Dr. John Judson
August 26, 2018
Psalm 23; John 14:15-31
. As many of you may, or I suppose may not know, my wife Cindy and I recently took a 6,500 mile road trip from here, to Houston, to Oakland, California, to Colorado and then back home. While there was much to look at along the way, there was also a lot of nothing. Beginning in West Texas and extending across much of New Mexico, Arizona and eastern California there is nothing but flat, scrub brush and cows. And I say this as someone who has lived in West Texas. Knowing this would be the case, we came prepared. We had my phone loaded with music and pod-casts. One of our favorite pod-casts that we listened to was “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. On this show listeners call in and try to win prizes. When they call in, they are asked to identify themselves and tell what they do for a living. One of the callers was a young man who had just graduated from college, taken his first job and set up an apartment. He said, “Yes, I am finally an adult.” The host of the show, responded with, “Wow did anyone tell you have much being an adult stinks?” I offer you this morning that insight, that growing up can stink, for two reasons. First, because both of our stories are about growing up. Second, because growing up was difficult for both David and the disciples.
We can see this in the section of the Psalm we are dealing with this morning, “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou annointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.” If we look closely at the language and imagery it offers, what we witness is a shift from the Psalm being from the perspective of a sheep to the perspective of a shepherd. While people have tried to make this portion of the Psalm about sheep, it simply doesn’t work. Instead I would argue that it is an explicit reference to David’s move from being a child and young man often running for his life, a sheep if you will, to becoming the King or shepherd, who was supposed to protect others. The psalm describes the moment when David is forced to grow up and take hold of his responsibilities. Jesus’ words as he and the disciples depart the upper room describe the same thing. Jesus has been with the disciples, protecting, teaching and caring for them as a shepherd cares for their sheep. He understands all too clearly that this time is past and that the disciples must go from being the sheep, taught and fed, to being the shepherds who will care for each other as well as for others.
Both stories are about the difficulty of growing up. Both David and the disciples discovered that being an adult, being the one in charge, was not easy and was often dangerous. David would have to lead his armies against neighboring kingdoms who wanted to enslave his people. He would eventually have to flee Jerusalem because his son, Absalom, wanted to kill him and take his place. The disciples would find themselves persecuted and cast out of society. They would be scorned, mocked and some killed for their faith. They would discover that growing up can stink. Yet, they would each discover that they were not on their own, but that God would go with them, giving them everything they needed to succeed. And the same is true for us, for you see, we are also those who are called to grow up; to leave behind our sheepness and take on our shepherdness; and as we do, we will discover that God gives us what we need to grow up as well.
First, there is protection. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” I have to say that this phrase always bugged me. It didn’t seem to make any sense. Why would someone set a feast for another in the presence of that person’s enemies? The answer can be found in a tradition not familiar to most of us, and that is when a Bedouin receives someone into their tent to spend the night, they extend their protection around them. In other words when a shepherd finds themselves in trouble, perhaps harassed by other shepherds, or enemies trying to kill the shepherd and take their sheep, there is one who will receive the shepherd into their tent, provide them with food and protect them from their enemies. This is what would happen to David when he is chased by his son, Absalom, who wants to take his life. God watches over and protects David. This is what happens with the disciples, after Jesus’ death. God watches over, protects and cares for them, even in the face of their enemies. The same is true for us. God’s tent is open wide and we are invited in so that as we make the tough decisions in life that God calls us to make, we are not alone, but we sit at God’s table.
Second, there is purpose. “Thou annointest my head with oil.” Again, this always seemed to be an odd thing to do. Why would someone pour oil over the head of another? The answer again comes from David’s life, when the prophet Samuel finds David, anoints him with oil and declares that he will be the king of Israel. In these events David is given a new purpose. He is no longer to be a sheep, but the shepherd of the people. He must watch over, protect, and care for the nation of Israel. The disciples’ moment of anointing will come with the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises. At that moment the disciples role becomes those who are to carry on the work of Jesus; loving one another and caring for those in need. They are to be the ones feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and giving water to those who thirst. In the same way the Spirit has anointed us all and we have been commissioned to be those who care not only for one another, but for the hungry, thirsty, naked and afraid. We are those who have been anointed with oil.
Third, there is provision. “My cup runneth over.” Of the three phrases, this is the one that made the most sense to me. To have one’s cup running over meant that there was more than enough and that the enough was generously given. This is what David realized that God was doing for him. God generously gave him everything that he needed. He was given men and women to support him. He was given courage and strength. He was given the ability to out fox his enemies. He had it all. Granted, he squandered much of it. But in the end his cup overflowed to the very end of his life. The same could be said for the early church and for the disciples. Through the gift of the Spirit, they were given enough and more. They were given spiritual gifts that made the church come alive. They were given the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and compassion. They experienced the very presence of God. They were given everything they needed for their mission. The same is true for us. We too have been given the gifts and fruits of the Spirit. We have been given all that we need to be the church of Jesus Christ; to be the people of God who carry out our mission of compassion and care.
I am on a daily devotional from The Society of St. John the Evangelist. This was a line from the devotional on the day I began writing this sermon. “We may wish to stay in the past, clinging to sticky memories. We may wish to stay in the present. God calls us into the future. Jesus invites us to change, to become more. Jesus grasps us and pulls us on.” In other words, God calls us to grow up. To grow into our calling as Jesus’ followers. But as we do, we can remember that we have been given protection, purpose and provision; that we don’t go alone. My challenge to you then this week is to ask yourselves this question. How am I growing up in Christ, this day and every day?
Rev. Joanne Blair
August 19, 2018
We continue our sermon series on the 23rd Psalm, and today our focus is on verse 4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
We also continue what I refer to as our “beginner’s class on sheep and shepherding” … which adds to the richness and understanding of the psalm.
As we know, sheep need to be kept on the move while grazing, so they don’t deplete an area. And shepherds would wisely work around the seasons as they traveled between valleys and mountains.
Although we are reading the poetic King James Version of the psalm which says “valley of the shadow of death”, a better translation of the Hebrew is actually, “the darkest valley”.
Valleys were not the safest of places for sheep. Though we usually think of them as peaceful and relaxing … valleys were known to have floods and rock slides. Surrounded by hills and mountains, and filled with foliage, they contained plenty of dark shadows and places of cover. This gave the various animals of prey plenty of opportunity to hide while they waited to strike … and sheep are very vulnerable animals.
A good shepherd knew this, of course, and would always be on the watch. He would use his rod, which is like a club, to hit or throw at animals who tried to attack his sheep. He would also sometimes throw it toward a wayward sheep to get it to change course and rejoin the group. And the shepherd would use his staff to hook a sheep that got stuck in the thorns or fell into a river … and pull it to safety.
“The Lord is my shepherd” … This beautiful and comforting psalm is a tribute to God’s guidance, protection, and faithfulness. And while we so often hear it read at a funeral or memorial service, this psalm is not really about death. The 23rd psalm is about a life lived in relationship with God. And it promises us that God is with us as we walk through the darkest of valleys.
I am privileged to know most of you in this congregation … and even more privileged that several of you have shared your stories with me. And one thing I can say for certain: you have had your share of dark valleys. That is an inevitable part of this thing called life. And so we turn our focus to the title of this sermon … “Paying Attention to Grammar.”
I ask you all now to look at our scripture reading in your bulletin. Notice that the first part of the psalm claims that the Lord is the writer’s shepherd … but talks about the shepherd in the third person. “He maketh; He leadeth; He restoreth.”
Now, in verse 4, there is a subtle but significant shift to the second person: “for thou art with me.” “Thou” … meaning “You”. The writer is claiming personal knowledge of, trust in, and relationship with the Lord. It has become intimate. The writer is saying, “Not only do I know about you … but I know that you know me.” And you are with me.
Go up one more line. For the real crux of this verse is the word, “through.” And in that one preposition lies an enormous promise. God does not leave us in that dark valley, unless we choose to stay there. The darkest valley is not a permanent dwelling place. It doesn’t last forever. It is a place we walk (not run) through to get somewhere else.
And although it may be unsettling or painful … it also contains treasures. Just as the valley may flood; may have dangerous animals; may have rock slides -- it is also where the sheep find some of the freshest water to drink and some of the greenest grass to eat… both of which strengthen them.
The shepherd stays with the sheep, so they need not fear.
And our shepherd stays with us ... so that we need not fear.
I was at Fox Run retirement community this past Wednesday, and was talking with a woman who is in a very dark valley right now. As I listened, she went on to say that she had faith in God to be with her through the darkness. That when she looked back on previous “dark valley experiences”, she could see God’s faithfulness and how God was at work in her life, shaping her into the person she is today. What an attitude. What faith. What understanding.
For the darkest valleys are where we learn the deepest lessons. Over and over and over, scripture tells us not to be afraid. We will face hard times… we will walk through dark valleys… but God has promised to be with us through it all. We need not fear.
In 2013, a man named Mike Livingstone suffered a brain aneurysm, and he blogged about it during his recovery. This is an adapted version of one of his entries:
Nighttime in the ICU was the worst. Long, sleepless, uncomfortable nights. During one of those nights, in one of my worst and weakest moments, I lay in bed recalling some favorite Bible passages. I needed a word from God. My mind turned to Psalm 23 and I silently recited the words … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me … for you are with me … you are with me …. What came next? For you are with me … I couldn’t remember the next line. Likely from a combination of heavy-duty painkillers, fatigue, and brain trauma, I couldn’t recall what came after for you are with me. I kept trying. For you are with me … for you are with me … but my mind was blanking out. In that moment God spoke, not audibly, but God’s word to me was unmistakable: What else do you need to know? I am with you. That’s all you need.
A peace washed over me, and I repeated again, this time in a triumphant declaration of faith: You are with me! You are with me! You are with me! That was all I needed to know.
Psalm 23, this beautiful psalm of a life lived in close, intimate relationship with God, is not just something for us to hang on to as we walk through dark valleys. It is a connection with God we should strive for every day of our lives ... whether we are in a dark valley … or on a mountaintop.
And so, our challenge this week is to ask ourselves:
Rev. Joanne Blair
August 12, 2018
During this sermon series on the 23rd Psalm, we’re learning a fair amount about sheep. It’s kind of like taking “Shepherding 101.” And there’s a good reason that we should. Without understanding some of the nature of sheep and shepherding, we cannot fully grasp the Biblical writer’s intent. Just as Jesus used common day examples in his stories and parables, so the psalmist made his words applicable to the circumstances of his day. And the more we understand those circumstances, the richer and more meaningful the words become.
Sheep actually require quite a lot of careful handling and direction. Left to their own devices, sheep will graze over and over in certain areas, gnawing and pawing to the point that even the roots of the grass are destroyed. The result is that the land gets rutted, the soil depleted and eroded, and these areas become infested with various parasites … which of course, infect the sheep.
Sheep also have a strong instinct to follow the sheep in front of them … even when it’s not in their best interest. They don’t think about it … rather, it’s just “hard wired” into them. Sheep have been known to jump off a cliff solely because the one in front of them did. Neglectful shepherds have lost large groups of sheep this way.
Then there’s the rogue sheep that actually veers away from the group to seek greener pastures. The problem here is that sheep have a horrible sense of direction and become totally lost … even when the flock is not far away.
A good shepherd, of course, knows all of this. And a good shepherd of the Psalmist’s time kept his sheep on the move … and moving in the right direction. He was a man of integrity who never left his sheep and would protect them whatever the cost. He knew which paths were reliable and led to better grasses. Through his skill and his relationship with the sheep, he was able to lead them through narrow paths safely. And he knew when to walk in front of them, behind them, or alongside of them.
A good shepherd cared for, and about his sheep. And the health, behavior and well-being of these sheep was a direct correlation to the shepherd’s own reputation. I really hope that by now you are seeing the connection between shepherds, sheep … and us!
We need a shepherd. We need a good shepherd. And Jesus tells us that he is The Good Shepherd. In the book of John, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd.” He also says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” And Jesus will lead us in paths of righteousness. In our scripture from Matthew this morning, Jesus prepares us that the road to the narrow gate is hard. But he will keep us moving in the right direction. The problem is that we have more autonomy than sheep, and we often choose not to follow.
I would venture to guess that if you looked at a drawing of each of our lives, most of us would not have a straight line from birth to the narrow gate. My own probably looks like a lot of scribbles … with lots of starts and stops. Most of us know life as a winding road, and that is our humanness. Sometimes we lose the shepherd … but the shepherd never loses us. Sometimes we seek to hear the shepherd’s voice, but don’t know how to listen. And sometimes the shepherd leads from behind.
We are asked to follow and be obedient to God not because we are forced to, but because we choose to. And if we truly have any grasp on the love and goodness of God, we will want to. But we need to take it seriously.
Too often, I fear, we lean on in the words that, “in Jesus Christ we are forgiven”, and then we go on our merry way. Yet God is a loving and forgiving God. And even when we wander off those paths of righteousness and go wandering in the wilderness, God does not give up on us. God’s desire is that we each become more and more conformed to the image of Christ. Last week, John talked about our souls being restored. Well, God restores us so that we might be guided and led into right ways once again. The sheep that doesn’t stay close to the shepherd will be lost or stuck in a rut once again.
It is up to us to be open to where God leads us. Sometimes the shepherd is in front of us showing the way. Sometimes the shepherd is beside us building relationship and encouraging us. Sometimes the shepherd is behind us, challenging us to discern. Yet the shepherd is still always leading … if we but follow.
When our daughter was younger, I was teaching her how to ride her bike to my parents’ house. First, I led the way. After a few times, we rode side by side, so I could coach and encourage her. Finally, I rode behind her … and led from behind. But I was still there.
The shepherd is always there to guide us. To guide us to the narrow gate that leads to life. To be with us when the road is hard. To guide us to paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. “For his name’s sake.” Just as the health and welfare of the sheep affects the shepherd’s name (or reputation), so we affect God’s reputation. God has connected God’s name and God’s glory with God’s people. We are ambassadors of Christ.
But righteousness always begins and ends with God – not us. It is not for our name that we walk in paths of righteousness, but for the honor and glory of God. All paths of righteousness are paths of love. And we can only get there if we follow the Good Shepherd, who often leads from behind.
The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful description of a life in close relationship with God.
Once a famous actor was at a social gathering and got many requests to recite favorite excerpts from literary pieces. An old preacher there asked the actor to recite the 23rd Psalm. The actor agreed on the condition that the preacher would also recite it. The actor’s recitation was stunning and received much applause. The preacher’s voice was rough and broken and wasn’t very polished. But when he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Someone asked the actor what made the difference, and he replied, “I know the psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.” [Bible Illustrator for Windows (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technologies, 1994)]
And so our challenge this week is to ask ourselves:
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 5, 2018
Psalm 23; Matthew 6:25-33
Bibles and hymnals were flying from the pews. People were running from the front of the sanctuary. It was not your typical ending to an annual congregational meeting. Yet it took place at a church in our presbytery last year. What were they doing? They were engaged in an active shooter drill. What this means is that they were practicing what they should do if someone came into their church and began shooting. While this may seem a bit strange, it is now standard operating procedure for many congregations. Following the shootings in Charlottesville and Sand Springs, Texas, churches have begun preparing for such and event. Some churches have created their own police forces…yes with people wandering their campuses with concealed weapons. Others lock their doors as soon as services begin…which seems odd for us Presbyterians since most of us arrive at five minutes after the service has begun Many others, including our church, have consulted with local police departments to explore options. But I have to say, there is always a part of me that wonders why we are so obsessed with this fear. I say that because of statistics. Here’s what I mean in two simple statistics. The odds of being struck by lightning…1 in 700,000. The odds of being hit by a bullet in church…1 in 6.5 million. In other words, you are ten times more likely to be hit by lightning than a bullet in church. So again, why are we so anxious about this? Because we are anxious people living in anxious times. And if anyone could understand this…it is sheep.
I realize that this may seem a bit strange because if you are like me, your image of sheep was of these calm, cool and collected animals, just chilling in the pastures. Yet if sheep were able to talk I think all we would hear would be, “Dude I feel your anxiety.” You may ask then, why are sheep anxious? They are anxious because they are completely vulnerable. They are slow. They have no sharp pointy teeth or claws on their hooves. They make for a great meal and they have predators all around them that would like to have them for dinner…literally for dinner. What this means is that sheep are always on alert. They are always listening to the slightest rustle in the grass, watching for the slightest movement on the horizon, seldom even willing to lie down because they are not sure what might happen next, and fearful of rapidly running water because they might get swept away. In other words, they are anxious animals who react without thought or reason, which is something that they share with us. And it is into that reality that the Psalmist comes to talk about the shepherd.
The role of the shepherd is multifaceted. But one of his or her greatest roles is to give the sheep a safe place; a safe place in which they can lie down, catch their breath and set aside their fear and anxiety. This is what the Psalmist is describing in these words, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” The Shepherd is the one who provides that safe place where the sheep can lie down, feed on green grass and not be afraid. The Shepherd is the one who provides a safe place with calm waters where the sheep can drink and not be afraid of being swept away or startled by the roaring river. The Shepherd is the one who provides a safe place where the ninety-nine sheep from last week’s story, can be left in safety while the shepherd goes and searches for the other sheep. This is what God the Shepherd does as well. God is the one who provides a safe place for God’s people where they can leave their fears and anxieties behind them and restore their souls, even where there are dangers all around them.
It is this belief and affirmation of faith, that God can ad does give a safe space, that is at the heart of Jesus’ message from the Sermon on the Mount. I say this because when Jesus tells the people not to be anxious, he is not telling them to use the power of positive thinking to create some new reality. He is not telling them to ignore the realities of life and live in some fictional reality in which there are no cares or concerns. Jesus is fully aware of the difficulties of life. He knows that there is oppression and onerous taxation. He knows that drought and famine could always be around the corner. He knows that war is brewing with the Romans that will take the lives of many of God’s people. Instead he tells them not to be anxious because God is present creating a safe space for them. Rather than using the image of shepherd and sheep, Jesus uses the image of creator and creature. If God cares about the lilies of the field will not God care about God’s people, God’s sheep? If God cares about the birds of the air, will not God care about God’s people, God’s sheep? Jesus’ message is rooted and grounded inot only in the 23rd Psalm but in the story of God’s people, where God led God’s people out of captivity, gave them a land and protected them in it, by giving them a safe space.
This morning then we have a choice to make. We can either be those who arrive every Sunday, grab hold of our Bibles and hymnals, scan the area around us, ready to fight or flee…or we can come into this place, into this sanctuary and experience the presence of God and the safe space that God creates. My friends, I hope that we choose the latter; that we choose the latter not because there are no bad people in the world; not because there is no danger out there. But I hope we choose it because in this sanctuary, God is present. The great shepherd of the sheep is here and is creating for us a safe space in which we can restore our souls; something that in this anxious world is desperately needed. So this morning here is what I would like you to do…close your eyes, and then slowly breathe in…breathe out. Breathe in…breathe out. And feel God’s presence in this place. Feel God creating a safe place for you and then allow your soul to be restored. Amen.