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Category Archives: Psalms

And Forget Not All His Benefits

(a sermon for November 18, 2018, the 26th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Psalm 103 and Luke 18:9-14)

It’s an old story; one I first heard way back when I was still in school, but one that still resonates with me even today.

It seems there was this minister, who along with his regular duties as a church pastor, volunteered as a chaplain at a nearby prison.  Every Sunday afternoon, he’d leave church and go to this prison, so to lead worship and to visit with the prisoners there.  He’d actually been doing this for years; and since many of those imprisoned at that particular facility were serving long, and in a few instances, life sentences, not only was there a lot of valuable ministry happening in that environment but also some close relationships were developing between the minister and a few of the prisoners.  Over time, you see, this minister had not only become a pastor to these inmates; he was also seen as a good friend.

Eventually, however, as often happens in the ministry the pastor and his family were called to serve another parish in another state; and because of this his ministry at the prison had to come to an end.  And so of course he went to the prison one last time so he could tell the inmates that he was going to be moving away and say good-bye.   And, as is also often the case in ministry, the prisoners were very disappointed by the news and yet still they were happy for the minister, and wanted to wish him well in his new call.  In fact, almost immediately it was decided they needed to have a going away party for him; and there in the dayroom/chapel of this prison, the inmates quickly put together an impromptu and makeshift celebration, complete with a mini-buffet made up of bits of food they’d been keeping in their individual cells! And as they shared in this feast, the prisoners gathered around the minister so they could shake his hand, embrace him and express their gratitude for all the times they’d spent together.

And then, at the end of it all, one of the prisoners presented him with a package that had actually been wrapped in a old newspaper “borrowed” from the prison library.  And the prisoner said to the minister, “Here’s a going-away present to you from all of us; but we don’t want you to open it here.  Wait until you get home, and when you do, know that it is the very best that we could give you.”

The minister took the package home, and when he’d told his wife all about the going away party, together they set the package on the dining room table and tore open the newspaper wrapping.  And there, inside the package… was his wallet, his reading glasses case, his comb, some of his pocket change, even a set of keys he assumed he’d misplaced months before!  You see, all the while they’d been hugging him and wishing him well they’d also managed to pick every pocket clean!  And then they gathered up all of that which they’d stolen from him, wrapped it up and gave it back to him as a gift.

The most these prisoners had to give, you see, was what they’d already taken from him.

Well, once again it’s almost Thanksgiving; and if I might be pastorally honest with you for a moment, every year about this time I must confess that I find myself wondering what I might say to you about thankfulness that you haven’t already heard time and time again, even already this morning as we’ve been worshiping together!  That we ought to be more thankful than what we are?  Oh, yes.  That ultimately it does seem a little silly to set aside only one day a year for giving thanks when our many blessings continue “from season to changing season?”  Most certainly. That despite whatever our lingering feelings may be about mid-term elections and toward the people who don’t agree with us about that (!), nonetheless in this nation we are an especially fortunate people and not only ought we be exceedingly grateful for that, but also that it behooves us to work to become good and generous stewards of what we’ve been given as we reach out to others in need?  Absolutely! 

Actually, to suggest from this pulpit that you and I need to be thankful in all things kind of seems to me to be pretty obvious.  Because I dare say that most of us here are very much aware of our blessings, and even if it might take a family gathering and some turkey and stuffing to speak our thanksgiving aloud, we do understand what it means for us to be truly grateful for what we’ve received.  So maybe the best thing for me to do this morning is to start us off on another round of “We Gather Together,” pronounce the benediction and send us all forth on yet another glorious Turkey Day Feast!

But… then I remember that old story from so many years ago about the minister and the prison inmates, and I think twice about that.

You see, it’s one thing to count our many blessings; it’s quite another to acknowledge where those blessings have come from.  When it comes to thanksgiving, we’re very good at showing forth pride in our accomplishments, great in touting the hard work and steadfast effort it’s taken to get where we are in this life.  We’re good even in affirming the kind of good choices we’ve made that have led us along right pathways; but when it comes to facing up to the fact that so much of what we’re thankful for has come about not by our own effort but by sheer grace?  Well… maybe not so much!

Yes, part of it is that so many of us live out of the principle that if we want something bad enough and work hard enough for it, it can be ours; truly, that’s at the core of the American Dream, and something to be thankful for, especially in these times!  But friends, that philosophy only goes so far; the whole truth, and what we ought to understand as people of faith is that everything we have, everything we are and everything we can ever hope to be comes to us by the loving and gracious hand of God!  When it comes to true thanksgiving, we’re much like those prisoners in the story in that we are only able to draw from that which we’ve received; and what we’ve received – indeed, what we’ve taken – is wholly from God, who is the source of all our blessing!

And when we realize that; when we come to grips with the truth that every bit of the glory and achievement of our lives comes from something and someone other than ourselves, than the way we approach Thanksgiving – not to mention our whole approach to life and living – cannot help but change!

Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates what we’re talking about quite beautifully; a parable of Jesus that is actually directed to some in his company who quite convinced that their own good names and their better nature was that which would most certainly confirm their righteousness before God!  It’s a story of two prayers and two “pray-ers” and how very different they can be:  first, there’s the Pharisee who “went up to the temple to pray,” specifically to pray a prayer of thanksgiving according to the custom of the time.  And in that regard let’s be fair; this Pharisee, as a learned elder of the faith, was doing exactly was he was supposed to do in terms of proper religious observance.  By all appearances, he was doing everything right and was the very model of faith.

Unfortunately, then the Pharisee opens his mouth.

Oh, the prayer starts out alright:  “God, I thank you,” but from there every word has very little to do with God and everything to do with his own arrogance.  As The Message translates it, the Pharisee “posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid…”  (and at this point he pauses to make a grand and dismissive gesture to another man in the temple, “standing far off” so not to be noticed) “…or heaven forbid, like this tax man.”  And then he goes on with his very self-aggrandizing oration, complete with references to his twice a week fasting and what he puts in the offering plate!  In other words, for all the Pharisee’s many words, there’s no real thanksgiving involved here; this is nothing more than self-congratulation.

And what about that tax collector, who was “slumped in the shadows” as The Messsage describes him)?  He’s also come there to pray, but in fact he cannot even bring himself to “even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”  It’s not an eloquent prayer by any means, nor was it in keeping with temple ritual; and in all honesty, this man doesn’t even actually say “thank you” in any kind of usual or traditional way.  But it was utterly honest; and in confessing his own weakness and hopelessness the tax collector did the only thing he could possibly do, which was to turn to the only one who could provide him forgiveness, and mercy, and life: only God.  It was a simple and yet all-encompassing request for mercy, and in that there was an overriding affirmation that everything he ever had or could ever hope to have would come from God and God alone.

In other words, true thanksgiving.  As Jesus himself put it, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God.” (The Message)

The point here is in prayer – as in any act of thanksgiving – it is the humility of spirit that makes all the difference.  It is knowing – really and truly understanding – where our blessings have come from.  It is the confession of your own hearts that that the only source of our hope, our life, our health, our food and everything else that gives life its richness, its purpose and its joy is ultimately not us, but God and God alone.

And no, I don’t believe that Jesus is suggesting in this parable that we ought to carry on like great spiritual martyrs, wearing the misery of unworthiness on our sleeves.  Things like mercy, forgiveness and love; these are gifts that have been given freely out of the grace and infinite love of God, and they are given that we might rejoice in it.  But by the same token we can never allow ourselves to become like Little Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, proclaiming with every new blessing, “What a good boy am I!”  True thanksgiving happens when you and I are humble enough to know that it is never our goodness that ought to be proclaimed, but God’s.

And if you’re somehow struggling with that; if you’re wondering how it’s even possible to be that humble, or maybe if you’re seeing all the hoopla of the holidays looming on the horizon and perhaps need to remember what Thanksgiving is all about, then let me give you this reminder in the words that were read (and danced!) earlier this morning:

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

It is worth noting, you know, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “soul” is nephesh, which actually is better understood as one’s “inmost being;” the nephesh, the soul, is in fact all of who a person is; it is everything you and I are.  So true thanksgiving, beloved, involves much more than a word of grace spoken around the table; it’s much more than simply being aware of our many blessings.  True thanksgiving is when we are moved to bless God with everything we are.  True thanksgiving, if I might quote Paul Myhre here, is when our every breath “inhales and exhales praise. It is [our capacity] to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things.”

We are truly blessed, you and I; we have been gifted, nurtured and sustained by a loving, divine hand.  So for the nourishment of good food, the shelter of a warm home, the love of family and friends, the caring support of this family of God’s people, for the times of celebration in which we danced for the sheer joy of it and for the times of sadness in which we found strength in crying on one another’s shoulder; and for the moments when even in great weakness we found the strength and hope that we needed…

… may the thanks of our inmost soul be unto God.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends, and

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2018 in Jesus, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon, Thanksgiving

 

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Shepherded

(a sermon for April 22, 2018, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18)

It is almost certainly the most familiar and oft-quoted opening lines in all of Holy Scripture:  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  Likewise, the first part of our gospel reading for this morning is just about as iconic:  “I am the good shepherd.”   These are two passages of scripture that just about everyone knows one level or another, and for good reason; indeed, it’s the very imagery by which countless people throughout the centuries and from every nation, every culture and every walk of life have found comfort and peace, and quite literally how they come to know and begin to understand the deep and graceful love of God Almighty!

However… I have to say here this morning that each of these wonderful verses also offer up something of a challenge not only to our interpretation and understanding of scripture, but also in our perception of ourselves and who we are; something of which I was reminded this week, courtesy of a quote I found from one Jason Micheli: “To profess that the Lord is your shepherd,” he writes, “is to confess that you are a sheep.”   Now I don’t know about you, friends, but I have to be honest: I’m not at all sure how I feel about that!

Not that I have anything against sheep, mind you; it’s just that they don’t necessarily fit the image that I have of them!  Let me give you an example:  at the church where I served as pastor in Ohio, one of the traditions was that on several evenings each Christmas we put on a “live nativity” for the community.  It was actually quite a production; we had this huge stable set up in the front yard of the church; the children and youth of the congregation dressed up as all the main characters and acted out the story;  there was special lighting and beautiful music playing through the loudspeakers, and best of all, there were live animals from nearby farms that visitors could meet up close and personal: donkeys, llamas, even a camel on a couple of years that they could find one (!); and of course, as would befit any good manger scene, there were also plenty of sheep!

And it was wonderful; except for that one year when someone inadvertently left the latch on the sheep pen open; and when one sheep, who it must be said was not particularly pleased to be cooped up to begin with, bolted out of the sheep pen!  Now as I understand it, one of the youth group kids playing shepherd immediately lunged to try and keep that sheep from escaping, but to no avail; because he was off and running, across the busy main street of the town and out into the December darkness!  And so then, of course, right behind the sheep went several other of our youth group members chasing after him (including, I should point out here, Sarah and Zach)!

In remembering this yesterday, Sarah told me that it was really quite a thing that there were all these kids running through yards and alleyways – and all dressed in biblical garb, mind you (!) – trying in vain to catch up with this sheep who was, understandably, trying his best to stay away from them!   Eventually, after several attempts the kids did manage to corner the animal on somebody’s back porch and eventually he was brought back to the manger safe and sound; but not before he’d covered several city blocks and inspired a few calls to the police (we even made the local paper’s police blotter that talked about several reports of an “errant and wayward sheep” running rampant through the neighborhood).  It was all best summed up in the words of one of our church members, actually the farmer who had lent us that animal for the nativity, “He was just a bahhh..d sheep!”

And therein lies my problem with being characterized as a sheep, or even a lamb!  To quote Jason Micheli once again, “Lambs are lame. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into valleys;” in a word, albeit one that’s unkind, by themselves at least, sheep tend to be… well, stupid.  Whatever else you can say about them, you see – their wool, their meat, their intrinsic beauty (!) – the fact remains that sheep are totally dependent on their shepherd for their care; they ever and always need to be led and guided and protected by the shepherd, or else they will inevitably end up “lunch for wolves!”

So… given all that, it is indeed one thing for you and I to think of God as our shepherd; but it is quite another, is it not, to recognize ourselves as the sheep of his pasture; as those who would so easily and so foolishly wander away from the fold.  I mean, we’re smarter than that, aren’t we?  Maybe when we were young and still learning, we could find ourselves making unfortunate choices that went very badly, but now with time and experience, not to mention a touch of grey in the wool (!), we know better; and certainly we’ve learned to take care of ourselves!  God created us to be free and fierce and independent, is that not true?  We have had set before us “the ways of life and death,” and we’ve been taught of what it means to live in faith and with love!  So why, then, is it so important that we have be “shepherded” through life like some mindless, feckless member of a nameless, faceless flock?

There again…

…isn’t it also true, as the Psalm today suggests, that so many of us have found ourselves at various parts of the journey “walking through the darkest valley,”  encountering evil at its most fearful and personal level?  How many of us can attest to times and situations when we’ve found ourselves “in the presence of [our] enemies,” and wondering where, if at all, “goodness and mercy” was to be found; and if we’d ever again find ourselves amidst green pastures and “beside still waters.”  I know I can… because I’ve felt that way on more than one moment of my life; but I can also tell you that in those moments, I was glad, and so utterly relieved to be able to cry out in my own despair that “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Oh, yes, friends; there are times for each of us when we know what it is to be pursued and even “snatche[d]” by the wolves of this world; a problem made even worse by the fact that so often there are, as Jesus describes them in our gospel reading today, “hired hands” in this life who purport to care for and protect us but who run at the first sign of trouble.  Whether you read that as any manner of “false prophet,” see it as the disloyalty of so-called “fair weather friends,” or maybe even as some of the other worldly ways and means on which we place so much dependence – things like money, power, popularity and on and on – the fact is, just like all good sheep, we do have an awareness of what it is to feel lost in this life, to be scattered and to be utterly in danger.  And as much as at times we want to deny it, we also know that what’s proclaimed elsewhere in the Psalms is very true indeed: that “the LORD is God. [That it is God] who made us, and we are his; [and that] we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” and that because of this, and so much more besides, we stand in the need of being shepherded.

So isn’t it wonderful, then, that you and I are being shepherded by the one who says, “I am the good shepherd,” the one who “lays down his life for the sheep.”

It’s been said, you know, that there’s not a single phrase or verse in John’s gospel that John did not have a very good reason to put in there.  Our passage for this morning is actually one of several “I am” sayings that John includes in his gospel story (“I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) are amongst the others); each one designed to show forth not only the depth of our human need but also to proclaim the infinite capacity of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, to meet those needs for us.  So it is in our reading for this morning; that despite our cries to the contrary, you and I do stand in the need of a leader, a protector, a caregiver and a singular, recognizable voice to lead us to life. We need a good shepherd, one with power, with loyalty and with unending love; and that’s what we have in Jesus.

Of course, when Jesus first said these words, the people heard them in the context of Israel’s image of a Messiah who was to come to rule the people, and who would embody the very attributes of God.  This King, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, would be the one whose duty was “to act out of concern for justice for the poor, to be a shepherd who looked out for the rights and needs of the widow and the orphan,” and who would protect, even at the cost of his life, “the most vulnerable of the flock.”  This would reflect the whole vision of what the Psalmist was talking about when he said, “The Lord is my shepherd!”

As the people would soon learn, both at the foot of the cross and at the entrance of an empty tomb, there was so more to what God was doing in Jesus Christ than just the coming of another King, another worldly ruler.  Indeed, as another “I am” saying in John proclaims it, Jesus was, and is, “the way, the truth and the life,” (14:6) and the goodness of his shepherding of you and I, as well as all those whom he love is that Jesus has the power to care for and to protect us no matter what, even to the extent of laying down his life on our behalf.  By the grace of the Father, he said, “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”  Life – life abundant and life eternal – is ours in the name of Jesus Christ who is truly the “good” shepherd of the sheep, who are you… and me!

I’ll admit, there are still times when I wish I could be a little less of a sheep; that I could be wholly and completely non reliant on anyone else’s help or guidance.  I would love to be able to daily live my live doing my own thing, out there happily grazing in the pasture without fear of anything or anyone (“Fat, dumb and happy,” is that the phrase?  I don’t know…).  But life isn’t like that; and that’s why I need a good shepherd; that’s why we all need the good shepherd in our lives.  Maybe we don’t always understand why life unfolds the way it does; maybe it is hard to figure out what God is doing at any given moment, or how it is that we’re ever going to get through the times and situations of our lives.  Sometimes we do feel lost, scattered and alone.

All I know is that on those occasions when like that “bahh..d sheep” of the living nativity, I want to bolt out into the darkness, no matter how determined and stubborn I may be about wandering off, there will also be a good shepherd just as determined to bring me home to safety and to the security of endless and eternal love.

In our lives and in these times, beloved, that’s about as good news as we ever need to hear.  So let us rejoice in that kind of love,

… and let our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2018 in Family Stories, Jesus, Psalms, Sermon

 

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