Easter 7 / Ascension: Water – It’s an Identity Thing.

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The Colorado River from the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX.

Acts 1:6-14

When Bodhi was born, both Ken and Bonnie, his proud grandparents, called me separately to make sure I knew. This kiddo was a church kid from the start.

I dropped by that afternoon to meet Bodhi and visit his parents. Admittedly, I wasn’t feeling great when I left the house: I was stressed, and I had gotten tied up in other matters so that it was it was almost rush hour in Springfield by the time I left. It was just one of those days everyone has when I was wondering why I do what I do and what the heck I was doing in Massachusetts. Then, because of my adversarial relationship with my GPS and my newness to the area, I got lost along the way.

But when I got there, saw the joy in his parents’ faces, and held this new little life, it all faded away. I was reminded that there is still hope and love and hope new life in the world, despite all the stress. I remembered, suddenly, clearly, why I do what I do, and exactly what I’m doing in Massachusetts. That was Bodhi’s first gift to me. He helped me remember who I am.

Identity is important to us as human beings.

This week, I had the opportunity to go to Austin, Texas. Austin has quite a reputation and a well-known sense of identity. This is Austin, and this is who it is: as they say, “Keep Austin weird.” It’s an identity thing.

With my friend in Austin, Braxton, at work for most of one day, I set off to explore. Braxton gave me a scavenger hunt of things to find related to Austin’s unique identity: an all-organic hipster food truck. A dude on a stand up paddle board on the river in the middle of the city. A cool cowboy hat. A five way intersection. Hip cowboy boots. Socially woke graffiti. Someone playing the mandolin.

This is who Austin is.

In search of someone on a stand up paddle board, I walked from Braxton’s house over to the nearest extension of the Colorado River: Longhorn Dam and Lady Bird Lake. The Colorado River is an integral part of Austin’s cityscape, but regardless, I would’ve gone looking for it anyway. If there is a prominent body of water in any place I visit, I can’t help but to gravitate towards it. I’ve never been quite sure why — maybe it’s some primal instinct telling me to find water. Maybe my DNA hasn’t caught up to indoor plumbing. 

No matter my motivations, to be able to set my feet in the water helps me to feel connected to a place, like I’m really there, grounded, in that place. It helps me to get introduced to who a place is, and it helps remind me of who I am.

Of course, there’s the spiritual stuff too: water makes me think of baptism, of being claimed by God, and of God’s presence in that place. Last summer when I was at Camp Calumet, our synod camp in New Hampshire, and tasked with doing children’s devotions, and I talked about Calumet’s identity, and everyone’s desire to bring Calumet home to their church, and pointed out that what’s beautiful about Calumet is also beautiful about everyone’s church: bread and wine, loving people, God’s Word, and water (in the lake and in the font). And yes, while at Calumet, I spent a lot of time sitting by Lake Ossipee. Water reminds me of who I am, and of whose I am. It’s an identity thing.

Even before I could articulate any connection of water to God or baptism or anything of the sort, I felt it. As a teenager I used to get all mystical when I listened to a Jars of Clay song called “River Constantine” as I stared out across any wide river. My favorite lyrics were, “River deep / Could I know you as well as you know me … will we travel faster, farther than these legs could ever trustworthy be?” (1)

I loved the uncertainty of it all: “will we travel faster farther than these legs could ever trustworthy be?” I was raised in a “name it and claim it” denomination, but I’ve always been a realist. I’ve never wanted God to guarantee me success, as if I were some Old Testament hero. Plenty of people who thought that God was guaranteeing them success have failed, or worse, they’ve been misguided and done terrible things in God’s name. Instead, what I’ve always wanted instead was a guarantee of God’s presence, and that, we all received when Jesus ascended. Water reminds me of that promise of presence, of who I am, and of whose I am. It’s an identity thing.

Today we celebrate the ascension, or as a lady in Amsterdam described it to me once when explaining why the post office was closed, “When Jesus… [mumbles while waving her hand upwards].” It’s not a holiday we easily connect to, here at the end of Easter. We just put the cap on the white of Easter and break out the red of Pentecost for next week and stare up and imagine Jesus floating upwards (like on the cover of your bulletin). But there’s a little more to connect with than that — besides an excuse to climb a mountain (shameless plug: we’re hiking this coming Saturday, meet at the church at 9AM).

Look, we talk about it all the time — the world seems to be going crazy, and a lot of things are uncertain. Though it may feel particularly acute these days, this has always been true, and this will be true for the foreseeable future. There are times when we aren’t sure if we’ll be up to the task of living, much less raising kids, in this time in history.

Though we think of the ascension as an awe-inspiring event, in reality, the world must have been so confusing and anxiety-producing for the disciples: their leader was executed, and then resurrected, and now they saw him carried off into the clouds from a mountain, leaving them with a whole lot of work and hardship in front of them. They lived, after all, in Israel, their homeland that was being militarily occupied by Rome, a superpower.

And so, it’s understandable that in the Acts reading from today, they would ask Jesus for a little comfort: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). I think they were secretly hoping he’d come and kick Rome’s butt and make everything okay and make the road ahead smooth for them.

Of course, he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus responds not with a Roman or Pharisaic butt kicking, but with instructions: they are to be witnesses of what they’ve seen and heard. At the end of Matthew he adds, famously: “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

God doesn’t guarantee success or help us spike the football or make the path easy. God does promise love and presence, and we remember those in baptism. In baptism we are beloved. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit who is with us forever. We remember who we are, and whose we are. It’s an identity thing.

Before I left for Austin, I wanted to do one quick thing to get ready for Bodhi’s baptism today: change the sign. I’d asked Bodhi’s parents the week before to make sure that it was a welcome gesture. We’ve done this for baptisms before, but this time I refined the message a bit. “Bodhi is a child of God” is broadcasting the message that God has already spoken and that we’ll recognize in his baptism in a few minutes. And putting it on the sign was as much a message for the future as the present.

You see, my friend Kathleen grew up Lutheran and has a baptismal banner she received as a baby that says, in felt letters, “Kathleen is Jesus’ child.” As cheesy as she acknowledges that it is, it’s something she treasures on the days when it’s easy to feel abandoned, off course, or unloved. When the message she hears from the world outside is anything but what the banner says, she takes comfort in these words from her home church: she belongs to Jesus. It’s an identity thing. (2)

She is sharp and witty and sarcastic and tough, and she loves that felt banner.

So I hope someday Bodhi will see a photo of the sign and remember that, no matter what message the world gives him about himself, no matter how hard things get or how uncertain the world is, God has already spoken the truth: Bodhi, like all of us, is a child of God.

And we, his church, are here to make a promise to always remind him of his belovedness. I hope that, just as Bodhi reminded me on the day of his birth who I am, that I — and we, his family, church family, and his beloved friends and neighbors — will be able to do the same thing for him in the years to come. No matter what the world says to you, Bodhi, you are beloved. To remind you of that, you have water, and you have us.
It’s an identity thing.

Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things.” Today, you, no matter what your relationship to Bodhi’s family, are witnesses of God’s love for Bodhi, which is the same for God’s love of all of us — and we have water as a reminder. We are so loved.

We are witnesses. And today we promise that, in the years to come, we’ll continue to remind Bodhi, his siblings and his parents and his grandparents, and each other, of who we are: God’s children. We have water — in the font, in your sink, in the river and wherever you go,  as a reminder: you are loved, you are claimed, and you are God’s child, and surely God is with you, even to the end of the age.

This is church, and this is who we are. It’s an identity thing. Amen.

1. Jars of Clay, “River Constantine,” If I Left the Zoo, Essential Records, 1999.
2. Personal conversation (shared with permission) with the Rev. Kathleen Royston, Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, Arlington, VA.

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When the Holy Spirit Shows Up — in the Form of a Bunch of New Englanders

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Sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up looking like this! 🙂
Photo: our 2016 picnic at the summit of Mt. Holyoke to celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord — happening again this year on June 3. Email Pr. Anna at oslcpastor@comcast.net for more information!)

Acts 17:22-31
John 14:15-21

Since moving to New England, it’s becoming clearer than ever to me how the places that we occupy shape us, and how God shapes us through those places.

Just for example, when I lived in the South, I was largely not in tune with the temperature outside. It mostly went from “cool,” to “kinda cold,” to “warm,” to “really stinking hot,” but I didn’t have to pay much attention to it other than turning on the central electric heat and AC at the right times and occasionally opening a window when it was really nice outside. I also had to pay attention to it in order to dress correctly (especially while I lived in Atlanta and often traveled via foot or bike). But indoors? It didn’t really affect me. If the weather got really extreme, and by “really extreme” we meant a really hot day or an inch of snow, we just stayed inside.

These days, however, I live differently. Here, in a place where air conditioning in every building is not a guarantee, and where about 1-4” of winter snow is no more worth commenting on than a spring rainstorm. Nothing really stops here unless the weather really does get pretty crazy — which looks less like an inch of snow and more like fifteen with snow blindness.

It was pretty intimidating when I first moved here. To move one’s whole life across the country and come to a town where I knew no one except those of you that I’d met once or twice before — in a place where the weather does crazy things and it was going to be my responsibility to survive — was a little scary.

Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (John 14:18)

Our Gospel today is Jesus talking to his disciples before the crucifixion. He promises to send the Holy Spirit — which he calls this Greek word “paraclete” that doesn’t have a good translation in English. It means “advocate,” which is how our translation rendered it, but it also means “comforter,” “counselor,” “intercessor,” “consoler,” and a number of other things.

And Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

We’ve often imagined this as Jesus sending us a spirit of inner peace. And it’s certainly that.

But I remember something different about when I moved here. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” was about you as much as it was about a simple feeling, maybe even more.

This doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit didn’t show up. Quite the contrary. The Holy Spirit showed up big time.

It just happened to show up in the form of a bunch of New Englanders. In having an already-stocked pantry when I moved in, in meals delivered to my doorstep, in lessons about how to deal with snow and ice and cooling my house even without the aid of AC.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

Through you, I learned to acclimate to the crazy weather and I learned about the area and I found a home I’ve grown quite fond of. I became more connected to the weather outside. Where I once was a Southerner addicted to air conditioning, I now look at overdressed Southerners who complain about the heat like they have four heads: of course you’re hot, honey. You have on long sleeves.

For sure, the places that we are in shape us — at least in part because the Holy Spirit is always after us: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

The Greeks in our first reading had also been shaped by the space they occupied — a story which Paul tells like this: “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

We need each other. As Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “The hearing of the Word implies having someone right there doing the telling.” (1)

Often, the Holy Spirit shows up in us. 

I admit that I struggled with what to talk about this morning after the week we’ve had in the news. We established long ago that telling you what to think about the facts of politics is not only deeply theologically wrong but also above my pay grade, but at the same time, it is also part of my job description to help you make sense of the world and figure out your place in it and our place in it as Lutherans and as Christians.

As we say in the South when faced with a nearly impossible task that we still must find a way to solve: Welp. Get out the duct tape and here we go.

We talk a lot about “fake news” these days, and we’ve got so much information getting thrown at us that that a portion of what we see every day is bound to be objectively false. On top of that, a shocking number of us lack the basic skills necessary to distinguish between verifiable facts and these entirely fabricated untruths. This is true of people on the right and the left — we’re anxious and drowning in a sea of information and we’re mired in controversy and the only thing we know right now is that we’re here together.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

Remember: sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up in other people. In this divided nation, this is a place where die-hard Republicans and blue-blooded Democrats and independents and third party folks and people who don’t or can’t vote come to the same table and eat the same bread and worship the same God every single week. This is a place where liberals and conservatives eat dinner together and hold each other’s children and giggle with one another’s grandchildren.

And that seems really nice, but it doesn’t always mean it’s easy or comfortable. It doesn’t mean that sometimes we don’t have wildly different interpretations of the news or even what it means to be the Church these days.

You see, the Holy Spirit has a way of stirring things up. The images at Pentecost for the Holy Spirit aren’t exactly cute and fuzzy: tongues of fire. Rushing wind.

The Holy Spirit has a way of stirring things up, of turning things upside down, of pushing us to be more than we were before.

Now, make no mistake: the Gospel has political implications. However, one of my pet peeves is when people use the word “Gospel” when they clearly don’t mean “Good News.”

The Gospel is Good News. For for all people. If it’s not Good News for all people, it’s not the Gospel.

If there’s one thing we must resist, it’s the politicization of values. We must speak up for the voiceless. We must include the un-included. Christianity is not partisan: it demands that we care for and love and serve all.

We must love each other and the world, even when it’s hard. Because God is love. Because love, even and maybe especially when it’s difficult, is the work of the Holy Spirit.

And it’s not always easy or comforting, but this kind of love is Good News for all people.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

Jesus shows up in bread and wine. Jesus shows up in baptismal water.

Jesus shows up in the Word of God proclaimed — and that means that sometimes, Jesus shows up in us.

“Hearing the Word of God implies someone right there doing the telling.” (ibid)

One way or another, Jesus always shows up in love.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

So let’s continue to remind each other. Let’s continue to look for the ways the Holy Spirit shows up here, especially in each other. In this divided nation in this divided world, it won’t be easy. Life together with other people is always hard work, and it seems even harder these days. We will fight and we will struggle and we’ll mess up and offend each other and sometimes, we will have to deal with the all-too-familiar discomfort of having someone we love deeply occupy an entirely different reality than we do. But we will love, and God will be here.

Theologian Fredrich Beuchner put it this way:
“Wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and they are doing God’s will.”

So let this be a place where we love each other and are true to each other, where we take risks for each other both by having hard conversations and by speaking up for those in danger and defending the vulnerable — and by trusting each other that each of us is trying to follow Jesus the best way we know how.

And you know — the places that you occupy really do shape you. Just as I came to get used to ice and snow and heat without AC because of you, just as some of the Athenians were open to Paul’s message because they had left space open in their minds for an unknown god — this place and this environment can shape us, too. If we can find a way to continue to live together here and do good in the world despite our differences, maybe it’ll shape how we live out there. And maybe, just maybe, this place can help shape our little corner of the world. Maybe, because of us, the nation and the world can be just a little less divided than they were before.

Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

May love find you in this place: no matter who you are, where you came from, whom or what you love, or what you hold as a political reality. The bread and wine are for you. The love in this church is for you.

You are invited into the mystery of the unknown — of figuring out what God would have us do and be in the world. And the best part of all is that the Holy Spirit, one way or another, always finds us. God will not leave us orphaned in this crazy world: God is coming to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints.

“Gimmie Shelter”: Rolling Stones, Living Stones, Cornerstone

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1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if it were a movie?

Yeah, of course you have. I mean, maybe you have. I have.

Most people imagine which esteemed acting professional would portray them. As for me, I’ve given way more thought to the music. Well, at least one part of it.

The opening sequence, as you trace the rural roads through Alabama to begin the portrayal of my childhood, is “Gimmie Shelter” by the Rolling Stones.

The wavering electric guitar reflects the roads shimmering in the Alabama summer heat as peanut and cotton fields roll past.

I don’t know what happens after that. I just like music.

And “Gimmie Shelter” is a song that could be a precursor to any of our lives, though admittedly it’s more contemporary to some of our lives than others. But my Baby Boomer father, a Vietnam vet who loves good music, helped raise me, and the Rolling Stones taught me about the state of the world as they knew it, and it is the way I came to understand it, through my own experience and through the news:

“Oh, a storm is threat’ning

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away…” (1)

This outlook may seem bleak, but it gave me a realistic picture of what the world was like — in 1969 when the song came out, in 2001, and in 2017. It’s just a shot away.

Disaster hangs out on our doorstep all the time. On a personal, national, and international scale, we’re usually closer to the brink of catastrophe than we think — it’s just that sometimes we’re more aware of how crazy things have gotten than others.

Even when it comes to a joyful day like Mother’s Day, we know that this is not a day of joy for everyone. Some of us have longed to shelter a child but have been unable to conceive or adopt. Others have experienced pain at the hands of children and grandchildren whom we long to shelter. Finally, not all of us have received comfort and shelter from our mothers and grandmothers. Some of us have experienced mostly pain and abuse and long for reconciliation that may never come.

Our government and world, too, teeters on the edge of disaster.

In early April 2017, the Huffington Post High Line published an article called “This is How the Next World War Starts,” describing how US intelligence planes have been barrel rolled by Russian fighters in recent months. This kind of thing isn’t unheard of ever, but it seems, according to the article, to be happening with increasing frequency: how the next world war could start “With one miscalculation, by one startled pilot, at 400 miles an hour.” (2)

Though it’s been happening with increasing frequency, we come close to having huge, international, war-causing incidents all the time. It’s just that our governments are usually able to avoid them through diplomacy.

But with our government looking as if it’s increasingly dividing into warring factions, our confidence in its ability to avoid such things and protect us is going down.

Welcome to the United States of Anxiety. Population us.

I admit, I’ve been diving into the news lately: North Korean nukes. US troops destined for Afghanistan. Russian meddling. FBI directors. French elections.

If we don’t get some shelter, yeah, we’re gonna fade away.

Resurrection is good hope for despair, but what use is resurrection when you’re scared of the trauma in the first place? When you’re afraid of disaster striking? We say, I guess, that we should hope in God and not any earthly leaders in the White House or Congress or the state house, but the truth is that no sane person is entirely unconcerned with what’s going on in any of those places. The promise of heaven, no matter how strongly you believe in it, doesn’t mean that sometimes things don’t go horribly. God being in control, however you mean it, has never meant that people don’t suffer.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning

Our very life today

If we don’t get some shelter

Yeah, we’re gonna fade away”

One response to anxiety is to double down — on everything you think and believe. This, after all, is where religious fundamentalism often comes from: it is a response to anxiety. It is a need to be sure — sure that we are correct. 

Our favorite shelter, after all, is being right. It’s being safe through being superior and powerful and righteous.

And let’s be honest: sometimes the Bible makes it easy to take this shelter. After all, Jesus said, and we read this morning: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

If there’s anything I’m quite sure Jesus doesn’t want us to do, it’s to prooftext our own Scriptures to prove our faith’s superiority, as if faith superiority were a competition to be won.

But if it’s not an affirmation than we’re right, what are we supposed to do with Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life? You could throw it out entirely as an exclusive claim — some Christians have — but what does that say about how seriously we take the Bible as part of our identity? Any position you take as a churchgoer on such a well known Scripture is going to cause a stir.

“War, children — it’s just a shot away”

We need shelter from our state of anxiety. We need assurance. But if this isn’t assurance that we’re right, then what is it assurance of?

New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity a.k.a. Vanderbilt pastor school and a Jew, once told a conference crowd that she had some Christian students who worried about her salvation — being a Jew and all. A New Testament scholar herself, she began to imagine a scenario like this:

She went on to tell a story about how she imagines the final judgement if Jesus is in reality the person he is in the New Testament that she studies. She said that she imagines herself dying and going to the pearly gates and St. Peter is there, and he lets some guys in ahead of her, turns around and opens the gates for her. The guys turn around and say, ‘Hey, wait. A Jew? What is this? She didn’t ask Jesus into her heart. She didn’t go to church. She’s Jewish, for God’s sake! Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one gets to the Father except through me!’”

Peter remarks that he is impressed that they can quote the Gospel of John but motions for them to look behind them, where a man with dark olive skin, black hair, and knowing eyes is standing. “‘I did say that,’ he said. Because I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through me. It is not through your expectations or claims, and it is not through your church’s rules and proclamations that people get to God, but by my rules. I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through my Word. And she’s in.” (2)

Paradoxically, I find this freeing. I find this claim itself to be shelter from the storm of always having to be right. If no one comes to the Father except through Jesus is actually true, the central claim is that it’s not up to me. Or you. 

We don’t have to get it right. We wouldn’t get it right if we tried. Believe it or not, even with Google at our fingertips, God still knows more than we do. Christ, not us, is the cornerstone, as our epistle reading from St. Peter said today. And we, in turn, are freed to be living stones: shelter for one another.

Earlier in the passage Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? … you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:2,4)

“If I don’t get some shelter
Yeah, I’m gonna fade away”

Jesus offers shelter. Yes, in the eternal sense — this is a claim that someday, somehow, there’s hope that things will be alright in the end and we’ll all be with Jesus forever.

But for the moments when we’re not thinking about forever because we’re so anxious about today, there is also shelter.

If we actually believe that Jesus is the way, and the cornerstone, we mean that Jesus makes the rules, that God is an independent being whose grace we cannot control, and that who is in and who is out is not up to us.

We don’t have to be right. That is shelter enough.

I also confess that when I first read this passage this week, I thought of Howie, our beloved brother who died at the very end of last year. This passage was the Gospel for his funeral.

The night of his calling hours and the day of his funeral and in the days which preceded, I heard over and over stories of how generous and kind Howie was. How easily he cared for people, never wanting to be recognized.

On the day of his funeral, I remarked how in this passage, Jesus also says, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (14:4). I said, “I think that what is the simplest and most profound thing about Howie’s faith is how quiet and sure it was. It never drew attention to itself, instead, pointing the way for others. He was most concerned for others because he seemed to know, as Jesus tells us, that he knew the way. A little later in this passage Jesus will say “I am the Way.” Howie knew Jesus, God made flesh, the God that is love itself. Howie knew Love. Howie knew the way.”

Howie, like so many saints before him, showed us how to shelter others with our love. Howie was a living stone. And he was proud to be part of the sheltering structure that is the love of this church. I have, over the last year and a half, watched you shelter each other with love: offering a hug, giving emotional support, providing food, offering to do chores for those who can’t do them, giving each other rides —  I could go on. When I first started pastoring, I gloried in how well I could take care of my congregation. When I was a few years in, I realized that the real gift is allowing you to teach me about what love means.

“The floods is threat’ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I’m gonna fade away…”

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?…And you know the way to the place where I am going.”” (14:2, 4)

“I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away…”

We know the way. So let love shelter us, and let us shelter each other. Let the cornerstone, Christ, keep us living stones in place as we offer shelter from the world. We are loved. We are love. We are shelter. Amen.

1. “Gimmie Shelter,” The Rolling Stones, written by Jagger/Richards, from Let it Bleed, Dekka Records/ABKCO, 1969.
2. David Wood, “This is How the Next World War Starts,” Huffington Post High Line, 4 April 2017, http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/trump-russia-putin-military-crisis/
3. Amy-Jill Levine, remarks given at Reconciling Ministries Network conference Bible study, Vanderbilit Divinity School, 2007.

Easter 4: The Good Shepherd is Fierce

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Diego, Pastor Anna’s ridiculously photogenic (sheep)dog.

John 10:1-10

Because I was on vacation this past week, my sermon is, admittedly, recycled — I first preached this to my congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2012, during my second full year as their pastor. You all might remember even better than they that it was in the spring of 2012 that the Boston marathon bombing happened and it was, for me, only one of many times that I’ve had to rethink what to preach based on what has happened in the world. Since you all had quite a closer perspective on those events because most of you were only 90 minutes down the interstate at the time, I thought this might be interesting for you to hear.

And also, in light of the events swirling today — possible nuclear war, immigration, terror, fear, health care, Russia, tax plans, and so on, and on, and on — I thought this was a good message to recycle for Good Shepherd Sunday, as we figure out what the heck is happening in our world and what our role is in it as Christian people.

———

I was working on our Wednesday night Bible study on Monday morning when it happened. My friend Katie in Seattle, whose husband Nathan I have run everything from 5Ks to half marathons with for years, sent me a text message. “Turn on the news,” she said. “Two bombs have gone off at the Boston Marathon.”

I immediately found it online. Two bombs had gone off in Boston only a few minutes before. There was no word yet on how many people were injured. There was definitely no word on who could have been responsible. There was only chaos as we all tried to figure out who was hurt, where the bombs had been, and why.

After finding out that every friend I had in Boston who’d be likely to be watching the marathon was safe, my mind spun a thousand directions. Bombs at a marathon? Marathons and road races have become a big part of my life in recent years, and as the pictures flowed in, I saw a familiar scene — a finish line, with runners crossing. The finishers’ chute, which belongs only to those who have run the race and endured. I saw the cheering crowds, the mile markers. But these photos were tainted with something horribly unfamiliar. Beyond the runners, beside the finish line, in the middle of the crowd, a wall of flame. An explosion. The photo that sticks in my mind the most was taken just at the moment the first bomb went off. No one had even had time to react yet to the horror that was unfolding. 

In the hours and days that have followed, my Facebook feed and other sources have filled up with calls to prayer for Boston. Over and over, I saw it, and little else: “Pray for Boston.” But something didn’t quite sit right with me about that. Not necessarily the call to prayer itself, but the fact that that was the only thing I was hearing.
Finally, I saw a post that put into words what had been bothering me so much.

A clergywoman in Boston posted:

“You know what phrase I’m getting tired of hearing? ‘We offer our prayers for Boston.’ There’s nothing at all wrong with the phrase, I’m just tired of needing to hear it so frequently. ‘Our hearts go out to the…’ ‘We are saddened and angered to…”

As she said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with offering our prayers. When we feel so helpless, that’s often the only thing that we feel that we can do. And connecting with God, asking God to offer comfort, is one of the most powerful things that we can do. We have done it today. I hope that we continue to do so in the coming weeks. But as this Boston clergywoman went on to point out, that’s not all we can do, or should do.

She says, “Just this: religious leaders have a lot to say about the culture of violence. We can’t speak powerfully if we look like a bunch of harmless frumps. It’s so easy to ignore earnest, drab little people [only] spouting bromides about peace, love and understanding. I want you to be fierce. I want you to be compelling. I want you to sound powerful, look powerful and be powerful…. America needs your strong voice, your passion, your intensity. If you’re going to pray for us, and I know you will, also send out something as tough as we are.”

(A note: that was one of my first impressions of New Englanders as the strong, pragmatic, and boldly courageous people I have come to know you to be.)
It is true — our culture is steeped in violence. Violent video games, violent movies, violent music. Over and over again we see violence, everywhere we look we see violence. We don’t have much regard for human life and the truth is, we hardly ever really have in history. This isn’t a generational problem, but a human one. Only the mediums through which violent images are transported ever really changes.

Today’s reading is where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. All the hymns we’ll sing today are among my nerdy favorites. For the occasions when I manage to get sentimental, they make me all teary: “The King of Love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never / I never lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”

Those words have always felt like a big and much-needed hug. The words of today’s text, too, tend to make us feel loved and safe, for obvious reasons. We live in a crazy world. Lord knows, we need hugs from God these days.

But this week I heard something else. After seeing the photos of the bombing and reading the news stories and then reading that Boston pastor’s blog post, I read this text in a different way. I thought about how shepherds are gentle with the sheep, but also fiercely protective. Any shepherd who is all gentle, meek and mild, is going to end up wolf bait. (ooh ha ha.) And the text itself talks a lot about the gate, the thief, the need for the shepherd to be protective as well as gentle. 

And now we come to my yearly confession, happening every fourth Sunday of Easter: I don’t particularly like to think of pastors as shepherds. The biblical witness primarily describes God as the Shepherd, not any person. And who do we pastors think we are? Jesus? We’re human, while the rest of you are smelly sheep? If that were the case, I would be offended on your behalf.

No. I like a different image for the pastor.

A mentor of mine years ago gave me a metaphor that I still hold to.

She likes to think of it this way: that pastors are not the shepherds so much as the sheepdogs. The sheepdogs are set apart from the sheep to lead them the way that the shepherd wants. They lead them according to his voice. They watch over the sheep and guard them from all the same predators that the shepherd looks out for. Sheepdogs are no better than the sheep; all are the shepherd’s creatures.

This image is one reason that I love border collies so much. It’s one reason that I got Diego.

For those of you that I’ve managed not to tell yet, my dog Diego is part border collie. He’s black and white, with a border collie’s trademark white stripe between his eyes. His eyes are light brown and compelling. Border collies are unique sheepdogs because they direct the sheep not by nipping at or barking at them, but they direct them with their eyes. They are also incredibly smart, though sometimes Diego, well… as my friend Samuel says, he could stand to be more smart and less clever. Diego and I have a lot in common.

There’s something else. Diego and I often go running together, as border collies also have an untold amount of energy. Several times, I have passed figures on the street that Diego thought were threatening. Even when there was no reason that was discernible to me, he would let out a low, defensive growl as we passed. He’s also often done this to people in my life (my apologies if he’s done this to you). He’s also done it to big dogs who’ve gotten too close to me.

Curious and wondering why my dog would growl at random people, I looked it up. It turns out that border collies are fiercely protective of what they deem theirs. I think that makes them the perfect metaphor for what a pastor should be, and more broadly, what any Christian person should be. Nurturing, loving, offering direction at the call of the shepherd, and fiercely protective.

File this under “What my dog has taught me about ministry.”

I don’t find these fierce Christian voices in many places.

When I do, I find that they’re more offensive than defensive. I find that they are more about beating people over the head with the Bible than bringing the Gospel, which we often forget is supposed to be good news. I often find that pastors who speak out aren’t fighting for their congregations or for the least of these, they’re attacking people. And that’s another thing that Diego has taught me about ministry: he’s also taught me how not to do it. Often, pastors and other Christians growl and bark at the wrong people. They attack people who aren’t actually a threat.

You’ll notice that Jesus talks about “laying down his life for the sheep.” He talks about how no one will take his life from him, but he will lay it down and pick it back up again. He’s defending the sheep, not trying to see wolves all around him. He is in control, he lays down his life and takes it back up again. Any good sheep or sheepdog who trusts the shepherd has no reason to be defensive.

Yes, pastors, and Christians of all stripes, should be fierce. Secure in the shepherd’s care, we should be brave, ready to speak, ready to act, at the direction of the Shepherd.

Yes, Christians should be fierce. We should offer our prayers, and then we should go out into the world to speak. To speak, to yell, to scream out against the things that harm the sheep: a culture of fear. A culture of violence. A lack of regard for the humanity and dignity of each person. As Thomas Merton said, “We must guard the image of [humanity], for it is the image of God.”

One of my favorite lines in the Gospel of John is right before the crucifixion: When Jesus is about to give himself up, when he is resolved to lay down his life for the sheep, he says “The ruler of this world is driven out.”

Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and darkness flees. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and Satan gets out of town. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and the sheep are protected, saved from the powers of darkness.

Jesus has given us an example: to lay down our lives for the sheep. To speak, no matter what the cost. To feed and protect the sheep. To be God’s protective love to the world.

When I heard the news of the events in Boston, I was upset. But I was also angry. I wanted to offer more than my prayers. Too often, we offer our prayers, post something on Facebook, and move on with our lives, content to be powerless to change anything.

Listen: none of these problems can or will be solved in Congress. No President, and no party, will do it for us. We have to do much more than change security regulations or immigration laws to prevent bombings like this. We have to change hearts. We have to fiercely guard the image of God, and be brave, because the road of nonviolence is, ironically, the scariest. It is easier to hide behind a veneer of strength than to follow Jesus’ way.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd gives everything. The sheep (and the sheepdogs) follow the shepherd to the end. There is no room for safety in the Christian religion.

We follow knowing that Jesus saves us. We follow knowing that the ruler of this world has been driven out. We follow in security and calm confidence, trusting that the Shepherd is in control.

So what shall we do in the face of so much upheaval?
Bottom line: the Good Shepherd, who is in control, loves you fiercely. Therefore, be fierce, as the Good Shepherd is fierce. Amen.