Monday, May 12, 2014

The shepherd and guardian of your souls

1st Peter 2: 19-25, NT pages 233-234 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. Sermon Early on in my ministry at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church I decided it would be a good idea to contribute to the newspaper. My contribution would be small after all, just 250 words in Saturday’s paper, right alongside 5 to 10 other clergy all writing in a response to the question of the week. The editor of the Faith and Values section that these responses would appear in would think up the question and send it out to us on Monday – maybe something harmless like, “What’s your favorite Bible verse and why?” or something seasonal like, “is it best to say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?” but sometimes the question would be controversial, and so my clearest memory of writing for the paper has to do with the question, “what does the Bible say about homosexuality?” I thought about not answering, but after a day or so I came up with an answer that I felt like clearly stated my beliefs without being too radical. So I wrote something like, “in reality, the Bible is not as clear on this subject as we are sometimes told that it is. Many of the passages that form modern day opinions on the subject have little to do with the kind of same-gender relationships that we see today. Take the account of Sodom and Gomorrah for example, for this passage often marks plaquards protesting gay rights. In Genesis 19 Lot protects two male angels from a mob who pushes the doors desiring to violate them. Lot offers his two daughters to the mob instead, and this series of diabolical events hardly describes the actions or motivations of any of the same-gender couples that I have known. It’s true that the Bible can be less than clear on this subject in other cases as well, and when the Bible is less than clear the Golden Rule of Bible Interpretation tells us to seek out Jesus’ words for clarity. But when we do, Jesus is silent, not mentioning the subject even once. The question then becomes, should Christians ever fight tooth and nail over an issue that Jesus fails to so much as mention?” That was my response. It appeared in the paper on Saturday, and on Sunday morning a member of the church had made dozens of copies of it, enough copies to place one on every seat of the sanctuary, so when Jim Hodges, the chair of the committee who had interviewed me and come to a consensus that God was calling me to serve Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, I thought I knew why. I climbed into his truck to ride to lunch like I had a dozen or so times before, and before he had a chance to lecture me I started right in, telling him that I was sorry, that I was sorry to have been so rash, and that I would never write for the paper again. He looked at me and asked me what I was talking about. “Jim, didn’t you see how someone made copies of what I wrote in the paper and put them on every pew of the sanctuary?” I asked. He told me that he had seen the copies, and just assumed that whoever made them liked what I wrote so much that he wanted everyone else to read it too. That wasn’t true, but still Jim re-framed my situation and suddenly I saw things differently, and it’s hard to underestimate the importance of presenting reality in a different or new light. That’s what the author of 1st Peter does, and if you read verse 18, the verse that precedes our second scripture lesson he reframes reality not for pastors, but for slaves. “Slaves,” he says, “accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” This is a hard saying in scripture, one that the church has used to justify slavery and maintain it as an institution rather than working to bring an end to a system that de-humanizes and abuses, and while the author of 1st Peter does not speak out against slavery, he does provide a means to reframe it’s oppression, a way to enable the men and women confined by slavery to remember who they are. “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly,” for to suffer unjustly is to be like Christ. That’s not what it feels like in the moment however. When you suffer unjustly, when you’ve been kicked like a dog, the natural thing is to feel like a dog – and even the children of God claimed in baptism must fight the temptation to feel this way. Howard Thurman, one of the great authors of the Civil Rights Movement, knew this to be true, so when he walked his two daughters by a brand new playground behind a white public school in Florida he chose his words carefully. “Look, Daddy, let’s go over and swing!” his daughters said while jumping for joy. In Thurman’s words, “This was the inescapable moment of truth that every black parent in America [had to face in the segregated south] soon or late. What do you say to your child at the critical moment of primary encounter?” “You can’t swing in those swings,” he responded. But his daughters asked: “Why, Daddy?” “When we get home and have some cold lemonade I will tell you.” When we had had our lemonade, Anne pressed me for the answer, “We’re home now, Daddy. Tell us.” Thurman said, “It is against the law for us to use those swings, even though it is a public school. Only white children can play there. But it takes the state legislature, the courts, the sheriffs and policemen, the white churches, the mayors, the banks and businesses, and the majority of white people in the state of Florida – it takes all these to keep you two little black girls from swinging in those swings. That is how important you are! Never forget, the estimate of your own importance and self-worth can be judged by how much power people are willing to use to keep you in the place they have assigned to you. You are two very important little girls.”((Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart; The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1979), 97.)) In ignorance we judge harshly – both ourselves and each other. In sadness we hear the worst case rather than the best. And when we’re already beaten down we assume we’ll be beaten down all the more – so we misunderstand and we’re misunderstood. On this Mother’s Day I am mindful of the reality that mothers need a day like today because most people spend the least amount of time on the one who’s love seems to be a sure thing. It’s easy to misunderstand such a mindset, so mothers sometimes wonder if they’re really appreciated, if anyone would take notice if they packed their bags and headed out for the beach. It’s a thankless job sometimes – but it’s thankless because for many children, for many grown children, your love is a sure thing. You don’t get called every day because they think you’ll always be there. They don’t break down the door to see you because they already know what you’ll do when you see them and they think your hug and kiss and smile is guaranteed. So your love – it’s taken for granted – which makes it a lot like God’s love. Like the faithful God of a wayward people, mothers love even those who don’t love them back. Like the God of the Garden of Eden, you were there when Adam and Eve were created, you cherished those times walking with them in the cool of morning, when they wanted to talk and when innocence was lost, when discipline was needed, you know the heartbreak that comes from carrying out a punishment that also punishes you. And like the incarnate God, Christ who sets this table, you give your very self, not knowing if the ones who eat here will notice what it is that you have done. This is love – to pour yourself out even while knowing that some may not ever notice – but to do so is to be like Christ – to be like the one who “himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” On this Mother’s Day give thanks for a love like that. Give thanks for your mother now because you will miss this kind of love when it is gone – but also be mindful that a Mother’s love points to the love of God and God’s love for you can never die. Amen.

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