Monthly Archives: April 2010

04-25-10 THE GOOD SHEPHERD

“The Good Shepherd”

 

I’ve never liked that the Bible tends to compare humanity to sheep a lot. When I was younger, I was a member of 4-H. While I was mostly interested in horses, I attended a couple of events with sheep and I learned a few things about these animals. Sheep are stubborn and are hard to force into things. While I learned to like individual sheep, once it joined the herd again all of the individuality went away. Sheep follow the rest of the sheep blindly – regardless of the results. There was a disastrous incident in Turkey awhile back when nearly five hundred sheep just followed each other off a cliff while the shepherd was having lunch.

There are so many other animals that God could have compared us to. Foxes because they are clever. Doves because they are peaceful and gentle. But no, we are called sheep. They require a shepherd to care for them. They require a shepherd to protect them. They require someone who will look after their smallest needs and who will lead them to where they need to be. I may not like it, but it seems as though there are a lot of ways humans are like sheep, especially when we begin to flock together. Without their shepherd, sheep will follow each other to disaster. Sound familiar?

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Christians hear these words over and over again in their lives. We hear them so much that it is easy to forget what they actually mean. The Lord is my shepherd. While this is a very useful metaphor in ancient Israel, it needs some translating for 21st century America. We are not quite as familiar with what it means to be a shepherd.

Shepherds are responsible for the care and well being of their sheep. This is a harder task than you might think for all sorts of dangers threaten the sheep. There are thieves who try to steal the sheep. Wolves who try to eat them. Sheep step into holes, get stuck in bushes and follow each other of cliffs. Again, I am seeing some familiarities. We get ourselves in trouble all the time and there are many dangers in our lives. Yet Christ, our shepherd cares for us even in the midst of our troubles.

Shepherds have a close relationship with their sheep. Sheep live for twenty to twenty five years. The sheep of this time were raised for wool, not meat. The shepherd spent most of his time with the sheep. The sheep live with the family. 

The Indian theologian D. T. Niles once noticed a young Indian shepherd boy keeping a huge flock of sheep. He stopped and asked, “How many sheep do you have?”

“I don’t know,” answered the boy, “I can’t count.”

Niles asked him, “How do you know if some of the sheep haven’t wandered off when you get to the place where you’re going to camp at night?”

To his astonishment, the boy answered, “I don’t know how many wander off, but I know each one. I can’t count, but each sheep has a name, and I know their names.”

 

From our casual point of view, all sheep look the same. Different shapes and sizes, but for the most part, they’re a dime a dozen – if you’ve seen one sheep, you’ve seen them all. Right? Not true. Because a shepherd spends a lot of time with his sheep, and as he does, he gets to know the different personalities and quirks of each one of his sheep. That one over there, he might say, likes to stray away. This one over here, he gets tired all the time. And this one, well, he is very bad at finding pasture. You need watch out for this one – he’s mean. And that one over there is always running ahead – overconfident. Each sheep has its own personality, different strengths and weaknesses, and a good shepherd will know what those different things are about his sheep. He knows them.

 

Christ knows each of us, individually and by name. One of the lessons of Psalm 23 is that every person who is one of God’s flock is individually cared for as one of God’s sheep. Unlike most of the Psalms, 23 says the Lord is MY shepherd. The other psalms say The Lord is OUR shepherd. Never forget that while you are also one of God’s flock, His care for you is an individual type of care, not merely as a number or as a series of perforations in a computer card. David never lost his sense of individual pastoral care from the hand of his Shepherd.

 

I may be frustrated by the idea of being a sheep, but the Bible keeps pointing out over and over the parallels. One of my favorite passages is from Ezekiel 34:11-15. “For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God.”

 

The shepherd brings his sheep to food and water. The shepherd rescues his flock and brings them back together. And the shepherd cares for us, just as Christ does. 

 

The tools of a shepherd are telling too. The first tool of a shepherd is the staff, pointed on one end, crooked on the other. A shepherd lovingly reaches his staff down into a hole and slips the staff under the sheep’s leg and gently pulls the sheep out of the hole. And we, people, are like sheep. We get into holes during our lives, and God is forever pulling us out of our holes. A Biblical passage from Isaiah asks, “Is my arm too short to reach down and pull you up? No. My arm is not too short to reach down and help you.” It must be clearly said that the shepherd never uses the other end of the staff to hit the sheep in order to get the sheep to obey. The pointed end of the staff is reserved for the enemies such as wolves and thieves. The shepherd never strikes the sheep with his staff in order to get conformity or obedience; the shepherd is the good shepherd.

 

The second, more powerful, tool of the shepherd is the shepherd’s voice. Over time, the sheep get to know the shepherd’s voice. In the middle east, there are many caves, and several flocks of sheep might be herded into one of them to escape a storm, or to weather overnight. But in the morning, the shepherd doesn’t have to look for brands or markings, he just steps away from the cave, moves away from the other shepherds, and calls to his flock. And they come right to him, because they know his voice.

For better or for worse, we are God’s sheep. But is Christ our shepherd? Is it his voice we follow?

 

Scientists hypothesize that if time travel were possible and we could go back 1000 years, one of the things that would shock us most would be the silence. Think about it. All the background noise of our modern world: television, telephones, radios, cars, planes, refrigerators…none of which existed a thousand years ago. Some even hypothesize that for modern man that silence would be deafening. Because we are surrounded by voices: on TV, on the radio, on the internet: all telling us what we need to know, how to be saved, how to find peace, how to be happy.

 

And yet we are called to listen for the still small voice of God admits the chaos. One voice among the thousands screaming at us. How on earth can we hear that we cry.

 

There were two men were walking along a crowded city sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the men remarked, “Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket,” But the other man could not hear the sound.

He asked his friend how he could hear the sound of a cricket amid the roar of the traffic and the sound of the people. The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to hear the sounds of nature.

He didn’t explain to his friend in words how he could hear the sound of the cricket, but instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a half-dollar coin, dropped it onto the sidewalk, and watched intently as a dozen people began to look for the coin as they heard it clanking around amid the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the city. He turned to his friend and said, “We hear what we listen for.”

 

What do you listen for? Do you hear Christ’s voice admits the chaos?

 

Even when we do hear that voice, do we follow it? Jesus leads us through hard places some times and asks us to do difficult things. It seems like it would be so much easier to stray off the path. To eat the grass that is right here rather than struggling through the difficult valleys.

 

My dog Dylan knows my voice. When we go to the dog park people call commands to their dogs all the time, but he ignores those commands. Yet when I tell him to come, he will race across half the park to respond. I know he knows my voice. Sometimes though, he decides what he is doing is far more interesting then what I am telling him to do. He knows my voice, but he doesn’t always follow it.

 

We know Christ’s voice. We know what he is calling us to do. The question is do we follow? 

 

Jesus calls us. And in the midst of this noisy world we hear him. And so when we follow him, as he leads us through this world. When we follow Christ we trust him. We don’t always understand him. But I don’t think sheep ever really understand what their shepherd is doing. Don’t you think that’s true? Most of the time, sheep have no idea what their shepherd is doing – why the shepherd is taking them here, or pushing them there. Sheep have no idea. But the shepherd knows his sheep, and he does what is best for them. The sheep follow their shepherd.

Christ is calling you to follow.  Whose sheep will you be? Amen.

 

Rev. Cara Gee

April 25th, 2010

 

 

 

04-18-10 PAYING ATTENTION TO VISIONS

PAYING ATTENTION TO VISIONS

Acts 9: 1-6; John 21: 1-8

 

Dr. Lex Baer of our Presbyterian Counseling Centersays “Pay attention to your dreams.” Easier said then done for people like me.I tell him I often don’t dream and he says everyone dreams, you just have tofacilitate writing them down from a twilight sleep or right when I wake up. Ithen admit that I remember some dreams but don’t really find them comforting soI let them pass into forgottenness. He just smiles.  We know, for example, that in Egypt ages ago, and perhapseven now, Egyptians believed that dreams could tell the future. So we travel toGenesis 40 where the youngest son of Jacob, called Joseph, has been sold by hisbrothers to a traveling band of Ishmaelites.  They are traders who then sold him to Potiphar, the captainof the Pharaoh of Egypt’s guard. He ends up in prison (where Pharaoh also hadcast his cup bearer and head baker!) And Joseph asks them what was wrong. Theywere troubled with the meaning of dreams they had each had the night before.“Tell them to me” Joseph invites them in Genesis 40. “Interpretations belongsto God, does they not? Tell me your dreams that I may interpret them since I ama man of God!” So tell him they did: The one dreamt that he had filled hismaster’s cups with the grapes of three vines. Joseph said that meant that inthree days he would be released and restored to his position. It happened justas he said! The baker said that he dreamt he had three baskets of cakes on hishead for Pharaoh but that the top cake was eaten by birds. To that Josephpredicted that he would be hanged in three days! And it was so!! Joseph couldpredict dreams because of his connection to God. Pharaoh was most interested.Two years later Pharaoh himself dreamed that he saw seven fat cows come out ofthe Nile followed by seven skinny cows that ate the fat cows but remainedskinny. “What does it mean?” Pharaoh asked Joseph?” Joseph said what it meant:“There will be seven years of plenty, sir, followed by seven years of faminethat will negate the seven years of plenty. (Almost like the dot.com andhousing market boom has nearly been negated by the foreclosures and job lossesof the last three years.)  Dreamsmean something,” Dr. Lex said.  Andit was another Joseph, the earthly father of baby Jesus, who had revealed tohim in a dream that his espoused wife was expecting a child; later a dreamwarned the wise men about Herod and warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus toEgypt to avoid what has been called the slaughter of the innocence. Dreamsmatter.

 

Sometimes dreams and visions are used interchangeably,sometimes they are different. I know of people who have seen visions of angelsin the dark of night, and others who have had a vision of a loved one who hadalready gone to heaven. Dreams and visions matter, as in both cases, messagesof comfort bathed the souls of the survivors who saw them. As I shared with thechildren, fourteen years before the wreck of the ocean liner Titanic, a man named Morgan Robinson had his novella publishedcalled Futility.  Itwas the fictional story of the largest ocean liner afloat, called the Titan,which sailed on its maiden voyagefrom England to New York and struck an iceberg on its starboard side, all ofwhich actually happened in 1912. What could make a fictional story become anon-fiction disaster?  What haveyou experienced in the ways of premonitions, or visions, or dream? Was theretruth or terror in any of them?

 

When a young Jew named Saul was growing up, he wouldhave been aware of the stories of Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob; he wouldhave been aware of the vision of the greatest prophet of all time—Elijah—beingtaken up into heaven in a whirlwind. He would have been told the story of Godappearing to the young Solomon in a dream. He knew such things happened,perhaps even more than our modern day world believes it happens. But there arepeople even today, who also believe in prophesies, dreams and visions. Thereare some who have experienced those events that seem to fly under the radar ofmany other mortals. But it is likely that young Saul, later a persecutor ofChristians, would never have believed the vision he would have. The one whoChristians were following appeared to him in a blinding vision: “Saul, Saul,why do you persecute me?” Jesus asked this now incapacitated man. In the daysthat followed that encounter Saul paid attention to his dream. It transformedhim; it made him into the passionate Christian he came to be. And in John 21 weare heard about John identifying a man at the side of the Sea of Galilee as theLord; no one else recognized him; perhaps they didn’t even expect to see him.But John paid attention to the vision of Jesus; it was John, who felt toounworthy to be loved by Jesus, who identified him as their risen Lord. And theirlives were, and the world was, changed forever because of that encounter.

 

Finally, some are puzzled by, and others are blessedby the last book in the Bible: the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John.  It is a vision; a long and sometimesdeliberately confusing vision. John needed his message to get past his guardswhile he was in prison on the island of Patmos, wanting them to consider itharmless gibberish rather than the hopeful encouragement to Christians andsubtle condemnation of the emperor that it contained. With the description ofthat vision, we have our best idea of what Heaven is like; with that vision, weknow that God will win against all human tyrants in the end. What a loss itwould be if John did not pay attention to his vision!

 

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Sometimes Godchooses to break through ordinary barriers to deliver a message to believersand non-believers alike; a message that will fulfill a purpose. Sometimes it isto comfort you; sometimes it is as a warning; and sometimes it is just toremind the world that God is still with us. I don’t know what to make of peoplewho seem to sense things beyond my perception. But I know that in many casessuch communications reveal information that might not otherwise have beenobtained.

 

“Pay attention to your dreams.” The advice has comeback with renewed meaning. What wonderful ways is God able to use our minds,coupled with our faith, to help steer th
e ship we call planet Earth? Let thosewho have eyes, let them see. Let those who have ears, let them hear. And let allthose who are willing, lift up and open their hearts. God may be showing youthe way, the truth, and the life again, or for the very first time.

 

Jeffrey Sumner April 18, 2010

04-11-10 WHO SEALS YOUR HEART?

WHO SEALS YOUR HEART?

Song of Songs 8:  6-7a; John 20: 19-31

 

Songwriter Paul Stookey wrote  this about Jesus: “He is now to be among you, at the calling of your heart, rest assured this troubadour is acting on his part; the union of your spirits here has caused him to remain; for whenever to or more of you are gathered in his name there is love.”  Of course his message isn’t just from the 1970s; it is from Matthew 18 verse 20. In first John chapter 4 we are reminded that “God is Love.” But even before that, there was a love song in the Bible known as “The Song of Songs” or “The Song of Solomon.” In placing it in the Bible, early church authorities offered readers poetry that might have made them blush at first; some might read it as just a human love story. But there were clearly readers of that ancient love song, parts of which pre-date the 3rd century B.C.E., who believed it was about more than the romantic love of another person; it was also about the sealing of one’s heart to God. Later people would be reminded of those words as Paul used marriage imagery to say that Christ loves the church as Christians love him in return. Even Jesus reminds us in Luke 12: 34 that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Lovers want to be the treasure of their lover’s heart; God wants to be the treasure of ours, sealed by the sacraments and by our profession of faith, hope, and love. Today let us see who has sealed our hearts.

 

When John describes the seven seals in the Revelation Jesus gave him, he was describing something that was protected, set apart, consecrated, and even secret. When Peter Yarrow in a children’s song described “sealing wax, and other fancy stuff,” I didn’t have a frame of reference for what that was. But in a recent mini-series about the English Tudors, I watched the king’s aid pour hot wax over the crease of a wound up scroll, and the king put his signet ring into the wax as popes and other monarchs have done. It “seals” the contents as being the genuine message from one to another. The seal is only to be broken by the intended recipient; if it is broken earlier it is clearly noticeable. The ancient poet asks a lover to “set me as a seal upon your heart.” We might even imagine God saying to us “Set me as a seal upon your heart. Take me in, give me a home there, and seal it. Let only my love dwell there so that you too will never forget my love.” And God surely hopes that we would say, one by one, “Set me as a seal upon your heart” as well.

 

As I have begun my doctoral studies in Christian spirituality, a new world of Christian mystics and writers has been opened to me. With the neo-Platonic influence of his day, St. Augustine refers to his loving God like this:

“I came to love you too late, Oh Beauty, so ancient and so new. Yes, I came to love you too late: what did I know? You were inside me, and I was out of my body and mind, looking for you!” The joyful St. Francis of Assisi, who felt God’s love especially through nature, said: “Such love does the sky now pour that whenever I stand in a field, I have to wring out the light when I get home!”  And it was also St. Francis who “discovered a religious calling to praise God through courtly and knightly service (as in chivalrous knights) loving a figure he imagined as a heavenly lady: Lady Poverty.” (quote from Francis J. Ambrosio) It was his beloved Claire of Assisi who wrote about Christ: “Draw me after You! We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes, O heavenly Spouse!” St . Teresa of Avila once wrote, “I love what I could love, until I held Him (capital H), for then—all things—every world, disappeared.” And the mystic St. John of the Cross famously wrote two poems about God, one about feeling the absence of God called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” and one about the divine illumination and love he felt from God, and that his heart passionately poured back to God in return. He called it “The Living Flame of Love,” and some of the stanzas include these words:  “O Living Flame of Love, that woundest tenderly my soul in its utmost depth! As Thou art no longer grievous, perfect Thy work, if it be Thy will ….How tenderly Thou fillest me with Thy love.”

 

It was to Jeremiah that God lovingly said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; in Biblical terms when Adam knew Eve he loved her; here we know that before God formed Jeremiah in the womb he loved him. God loved him from his creation, perhaps even at the very idea of him! “And I consecrated you” means, “I have set you apart as my own.” I have put my seal over your soul and pressed the signet ring into it, claiming your soul as mine. And God offers the very same words to those who love the Wonderful One! Even before any one of us was born, God loved us; God loves us still. The seal is God’s claim on our heart, even, disappointingly to God, even if it is unrequited love, even if we do not love God back.  “What wondrous love is this O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul? What wondrous love is this that cause the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse (of my sins) O my soul?  How is it that God keeps loving us through our sins, our self-centeredness, or our hatefulness?  It’s like a good parent and a child, or good friends, or lovers where devotion continues despite disappointments. But sometimes something is done so heineous to the other that love dries up or is withdrawn. It is understandable when a person’s wounds are so deep. But can you imagine what God says when you or I wound God?  The Apostle Paul experienced God’s grace and mercy in such a way that he wrote about it to the Christians in Rome: Paul says this is God’s stand:  “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Most of the time we talk about showing reverence for God, or being awestruck in God’s presence, or we may think of God as handy to have around in a crisis but otherwise we just let God be along for the ride. But what if we took the undying love found in li
terature and real life, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, like Oliver and Jenny devotion in Erich Segal’s, Love Story, like Noah’s love for Allie in Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, or like Catherine and Peter Marshall’s love for each other told in stories after his death: what if we took that kind of love and offered it back to God? How radical would it be if, from our lips we said to God, “Neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you from my love.”  What would that do for God? How do you imagine the holy heart would react? And isn’t that ultimately what God longs to hear? Using either the mystic’s analogy of burning passionate love, or the love that is apparent is in the Song of Songs; or using other Biblical examples like that offered by Mary the mother of Jesus, loving God and loving others is even Jesus’ new commandment. Surely God loves to receive love, not just give love! The one who has put a heavenly seal on your heart and said, “You are mine,” will love to hear the words from you, and from me today, saying: “And I am yours.” Passion, devotion, forgiveness, and great care are hallmarks of what one can offer another in love! That is also what God offers us. What energy and joy could be produced if each of our hearts, one by one, came alive today with renewed passion, devotion, forgiveness, and care toward God?

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      April 11, 2010

 

04-04-10 CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD

CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD!

1 Corinthians 15: 12-22; Mark 16: 1-8

 

In Old Jerusalem, even today, there is a place said to be the Upper Room. It is the place where Jesus shared his last meal with the ones known as “The Twelve.” They were the traditional choice of the men who were to carry on the tradition of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob’s sons-the one’s Jesus had in mind when he was planning to institute the New Israel! If you read about those twelve brothers, not only were they not perfect, they depicted countless sins with their behavior! They were jealous, envious, and crafty, just like their father Jacob! But they were chosen; chosen by God to, through their imperfection, show what God could do with human beings.

So Jesus gathered twelve men to be his apostles not because they were brighter or more worthy, but to re-create the picture of those original twelve tribes. He had extraordinary women who followed and supported him as well, and on Easter their wisdom shone through. But of the apostles: some were quiet, some were loud; some doubted, some believed; some were good evangelists and some were exclusivists.  And one, through puzzling motives, even betrayed him while one denied knowing him three times.

 

On Friday, the scene moved to a stone quarry with a rock face that looked like a skull from a distance, so it was called “the place of the skull” “Golgotha” in Aramaic, later called “Calvary” when it was translated into Latin. It was a place where work was done, but also a public place where Romans wanting to keep down insurrections (riots) and to make people see what people faced if they flaunted Roman rules, they put their torturous death machine there in a public place. Few people in that day stood around to watch people die in such a brutal fashion unless it was the families of  those who had been wronged. In Jesus’ case, trumped up charges made by religious leaders who were concerned about Jesus’ rising power got him nailed to one of the crosses. The experience was anguishing to watch and tortuous to experience. The one who was called Christ died on the cross at the very time that, across town, the Passover Lamb was slaughtered to pay the price for Jewish sins. But on that dark Friday, the lamb of God took away also the sins of the whole world as he died for the sins of others.

Thankfully women came to tomb very early on Sunday morning, a tomb generously given by Joseph of Arimathea. This was a loving and prescribed Jewish ritual, but what they found had never been found before. The dead body was not there! The stone that had blocked the tomb had been rolled back! No Jew would ever touch a dead body except through respect, and no Romans were interested; his body wasn’t stolen; he had been bodily resurrected from its resting place! And Scripture records that women, who had supported Jesus throughout his life and ministry, were the first ones who witnessed it. And the world has never been the same.

 

Today you are invited not to a last supper of dread, but to a joyful feast of the people of God. Today let me ask you even as you partake: are you filled with faith; are you haunted by doubt; do you partake with joy or with trepidation? Jesus had people from many different lands end up following him. But for the ones who doubted, he said to put away all their doubts and believe! No matter where you are in your faith journey, today is a day of new beginnings! Christ truly rose from the dead! It is he who invites you to partake of this joyous Communion with Him.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      April 4, 2010