Sermons

PastorEric-2Sunday's Sermon - 
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. 

Today, as you all know, is Mother’s Day, not a religious holiday but an important one in modern American culture. It is also a difficult day for some, especially those of us whose Mothers are no longer with us and those who have yearned to be a Mother but have not been one.
This “Mother’s Day Prayer” fits this day so well, I believe. It was written by the Rev. Joelle Colville-Hanson, an ELCA pastor from Iowa:
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A Mother's Day Prayer

We pray for Mothers everywhere….

For mothers of young children, that they may nurture and raise their children to be good and faithful people in the world.

For mothers of older children, that they may have the wisdom to know when to help their children hang on to their roots and when to let them spread their wings.

For mothers of grown children, that they may feel satisfaction in a job well done.

On this day we remember mothers of children in war-torn countries, mothers of children where disaster or famine has struck, and mothers who fear for their children’s safety, that they may find food for their children, justice for their families, and peace for their souls.

We also lift up those for whom this day is painful: mothers whose children are missing, mothers whose children have died, mothers who have lost children to miscarriage, mothers who have had abortions, mothers who have lost custody of their children, and mothers whose children have disappointed them.

We pray for those who wish to have children but have none, that they may be filled by God.

We pray, too, for all motherless children, children whose mothers have abused or abandoned them, and for all those whose mothers have recently died.

For all the good experiences of motherhood, we thank and praise you Lord. We lift up to you for healing all the painful experiences of motherhood.

Amen

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And, I hope you will also join me in daily prayer for the release of the more than 200 girls kidnapped in Nigeria several weeks ago.

It may be Mother’s Day in secular society, but this day in the church is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Today’s Gospel lesson from St. John speaks of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, “the gatekeeper,” the text tells us, who “calls his sheep by name.”

It is probably not something we think about often, but most of us do not think of ourselves as sheep. If we did, we might conclude that we really don’t have particular respect for sheep. As animals go, sheep might not especially inspire us. They seem docile and dirty and not too bright.

If we thought of ourselves as animals, we would probably prefer other images: the soaring eagle, the wild mare or stallion or even a beautiful butterfly. Sheep, not so much. They do not stir our imaginations. They are routine, simple creatures.
But, Jesus uses sheep to represent people. Christ the Good Shepherd, we the sheep! Of all things to suggest! So, what can this metaphor teach us about human living?
Of course, another question might be, how directly, really, did Jesus mean this? Even though it is somewhat common in the scriptures, like all metaphors, this one is imperfect. Jesus was far from the first to use it - we only need to think of the 23rd Psalm, “the Lord is my shepherd,” written perhaps a thousand years before Christ, to see how far back the image goes and how firmly rooted it may have been in the ancient Jewish mind.
Nevertheless, Jesus was did not have to use this image. He could have discarded the entire metaphor as an old wineskin not befitting his new wine, but Jesus kept it. Apparently, he was not offended by the idea of people being compared to sheep in some ways.
So, if Jesus liked this image, how might we be like sheep?
I would like to suggest three ways:
• First, it seems to me that, like sheep, people are vulnerable to getting hurt.
• Second, as sheep need to be with other sheep, so people need to be with other people.
• Third, like sheep, sometime people don’t know where they are going.
Some of you may remember M. Scott Peck’s best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled. In Peck’s follow up book, which he calls, Further along the Road Less Traveled, Peck emphasizes not only the inevitability of human suffering, particularly spiritual and emotional suffering. He also goes on to say that painful experiences are really the growing edges of life, that we need these painful experiences, that they can be great gifts to us, and that without them we might stay much the same. The problem becomes that, as we recognize our own vulnerability in life, we try, naturally enough, to protect ourselves from pain, to shield ourselves from pain whenever we can.

This shielding might take form in two ways: We might not take risks in the first place, or, when we do have pain, we may deny it to ourselves, or minimize it, not staying with it long enough to see where it leads us, thus never really resolving it. Consequently, we can get rather stuck in life, not learning new things or developing new skills.

For Peck, avoiding pain is not a healthy life: not growing, not maturing, not moving forward. We might call it anti-life. Peck says it is only our pain which can sometimes jolt us into new perceptions of things, into a richer, fuller experience of life. In this sense, human vulnerability is not something of which to be resentful or ashamed. We might even say that our vulnerability to pain leads us to our salvation.
Peck says, “Courage is the capacity to go ahead in spite of the fear, in spite of the pain. When you do that, you will find that overcoming that fear will not only make you stronger but will be a big step forward toward maturity.”
But how do we do that? How do we get more courage? This may be where the Jesus the Good Shepherd is especially needed. To know that we vulnerable sheep have a Good Shepherd watching over us might help us to feel secure even while we meet our grief and anxieties and pain head on. If we fall into a deep pit God’s loving hand will lift us out of it, or as author Corrie Ten Boom has said, "There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still."
Another part of the Christian good news is that we do not need to be sheep apart from other sheep. To imagine a sheep wondering around a hillside or meadow all alone is a sad and even tragic picture. Like sheep, people need each other. If we are vulnerable sheep, we are vulnerable sheep together. We can lean on each other, care for each other, hold each other’s hands as we grow and mature together. Sometimes we can even share each other’s pain.
We can take a lesson from Jesus the Good Shepherd who knows each of the sheep by name. To know someone’s name in the ancient Jewish sense was more than to know what to call someone. It was more than to know what sound to make with the vocal cords in order to get someone’s attention. To know a person’s name was to be aware of the personality, the spirit, the joys and struggles, which define a person life and build a person’s character.
Third, like sheep, people don’t always know where they are going. Life can seem sometimes like a hopelessly complex maze. The way ahead may seem clear and then suddenly it’s as if a fog settles and it’s hard even to see the lines in the road. Like sheep, we might not always know where the next green pasture lays, or we think we know where it lays only to find ourselves still looking for it when we get there.
And, when we are not sure of the way we should go, someone else is. And maybe it’s not so much that there are only so many green pastures, and they are hard to find, hidden between large stretches of barren land. Maybe the thing to learn is that because the Good Shepherd is leading us there is green grass almost wherever we are, that somehow life is rich, the earth a generous mother, the human soul a cache of spiritual resources, that opportunities for faith and love abound, simply because we are alive. Maybe the important thing is not so much that we will be led from one green pasture to another, but that we were led into everlasting green pastures of one form or another when the Good Shepherd breathed into us the breath of life itself.
Thus, God as shepherd and people as sheep may still be a good analogy for us. If it has lasted three thousand years, there must be truth in it.
We may not care to accept our sheep-likeness sometimes and yet I wonder if there is not some real dignity in it. Within our vulnerability lies our capacity to love; our need for each other leads to the creation of community; and our being lost leads us to faith in the Wisdom beyond our own. And always, always, always, there is the Good Shepherd; and “goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.”
Amen.

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

 


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      Santa Monica, CA 90405
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