April 2010 Sermons:
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Are you surprised that Peter gets something wrong? You shouldn’t be. You know Peter. He always jumps into everything with both feet. Time after time, in the gospels, Peter ends up with at least one foot in his mouth.
The night of the Last Supper is no exception. After the disciples finish eating dinner, Peter sees Jesus get up from the table. He watches the Master take off His outer robe. Then he sees Jesus wrap and tie a towel around His midsection. This makes no sense to Peter. What on earth is He doing? He sees Jesus pour water into a basin and start to wash the disciples’ feet.
Foot-washing was a common gesture of hospitality in the ancient Near East. Travelers got their feet very dirty on the dusty roads. But rabbis never washed their students’ feet. It was supposed to be the other way around. In fact, foot-washing was viewed as such a lowly chore, there was even a law that protected slaves from being forced to wash their masters’ feet.
Peter doesn’t get it. Jesus, of all people, washing the feet of His disciples! Look at Him, crawling on the floor, wearing a towel. This is ridiculous. Jesus is the Master, but He is acting like a slave. Peter is, himself, a proud, stubborn man. He is getting more and more agitated, as he watches Jesus. Why is the Master humbling Himself in this ridiculous way? Finally, Peter asks Him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answers, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” His time has come to return to His Father. This foot-washing is Jesus’ way of saying goodbye to the ones He loves. This is so wrong, Peter thinks. He is confused and shocked. He tells Jesus, flatly, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” The wheels in Peter’s mind are starting to turn. This foot-washing seems almost like baptism. And that thought puts a whole new slant on what the Master is doing here tonight. If foot-washing by Jesus qualifies a person to be a disciple, then Peter wants to be soaked from head to foot!
Jesus goes on to say, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” He means that God doesn’t expect us to be baptized a second time, no matter how much we have sinned. A baptized person needs only to repent, in order to be washed clean again. This demonstration of foot-washing can be seen as the last parable of Jesus—a parable of servanthood.
Jesus says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” There’s another lesson here. Jesus is teaching humility.
Everything will change for Peter and his friends, in a matter of hours. The next night they will gather to mourn the death of their rabbi. Much later, after the shock of Good Friday and the joy of Easter, this foot-washing business will make sense to them. When the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, that Spirit will empower the disciples to minister to the world--and to do so as humble servants!
By that time, the disciples will have seen Jesus’s ministry from the other side of the cross and the empty tomb. They will have realized that Christian service requires more than foot-washing. A great deal more! Peter will recall that Jesus had said, on the last night of His earthly life, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Even the smallest act of servanthood, if done with love, takes on a whole new meaning.
Jesus had been obedient unto death. He had loved as God loves. He had restored outcasts to the community. He had broken down the walls between those who were “in” and those who were “out.” Jewish leaders and Roman governors, who disagreed on just about everything, decided together that Jesus must die. Why? Because the powerful men in Jerusalem had to stop this new movement before it got out of hand. Jesus had to die so they could regain control.
The disciples understood Jesus’ actions better and better, as time went on. Servant leadership was the key that explained Jesus’ life to them. It became clear that all authority is God’s and no one else’s. We humans can’t control everything.
Peter was part of that first band of disciples destined to turn the world upside down with God’s revolutionary kind of love. They had mastered servant leadership. The disciples would work from the “bottom up” to help the world. They would see outcasts as the people most in need of God’s love and healing. And some of those same outcasts would become servant leaders. The book of Acts tells their story.
History tells a sad story about Peter. The ancient historian, Eusebius, writes that Peter was put to death by the Roman Emperor Nero. Someone had to take the blame for the burning of Rome. Why not sacrifice one of those Christians? They had always refused to worship the Roman emperor. Let’s send a forbidding message to these rabble rousers, by executing their leader, the Romans decided. The Jews were scared and went along. So it was settled. The Christian leader the Romans executed was Peter.
At the time of his own death on a cross, Peter must have decided to show his Master’s self-giving love, to the fullest extent. Peter finally got it right.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we accept the gifts of your Beloved Son, with humility and gratitude. May we joyfully accept the towel and the basin to become foot-washers for one another. Help us, we pray, to put aside our own wants and needs to wash the feet of others. May we live in a way that is worthy of Jesus’ gift of the Lord’s Supper. AMEN
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955), 564.
Madeleine and Lane Miller, eds. The New Harper’s Bible Dictionary. (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 542.
Luke 24: 1-12
The staff of a very large church had a habit of planning their Sunday worship services many months in advance. They had a fancy chart on the wall outside the office. It listed sermon titles and hymns from September through May. The church secretary relied on that chart to prepare the worship bulletins. Heaven forbid that an earthquake or an assassination would make it necessary to change the sermon topic.
Just after Labor Day, the pastor of this church was asked to fill in his Easter sermon title on the wall chart. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t even think about Easter on the first week of Sunday School. Finally, he gave up in frustration and wrote in the Easter sermon title box on the chart, “I Don’t Know Yet.” You can guess what happened. On Easter Sunday, the ushers handed out bulletins with this sermon title: “I Don’t Know Yet.”
There is so much mystery in life, so much we don’t know. Nobody ever expected Jesus’ tomb to be empty, on that first Easter. Everyone knew that dead people were supposed to stay dead! In Luke’s story, do you notice the disciples’ reaction to the disappearance of Jesus’ body? They don’t believe it. And that’s that.
Here’s how the story goes. Three women had gone to Jesus’ tomb at the crack of dawn. They had planned to embalm His body with burial spices. The hearts of these women were heavy with sorrow. The last thing they had expected to find was a happy surprise. When they discovered His tomb empty and the stone rolled away, they were terrified—but thrilled at the same time. Two angels asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
At first, the women hadn’t a clue what to think. They had told the disciples what the angels said. But Peter, James and John hadn’t believed their story. It had seemed an idle tale, in Luke’s words. The Greek term Luke uses for “idle tale” has a negative meaning. The disciples apparently thought the women were spreading hysterical nonsense.
The story has started as a whisper. But the three eyewitnesses can’t keep a secret. Jesus’ body is gone. Now what? Ten of the disciples don’t bother to check it out. Only Peter ends up going to the tomb that day, to see for himself. Whatever else we say about Peter, he’s a brave man. Luke tells us that Peter sees Jesus’ grave clothes on the ground. He goes home "amazed." And yet, Peter doesn’t jump for joy. Why not? An empty tomb doesn’t prove Jesus has come back to life. All it proves is that His body has disappeared. It will take a lot more than a missing body, for the disciples to believe that Christ is alive. They’ve seen a few miracles, these past three years. But they’re not ready to accept the resurrection of their Master. Not yet.
We know some of the rest of their story. The disciples do end up following Jesus in faith. Luke tells stories about people who come to believe Christ has risen. We can read about most of them in his sequel to the gospel of Luke—the book of Acts.
One of the best-known of Luke’s stories is about two men who are walking toward Emmaus on Easter afternoon. The Risen Christ joins the men and travels with them. They talk with Him all afternoon as they walk along. They tell the story the women had told them, that very morning—about the empty tomb and the two angels. It is only when they sit down to dinner with this new friend, that they recognize Him as the risen Christ. Just at that moment, Jesus vanishes from their sight.
The end of Luke’s gospel follows this pattern, over and over. Jesus appears. He speaks to the disciples. Then He’s gone. How frustrating! Nonetheless, His followers come to know the risen Jesus in powerful ways.
The disciples had betrayed Jesus, and abandoned Him to die alone. But lo and behold, they are born again after His resurrection. Peter is the best example. It was common knowledge that He had denied Jesus. Imagine his shame! On the night of his Master’s arrest in Jerusalem, Peter had hidden in fear. And yet, by the second chapter of the book of Acts, Peter has become a strong preacher who takes great risks for his faith. Peter preaches such a powerful sermon on Pentecost that his listeners cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do to be saved?”
The angels at the tomb had asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Only later--as the followers of Jesus struggle to be faithful to their memory of their Master—will they find He is always with them. The disciples are transformed as they continue with their lives.
Peter, who had been sure that the Gospel story was only for Jews, changes his mind and reaches out to evangelize Cornelius, a Gentile. Growing numbers of people come together to pray and study the story of Jesus. Frightened people who had hidden behind locked doors right after Jesus had been killed, will become courageous preachers of the Gospel. And the early church of Jesus Christ will grow.
Christians have always puzzled over the meaning of the resurrection. Even today, we don’t fully comprehend it. Why not? We can’t find a scientific description of it in the Bible. No photographs, no fingerprints, no DNA left on the scene, no notarized statements from eyewitnesses. There’s nothing we can pin down except the gospel accounts. And even those are just stories—no hard evidence here. Each gospel account is different—one woman at the tomb, or two women, or three women, one angel or two, and so on and so forth. Skeptics make a big deal of these small discrepancies in the resurrection stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But the numbers are trivia. As if you have to touch and taste and smell and hear and see the resurrected Jesus in order to believe.
Jesus isn’t just a great dead man from history, to be studied or dissected. Jesus is much more! Why do we expect the scriptures to give us the kind of proof a District Attorney would demand? When we look for documentation, what we’re doing is looking for the living in the place of the dead. Jesus is alive.
Not only is He alive. Also, He helps us to live. Have you found Him in our church? Have you heard Him in the music that proclaims His power over death? Have you known Him in worship as His Word is read and preached? Do you feel His love and His peace when you greet one another in his name? Are you overwhelmed at the courage you see when Christians lose their loved ones and continue to live in hope? Have you had a frightening medical diagnosis -- but somehow found courage to go on?
If the story these women told the disciples is just an idle tale, then we have nothing to say in a world where high school bullies drive fellow students to suicide. We have nothing to say to the wife driven to desperation by her husband’s blows, or to the church member who stands near the casket of her beloved husband. We have nothing to say to the children orphaned by the earthquake in Haiti.
What does the resurrection of Christ prove? The fact that He lives, proves to us that there is a power stronger than death. Jesus brings us out of sorrow into joy, out of grief into hope, out of fear into courage. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray. Almighty God, we come with the joy in our hearts to this day. As the flowers in our worship area burst with color, so we burst with the absolute joyous news that CHRIST IS RISEN! HE IS RISEN INDEED! ALLELUIA. AMEN.
Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, eds. Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox,1998), 379.
This story is recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts.
Have you ever come late to a party, and heard everybody laughing at a story you’ve just missed? Isn’t it an odd feeling? Didn’t you feel lonely and left out? Maybe they’ve just talked about a silly incident that happened several years ago in high school or at the office. They’re giggling and going red in the face with laughter. Just as the laughing seems to have run its course, one person turns to the others and says, “Do you remember when that other thing happened to our boss, and what he said to me?” and this sets them howling with laughter again. Finally, one of them notices you aren’t laughing. He or she turns and says to you, “I’m sorry—I can’t explain why that was so funny for us. I guess you really had to be there!”
You just had to be there. Otherwise, no explanation would help you to understand that story. That’s how Thomas felt, because he had definitely missed something. The rest of the disciples had been gathered in a house in Jerusalem, on that first Easter evening. All of them had been grieving for the loss of their leader. These were foreigners in the city, and had run in fear from the cross. They were afraid of being rounded up by the Roman authorities and thrown in prison. Since Good Friday, they’d been feeling abandoned by God. They had heard the story of the women and the two angels at the empty tomb. But because they hadn’t been there, they doubted it. They had never felt so terrible.
Then, all of a sudden, Jesus appeared to them through the locked door. Not only did they see their Lord risen from the dead, but they also heard Him commanding them to minister in His name. The world would never be the same for them. What a powerful experience!
The disciples were still feeling the afterglow. Then Thomas showed up at their hiding place. When he walked in, these men probably told him something like, “You’re not going to believe this, but…” And then they finished the story. They were right--- Thomas didn’t believe it.
Who could blame Thomas for being skeptical? Resurrection doesn’t happen every day. What’s more—their society put a great deal of importance on first-hand experience. And that’s certainly true today, isn’t it? We can’t just read or hear about an event—we have to see it for ourselves. That’s why reality television is so popular, I think.
I remember helping a little boy research a report on prehistoric animals, when I was a librarian. He had just seen “Jurassic Park,” but to him the dinosaurs were just scary special effects, not extinct reptiles. He said to me, “I won’t believe there really were dinosaurs walking the earth, unless I can see a real one in a photograph!”
Doubt has a bad reputation among us. And, unfortunately, so does Thomas. It’s not a compliment to say that somebody is a “Doubting Thomas.” Because he doubted Jesus had risen from the dead. In verse 27, the word most Bibles translate as “doubt” isn’t one of the common Greek words for doubt. It is apistos. The literal meaning of apistos is close to our English word, “unbelief.” We know that Thomas said, “Unless I see Him, unless I touch Him, I will not believe.”
One thing you have to say for this man, Thomas—he may have been a doubter, but he kept coming back and trying to believe in resurrection. He didn’t write it off as a crazy story and walk back to Galilee to take up fishing again. He was there in the locked room a week later, when Jesus returned. Christ stood among them once again. He wished the disciples peace—but even though eleven men were there, Jesus’ first words were for Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus didn’t rebuke Thomas. In Thomas’ isolation from the others, in his feeling of betrayal, Jesus was there. He came to reach out to this lonely unbeliever who had missed Jesus’ appearance on the first Easter evening.
We trace our roots in the early church to Jesus’s special visit to Thomas that night. But his change of heart wasn’t instantaneous. In order to believe, Thomas had to reach out. He had to touch Jesus’ hands and side. Jesus graciously gave Thomas the proof he needed, to move from unbelief to belief.
After reaching out, Thomas had something else he had to do. He needed to let go of his pride and his doubt. Do you have a hard time doing that? Most of us don’t have our faith come to us, and stay with us, in one big dramatic experience—like seeing a burning bush or an empty tomb or the spiritual body of Jesus walking through a door.
When I was interviewed as a candidate for ordination, I was asked what my call story had been like. I didn’t have a miracle to tell them—I just talked about how fulfilling my church work had been and how I felt called to teach and preach, and how my library work, by comparison, left me cold. It’s ok—even very common—to have an ordinary story like mine. Faith in Jesus doesn’t always come like a lightning bolt. I was raised in a home of scientists. I had always had a lot of doubts because my father and my brothers did.
We ought never to find fault with Thomas for his caution, or his desire for evidence. We all have our times of doubt. It’s human nature. Jesus meets us and gives us what we need to believe and to reach out to others in faith. There are moments when we are all keenly aware of the resurrection power of Jesus. Jesus blesses those of us who have not seen Him in the flesh, and yet believe. When have you experienced Christ, breathing new life into you? I have a friend who experienced resurrection after a painful divorce. Have you tutored a child and seen new confidence blooming in that child? Have you been part of a Bible study and felt the word of God—which had previously made little sense to you-- come alive? Have you helped to build a house for a homeless family and seen their happiness as they began to decorate their living room?
We owe a vote of thanks to Thomas, because he made it okay to doubt. That’s his gift to the Church. He made it acceptable—even honorable-- for Christians to struggle with their faith. I don’t know whether they had epitaphs on gravestones in the first century or not. If Thomas had markings on his gravestone, I believe there would be a message on either side. On one side of his gravestone, it would read “He Doubted.” The other side would say, “He believed.”
What will our legacy be? When people consider our lives of faith, in a hundred years, what will they say about us? I pray that we will use the rest of our lives to write that message to future generations.
We all know the story of Saul’s walk to Damascus. He starts as a dangerous character. Saul is a Pharisee, setting out on a hundred-mile walk to round up Christians in order to kill them. Then Jesus appears in a vision and asks Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” That vision stops Saul in his tracks and blinds him. After three days of blindness, Saul wakes up and discovers he is a Christian. Later, we come to know this man as the Apostle Paul.
But this story isn’t only about a conversion of a bad guy into a saint. There’s more. Do you realize that the main character in this story isn’t really Saul, but Ananias? And who is Ananias? He’s an old guy, and a Christian, who lives in Damascus. It’s a pity that we’ll never again meet Ananias in the Bible. The challenge for Saul and Ananias in this story is our challenge, too—and what is that? It’s figuring out whom to follow—God or Satan. “Way” is a very important word—as in, “Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’”
So how is the word, “way,” used in this story? A Roman road was called a “way”—you’ve all heard of famous Roman roads like the Appian Way. Saul is headed for Damascus to root out the Christians from the city. The way Saul is walking, is the opposite of the Way Jesus has taught us.
And you already know that Saul is knocked down and struck blind along the way. What this passage actually says is: “and though his eyes were open, Saul could see nothing.” This is more than a statement about physical sight. It’s about choosing not to recognize what we can see with our own eyes.
Although Saul has had his eyes wide open, he has been blind to the fact that his anti-Christian rampage has gone against the teachings of his Jewish faith. He has been raised to worship the sovereign God, and to show love to all people. Saul the Pharisee has been trying to shape human beings into puppets who will follow rigid standards. Or else, he kills them. For him, Christians are the lowest of the low.
Now, into the story comes Ananias. God asks him to baptize Saul, his archenemy. He is asked to heal the Pharisee with compassion. God tells him that the way of Jesus is not cruelty, but the way of transformation through love.
Ananias has a difficult choice to make. He is one of the people Saul and his gang are trying to kill. Do you wonder why Ananias is scared to talk to Saul? He asks Jesus for this choice to pass from him! Remember what Jesus said in His prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane? But God doesn’t let Ananias off the hook. God says to him, “Go, for Saul is an instrument whom I have chosen.”
Ananias doesn’t want to baptize Saul. He knows how dangerous the Pharisee really is. But when he obeys the call of Jesus, Saul becomes the church’s greatest friend.
Notice that God doesn’t tell Ananias, “You are perfectly safe, Ananias!” If we believe in free will- in this case, Saul’s free will—Ananias isn’t safe. Even the son of God wasn’t safe in Jerusalem—remember? There are no guarantees—for Saul, for Ananias, or for us.
We don’t become disciples of the way of love and forgiveness because it is safe, or because it will bring us success, or because it will make us popular. If we follow the Way, it’s because obeying God’s will leads to blessing for the world. The good results of our decisions may not show up for a generation or more.
In our culture, we expect to be served, not to serve. We are consumers. Heaven knows, we are taxpayers! No institution in our society, other than the church, teaches discipleship. No institution, other than the church, holds love as the highest value, over individual freedom. No other institution commands that we love our enemies. Christianity is the way less traveled.
When Ananias chose to help Saul, it could have been the final choice of his life! He chose to obey the orders he got from Jesus—at very great risk. The world owes thanks to Ananias. Would you make the choice he made, if you were afraid of what might happen down the road?
I would like to tell you two true stories which are related. The first is about a heroic conversion of a modern American Saul. Many years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn’t famous for anything heroic. He was notorious for everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder. Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.” He was Capone’s lawyer for a good reason. Eddie’s legal maneuvering kept Capone out of jail for a long time.
To show appreciation for Eddie’s good work, Capone paid Eddie well. Not only was his salary huge, but also, Eddie and his family were given a fenced-in mansion with live-in help. Eddie’s estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago city block. He lived the high life of the mob. Only rarely did he think about the Capone gang and what they were doing every day to their fellow human beings.
Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son whom he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars and a good education. And, even though he was involved with organized crime, Eddie taught the boy right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was. Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn’t give his son. He couldn’t pass on a good name or a good example.
One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. He wanted to follow Jesus. He decided to tell the police the truth about Capone. Such an act would be suicide, and Eddie knew it. But it would make his son proud. To do this, Eddie would have to testify against the mob. And he testified.
Within the year, Easy Eddie’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago street. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay. Police removed found on Eddie’s body a rosary, a crucifix and a poem clipped from a magazine. The first line of that poem read: “The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop--- at a late or early hour.”
Now, I’ll tell you the other story. World War II produced many heroes. One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O’Hare, born and raised in Chicago. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific. One day his squadron went out on a mission. After he was airborne, Butch looked at his fuel gauge and realized that someone had forgotten to top off his fuel tank. He would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship. His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet.
As he was returning to the mother ship, Butch saw something that turned his blood cold: A squadron of Japanese aircraft was speeding its way toward the American fleet. Because the American fighters were gone on a sortie, the fleet was defenseless. He couldn’t reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet. Nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. He must somehow divert the Japanese planes from the fleet—before they destroyed it.
Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes. Butch fired at as many planes as he could, until all his ammunition was gone. Finally, the Japanese squadron gave up and took off in another direction. Deeply relieved, Butch O’Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier. Upon arrival, he reported in and told what he’d done. He had destroyed five enemy aircraft. For his bravery in 1942, Butch became the Navy’s first Ace of WW II, and the first Naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. A year later Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of twenty-nine. Today, O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named for him. Butch O’Hare was “Easy Eddie’s” son.
Every day we choose a way to move forward in our lives—until there are no more days left to us. When God calls us to perform a rescue, as God called Ananias, who can imagine the miracles we may see, or do, along the way?
Let us pray. Amazing God, speak to us with clarity and power, as you once descended to earth and spoke to Saul. Two thousand years later, you spoke to a gangster and called him to serve you, and he followed you with all his heart. Being a Christian leader is a risky business, O God. Help us to hear your call and to trust your will for us. As we receive your Spirit, grant us courage to answer, “Yes!” and send us forth to serve. In Jesus’ name, Amen
“Easy Eddie,” www.snopes.com
Psalm 23 and John 10:22-30
Do you associate the twenty-third psalm with death and dying? Unfortunately, many Christians do. That’s why I don’t say this psalm automatically when I make hospital visits. Dying patients tend to hear it as their own personal last rite. People I visit, who aren’t seriously ill, hear me recite it, and they think they‘re going to die. A pastor has to be careful about those things.
Psalm twenty-three isn’t just for the darkest valleys in our lives. Our daughter, Laura, phoned us on Tuesday night from graduate school, with a minor crisis. She had six papers due Friday, and needed to study for her final exams in the same three days. Laura wanted to feel God’s support. She needed to hear of her parents’ love, too. We recited the twenty-third psalm together, from our respective cell phones. I stopped at the second half of the first verse-- “I shall not want,” to remind her that God has already given us what all need. I think it helped her.
World leaders have recited the twenty-third psalm in much greater crises. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill prayed this psalm together at each summit conference of the Allies during World War II. For four years, these two courageous heads of state waged war—on the strength of their faith in the Lord, their shepherd.
Psalm twenty-three has helped many people of faith conquer their handicaps. Roy Campanella, the legendary catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was injured in a 1958 automobile accident which left him paralyzed. In his autobiography he talks about the nights he cried himself to sleep, because of the physical pain he felt. Campanella was told he would never play ball again, and that grim news made him feel deeply depressed. In his book, It’s Good to Be Alive, he writes, “All my life whenever I was in trouble, I had turned to God for help. I remembered my Bible. Then, I asked the nurse to get the one from the drawer in the night table. It was the King James Version I’d grown up with. I opened it to the twenty-third psalm: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.' "From that moment on", he wrote, "I was on my way back. I knew I was going to make it!" Campanella lived thirty-five more years and regained the use of his arms and hands.
In a television interview, Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, told why the twenty-third psalm is so profoundly inspirational to Christians and Jews. “The psalmist is not saying, ‘I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.’ It acknowledges that evil is all around us. Psalm twenty-three is saying, ‘This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn't scare me, because I know that God is on my side, not on the side of the hijacker. God is on my side, not on the side of the illness, or the accident…. and that's enough to give me confidence. ‘"
One of my favorite shepherding stories is that of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi lost her husband and two sons within ten years. In the days of the Judges, childless widows were like the homeless today. There were a lot of older women in the same boat as Naomi and Ruth, in that time of violence. They had little social support and no property rights at all. Life was a matter of hand to mouth for them. Her young daughter-in-law, Ruth, a childless foreigner, chose to stay with Naomi and care for her. Ruth became Naomi’s shepherd as they walked to Bethlehem to seek a new life.
It’s a long way from the sheepfold of David, or the city of Bethlehem in the days of the Judges, to the twenty-first century U.S.A. Americans like to be independent and forceful. Our parents raised us to be leaders instead of followers. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being compared to a sheep. Sheep have no leadership qualities. What’s more, they have a lot less brain power than humans do—and they smell bad. If I could choose any animal to be, I’d pick a horse or an eagle or a cat, but not a sheep.
Shepherding isn’t a popular career in America today. So we have to stretch our minds to understand the idea of the shepherd as leader. Sheep always know who their leader is. Shepherds know their sheep, too. In Old Testament times, a shepherd led the flock from the front, not from the back, and guided the sheep home with gentle wisdom and a familiar voice. Sheep were never left alone. They weren’t given opportunities to wander. All the sheep were guided into sheepfolds at night. Sheepfolds were constructed by the shepherds themselves. They were tall stone enclosures, thicker than fences, and they had no doors. The shepherd actually slept at the entrance and acted as the door. His or her body protected the fold, keeping wolves outside. Literally! A shepherd had to be ready with a sharp knife to protect his or her flock in case of attack.
In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is a self-styled shepherd. He tells the temple officials in Jerusalem that He intends to protect the faithful. What Jesus says in that passage is this: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.” A shepherd’s voice in ancient times was clear and loud. It had to be! Each shepherd’s yell was different from the others. It told the flock, “I am the only one who knows the way.” A shepherd noticed right away if any one sheep had wandered off.
As we know, Jesus, Himself, was, and is, no sheep. When He is challenged by the synagogue leaders, He retorts: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” The sheep of His flock know their true leader. Jesus can promise His sheep, and only His sheep, the gift of salvation.
Jesus shepherds the faithful. We, of this congregation, are the sheep of His pasture. As we baptize Kevin this morning, and as we welcome Kevin, Megan, Sharon and Ron to our congregation, let us be mindful of Jesus’ call. We will need to perk up our ears and listen carefully. Jesus is calling out to us with love.
Why did I want to preach on a psalm everybody knows by heart? Because the most familiar passage in the Bible needs to be heard and read with new ears, every now and then. Let’s say the twenty-third psalm together, from the King James Version of the Bible, the one that uses the original language—“He leadeth me” and so on. It’s not the one in your Bibles, but you know it, I’m sure.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Let us pray. You restore us, O God, with waters that quench and food that nourishes. You shelter and protect us. You are our beginning and our ending. May we trust your shepherding. In the name of Jesus we pray. AMEN
Jon Meacham, Franklin and Winston (New York: Random House, 2004).
Roy Campanella, It's Good to Be Alive (New York: Little Brown and Co., 1959).
“Roy Campanella,” http//:www.wikipedia.com.
Interview with Rabbi Harold Kushner, 2004, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionand ethics/week813/feature.html
Rosalind Banbury, “Love Beyond the Call of Duty,” The Presbyterian Outlook, January 6/13, 2008, 33.
Zipporah and Rachel, women of the Old Testament, were shepherdesses.
William Sloane Coffin, The Collected Sermons: Vol. 2 --The Riverside Years (Westminster John Knox, 2004).
Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (New York: Hawthorn, 1962), 228-9.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | email@example.com
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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