Sheep of the Good Shepherd

May 12, 2019

John 10:22-30

One class that is not offered in seminary is how to care for a church cemetery!

As a new pastor, it is important that it is properly maintained. Mowed on a regular basis and ensure that it looks like it is in decent order. Not to mention that proper records are maintained. Also, you better make sure that there are flags on all the graves of the military veterans on Memorial Day. How this became part of the pastor’s job I was never sure. It did not help that the cemetery was located a few miles from the church on a dirt road near the original church.

Every year when we come to this point in the lectionary, I am reminded of my first call and their cemetery. Why? Because it was not just known as Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery, but also the Swedish Lutheran Cemetery and more importantly, the Sheep of the Good Shepherd Cemetery. There is a metal archway over the entrance that reads, “Sheep of the Good Shepherd.” It was a serene spot. A place that I truly enjoyed visiting and being surrounded with the saints of the congregation that had already entered the church triumphant. If I was lucky enough, I may be visited by livestock whose grazing area butted up to the cemetery. I walked along the Anderson’s, Nelson’s, Sandahl’s, Hanson’s (you know all those good Swedish names), and many more while praying. I especially enjoyed going out there on Easter Sunday just as the sun was rising and rejoicing in the Resurrection.

In John’s gospel this morning, we enter the story in the midst of The Good Shepherd chapter. Therefore, the 4th Sunday of Easter has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus, the good shepherd, knows each and every one of us and calls us by name to follow him and have life eternal.

While Jesus knows us and calls us, that does not mean that we fully understand what is taking place. We too often attempt to make Jesus into the very thing that he is not! Don’t think that we are the only ones. There was confusion in Jesus’ time as well. The Jewish leaders in the temple wanted to know who Jesus was. In our lesson this morning, they cannot stand the waiting. It’s like waiting for the name of the latest royal baby that was born. Ok not really, but those talking to Jesus this morning really wants to know if he is the Messiah or not!

We are told that it is winter and the time of the festival of the Dedication. We know this festival better as Hanukkah. It was a celebration of not only the rededication of the temple at the time of the Maccabean revolt, but also a celebration of liberation. As they gather for this festival, the Jewish people are looking towards the coming of a Messiah, and are waiting for Jesus to respond and tell them the truth. However, he chooses not to answer in the affirmative because he does not fit into the box in which they are trying to place him.

They are looking for a Messiah, who will save them from the Roman empire. A conqueror who will destroy all that is in their way and will bring them to a place of peace. Their concern is around earthly matters and not the promise of salvation that the Messiah can provide eternally. They desire someone that can conquer their oppressors and bring them back to a point of nationalistic pride.

Wow, we do not learn from history, do we?

Time and time again, we gather around political leaders that we think are going to bring great change and we remove our eyes from what truly matters in Jesus Christ. We want them to save us from what we think is wrong. We look for leaders in businesses to save them from failure. The church is even guilty of this! Congregations call pastors in the hope that they will turn everything around. Sunday school classes will be back to levels of the past, the sanctuary will be full, and the offering plate will be over flowing. In all of these cases, we look past what truly matters in Jesus Christ. Not to say these things cannot be done, but they are done in community. We are not called to conquer. We are not called to save anybody from anything. That is the calling of Jesus Christ!

Jesus is the Messiah! He just is not the Messiah that the Jewish leaders are looking for. He does conquer. But he does not conquer the Roman Empire as they are hoping. He conquers what truly matters. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, conquers sin, death, and evil! It is this Messiah that we are called to follow. We follow him and he tends to us as his flock.

More importantly, he reaches out to those that need him the most. He looks to welcome all of humanity. Especially the part of humanity that is abandoned, thrown out, cast out, and tossed out. Those that are on the fringes of society. His concern is not with political parties or the bottom line. Jesus’ concern is for his flock. To care for and love us as children of God.

While we may have no clue how to be a shepherd in the literal sense, we can learn from Jesus and reach out to the same people that he ushers into the kingdom of God. And you know what, Jesus does not exclude anyone. In his call to follow him, we too can learn to share the love and grace that is bestowed upon us by God.

This past week, as the church of Christ, we lost another great saint. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Community for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. He is an example of what it means to truly follow Jesus Christ. He wrote the following in one of his many books,

To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them grow and become fully alive.

As we choose to follow Jesus, are we truly following him, or are we just giving him lip service? Are we being his hands and feet in the world or are we just talking the talk? The grace is that Jesus welcomes us in whatever we choose to do, however are we truly living in our faith? What are we choosing to shepherd?

Let us pray. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, you call us to follow you and you know us. You know our hearts and what is on our minds.  May we continue to listen to that calling and be open to your movement in our lives and the life of our community. Amen.

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Comfort in Uncertainty

May 5, 2019

John 21:1-19

There came a time in seminary, somewhere during my second year, that I started to wonder what I was doing. I questioned if I was truly following God’s call to serve in the church with the hopes of becoming an ordained pastor. I doubted myself because I did not come from the same background as most of my classmates had, since they mostly all grew up in the church and it was an incremental part of their lives from birth to the present day.

I began to wonder if it would just be much easier to return to my previous career. At points as I was challenged by Greek and Hebrew, and deeply immersed in heavy theological papers, managing a store and stocking shelves seemed like a much better option than to submit myself to an overwhelming class load and subjects that just made me go, huh, at times.

Perhaps this is how the disciples felt after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus has turned the world of the disciple’s upside down! Amid their uncertainty they return to what they know, only to find Jesus there to greet them and bring them hope.

In his gospel, John shares with us that the disciples have finally moved out of their hiding place. It is about time! Last week, Jesus appeared to the eleven for a second time after his resurrection and Thomas is welcomed into the fold and has received the Holy Spirit from Jesus just as the other disciples had a week earlier. Finally, we find them venturing out into the open. The fear may be starting to abate a little and some of them return to the only place where they feel comfortable! In such an uncertain time they return to the sea so that they can do the one thing they know how to do well. The only problem, they have no such luck catching any fish in their nets overnight. As much as the disciples want to move forward, they seem to be stuck. Their nets are empty, and they are struggling.

Let’s admit it, we do not have perfect lives. We struggle. We are challenged with family issues. We are challenged with finances at times. We are challenged with relationships. We are even challenged in placing a sure and definite hope and faith in God. While I stayed in seminary, went on to internship, and returned to finish my senior year, it does not mean that it was easy and without its challenges. At times I would have just loved to leave it all behind and return to what I knew and what I was comfortable doing.

However, Jesus challenges us! Yes, you heard me right. Jesus challenges us to look within ourselves to listen and discern who we really are as a child of God. I am sure that you have heard it said that Peter answering Jesus’ questions about whether he loves him three times is a reversal of the three times Peter denies Jesus. What if, it was about Jesus getting Peter to remember who he is? Yes, Peter has denied Jesus three times. However, in these denials, he is denying himself. He has forgot whose he is and who he is as a child of God. Jesus’ questioning could just as easily be a call back to Peter to remember who he is and not that he is called to love Jesus, but that Jesus loves him just as he is. His flaws, mis-steps and all!

The wonder of it all, is that Jesus keeps showing up. He has now appeared three times to the disciples and they are starting to be drawn out of their seclusion and be fed. While they return to what they are comfortable doing, Jesus is present in the lack of catching fish to ensure that they are fed and fed abundantly. Jesus instructs them to throw the net to the other side of the boat and they can barely lift the net back into the boat because it is completely filled. We are told that there are 153 fish in all. According to a commentary by St. Jerome, it was believed back then there were 153 different types of fish in the sea.

As the disciples are sent out to fish for people, this is a sign for them not to exclude anyone. God welcomes all people in, and all are part of God’s wonderful, beautiful creation. God will welcome and gather every single one into an embrace full of love and grace. And as we learn with Peter, Jesus looks beyond denials, mis-steps, and flaws. Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up to remind us whose we are and that we are called and sent out to a world in need of God’s hands and feet.

While we may not see Jesus face to face, or at least not in an impression that is reminiscent of famous paintings, Jesus still shows up. Jesus shows up in our friends and neighbors. Jesus shows up in the unexpected. Jesus shows up in the exact places where he needs to be. Places where his love flows over, and we experience a grace that is both mysterious and wonderful. Once again, I ask you, where have you seen Jesus this Easter season? Earlier this week, I was at the Institute of Liturgical Studies and on the closing day, I witnessed a Valpo student paying for the lunch of an older couple. He did not know them. He barely said anything to them. However, you could visibly see their appreciation and Jesus in this very simple action of the young man that generously touched two lives that will be remembered for some time to come.

This is Jesus at work in our world today. This morning, I invite you to come forward to receive Christ in the bread and wine. These are the visible signs of Christ with us this morning and in the breaking of the bread and sharing of a meal, we take Jesus into our very selves so that we can then go out into the world and be Christ for those that need a sign of hope and a promise that all will be made new.

Let us pray. Ever-present God, you come to us in the most unexpected places. May we welcome you to call us and send us out to do your very will in the world. May we bear the signs of hope that you bestowed to us in Jesus and carry out your love for all to see and feel. Amen.

Thomas Was Framed!

April 28, 2019

John 20:19-31

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

As we enter this second Sunday of Easter, we are confronted with the same gospel story that we hear every year on this day. The story of Jesus first appearing to the disciples and then again to Thomas in John’s gospel which continues the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Many of our sisters and brothers also celebrate this Sunday as Holy Humor Sunday or Laughter Sunday. This celebration actually goes all the way back to our early Greek Christian sisters and brothers in the faith that used the days after Easter Sunday to have parties and rejoice with joy and laughter. Why? It is an ongoing celebration of the resurrection and “the custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians (like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom) that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.”

Now, there seems to be one person that is not laughing. That is Thomas.

Thomas is skeptical of what has happened. Really, can we blame him? All the other disciples were present when Jesus came into where they were hiding, and Thomas did not see Jesus for himself. He had to be upset with himself. What was he doing in the first place? Maybe he was going to pick up supplies. Maybe he was gauging the tension that hung in the air after Jesus crucifixion. That is totally left up to our imaginations.

Because of his questions, Thomas gets framed with the title “Doubting!” Imagine having to travel around with that moniker attached to your name. However, while Thomas does appear to doubt, the question could be raised, who is he doubting? Is he doubting that Jesus actually returned and appeared to the disciples? Or is he more in question of the disciples themselves?

So, let’s get this straight. The disciples were just hiding out in the house and Jesus appears to them. John tells us in his gospel that when Jesus spoke to the disciples, he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Now, a more accurate translation would be that he breathed into them. He gave them the Holy Spirit to reside within their very being. This could be what Thomas has an issue with! If Jesus has done what they say, then why are they still hiding out? Should they not be going out and proclaiming the good news as Jesus as told them to do. Thomas wants the same experience as those that were present. Thomas does not see anything different in the way they are acting to lead him to assume that Jesus was actually present. He does not doubt Jesus; he is in doubt of the actions of the disciples.

We can relate with the Thomas that wants to experience everything the way the disciples supposedly said they did. We want to be present when important things happen. We get jealous when we miss out and sometimes even question the authenticity of an event if we were not present to witness it. Events cannot be repeated just because we missed out on them the first time. Just because we were not present, does not mean that a particular event did not happen.

Fortunately for Thomas, Jesus does return a week later. He already senses what Thomas is about to say and offers the wound in his side for Thomas to touch. We assume that he touched the wound. All of the paintings show us that he touched the wound. Honestly, I do not think Thomas would have had to follow through. He is now experiencing Jesus as the disciples did a week earlier. In the peace that Jesus gave him may also be the breath of the Holy Spirit that he breathed into the disciples.

And how does Thomas respond? “My Lord and my God!” It is a proclamation of his faith. A proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord, and also God. Human and divine. Thomas now knows and believes in Jesus as the Messiah and is empowered with the Holy Spirit to move forward. The doubt that had arisen in the lack of action of the disciples has now vanished. Perhaps this is even enough now to get them to move out of the space they are hiding and begin to spread the good news that Jesus has instructed them to do.

The same Jesus that appears to his disciples and a week later to Thomas, with scars and all, is the same Jesus that comes to be with us. Jesus is with us in hunger, brokenness, hopelessness, disappointment, anger, despair, and much much more. Jesus is present when we least expect it and even in times when we would like to see him get lost. When we think that we know better, Jesus is present to remind us that there is something much greater. It is this same Jesus that comes to our side to be with us in darkness so that we can encounter the light. And what should our response be? “My Lord and my God!” God is visible all around us. For in the story of the resurrection we are reminded that all things are made new! During Easter you are encouraged to write on the back door where you have seen God this Easter season and where you can be God’s hands and feet in the world. For, we too are being sent to proclaim the risen Lord!

Let us pray. God of wonder, you appear before us at times we do not even recognize. May our laughter remind us of your saving grace and may our eyes be open by your light as it spreads to the darkness in our own lives. Amen.