Sermon preached at the Bishop’s Convo 2019
Theme of the Convo: Spiritual Foundations for a Vital Church
Text: John 10:11-18
Theme: We have a shepherd who has us – so come and rest in Christ.
So how are you doing? How is life treating you? Is it good to get away or are you thinking about all the things you need to be doing, things that will be waiting for you when you get home? Are you starting to relax and enjoy or wondering why, again with all the things on your plate, you needed to be here?
I know this may be hard for many of you to believe, but I was an extremely shy kid in junior high and high school, struggling to feel any kind of confidence in myself. In fact, I think if you found some of my old classmates from back then they would be amazed that I would have gone into any kind of profession that involved standing up in front of people and speaking out loud. I never really felt that I fit in anyplace – I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t popular, and while I was fairly smart, I was no genius. Even in my family I felt a bit (I know this sounds a bit melodramatic) like the ugly duckling. I was the middle child of three with an older sister who was very outgoing and popular, and a younger sister who I saw as the beautiful one. I didn’t feel like I had anything special going for me. But at church, taking sermon notes EVERY Sunday in confirmation, listening to Pastor Rudolph, memorizing the small catechism (we got a blank piece of paper and had to start writing!), the whole sense of grace started seeping into my DNA.
When I was confirmed, I used some of my money (do people still give cards and money when a young person is confirmed?) to buy a picture of Jesus as the good shepherd carrying a sheep on his back. Now of course, it was the blond haired, blue eyed Jesus (I wasn’t very culturally aware back then), but it hung in my bedroom and every time I looked at it, I remembered that as awkward and insecure as I often felt, as a struggled to find a place where I fit in and belonged, I knew who had me, who walked with me, who carried me when I was too scared to venture out. I knew grace and it gave me courage to actually go off to college, to explore different careers, and eventually enter seminary and become a pastor of all things! I kept that picture – it really was pretty cheesy when you think about it – for years until I was visiting a congregational family member in jail and he asked for something that would help him know that as much as he had messed up, he was still loved. So I gave the picture to him.
I don’t think we need a picture hanging on our wall but we do need the constant reminder that we have a good shepherd who does indeed have us and we need to hear the invitation to come and rest in Christ. And that is what I would like to invite you to do this night – come and rest in Christ, the shepherd who always has us.
At the start of my ministry I had a habit of starting my wedding sermons by reminding the couple about all the challenges of marriage, how difficult it was to maintain a loving, healthy relationship, even pointing out the high divorce rate. Some honest, caring parishioners gently suggested that perhaps people didn’t want to hear that kind of information at a wedding – after all people are there to celebrate not be depressed and worried. I took their advice to heart and changed my approach even though my intention was always to point out that as challenging as marriage was, God’s love and grace and forgiveness is what sustains the relationship.
But that desire to be honest about the challenges we face in life has remained. Platitudes just don’t do it for me. Why can’t we be honest about the pain and hurt and frustration and disappointment we experience? And why can’t we do that in church as a community gathered as the body of Christ? Aren’t the Scriptures full of laments – honest, direct, poignant expressions of feeling abandoned and overwhelmed, even angry because it seems that evil is winning? Can’t we here, among our siblings in Christ, quit pretending that we have it all together when we don’t? Can’t we just lay it out and say while yes, there is joy and incredible fulfillment in being engaged in ministry, there are also times when quite frankly – it sucks! There are times when I want to be liked the hired hand in our gospel – the problems, the demands, the anger and frustration people often direct at us – is just too much. I just want to run away. I cannot be the only one who driving home alone in my car has said out loud – okay, God. I’ve had it. I cannot do this anymore! Aren’t there times when it feels like the wolves are out to get us – no matter what you do someone is going to find fault and let you have it. And with technology and social media, they can write a scathing e-mail, vent all their frustration at you, pointing out everything you have done wrong in their eyes, and then push that lovely button – send. You open up your e-mail and wonder – would they ever say that to my face?
This work, that again has great joy, means so much, and is what we are called into – also has the ability to suck the life out of us. Let’s be real and honest. Because whether we are real and honest with each other – God knows. God knows how tired we get and discouraged and hurt and resentful and even angry. God knows and invites us to come and rest in the one who always has us, who doesn’t run away – even from us – who loves us so deeply and profoundly that no matter what we or others do, we belong, we fit, we are safe in God’s arms.
After my second son was born (you are getting all kinds of stories about my life tonight), we went out and bought a rocking chair that was big enough for my older son to sit next me while I held his brother in my arms. I always rocked my kids when they were upset or tired. I held them and rocked them. And I would sing a simple lullaby – rock a bye, a bye, a bye, etc . . . When they were too big to hold and I was the one who was upset and tired, I would imagine myself in that same rocking chair. Now I was the one being held, held in the arms of God, my head against God’s chest, listening to God’s heartbeat of love, held closely until I felt the peace return to my body and spirit.
What are the things that you do to crawl into God’s arms, to be lifted up on the shepherd’s shoulders and carried, to lay your weary ahead against the chest of the one who has always got you, to hear God’s beating heart of love for you? We all need that kind of rest. This work is too demanding and challenging to do it on our own. Think of how much the church has changed, think of how much anxiety is out there. Do you know how to turn things around and make the whole church begin numerically growing again, with big budgets, and NO fights over the language and immigration and racisms – I don’t! We can’t do this alone. We need our shepherd and we need one another. And this work is too important to ignore that need to rest, to be centered, to sink deeply into grace.
So I’ll ask you again – how are you doing? Know that you can speak honestly with the one who already knows and I pray we can speak honestly with one another. And however you are doing, come and rest in your good shepherd, feel the strong arms of the one who will not let you go, breath in the peace that does indeed pass all understanding, peace that gives us power to embrace this incredible call to ministry. Amen