the company of prophets working alongside him throughout his ministry, we hope to knock on the doors of households throughout this neighborhood to tell them about the work we are doing, and to invite them to come and see this healing taking place right next door.  We know that we will not be warmly received at every door on which we knock, but we refuse to be distracted from the work God has given us to love and serve our neighbors, all of them, hungry and well-fed.

My prayer for us in this coming week is that we will remember the lesson Naaman learned by the banks of the River Jordan, that we will take off our armor and let down our guard.  That we will ring the doorbells of our neighbors’ homes, not armed with answers and arguments, but equipped with compassionate hearts and open minds, ready to listen to the hopes and fears of the people living all around us, each with their own stories of hurt and hope, each waiting for a cure whose form they might never have expected, for a word from an unknown messenger.

Maybe it will be you.

Amen.

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