Year C. Easter 4 April 17, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…”
Good morning everyone. Last week we heard the story of St. Paul and his Damascus Road moment, his turning from the path of evil to the Way of Jesus Christ. And he was an overachiever, he not only became one of them, he became a champion and leader of the Way. It is a key story in the Christian universe and is one that we need to pay attention to because it calls each of us to account.
One of the things that that turn shows us is first that we all need to do some turning, right? None of us are on the right enough path, we all need to check our bearings and realign our course, our beings and actions on God. We all need to take a stroll on the road to Damascus because we all need to make some changes. What I said last week though, is that our natures don’t, can’t change. We are who we are. Most of us will die the same person we were born, we won’t change who we are no matter how good your therapist or prescriber is. That is actually very good news, because at our core, our true self is perfect, imago dei, the image of God and is in perfect union with God. Alleluia! My example was Paul. He was kind of a jerk, doing all sorts of rotten stuff for all the wrong reasons, right? But God grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and changed the direction he was facing. God didn’t change him, his true self. His center was the same, but his orientation on the world changed. He was still kind of a jerk, but he was a jerk for Jesus. And there is a difference.
I got a lot of feedback from that sermon last week. It seemed to have struck a chord. I went back and read it again and I’ll stand by it. It is always reassuring to re-read a sermon and still agree. But something about it had left me uneasy. Not the reflection on scripture. I had a lively conversation with some colleagues at a conference this week and being a “Jerk for Jesus” got some traction. And not the observation that we really won’t, can’t or at least don’t change, not our core beings, not our true selves, not often or much. That has been by experience of myself and others. But to change our orientation on the world, to bring the pure perfection of God in Christ that lays in waiting in each of us, how to bring that out, how to make the changes in our lives that we need to make… I kind of left it up to us. It was up to us to make different choices, it was up to us to affect the change in orientation on the world. It was up to us.
I think that is the biggest structural sin that we as 21st century Americans have to contend with. The idea that it is up to us. The inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Not to have it, but the right to go out and get it for ourselves. Hortaio Alger and Ragged Dick pulling himself up by his bootstraps, the American ethical standard is that what you do or fail to do, how your life works out or does not is on you! We all start from the same place of having choices to make and it is up to each of us to make the best of it.
I am not going to go into a diatribe about the utter depravity of that statement. Suffice it to say that the primary indicator of whether someone is going to live and eventually die in poverty is if they were born into poverty. Same thing with privilege. If you are born in privilege chances are you will die in privilege. The point is, that how things go in our lives are largely not up to us. Yes, some of us work harder than others and reap some rewards. Yes, some of us screw up more frequently and we pay for it. But the vast, vast, vast majority of how our lives end up being are unrelated to any effort on our part, it is more about the array of options that are before you. Someone living in homelessness has very few options before them regarding how to survive, and few of them are good. Me, I had a hard time choosing between Harvard and Yale for grad school.
When it comes to God; when it comes to Jesus Christ; when it comes to turning our beings in the direction that we are supposed to turn, like Paul not Saul did, it is not much up to us, OR, maybe this is a better way to say it: we don’t have to rely on just ourselves to do it. In fact, we can’t rely on just ourselves to do it at all, really. We need a hand. We need help. We need, even, a good shepherd.
Like Saul get’s knocked down, and his entire life goes in a very different direction. He chooses that. He says yes to Jesus’ very emphatic invitation to consider doing things different. Sure. He chose. But that is just the start. It took his friends leading him the rest of the way to Damsacus, taking care of him. And then it took God in cahoots with Ananias and a dream and then being baptized… that is what affected the change. That is what saved him, not himself.
Or by the Sea of Tiberius. The disciples has ended up right where they began, right? Back in their leaky boats fishing, poorly. They had seen Jesus a couple of times. They had even (eventually) believed that the resurrection was real, and still, there they were. It took him coming again, sitting with them, eating with them and teaching them: If you love me, Feed My Lambs. If you love me, Tend My Sheep. If you love me, Feed My Sheep. Then He goes on, talking about when you were young, you had choices, things were up to you, but to follow me, “someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” They had to choose to love Him, but Jesus did not leave it up to them to find their way, to find The Way on their own. And He does not leave it up to us, either.
So there are few things in the world that I cannot stand more than thinking I can’t do something on my own. If I need that much help to do something, to figure something out, I am going to do something else, thank you very much. As much as parts of myself hate it, self-reliance, self-determination, being self-made, these are primary cultural ideals and I am full of them. And it’ll be the death of me. And I am not alone on this in this room.
Who here gets offended, or uncomfortable, or maybe just a bit put off thinking that we are referred to as Sheep. “Feed my sheep.” That’s us Jesus is talking about. Anyone else feel a little grumbly about that? It drives me crazy. Being called sheep annoys me, and the fact that being called a sheep annoys me annoys me even further.
Truly, we cannot possibly do this alone. If you want to move closer to God, if you want to follow Jesus, if you want to help and heal and change yourself and your alignment in the world and change and heal and help the world itself in the name of God, guess what, you need God. You need Jesus Christ and all that comes with that blessed relationship. We cannot do this alone, and thanks be to God, we do not have to.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul * and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
That’s what we need. That’s what Jesus is talking about, about how we need to lean in to Him, to trust him like that, and in trusting Him like that we will learn to trust God like that. (Well, we will be trusting God like that, but sometimes it is easier to start by trusting a person then going right to God). “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” God is offered to us like this. Bringing us peace, like being by still waters. Spreading a table before us in the hardest times. Giving us everything, EVERYTHING we need. I can only imagine it, but somehow, being in right relationship with God, being in union, being a true believer, not only will you believe that the 23rd Psalm is true, but it will be true. Your needs will be met in God. What the world has to offer will be not only sufficient but abundantly so, worthy of the greatest praise, Glory to God in the Highest! That is how it will be when you believe, when you get out of the way and let God be!
I am not there. I want to be. I’ve had a few glimpses of what it means to believe, to experience, to want to experience God that fully, but goodness, it is a long row to hoe. You’ve got to leave a lot behind. The rewards are endless, but what you give up to get there…
Because this is really hard stuff. Having faith. Believing. It is hard to do, hard to release, hard to surrender into the arms of God. It is really hard to learn that we need to surrender, and then it is really hard to learn what it means to surrender let alone how to do it. This is hard stuff because it is not very acceptable, even in liberal church cultures like our own, it is pretty dicey to struggle publicly with belief. We had a pretty serious atheist who came here for a while. It’s a bit odd, to be an atheist at church, but this person was finding something here. Who knows what would have happened if they stayed. But when they talked about their beliefs, they had a pretty rough reception, they felt very judged and they stopped coming. You don’t need to have all of this figured out to be here. You need to have very little figured out, actually. You don’t need to be a convicted believer to come to church. If you did, it would be like needing to be fully educated before even starting college. Or having to be well before checking in to the hospital. That is not how it works. “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief!”
We are all here at our own stages of religious growth and development. Some believe a little. Some believe a lot. Some of us are just confused and listen to the music play. And that is just fine. I really mean it when I say at the presentation of the gifts, “All are welcome here.” This is really hard stuff, to feel in this world, this world with so much suffering, so much violence and death and turmoil and struggle, to feel a God of abundance walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death, protecting us, comforting us. It is hard because it is so not up to us. That is good, but hard for us here in this time and place, hard for us because what we really need to do is to stop doing, and trust that the Lord is our shepherd and that we need not want for anything.
You don’t need to have any specific story to be here, but you do have to be willing to grow. You do have to be willing to learn, to try things on, ideas, feelings, even, (yikes!) beliefs. Whether you do believe a whole lot or are just starting to get an inkling; whether you’ve been here since we opened or came for the first time last week, none of us can rest on our religious laurels, we all need to be willing to turn, to change, to reorient ourselves on God. We all have something to learn. We all have along way to go in learning the radically counter-cultural message that it is not up to us.
So for now, keep coming to church. That will help you in your belief and unbelief more than anything. Pick up your Bible between Sundays. Reading the whole thing in two months like I suggested in my email this week is probably ambitious, but read it. It will change your life and in ways you don’t know and can’t guess. (Its not up to us). Pray. Daily. Even Anne Lamont’s little morning prayer “Help me! Help me! Help me!” and her little evening prayer “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Make friends with someone who believes more than you, find out what is up with them, how and why do they do what they do. But in the end, what we really need to do is nothing, just be. For the Lord is our shepherd and surely God’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. AMEN