“Resting Heart Rate” Mark 2:23-3:6

I’ve been wearing one of these fancy “FitBit” devices now as I’ve been engaged in trying to improve my overall health.

Grandkids will do that to you, make you want to stay around longer.

Anyway, this little marvel counts my steps, lets me know if I’ve gone up inclines or stairs.  It monitors my sleep cycle reminding me to get adequate rest.  It even tells me the time and date.  It will also monitor my heart rate, which is a useful tool for seeing if you’re working hard enough to get your body working on improving your stamina during exertion.

Just as important as monitoring when the heart rate goes up however is the feature of monitoring your “resting heart rate.”

“Resting heart rate” is important.  It lets you know that you’ve recovered from your exertion and that you are back in the realm of maintaining balance and health.   Your heart, (as it turns out) doesn’t like to keep working at peak rate.   It seeks that “resting rate” and the rhythm of life that rate affords and provides.

For some reason “Resting Heart Rate” made a connection for me with this somewhat obscure Gospel reading for today.

Jesus is at odds with the Pharisees over proper keeping of the Sabbath, the proper keeping of the “rest” prescribed by God in the third Commandment.

Jesus and his disciples were well aware of the Sabbath laws concerning both the events in the field, and the man with the withered hand in the Synagogue.   It is not the case, (as is so often recounted incorrectly) that the Pharisees are just upset with the activity of Jesus or his disciples here, plucking grain as they walk, healing on the sabbath.

No, what really upsets the Pharisees is that (having pointed out) Jesus’ transgression of the sabbath law, Jesus didn’t just apologize and amend his or his disciple’s actions.

Instead, Jesus assumes and presumes the role of teacher.   He counters the Pharisee’s citing of the Sabbath laws with an argument from scripture as to how such laws should be open to interpretation and mitigating circumstances.

Jesus, in other words, sets himself up as a more reliable authority on the matter of the Sabbath than the Pharisees.

This is what ticks them off.

“What’s the point of Sabbath, if it’s not really restful?”   Jesus implies.

What’s the point of keeping the Sabbath if you’re so wrapped up in making sure the Sabbath laws are legalistically adhered to that you can’t “rest” from being a Pharisee and rendering a judgment to someone about something?

What’s the point of Sabbath if it cannot give the man with the withered arm what he most needs, which is a break from the deficit this affliction causes him?

He can’t really celebrate Sabbath (a break from work) if he can’t work in the first place, and he can’t work if he doesn’t have an arm, and so let’s put balance back into the equation, shall we?

“Stretch out your hand….” Jesus says to him.

These two stories told in tandem reveal the central concern.  The Pharisees are quick to point out what they feel others are doing wrong, and they are far too silent on rendering any kind of helpful interpretation of the Sabbath law that would lead to better health in the community.

What both grieves and angers Jesus (we are told in no uncertain terms,) is “the hardness of their hearts.”

“Hardness of their hearts” is a phrase that ought to have rung in the ears of the Pharisees.

Who was it that had a “hardened heart” in their history?  Whose “hardened heart” brought about the giving of the commandments in the first place?

Was it not Pharaoh, with his insistence on work with no time for rest or for worship?

Was it not Pharaoh who had a hardened heart when it came to managing the population problems of Goshen, with his “just kill the males born, lest this people become too great” policy.   Pharaoh’s cold, calculated approach to a people that made of them just another commodity rather than God’s beloved creation.

It was Pharaoh who was quick to point out offenses and transgressions and who was slow to consider the consequences of his own actions upon himself, his own people and the people of God.

Jesus calls out the “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees, and as such then introduces once again the heart into the matter of Sabbath laws.

The Sabbath was created for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.  This matter of “rest” is important not just to God as some legal requirement, but God knows it is important for the overall health and wellbeing of people.

It was God who had first rested from the work of creation as a conscious act of taking in what God had done, providing space for gratitude.

God had declared that rest was “good”.   It gave one perspective from which to move forward.

After the flight from Egypt, God had commanded rest and sabbath, precisely to break what was the “perverse economy of Pharaoh,” as Walter Brueggeman puts it.

Pharaoh, who heartlessly exacts and extracts, more and more, without giving anyone time to rest, to worship, or to consider what they have done.

“Resting” in God’s economy provides a rhythm of life.

“Resting” in God’s economy is not commanded because it’s something you do for God, something required of you, or something God expects out of respect for God.

No, rest is something God says you need to do for your own sake, and for the sake of your relationship with God and for the sake of relationship with your neighbor, because where there is no proper understanding of “rest”, or “sabbath” there is no proper relationship with God or neighbor.

You get cranky.

God gets grieved and angry.

People and creation suffer, when there is no “rest.”

It is here, early on in Mark’s Gospel that the matter of the Sabbath begins to show itself as a place of contention because Jesus presumes to teach on it’s importance.   For all the “rush” Jesus seems to be in throughout Mark’s Gospel, all the quick moves that Jesus makes from place to place, it is also in this Gospel that we see Jesus doing the most “resting.

Here we find Jesus’ “come away” invitations.

Come away to a lonely place.

Rest.

It is in this Gospel that Mary and Martha are contrasted, and Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better thing, to sit at Jesus feet and it is something that will not be taken away from her.

The teaching that Jesus engages in right here sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel.  Sabbath, rest is prescribed, and returned to, and modeled by Jesus over and over again so it must be important.

Teaching on the Sabbath is the first thing that sets Jesus and the rest of the world at odds with one another.   It is Jesus’ desire for balance and interpretation of this matter that becomes the heart of his message, as the Kingdom of God comes into direct conflict with the way the Kingdom of this world is ordered and executed.

So I got to thinking, Congregation, how is our “resting heart rate?”

Oh, I know all about our exertion heart rate, but much of that is modeled on the expectations of this world, and in the Kingdom of this world.

I’ve watched the blood pressures rise in this place over this concern or that, had more than one tense meeting where reminders were given of what can/should/ought to be done.   Impassioned discussions were engaged, necessary reminders of how things ought to be done in good order, but moments that made that clearly made hearts race, and not in a positive way.

Oh, we have plenty of positive heart rate raisers here as well.

I’ve witnessed the exertion of Sunday School teachers, and of TLC workers, and of Pantry volunteers, and Arts in Ministry folks decorating and planning.

I’ve seen the sweat of musicians hauling equipment around, playing and leading worship.

I’ve seen the scramble of ushers, altar guild and communion assistants.

I’ve watched the responsibilities of putting together slide shows, and providing coffee hour refreshments, and the clean up crews that assemble in the kitchen after events or in time of need.

We are a place that has put “Enter to Serve” on our doorsteps as we leave this place.  That is meant to be a reminder that God calls us to serve others in the mission field of this world, and that our service begins as soon as we exit those doors.

We end our worship with “Go in peace, Serve the Lord” as a reminder that God wants us to get out there and to get busy on the Kingdom work out there in the world.

But all this still begs my initial question.  “How is your ‘resting heart rate?’”  That is to say, how good are you at keeping the Sabbath in the way that Jesus encourages in the Gospel?

Do you take the time to retreat and to rest yourself, to “come away” to a lonely place or to sit at the feet of Jesus, or is your life just one continuous plunge from activity to activity?  (Either church related or work related or family related or… whatever.)

Do you feel able to set aside the letter of the law in order to make the spirit of the Sabbath take root in your life?

Do you pause to consider the circumstances?  Consider the lives or others, the situation they find themselves in, the mitigating factors that may be at play in the lives of that person, or do you doggedly point out the rules and the regulations and demand adherence to the economy of established practice?

If you find yourself frustrated and frazzled, could it be that you’re using your Spiritual “fitbit” only with a setting to see how much you can serve, how fast you can go, how high you can get your activity, all the while neglecting the equally important matter of “Spiritual Resting Heart Rate?”

What would it take for you to find your “resting heart rate” when it comes to following Jesus?

I tease that maybe we should have door mats made up to place at the entrances facing in that say “Enter to Rest.”

Would that remind us of some things?

Go ahead, wipe your feet before you come in.

Come on in and wipe away the weariness of this world away and its frenetic pace in confession, in worship, and granting forgiveness and finding forgiveness.

Rest here.

Be refreshed, take and eat and simply be for a bit.  Feel your heart rate descend into that resting rate that signals health and wholeness.

If you can’t find that in this place, then perhaps you should ask “what is keeping me from it?”

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“A God Big Enough” Isaiah 6:1-6

“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts!”

We in the church like things in “threes.”

It’s Holy Trinity Sunday so part of the appeal of this old testament lesson is this repetition.   Three “holies”, a God in three persons, a God who fills the temple, and who speaks, and who also sends.   A God who is accessible, hidden, and revealed, all at the same time.

There are lots of “threes” going on here.

We’ve sort of gotten comfortable with Isaiah’s call story because of our hymns and our general familiarity with the ring of it.

But if you peel back the layers of this story and peek inside the events a bit, you’re greeted with a whole different image in this vision than that of angels flying around and singing.

This is scary stuff happening in the midst of scary times.

“In the year that King Uzziah died.”   That’s how Isaiah, and the vision begins.

Well who was Uzziah?

Uzziah was the King of Judah who had reigned for an exceedingly long time.  It was a reign of relative stability and peace.  Now all that is coming to an end, bringing with it an uncertain future.

Regime change is in the air.

Assyria is rising as a threat in the north, a country rich and powerful that has a reputation for conquest and being ruthlessness in doing so.

Judah’s influence in the region, (tenuous as it had always been) is waning and the question of whether to rely upon God or to form treaties with neighboring countries is foremost in the mind of those who would be king and those who are citizens.

Uzziah’s death is a kind of “tipping point” into an uncertain future, for so many of the things that had been stabilizing, reliable factors in the past, (we find out in chapters 1-5) are on shaky ground.

Faith is waning.

Worship has become rote and people’s attention to worship is declining.

Cities have been besieged from without and within, are emptied out and destitute.

Leadership appears corrupted at every level.

Greed appears to be winning out over justice in daily life.

Does any of that sound familiar or have a familiar ring to it with modern day events?

The point here is that on this day when Isaiah enters the temple, it’s not a vision of God that he likely has on his mind.

Like many of us, Isaiah probably comes to worship with the events of life weighing heavily upon him.  He doesn’t have to choose between Fox or CNN for his news, but he is living through conflicted times where competing voices are at play.

Who will be the next King?

What will happen on the world stage, will it be peace or conflict?

What is the future of the Temple, of worship life, and of the Judean economy so dependent upon trade?

These are the things that are rattling around in Isaiah’s mind as he comes to do the ritual, to light the incense on the altar, and to intone the prayers.   He’s looking for a little comfort or direction from his religion.

And then, the ground quite literally shakes beneath him, and the huge bronze doors of the temple rattle and shake on their hinges as this vision unfolds.

What Isaiah gets instead of comfort and direction from his religion is a terrifying vision of a really big, big God.

God is so big in fact that the hem of his garment fills the Temple!

Isaiah can only see God from the waist down as he sits upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

Seraphim and Cherubim are not the angelic creatures of Renaissance and Rococo portraiture.

A Seraph is a flying serpent.

A Cherub is a winged lion.

These are swooping and diving like barn swallows from the temple heights, (which Isaiah cannot even see because of the thick smoke from the incense.)   They dive down at him from overhead out of the mist and cloud of smoke and cry to one another.

“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts!”

Awestruck by the immensity of this vision, Isaiah despairs both because of his own guilt (I am a man of unclean lips) and also out of guilt by association.  (I live among a people of unclean lips!).

The admission of his own sinfulness does not prompt a “there, there” or any reassuring word from God, but rather it prompts one of the swooping Seraph’s to come at him with at glowing coal from the incense altar, shoving it at his mouth to sear away the offending guilt.

As if swooping six winged flying snakes weren’t scary enough, now they’ve got fire and they’re coming at you, and apparently, they are also coming for you.

“Whom shall I send?”  Isaiah overhears God say to the Seraphim and Cherubim.  As Isaiah is the only non-heavenly being standing around at the moment, the answer that falls out of his freshly seared lips is “Here I am, send me?”

This vision of a big, big God is important for understanding Isaiah and his message.

It is because Isaiah not only sees but also experiences a big, big God, he is able to speak to scary times and to huge events.

After you have seen this, what is a little trouble in this world?

Think of the kind of message that Isaiah has to bring.

He is told to speak boldly to a people he is informed by God who will largely ignore and question him.  “Prophesy, but they will not listen,” God says to Isaiah.

They are going to need to hear this, not because it will change them at the present, but because looking back they will recognize that God was in the midst of things.

You need to know that you are backed by a big, big God to bring a message that nobody wants to hear.

It is Isaiah who proclaims the message of “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”   He tells the new King, Hezekiah to ask for a sign from God (as big as he can).  Test this God!  Isaiah urges.   See how powerful this God is!

You only encourage that kind of sign if you have seen a vision of a God bigger than you could ever imagine!

It is Isaiah who proclaims the message of having Judah beat their swords into plowshares and their weapons into pruning hooks, calling for demilitarization in the very midst of political unrest as the machines of war to the north are ramping up.  It’s a message that says you can’t beat Assyria with your weapons, no matter how powerful or reassuring they may feel in your hand, leave the battle with the enemy to God.

That’s the kind of message you can only give if you’ve seen how big and powerful God is.   Isaiah has seen a vision of this big, big God who puts to naught all the weapons of war that humans can fashion.

It is up to Isaiah in the aftermath his people have been defeated and subjugated to lift up a vision of comfort and hope to a people in now exile.

“Comfort, comfort my people.” Says the Lord, “tell them that their warfare is ended, that their deliverance is at hand.”

Isaiah can only speak with such confidence because he’s seen a big, big God whose presence fills the temple and if God can fill the Temple, God can fill the whole world and God can find and care for God’s people no matter where they have been exiled to or scattered.

The vision, the vision matters to Isaiah’s ministry.

It is this vision of a big, big God that emboldens and empowers Isaiah to speak difficult words to stiff necked people who will not want to hear them.

It is this vision that allows Isaiah to speak to a people who will hunger for God’s touch and presence in the midst of their exile.

It is this vision that empowers a word of judgment to a people who will chafe at God’s  direction but who will eventually need to and seek to return to their God.

You have to know that you have a big, big God, and that this God is backing you as you face the big scary stuff of this world.

Which is what brings us back to the present day, and the scary stuff of our own world.

I don’t have to lift any of that up for you.

You know what it is that scare the bejeebers out of you!

You know the questions that you ponder, the headlines that makes the pit form in your stomach, the worries that hover over your head, darting and swooping at you like barn swallows.

You are well aware of your own worries, your own burdens, your own uncleanliness and your own troubles.

You may even have come here today looking for a little religion, hoping for something that would see you through or give you a little relief from all the scary stuff out there.

Maybe that is what you’ll find here today.

But Isaiah wants to offer you something else.  He offers you a big, big God that he has seen and that he has experienced, and that he above all else fearfully trusts.

“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts!”

How big is your God?

Is your image one of a God who is just big enough to handle the really tough stuff, and you’ll make your way as best you can through the day to day things?

Is your God just big enough for you control, to handle, to invoke like room service when needed?  Like a divine “Siri” or “Alexa,” perhaps always listening in all the time but only acting when the right phrase is spoken, and then offering only a cryptic response?

If that’s all the bigger you think your God is, then Isaiah would like you to reconsider that, because the God that he’s experienced rattles the foundations and fills the world and loves ferociously.

“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts!”

This God is big enough to condemn the world with a wave of his little finger.

But bigger still, in proclaiming not condemnation for the world, but love, intent on saving it.

So intent, that this God sends not his winged creatures, (fearsome and powerful as they might be,) but rather his own Son.

How big is your God?   Does the hem of his garment fill this place and his Spirit spill out to four winds?   Big enough to reach and include the foreigner, and the sojourner?

Or have you not seen, not heard, not experienced yet the height and depth and breadth of the Love that God has for this world through Jesus Christ?

How big is your God?

Isaiah this day proclaims that God is bigger than you dare to imagine, and closer than you dare to hope or dream.

“Can These Bone Live?” Ezekiel 37:1-14

When I think back upon the experiences of my childhood, there are some images and memories that come readily to mind.

I can picture the farmhouses of my grandparents.  They both lived in two story houses with no heat in the upper level.

I can bring to mind certain flavors and tastes as well.

My grandmother’s holiday candy coated popcorn sitting in a bowl, all red and green.

My other grandmother’s icebox cookies, or her coffee cake.

But most of all when I remember my childhood, it’s not the places or the flavors that come to mind.

It is the wind.

You cannot grow up on the plains of Nebraska without having some memories of the seemingly omnipresent and powerful wind!

In August it swept through the cornfields and pastures rattling the leaves of cottonwood and cornstalk.  I can remember its hot, parching kiss on my face when it came from the south. I remember my hair tossled and pushed back as I stood facing into it, grimacing like a motorcyclist as it pushed against me in gusts though I was standing still.

In the fall the wind would howl from the west, south-west working up a storm from the lower Rockies, unpredictable in its decision between rain or snow.

In the winter the wind assaulted from the North, bringing from the Dakota’s either a seeping moist damp chill that seemed to sap the heat from everything or a bone chilling dry cold that would cut through clothing no matter how many layers you put on.

And in spring the wind could not quite decide which direction to take, and so it would huff cold from the north and then drive warm from the south, swinging the temperature up and down and with its indecision would bring swirls of black-green sky, severe storms of hail, lightning, and tornadoes.

The wind was a constant companion on the plains, and the literature of the Great Plains bears witness to that.

It was the persistent wind that drove the immigrant characters in the novels of O.E. Rolvaag to distraction and mental breakdown.

In Willa Cather’s novels, the wind rustled dresses and straw hats in a somewhat romanticized recollection.

In Steinbeck, the wind moved whole populations, and the nation itself with dust bowl promises and broken American dreams.   It howled from freight cars and hobo camps and around deserted farmsteads where desperate travelers huddled for shelter.

The wind.

The wind had a life and power all its own.

And so, it should not come as much of a surprise that in the bible too, the wind takes center stage.

It is the force that breathes life itself into creation.   God breathes into lifeless clay and moves over the face of the waters, and life takes hold.

It is the wind that carries the still, small voice of God to Elijah on Mt. Horeb.

The wind is depicted as the power of Pentecost, the Spirit rushing in like a might wind to empower the witness of the disciples and to proclaim the Kingdom of God sweeping in.

And here in Ezekiel, the wind is the power of prophecy.  It is a word spoken to dry and dusty bones to make them rattle back into place, take on sinew and flesh, live again.

In his vision, God takes Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones.

“Dry bones” for Israel was a metaphor for the loss of all hope.  “Our bones are dried up” the Psalmist exclaims.   It is an expression of hopelessness and despair that anything can truly change.

The location is important.

The question God asks Ezekiel is this.

“Can these bones live?”    It is asked while Ezekiel as he sits in the very midst of the dryness and death.

This is not an, “imagine if you will” kind of experience.

This is an experience.   It is coming to Ezekiel and bringing him into a place where he can look at the hopelessness that surrounds him, and then asking the question while he sits in the very midst of it.

“Can these bones live?”

This is a question (or one like it) that crosses our minds these days in various forms.

It crosses our minds in the dry bones experience of another school shooting, another senseless act of violence, with the wringing hands on every side where we find ourselves paralyzed, uncertain of what to do, and dry, old arguments ever at the ready.

Can these bones live?  Can anything change?  Can we find a way to intervene in the senseless repetition of deaths and defenses of constitutional rights?

The question of whether things can change crosses our minds in world events.

Promising international events rise and then falter.

Treaties are hammered out amongst nations only to be abandoned.   Urgings to end violence fall on deaf ears.  The seduction of power, the desire to rule, the seeking of special interest, the old wounds and arguments resurface.  Children suffer, refugees flee, strongmen prevail for a time and are toppled only to be replaced with worse leaders.

We watch the machinations of the quest for political power as it swings back and forth, again and again and we wonder, “Can these bones live?”  Can nation ever appeal to the better nature of nation, leader to leader?   Can trust be established or maintained and policies be pursued that benefit populations instead of investors?

We live in an exceedingly dry valley these days, where truth appears compromised and facts are made relative.  In the swirling collision of messages we wonder, “Can these bones live?”  Can truth be found?  Can anything be held as reliable anymore? Anyone be trusted?

Even within the church, (and maybe especially within the church!) our thoughts wander to the valley.  So much of what we once felt full of life and vitality is feeling a bit dusty and dry these days.

“Can these bones live?”   Or will Christianity suffer the same fate as the gods of Greece and Rome, become a mythology half remembered and our churches eventually just ruins and sites for museums for vacationers to wander?

It is when my mind wanders in this direction that I recognize that I’m int eh same place as Ezekiel, sitting in the midst of things that I know I can’t change, and being asked.

“Can these bones live?”

Ezekiel wisely responds, “you know, Oh Lord.”

Which is to say that this is up to you, God.  You know whether or not what looks what is long dead and gone to me has any hope of return or redemption, future or restoration.

You, and you alone God, know what is possible, and what is up your sleeve, and what you have decided will be the next step.

All I can see are bones, very many and very dry, and if something other than death and dryness is going to happen here, it’s not going to be up to me, it’s going to be up to God.

Except…..

Except it’s not left completely up to God!

God won’t let it be left completely up to him, and that is where Pentecost and this matter of the Spirit and the unrelenting wind of my youth comes in.

“Prophecy to the bones!”  God says to Ezekiel.  “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

This is no small thing!   In the very midst of the despair and the dryness, in the middle of the valley where no hope seems to remain, God does not roll up God’s sleeves and say, “watch this.” (Or in the popular vernacular, “Hold my beer.)

No, instead God says, “Here’s what you’re going to do.”

Here’s what I want you to say….”Prophesy to the Bones…..”

That move by God makes all difference, because suddenly this isn’t about what God is going to do about this place where I’ve ended up, but it’s about what God is going to do with me and through me in this place!”

You want to know what Pentecost is all about?

It’s about God reminding the disciples that no matter how dry and dead the valley looks, the power of the Spirit, God’s breath of life, is greater, and it is theirs to call upon!

Pentecost is our reminder to claim that.

Pentecost is about saying only God knows what will happen, but this is what I think God would want me to say!

It is about Peter standing up in the midst of the crowd and saying, “These are not drunk as you suppose!

Pentecost is about delivering a word of hope in the midst of what looks like despair, and the word, well that word is already given to you, so speak it!

In the midst of the valley of school violence, Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly, so no more hand wringing, get out there and prophesy!

Say to the powers that worship the gun, “thus says the Lord, you shall have no other gods before me!

Say to the rattling bones of kids dried up with no hope, “thus says the Lord, I know the plans I have for you, plans for a future with hope!   There is a future bright and open to you and we will help you find it together.

Say to those who say nothing can be done that something can be tried!

And if what we try fails, then proclaim the forgiveness of sins rather than condemnation, a Spirit that lets us try another tactic, and another, and another, without blame or recrimination, until we find the one that works.   Prophesy the Spirit as relentless as the wind that will not let up until dry bones live again!

In the midst of the valley of dry bones of political machinations, say to the bones, “enough!”   No more will the levers of government be pulled by special interests and money.  “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-rolling stream!”

If it costs me, so be it, I gladly give from the abundance God provides.

If it benefits my neighbor, let me bear it.

If a decision afflicts me, may I look to my neighbor to then speak on my behalf and to rattle the bones until compromise that benefits us both justly is found.

But speak, prophesy, lift your voice!  This is what you are given!

In the dry valley of fake news and lies told, prophesy to the bones that we will tolerate it no more.  Use the words of Jesus which remind us not to swear on heaven above or earth below or to make any promises beyond our reach but instead to ‘let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” with no shades of variation.

Prophesy to the bones that rattle that your word is your bond, and that truth matters to you, so that you will not be tossed to and fro by every whim any longer.    Demand the truth and hold leaders accountable to it because Jesus reminds us that it is the truth that sets people free!

Maybe the valley of dry bones we find ourselves in seems overwhelming.

Maybe you’re thinking that there’s nothing you can do in your corner of the world to change the machinations of politics and policies, media or mediocrity, methods or messages.

But I’m a child of the plains, and I’m telling you that when the wind blows, nothing gets in its way for very long.   It wears down the rock and pushes oceans to waves and brings storm and blessing.

And, I am a follower of Jesus, and Jesus has promised that the Spirit is like the wind, it cannot be resisted, it blows where it wills, and it has power to shape, change transform and move.

Pentecost is our reminder that we have something to say to the valley of dry bones that we find ourselves in which we find ourselves in this world.

Life is coming.

God is bringing it, and God has sent you and me to proclaim it.

Prophesy to the bones, oh people of God, wherever you find yourself in the midst of them.   Rattle them and let God do God’s thing of putting meat on them.

Because nothing, nothing resists the power of the wind or the Spirit forever.

“Clothed with Power” Luke 24:44-53

32191549_10215903897891865_638616634247872512_n (1)It was this view of the Ascension that greeted me from the Gothic High Altar in my home congregation in rural Nebraska.

For as long as I can remember going to church, it was this picture of Jesus floating up out of the midst of the disciples that occupied the central image of my faith.

Jesus floated there amidst evergreen boughs and Advent wreathes at Christmas.

Jesus floated there amidst corn husks and cornucopias in the harvest season and mission festivals of the fall.

Jesus floated there through the days of Lent, when the flower vases were removed and the somber tones of purple and black bedecked the altar.

Jesus floated there surrounded by Easter Lilies in the springtime, and ascended flanked by the seasonal flowers from member’s gardens throughout the summer —Lilacs and gladiola and Peonies and coneflowers.

The Ascension was always there, always a part of every season, and every celebration.  It provided the backdrop for baptisms and confirmations, for weddings and funerals, for anniversaries and annual meetings, for Sunday School programs and Bible School openings.

I don’t recall anyone ever telling me why this particular biblical scene was chosen for the high altar.

With our own Arts in Ministry Committee investigating a visual centerpiece for the Narthex, I got more and more curious as to how this subject was chosen for my home congregation and where the painting came from.

So I checked with my home congregation’s resident historian, and this is what she sent me.  It is a reminiscence from Sophie Stubbendieck, a long time member, hand written as a note for the history.

“Fritz Antweiler painted the ascension in the church the year the church & parsonage was built. (1923)  I still remember him having the painting hanging on our dining room wall and he painting every day on it.

He was my stepfather…I didn’t care for him much but I have to give him credit for being an artist.   He could(‘ve) really been someone if it would(n’t) have been for (the) liquor. (sic.)

My jaw dropped as I read that.

The centerpiece of my worship life all those years was painted by a drunk, maybe even someone who was abusive.

There was no hint as to why this particular subject matter was chosen, only the sparse information about the artist.  One might therefore assume that the artist had a pretty free hand in what he chose to paint.   I can well imagine that someone from the church said, “Fritz, could you paint something from the bible for that altar.”

I thought about all the people in 1923 who must have known Fritz.

They must have known about Fritz Antweiler’s, giftedness.

They most surely also knew about his obvious shortcomings and struggles.

And yet, he was still accepted as a part of the community and tapped for this task.  His obvious talents were celebrated.   What surely must have been his sometimes unsteady hands were trusted to do great things.

Not only did he paint the picture for the Altar at my home congregation, but you can find Fritz Antweiler religious paintings in other church structures in surrounding communities.

Oh, and the history noted that he also painted the parsonage.

Painting houses was his trade.

Working in oils and portraiture was his creative outlet, when he wasn’t drinking, evidently.

Finding all this out just curiously made the altar painting all the more meaningful to me, because in a peculiar way this is what the Ascension is all about

The Jesus we experience is one who somehow continues to float just out of our reach.

There is the promise of Jesus to be with us always, but the way that Jesus is with us now after the Ascension is different than the way those first disciples experienced Jesus’ presence.

He is present now in bread, wine and water, as he promised.

He is present where two or three are gathered, as he promised.

And yet, he is just out of reach of clinging to, or holding on to, or deferring to.

This is how it is for us.  Jesus floats over the seasons and the events of our lives, a presence, felt and trusted.

But Jesus’ presence is not one to which we can just defer, just say, “you take it from here, Jesus.”

Not, it is rather the other way around.

The Jesus who floats and broods over us in the Spirit looks at us in love and says, “you take it from here.”

You make disciples of all nations.

You baptize in my name.

You forgive in my name.

You be my witnesses to Judea, and Samaria and the ends of the earth.

You heal, and love, and gather, and feed, and do greater things in my name because I have ascended, “I have gone to the Father.”

I looked at the painting again, and I thought of Fritz Antweiler’s sometimes unsteady hands after a few too many drinks, and I marveled at the kind of trust that the community had in an imperfect artist.

Imperfect people.

I look over my own life, and how often I have undertaken the work that God lays before me with my own unsteady hands.

I’m sure you may have done the same.

Hands that are unsteady because we are unsure of just how to proceed.

Hands that are unsteady sometimes because of a variety of our own “impairments.”

Hands that are unsteady because of our lack of trust, or an attitude of being drunk on power or perhaps over-confident in our own abilities and not looking to Jesus.

An unsteady hand in dealing with others because of our own too willing readiness to accuse or point out wrong rather than to love and to forgive.

How unsteady we must look to Jesus.

Not too sure about how to share, how to witness, how to respond to someone when they come to us in grief or sorrow or with a heavy heart.

I look over my life, and marvel at the kind of trust that God and the church has in imperfect pastors, and imperfect disciples.

God seems to place incredible trust in imperfect disciples, whose work in this world is sometimes a thing of wonder and sometimes an ever-loving mess.

How is it that God could do that?   Stay above it all?

God is able to do that because of the particular promise made in the midst of the ascension.

“See, I am sending upon you what my Father promised;”  Jesus says, “so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 

“Clothed with power from on high.”    That’s the kind of promise that steadies the hands of a housepainter and gives them the ability to do a work of art that transcends generations.

“Clothed with power from on high.”  That’s the kind of promise that takes the unsteady hands of our service, of our prayers, of our witness and turns it into a witness and impact that reaches far beyond our own abilities.

The Ascension gives us a picture of Jesus floating above the events of this world, perhaps just out of reach, but it’s also the story that reminds us that we’ve been clothed in power to do the work we are called to do in this world, given all we need to be Christ’s hands and feet and presence.

Clothed in power from on high, we look toward Jesus.

Clothed in power from on high, we put our unsteady hands to the wheel of history and feel the Savior’s hands come upon our own to guide and empower the actions.

Clothed in power from on high, that’s what we are today, and Jesus floats above it all, everything we do, every word we speak, every action that we take.

That’s the Ascension and what it does for us.

And so I say, “Thanks Fritz”, for giving me a picture of that, a picture of the presence of Jesus hovering over my whole life.

“Abide in Order to Love” John 15:9-17

It’s sometimes difficult for us to hold a narrative arc together. Do you know what I mean by that?
Okay, how about I give you an example. “When you’re knee deep in alligators, it’s a little tough to remember that your original task was to drain the swamp!”
You’ve probably heard that phrase before. It’s about remembering what the whole thing you’re doing is about.
A “narrative arc” is what the whole thing that unifies a story is about. It’s about what holds it all together, tells you what the purpose of the story is all about.
It’s often tough for us to follow and hold on to big narrative arcs. We have a tendency to get bogged down in the details or distracted from the main point by the individual events or side stories that are often connected to them.
Those “side stories” are meant to drive the narrative, but sometimes they can be detours.
For example, if I asked you what the narrative arc of the “Star Wars” saga was all about, could you name it? Would you start out with “it’s about bringing balance to all things” or would you instead launch into telling me about Luke, or Leia, or Darth Vader, or any one of a number of characters and their stories swirling around “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?”
Or if I asked you what the narrative arc of “The Lord of the Rings” is, you might at first tell me “well it’s about destroying the One Ring.”
But that’s not really what it is about.
Tolkien makes plain from the beginning of his saga that the One Ring cannot be destroyed. It has to be returned to the fires from which it was forged, to Mt. Doom.
Tolkien builds a narrative around the kind of cooperation that it takes amongst very different characters to put things right, and how they learn not to overlook the power to be found in the simple things, even what at first appear to be villains, and in one another.
It’s not about destroying something that cannot be destroyed.
It’s about returning something that should never have been tampered with in the first place to the place where it belongs, and what you learn along the way from one another as you do so, thereby changing the world in the process.
If I asked you what the narrative arc in John’s Gospel is, what would you say?
Would you tell me a story about Jesus?
Would you tell me about Jesus teaching, healing, or doing miracles?
Would you talk about the breathing out of the Spirit on the disciples? Or of the crucifixion?
Those are all elements, to be sure, but the narrative arc is what the whole thing is about, what it tries to convey to us.
This is the point in John’s Gospel when we discover the narrative arc, what the Gospel is truly all about, and as it turns out for John’s Gospel it’s about “abiding.”
It’s all about discovering where God resides, and how you are connected to God.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That’s how John starts the story of his Gospel.
God and this incarnate Word made flesh in Jesus, are one in the same. They “hold together”, they “abide in one another.”
Then the “Word is made flesh and it dwells among us, full of grace and truth.” Jesus comes among us, and that Word made flesh “abides” with us. It may look at first like it’s just about Jesus hanging out here in the Gospel, but the deal is God is hanging out with us as well.
Jesus comes to dwell with us so that we know what it’s like to have God around, and that’s kind of cool. Yeah, I can see that, God is here in Jesus, as Jesus “abides” in God.
But now in the story the narrative arc pushes that abiding to us.
Not only is God around in Jesus because they “abide” in one another, but God is around also in YOU, because Jesus chooses to abide in you.
This is what that “abiding” looks like.
Abiding is loving one another.
Abiding is laying down your life for another.
Abiding is a source of joy.
Abiding is finding a sense of completion.
Abiding is a commandment given, “love one another as I have loved you.”
Abiding is about bearing fruit, and the fruit found is what you’re willing to lay down, and how much you’re willing to love one another.
This is what the whole story is all about.
It’s about how much God is connected to Jesus, and to us, and how much we are connected to one another, all of us.
We are here to “abide”, to live in and with one another, and to find life in that!
God loves us so much that God sends his very self to be with us. Jesus’ sole task, the signs that he does, are all about showing us that God is here, living, dwelling, abiding in Jesus, yes.
But more than that.
The resurrected Jesus breathes that very presence of God, that Spirit that abides in him into his disciples, and into you, and so God dwells now also in us.
We know that abiding presence by the fruit we bear, and the fruit that we bear is found in how we love one another.
It’s a heavy narrative arc to keep hold onto.
There are so many distractions along the way, so many times that we look at what Jesus says or does, or what the disciples do, or the questions that the Pharisees raise, and in the midst of those side stories we lose sight of the narrative arc.
We fuss over secondary things.
We fuss over the commandments, and about what we should and should not do, about which one is the greatest, and we speculate from the individual stories about what God would find “acceptable” and who God would choose to hang out with, and what God might want us to do.
In the side stories and wanderings, we forget the narrative arc!
“God so loved the world…”
Commandments (after all) beg to be understood as rules and regulations, and so we focus on them instead, and draw up our lines and build we our walls.
But the commandments were originally given to show us how much God loves us, and how we might properly love God and one another.
The commands gave us lines not to step over, not out of fear for getting caught, but rather out of love, to protect the relationship with the neighbor.
We forget in all the side stories that what Jesus came to proclaim to us first and foremost was that God is present in the world, and that God is found in the love that we have for one another.
But that’s hard for us to do.
When you’re knee deep in humanity, with all its faults and foibles, all its irritations and diversity, all its variety and variation, it’s a little tough to remember that your original task was to love one another.
You get distracted by likes, or dislikes, or personalities, or differences of opinion, policy or politics.
“Those people…” we catch ourselves saying.
“People like that…” we find ourselves thinking.
Outsiders, foreigners, refugees, illegals, Conservatives, Liberals, etc, etc.
We come up with a thousand different labels that start out to be just descriptive but that tend to quickly move from simple description to being used in demeaning or exclusionary ways.
When we fall into the labeling of people for whatever reason, we lose sight of the central narrative arc that John’s Gospel asserts.
God dwells within us and within each and every one.
God’s indwelling is marked by the kind of fruit that is born, and the fruit that we are to bear because we abide in God and God abides in us is all about what we’re willing to give up, (not what we try to hold on to), and how much we’re willing to love, even and especially those most different from us.
We are meant to abide, as God abides, and Jesus abides.
So, abiding is what it’s all about.
But not just that, we are to abide in order to love.
We’re made for bearing fruit, and the only fruit worth talking about is to be found in what we’re willing to give up, and how much we’re willing to love one another.
That’s the narrative arc of John’s Gospel.
It’s the narrative of arc really of the bible, of a God who so loves this world that God moves dramatically through the stories related to reveal just how we are all connected, how we are meant to “abide” with one another.
How we are meant to be a blessing, one to another, that we might find a blessing.
It’s tough to remember that, but the world and the coming Kingdom of God depends upon us doing so.
It’s all about “abiding,” people.

“Mourning for the Branch” John 15:1-8

Writing a sermon is sometimes a melancholy endeavor.

You look at the scripture, you dig around in the history and the meaning of words and phrases at the time.

You pull together some thoughts about what it is that you think Jesus was trying to get at, or what the disciples might have heard back then, or what Jesus’ words, actions or events might have to say to us today.

You spend a lot of time turning thoughts over in your head.

Some are appropriate thoughts, leading you to new insights to be shared.

Some are dead-end wonderings, not really fit to be uttered in a public setting.

And on occasion, you muse about how to tell the difference between the two.

So it was, that I was thinking about this passage from John’s gospel for today, about the Vine and the Branches, mulling over the themes of vines, branches, and pruning.   I found my hands touching the various pieces of wood furniture in my home.    Tables, chairs, a carved bookcase.   All these things once connected to a living, growing tree.    I found my mind wandering to a question I had never before considered.

“Does the vine mourn for the branches that it has lost?”

Yes, I know, I’m imbuing a plant with human consciousness, thought and emotional range, but it seems to me that Jesus introduces such a thought in telling this particular story.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.”  Jesus says.

“Those who abide in my bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  Jesus says.

These are powerful words of connection.  They remind us of the intimacy that God wishes to share, that God has with God’s people.

We do so long for connection in this world, we seek it in our electronics and in our politics and in our sports teams and in our worship of celebrity.

We want to be connected.

And right here, Jesus offers this ultimate “connection” illustration.  We are part and parcel of him.   His words are intended to reassure us.

But we are only human, and sometimes words strike us in interesting ways, and so when he goes on to say,

“Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

It triggers something else in us.   Instead of allowing us to revel in the closeness and connection we have with Jesus, we entertain the thought of not being able to do anything apart from Jesus and it stirs up the thoughts of separation.

Those thoughts and feelings are powerful as well.

We look at this teaching of Jesus and a subtle shift takes place in us as we consider pruning.

Our eyes shift from looking at how we are connected to Jesus to how it would be not to be connected, and in that moment we move from joy to fear, for if there is one thing that we as humans do understand it is the concept of loss.

We fixate on these words about pruning, because our inclination is to try to not lose a single thing, because, well… we grieve when we lose things!

We mourn.

Such words are the basis of many an in-reach effort to bring back those who have become severed in some way, all those folks who were excised by this event or by that.

They don’t come to church anymore because of what Pastor so-and-so did, or said, or taught.

Or they don’t come to church anymore because of the decision made about the carpet, or the chairs, or because….well — the reasons are legion!

And so, because we grieve the loss of things that were once connected to us, we try to put them back together.

We tell ourselves that it’s what Jesus would have wanted, right?  Gathering up the lost!

And indeed, Jesus does speak of seeking the lost in other places… but not here.

Such gathering work is hard to begin with, and even harder here!   Trying to gather up dried and withered connections and figuring a way to graft them back into a living community is not a task with much hope connected to it.

Such efforts rarely produce much fruit.

So it is, that we look at the words of warning and the talk of pruning in this lesson, and try to find some consolation for ourselves there.

“He (that is, God the vinedresser) removes every branch that bears no fruit.”  Jesus says.

“You have already been cleansed/pruned.” (same word) Jesus says to his disciples.

“Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”   Jesus says.

We try to console ourselves about how those who are no longer connected are really better off, (or we are better off without them!)

But here too, there is a troubling element in such an attempt at reassurance.

How do we know when the pruning has been “of God?”

How do we know when what we sometimes refer to as “dead wood” are those who have severed themselves from our fellowship?   Or have they gotten “lopped off” through our own careless words or actions?

If that is the case, who has been doing the pruning really?  And, are such really consigned as Jesus seems to indicate only to the fire?

So does the vine mourn for the branches that it has lost?

We do, for sure, and it bothers us.  We mourn for every loss that comes along, and the more we mourn them, they more they pile up, the more we look and fixate at what has been cut away.

The pile of things taken away preoccupies our mind.

But in reading and re-reading the passage from John’s gospel I have to say that there is very little mourning of what was lost going on by Jesus.

Instead Jesus’ (and God’s) paramount concern appears to be not how to re-connect the severed, but rather how to tend to the connections that are already in place for the sake of bearing fruit!

Once the vine is withered, the game is lost.  There is no re-connecting!

That may at first sound harsh, but it’s consistent with the words here about pruning.  Some things do get cut away for the sake of the health of the vine.

Some things in us do have to be nipped and our wild growing tendencies need to be held in check, for the sake of the overall health of the community, of the connection with Jesus.

My mind wandered to the olive trees of Judea as I thought about this.

Some of those trees, you know date back to the time of Jesus, who may very well have perhaps taught and prayed under their shade.

But those old trees, have been nipped and pruned, and segments of them are no longer around.

I doubt those trees mourn the loss of a branch, even though the moment of the clip may have been painful.

They do not mourn it because they have the benefit of seeing what followed the momentary pinch.  The greater harvest, the longer health, and the centuries of productivity.

Or I thought of the vineyards of Italy and Slovenia, and how some of the vines there are still producing grapes after 500 years, meaning that they were planted by the hands of monks and peasants around at the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

A glass of Chianti at my dinner table may very well have been made from the same vines that bore the fruit that was made into the wine for Popes and Kings in the Renaissance.

Such vines did not live so long by being left alone, or left to fend for themselves, or left to grow wild.

They were meticulously trained and shaped and the tendrils as they grew were wound around the supporting structures.

Season after season the roots need to be dug up and the soil loosened around them, and the fertilizer is spread, and the wayward shoots nipped off, all in order that greater productivity could be assured.  More fruit, more wine, more sustaining of life and joy.
That’s “abiding power.”

That’s “staying power” connected and being fruitful in ways that we often can barely fathom, barely hope for ourselves.

But that is the kind of fruitfulness that our God, the great vine grower has in mind for us, and the kind of fruit bearing that Jesus, the vine to whom we are connected says we are capable of doing.

So, the vine does not mourn for the branches it has lost.

The vine focuses its efforts on the new growth that comes from the pruning.

Those who tend the vine and branches revel in the kind of fruit that well pruned vines can produce.

Which gets us back the thorny issue of loss.

We tend to mourn loss more than we look for the fruit that comes from judicious pruning.

We tend to want to hold on to things instead of letting them be snipped away, letting go of things that are no longer bearing fruit or allowing for new growth and new direction.

If we wither, we do so because our connection to Jesus has gotten choked off by other connections.

We put connection to friends, or our devotion to policy, or our love of procedure, or our sense of tradition, or our fear of change before our connection to Jesus!

We don’t mean to, we just have eyes that are loss averse.

We put our connection to something else as being more important than connection with Jesus, and in doing so, we experience a kind of withering.

You can feel, when it happens.

You know this kind of withering.

We think that by avoiding loss we can avoid the mourning over things, and hold on to everything, but such is not the witness of scripture or of this world.

Trying to hold on to everything simply guarantees that it will all slip from your grasp!

Does the vine mourn for the branches it has lost?

No.

Both the vine and the dresser are focused instead on something quite different.  They are focused on bearing fruit and doing whatever it takes to make that happen.

That appears to be the hardest thing for us to keep in our field of view.

So, thanks be to God that the vine dresser and Jesus are on top of that, reminding us to worry less about what we stand to lose, and to look forward instead to the fruitfulness we stand to gain!

“Not Just A Bunch of Sheep” John 10:11-18

pexels-photo-288621.jpegSunday School did me a serious dis-service.

I’ll bet it did you one as well.

It wasn’t an intentional dis-service, rather a cute little ditty that sticks in your head and rattles around in there.    Many a VBS teacher or volunteer has known the danger of singing with children and getting this earworm stuck, only to come back to them again and again in the middle of the night.

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”

“Pray the Lord my soul to keep, baa…..”

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa……”

It’s a cute little ear worm, with a number of verses.

There is a verse about not wanting to be a Pharisee, because they’re not “fair, you see.”

One about not wanting to be a Hypocrite, because they’re not “hip, with it.”  (thereby dating the song from the late 60’s or early 70’s.)

Another verse about not wanting to be a Sadducee, because they so “Sad, you see.”

“I just wanna be a sheep…”

On face value there is nothing wrong with the desire to be a follower of Jesus, — “a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redemption” – as we say in our Baptismal and Funeral Liturgies.  There is comfort to be found in knowing such connection, being assured that we are watched over and cared for and never snatched away from the Shepherd’s reach.

But like that earworm, (a song that won’t go away,) I’m a little afraid we get “stuck” right there.  We get stuck on simply being sheep.

We tend to have a romantic view of Jesus of somehow existing just to take care of us.  He is the “good shepherd” after all, as it says right here in John, there to poke and prod us around to where we need to go, and to expect so very little from us because, we are, (after all,) just sheep.

John’s Gospel however will not let us comfortably graze, minding our own business.

Jesus does all this talking about being the “good shepherd” into a particular context, and that context is what has just happened in chapter 9.

There we read the story of the man blind from birth whom Jesus heals.    The question from the disciples in that story was “who sinned, this man or his parents?”

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned;” Jesus says,  “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

That does not sound like a particularly passive existence.

Indeed, as soon as Jesus heals the man who had been blind from birth in chapter 9, his life gets, shall we say, “complicated?”

Far from grazing and docilely following Jesus, the man who had formerly been blind finds himself engaged in a confrontation with the Pharisees, and in defending Jesus, and in witnessing to him, and finally a bit perplexed as to how he ended up in this position.

It is then that Jesus re-enters the story with an invitation, and it is not one to simply to “follow” but rather to “believe.”

This man is meant for more than simply occupying space now.  More than being dependent upon the kindness of others.  The encounter with Jesus has made him into one in whom God’s works are revealed, and through whom greater works will be accomplished.

The Pharisees in the story are revealed as mere “hired hands.”  They are more concerned about their own position, their own “skin” and maintaining their position and decorum within the community than with the individual life of the man now healed.

The “good shepherd” Jesus says, “lays down his life for the sheep.”

The “good shepherd” has other sheep to gather, (not to alienate or drive away) so that there will be one flock.

The invitation understood is to become a shepherd now.  To become one who helps in the gathering of those who are “not of this fold.”

Far from being a picture of skittering lambs or thoughtless wanderers, those who hear Jesus and who believe in him find themselves transformed into workers with him in the Kingdom.

So, here’s my beef with the song.

I may just wanna be a sheep, but Jesus appears to be looking for more “good shepherds.”

He is looking for those who will follow, yes, but follows with the intention of maturing into leaders.

You can see this in John’s Gospel in the foot washing event.   Jesus models what it is to be servant and then gives the command, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, serving one another.

And in that same context, in the upper room he gives them another directive.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Having love for one another is a “taking initiative” kind of thing, not just blind following.

That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, to make a decision to set aside differences and divisions, and your own self-interest in order to be intentional about loving one another.

You can see this call to be a “good shepherd” in the final exchange that takes place between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection.  There they are, on the shore of the lake, and after sharing a meal of fish, Jesus looks at Peter and says to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 

That’s “good shepherd” kind of language.   And Jesus repeats the invitation three times, one for every time Peter had earlier denied him.

A second time (Jesus) said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 

He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.

What does that sound like to you?

Does that sound like being a sheep is going to be enough?

Does it not sound more like Jesus reminding Peter that he has followed the “good shepherd” not to learn simply how to follow, but also to learn how to love, and to live, and to lead?

“I just wanna be a sheep” is selling ourselves short.

“I just wanna be a sheep” is missing out on the challenge of discipleship, and also on the great joy that comes in helping others to believe and to become more than they thought they were capable of being.

This past week was a remarkable week, did you know that?

Here at St. James we had two members who were approved for Candidacy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Heather and Sue, both approved to become “good shepherds.”

They are and will be engaged in Seminary.

They will train.

They will pray and be prayed for by us.

They will experience the full range of following Jesus, and they will be sheep of God’s own fold, but they will also aspire to be shepherds as well, and we pray good ones.  Leading, guiding, being exasperated by the tendency of flocks to wander, but ultimately to trust in what the good shepherd has taught them, modeled for them.

They will do “good shepherd” kind of work.

And this past week Emily signed up for her final semester of classes, and in June she will begin her Internship at our sister congregation, Advent in Olathe.   There she will get a chance to experience more fully what it means to shepherd.  She’ll laugh at the antics of the flock, and how they will break your heart, and how she will see them grow and be with them as they die.

She will step a little closer to becoming a good shepherd.

And last weekend, we baptized little Fielding Brenner, and we said the words, “Fielding Brenner, Child of God, let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.”

He may be just a sheep… for now… but we see in him great things to come.  A good shepherd in the making.

Maybe a pastor someday.

Or maybe just one of any number of people whom Jesus has touched, and healed, and who suddenly find themselves not simply sheep anymore but called upon to lead, and a shepherd.

Maybe to shepherd another person.

Maybe to shepherd their own child.

Maybe to shepherd a spouse, or a co-worker, or a big brother or sister.

Those same words uttered over Fielding were also uttered over each and every one of us, (those words about about letting your light so shine) – they were spoken not so that we could forever remain sheep, tossed to and fro by every whim, but that we might, (as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4,) “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

That’s “good shepherd” kind of talk, and work, understanding that while we are to follow where Jesus has led the way, we are also expected to walk, and to work, and do the things that the Shepherd has shown us how to do.

So, like I said, Sunday School did me a bit of a dis-service.

I do wanna be a sheep, yes… but that’s not all I wanna be… and that’s not all that a God who sees great things in us wants us to be.

God sees great things in us.

God sees our light shining in this this world.

God sees and your life fitted for “good shepherd” kind of work, in the place where you are.  Amen.