“We, Too, are Shepherds”
Sermon, Year B, Proper 11, July 19, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Psalm 23 and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The 23rd Psalm begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And then includes other lines about my cup runs over. He sets a table for me in the presence of my enemies. And other statements that begin with I and me.
But I don’t see it as a narcissistic psalm. Not pointing to the one who wrote it. The statements that the writer is making are more like faith claims… at least, at some level. Saying, “These things have happened to me, and I believe (or I trust, or I have faith, use whatever term makes sense to you) that they happened to me because God made them happen, or God was a part of making them happen… These blessings came upon me and they are from God, because God is gracious and God is loving.”
There is a calmness to this Psalm that makes it not an arrogant Psalm or poetry saying “Look how good I am that God blesses me”. It’s not about “I” or “me”, it’s about God. The subject here is God. Or, the Lord. In the Hebrew the Psalm is written in, the writer is not even using the words for God or Lord, but is addressing God by name: Yahweh. Where you see The LORD (in all capital letters) in scripture, that’s where God’s name was used. The writer calls God by name a couple times in this Psalm. There is an intimacy, even a humility, in using God’s name, instead of just “God” with a capital G.
This Psalm is filled with humility. It is about God’s grace and God’s loving kindness. Not so much about the person who wrote it. We can look at what it is not saying, what it is implying in the statements.
God leads me to still waters (because I can’t seem to find the still waters on my own; and when I do manage to find them on my own, all I do is agitate it and make it turbulent).
God makes my cup run over (because when left my own clever devices, I don’t seem to be able to even fill it, or find the right things to put in it).
God sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies (I’m so busy pissing people off and making enemies, I don’t have anywhere left to eat except in their midst).
I shall not want (that’s a reminder to myself: stop wanting. Just, stop. My problem is that what I want is not what I need, and often it is not good for me, and I want waaaaaay too much. Maybe if I focused my desire on what I needed instead of what I wanted, God wouldn’t have to spend so much time bailing me out. But thank God that God is there to bail me out when it comes up. If I could learn to be content with enough, I’d realize how much I have to share with others).
God leads me through the darkest valley (and thank God for it, because every time I do manage to get myself on God’s path, it seems like I don’t stay there very long. The temptation to go off the path and into the darkest valley becomes too strong. And then God says, “Oh, you did it again, you went into the dark valley. Follow me, I’ll take you back out. I’ll lead you out, and this time try to stay on the path a little bit longer.”)
This Psalm is about what God does because God is gracious and God is kind.
The Psalm has also got connected to funerals because there is a sense of comfort within these words. Words that are saying that even in the midst of the bad stuff, in the midst of my messy life, I am remembering that God has my back. God is my shepherd, and will leave me to my own devices or leave me alone.
God has my back.
What I also see in this Psalm is the voice of someone with profound gratitude. To say the words that are in this Psalm comes from a place of gratitude. Even though it seems that this person’s life isn’t going so great, maybe isn’t as good as he would like it to be, the voice of gratitude comes out. It is not a celebration of self, not a “look at how Good God is to me!” but saying, “Look at how good God is.” This is who God is. It is a celebration of God in the face of a self that is not always particularly wonderful or on top of things. Very much like us. Someone who is very much like us, even though written maybe 3000 or so years ago. It is written by someone who has a messy life, like us.
Our lives are messy, sloppy, painful. We mess things up, hurt our friends, annoy our family. We step off the path of faithfulness to God and faithfulness to others. We get angry, moody, sad. Maybe we question whether God is on our side or question whether God even exists. We wonder if the universe has it in for us. And even our best intentions don’t always work the way we had hoped they would. Our friends, our parents, get sick. Our loved ones die. We stand by helplessly as a sister, an uncle, or someone we love continues to make bad decisions for their lives and for their future.
But the Lord is our shepherd. The Lord is our shepherd. Not because our lives are perfect, but because they aren’t. Not because we deserve it, but because we need it. Because God knows that we need God. And God has our back.
Some of that God having our back is fulfilled in Jesus. We saw it in the Gospel lesson today. All these people with messy lives, their own needs and wants, and Jesus has compassion for them. Jesus has compassion for them. Jesus and his disciples were out teaching and healing. Jesus was building a community around himself with his disciples: they are doing his work, which is to be doing God’s work. The work of compassion and love. The work of kindness and grace.
And that is now what the Church is: the gathering of God’s people. we are the community of Jesus’ disciples. We are the community charged to fulfill the mission. The community of people who show our gratitude for God’s presence in our lives by inviting others in to share it. To share it with us so that it is not just for us, but to let the whole world know and invite others into it.
That’s what we’re doing when we invite others into the church. Not inviting them into the institution, or inviting them into a particular kind of membership or structure, but it is to invite them into a community. To invite them into a community that when it is at its best is living the grace and kindness of God, and living it out of gratitude.
It is an invitation into that kind of community. An invitation to be loved and to know God’s love.
When I think of this Psalm, this Psalm 23, I think of the times in my life when I have felt that I could have written words similar to these. The times in my life when I have felt led to green pastures, or to still waters, or felt that my cup runs over, or that I have been led out of the dark valleys. When I think of those times in my life that feels like those things have happened to me, I also realize that it hasn’t been God per se doing it. There was no angelic vision out of the sky, or angelic presence that came down and physically lifted me up or said anything to me. It wasn’t like. It was God working through the people who are in the church. Not God leading me, but God working through Anne, and George, and Carol, some of my Sunday School teachers and mentors. Not God comforting me, but a hug from Roberta. This Psalm being lived out by the people around us. Or I think of Tiff’s pastoral presence when my Dad died, a hug from friend Marcia, the support of friends Todd and Scott at the deaths of my parents. That is God leading out of the dark valleys, by working through the people in our lives.
The church ladies preparing a meal before us after the funerals. You have cooked here a lot of funeral meals; have you ever thought of that as a fulfillment of the 23rd Psalm? This is the table being set before you in the midst of the messiness of life. Even when we have a potluck, or a pie and ice cream social, or set the Communion table, those are other ways of saying, “This is the table set before you in the midst of messy lives, in the midst of enemies; here, eat, be fed. This is what Jesus is about.”
So when you invite someone to the church, you are inviting them not to be alone. You are inviting them into a community of compassion, which this congregation does so well. A community to be fed and nourished, and in which to learn how to then feed and nourish others. Jesus taught his disciples how to do this, they taught their disciples, and so on and so on for 2000 years, passing this tradition down to us, and now we have become the disciples. Or are becoming the disciples. I like to think that we are becoming disciples. We are a work in progress as we become more and more connected to God and learn more and more.
For the coming year, we will be talking about discipleship here. Now, in a sense, whenever the church gathers it is talking about discipleship: how to be better followers of Jesus. That’s what we’re always doing when we come together as the church. But we are going to be more intentional about in the coming months.
We will be talking about what it means to be a disciple, and how do we live our discipleship -- or “followership” -- of Jesus. We’ve divided it into three stages with three phases. They are somewhat arbitrary, but we came up with Connect → Grow → Love. Connect people to the church, grow as disciples, and then show God’s love to the world through our discipleship.
So we CONNECT: How do we connect people with the church? How do we shepherd people into the church? Well, the big thing is invitation. I’ve been harping on that for a year, and will continue to do so. That may be your most important job. To invite people.
It also means having something for people to connect to, such as the baseball game we went to this past week. Or as I mentioned, we will have a drama on August 2 in worship. That is something to invite people to. Inviting people to worship can feel to them intimidating and weird, unless they have some experience with a church. But to invite someone to a specific kind of worship happening, such as this one with the drama. The topic will be about How do we make decisions? How do we live in the tension between what’s best of us and what’s best for others? How do we make decisions about how we interact with other people?
Or if not the drama, invite them to the lunch we’re having after worship. Invite them to come and be fed. Let us set the table before them.
Our drama is a serious topic, but it will be done with humor and by people who are skilled and experienced actors.
We have the campfire with songs and s’mores on August 19. That’s an easy and non-intimidating thing to invite people to and build a relationship. Sit around a campfire, singing songs and eating s’mores? Hard to say “no” to that.
Other ways to connect are to just get together in a small group. Get together with one or two other church members, and invite a couple of your friends to something. A baseball game, a movie, a tea at someone’s house, Thursday night cigars on your patio, knitting… doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it is something that one can sit and talk and learn about one another and build relationships. We call these elbow activities, a chance for someone to come in on your elbow. To connect with someone and bring them in We’ll talk more about that later.
And then GROW. We have invited people in, so now how do we help them grow, or help ourselves grow, into deeper relationships with one another and with God? How do we shepherd once they’re here. Book and Bible studies, mission activities, being in the drama group or a liturgist or on the prayer team, a chance to learn more about who God made us to be. In October we will do a Spiritual Gifts inventory. It’s a chance to learn about yourself, “Who did God make me to be? What are spiritual gifts did God give me, and how do I use them in the church?”
And then LOVE: How we do we love the world? How do we go out be and shepherd for others? We do that in our street ministry, in our giving to St. Francis Food Pantry, serving at Community Table, and a group that this congregation that has had for many decades: our quilters! Loving God’s people with quilts. The Gospel lesson today said that the people were desperate, even just to touch Jesus’ cloak, to find healing. Making quilts is a way to make that kind of healing a reality. That is bringing healing to someone. That is an act of love.
I like to say that here at Plymouth we are making the world a more loving world. I think that is a good mission statement for any follower of Jesus. Making the world a more loving world.
Connect → Grow → Love.
To shepherd in, to shepherd, and then to shepherd others. Connect, grow, and love.
To help people find healing, to shepherd them out of the dark valleys to bring them into God’s community to experience God’s love. To experience God’s grace. To know that we are not alone. That we don’t have to go it alone in this world, but that there are communities of love that people can tap into and tie into. So that maybe we all could say, as the Psalmist did, “Even in the midst of my messy life, in the midst of my imperfections, I have a God who loves me and who takes care of me, and who does so by inspiring the people around me.” And those people are us. Inspiring us to be loving and caring people. Nurturing and shepherding one another.