Sermon,  Sermons

Shepherd: Steward of the People

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things.” She goes on to describe how, by knowing loss, experiencing pain, putting oneself in the shoes of another (the immigrant on the side of the road, the teen handing over control to addiction), kindness first reveals its potent salve to the wounded soul. It is by being present to another that kindness has agency to inject itself into a situation gone horribly sideways.

My husband, Howie, is now an avid cyclist. During these polar vortex-seized winter months, he sets his road bike on a trainer that is wired to a virtual program. He sets his computer on a podium in front of the bike, logs in to a virtual community of real humans from all over the world to race in teams. The timing accommodates the range of time zones and he is able to actually communicate with teammates via the chat program called Discord.

Because of the time zone issue, the current team is made up of mostly United Kingdom folk, one of whom has developed a variety of strategies to improve performance that Howie has tried with success. One day last week he mentioned something to that effect to his teammates in a text chat, and another teammate made a comment that was racially offensive. You see, the helpful member is ethnically South Asian, just as he is British.

Howie and I talked about how to respond to this, or if he should just ignore it altogether. The thing is, ignoring unkindness, intentional or no, is one of the most formidable impediments to making things right in this world, the Kingdom of God at hand. But to meet an insensitive or even outright repugnant affair, I have to be present to it – present to the person who is harmed, present to the offender, present to my own feelings of disgust or fear or insecurities.  We are especially alert to this type of unkindness because of the diverse character of our own family, and as our sons attend a school that is conspicuously bereft of it.

            A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”

            You are not known as disciples by following certain rules, or if you dress just right, or if you look down your nose at someone else’s behavior or dress or speech. You will be known as followers of Christ if you love one another.

            And this is precisely what one empowered with the Shepherding gift is deliberate about cultivating – a community that loves one another, intentionally. The Shepherd, or what is classically thought of as Pastor. The term, pastor, comes out of Old French c. 12th-13th centuries, for “herdsman,” or “shepherd,” and then ascribed in the 14th century to “spiritual guide,” or “shepherd of souls.” The trouble is, the vocation of Pastor is evolved since the 1300s. Indeed, the very makeup and function of any given church body is vastly changed. And the 1300s church and Pastor is unrecognizable to the earliest church described by Paul, et. al.

            The Spirit empowered Shepherd is the Caregiver, among us; she is the defender of the weak and voiceless, the peacemaker; he is selfless, a healer; they are counselors and protectors. It is by these so gifted in our community that it will be true of the Kingdom of God:

“They will be like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves will stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jer17.8)

            When we are planted, rooted by a source of nourishment in a grove, as it were, a community, even when there is drought, there is no need to be concerned – we still bear fruit.

            I’ve mentioned before how a great deal of research is revealing how trees not only communicate with one another, they protect each other, and even share nutrition with those who are lacking. How powerful Jeremiah’s metaphor about trees!

            I wonder about what it means for the ones who stay when so many leave for significant amounts of time?

            But, Jeremiah continues, “the heart is devious above all else” . . . and “the Lord searches, tests the mind . . .”

            That inclination to engage the scarcity response reflex, the fear that there may not be enough in the future so I must hoard what I do have, reveals a conspicuous lack of faith and obscures any evidence that I am a disciple of Christ.

             But if we are communities that are known by Love, active among us are the shepherds who are relational, those who are good at nurturing the bonds of community, they humanize social conditions, help us to see through the eyes of the hurting, the dispossessed; they are all about developing loving relationships and welcoming others into a true family. The roots sharing nutrients, conserving ones own to share a bit more with the anemic.

            If we are a community of faith, fear of not-enough isn’t an option – because when there is reconciliation, by definition, the community increases. Where there is healing grace, members are loyal to each other – it is a covenanting together, a commitment. It is a decision to do life together, to choose each other. Again. And again. And again.

            Jesus says, “Blessed are you who . . . are poor, hungry, who weep, are left out, even reviled or defamed because you follow Jesus, don’t give in to the pressures of participating in harmful activities or gossiping or wasting life away with social media’s bottomless quicksand.” Blessed are you because your life and work has meaning, has purpose, is about building up others, not stepping over them, it is about loving and nurturing and being present to others; it is about being rooted in community.

            Blessed are you.

            Just as Love is complex, multifaceted, multidimensional . . . so is Peace often underestimated. When in Hebrew the word Shalom is used, the concept has richness, has depth and scope. The idea of shalom does not indicate just the absence of conflict, but it is an active experience of wholeness. It is choosing to be an instrument of peace, a decision to forgive. Again. And again. And again.

            To Love and to aim at peace, be oriented toward reconciliation – to be eirenic – is to live the undivided self. Some may recall from our study of Parker Palmer’s On The Brink of Everything. Palmer says in A Hidden Wholeness, “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.’”

            The fear of exposure, to be vulnerable – is real and understandable. To an extent. We hurt each other. We are careless with the feelings and experiences of one another. Still, when I am aware of, take a moment to be present to, the truth that you are likely feeling a similar degree of wariness to be fully vulnerable, some of that reluctance dissipates. Furthermore, when I take a few moments to settle into, allow my spirit to bolster my conviction that the light of Jesus – the consuming fire of God’s Spirit in me – I become aware of two truths:

  1. I am not as vulnerable as felt in my initial hesitation, and
  2. That same Spirit dwells in you.

            I no longer divide my spirit from my soul, from the present, from you. I experience the wholeness of fully me and fully God’s and fully member of a community necessarily that includes you. Then, we are not merely concerned with not having conflict anymore. We don’t have an attitude that suggests: we can probably be in each other’s company, but please don’t actually talk to me.

            No. We live into a wholeness, the kind of peace that is active, a continuous choice to be at peace with one another and with oneself. As a community, we choose over and again to Love, and to be known to the larger community for that covenanting together – to love God with everything, to love each other and our neighbor as ourselves.

            Let us practice a few moments of this kind of presence.

If you are comfortable, close your eyes. Settle comfortably in your seats while sitting up, alert while relaxed. Breathe in a deep, cleansing breath.

Breathe out the weariness of the week.

Inhale the fresh, life-giving air.

Exhale the hurt of pain or frustration of recent days.

As you continue to notice your breathing – unrushed, while natural – consider the people in this room right now.

Perhaps you do not really know anyone – it’s your first time here, or in a long while. Maybe you came on a whim or out of curiosity or because you had a strong sense that you needed to come.

Maybe you are here nearly every week.

Are you energized by the company?

Are you a bit wary of the company?

Maybe you have been hurt by someone at church – in the past, or even quite recently.

Perhaps you have been encouraged or supported by members of the church.

What feelings surface? How have your interactions with this community affected you?

Notice your reactions. Sit with them for a moment.

Now, listen to the verses in Jeremiah that describe the true church, the Kingdom of Heaven:

            “They will be like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves will stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jer 17:8)

            What is Jesus saying to you right now? Listen.

Good and Gracious God, heal us.
Loving gentle guide, guard us.
Though my heart tends toward fear, insecurity and guardedness
Make me whole, make us whole-ly undivided, one within and one together.
We long to be like trees planted beside living waters – together.
We desire to bear the fruit of righteousness – making things right in this world.
Hold us together.
Fill us with a real sense of your presence.
Strengthen us to live present to you, present to ourselves, present to each other.
Shepherd us as we grow together as instruments of your Love and Shalom.
We ask these things in Jesus name, and because we can. Amen