Monday, October 17, 2011

Modern Day Shepherds

Psalm 23
Modern Day Shepherds
Leaders in the 21st Century

Henry Ward Beecher, prominent Congregational clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist once said this about the 23rd Psalm,

“The twenty third Psalm is the nightingale of the Psalms. It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but oh! it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive.” Henry Ward Beecher, Life Thoughts[i]

Hear now, the 23rd Psalm, King James Version…..

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
 and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.  Amen!

Beecher was right about the 23rd Psalm, ‘it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive’.  Who among us has not heard this Psalm and felt a sense of comfort, or joy, or perhaps even a homecoming of sorts.  It has been read at funerals, in nursing homes to dementia patients who, when hearing it, are able to repeat it word for word.  It has even been prayed in foxholes during World War II as one Vet told me, in the night of his terror when shells rained down around him.  It ‘sings shyly out of obscurity’ and we are the recipients of its beautiful song.

But it is not a Psalm of yesteryear.  It is not some ancient nostalgic poem that has just happened to survive the ages.  It’s based on the reality of our lives which makes its message timeless.  It addresses our need for peace and restoration, our need for guidance and God’s presence during those times of gloom and solitary confinement.  In it we recognize God’s abundance in our lives and are filled with gratitude that we will be the Lord’s for ever. 

It also addresses the strength of the shepherd and what a shepherd can do for a flock.  Shepherds are leaders who care deeply about how their flock is taken care of and lead.  The 23rd Psalm is a model for leadership if we look at the tasks that the shepherd is asked to perform because what the shepherd provides is what leaders provide.  This is how we will approach this beloved Psalm this morning.

Modern Day Shepherds.  They are all over the world still, in Nepal and Peru and when you visit the Holy Land you will see that there are still shepherd there today.  They are not like you probably envision with a sweeping robe, or a tunic belted with rope.  They are likely to be on the side of the Judean hillside and be a member of a Bedouin clan, dressed in jeans, a leather jacket with a staff in one hand and cell phone in the other.  None the less, their job is taken seriously because their livelihood is dependent upon their flock.

And if you think that shepherding is a cushy job, one that’s unhurried or unrestrained by the influences of modern society, then please think again.  It is not.  I had many experiences the year that I lived in Israel and shepherding was one of them.  I learned that it takes insight, patience, and a willingness to know your flock – not just one sheep or goat, but all of them because so easily harm can come to them. 

Neot Kedumim (translated from Hebrew, ancient pastures) is a Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel near the town Modi’in.  It is situated on 635 acres of hills and valley with hundreds of Biblical and Talmudic plants, wild and domesticated animals, ancient wine presses, threshing floors and cisterns.  You can meander through the fields and hills admiring the natural plants and trees, or you can take part in programs which is what I did. 
When I saw a poster that advertised for a leadership seminar that included herding sheep, I thought, I’m down with that, I’m in!  And so a few weeks later twenty of us travelled to Neot Kedumim for the experience. 

The task of our shepherding experience was to get the herd of sheep from point A to point B over some rocky terrain and to keep the sheep, for ten seconds, from entering a large circle that was mapped out with rocks on the ground.  Then from there we had to shepherd them from point B to point C and herd them into another large circle and keep them in there for ten seconds.  More difficult than you think. 
Here is what I learned about leading a flock.  Your best position, most of the time is within the flock.  When you stand at the head of the flock you block their vision and you might even lose a few along the way because you can’t watch over them.  Who knows what kind of peril a sheep might fall into when you are not watching?

Sometimes though, you have to stand behind the herd to get them moving, but then you should gently move towards the center of the flock.  Smelly? Sure it’s smelly but then again how else will you know their animal nature if you are not among them?  And for heavens sake, keep moving!  If you don’t the flock will begin to happily graze or go off in different directions. 

Figure out who the lead sheep is, there is one in every flock, the one that the other sheep look up to.  Befriend that sheep, it will do you well.  Conversely, gently guide the stubborn one, there is always one of those in the flock too.

Communication is key.  You could hear us saying “yallah, yallah” which in Arabic means, let’s go, come on, let’s try to figure this out together.  Yallah!

Singing helps!  No joking!  There was a reason why King David, when he was just a shepherd boy, took his harp into the hills with him on those long days and nights with the flock.  It was not just for his own entertainment.

Prodding never works.  It just doesn’t.

Above all a shepherd needs to keep the vision or the goal for the flock in mind.  Sometimes the sheep just forget where they are headed and they need someone who cares for them to gently remind them in the journey ahead. 

This is what a shepherd does to tend to his sheep.  This is what we claim when we say, the Lord is my shepherd.  We ask God to keep us in line, on the right path, to keep us from harm and to feed us and to get us from point A to point B and beyond.  We ask God to gently guide our living, to “Be Thou My Vision”[ii] as the old beautiful hymn begins.

Modern day shepherds.  How are we as individuals and as a church called to be leaders, to be shepherds with our cell phones in hand?  How are we to ‘tend Jesus’ sheep, to feed his sheep’ (John 21: 15-17) as he asked Simon Peter to do and ultimately what he asks us to do?  This is what we are called to do.  He, of course, is our ultimate shepherd but we are to also take leadership in tending the flock until he comes again.

How can we help others repose near quiet streams and to negotiate the troubled times of their lives?  How can we help them to where they need to go? 

Later this morning you will vote to call a search committee.  These are leaders who have stepped up to the task of leading you, this congregation, towards your future.  They will guide you in however long it will take to call a new minister.  This is a task that will take their time, their energy, their love for this congregation and most importantly their love for God to discern who best will come to minister among you.  They will have the stamina to do what it takes for as long as it takes because they will have our prayers to lift them up.  

Finding the right pastor to lead you into the future, who will love you and nurture you, is crucial to the vitality of this congregation.  It will be this person who will shepherd you until Christ comes again.

Christ is our shepherd, we need nothing else.  In him our needs are met, our direction is clear and straight.  We have great abundance in him and our lives are blessed each day and every day because his love is endless. 

[i] Henry Ward Beecher, ‘Life Thoughts’, cited in ‘The Treasury of David’, 1:357.

[ii] Slane, Ancient Irish, Tr. By Mary E. Byrne.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

All That Glitters

Exodus 32: 1-14
Golden Calf by Imago Amin
You’ve probably heard the saying in some form or another, “all that glitters is not gold”.  I remember taking a trip out west with my parents as a little girl and we went panning for gold in the California hills.  Of course it was all rigged and we really weren’t panning for gold we were panning for pyrite, fool’s gold.  I was pretty disappointed when I found out I wasn’t ‘rich’.  But it sure was glittery and pretty.  I wanted so much to be rich but was fooled by the shiny brite.  All that glitters is not gold.

Today’s scripture is about something that glittered and was made out of gold but was not worth its ‘weight’ in gold in God’s eyes.  Today’s scripture is also about patience or the lack there of on the part of the Israelites who by now had been without Moses for forty days and nights as he was consulting with Yahweh, God on the mountaintop out of view and receiving the Lord’s law.  Hear now from the 32nd Chapter of Exodus the story of the golden calf…..

After the people saw that Moses had been on the mountain for a long time, they went to Aaron and said, "Make us an image of a god who will lead and protect us. Moses brought us out of Egypt, but nobody knows what has happened to him."

 Aaron told them, "Bring me the gold earrings that your wives and sons and daughters are wearing." Everybody took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron, then he melted them and made an idol in the shape of a young bull.
All the people said to one another, "This is the god who brought us out of Egypt!"   
When Aaron saw what was happening, he built an altar in front of the idol and said, "Tomorrow we will celebrate in honor of the LORD." The people got up early the next morning and killed some animals to be used for sacrifices and others to be eaten. Then everyone ate and drank so much that they began to carry on like wild people.
The Adoration of the Golden Calf by Marc Chagall
You see at this point, chaos reigns supreme.  Their leader Moses took way too much time talking with the Lord and the people just plain old got tired of waiting.  They thought they had no God to worship, no leader to follow.  Aaron should have known better but he didn’t, in Moses’ absence he took the reigns and tried to placate the people.  But God caught notice of the anarchism, we continue…..

The LORD said to Moses:
Hurry back down! Those people you led out of Egypt are acting like fools. They have already stopped obeying me and have made themselves an idol in the shape of a young bull. They have bowed down to it, offered sacrifices, and said that it is the god who brought them out of Egypt. Moses, I have seen how stubborn these people are, and I'm angry enough to destroy them, so don't try to stop me. But I will make your descendants into a great nation.
Moses tried to get the LORD God to change his mind:
Our LORD, you used your mighty power to bring these people out of Egypt. Now don't become angry and destroy them. If you do, the Egyptians will say that you brought your people out here into the mountains just to get rid of them. Please don't be angry with your people. Don't destroy them!

Remember the solemn promise you made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You promised that someday they would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and that you would give them land.
So even though the LORD had threatened to destroy the people, he changed his mind and let them live. Amen!

Moses had some power of persuasion with God and it worked.  It was not the first time that the Israelites showed their impatience or mistrust of Moses’ decisions.  Remember when they were quickly pulling out of Egypt and the army was in hot pursuit of them? They wished they were back in Egypt because they couldn’t get across the Red Sea quick enough.

And then, in the wilderness, their incessant complaining?  They were impatient because they couldn’t get the good cucumbers that they were used to in Egypt, all they received was manna.  And then they thought they would dehydrate but eventually got some water from a rock.  They just couldn’t get their needs met fast enough.

Now, they grew tired of waiting on Moses and his promises once again.  For too long he has been on Mount Sinai.  Long enough for the sun to set forty days and the moon to rise forty nights.  Their impatience grew to abnormal proportions until full anarchy ensued.  The virtue of patience goes right out of the tent flap windows.
 Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf by William Blake
We, as a culture, are not to far off from the Israelites, are we now?  We can relate.  Have you ever gotten impatient waiting for your Internet service to boot up?  That is me all over!  Or there’s a line at the Jiffy Lube instant oil change which makes your getting oil a two hour ordeal.  Or you send an important email but don’t get a response until a day later.  In this day of instant oatmeal and instant coffee this little spiritual nugget called patience has taken its leave. 

When God doesn’t seem to answer our prayers quick enough, when God seems up absent up in clouds on top of some mountain far removed from our reality we become disenchanted with the one who is supposed to answer all prayers.  So we lose our patience.  And we build our golden calves. 

The calves of technological conveniences, of overeating and drinking, of bigger and better, of cheap thrills - our idols take curious shapes and sizes and all of us are tempted by them.  They give us satisfaction and gratification, maybe even a false sense of security but they don’t give us what only God can give us and that is grace, joy and peace.  It’s just sometimes we have to wait.  And that’s ok.

There is a reason for this time of waiting.  As Rick Morley, an Episcopal priest says, ‘waiting raises faith to a profound trust that God is working and moving when things seem to be going no where[ii]’. 

Trust is what we need in the deepest, darkest valley – and light will come – be patient.

Trust is what you need when loneliness overcomes you – you are never alone – be patient.

Trust is what you need when you world has come to a screeching halt – the wheels will start turning again – be patient.

God is not silent, or absent, you are not in the dark, or alone, or at a stand still in your life.  God is working on it.  Trust in God’s extraordinary composition for your life.

Idols cannot get things moving again, only God can do that, and will do that.
All that glitters is definitely not gold, but all that is needed is accomplished in the one who created the gold.


Thursday, October 6, 2011


Luke 24: 13-20, 28-35
World Communion Sunday

I am the daughter of a baker.  My dad owned several bakeries in St. Louis, Missouri named Warner Noll Bakery.  Now there are many upsides and some downsides to being a baker’s daughter.  One of the downsides is that I never learned how to bake because I never had to.  Daddy always brought home all the baked goods that you can possibly imagine. 

Cream puffs, Danish, Lemon Coconut Cake, Gooey Butter cakes which tasted as good as they sound.  So I can appreciate good baking when I smell it or eat it.  One of the other downsides to always having goodies in the house was that there were always baked goods in our home!  Hence the life-time membership at Weight Watchers.

The upsides of being the daughter of a baker far outweigh (no pun intended) the downside however.  It was great fun to go to the baking plant and goof around in the back with the bakers.  It seemed that the rotary ovens always had something baking in them no matter what time of day or night.  And it was great fun to watch the huge, gigantic mixers that stood on the floor because they were so big.  The paddles of the mixer whirled and whirled round and round mixing the batter into a smooth and creamy concoction that would, wallah, turn into some sweet thing.

I realize now how really lucky and blessed I was because each Monday night Dad brought home a dozen brownies for us to eat, and throughout the week he came home with other coffee cakes and goodies.  Friday night was the BEST though because he would bring home chocolate covered doughnuts just for me so that I could get up on Saturday morning and have chocolate doughnuts while I watched Mighty Mouse cartoons.
The one other good thing…almost every single day Daddy brought home a fresh loaf of bread.  EVERY DAY!  I’m not sure that we ate the entire loaf each day but every night at supper there was a plate with a stack of bakery white bread on it and a plate of butter on the side.  Dad used to claim, “Bread is the staff of life!”
Bread IS the staff of life.  That is, bread is a fundamental staple in people’s diets.  It, in some way, guides us and comforts us, brings us back home again when we’ve been far out on a journey.  There’s nothing like a fresh and hot loaf of bread set out on your table to begin your meal.  Whether it’s slathered in butter or warmed herb infused olive oil, it’s comfort food that fills up your tummy and your soul. 

Each culture and tradition has its own special type of bread that they lovingly prepare.  Mahamri or Swahili Buns from Kenya, Naan and Chapatti from India, Banana and Pineapple Nut bread from the Caribbean, Pita from the Middle East, Tortilla’s from Chile and South America. 
No matter where you are on this earth sitting down at the table with friends or family, with a fresh hot loaf of your favorite bread is a delight, a symphony to your taste buds, a common link to one another in tradition.  Because who doesn’t like bread? 

Today’s passage is all about bread and some friends who sat down at the table to eat.  That night bread, for them, was to never be the same.  From the Gospel of Luke, the 24th chapter,

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This post resurrection story is a defining moment for these followers of Jesus.  A couple of Jesus’ friends, maybe disciples but just didn’t get named as one of the twelve, Cleopas and another were heading to Emmaus, just about a seven mile walk from Jerusalem out west.  It was late in the day and the sun was setting.  As they walked someone appeared.  Now, the Bible lets us in on the secret that it was Jesus, but the disciples didn’t know.  They just thought that this stranger was someone who hadn’t heard about all the recent activities and turmoil in Jerusalem, that is the arrest and execution of Jesus.

Because it was getting near evening the disciples were going to stop for the night and they asked Jesus to join them, his plan was actually to keep heading out.  But instead he stopped with them.  And they sat down at the table for a little supper.
On the table was a loaf of bread.  Jesus picked up the entire loaf and then he blessed it.  And when he broke the loaf of bread to distribute to his friends it was at that very moment that Cleopas and the other man recognized who this man was…it was Jesus.  And then just as suddenly as Jesus appeared to them on the road he vanished from their sight.  All they had left was the broken loaf of bread that Jesus had touched as a remembrance.  But really, they had much more.  They had knowledge and understanding and the promise of Jesus. 

They knew from the moment that they started talking with this stranger that their hearts were burning inside and when Jesus tore the bread into two pieces, and they heard Jesus’ blessing they knew that they were in the presence of the risen Jesus.  They recognized him.  Their old friend was back with them, all was ok.

Today is World Communion Sunday.  That’s why there is so many different things happening in our Sanctuary today; global music, different communion ware, our beautiful children baking the communion bread all show us how connected we are to people, other Christians around the world through the sacrament of communion or the Lord’s Supper.  Even our communion liturgy is different and Bethany will lead us.  Communion is a meal of sacrifice and love, forgiveness and hope for ALL people.

By sharing in the common wheat of the earth and grapes from the vine we share our common humanity with all Christians no matter what size the loaf is or what it tastes like or looks like.  We partake in the bread of heaven together as a sign of our unity and belief that Jesus died, rose, and will come again, simply put. 

But it is more than just that.  When we share in this bread we are recognizing the Christ in each other, the suffering that each of us have endured at some point in our lives and the hope of resurrection for each one of us not only in death but daily in the sun that rises.  Each new day brings expectation and hope. 

When we share in this bread we are saying to one another that I too have hungered in my life for love, for satisfaction, for acceptance, for abundant living.  I, too, want only the best in life which exceeds far beyond material goods.  These are the basic needs that men and women in Botswana and Bridgeport, Algeria and Alabama, Saudi Arabia and South Dakota yearn for…and you might wonder what we have in common with these people.  It’s much more than you think.

When we take this bread we see the other and we strive to love the other because that is what Christ calls us to do.  Each moment, each new day births expectation for a fresh start at becoming who we are and for fulfilling our greatest potential.
The refrain from our final hymn manages to lift me up and reminds me in a very joyful way of what this ‘Christianity thing’ is all about.  “Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the word around, loaves abound!”