Worst Enemies

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10

There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.

Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.

Like Luke, I am my own worst enemy. Continue reading “Worst Enemies”

Claiming our Mission

Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10

The unsavory elements of society come to listen to Jesus, and he does not send them away. The scribes and Pharisees watch from a distance so as not to rub shoulders with such disreputable people, and at every turn Jesus’ behavior confirms their opinion of him. Either he does not understand the basic tenets of society, which force the unsavory elements to the margins where upstanding folks can ignore them. Or he does not care that he risks his own reputation by welcoming them into his presence. Either way, his behavior allows the scribes and Pharisees to write him off.

But there’s a third option that I doubt ever enters their tightly closed minds. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe he does care; maybe he cares about the people and not about his reputation. Perhaps the reason he welcomes those on the margins is that he has accepted his life’s mission, and he is living that mission to the fullest. Continue reading “Claiming our Mission”

Psalm 23, Expanded

(Sermon for Sunday, May 11, 2014 || Easter 4A || Psalm 23)

shepherdessIn six years of priesthood, I’ve preached on the psalm exactly twice. Today, I’m going to make it three times. Psalm 23 is among the most well-loved and oft-quoted passages of scriptures. We read it at funerals or by the bedsides of those who are sick. When you listen to these words, you might hear an echo of your grandmother reciting it to you when you were a child. The words of Psalm 23 are powerful and gentle at the same time. But, as with anything you hear over and over again, the words can grow stale and distant. So I’d like to try something. I’d like to offer a meditation on Psalm 23 by expanding the thoughts contained in each of the six verses. Saint Francis of Assisi did something similar with the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m going to follow his example. As you listen, see how the venerable words of the twenty-third Psalm strike you anew.

The LORD is my shepherd.
For most, our agrarian days are long past and we see pastureland only from the car window as we drive by on the highway. We see the animals in the field, and we think, “How quaint and how beautiful.” But something tugs inside, and we notice a secret longing for a simpler time. We desire to tramp through the long grass, the only sounds the swish of our clothes rubbing together and our voices calling the flock. Each sheep has a name, and as we call, they come. We have a shepherd, too, who calls us each by name. We have a guide. A protector. A provider. The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not be in want.
It’s a statement of faith that hangs on the promise of provision, the expectation that the Lord will provide. But this English rendition of the Hebrew words gives them more than one meaning. We will not be in want; that is, we will lack for nothing we need to sustain us. But we will also be free from the concept of “wanting”; that is, when we believe the Lord will provide, we will resist the siren song of consumer culture that seduces us, that tries to tell us security only comes with more stuff. “I shall not be in want,” means that we understand proportion, that we have a realistic notion of the word “enough,” and that we find contentment in living simply.

He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
These are the good days – the days of plenty, the days of refreshment. The still waters reflect God’s peace. The green pastures announce God’s abundance. Peace and abundance feed our awareness of the One who leads us. We notice that, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”* Noticing this grandeur re-“charges” us. Or in the words of the psalmist:

He revives my soul
My essence. My life-force. The gift God gave each of us in the sparkling moment of creation that connects our fleetingness to God’s eternity. God’s grandeur is present, and yet we might still miss it. We tire. We burn out. We feel more fleeting than eternal. Thus our Lord revives our souls time and time again…

And guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Oftentimes in the psalms the poet reiterates a thought with a parallel one, which is why many psalms have a repetitive nature to them. Here we have a hidden parallel: reviving our souls and guiding us along right pathways are two sides of the same coin. The pathways along which our shepherd guides us lead to revival, to green grass and refreshing water. And all for God’s name’s sake; in other words, all to make God’s grandeur apparent. And yet…

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
If the shepherd is leading us, why do we walk through this particular valley? Why is it on the route at all? Do we stumble into the valley of the shadow of death because we have strayed from right pathways, or do the right pathways include a road through this valley? We all know life isn’t just green pastures and still waters. We are a people formed by the reality of the cross. But the cross – the shadow of death – is not the end of the story. The joy of the resurrection proclaims that we are not abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death. No. We walk through the valley and out the other side. Perhaps we make this journey because there are people stuck in the valley. It is our duty and our joy to help them find their way out.

In the valley we fear no evil; not because evil doesn’t exist, but because fearing evil gives it power. Fear keeps us from trusting that we will make it out the other side of the valley. Evil seeks to separate us from the One in whom we put our trust. But evil will not succeed…

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
This is our mantra while in the valley: “You are with me. You are with me.” Just because we have trouble noticing God’s presence doesn’t mean God is absent. And so we breathe these words, “You are with me,” until they become, “I am with you.” And dwelling in that truth, we find comfort. Comfort and sustenance, for…

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.
On the bad days, we might not be able to find the green pastures or the still waters. We might stop believing we have enough and start listening to the seductive voices of those who trouble us, those who chant: “More. More. More. Then you’ll find comfort.” And so, on those bad days, instead of leading us to the pasture to forage for ourselves, the Lord sets a banquet before us. The Lord places what we need right in front of us so we can’t miss it. And we discover once again the abundance inherent in trusting in the Lord to provide.

You have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
When the Lord provides, the Lord provides. What we are fearful won’t be enough overwhelms us instead. Our cups overflow with blessing, both because there is so much blessing, and also because we have made ourselves too small to contain it. The extravagance of God’s blessing fills us in a way that the “More” of the seductive voices could never achieve. When our cups run over, we have the opportunity to spill God’s blessing on all those we meet. As the Lord guides us along right pathways, overflowing blessing marks the way for us and for those who will come after. And as we walk those ways…

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
The Lord, our shepherd, guides us, leads us by the hand through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and still waters. The Lord takes the lead. We follow. And notice what follows us: God’s goodness and mercy trails us like the churning wake of a ship at sea. Thus, we are surrounded: God’s blessing and abundance before us, God’s goodness and mercy behind us. And above, below, and within us is the truth of God’s promise that…

I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
For ever includes right now. To dwell means not just to live, but to abide. To unpack all our boxes. To put our clothes in the drawers and fill the refrigerator. To make a home for ourselves in the palm of God’s hand. This is the witness of this beautiful poem, Psalm 23. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we have a home in our Lord’s house. We have a provider in the Good Shepherd. And we have eyes to witness, here and in the life to come, a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”


Art: Detail from “Shepherdess,” by Jean-Franc Millet (1864).
* Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur

The Sheepfold

(Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2011 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10; find it also on Day1.org as part of the series “Young Leaders of the Church” series.)

Having the flu changed my life. The day was Thursday, March 13th, 2008, and I was sitting on my futon with my computer on my lap. Quite suddenly, I realized how clammy and hot I felt. Half an hour before, I had felt just fine, but in just thirty minutes my insides decided that they needed desperately to become my outsides. I put my computer on the floor, leapt up, and staggered into the bathroom. I was ill for five days, and during that time all I did was sleep and watch my recently acquired complete series of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD. For those five days, I did not open the lid of my laptop. I did not press the power button. And I did not log in to the computer game that had dominated my life for nearly two years.

The following Tuesday, when I felt that I could walk around without gripping the furniture for support, I stumbled over to the computer and deleted World of Warcraft from the hard drive. I tossed the game discs in the trash. And in the three years, two months, and two days since contracting the flu bug, I have never logged back into the game. The flu acted as the catalyst for the breaking of my addiction to the computer game. The illness put me on the disabled list for a week right before Easter, but no matter how awful the flu made me feel, I thank God every day for the not-so-gentle push away from the stagnant life I was living. I thank God every day for yanking me out of the comfortable sheepfold that I had built up around me. I thank God every day for pulling me kicking and screaming through the gate, away from my dormant life and toward a life full of God.

This not-so-gentle shove out of the sheepfold happens in today’s Gospel reading, although I doubt you noticed any mention of being kicked through the gate in Jesus’ words. We’ll get back to this shove in a moment. First, notice that in John chapter 10, Jesus employs the imagery of first century shepherding practice in an attempt to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, the most experience I’ve ever had with sheep was in southern England, where I spent one windy afternoon dodging the sheep’s ubiquitous droppings while trying to appreciate the mystery of Avebury’s standing stones. If you’re anything like me, you have no clue about shepherding practice of any sort, ancient or modern. Therefore, in order to access what John calls a “figure of speech,” we first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus’ choice of image, and second we embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations.

So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside next to the sheep of several other shepherds who share this particular fold. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.

When the shepherd arises the next morning, Jesus explains, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheepfold may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.

Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English hides the special word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.

Now, perhaps those dimwitted, wooly animals trod placidly from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He’s talking about us, about you and me. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking the word that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don’t know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.

For two years, my sheepfold was the virtual world created in the computer game World of Warcraft. I lived there more than I did in the real world. I played every day. Often I ate all three meals in front of my computer. But during those stagnant months that stretched into years, I didn’t live. I existed. I simply settled myself in my sheepfold. My mind numbed. My heart hibernated. My spirit deflated. But I didn’t notice because I was safe and I was comfortable. Then the flu hit, and I was too weak to resist the pulling and yanking that God had been doing for who knows how long. God drove me out of my sheepfold. And my life began anew.

This is the message of the Resurrection: life cannot be conquered – not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens – fully, intensely, eternally. Indeed, Jesus tells us this morning: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to offer us abundant life.

And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds – whatever they may be – we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.

We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. Christ drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God’s unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.

Jesus throws me out

The following post appeared Friday, August 13th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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When he played for the Sox, Johnny Damon had the Jesus thing going, though he wasn't terribly effective at throwing people out.

On a certain Saturday in late July of 2006, I found myself sitting in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, waiting for a ten-year-old boy to die. I had sat with his mother by his bedside earlier in the day. We had cried the Rosary together. We had held hands and gazed upon the face of the little boy. When his mother asked for some private time with her son, I returned to the office and waited for the pager to ring. And as I waited, I jotted down the first verse of a song that took me the next three years to write. The words of John 10 echoed in my mind as I wrote the lyrics because for weeks I had been telling the Godly Play story of the Good Shepherd with children on my floor of the hospital.

Almost four years to the day, I sit at my computer. None of the urgency or the heartbreak of that day remains, and I am aware of the complacency that has crept in over the years. And once again, the words of John 10 return to my mind: Jesus is the good shepherd who calls his sheep by voice. They hear their names and he leads them out of the sheepfold. But a closer look shows that Jesus doesn’t necessarily lead them out (as many English translations say). Rather, he throws them out of the sheepfold. Here’s what I mean.

Jesus begins his discussion with something as close to a parable as the Gospel according to John gets. In the other accounts of the Gospel, Jesus often speaks in parables, but not in John. Instead, Jesus himself is the parable of God — the way God is made known in the world (John 1:18). Here in chapter 10, Jesus speaks in a “figure of speech” about shepherding and sheep and wolves and bandits. Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who calls his sheep by name and “leads them out” (NRSV). The word for “lead out” is one of my favorite Greek words: ekballo. This is a fairly prevalent verb in the Gospel according to John and in the other accounts, as well. In the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), when Jesus casts out demons, he ekballo-s them. In John 2, when Jesus drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple, he ekballo-s them. The man born blind is ekballo-ed from the synagogue at the end of chapter 9. And finally, in chapter 12, Jesus mentions that the “ruler of this world” will be ekballo-ed from it.

In each of these cases, the connotation of ekballo is to drive out or cast out or throw out. But in John 10, according to, say, the NRSV, the shepherd calls his sheep by name and “leads them out.” While Greek words definitely have ranges of meaning, I suggest that we should translate the instance of the word ekballo in chapter 10 not as “lead out,” but as “throw out.” Here’s why.

The first character Jesus introduces in chapter 10 is a thief and a bandit. This person climbs into the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate. The thief comes only to “steal and kill and destroy.” Furthermore, outside the sheepfold there are wolves waiting to snatch up the sheep and scatter them. Hired hands are no help because they run away when they see the wolves coming. With thieves, bandits, and wolves roaming outside the sheepfold, leaving the fold can be frightening and dangerous.

In contrast, the sheepfold is safe and secure — shepherds bring their flocks to these enclosures at night for safety. But the sheep can’t live their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe and secure they may feel. They must go out into the world beyond the gate to graze for food (which, as far as I can tell, is all sheep do). So the shepherd ekballo-s them. The shepherd throws the sheep out of the fold so they can eat and drink and run.

The sheepfold is a safe place, but everything outside the sheepfold is dangerous. Who would not want to stay in the fold? Being led out into the world can feel like being thrown out. What is my fold? What do I use to shelter myself from the world? Where do I feel comfortable to the point of intransigence? The answer to these questions is the thing from which Jesus throws me out.

Contemporary sheepfolds come in all shapes, sizes, and disguises. Perhaps my family is my sheepfold, or my work, or, yes, even my church. For me, my complacency is the fold from which Jesus constantly throws me. The fold of complacency is slippery and amorphous because it has no walls, no group of people with whom to identify, no action of its own. And complacency leads to complicity with all the bad things in the world. I am so entrenched in my complacency that Jesus has to throw me out of it. It is the demon in me that Jesus casts out, the ruler of my world that Jesus drives out.

And he throws me out of this fold with one simple word: my name. Jesus calls me by name and I hear his voice and I know that I have been in the fold too long. By calling my name, Jesus brings me into an intimate relationship with him. (Remember in middle school when you found out your crush actually knew your name? It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?) By calling my name, Jesus tells me he knows me, knows that I struggle with complacency, knows that I need a swift kick in the trousers (a new translation of ekballo, perhaps?) to prompt me to act in the world on his behalf.

When I listen for Jesus calling my name, I feel his hands continually throwing me out of the fold of complacency. When I hear Jesus calling my name, I know that he has given me life and given it abundantly. This abundance of life is made possible by the intimate relationship Jesus has founded with me by knowing my name. When I venture out of my sheepfold into the frightening, dangerous world, I know that Jesus, my shepherd, is guiding me with his voice. And I know that he will continue to throw me out of the comfortable folds I find myself in so I can, with his help, continue to do God’s work in the world.