Sermons

pastorEric aug2014Sunday's Sermon - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. 

(I struggled all week with today’s gospel lesson from St. Matthew – My first reaction was that, if the kingdom of heaven is like anything Matthew describes in this parable, I am not sure I want to be part of that kingdom! To better understand this text, it takes a lot of exploration and explanation of the context in which St. Matthew wrote – the struggling early Christian community, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, the debate among the community’s leaders about how to reach out with Jesus’ Gospel and to whom. Add to that early first century banquet and wedding customs which includes providing special robes to everyone who attended a wedding. When I got through all of that, what I found was a text with a meaning very similar to last Sunday’s gospel. Thus, I decided to preach on the assigned Psalm for today, the 23rd Psalm.)

Today’s Psalm, Psalm 23, is probably one of the favorite, if not the favorite, texts in all three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. “The Lord is my shepherd….” Even as I say these five words, most of you are saying what follows, the next phrase, in your heads. Along with the Lord’s Prayer, this text is one that almost every person of faith knows by heart. I have found that, even when visiting people who have Alzheimer’s disease, those who have forgotten most everything else, people still appear to recognize the 23rd Psalm. I think I have read it at every funeral at which I have ever presided and heard it at every funeral I have ever attended. There is such comfort in its words, especially at the time of the death of someone we love and even as we near our own death, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.”

I really like how Marty Haugen translates this text and puts it to music:

“Shepherd Me, O God,” Refrain and Verses 1, 2, 3, and 4:

Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.
Verse 1: God is my Shepherd, so nothing shall I want, I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love, I walk by the quiet waters of peace.
Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.
Verse 2: Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul, you lead me in pathways of righteousness and truth, my spirit shall sing the music of your name.
Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.
Verse 3: Though I should wander the valley of death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side, your rod and your staff, my comfort and my hope.
Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.
Verse 4: You have set a banquet of love in the face of hatred, surrounding me with love beyond my power to hold.
Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

My sermon title today is “Beyond Our Wants.”

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Think about that phrase for a moment, about how powerful “wanting” is in our culture in 2014. Economists tell us that consumer spending now accounts for nearly 70% of our gross domestic product, significantly higher than other western nations which are closer to 50%. And it has risen to this level just in one generation – it was closer to 60% in our parents’ time. More than ever before, our economy is powered by our collective nights out to dinner, trips to the grocery store and occasional shopping sprees. And to make that all work we are encouraged at every turn to want. To want more stuff, to want nicer stuff, to want lots of stuff.

We live, that is, with an imagination dominated by a pervasive sense of scarcity, far more aware of what we do not have – and, therefore, should go out and buy - than what we do have. No wonder so many people are unhappy. We are consumed by what we sense we lack instead of grateful for our abundance. We are driven to get “more” instead of content to celebrate “enough.” And, we measure ourselves against our deficits instead of glorying in our gifts and blessings.

And this is where Psalm 23 comes in – at every turn, Psalm 23 promises us that God cares for us and will provide, does provide, everything we need in this life.

So, how is it that we have forgotten this? Part of this is the consumer oriented culture in which we live. We are bombarded 24/7 by advertising that seeks always to make us aware of what we do not have. Thus, it is easy to be seduced into thinking that happiness comes from getting everything you want, instead of recognizing all that you already have.

This seeps over into our congregational life also. It seems very easy to think and talk in terms of deficits instead of blessings – how this sanctuary used to be full, for example, or how we are going to pay our bills, especially as we expand our staffing and ministries.

Scholar David Lose asks when we have spent a congregation council meeting or a congregation meeting focusing on our blessings instead of worrying about what we perceive we lack – maybe we should try that for next Sunday’s Congregational Meeting here at Mt. Olive?

But, more than this, when we do speak about stewardship or name the material and financial blessings that God has given us, it is all too often connected with a stewardship sermon that concludes by asking our people for money.

Now, please do not misunderstand me - Of course we need to ask our members and friends for their financial support for our congregation’s ministry and outreach as well as demonstrating how we are spending the support we receive, and, frankly, our congregation is in need of increased financial support as we increase our ministries, as you will hear
appropriately from our treasurer at next Sunday’s Congregational Meeting. But, when that is our primary stewardship message, we only feed the popular assumption that if we only had more we would be happy.

Yet, Psalm 23 stands against all of that and invites us to think differently with its simple and singular affirmation: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” That is, “The Lord is my shepherd and provides all that I need.” Period. All we need. Period.

This passage challenges any cultural assumption that the path to happiness is paved with gift cards! This passage invites us to trust in God’s care for us, all the days of our lives.

Or, as Marty Haugen writes:

Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.
Verse 5: Surely your kindness and mercy follow me all he Days of my life; I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.
Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

Here is what I suggest we all do this coming week, something I will do also and share on Facebook: This week let’s all make a list of God’s blessings in our lives. Let’s write down five or ten things we are grateful for in our lives. As we write this list, let’s pray to God with each item on our list, a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s generosity for us. And, as we write
this list, let’s read Psalm 23, aloud if we can.

What is the purpose of this? It gives us all, me included, much-needed practice in recognizing God’s generosity in our lives. It helps us move out of the mindset of nervous scarcity toward confident abundance. It invites us to rise above a culture shaped by incessant wanting and transform us into a community marked by our trust in God’s blessings.

Psalm 23 is a protest against all the voices that seek to rob us of our confidence in God’s love for us, those voices that try to identify us by what we are not. Psalm 23 becomes a solid declaration that we have been richly blessed. We can lead lives of confidence, courage and generosity, knowing that God will provide, God does provide, everything we need in this
life. Period.

Refrain: Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

Amen.

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California

 


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