Leaning Back and Forth

Note: My computer crashed during Holy Week this spring… and I am still getting files back online… thank you for your patience… Here’s a sermon from April 29th

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. –Psalm 23 (NRSV)

Easter4 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 4-29-12

Children’s Time: Who here has a pet? Do you take care of it? What do you feed it? How about playtime? What would you do if it got away? You’d go after it, right? Having a pet is a big responsibility. They rely on their masters to take good care of them. In our Bible reading today, we hear about Jesus being a Good Shepherd – one who looks after his sheep, takes care of them, defends them, and love them very much. You know, he’s talking about us – all who believe in Jesus and follow him are like sheep of the Good Shepherd. And, while we’re not like ‘pets’ to God, Jesus does love us and watch over us every day. There’s great comfort knowing that God will watch over us. Let’s thank God for that in prayer…

Intro: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.

There comes a time in everyone’s life when we must learn to trust. It may be as simple as trusting the clerk at the store to give you the exact change – to trusting a surgeon to perform a delicate operation in order to save you life. Or, as in today’s case, trusting the Good Shepherd to guide us safely home.

Trust means letting down one’s defenses and leaning back into the unknown.
Trust means finding one’s voice and leaning forward, boldly into what lies ahead.
Trust happens when fear has been shown the door.

In fact, the most common command in all of scripture is not The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s not the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It’s not even Jesus’ command to “Go, make disciples of all nations…” No, the most common command in all of scripture is: “Do not be afraid.” It’s there time and again, through the old and new testaments: “Fear not,” God says to Moses at the burning bush, “Fear not” the angel says to Mary in her bedroom. “Do not fear, it is I,” says Jesus to his disciples, as he came to them walking on the water.

When we fear, we cannot follow. Instead, we are like sheep gone astray – hurried and harried, anxious about every distraction (real or imagined) that might cause us harm.

And nowhere is this more clearly seen in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”

There is a peace that passes all understanding in the poet’s heart that penned this verse. When can we lie down in peace? When can we sit at table even with our enemies and eat in peace? When Thou art with me.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

I want to trust God in this way – with no reservations – as naturally as breathing.

In a recent article in Weavings magazine, Jan Johnson points out that the Hebrew word for “the valley of the shadow of death” does not mention death – but refers instead to all dark and bitter experiences. This would include surprises and all kinds of disaster, anything that threatens us or creates dread and fear. Such valleys are also filled with physical or emotional pain, diseases, depression, grief, rejection, failure, abuse, or endless toil.

Today we’re raising awareness and money for Cancer research and to support the Tartan High School Relay For Life. There is nothing quite like hearing a loved one say those dreaded three words: “I have cancer.” So begins a long walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Each one travels his/her own way on that path. And yet, as people of faith, we cling to the promise of this Good Shepherd – that no one walks alone.

The cover story from this month’s Lutheran magazine reads: “1 in 3 harmed by domestic abuse.” The statistics are staggering. According to a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men have reported intimate partner violence – but these numbers underestimate the problem, because so few people report domestic abuse.

And abuse can take many forms – it’s not just physical (where bruises might give away a deeper problem). No, abuse often starts in small ways, in controlling another person, in making them feel inadequate, in name-calling and making threats. In fact, abuse may never come to physical blows and can still be just as destructive.

The Good Shepherd meets us in those dark valleys and walks beside us. In fact, the church has a responsibility to do the same – to reach out to those who are suffering in silence, too afraid to say anything. Remember the most common commandment? “Do not be afraid.”

Jan Johnson concludes her study of Psalm 23 by inviting us to imagine ourselves sitting down at a table across from an enemy (anyone you find difficult today).

As you sit there, I come behind you and rest my hands on your head. Close your eyes and try to feel those hands. Then I being moving my hands down and resting them on your shoulders as if I were releasing oil on your head – anointing you, as God does in this psalm. So as you sit across the table from that difficult person, you feel secure because you are anointed by God. The difficult person sees that you are special, set aside, anointed by God in some way. You have everything you need. But you may still feel anxious across from the “enemy,” so God – again from behind – reaches over you and keeps filling up the cup of water. One’s throat is often dry when afraid, but God can provide everything you need in these tense moments. (Weavings, vol. XXVII, no. 3)

My prayer for us all is that we might know such grace – such peace. Even in our darkest valleys we are not alone. This risen Christ is our aid – our strong deliverer – our cup-filler in dry places.

I want to close with one final blessing – one I hope never to give you until your life has been filled with years of blessings and happiness. You see, whenever I’m called in the middle of the night to a death bed – these words are spoken to call one final time on the Good Shepherd of the sheep.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant
Acknowledge, we humbly pray,
a sheep of your own fold
a lamb of your own flock
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

It is a peace that sustains here and now – and in the life to come. Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

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