The Power of the Psalms

Despite the fact that you will rarely hear a sermon on them, the Psalms are by far the most read book of the Bible within my denomination.  With a few exceptions, in the Daily Office, we read the Psalter through every seven weeks.  In the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter is still marked for reading them in a thirty day cycle.  Almost every Sunday, a portion of the Psalter is appointed in the Lectionary.  It is a gift that we are able to borrow from our Jewish sisters and brothers their ancient songs of praise, lament, thanksgiving, and wisdom sharing.

As with any set of texts, some speak more to me than others.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Psalm 121 is a go-to for me in challenging times.  Psalms 1, 122, 133, and even the weighty Psalm 22 have all been important to me at times in my life.  Of course, there is Psalm 23, which has almost universally been used at the funerals over which I have presided in my decade plus of ordained ministry.   Psalm 23 has a tendency to show up just when I need it to.  It was there on the week of the Boston Marathon bombing.  There have been several experiencing where I was ministering to someone who was deep in the symptoms of Alzheimers and watched as they mouthed the words of the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm along with me.

This week, as we had to make the Closing the Porch to close our porches to overnight sleeping.  Through tears and hugs, last night we announced to the Cloister Community that it would be the final night they could find shelter in our shelter.  Our ministry with this community isn’t ending, but it is drastically changing, and as I grieve all that is lost in this transition – seeing folks daily, praying for them, sharing coffee and a breakfast – I’m holding on to these words of lament that are also words of hope.  In minutes that seem to last for days where I feel acutely the shadow of death, stuck as I am on Holy Saturday, but I know that in due time, blessings and mercy will find me, and that grace abounds.

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Take your cute lamb and stuff it.

Of course, the reality of grief is that if anyone says that to me right now, I will be hard-pressed not to throat-punch them theologically, but just as those souls wracked with dementia had the 23rd Psalm hard-wired into their bones, it is there, deep within me, sustaining me through what are some pretty painful days.

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When the Shepherd is Hard to Hear

You can listen to my sermon for Easter 4C on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


There is something that is supposed to be very comforting about Good Shepherd Sunday.  Across the Church today people are seeing the image of a dark haired, blue eyed, Brad Pitt of a Jesus; imagining they are the fluffy white lamb he is carrying across his shoulders.  We take solace in the soothing words of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  We hear the words of Jesus and give thanks that we are among those who have heard his voice and followed.  But if I’m honest, I’m having a hard time with Good Shepherd Sunday this year because it feels like I haven’t heard the voice of the Good Shepherd in a while.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t because Jesus has stopped talking to me.  I’m guessing it is because I’ve been distracted and quit listening.

In fact, I know it is because I’ve been distracted.  I’ve been distracted by my frustration over the failure of the three services experiment.  I’ve been distracted by the financial pressure we’ve been feeling around here.  I’ve been distracted by my sabbatical, my Doctor of Ministry Thesis, and my new role as Diocesan Secretary.  Sure, I’ve been cranking out sermons, Bible studies, and pastoral visits, but in many ways, I feel like I’ve just been going through the motions.  At some point, I lost perspective on the reality that Jesus didn’t die and rise again to ensure that that Draughting Theology would meet on Wednesday night; that the Episcopal Church Women would have their annual bake sale; or even that church would happen on Sunday morning.  I’ve been distracted from the mission of the Good a Shepherd by all the maintenance it takes to keep things going simply for the sake of keeping things going.  If you’ve noticed, you’ve been kind enough not to mention it, but I can’t help but wonder if you’ve been feeling it too?  Have you noticed that maybe you don’t feel like coming to church quite as often?  Maybe you’ve noticed that there aren’t quite as many people volunteering at Foley Elementary School.  There isn’t quite as much food coming in for Ecumenical Ministries.  Maybe we have all fallen into maintenance mode?  Have you heard the voice of Jesus recently?  Or have you, like me, erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep?  Have you, like me, followed too much the devices and desires of your own hearts?

When one is a priest whose life work it is to pray, study Scripture, and administer the sacraments, the realization that the voice of the shepherd has been off in the faint distance, can be freak out inducing.  Penny, Keith, and Cassie all experienced portions of that from me this week, but once my mind settled, I found myself drawn back into the Bible for words of comfort.  “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”  No one, not even myself, can snatch me out of the hands of the Good Shepherd.  That is good news.  No, that was great news for me this week.  Nothing, not even my own doubts, fears, and frustrations can cause me to fall away from the love of God.  There is nowhere I can wander that the Good Shepherd won’t find me.  Even when it seems like I can barely hear his voice, the Good Shepherd is still there, calling me by name, inviting me to follow him.

The key to finding my way back from maintaining the institution to following Jesus’ call to mission is tuning my ear to hear his voice above the monkey chatter of my own mind.  Maintenance brings with it stress, anxiety, frustration, and even fear.  Those noises create a cacophony of sound that rattles around my mind from morning ‘til night, and occasionally wakes me up at 3am just to taunt me.  Shutting them out can be difficult, but consistently listening for the voice of Jesus will slowly tune out all those other sounds, and one day, the voice of the Good Shepherd will once again come in loud and clear.  So, how do I eliminate the monkey chatter?  In my experience, the best way to keep out the noise is: to take a walk, to pray with regularity, to study scripture daily, and to take counsel from fellow disciples.  In some of the most important moments of my life, I’ve done all four.

Fourteen years ago, I was a senior in college, getting ready to start a career crushing fingers on the corporate ladder.  In late February, I set off for Pittsburgh to propose to Cassie at Jubilee, a conference for Christian college students meant to help them better understand how to be a disciple of Jesus in their chosen career path.  With the ring in my jacket pocket, I sat in on the Saturday afternoon breakout session for business majors.  I was going to ask Cassie to marry me in a few hours, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the session, but my ears perked up when the speaker ended the first half of our time by asking a question that forever changed my life. “Are you studying business to further God’s kingdom in some way or do you just want to get money and buy stuff?”  Up until that moment, “get money and buy stuff” had been my answer and I was perfectly happy with it, but in an instant, that all changed.  “Get money and buy stuff” was no longer an acceptable answer.  I realized I hadn’t been listening for the Good Shepherd’s call in my life, and I freaked out.

I didn’t return for the second half of the session.  I grabbed my Bible, took a walk, sat down by a fountain, and prayed my guts out.  For several hours, I flipped through the Bible, looking for what it all meant.  I prayed that God might show me what his will was for my life.  And as the time went by, slowly an image came into focus.  God was calling me to give up my will in order to serve him in full-time, ordained ministry.  It seemed like God wanted me to become an Episcopal priest, which led to my second freak out of the day.  Surely that wasn’t right.  It had to be the wild wanderings of my mind.  I decided to leave the ring in my pocket for an extra hour and ask my favorite disciple of Jesus, Cassie, what she thought about it all.  When I told her that I thought I was being called to be an Episcopal priest, her response was, “I’ve been wondering when this conversation would happen.”  The voice of the Good Shepherd was loud and clear.

Taking intentional time to pray, study the Bible, take a walk with God, and talk with a fellow disciple made the stress and anxiety of that moment of crisis fade away as the voice of the Good Shepherd came into focus, and I’m certain that the same will be true of this one too.  That’s because Jesus promised it would be that way.  Nothing can snatch us away from the Good Shepherd.  God, who is greater than everything, will never let me go.  God, who is greater than everything, will never let you go.  He who knows us each by name promises to seek us out, to find us, and to invite us, again and again, to follow him.  I’m working on hearing his voice again, and I hope you will join me in listening as God calls us to get out of maintenance mode and turns our focus to his mission: restoring all people to right relationship with him.  Open our ears, O faithful Good Shepherd, that we might hear your voice, and follow where you lead.  Amen.

What is the Greatest?

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There is a peculiar line in Sunday’s gospel lesson that I just can’t wrap my mind around in the NRSV. As Jesus is talking about his sheep that no one and nothing can snatch away from him, he says, “What my Father has given me is greater than all else…”  I found this to be an interesting turn of phrase, so I set out to look more deeply at the word translated as “what”.  I found that the NRSV seems to radically miss the point on this one.  The focus of Jesus’ attention here seems not to be the sheep that his Father has given him, but the Father himself.

  • … my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else (NLT)
  • My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all (NIV)

In dealing with this word “what,” Robertson suggests “Which” or a more colloquial, “As for my Father.”  He goes on to describe some Greek grammar that is beyond even my level of nerdery, ending with “The greatness of the Father, not of the flock, is the ground of the safety of the flock. Hence the conclusion that ‘no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.'”

I’m not certain why the NRSV chose to translate this sentence the way they did.  It would seem odd, in a teaching that is so focused on the relationship of Jesus as shepherd and his disciples as sheep that he would in turn call the sheep “greater than all else.”  As we’ve seen this week, sheep are vulnerable, wandering, and seemingly dimwitted.  It isn’t the result of their own meandering that they arrive at the promised land, but thanks to the watching eye and careful attention of the shepherd to whom the sheep are given by the Father.

Thanks be to God that the Father is, in fact, the greatest.  If it were left up to me and my greatness, as Martin Luther says, “it would all be for naught.”

On Pastors and Sheepdogs

Even when a sheep isn’t lost, it still might not quite be following the straight and narrow.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the Temple authorities that when his sheep hear his voice, they follow.  That is no doubt true, but the idea that sheep follow in lockstep, one behind the other, is just plain silly.  Instead, sheep tend to follow the shepherd in an ever flowing mass of eyes, ears, and wool.

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Despite 2,000 years of Christian leaders hoping to the contrary, this is image of sheep following a shepherd is the story of Christians following Christ.  Sheep might wander this way to check the sweet clover.  They might stray a bit in that direction, simply following the sheep in front of them.  They can still hear the call of the shepherd, who gives them a lot more latitude to follow than one might expect.  To keep the sheep generally heading in the right direction, the shepherd has appointed pastors and sheepdogs who walk along the edges of safety, making sure that no sheep deviates too far from the chosen path.

The pastor is not the shepherd.  She does not choose the final destination nor the path.  Her job is simply to help keep the sheep within the boundaries of safety as they move along their journey.  There are times when the work of a pastor is heroic, saving sheep from certain danger can be exhilarating.  Pastors and sheepdogs are vulnerable to danger, they walk along the edge of the known path.  There are threats from snakes, bandits, even the occasional cliff’s edge, but the pastor, like the sheep, trusts the shepherd, and is committed to following where he leads.  As a result, oftentimes, the work can be dreadfully repetitive, walking for days on end, unsure of where the shepherd is leading.  If you are simply in it for the paycheck, there are days when the work won’t seem worth it, but for those who are invested in seeing the sheep all the way to their final destination, the walk can be seen as fruitful.  Every step is one closer to the promised land, the eternal life promised by the shepherd.  I am grateful today to be called a pastor and to walk with my sheep as we follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

On Being Sheep

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My children love the Shaun the Sheep movie.  Of course, by “my children” I mean me as well.  It is an enjoyable take on what can happen when sheep decide to stop listening to their shepherd and start making their own decisions.  As you might expect, what started out as simply the desire for a day off turns into a disaster, but it is out of a deep love for their caretaker that Shaun and his friends risk life and limb to go save the farmer who is lost in the Big City.

As I reread the Gospel lesson and pray the Collect for Sunday, I can’t help but think about the ways in which I’m a lot more like Shaun the Sheep than I am the kind of sheep the Good Shepherd is talking about.  Sure, I can listen, but sometimes I’m not very good at it.  And learning to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd in the midst of a cacophony of voices that would pull me in a million different directions can be difficult.  There are often times that I go my own way.  Like Shaun and his friends, my desire isn’t necessarily a bad one, sometimes a day off is really required, but when I follow that good intention, it can have disastrous results.

Thankfully, God’s love is stronger than my poor choices.  Thankfully, the Good Shepherd has stated his intention to leave the 99 behind to find me.  Thankfully, God continues to call out my name, again and again, until I’m able to hear his voice and return to the flock. Each time that happens, and it happens more often than I care to admit, it is the sheer force of the Good Shepherd’s faithfulness that brings me home.  I’m an expert at getting lost, but God is even better at restoring relationships, between God and me, and between me and the other sheep in the flock.  I may be prone to wander, but thanks be to God, the Good Shepherd is just as prone to seek me out, and call my name to bring me home.

When did he tell them?

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Easter 4 is affectionately referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year (A, B, and C) we hear a portion of John 10, in which Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherd for his relationship with those who will follow him.  In Year C, we catch the tail end of the story (no pun intended) as Jesus is challenged the Temple leadership, what John calls “the Jews” to show them his bona fides.  They want to know for sure, if Jesus is or is not the Messiah.  “Tell us plainly,” they demand.

“I have already told you.”

Getting the Gospel of John in fits and starts over the course of a three year period means that I very rarely take the time to look at the larger narrative arc of the Fourth Gospel.  When I read Jesus say, “I have already told you,” I can’t help but think, “has he really?” I guess I’m so used to Mark’s messianic secret that it is easy to forget that the other Gospels handle the question of Jesus’ messiahship in different ways.  I started digging through the first nine chapters of John’s Gospel, looking for places that it might be clear that Jesus or someone else had inferred that he was the Son of God.

  • While the priests and Levites were questioning John the Baptist, he saw Jesus and declared, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1.29)
  • While cleansing the Temple, Jesus calls it “My Father’s house.” (Jn 2.16)
  • When pressed for a sign by the Temple leadership, Jesus promised to rebuild the temple in three days (Jn 2.19)
  • Nicodemus came to Jesus saying, “We know that you… have come from God.” (Jn 3.3)
  • Jesus clearly infers that he is the Son in John 3.16-17
  • Jesus tells the Woman at the Well that he is a “gift from God” (not in that way) (Jn 4.10)
  • After Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he exacerbates the situation by calling God his Father. (Jn 5.17-18)
  • Jesus promises eternal life that can only come from the Father. (Jn 5.40)
  • Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” (Jn 6.35)
  • “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me.” (Jn 7.16)
  • The crowd wonders if the Temple leaders know that Jesus is the Messiah (Jn 7.26)
  • Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” (Jn 8.12)
  • Jesus says, “I am not of this world.” (Jn 8.23)

It seems clear that Jesus has made it known that was at least the Messiah, if not the Son of God, if not actually God.