The Lord Is My Shepherd, I Lack Nothing

(On Sunday, June 18, I preached about the 23rd Psalm. As I lived with the Psalm in preparation for the sermon, I experienced depth and richness far beyond what I could share in a single sermon. So this week I’ll be blogging on one verse of the Psalm each day.

As I said in the sermon, sometimes we become so familiar with a recitation – the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, this Psalm – that we miss the meaning of what we are saying. I invite you to slow down this week as we dig into the verses of this well-known – in some ways perhaps too-well-known – psalm.

I’ll be using the NIV translation. You can find other translations here.)

Psalm 23:1: “The Lord is My Shepherd, I lack nothing.”

How about the audacity of the author[1] of the 23rd Psalm? He claims the Lord – the Great I Am, who is and was and will be, who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt – as his personal shepherd. The Psalmist is most likely an Israelite, one of the Lord’s people, but to say “The Lord is my shepherd” rather than “The Lord is our shepherd” seems at least presumptuous.

But the singular pronoun reflects the intensity of the Psalmist’s relationship with God. This psalm is a proclamation not just of God’s nature but also a confession of the Psalmist’s experience of – and with – God. His God is not a mighty but unknowable mystical being off in heaven somewhere perhaps feeling sorry for the Psalmist when things are tough, but rather a personal presence whose love and care abide through the hilltops and valleys of his life.

Like a . . . shepherd.

Shepherds were ubiquitous in the place and time this Psalm was composed. Perhaps the writer himself worked as a shepherd. He would have known from observation or experience the devotion of a shepherd to his flock. According to Wikipedia, sheep live 10-12 years with some breeds approaching 20 years of life. Because sheep were raised not for premature execution for the sake of mutton stew but rather for their wool, they would live out that life span in the care of their shepherds.  Those shepherds would undoubtedly come to intimately know and maybe even become attached to members of their flock.  Each of those sheep depended fully on the shepherd for food and water and protection.

Sheep are quite helpless on their own.

Our judgment of the Psalmist’s audacity will be tempered when we realize the logical extension of his metaphor.

If God is his shepherd, then he must be a sheep.

One of the most popular and enduring Christian summer camp songs is “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep.” The profound lyrics of the chorus proclaim:

I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa.

The verses declare things I don’t wanna be – a Pharisee (they’re not fair you see), a Sadducee (they’re so sad, you see) before returning to the enthusiastic affirmation of the desire to be a sheep.

Inspiring!

Except, who really wants to be a sheep?

Sheep are stupid.  A sheep will put its head down in pursuit of tasty green grass and get separated from the herd. On their own, they end up lost, injured, and finally eaten. Better to be predator than prey, right?

Who wants to be helpless and vulnerable and . . . worst of all, dependent! We live in a pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps culture. “I don’t need anybody” is a declaration to be admired like the so-called self-made man (or woman) on the pedestal who utters it.  “Needy” is a pejorative for both those who are impoverished and those who could use a shoulder to cry on.

Like Herbie the Elf and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer  in the classic Christmas special, we want to be in-de-pen-dent.

The 23rd Psalm is a Declaration of Dependence. The Lord is my shepherd. I am a sheep.

I can’t make it on my own.

Not only does the Psalmist profess total reliance on the Lord, but there is also an implicit confession of community. The apparent singularity of “The Lord is my shepherd” is repudiated by the social character of the flock.

God gives me everything I need. “I lack nothing.” In the context of the shepherd/sheep metaphor, that includes community.

The Psalmist makes it clear that “I lack nothing” because the Lord is my shepherd. Everything I have, everything I am, is a result of God’s loving care.

“I lack nothing,” or in more the more traditional rendering, “I shall not want,” does not imply or promise that I have everything I want. God is a shepherd, not a genie in a lamp. We struggle to separate our wants from our needs. We stress and strive for the things we believe will make us happy. Just one more purchase or experience and we’ll be there.

Acquisitiveness only leaves us ensnared in a consumerist version of Zeno’s paradoxes, never reaching our desired destination of satisfaction.

“I lack nothing” is not an encouragement of the “gimme, gimme, gimme” nature we all possess, but rather an appeal for us to move from greed to gratitude. It is an invitation to shift from wanting more and more to being thankful for what we have. And, most importantly, “I lack nothing” challenges us to transform our perception of the things and opportunities we receive from what we deserve and earn to gifts of God to be used and shared for the sake of God’s name.

“I lack nothing” could be perverted by a prosperity preacher into promised plenteousness, but that is patently not the poet’s point.

As we shall see as we journey through the Psalm, the Psalmist lives and expresses the real world in which there are unfulfilled desires and disappointments and even death. Dark valleys and evil and enemies abound, but the shepherd is with us in the midst of these terrors. We have everything we need.

We have the shepherd. We have the other sheep.

We have God. We have each other.

——————-

[1] The 23rd Psalm is traditionally attributed to David, but like many Bible authorship issues, that is far from settled among scholars. I’ll primarily be using “the Psalmist” to refer to the poet who composed this psalm. And although we can’t say for sure whether the author was male or female, I will be using masculine pronouns consistently.

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Celebrating Grace – Excerpt from Ten Year Ordination Anniversary Sermon

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Pastor Dave and Karen

I can identify with Paul’s anger.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul was angry at anything – or anyone – that contradicted or got in the way of the message of Grace he was called to preach.

Paul had experienced bondage to the law and to sin and death, and he had experienced the joy of freedom that comes with faith in Christ.

He had experienced the walls built between insiders and outsiders, and he wanted the church to experience – and to demonstrate – the awesome inclusiveness of God’s grace.

Yes, I can identify with Paul’s anger.

That is because I can identify with Paul’s experience.

Although I didn’t throw Christians into jail like Paul before I became one myself at 33 years old, I did reject their attempts to tell me about their faith. I made fun of that faith and of them.

I believed, as I have said before, that I was Too Smart for God.

God was for weak, stupid people.

Most of you know the story of how I ended up in church. Karen told me that if I wanted to date her I would have to go to church with her.

She was certainly worth what I considered a wasted hour each week.

You know about how God’s Word worked on me and in me as I sat there with my arms crossed each week.

And you know how, months later, I realized . . .

I believe this stuff!

I did not choose to believe Jesus is for the world – and for me – exactly who he claims to be.

I couldn’t have chosen it.

I WOULDN’T have chosen it.

Why would I want to go back on everything I had said and believed I was? Why would I want to be one of THOSE Christians?

But I could no more choose not to believe in God than I could choose to disbelieve the Law of Gravity.

I experienced faith as a gift.

I experienced GRACE.

Like Paul, I encountered the resurrected Christ. I wasn’t blinded by a bright light. I didn’t hear the voice of Jesus . . .

Except I did . . .

I head the voice of Jesus in God’s Word as it was read and preached. I heard the voice of Jesus in the people of the congregation who welcomed me in spite of my doubts and even my downright disbelief.

And once God created this faith in me, I couldn’t help but (eventually) share it.

Today we celebrate ten years of ordained ministry.

When I first found out this was happening I didn’t like the idea at all.

To be honest, I’m not feeling that great about my ministry right now. I feel I have let the congregation down by being out two months for medical leave, two months when I was not available to you. Now that I am back, I am still only partly here. I know logically that the illness that caused my absence is not my fault, but I’m still working through some guilt that perhaps some of you understand who have been through a serious illness. I am working on that.

But there’s a deeper reason I was at least uncomfortable with today’s celebration.

In the same way being a Christian was not my idea or my doing, neither was being a pastor. No one is more surprised than me that I am here doing this.

Sometimes when people ask me why I wear a clerical collar when many pastors do not, I tell them it’s so when I look in the mirror I can remember that I’m a pastor. (I’m only half-kidding.)

It feels weird being celebrated for something that is not my doing. Neither is anything that’s been accomplished through me during these ten years of ordained ministry my doing.

Anything good I have done or preached is the Holy Spirit working through me.

But perhaps that is the point.

It is not me we are celebrating, but rather God’s grace that has been poured out in me and that I have been called to share with others.

That is something to celebrate. That is a celebration I can get behind.

We celebrate today God’s amazing Grace and the privilege I have of sharing it as an ordained minister in this church.

Like Paul, I get angry when folks try to water down God’s Grace or add requirements for our salvation to it. You know I haven’t been shy in sermons and Bible Studies and conversations about calling out those preachers and Christian leaders who would dilute God’s grace by telling folks what they need to do so God will love them or worse, the types of people God does not love and accept.

But it’s on our sign out front . . .

GOD LOVES EVERYONE
NO EXCEPTIONS

You see, like Paul, I have experienced the freedom of God’s Grace and have done my best to share and proclaim it for ten years. Today I get to celebrate with you what God has done in my life and through me in the lives of others.

I get to recommit to that message of love and freedom.

Sometimes folks have said this to me as kind of a complaint. But it is actually the best compliment I can get . . .

“Pastor Dave,
You always talk about Grace!”

Yep!
For ten years and counting.

AMEN

(You can hear the entire sermon on the church website.)

 

 

 

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Last-Minute Conversions Are Definitely UNFAIR!

I agree.

It’s not fair.

It’s a question that comes up a lot. “Pastor Dave, how can somebody on their deathbed, who’d lived their life however they want, ask Jesus to forgive them and then get into heaven?  It’s not fair!

No it’s not.

It’s not fair . . . to the person on their deathbed.

It’s not fair that they have had to endure whatever illness or injury has brought them to the moment of death without God.
It’s not fair that they have walked through life without the assurance that God is with them every moment.
It’s not fair that they have carried the burden of guilt for the things they have done and the things they have failed to do without knowing they are absolutely forgiven.

It’s not fair that they have not known the joy of the unconditional love of God.

When we say, ‘It’s not fair” that folks can realize their salvation at the last minute, we are misunderstanding and mischaracterizing what it means to be a follower of Christ.

“Oh my, what a terrible slog it is to walk the Christian path. I’ve had to do all this stuff for years upon years, and Last Minute Louie (or Louise) gets in at the last minute.”

What is it that is so terrible that you’ve had to do?

Is it so terrible to be supported and encouraged by a church family?
Is it so terrible to know you are a baptized Child of God, or to receive tangible forgiveness in communion?
Is it so terrible to know you are saved totally by God’s grace – by God’s undeserved gift of love, forgiveness, and salvation?

I don’t look back at the 15 or so years I was an unChristian atheist/agnostic and say, “That was the most wonderful time in my life! I could do anything I wanted.”

No.

I look back at those years from my late teens to my early thirties and regret what I missed. I missed the presence of God, the assurance of forgiveness, the fellowship of believers, and on and on.

When my dad died when I was 25, I had no hope of ever seeing him again.

When we say it is unfair for someone to recognize who Jesus is for them a the last moment, we reduce Christianity to a cosmic insurance policy that does not pay off until this life is done.

We diminish and even dismiss the benefits of being a follower of Christ in this life.

When we express or inwardly brood about someone “doing whatever they want” before they finally experience God’s love for them, we reduce the Christian life to a prison constructed of rules.

To follow Jesus is to experience freedom, the freedom to be the people God created us to be.

This concern about late and last-minute conversions is not new. Jesus told a parable about it – the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  In the parable, workers who have labored all day complain when they are paid the same by a vineyard owner as those who only worked an hour.  “It’s my vineyard,” the owner responds, “I paid you a day’s wage just like I promised. I can pay them the same if I want.”

Sometimes this parable is simply interpreted as a lesson about God’s sovereignty – God too can do what God wants. The world and the people in it are God’s, after all.

But there is more.

The workers who complained  didn’t consider the benefits of working all day beyond the evening payoff.

They didn’t have to worry about whether they were going to find work that day.
They didn’t have to worry about whether they could feed their family that day.
They didn’t have to worry about shelter, clothes, and other needs that day.

The workers who were hired at the end of the day, although they received the same ultimate reward, had to endure this fundamental insecurity until they were hired at the last minute.

For whom were things that day the most “unfair?”

Folks sometimes ask, “If you can wait until the last minute to become a Christian, why not wait?”

Sure you can wait.

But why would you want to?

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“Look! Here Is Water” – A Sermon about God’s Inclusivity with a Surprise Ending

18320546_1915395965153373_3150336191418249971_o.pngThe pivotal moment in today’s Scripture story is when the Ethiopian Official says to Philip, “Look! Here is water! What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”

That’s why Philip was there in the first place. But he didn’t know it.

What a surprise to him! He had been appointed to be a deacon in the earliest church, one of the men who oversaw the feeding of widows and the poor.  An angel told him to get out of town. to go out on that lonely, almost-deserted desert road.  “Get up and go,” the angel had said.

And Philip got up and went. 

On that road he had encountered that Ethiopian official, that Ethiopian guy. I don’t want to keep calling him “the Ethiopian guy” so I’ve decided to give him a name – Elias, which, according to an Ethiopian names website, means, “The Lord is God.”

The writer of Acts tells us that Elias was an official of the Ethiopian Queen, in charge of her entire treasury. He must have been pretty rich because he had a chariot and a driver. AND he had something probably even more expensive at that time when everything had to be written out by hand – a scroll with the book of Isaiah written on it.

He happened to be reading that scroll, and was confused by something Isaiah wrote 400 years before Jesus lived and died about a man who was like a sheep being led to slaughter, an innocent man put to death. So when the Holy Spirit told Philip to run over to the chariot, and Philip asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Elias told him, “No I don’t.”

And Elias asked, “What does this mean? Who is this innocent man who was put to death?”

And that opened the door. Philip shared the good news about Jesus – the Gospel – with  Elias!

He told Elias about Jesus, about how Jesus had lived and died and rose again. About how Jesus had saved the world from sin and death.

And then right at the right time, they came to some water. Right there in the desert.

The Holy Spirit was definitely in charge.

“Look! Here is water! What is to stand in the way of my being baptized?”

I wonder how long Phillip thought about that.  I wonder how long Philip considered how he would reply.

Why not baptize Elias? Philip had lots of reasons not to do it . . .

Philip could have said, “Elias you don’t know enough. Five minutes ago you didn’t even know who Jesus was. Maybe if you could take some classes or do some reading, we could schedule the baptism at some point in the future.”

I mean, Elias hadn’t even professed his faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior! He hadn’t recited the Creed (sure, the Creed hadn’t been written yet but that’s a technicality) or asked Jesus to come into his heart or whatever. “Sorry,” Philip could have said, “You haven’t said the right words. No baptism for you until you get that right.”

Incidentally, Elias hadn’t confessed his sins, either.

I wonder, did Philip think about Elias’ lack of knowledge or his failure to say the right words?

Do you and I let those things get in the way sometimes? Do we put too much stock in what we or somebody else knows or needs to know,  rather than realizing what happens in baptism – even our faith itself – is God’s work not ours?

I’ve heard it in discussions about communion – some of you remember it used to be that young people weren’t able to receive communion until they learned enough in Confirmation. Until they, quote, “understood the sacrament.” But I went to seminary and have a Master of Divinity Degree .

I don’t understand the sacrament. I don’t understand how we can receive the Body and Blood of Jesus along with the bread and the wine. It’s a mystery. If understanding was a requirement for Communion we would never commune developmentally disabled folks or folks with dementia. Thank God it’s not by our knowledge but by God’s grace and God’s action that we receive the benefits of Communion!  And faith itself.

And baptism – if you had to understand baptism we wouldn’t baptize babies. Or anybody else!  Baptism is something God does – God pours out grace, God’s undeserved, unconditional love and forgiveness.

Philip didn’t let Elias’ lack of knowledge or failure to say the right words get in the way of the Holy Spirit.

Here’s another thing Philip could said to Elias that prevented him from being baptized: “Elias! You’re an Ethiopian. You’re from Africa!”

I wonder if Philip hesitated because Elias was African. There probably weren’t any African Christians yet. Was the church for them? Maybe Philip could have said what folks of color sometimes have heard when they visited predominantly white churches. They were “lovingly” told, “Maybe you’d be more comfortable somewhere else.”  Or what white congregations have told clergy of color. “You’re just not right for our church.”

I wonder if Philip was worried about the church losing its identity.. People get nervous when churches get diverse.  Studies have shown that when predominantly white churches reach just ten percent people of color in membership, white folks start leaving. I don’t think that’s the Holy Sprit’s intention.

But Philip didn’t let Elias’ ethnicity get in the way of the Holy Spirit.

Philip could have also answered Elias’ question by saying, “Look at all you have. You’re rich! Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven. It’s right there in the Bible. Maybe if you sold some stuff . . .”

Sometimes we use economic status, either too much or too little, to separate us from fellow members of the Body of Christ.

But Philip didn’t let economics get in the way of the Holy Spirit.

Philip also could have answered Elias’ question by saying, “What’s to stand in the way of your being baptized? Just listen to you! There’s something not right about you.”  You see the Ethiopian was a eunuch – he is someone who had been castrated. His voice would have been a higher pitch than most men and he wouldn’t have had any facial hair. He wouldn’t have looked what would have been considered very “manly.”  According to Deuteronomy, if he was a Jew he couldn’t participate fully in Temple worship or offer sacrifices.

Philip could have said, “Look, it says in the Bible people like you don’t belong in the church.”

That would have been a pretty big reason Philip could have used to prevent him from being baptized.

“The Bible says it, and I believe it!”

Elias didn’t conform to the usual expectations of gender – he wasn’t the societally accepted picture of a “real man.” You might be able to understand Philip acting like some Christians even today, when they reject folks whose sexuality or gender are not their idea of  “normal.”

But Philip did not let Elias’ being different get in the way of the Holy Spirit.

Oh, and Philip could have said it was Philip himself that prevented Elias from being baptized. Philip wasn’t a pastor, after all, hadn’t been to seminary and didn’t wear one of these [point at clerical collar]. “Sorry. You’ll have to find someone else more qualified.” I can imagine what the Elias’ reaction would have been, [looking around] “Out here in the desert??”

Now of course in the Lutheran church it is Pastors who usually baptize. But that’s not because pastor’s have any special power (I wish I did). Baptism is a precious gift that has been entrusted to the church, and USUALLY pastors baptize so that gift is handled carefully and correctly. But even in our church, in an emergency, anyone can baptize and it will “work.”  I guess Philip could have told Elias to wait for someone more qualified.

But Philip didn’t let rules and policies stand in the way of the Holy Spirit.

The answer to Elias’ question, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized? “was . . .

Plenty. There were many reasons Philip could have cited to say, “Not now. Not here. Not you.”

But Philip baptized him . . . anyway.

I am actually more impressed with what Philip did before the baptism. You know, telling Elias the Good News about Jesus. Any of those reasons not to baptize Elias might have seemed like good reasons not even to share the Gospel with him. This dude was definitely different, and I’m sure Philip’s church buddies would have understood if he had just moved on.

But Phillip listened to the Holy Spirit. He shared that Good News and that Good News changed Elias.

The good news was for Elias!

[Walk to baptismal font].

You might be expecting me to end this sermon by saying, “Be like Philip. Go and share the Gospel with everyone.”

But I have something more important to tell you today.

Each of us is Elias.

There are reasons for God not to love us and to claim us as God’s own. There are things we’ve done and things we’ve failed to do. Ways that we are.

But God claimed us anyway. None of those reasons count. In the waters of baptism God poured out grace – unconditional, undeserved love and forgiveness.

No matter who you are, no matter what you have done . . . no matter what you may do . . . . God loves you.

What Paul writes in Romans 8 is the truth – NOTHING can separate us from the love of God.

But what if you’re not baptized?

I know it’s not the usual way we do things, but I can’t preach this sermon about Philip and Elias without saying,  “Here is water, what is to get in the way of you being baptized?” So if you have never been baptized, never experienced the outpouring of God’s love in that way, I want to invite you to come up, and we’ll do it right now.

There is nothing to stand in the way of your being baptized.

At the early service, no one came up to be baptized. But right after the service, one of our Confirmation students brought a friend to my office. The friend asked if we could schedule a baptism when her parents could be there.

And here’s the surprise ending – At the later service, someone did respond to the invitation to be baptized. In a highlight of my ten years of ministry, we baptized that gentleman right then and there . . . There was water. There was nothing to stand in the way of his being baptized.

 Later, he joined 21 other folks at the first session of our New Member class.

The Holy Spirit is awesome . . .

(Preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, May 7, 2017. You can hear the early service version of this sermon here.)

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Why Did I Almost Die? The Answer . . .

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s a reason for everything, right?

A little over two months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating pain in my shoulder.  I couldn’t breathe without sitting up. Thanks to my wife, I went to the doctor first thing the next morning.

You know you’re in trouble when your doctor calls 911.  I got an exciting ride in an ambulance. In the ER, they diagnosed Bilateral Pulomonary Embolisms (blood clots in both lungs).  I was treated in the hospital for a few days, then began  a very slooow recovery at home. Every doctor I’ve seen since –  and I’ve seen at least seven – has looked at the report and told me how lucky I am. I’m still not 100% (some would argue I never have been). My impatience and frustration often overwhelm the thankfulness I know I should exude.

So why did this happen?

Obviously, God was mad at me. I had done something very wrong. Or maybe it was an accumulation of small commissions and omissions. God got fed up, reached down, and clogged my lung arteries.  Bad things happen because of the bad things we do, or because we fail to do good things. I just need to figure out what that thing, or those things, are, and repent, and everything will be okay.

That certainly makes sense. It’s fair. According to the Prosperity Gospel, God pours out material blessings on folks who please God (especially by donating generously to Prosperity Gospel ministries). Punishment for those at whom God is angry is just the commutative property (a+b = b+a . . . sorry, you didn’t know there was going to be math) in action.

I don’t like that explanation, though.  Here’s another I’ve heard  . . .

It’s the devil’s fault!  It’s Satan that’s pissed off. I’m doing such a good job as a Christian and especially a pastor that Satan conjured up some clots in my lungs to slow me down. My PE’s are arterial affirmation of my church’s proclamation that “God loves everyone . . . No Exceptions.”

Let us consecrate my condition!

That approach seems a little too self-aggrandizing.

So maybe it was just that God had some things to teach me. But I’m not thrilled with that explanation, either. Certainly there are things I can and even should learn from this experience (when I’m done feeling sorry for myself, maybe), but I just don’t see God throwing down some pulmonary embolisms so I’ll be a better Christian. That’s pretty harsh pedagogy. And I thought Mrs. Demerit in sixth grade was tough . . .

The truth is no explanation is going to be satisfactory.

The only honest answer to, “Why did I go through this?” is . . .

I don’t know.

===

My dad died when he was only 52-years old. I’m going to be 55 this month. I figure that’s three bonus-years so far.

I have said and written before that my dad’s death was one of the cornerstones of my agnostic/atheist outlook in my 20’s. A good man suffered for years – he had a triple bypass with a bonus stroke when he was just 42, and was diagnosed with cancer at 48 – and then died way too young. It was senseless, and seemed to confirm my conviction that belief in God was for weak, stupid people.

But something said by the pastor who ministered to my mom the morning she found my dad dead in bed stuck with me. It forms my ministry now that I am an unexpected pastor. As my mom told me later, that pastor said . . .

“I could try to tell you why this happened, but I won’t.  Because I can’t. There is no explanation. But I am here for you”

Beware  those moralizers who would explain God. Beware the pontificators who would interpret the real reason behind every event.  Notice that their explanations will only confirm their biases. Remember the TV pastors who said the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was because of “the gays”?  How convenient that a hurricane would confirm their hateful world view.

Here’s what I know is not true:

“Everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes stuff just happens.  If there is a reason it is beyond our comprehension so it is irrelevant anyway. Attempting to figure out the “why” when trials and tragedies strike (as well as triumphs) is a waste of time.  The inevitable results are frustration and error.

Also, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” That bit of “wisdom” is not in the Bible.  It is proven false by experience. I know there are times when I’ve dealt with things beyond my ability to handle. The last two months for starters.

What I know to be true is that this world is messed up.

It is populated with people who are messed up – people like me and everybody else. Bad stuff happens. People get sick. They suffer. Sometimes evil seems to win. Injustice is rampant.

But that is exactly the world the Bible describes. A world gone wrong. Relationships with God and with each other scarred and torn.

In Jesus, God entered the world to put things right, to restore our relationships with God and with each other.  His violent suffering and death demonstrated that he entered  our messed up world, the real world. His resurrection proclaimed that evil does not have the last word.  And that even death does not have the last word.

Following Jesus is not insurance against bad stuff happening.

It is not a guarantee that suffering won’t occur. In fact, the Christian life lived faithfully in our messed up world might actually precipitate more suffering, or at least more inconvenience.

The assurance is that we won’t walk through this mess alone; that our messed-up selves will not separate us from God’s presence and God’s promises.  Following Christ is not just or even especially eternal life insurance . . . it is assurance right here and right now that we are not on our own.

Stuff happens that just plain sucks.

My recent health challenges,for example. There is no “why” for that, but there is a “Who” – God who was with me all through it, even though most of my prayers were complaints (in my defense, so are many of the Psalms).

Now I’m able to tell folks I’m getting better. Sometimes they respond, “God is good!”

The reality is that God would still be good if I hadn’t made it.

And God will still be good someday when I inevitably won’t.

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“Family Dinner” – A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Luke 22:1-27

There is something powerful about sharing a meal.

According to surveys, more families are eating together. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse conducted a survey and found that almost 60% of families with children under 18 report eating dinner together at least five times a week – that’s up from only 47% 20 years ago.

And that’s a good thing. According to the Family Dinner Project, children in families that regular share meals have:

  • Better academic performance
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Greater sense of resilience
  • Lower risk of substance abuse
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy
  • Lower risk of depression
  • Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
  • Lower rates of obesity

Yes, there is something powerful about sharing a meal.

Growing up, I remember my family gathered around the table sharing how our day went, our successes, our failures, our concerns. Sometimes arguments broke out (usually between me and my sister or me), but we learned how to resolve our differences. After all, if we had to get along if we wanted to eat.

Big news got shared at family suppers. I still clearly remember the supper when I was 12 and my father waited until dessert to tell us we were leaving Virginia and moving to Florida that summer. There were questions and tears and reassurances.

Food is a big part of the life of a church family. We just finished 6 weeks of Soup and Bread Suppers. We gather for Men’s Breakfasts and Lunch Bunch lunches and fellowship time after worship all summer. Most funerals include a bereavement meal where folks eat and remember together.  If we want to celebrate something or honor someone, what do we do? We eat!

There is something powerful about gathering and eating together.

Like the host of one of those food shows on the Travel network, Jesus eats his way around Israel through the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us about 10 times Jesus shares food with others – two of them after the resurrection (breaking bread with Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus and later eating fish with his disciples).

The eight times Luke reports about Jesus eating before his death and resurrection always find Jesus gathered with others. Often what Jesus says at these meals is significant, and once the meal itself is a miracle (the feeding of the 5000), but what is remarkable about most of these gatherings is with whom Jesus chooses to eat.

The first meal in Luke is a banquet at the home of Levi, a tax collector also known as Matthew. The religious leaders are outraged that Jesus would eat at the home of such a person, and with Levi’s friends, who are also “tax collectors and sinners.”

Later, Jesus eats with “respectable” people at the home of a Pharisee, but he scandalizes them by allowing a woman Luke tells us has lived a sinful life to anoint his feet with her tears and perfume before wiping them with her hair.

Just a couple weeks ago Pastor Nicki preached about another dinner that raised the eyebrows of the folks who thought they were righteous – out of all the people who lined the streets to see Jesus in Jericho, he picked the tax collector in a tree, Nicodemus, to host him for dinner.

It seems Jesus will eat with ANYBODY. Jesus turns meals into not just scandalous but subversive acts. He challenges the conventions about who is worthy and who is unworthy, who is righteous and who is a sinner, who is in and who is out, just by reclining at the table with disreputable characters.

Tonight we remember Jesus’ last meal before his crucifixion, the ritual Passover meal we call, appropriately enough, the Last Supper. What a rag-tag group of folks gathered with Jesus in the upper room that evening. Not only tax collector Matthew but political revolutionary Simon the Zealot. There were the hotheads James and John. As far as we know, none of them were especially educated or wealthy or in any other way what the world considered successful. In fact they were probably looked at as quite the opposite, having given up everything to follow the itinerant rabbi.

But they didn’t get it, not even after receiving the bread and the wine, Jesus’ body and blood. Instead of pondering what it all meant, they would argue about which of them was the greatest.

Jesus knew they kept missing the point, and that they would all desert him later that evening. Yet they were all invited and included.

Peter was there. Peter whose impulsivity caused him to do and say embarrassing things. Peter who Jesus knew would deny even knowing Jesus a few hours later. He was invited, and included.

As was even Judas. We don’t know anything about Judas’ life before he met Jesus. We do know that he was a thief – John tells us he stole from their communal funds. And we also know that he would betray Jesus on that very night.

Jesus knew it, too.

Jesus – and the Gospel writers – make it clear Jesus knew Judas was going to betray him.  That shows us that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him, that he was not surprised but walked willingly to the Cross. But it also shows us the kind of table fellowship Jesus practiced throughout his life he maintained even at the Last Supper.

If anyone ever deserved to be re-accomodated – that’s forcibly removed in United Airlines Speak – from the dinner table, it was Judas.

But he was right there, when Jesus broke the bread, and blessed it, and shared it.

And said, “This is my body, given for YOU.”

What must Judas have thought when he heard that? What must he have felt when the bread came around to him and he ate it.

And Judas was right there when Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for YOU.” According to Luke Jesus went on, “But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22 The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!”

What must Judas have thought and felt then, knowing that Jesus knew what he was about to do. And yet Judas still drank the wine. He was still included.

So are we.

Every time we celebrate Communion, every time we break the bread and pour the wine, every time we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we hear those words.

“FOR YOU.”

There are times when we may not feel you deserve Jesus’ invitation. We may never feel worthy.

Here’s the truth . . . we aren’t. None of us are.

But that’s why Jesus invites and includes us. That’s why he invited the tax collectors and the sinners and the betrayers and the deniers and deserters.

Because they – and we – need Him. We need the forgiveness we receive in this meal. We need to remember what he did for us. We need each other – to gather around the table, around the altar, together.

And we need to remember that Jesus invites everyone, no exceptions.

Finally, we need the glimpse of the future this meal provides. Holy Communion is “a foretaste of the feast to come,” a hint of the eternal feast Jesus invites all of us – and everyone – to share.

Yes, there is something powerful about sharing a meal.

AMEN

Preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville
Maundy Thursday (April 13), 2017

(NOTE: Theologians, and even perhaps the Gospel accounts, differ over whether Judas participated in the sharing of bread and wine at the Last Supper. Luke’s version, upon which this sermon is based, seems to indicate that he did. As the sermon makes clear, that is my supposition as well.)

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The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2017

2017-oscar-nominees

Every year I rank the films nominated for Best Picture. As always, these are not predictions nor is the order based on films I “liked” the most, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. Tune in Sunday night to see if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters agree with me (probably not!).

hell-or-high-water9. Hell or High Water

“Hell or High Water” has a 98% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me. But I’ll tell you anyway – I was underwhelmed by this film. It aspires to be “No Country for Old Men,” which did win the Best Picture Oscar in 2008. “Hell or High Water” will not, and should not. In my contrary to the critics’ opinion, it shouldn’t even be nominated.

I found “Hell or High Water” to be draggy and derivative. The best thing the film has going for it is the beautiful emptiness of the West Texas scenery in which it takes place; for me it was metaphoric of the emptiness of a film that attempts to transport the Robin Hood trope into a 21st Century where banks prey on “little people” and deserve to be robbed.

Jeff Bridges is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He is one of my favorite actors and has delivered Oscar-worthy performances in films such as “Fearless,” “The Fisher King,” and even “The Big Lebowski.” But not here.  The time should be past when we are subjected to – and encouraged to admire – a lawman with “cute” racist banter who really has a heart of gold.

hacksaw-ridge8. Hacksaw Ridge

The day after we saw “Hacksaw Ridge,” my wife Karen texted me, “Great story. Okay film.”

That’s how I feel. The story of Desmond Doss is one of those inspirational tales that would be rejected as unbelievable if someone made it up. Doss was a Conscientious Objector – or Conscientious Cooperator as he preferred – who refused to carry or even touch a gun during World War II but saved 75 men singlehandedly at the Battle of Okinawa. Doss’s story raises questions about the practicality and morality of pacifism.

The film of the story is marred by Mel Gibson’s direction. Gibson’s obsession with violence and even horror-film level gore is not new to “Hacksaw Ridge.” “Apocalypto,” “Braveheart,” and especially “The Passion of the Christ” exhibited the same kind of pornographic fixation with carnage. Portraying the reality of war can be edifying. But exploding bodies, disembodied intestines, bullets entering skulls, beheadings, and the like filmed in artful slow motion and accompanied by swelling music in “Hacksaw Ridge” might provoke a blush from even Sam Peckinpah.

“Hacksaw Ridge” does have its merits. The early scenes in Appalachian Virginia are rescued from Mayberry cliché’ by their gritty depiction of Doss’ dysfunctional family headed by his violent, alcoholic father. Andrew Garfield gives his portrayal of Doss some heft and avoids what could have been Gomer Pyle or Forrest Gump in World War II.  But the flaws of “Hacksaw Ridge” – particularly its Gibsonian excesses – preclude its recognition as Best Picture and a higher place on my list.

arrival7. Arrival

“Arrival” is the only Best Picture nominee I have seen twice. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the film is that I enjoyed it just as much the second time, even though I knew the twists and resolutions that were coming. I appreciated understanding how expertly it all fit together.

How can a nerd like me not appreciate a film where a major plot point hinges on the conversion of a repeating decimal into a fraction? Or how can an English major not appreciate a film that delves into the complexities and ambiguities of language?

“Arrival” is refreshing because it is about aliens who come to earth, but it is not a shoot-em-up like “Independence Day” or similar big-budget sci fi films. “Arrival” is more reminiscent of “Interstellar” (though not as impenetrably complex) or especially “Inception” (without the ham-handed “love is the strongest force in the universe”).  Love does figure in “Arrival;” one of the questions it raises is whether love is worth the inevitable pain caring for someone else brings.

The makers of “Arrival” did not have a Christopher Nolan level budget. They managed anyway to convey an intriguing plot and also an often beautiful film, all muted colors with sometimes sweeping shots despite its mid-budget limitations.

“Arrival” is nominated for eight Oscars, and although it is probably not a serious contender for Best Picture, it may rightfully earn some technical awards.

lion.jpg6. Lion

26-year old Dev Patel’s career has been bookended by Best Picture nominees. In 2008, he debuted as the featured character in “Slumdog Millionaire” which won the ultimate Oscar. Now here he is starring in “Lion”

“Lion” is true story that could have ended up a manipulative melodrama but turns out to be a genuinely moving film with authentic performances and gorgeous cinematography. The early scenes of a five-year old adrift in a Dickensian India are the most effective. The second half, in which the grown up child tries to find his home using his memory and Google Earth, is mostly treading time until the emotional payoff at the end. I admit to a moist cheek.

Patel and Nicole Kidman as his Australian adoptive mother are both nominated for supporting Oscars, but it is Sunny Pawar as the five-year old who captures the heart and soul of the film.

“Lion” and the also-nominated “Moonlight: take place in very different milieus, but both are at their core about their protagonists’ search for identity.

“Lion” won’t – and shouldn’t – win the Best Picture Oscar. But the Original Score that is among its six nominations should be honored on Sunday.  The music is so good from the outset that I was already watching the opening credits to see who composed it (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka).

fences5. Fences

Eight performers have won a Tony then later an Oscar for the same role. Never have two from the same play/film done it, but that could change this year when Denzel Washington and Viola Davis will be strong contenders for the Best Actor and Actress Oscars after winning Tony’s for the 2010 revival of “Fences.”

Their powerful performances, as well as those of the rest of the cast, are the most obvious reasons “Fences” is an excellent film, but August Wilson’s play with its gritty, sometimes poetic dialogue is, as Shakespeare wrote, “the thing.”

Washington’s direction is not as strong as his acting . . . there are some questionable quick edits and unnecessary close ups, but that is more than made up for by his – and especially Davis’s – brave, raw portrayals.

Although there are plenty of heartwarming moments and even laughs, this is at its heart a play/film about wasted potential. The causes are varied, but perhaps the most notable thing about “Fences” is that Wilson’s creation and the performer’s execution of these wounded and often self-defeating characters make them all sympathetic in spite of their failings. We even empathize with Denzel Washington’s Troy, who is despicable in many ways, as he says indirectly over and over that he is doing the best he can.

“Fences” is not the best film I’ve seen this year, but it has top to bottom the best performances of any ensemble I’ve witnessed on screen in quite some time.

moonlight4. Moonlight

Film at its best heightens empathy. We are invited to think, and especially to feel, along with characters whose backgrounds and perspectives are sometimes wildly different from our own. Film can help to break down barriers of misunderstanding and fear based in the unknown.

“Moonlight” is a sterling example of a film that fulfills this vital empathetic role. It took me into worlds and experiences with which I have no experiential familiarity and little understanding. Although the budget was clearly limited, its stripped-down, raw ambiance directs focus on reality as it is lived by its characters.

At its essence “Moonlight” is about its protagonist’s – Chiron’s – struggle for identity. But “Moonlight” embraces the humanity of all of its characters, even those whose choices are poor and sometmes illegal. Chiron’s drug-addicted mother is one such character; the film’s power, as well as that of her portrayal (by Naomie Harris), is reflected in the anger at her and sorrow for her that is evoked simultaneously.

Go see “Moonlight.” I don’t believe it is the Best Picture of the last year, but it may be the most important. It is a vital and a crucial part of the conversation we need to have at this moment in which empathy for those who are somehow “other” can seem a rare commodity.

la-la-land3. La La Land

At the end of Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, the producers and cast of “La La Land” will probably be gathered on the stage, hoisting the Best Picture Oscar.

It would not get my vote, although it is an enjoyable if somewhat ephemeral experience.

From its opening title, a vintage-looking “PRESENTED IN CINEMASCOPE,” “La La Land” captures the spirit of the golden age of Hollywood musicals. Ryan Gosling is no Fred Astaire or Gene Kelley, but he does an adequate job of singing and dancing. Emma Stone as an aspiring actress is similarly not the triple-threat any number of Broadway actresses may have been, but she and Gosling have a great chemistry and elicit the audience’s rooting interest in their respective dreams.

The music is mostly delightful but there is only maybe one tune that stuck with me after I left the theater.

The plot focuses solely on the two leads; that no other characters are developed results in a vaguely unsatisfying thinness. “La La Land” is never quite as exhilarating as its first big number set in an LA traffic jam, and never as fantastic, in both the “awesome” and “fantasy” meanings of the word, as the last 5 minutes or so.

“La La Land” is a film to see on the big screen to fully appreciate its colorful splendor; here’s another Oscar prediction – Linus Sandgren will win Best Cinematography for this exquisitely colorful film.

hidden-figures2. Hidden Figures

I was more surprised by “Hidden Figures” than by any other nominated film. Although its story of African American women who were mathematical geniuses at NASA sounded interesting and inspirational, I was not prepared for a film that so fully transcended the myriad interesting and inspirational films that get produced.

The script and direction are at times earthbound, but the three lead actresses are stellar and propel the film into outer space. Taraji P. Henson should have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Octavia Spencer’s nomination for Best Supporting as Actress is well-deserved. And Janelle Monae deserves SOME kind of recognition for her outstanding work in both this film and another Best Picture nominee, “Moonlight.”

The dynamic trinity of actresses portray women who manage to rise above the injustices inflicted by the segregated society in which they live, but only by enduring dehumanizing indignities.

“Hidden Figures” offers vital lessons about the dangers of building walls of division based on race or gender or any other superficial trait; not only do those barriers hurt those who are excluded, they also deprive those doing the exclusion of the gifts and talents those on the other side of those walls have to offer.

“Hidden Figures” is an amazing story of determination and resilience. Rated PG, it is an important film for families to view together and then discuss not just the negative effects of prejudice, but especially the positive example of three powerful role models who happen to be African American women.

manchester-by-the-sea1. Manchester by the Sea

I wavered and waffled over the order of films ranked 2-7 on this list. Numbers 8 and especially 9 were easy choices for the tail end.

But the easiest choice was “Manchester by the Sea” for the Best Picture of 2016.

A Best Picture should exemplify the epitome of film in which the sum of the parts – directing, screenwriting, editing, acting, and so on – synergize into much more as a whole.

“Manchester by the Sea” is just such a film. It is a Masterpiece by the Sea.

But “Manchester by the Sea” is not a film I am anxious to see again.  Its bleakness is devastating because of its honesty. There are no easy answers and people behave like authentic human beings rather than movie characters. Everyone is fallible, but all have some redeeming features. The tragedy is when they cannot find that redemption, either in themselves or anywhere else.

The acting is consistently Oscar-worthy, especially Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and newcomer Lucas Hedges. There is humor in “Manchester By the Sea” as there is in real life. But the humor does not fix everything or really make it better. There are no villains in “Manchester By the Sea,” only the banal destructiveness of unfortunate circumstance.

Ultimately the story is one of people doing the best they can in the ruins of tragedy, but how the best we can do is not always enough . . . especially not for ourselves. There is hope in the end, though certainly not the typical Hollywood Happy Ending.


And One Bonus Recommendation . . .

hunt-for-the-wilderpeopleThe Film I Most Enjoyed in 2016

Every once in a great while I come upon a film that totally surprises me not just with the way its plot progresses but with its charm and wit and humanity. “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is such a film. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, it has a 97%  on Rotten Tomatoes. But don’t take my word for it or the critics’ word for it, see this film on DVD or pay per view! It is funnier than any big-budget summer comedy, and is more engrossing – and certainly more real – than any superhero movie. As a pastor, I also appreciated the most bizarre funeral sermon ever put on film. Oh, and the beautiful New Zealand bush-country is worth seeing for its “majestical” (you have to see the film) quality. “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is definitely influenced by some of my favorites – especially Wes Anderson and a little Monty Python – but it is a fantastic, original creation.

 

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