Lost Sheep

“Lost Sheep”

Matt 9-36 sheep, shepherd people

Matthew 9:35-10:1 (9:36) – June 14, 2020

In college, I can remember times when I heard fiery sermons about missionaries, and about how God provided the world as a harvest field for the followers of Jesus. I can remember how the preacher would thunder “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few! Pray that the Lord will send out many into God’s harvest fields!”

I attended a Christian college, and I did hear a number of sermons like that. Yes, that Bible reading is from Matthew 9:37. Perfectly appropriate for preachers to take this verse and highlight it in a sermon meant to urge people to go out to the mission field. The very next verse is where our Lord Jesus chooses the 12 disciples, and commissions them to go out into the villages and towns and heal, preach and do just what Jesus had been doing.

However, when I read these verses from Matthew to prepare a sermon for today, I was drawn to the previous verse, verse 36. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I am NOT going to focus on the harvest being plentiful, and the workers being few – in that case, this would be a very mission-oriented sermon. I do preach mission-oriented sermons when I feel God leading me that way, but for this Scripture reading at this particular time, I see a different picture. Instead of God sending followers out into the world, I see Jesus full of compassion and caring. I see Jesus as a loving Shepherd, caring for His lost sheep who don’t even know they are without a shepherd.

Many, many people around the country have not been in physical contact with anyone else for a long, long time. In some cases, for months. People are still suffering from social isolation, from limited and limiting conversation from behind a mask, at a socially-acceptable distance of six feet—or more. Have you felt isolated and alone? Have any of your extended family, or loved ones, or friends been in that situation? Jesus would be able to give you a hug, for sure. As a Shepherd, Jesus would certainly lift up and carry little lambs in His arms.

Can you imagine how comforting that would feel, to be held in the arms of our Lord Jesus? What a wonderful feeling, to be protected and made secure by our Heavenly Shepherd.

For those who did not know, I am in the middle of a 4-part community video series involving the recent months, the pandemic and the shelter-in-place order in Illinois. This series is in collaboration with the Morton Grove Chamber of Commerce. I am the host and narrator for the project, and we are very grateful to the Village of Morton Grove and associated departments for all their help in making this series a reality.

As I think back a month, to the beginnings of this idea for a video series, it all started with a conversation. Or rather, two conversations, with Father Dennis and with Mark, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce. In both, we talked about how disconnected and discouraged many people felt. All three of us – Father Dennis, Mark, and I – had many people sharing with us how disheartened they were, for a number of reasons, all stemming from the pandemic, the shelter-in-place, and the social isolation that gripped so many across our nation.

Which leads me back again to this verse from Matthew 9:36, where the Rabbi Jesus spoke of compassion, and nurture, and how Jesus cares for each of us as His sheep. Jesus did not just preach from a pulpit, or up front on a raised platform, separated from all the other sheep—I mean, people. No, Jesus had compassion on these lost sheep.

Jesus felt such love and compassion towards these members of the house of Israel, He felt it deep down to his “splachna,” down to His guts, or bowels. According to the original Greek, in the first century, to be moved right down to one’s bowels was to be moved with compassion, or to have compassion inside. The bowels – or guts – were thought to be the seat of love and pity at that time. This expression denotes the very heart of Jesus’ understanding and personhood.

With Jesus, His compassion was not impersonal or disembodied. He did not simply see abstract problems that could be explained away. Instead, Jesus had compassion on real people. He saw each individual, the real self inside, and considered each one worthy of compassion and care. To know that someone has seen the real self, hidden underneath and still manages to love and accept us. What a profound difference that makes in our lives, in our hearts, in our self-image. Can we do less when we seek to engage the community around us?” [1]

What an earth-shattering thing, for Jesus to see us, to know us deeply, down to our hearts. We can praise God for this wonderful certainty, even as we are in the midst of such anxiety and fear. As a community, we can gather together to name our stresses and losses, and to grieve and mourn. Yet, Jesus shows us how to have compassion on ourselves and on others.

Morton Grove and the surrounding neighborhoods are finding resilience, togetherness, hope and even joy. Praise God for the example of our Lord Jesus. We can join (virtual) hands in community. Is there any better, more holy calling than to make friends with everyone we meet?

Remember, God loves everyone, no matter who. And, we might be surprised at who becomes our new friend in the Lord as we show compassion, too.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/open-our-eyes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/second-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-preaching-notes

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

No Longer Orphans

“No Longer Orphans”

John 14-18 not leave you

John 14:15-21 (14:18) – May 17, 2020

When I used to read lots of fiction novels, especially when I was young, a favorite theme was making the protagonist an orphan. Sometimes abandoned, sometimes ignored, sometimes desolate, this setting provided a rich background for the author’s writing.

Today’s Gospel reading from John 14 seems especially pertinent in these uncertain times of pandemic. Here Jesus promises the Holy Spirit’s coming to be with us. The Holy Spirit now is present with believers, both with them and in them. Jesus says He will not leave us all alone, the way orphans are left all alone.

When some people think of orphans, they think of children, huddled in orphanages, housed in drafty attics, or in poky little rooms. Imagine Orphan Annie at the beginning of the musical “Annie,” or Harry Potter in the first few chapters of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Just thinking about orphans in that way feels desolate.

Except—most of us are orphans, too. We lose parents to many things: to cancer, strokes, diabetes, or accidents, among others. Most people are at least half-orphans. I was—my dad died when I was in college. In July, it will have been forty years since I lost my dad, and became a half-orphan. At least I had my mom until the early 2000’s. But, that loss of my father to cancer was a sad blow. I missed my dad very much, and now I miss both of my parents.

When Jesus said to His disciples “I will not leave you as orphans,” I would imagine that Jesus’s words were comforting to many if not all of His disciples.

Death and sickness were everyday facts of life 2000 years ago. I don’t read very much about the individual disciples in commentaries and other reference books, for the main reason we are not told very much in the Biblical record. But, I do know the human condition, for people in the present day, and other common situations many people are familiar with.

Thinking again about the human condition, and people we encounter every day—whether in person, on social media, or in the news—what is their situation? What are they dealing with?

We are all sadly familiar with people dealing with financial trauma, job loss, physical illness, spiritual desperation, emotional isolation, instability, want, disrupted relationships, abandonment, violence … the list goes on and on. These elements of the human condition are bad enough. But, when we add our current emotional and psychological climate, especially in this unprecedented time of pandemic, individuals can feel overwhelmed. Whole communities can be disheartened and desolated, particularly in hot spots affected by the coronavirus. Interesting that Jesus uses the word “orphaned” in this week’s text, as it is such a potent metaphor for what he was about to do, which was to leave his beloved disciples and go and die. [1]

Jesus just got finished promising the coming of the Holy Spirit. Many people love this promise, and grab onto it with both hands. Yes, it is a marvelous reality in believers’ lives.

But—sometimes—especially in uncertain times like right now—individuals can feel like orphans! Isolated, alone, disheartened, even desolated. I am particularly thinking of seniors I know who are in fragile health, confined to their homes or apartments. I shop for two households of seniors right now, in this time of shelter-in-place in Illinois. A senior couple, and a widower. Two of my relatives are both seniors, both living alone in Chicago. I’ve heard expressions like squirrelly, stir-crazy, isolated, even though we live in a time of computer access and social media connections.

Is this what Jesus was thinking of?

Jesus, I want to be able to communicate to people some hope, some feeling of togetherness, some kind of kindness, compassion and coming-alongside.

I know, the promise of the Holy Spirit may sound like an empty promise if you’re locked down and in quarantine. But, perhaps one way the coming of the Holy Spirit can be expressed is when we look at the words and actions of Jesus’s followers. Maybe another way to look at the work of the Holy Spirit is a way that animates and encourages people to reach out to one another.

Before I came to St. Luke’ Church, when I was a hospital chaplain, I was a listening ear to patients or loved ones or staff. I came alongside of these people in difficult situations – like a Paraclete, in a similar way to the Holy Spirit coming alongside each of us in difficult times.

In a practical sense, the way the Holy Spirit sometimes works may be the kindness we extend to each other. Yes, the Holy Spirit is with us and in us. And, yes, in these times when many people find themselves desperately alone or lonely, the Holy Spirit moves or sends others to be God’s hands and feet, God’s listening ear, the person who shows up at your door delivering groceries, or the volunteers who drop off baked goods or canned goods at a food pantry.

I am blessed with a pleasant smile – it just happens. I was told a number of times by patients and loved ones that my smile lit up a hospital room. Could your smile, your kind words, your compassion and helpfulness be the Holy Spirit’s working in all of our lives?

Listen to Jesus—God will give us another advocate to help us and be with us forever— the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit indwelling each believer. The Holy Spirit works through each of us, through all of us, sometimes at the most unexpected times.

Are we called to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Is God pleased when we spread kindness and help others? As we show love to each other, we show love to Jesus. And, the Holy Spirit bears witness within. What a wonderful promise from Jesus. What a wonderful opportunity to do God’s work. Go, and do likewise.

[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/orphaned-anna-hosemann-butler-05-20-2014.html

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

The Light Will Shine!

“The Light Will Shine!”

John 1 1-14 word cloud

John 1:1-5 – December 1, 2019

Light versus dark. Good versus evil. The powers of the Light pitted against the powers of Darkness. And, think about the Good Witch, all shiny and light, in the Wizard of Oz, as opposed to her sister the Bad Witch, all black and dark. Think of movies, and television, and fairy tales, and folk tales. All of the stories we have ever heard tell us the same thing. Everyone knows the good guy wears a white hat, and the bad guy wears a black hat.

The Gospel Scripture reading this morning comes from the first chapter of John, John 1:5, where we are told “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” But, what if we do not think of this contrast as a good versus evil set-up? What if we don’t think of this as a sharp duality, where light (or, white) is good, and dark (or, black) is bad? What then?

I know we have a number of people here in this congregation who are familiar with several languages. I suspect you are aware that sometimes it is a challenge to translate from one language to another with exactly the right words. Sometimes, the words and phrases of one language just do not quite fit the other language. So, you approximate. You give it your best effort, and try hard. But, translation is not an exact, word-for-word science. Sometimes, translation is more of an art.

That is the case with our verse from John 1, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Greek word translated “overcome” here in the New International Version of the Bible sometimes is translated as “did not comprehend.” As in the New American Standard Version of the Bible: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

Remember, in the beginning? Way back, at the beginning of creation? John hearkens back to that beginning right here. He starts his Gospel with verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

God made everything that was made. All things! Yes, God made the light. Yes, God made the dark. And – this concept may blow our minds, but at the end of Genesis chapter 1, God called everything in creation very good. Everything! That includes light and dark!

John uses a comparison, a metaphor, comparing “the Light of all people” to the darkness, which could not comprehend the Light. I have heard this comparison lifted up by preachers and commentators many times in the past. Yes, it’s a vivid concept, that of Light and Dark. In fact, Jesus Himself uses this metaphor when He says “I am the Light of the world.” But, that is a whole different conversation, in a different place.

I want us to reflect about creation, and how God made all things in the beginning. God created Light and also Dark. What is more, God called them both very good!

But, wait a minute! What about all that stuff from movies, and from television, and fairy tales? What about all we have ever learned about light being good, and darkness bad?

People often thought that meant Jesus banishes the darkness. But actually, the darkness is still present. Jesus works in the midst of them both. Dark and light coexist together.

Let’s think more deeply about the dark; it is good for a lot of things. How about nocturnal creatures? Bats, opossums, cats, and owls all like the night. There are many creatures who have a thriving life in the hours between dusk and dawn. And, God made all of these creatures.

What about many baby mammals? Puppies, kittens, horses, elephants, mice, and dolphins. All of them are mammals, and all of them gestate in darkness. So often, mama animals go to a dark, quiet place to give birth. Think of a dog or cat looking for an enclosed closet or a cupboard where they can give birth to their puppies or kittens.

Darkness is not always frightening! Sometimes, the dark can be friendly and warm. As humans, we gestate in darkness, too. Comforting, calming, friendly darkness.

But, some people might still be puzzled. What did the prophet say in our Scripture reading this morning? From Isaiah 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” That sure sounds like light versus dark, good versus bad.

I would like to suggest that the prophet is using a similar metaphor, using light to express hope. Hope and goodness given by God.

What if people twist such verses, and cause them to mean painful and twisted things? Like, for instance, believing that darkness is always bad and evil—and dark or black. And sometimes, some people have the false belief, the mistaken assumption that people with lighter skin are better or more loved by God than those with darker skin. This false belief is untrue, and so damaging to so many people!

When I was a child in Sunday School, we learned the chorus “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I wonder, do you know it, too? “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Just reminding everyone: Jesus was Jewish, and a person of color, too.

I have a good friend, a fellow pastor. He does not live here in the Chicago area any more, but moved to Oregon about a year and a half ago. He was born with sight, but due to a progressive eye disease, he lost all of his sight shortly after he turned 30 years old. He’s now in his early 60’s. and has been completely blind for decades. Is my pastor friend somehow “bad” because he is blind? Or, because he is always in the dark? No, light is not necessary for my friend to live life to the full and to pastor a church and love his children and grandchildren.

God made all things. God made all people. Everything God created, both the bright light of day and the darkness of night, are called “very good.” We have God’s word on it, from Genesis 1:31. What is more, all people—each person—is equally beloved, equally created for good, and equally made in the image of God.

When we believe that black-and-white thinking that light is only good, and darkness is only evil, we miss so much in life. Nocturnal animals, gestating babies, seeds growing in the ground. All of these are living life in the warm, friendly, nurturing darkness. Think about the good gifts of God, giving us both bright, radiating light and comforting, friendly darkness.

John chapter 1 hearkens back to that first chapter of Genesis. Yes, in the beginning God did create everything, and every person, and God called it all very good. Including the light, and including the darkness.

We can look forward to the Light of the world, God coming to earth in the Baby Jesus. We can reflect on the growing Baby inside of Mary His mother, gestating in the warm, friendly darkness of her womb. And, we can praise God for the birth of that Baby in Bethlehem, God with us, Emmanuel.

Alleluia, amen!

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 1 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Listen for the Shepherd’s Voice

“Listen for the Shepherd’s Voice”

Jesus Mafa, from a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Jesus Mafa, from a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa.
From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

John 10:14-16 – April 26, 2015

So many voices, sounds and cries, clamoring for our attention today! Noisy voices, going bash, bang! Clash, crash! Busy voices—hurry, scurry! Going round and round, almost spinning out of control! Angry voices, growling, scowling, mean and nasty. Making me want to run and hide myself away! All of these loud voices, and sounds, almost too much to handle.

Here in our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd. He is referring to us—that’s each one of us—as sheep. Rather unflattering, but in my opinion, pretty accurate.

Jesus portrays Himself as the Shepherd. The Good Shepherd, caring for His sheep.

Sheep can be fearful, not sure of what to do. Sheep can be stubborn and single-minded, going their own way. Sheep can even be gluttons, eating food that will make themselves sick unless they are steered away from certain kinds of plants in the pasture. But our Lord Jesus identifies Himself as our Shepherd. That’s a difficult job. Being Shepherd of so many, varied, and assorted kinds of sheep.

As someone who was born and bred in the city of Chicago, I do not know anything at all about sheep, or lambs, or ewes. However, I have learned a number of things since I’ve become an adult. I’ve gleaned information from books, and articles, and from people relating their experiences with sheep.

You might be aware that sheep are at the same time stubborn and timid.

Sheep aren’t good at many things. They are relatively dumb animals and can do little on their own. However—they are good at following—sometimes. As I have read on one of my favorite inductive bible study websites, sheep are also good at distinguishing sounds. They can recognize the familiar voice of their own shepherd. They often follow their own shepherd willingly enough, but won’t pay any attention to others who try to lead them—sometimes.

Even still, as our Good Shepherd, I suspect that Jesus has a difficult time in leading His widely varied multitude of sheep around the pasture. What with stubborn or confused ones wandering off into far-flung or seldom-traveled areas of the pasture, this huge flock must be hard to keep track of, and even harder to round up.

This particular morning, I want to focus on one particular verse: John 10:16. Our Lord Jesus mentions that He has lots of sheep. Other sheep, from outside of this little sheep pen. Lots of sheep, from all over the place. Even from all over the world! Jesus is not going to neglect those other sheep, either.

What are we, as sheep, going to do out on the hillside, when we are out in the great, big pasture with Jesus? This wide pasture can be a scary place. We might get lost from the Good Shepherd. Maybe there are dark places, rough spots on the hillside, where I as a sheep, or some of the other sheep, might wander off. Maybe, get in trouble, become sick, have an accident, or meet a predator.

Let’s consider the wider context. The wider world. Other voices can be just as loud as the welcoming, confident voice of our Good Shepherd. Instead, the craving, the desire for more, and never having enough. Just think how listening to that alluring, insidious, beckoning voice can destroy relationships within a family or a group of friends.

A second voice can be quite loud, drowning out the supportive voice of the Good Shepherd. Instead, the sneaking voice of suffering and despair, weakness and sorrow. The penetrating voice of bitter tears and clamor can distract and cause a great deal of dismay. That insistent voice doesn’t have to be loud, but is so often nagging, persistent, even heart-rending.

What can our Good Shepherd do, in those cases? I admit it. I am often a fearful, anxious sheep. I cry out, and say “help me!” or “save me!” And, “I’m scared!” or “I’m all alone!” Thank God that our Shepherd Jesus has a strong, familiar voice. He is insistent and persistent, too!

          I can hear Him when He calls out to me. Can you hear Him when He calls to you, too?

When my older two children were very small—I’m talking a toddler and a preschooler, now—I can vividly remember one time when we were at a department store in Chicago, in the women’s clothing section. There were a great number of round clothing racks, about four feet high, and I was pushing my younger daughter in a stroller. I took my eyes off my older daughter for just a few seconds, and by the time I looked back at the place where she had been standing, she was gone.

I tried not to panic, but began calling her name. Calling over and over, traveling in and out among the many racks, around the clothing section. Sure enough, she came out from the middle of one of the clothing racks where she was hiding, coming towards my voice. A familiar, comforting voice, one that she knew well. She knew she could respond to that voice in trust and assurance.

Do we know the familiar, nurturing voice of Jesus, our Shepherd? Or, is that voice the voice of a stranger—to us? Is Jesus just a nodding acquaintance, or is He one of our best friends?

Let me tell you about a Lutheran pastor who I sincerely respect, the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt. I often read her sermons online. I was especially moved by the one she wrote on this passage.

She, too, is listening for the nurturing, encouraging, supportive voice of the Shepherd in her life. As she listened for the voice of the Shepherd, she found herself remembering other, life-giving voices which have shaped her.

Let Dr. Hunt tell you, in her own words:

“When I was in my last month of seminary, my adviser Paul was preparing to retire. Like me, he was a lover of books, but without his office shelves, he needed to get rid of a whole lot of them. So he let me have my pick. . . . A number of them still sit on my shelf. Paul died of cancer not long after that, so all I have left of him are those books with his handwritten name inside and a handful of letters he sent me while I was on internship. . . . I feel as though I still hear his voice of confidence in me whenever I run my fingers along their spines.”

We can see that our Good Shepherd’s encouraging voice can echo in the voices of other dear ones, too. Other helpers, who reflect that familiar Voice of our Shepherd, and also serve as confident supports. Challenge and teach us. Mentor us. Come alongside of us, and act as nurturing, helpful voices in each of our lives.

          What do you hear as you listen today?

Do you hear the confusing voices of the world? Or, do you hear the nurturing voice of Jesus, our Shepherd? Do you hear the discouraging internal voices of sadness, hurt, and depression? Or, does the comforting voice of Jesus come through, loud and clear?

          I encourage each one of us to listen for our Good Shepherd’s voice.

Listen to that familiar, comforting, nurturing, supportive voice. This is the Good Shepherd, who loves each of us so much He laid down His life for the sheep. Praise God, we can celebrate! We can rejoice that we do have a Good Shepherd who intimately knows each one of us, and loves us. No matter what. Praise God!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)