Shepherding: Sermon by Keith, 7.27.14, Summer with the Psalms

This psalm was chosen by Robin Ostermann. Keith read Nan C. Merill’s version of this psalm in Psalms for Praying

Scriptures: John 10:1-11, Psalm 23

Now that was a little different version than most of us grew up with, but it has all the elements of knowing this is psalm 23, like shepherd, green pastures, still waters, and overflowing cups.  It leaves no question that it is psalm 23.  So, how many of you have Psalm 23 memorized or at one point in your life had to have it memorized?  If we were playing a “name that psalm” game, how many of you think you could say it was psalm 23 from just a snippet?  Looks like most, if not all of you, have some familiarity with this psalm.   I would argue that psalm 23 is probably the most popular and well known of the all the psalms.  Actually, Robin and I were surprised that no one else put in a request for it. 

So, what is it that makes this psalm so popular?  And I would argue, probably the most popular and well known of all the psalms.  Any ideas or theories? 

My own personal feeling of why this psalm touches our hearts is it speaks to a deep feeling of trust and reassurance in a powerful and comforting God.   When the psalms are categorized, Psalm 23 actually gets its own class.  It isn’t a lament or praise psalm, it doesn’t fit the wisdom or royal psalm type of psalm.  The biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel called it a Song of Confidence because of its overarching motif of trust.  And it is that trust in our shepherd and Lord Jesus Christ, especially during times of crisis or loss, that really speaks to us. 

Whenever we are planning a memorial service, we always ask if there are particular passages of scripture the family would like to have read during the service.  Now, sometimes the family grew up in the church and someone might know the Bible inside out.  What passage usually comes up?  Psalm 23.  And even if the family doesn’t know the Bible and none of them have stepped foot in a church since Grandma died 20 years ago, someone will usually bring up Psalm 23, probably because it was read at Grandma’s memorial.  And even if they don’t bring it up, usually if I just say, “Well, Psalm 23 is a good scripture for a time like this.”  Someone will say, “I know that one.  Let’s have that one read.”  In our times of loss it speaks to us about our situation in life but more specifically, it speaks to who our God is.

The Lord, our my Beloved, in Merrill’s translation we read, is my shepherd and I shall not want.  The nice thing about reading this Psalm is that being here in the Grande Ronde Valley and Eastern Oregon, we at least have a basic idea of shepherding and how difficult of a task it is and was.   Even in ancient Israel, sheep couldn’t find grass or water on their own.  Predators were a constant threat.  The shepherd had huge responsibilities to take care of his flock.  And that image of the shepherd is given to God.  In our culture, which clings to the myth of “rugged individualism” and “self-made” people, the psalmist instead proclaims the truth—none of us is self-made.  We are God-made, utterly dependent upon God, as sheep are dependent upon the shepherd.   Yes, we should work, save, study, and plan, but God is ultimately the one who meets our needs.

I think these words help us realize what our needs really are.  I read somewhere that 50 years ago Americans had a basic list of about 10 needs such as food, shelter and family. Today Americans have a list of over 100 needs!  This scripture points us to green pastures and still, clean waters. For a sheep to be satisfied enough to lie down in green pastures, Phillip Keller in his book, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” says that the sheep must have four conditions met.  Now, he goes so far to say you can’t get them to lie down unless these conditions are met.  I’ve been around cows a lot more than sheep, so someone will have to tell me if this is right.  First, they must be free of all fear.  Second, they must be free of torment of flies and parasites.  Third, they must have a full belly, and last, they must be in harmony with the rest of the sheep in the flock.  And the green pastures the sheep were taken to didn’t happen by accident.  Generations of shepherds moved stones from areas so that their sheep would find contentment.  The water must be slow flowing as Keller says they won’t drink from fast flowing streams. 

The shepherd leads the sheep to those places where their basic needs are met and souls and bodies are restored.  Our needs are simple, food, drink, family, and community. We need our shepherding God and the security he provides amongst the community of the faithful.  When we thank God for placing these things in our lives, those several dozen other so called needs, like TV and I-Pad’s, don’t seem as important.

The psalmist continues, “He leads me in the paths of goodness or right path’s for his name’s sake.”  Despite simplistic imaginings about our own goodness, God is the one who enable us to be good and to do any good at all.  Any right paths we take in this life are the result not of any particular wisdom on our part but of the wise direction of God. 

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; your rod and your staff—they comfort and guide me.”  The shepherd had to move the sheep from place to place, and I’ve read that the word here for valley is deep ravine, a place where predators watched from above and the sun only shined in briefly.  And the word “death” doesn’t quite get at what the Hebrew is striving to say.  It means more like a deep, overwhelming darkness and shadow.  But the key word here is ‘through.’  When these dark times happen, God is there and will not leave us in the shadow of the valley.  Though God is a vulnerable God, a crucified Lord, the psalmist also reminds us that God is also a powerful protector.  Yes, God suffers with us in our pains, sorrows, and losses, but like a shepherd with a rod and staff, God also guides us and fights off the predators that would harm us. 

In fact, God’s protective power and presence is so great that the psalmist has the audacity to proclaim, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies and my fears, you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  We are invited to imagine entering a room filled with our deepest fears, our enemies, and all those things that haunt us.  And God turns to us and says, “Right this way, I have a table for you.  A banquet has been set in your honor.  Please be seated.”  We take a seat and begin to eat the feast that God has prepared right in front of our enemies.  Remember that the sheep wouldn’t even lie down if there was a threat nearby.  What this says that there are no threats or dangers when we are in the presence of God.  And if that is not enough to say those threats, fears, and dangers are nothing compared to God’s protective power, God anoints our head with oil and fills our cup until it overflows.  Christians facing physical and spiritual enemies can call this image of God’s protection and grace to mind and rejoice.

Then the psalm ends with “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and I like how Merrill finishes it off, “I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.”  Another way I’ve read this based upon the Hebrew is that God’s goodness and kindness shall dog me all my life.  Imagine that every moment of your life God is there pursuing you, hounding you, with goodness and kindness.  What kind of God is this?  The psalmist says this God is our shepherd, who grants our needs, causes us to rest and be restored, leads us in the right way of living, protects us from evil, honors and blesses us, and never stops pursuing us with goodness and kindness.  What does that say about us?  That we are in need of a God who freely provides those things because we are dependent upon God’s moving in our lives, protecting us, and receiving his goodness and kindness.  We cannot obtain these things on our own.

Psalm 23 is not merely for moments of death, suffering or loss.  It definitely speaks to those times, but it also speaks to a way of life.  It needs to be read, heard, and understood more importantly as a psalm about living, living a life full of trust in God.  This psalm puts our daily activities and basic needs, like eating, drinking, and security, in a God-centered perspective and puts our lives literally in His hands.  This doesn’t mean we live on the bare essentials, because our table is filled with the goodness of God and our cup overflows.  God provides and He provides abundantly to his entire flock.  To live the message of Psalm 23 with our Lord Jesus as our shepherd means we will not worry about our lives or our deaths.  God will provide, and God’s provision is grounded in the reality of God’s awesome reign.  We dwell in house of the Lord, and we rejoice in the constant presence and vigilance of a God who has cared for us and will always care for us, not just as individuals, but as a community of the faithful.

Amen and Alleluia.




Being Formed: sermon by Keith, 10.27.13 Pentecost 23C

Scriptures: 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:9-14

So, who are you in this story?  The Pharisee or the tax collector?  That’s part of the power of the parables, they allow you to step into the shoes of the people involved in the story.   And you know, when I stand in their shoes, I’m really not a big fan of either the Pharisee or the tax collector.  It is easy to point the finger at the Pharisee and say, “Bad guy!”  But I bet you would want him as your neighbor.  He was an upstanding citizen.  We want to be exalted in the eyes of the community like the Pharisee, but we also want to be justified in the eyes of God like the tax collector!

Here’s where my tension with this lays.  In the church, most of the time, a Pharisee-like person would never be scorned; he or she would be exalted.   This guy tithes!  You see his name on little plaques throughout the church and on scholarship funds.  She’s here in worship every Sunday morning.  She teaches Sunday school and is on three important church committees.  He’s serving the church and the world in so many ways.  The church and God are so lucky to have her on their side.  Tax collectors, well they are terrible church members.  Who wants humility when you have to meet a budget and pay the heating bills?  They show up, confess, and then go out living the same life of sin they did before, giving all good church members a bad name.

Do you feel the tension this story creates?  You can almost hear the collective mumblings through the crowd when Jesus finished this parable because it really turned everything upside down.  The one who was despised in the eyes of the community gets justified and the one who has been following the law, doing everything right, even going beyond the bounds of the law with his extra fasting, goes away with nothing, except his own self-justification.

I think it is very easy to fall into thinking ourselves as righteous. We do our duty, confess our sins each Sunday, and put our envelope in the plate as it passes.  We serve the world in so many ways, Hooray for us!  Boo for those who haven’t followed the rules like we have, boo for those who work is detestable.  We live in a world that expects us to size each other up based upon so many things, our looks, our jobs and income, our families, and even our religious affiliation.  It can be hard not to look at some with contempt when they haven’t lived up to the expected standards.

What Jesus is calling us and all believers is to avoid trusting in our own efforts at fulfilling the law to please God.  The Pharisee is doing and trusting, but doing and trusting in the wrong things.  Trust is called for, but not trust in ourselves or in our abilities to keep God’s law.  We can’t totally keep God’s law, but what we can do is trust in God’s mercy and love.  But then also nowhere does Jesus that we can ignore the law.  Following Jesus doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want.  So in some aspects, both the Pharisee and the tax collector got it right.  The Pharisee in following God’s law and the Tax collector in appealing for God’s mercy.  There is a balancing act when it comes to being Christ’s disciples.

We just watched the third video of celebrating the church’s mission [available at the First Presbyterian Church of La Grande, OR Facebook page] and its members and each of the ways that people can live into being fully alive in Christ.  Now, being fully alive in Christ could be its own sermon series.  And even the longest living Christian is trying to live into that calling, that identity.  But the video and the two texts deal we read just scratch the surface with what being alive in Christ can look like.  What you saw was a partial list on the video of what the Reformed/Protestant tradition has regarded as spiritual disciplines over the course of history.  The ones you saw were the easy ones to add a picture to.  There are a lot more that are a little harder to take a picture of, such as chastity or fasting.  But the point is why we do them.  If we are fasting, if we are tithing and giving, if we are confessing, or if we are studying scripture and proclaiming the Gospel to justify ourselves before God or the community, we are creating an island, isolating ourselves from God and the community.  What happens is I live in a ‘me’-centered existence, forcing God and everyone else off my island.  I become more concerned about my own righteousness than even my relationship with God in Christ.  Sadly, what happens in that case is my relationship with God in Christ gets boiled down to a ‘to-do’ list, a ‘to-do’ list that I’m trying to make more impressive than the rest of you in the room.

But if we are doing these practices to be transformed as disciples of the living God, then we will cross bridges, bridges that God in Christ by the Spirit has provided to strengthen our relationship with him and each other.  Our ego, our self-exultation gets knocked out of the way and God in Christ becomes the center of why we do them.  And that is when the Spirit can truly take hold of our heart and transform us.  I wish the parable continued on with how the tax collectors justification, the mercy he received from God, changed him on his walk home.  Tax collectors basically made their living by extortion.  They had a quota they had to collect for the Romans and everything above that was theirs.  And they would use whatever means possible to get as much as possible.  Some of the other stories in scripture of tax collectors, like Levi and Zacchaeus, talk about the radical transformed lives they have when encounter Jesus’ forgiveness.  Levi abandons his collecting, follows Jesus, and throws a great party to celebrate and Zacchaeus promises to repay anyone four times as much as he defrauded them.

So, who are you in the story?  Truth be told, we need to be a little bit of both the Pharisee and the tax collector, humbling ourselves before God but also responding to the love and mercy we receive from God.  My hope is that when you open your Bible to study, you aren’t doing it to check it off the list of the things you think God wants you to do, but you ask the Spirit to make the Word come alive in the pages as you ask, “What is God up to here?  How is Christ calling me to respond?”  When you confess the things you have done and things you have left undone, you don’t immediate plunge back into the world doing the same old same old, but cry out to God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!”  and let the Spirit guide you in ways to live afresh in the light of God’s love and mercy.  When you give, don’t compare it what your neighbor has given or not given, but give in response to the priceless and unending love and mercy you have been given in Christ.

Friends, we are no better nor are we any worse than anyone else.  We are all in deep need of the love and mercy that is found in Christ.  If we begin there, his Spirit will free us, free us to respond in ways we can only dream of as we encounter him in Scripture, in prayer, in giving, in singing, in worship, and in our engagement with the community.  His Spirit will free us to be truly alive in him.  Amen.

(Laura’s sermon on this gospel text is here.)

When Repentance Happens: Sermon by Laura, 3.10.13 Lent 4

Text: Jonah 3-4

Friends, we’ve passed the midpoint of Lent; we are on the fourth leg of our pilgrimage through some of the Bible’s 40-Day Journeys. So far, we’ve floated the flood with Noah and heard God’s promise to stick with his creation no matter what; we’ve been up and down Mt. Sinai with Moses and heard God’s promise of forgiveness; and we’ve endured wind, earthquake, and fire with Elijah and heard God’s promise of profound purpose. In each adventure, alongside each towering figure of scripture, we’ve encountered a God whose majesty is matched only by his mercy.

Now, you might expect today’s journey with Jonah is a sea-faring adventure. It certainly begins that way! Commanded to proclaim God’s word in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Jonah flees in the opposite direction instead, getting on a boat to Tarshish. When a great storm overtakes it, and the ship is about to break into pieces, the sailors toss Jonah overboard. God provides a large fish, which swallows Jonah. After three days and nights, the fish spits Jonah out on dry land, and God gives Jonah another opportunity to live out his calling. It’s the journey of that second chance we follow today, a dry-land adventure which takes us from the cool water into the blistering heat, both of a desert plain outside a doomed city and of Jonah’s burning, angry heart.

Anger. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to dwell on my experiences of it. Many of us have learned to fear anger, our own and others’, and we anxiously rush to douse it when we begin to feel its heat. But Eugene Petersen offers another view in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, studying Jonah’s story as her reflects on vocational ministry. He writes, “Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that…[s]omething isn’t working right…Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood…Anger is infused by a moral/spiritual intensity that carries conviction: when we are angry, we know we are on to something that matters, that really counts.”[1]

Petersen’s perspective will be useful in Nineveh, where Jonah does go, albeit not very enthusiastically. He does the minimum necessary to comply with God’s call, walking one day into the enormous city, proclaiming, “Forty days and Nineveh will be no more,” It’s arguably one of the least inspiring sermons on record. But it turns out to be one of the most effective!

What happens next is, honestly, a little over-the-top. If you think a whale swallowing a prophet is fantastic, the repentance of Nineveh is even more so. Nineveh was infamous as a bastion of brutality and corruption. Yet, the extraordinary good news of this story is that, even for the worst of the worst, repentance happens. The people of Nineveh believed God. As soon as they hear Jonah’s words, everyone from the king on down to the sheep and cows drop everything and begin fasting, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and crying out to God for mercy. Just picture for a moment all those hungry cattle roaming around wearing sackcloth– No half-measures for those Ninevites! “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king decrees. “Who knows? God may change his mind.”

And that’s just what happens. God sees Nineveh’s repentance, and God relents from destroying the city.

Now, it seems to me that whenever people take God at God’s word and open themselves to transformation as profoundly as the Ninevites in this story, there ought to be much rejoicing. But how does Jonah react? He’s just helped facilitate a notoriously violent city turning from its evil ways.  Is he pleased, or at least awestruck that his meager words have had such an impact?

Nope! Jonah is not pleased, not pleased at all! Venting his anger at God, you can almost see him stomping his feet like toddler in a temper tantrum. But we finally learn why he fled to Tarshish when God first called him. “I knew this would happen!” he says, before delivering the punch line of the whole story. “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Now, these words are part of a formula describing God which is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. We just heard a more elaborate formulation of them with Moses in Exodus 34, when God forgives Israel for the golden calf incident. That version of the formula heavily weighted God’s compassion, but it also clearly asserted God’s righteous judgment: yes, God keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation and forgives sin, but God by no means clears the guilty.

But Jonah’s version of this formula leaves judgment entirely out. From his perspective, God is being too merciful to Nineveh, a city full of the enemies of his people, who, in fact, wipe out Israel’s northern kingdom in 722 BCE. Jonah wants Nineveh punished, and God is not acting the way he believes God should. God’s mercy is absolutely overriding God’s justice. In his anger, Jonah feels asks God to take his life on the spot.

Certainly, per Eugene Petersen’s diagnostics, Jonah’s anger is saying with conviction that something is wrong in the neighborhood! But Petersen would also caution Jonah not to be too hasty to point fingers.  “What anger fails to do,” he writes, “is tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us—our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry…But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us—wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart. If we admit and face that, we are pulled out of our quarrel with God and into something large and vocational in God.”[2]

God does not take Jonah’s life, but asks a question, inviting Jonah to carefully track his anger.  “Is it right for you to be angry?” A more literal translation would be, “Is it good that it burns to you?” Now, the word “good” here can mean righteous or ethical, as our translation implies, but it can also mean “good” as in beautiful or pleasurable.

Have you ever taken pleasure in anger? It sounds strange, but I’ve seen it in action. I know a young woman whose older sister had been the terror of her childhood. She learned to tiptoe around this sister so as not to arouse her sister’s notable temper. One day, when the two women had grown up, the older sister entered into Alcoholics Anonymous and began to work the Twelve Steps. In steps 8 and 9, a recovering person makes a list of people they believe they have injured in some way, and then they seek to make amends with those people, except if doing so might cause further injury. The older sister came to the younger one and sought to make amends. At first, the younger sister reacted numbly, but later, her anger burned inside of her, and she threw the amends back in her sister’s face, and she felt a fierce pleasure recounting all the ways she perceived she’d been injured.

Forgiveness is not easy, not just because true repentance is in short supply, but because people who feel wronged do not easily release their anger. There’s a kind of dark pleasure in listing those wrongs that seems to make up for the lack we might otherwise feel. Our anger reliably heats us up with a self-righteous sense of ourselves in a great battle against injustice.

“Is it right, is it good, for you to burn with anger?” God’s question seeks the deeper truth, the way our anger can become a self-serving crutch which actually distances us from justice.[3] God’s question seeks to reveal the deeper truth: as we have received God’s mercy, we are called to extend it to others.

In the story of the sisters, forgiveness finally came, as the younger sister tracked her anger and realized her equal need for mercy. But, like many of us, confronted at the center of our sinful need, Jonah refuses to answer God’s question.  He just gets up and leaves the conversation, setting up camp where he can passively watch the city. Maybe in forty days, doom will still come for Nineveh.

But Nineveh now seems to be in better shape to God than angry Jonah! And it turns out that God may relent from punishing, but God’s mercy is relentless! Since a sojourn in a fish’s belly wasn’t enough for Jonah to make the connection between God’s mercy for him and God’s mercy for Nineveh, God appoints more, curious, messengers. The shade bush and the worm are deployed, revealing that however hot the heat of the day, the heat of Jonah’s self-serving anger is still more perilous.

“You are concerned about this short-lived bush,” God remarks, “Should I not also be concerned about Nineveh’s 120,000 people who are even more clueless than you about my steadfast love and mercy—and what about all those animals?” One of the things I love about the book of Jonah is that God doesn’t forget those poor animals wandering around in sackcloth!

The other thing I love is what this story does to us by ending with a question. And here’s a fun little exegetical tidbit. Jonah’s angry speech to God earlier in chapter 4 adds up to 39 words in the original Hebrew, just shy of 40, which is understood to be a “complete” number.

God’s speech in response to Jonah, ending with this question, also adds up to 39 words. So it turns out, the story is not yet complete. It’s not complete without us. We might have laughed at the miserable prophet, but now we are also called up to answer.

So I ask you this Lent, what is burning you? Is it right, is it good for you to anger? Will you sit there, stoking the flames while it burns you up, or will you let it go and enter into a much greater joy, receiving and participating fully in God’s incredible mercy?

Take heart, because if Nineveh can repent, than anything can happen! And the forty days Jonah proclaimed to Nineveh have only just begun. God’s mercy and forgiveness for us are not complete, until we begin to share that mercy and forgiveness with others.

How will you complete this story?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] Eugene Petersen, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 157.

[2] Petersen, as above.

[3] Haskins, 79.