Monday, May 8, 2017

Sermon: Shepherds and Sheep

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
May 7, 2017, Easter 4, Year A

For online access to the readings click here.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Listen here.

Our readings today (about the gate, the shepherd and the sheep) remind me, surprisingly, of my mother’s hospitality.  Any friend of mine or my siblings was a friend of hers.  Ex-boyfriends of my sisters still hung out at our house even after they broke up. She modeled for me gracious “Southun” welcome with lighthearted humor.  Our only rule was to introduce our friends to my mother, so she knew who was in her flock-of-the-day. My mother modeled how to be a shepherd of sheep, as these texts echo today, in offering food and water and safety. These are the tasks of a shepherd, despite that fact that few of us urbanites have ever met a real shepherd (or a sheep). 

Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote about a real shepherd, named Vernon Beebe. Beebe “…used to keep sheep.  Some of them he gave names to, and some of them he didn't, but he knew them equally well either way,” he wrote. “…If one of them got lost, he didn't have a moment's peace till he found it again. If one of them got sick or hurt, he would move heaven and earth to get it well again. He would feed them out of a bottle when they were newborn lambs  … and called them in at the end of the day so the wild dogs wouldn't get them.  He would wade through snow up to his knees with a bale of hay in each hand to feed them on bitter cold winter evenings, shaking it out and putting it in the manger… under the light of a …forty-watt bulb hanging down from the low ceiling to light up their timid, greedy, foolish, half holy faces as they pushed and butted each other…”

Buechner’s description endears us to the reality of a shepherd.  And, if God is like a shepherd, there are more than just a few ways that people like you and I are like sheep. Being timid, greedy, foolish, and half holy is only part of it. Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty…”[1]

Maybe this sense of inner emptiness is what makes us know we have souls in the first place.  But once in a while that inner emptiness is filled. That is what Psalm 23 means by saying that God is a shepherd: God feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding. God pours a drink for the part of us which is parched and most in need of hydration. And God in Jesus is right beside us in dark valleys. 

This makes us feel warm and secure.  We like to think someone is watching out and caring for us, particularly when the world seems so cold and dangerous.  We are glad to be sheep belonging to a good shepherd.  We like being taken care of – well, at times. But at other times, we may not like the idea of being taken care of. Sometimes, we resent this care and fight it. “Mom, let me do it myself!” we might cry. Think about it – being a sheep has its disadvantages.  Sheep are not so bright.  They are fragile.  They tend to wander off and lose their way.

I remember watching my friend Mark sheer his flock one day. He just tipped the sheep on their backs and they lay, defenseless, as he clipped their wool.  To be like a sheep is to be like a child, being guided and taken care of by someone larger and stronger – always receiving and seldom giving. As children, we needed this loving care.  As we mature, we have an even deeper need.  That need, that call from God, is to care for and feed someone else. That is when we find abundant life. 

The trouble with seeing Jesus as the Good Shepherd is that it makes us sheep –helpless, needy, sheep.  The trouble with thinking of ourselves as sheep is that sheep do not ever grow up to be shepherds. 

In the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus meets Peter and the others as they were out fishing.  Once they notice that the man on the shore is Jesus, they bring him some fish, which he cooks for them.  Over breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me? If you do, feed my sheep.”  He doesn’t say, “I am the good shepherd and I will take care of you.” All he says is “Feed my sheep.”  To Peter and to us, Jesus says, “You, too are called to be shepherds.  Stop worrying about who is going to appreciate you and find ways to show appreciation to other people.  Start getting joy from what you can give rather than what you can get.” 

Christ is the good shepherd of the sheep AND the recruiter and trainer of shepherds.

This Christian life means both receiving and giving. The hired hand’s voice is only one-sided, stealing the opportunity for mutuality.  This Christian life means a blend - of caring for and being cared for, of giving and receiving, of loving and being loved. Like serving at Crossroads, or attending one of our Thursday Night “Getting To Us” sessions, or bringing communion to shut-ins, or volunteering at VBS. This Christian life means being led along paths we would not choose for ourselves, and being prodded by the shepherd who knows our needs better than we know own. 

This Christian life means, most profoundly, trust.  Trust that in every circumstance we are protected and led by the one who stands guard against the worst the world can do.  It does not mean that death will not come, that tragedy will not string, that our hearts will not be broken, that someone will not betray us.  Trusting the Good Shepherd means that we might sing Psalm 23½:

Even though I walk through the corridors of the ICU, I will not fear death…
Though I pass through the valley of dismay at our political process, I will not be alone…
Though people may think less of me because of my decisions, I will not lose heart…
Though my relationships are strained and my job is uncertain, I will fear no evil…for you anoint me, guard me, love me.

This is really good news!  To be free of fear, to be free of others’ unrealistic expectations, to be free of shame…THIS is a gift beyond words.  I know this because I am a specialist in fear, in uber-responsibility and paralyzing self-shame.  But then there is this Good Shepherd, Jesus, who promises to meet us in ways we cannot imagine in the most difficult places of life – and death.

And in life and in death, through the gift of the church, we learn that we do not belong to ourselves, but, ultimately, to Jesus.  He leads us to waters of baptism. He sets before us a table of love in the face of all the world’s pain. He will lead us safely home. 

May we, this day, follow where he leads and trust that he loves us beyond measure.
May we, this day, follow his voice, share in his ministry allow him to guide us into paths of service and compassion.

And with this Good Shepherd, may we have life, and have it abundantly.


[1] Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration cited here on May 1, 2017

Sermon: Come and See. Go and Tell!

A Sermon preached in 
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan
by The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
The Great Vigil of Easter
April 15, 2017

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Listen Here:

Happy Easter!

Growing up in California, earthquakes were part of my life. We became familiar with earthquakes, but were never really prepared for the unsettling feeling and the aftermath.  During the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, one of my colleagues was swimming laps in his pool. When the earthquake hit, the pool created such a wave that he was literally thrown out of the water onto the deck.  All that water then flooded his patio and adjacent dining room. He was fine, just very shaken up.  Until that day, he wondered what he would do with his life, what was the purpose to which he was called. After he rode that wave (or shall I say, the wave tossed him out), he believed he had a specific purpose.  This event was only the beginning of his determined, purposeful life.

In today’s gospel text we heard of another earthquake, which initiated the beginning of a surprising scene for all involved – and for all of creation.  During that earthquake, the angel who descended from heaven, rolled back the stone and sat on it. That same angel spoke to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.  “Do not be afraid,” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus… Come and see!” So the Marys left the tomb with fear and with joy.  Jesus met them. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “Go and tell the others!” That earthquake-angel-accompanied event was not the end of their story, it was the beginning of their purposeful life of Easter.

Do not be afraid.  Come and see.  Go and tell! That is the message of Easter!

But wait a minute!  What about us? There is so much in this world for which to be afraid.  Fear is pervasive – from Syria to Afghanistan, from the Kremlin to the White House, from Flint to Detroit – everywhere, it seems, fear rules the hardened heart of Pharoahs.  Everywhere, it seems, fear unsettles our world.  Fault lines split the family meals.  Tremors rattle when employment is uncertain. Aftershocks quake our resilience when illnesses that drag on.
Loneliness reverberates when a loved one dies.

I don’t know about you, but I seek stable ground. And that is why you and I have come together on this holy night, right? Because we need a firm foundation. We need a new ending – no, that’s not it…we need a new beginning. We need hope for different outcomes. We need encouragement. We need groundedness.
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, reminds us that, “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”[1] And that is a firm, dependable foundation: Jesus’ resurrection accompanies every earthquake in our lives. Resurrection means steadfast, perfect love that casts out that pervasive, quaking fear.  Resurrection does not answer or end problems, nor does it remove us from hardships, limitations and challenges of this life. Resurrection reinforces our lives with rebar of God’s imagination and shock absorbers planted in God’s fertile ground of possibilities. 

From the first day of creation when God said “let there be light” and a new world came into being – shimmering and pulsing with life – to the dawn of that first day of the week when Jesus appeared to the women, God continues to break in.  God continues to break in. When human sin wrecks its worst havoc, our gracious God unceasingly resurrects life and hope in the depths of our lives and in our communities.

How do we know this? Because God has a more lush and abundant imagination than fear-induced human rulers can provoke.  This is the creative, surprising, dependable trademark of God.  And with God’s trademark creativity, we welcomed Hillary Wing Hampstead into our Christian community. Was this simply a societal initiation?  No.  Was this for mere religious statistics? No.  Hillary was baptized today into Christ Jesus: into his death so that she can be united with him in a resurrection like his. Cyril of Jerusalem, theologian of the early church (around 300’s) used to tell the newly baptized that, “by this action you died and you were born, and for you the waving water was at once a grave and the womb of a mother.”[2]

This evening, Hillary was bathed in a wave of holy water so that she, too, can walk on a firm foundation, with purpose and newness of life. That life that is grounded in God’s confident love. That life that invites her to “Come and see” and then “go and tell.  Hillary’s kin, those gospel women, were the first witnesses and the first missionaries of the church.  No pressure, Hillary!

Tonight, those gospel women join our prayers for Hillary that she know her life with Jesus means a life of grace, an inquiring and discerning heart, and a courage to will and persevere with joy and wonder on the bedrock of God’s love. Hillary, now that you have been in the water, we send you out with strong purpose to meet the challenges of life.

May we, this night, know with confidence that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is not done yet… God is not done with the world that God loves so much, not done with us, the children of God, who God loves so much.

May we know with confidence that Easter is not the end but the beginning of a life grounded on the unshakable, firm foundation of Love. 

So… Go and Tell the good news:
Christ is risen, indeed!

[1] 1 Corinthians 3:11

[2] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (Nashville, Norton Books, 2015) p. 21