Lost and Found: Sermon for March 8, 2015 on Psalm 23

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 God makes me lie down in green pastures;
God leads me beside still waters;
3 God restores my soul.
God leads me in right paths
for God’s name’s sake.
4 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.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 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.

If someone were to say to you, quote a line from the Psalms, chances are good that the first answer that popped into your head would be something from Psalm 23. That’s not surprising. There are 150 Psalms, and yet this is the one we all seem to know. And often we can recite it, in 16th century English, with “leadeth”, and “restoreth”, and “maketh” and all.

In six lines, the Psalm says something that seems to comfort us. It points to a God who is protective and giving. One who keeps us safe. One who leads us down the right path. When I was a hospital chaplain, when I asked people if they would like to hear a particular passage from Scripture, nine times out of ten, they asked for this one.

And when I talk to people about funerals, either their own, or that of someone they loved, they ask for this Psalm too. Because unlike perhaps any other piece of Scripture, Psalm 23 gives us comfort in the most difficult of times. The Psalm reminds us that our comfort comes from God. It comes from the God who allows us to say that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

640px-Flock_of_sheepSo, to be honest with you, that’s why for a long time this wasn’t my favorite Psalm. After years of being a chaplain, I just sort of thought of it as the Psalm you read when someone was sick or dying, and I really only thought about it then. I mean, really, nearly every time you hear this Psalm something bad is happening, right?

But then a couple of years ago, that changed for me. It was the week that the Boston Marathon bombings happened, and coincidentally it was also a week when this same passage came up in the lectionary, the church’s calendar of Biblical readings. And for the first time, I heard it with new ears.

Because, yes, I heard what I had always heard in it. The part about God comforting and protecting us, even in the face of evil. And I needed to hear that. I had friends who were at the finish line who narrowly escaped injury, and Heidi’s home church, the church where we were married stands right where the bombs went off. And that whole week it just seemed inconceivable that such evil could happen in front of a place that had become, for me, a green pasture.

I think in times of pain, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.

And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.

But, especially in times like this, we also need to hear something else. And this is where I heard this Psalm with new ears. We need to hear that the Lord is our shepherd, but maybe we also need to hear that we are more than sheep.

Now, not to be mean to sheep, but sheep aren’t the smartest animals. They sort of just follow the herd until they’re scared, and then they’re known to panic and run away. Really, if you’re trying to find an animal to emulate, sheep aren’t the way to go.

Instead, we are called to follow God, to follow the true shepherd, in a different way. Not as a part of a scared flock that reacts with panic to what frightens us, but as a group of beloved children of God who keep our focus on that shepherd, and on the teachings of our faith, and on the one who truly wants for “goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives”.

This Psalm is not just about soothing words, or blindly following like a barnyard animal. This Psalm is about who to look for when you are feeling lost. This Psalm is about being found.

Downstairs today we are teaching our elementary school classes about this Psalm and about the idea that God is always walking with them, through good and through bad. But we are also teaching them that when they are lost, and they feel alone, and they don’t know what to do next, God is with them even then, helping them to get found.

In other words, we are teaching them that this Psalm is not just about sickness and death. This Psalm, most of all, is about life, and about choosing to follow the one who will always bring you new life. We are teaching them about what to do when you feel lost.

And that is not a lesson that is only for the smallest among us, because I would guess that all of us, no matter our age, have felt lost in the world at times. Maybe you are even feeling that way now. Maybe there is something in your life that you aren’t sure about, something that you are trying to figure out but you are not getting clear answers.

Or maybe you are lost in other ways. Maybe you are lost in an addiction, lost in depression, lost in anxiety, lost in grief, or lost in hopelessness. Maybe you are wondering where those green pastures are that Psalm 23 talks about.

You aren’t alone. I think all of us at some point in our lives has felt profoundly lost, often by no fault of our own. But hopefully, we have also felt found.

I know that’s true for me. At one point in my 20’s I felt so lost that I began to wonder if God really existed. I was studying theology at the time, ironically, but God never felt further away. The fact I was reading so many books for school all telling me about the grace and mercy of God, and I couldn’t feel it, made it even worse.

So what made it better? I believe God found me and, like the shepherd of the Psalm, led me back to the path. But it didn’t happen in some overwhelming religious experience with lights and angels. And it didn’t happen in an instant. Instead it happened slowly, over time. And I honestly believe it happened because God sent others into my life to help show me how to get found. And that’s why I really believe that God acts through us to change the lives of others.

And so that’s the question for you today: do you need to get found? Or do you need to help find others? Or, do you maybe need a little of both?

That’s a good question for Lent because Lent is all about the wilderness. But it is also all about getting found. It’s about getting found by God, and it’s about being found by one another, and for one another.

How we do that can look like a million different things, but at their core they are all the same.

A few days after the Boston bombing, I was walking on Newbury Street about a block away from the worst of the damage, trying to understand what happened. And there were these chalks drawings and words of support and hope everywhere on the sidewalk. I saw two women kneeling down, writing. And they wrote simply, “We are very sad.”

They saw me watching, and they turned to me and asked, “Is it okay?” I didn’t know what they meant at first, but then they explained that they were from Brazil and they didn’t speak English very well but they wanted to write to the people of Boston and let them know that they were sorry. Because they knew what it was like to hurt, and they chose to love instead.

And there, next to the yellow police tape and the armed police officers, somehow I knew, it would be okay again.

In the same way, today we recognize our prayer shawl ministry for all they do to help make the Good Shepherd real to so many. Together they knit prayer shawls for people they may or may not ever meet. With each stitch they knit their prayers for those who need them into the shawls. And then they give away the work of their own hands to those who need a reminder that there is love, and there is goodness in the world.

And someone on the receiving end, somehow, knows that they have been remembered, and they have been found.

And so, for those of us who once were lost but now are found, how can we shine the light for those who need it the most? How can we be the ones who go out on the shepherd’s behalf, telling the world about the one who is waiting to welcome us home? How can we help on another to find our way back? And how do we love one another until we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever?

That is the job of the church. When people are hurting so badly that this Psalm doesn’t make much sense to them, when they feel so removed from the path, when they wonder whether God and grace are real, that is when we live out this Psalm. We live it, so that others may believe, and so others may be found. And we pray the Psalm for those who cannot yet pray it for themselves. Because God is not just my shepherd, or you shepherd. God is bigger than that, because:

The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want.
2 God makes us to lie down in green pastures: God leads us beside the still waters.
3 God restores our soul: God leads us in the paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake.
4 Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil: for God is with us; God’s rod and thy staff they comfort us.
5 God prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies: God anoints our heads with oil; our cup runs over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives: and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Amen.

Unquenchable Joy: Sermon for December 14, 2014

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

5:16 Rejoice always,

5:17 pray without ceasing,

5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.

5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,

5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;

5:22 abstain from every form of evil.

5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

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The third Sunday of Advent, like each of the Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we talked about hope, last week about peace, and this week we focus on joy. And as we get closer and closer to Christmas, joy seems to surround us. It’s right there in our Christmas carols, and on our cards and decorations. Joy feels natural this time of year.

And so it is easy to hear texts like the one we read today from the letter to the Thessalonians and agree. Hear the words again: Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Jesus Christ for you!

It’s easy to see why this is the text that churches read on this third Sunday of Advent. It’s all about joy, and who doesn’t like to hear about joy this time of year? And so, as we light our candles, we can boldly proclaim our joy in our words, and in our prayers, and in our songs. Christmas is almost here, and we are joyful.

But, what about those times when joy feels impossible? What do we say then?

Two years ago today I was getting ready to preach about joy. It was the Friday before the third Sunday in Advent. I had been married less than a month before, and I still hadn’t come down. I was on top of the world. Joyful beyond words. And that day we were at the grocery store buying things to make Christmas cookies. And when we got home I was planning to write a sermon that would have rivaled George Bailey’s joy at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

And we had just cleared the check-out line when I looked down, and there was a text from my mom. It just said: “It’s so horrible about all those children in Connecticut.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but within minutes the full horror of what had just happened in Newtown, Connecticut started to sink in.

The next two days, like most clergy I know, I went back and forth between the TV screen, and a blank computer screen. Because I knew I was supposed to preach about joy, but how do you talk about joy in the face of something so terrible?

I think that in the church we sometimes don’t do a very good job of acknowledging the realities of the world. We talk about hope, and peace, and joy, and love. But do we also talk about the hard things that are happening in the world? Things like violence? Things like tragedy? Things that defy understanding?

Too often we don’t. We gloss over those things and focus instead on the brighter, or happier stories. And then we wonder why people worry about whether they will be welcome in church. Because if we don’t acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and instead just say “be joyful”, how can anyone tell us their stories? How can they talk about when they are mourning? How can they talk about when they are depressed? How can they talk about losing their job and scrambling to make ends meet?

To deny what is happening in the world is not a Christian response. It’s the opposite of a Christian response, in fact. Because Christ never told us to not tell the truth about life. He never told us to only be happy or carefree or bright all the time. Instead, Jesus told us to bind up the brokenhearted, tell the truth, and stay near those who suffer.

That’s one reason we have our Blue Christmas season here. Because we know that hard things happen, and that sometimes it might feel like there is no room for that in the Christmas season. Because some years the holidays are just plain hard. We understand, and we make room for that. Because whatever you are going through in your life, you are welcome in church. And you are welcome to carry those things that are hard into this space as well. Because if you can’t bring them here, where can you bring them?

But, at the same time, the church has an obligation. And that is to not just acknowledge the brokenness of the world, which we must do, but to also go one step forward and proclaim that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is another way. And in Advent we point to that fact, and we point with hope to the future, and to the way Christ is coming into this world.

The passage we read from Thessalonians reminds us of that. It’s important to remember the context of this letter that tells us to “rejoice always”. Like many of the Apostle Paul’s letter it was sent to a church that was going through a time of uncertainty. They were figuring out how to be some of the first followers of Jesus Christ at a time when no one understood them and what they were doing. And professing your faith in Christ, at that time, could often come with harsh penalties. And so Paul was writing this letter to them to encourage them, and to remind them to continue to live in hope and joy, even when it was hard to be hopeful and joyful. And he tells them “don’t quench the Spirit.” In other words, do not let anything extinguish your joy.

So what did I say on that Sunday two days after Newtown, two years ago? I’ll tell you this first, what I said did not make everything better. And it didn’t erase the pain of what had happened. It probably even sounds a little ridiculous now, but bear with me. Because that day the best I could think about to say was to talk about the color of a candle.

You may notice that today’s candle on the Advent wreath isn’t blue like the other three. It’s pink. The traditional color for Advent is purple, which is meant to represent what is royal, like the coming Prince of Peace, but also to show repentance, and the turning away from what is and towards something better. And churches used to take this very seriously, and the four weeks before Christmas for centuries were very somber and penitent.

But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.

And they called this Sunday “Gaudette Sunday” which means “rejoice”. And so, we light the pink candle because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ’s light to break into our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive. We stand here in the real world, at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, oh come God, and be with us.

And we do something else too. We proclaim, just by being here, what joy really means.

The other night in our Advent discussion group we talked about “joy”, and we asked if it’s possible to be joyful even when maybe things in the world around you aren’t so great. And one of you said something like this: “I’d like to believe that the joy that comes from Christ is not so that shallow that the world can give it or take it away.”

I think he was right. Because if joy can be lost or gained so quickly, it’s just happiness. Not a bad thing, but not such a long-lasting thing sometimes. But the joy that comes with Christ sticks around. It’s there in the best of times, but it’s even there when times are hard. You can be a joyful person and still cry alongside the world. Because being joyful means you know it isn’t supposed to be that way, and you believe it can be better.

About a year and a half ago, a few months after Newtown, the Boston marathon bombing happened. We were married at Old South Church, the church right at the finish line of the Marathon that sustained some damage in the explosions, and just a few months before we had stood only feet from where the bombs went off to take our wedding photos. And when we watched the coverage on the news, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

About a week later, before they even opened the streets back up, we went down to Boston for Old South’s first worship service in the aftermath. And I spent some time walking around the streets there by Copley Square. Police tape blocked off a lot of the area, but every time there was a barricade there was also something else. People had taken chalk and written messages on the sidewalks. Messages of hope. Messages of healing. Messages of peace. I walked the streets reading them.

And there was one message that captured me in both it’s simplicity and its depth. There, on the sidewalk, in blue chalk, someone had written simply “light overcomes darkness”.

I think that’s when I stopped feeling like someone had punched me, and I started to remember that violence and anger and destruction don’t get to have the last word. Only God does, and God sent Christ to this world not just so that we might live, but so that we might have a deep abiding joy.

And so, here we are, on one the shortest days of the year. The longest darkness. And we are here because somewhere inside of us we believe that it is true. We believe that the light will always overcome the darkness. And we believe in the miracle that is about to come into this world.
On Christmas Eve we read a passage from the Gospel of John, one that the person who wrote that chalked message on the sidewalk may or may not have know: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. In other words, Christ is the light of the world, and the worst that the world can do is still not enough to extinguish that light. And if that light cannot be extinguished, than neither can that joy.

And so, our job as followers of Christ is to spread that light, and spread that joy. Because joy is different than just a feeling. Joy is a way of living as people following the light of Christ into the world. Claiming joy is an act of faith, and living with that joy is an act of revolution in a world that could use a little joy right now. God’s gift of joy is there for us all to claim, not just in the good times, but especially in the bad.

And so, and as we watch and wait this Advent, be witnesses to the light of Christ, and the joy it brings. And live as the people who believe that this joy, and the child who brings it, can change the world. If you do that, you’re halfway to Christmas already. Amen.

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Christians: Stand up against anti-Muslim hate

Written on the sidewalk outside of the barricades around the crime scene.

Written on the sidewalk outside of the barricades around the crime scene.

Today I am praying for my Muslim friends and extended family. Because I know they are afraid.

We don’t have any official confirmation yet whether or not the two brothers who are reported to have been the Boston Marathon bombers are Muslim. There are many reports, though, and already anti-Muslim statements are being made.

It doesn’t matter that the youngest son reportedly drank and smoked pot, hardly the signs of an observant Muslim and certainly not the mark of a radicalized Islamic terrorist. It doesn’t matter that their uncle is standing on his lawn having to proclaim his love of this country because no one believes him. It doesn’t matter that a cousin is an Army soldier. Some people have already decided that these actions are related to Islam.

And here’s the difference between being Christian and any other faith in this country. Had the bombers been Christian, I wouldn’t be afraid to go out tomorrow.

Had a devout Christian committed these acts, I could still walk down the streets of Boston without fear of retribution. But for non-Christian faiths, the sins of one member, no matter how devout or not, cause the whole group to fear revenge.

Some Christians in this country love to talk about how they are being persecuted for their faith. They have no clue how easy we Christians have it. We have the luxury of not being blamed as a whole for what someone who happens to be Christian does, regardless of whether or not they are doing it for faith reasons.

It was not so long ago in this country that Jewish and Catholic people of faith were attacked as a community for the crimes of an isolated individual. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now that it is happening to other groups.

For those of us who truly believe Jesus’ words, we have to live into the belief that “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

As Christians our faith calls us to be the most vocal voices against hatred, against vengeance, and against injustice. Jesus was pretty clear that was what he expected of us. This is not optional.

In this time of knee-jerk cable news-fueled misinformation, stand up as a voice for truth, a voice for understanding, and a voice for reason. Stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters (as well as those who just “look Muslim”) and all who are blamed for the actions of the few.

Because God knows we Christians wouldn’t want to be judged by the actions of our own extremists.