Inclusive Church

  • blogpics thetortoiseandthehareI shared this message on 4/10/16 with Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, MO as they enter a pastoral transition.

    When our children were little, we loved to show them Living Books on the computer. This was early in the tech era and these books came on a CD. We could click on different parts of the page for some action to happen, like birds singing, the doorbell ringing, and so on. Our favorite Living Book was based on Aesop’s Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.

    You know the fable, the Tortoise and the Hare engage in a race. The Hare is over-confident in his speed and he gets distracted during the race. He forgot to eat, so he stops to eat breakfast, he takes a nap, and he stops to tell on-lookers how great he is. Of course he’s so distracted and full of himself that the Tortoise crosses the finish line while the Hare is racing to catch up. At the end the narrator asks the crowd around the finish line, What is the moral of the story? The crowd pipes up with
    The journey is the reward?
    • Don’t act like such a big shot?
    • Always eat a good breakfast?
    No, says the narrator, Slow and steady wins the race!

    I think the disciples in Jesus' third resurrection appearance described in John 20:19-31, are learning some of the same lessons as the Hare in Aesop’s Fable.

    Peter and the disciples are at a loss; they don’t know what to do. The resurrected Lord has appeared to them 2 times, Jesus has breathed on them the Holy Spirit and sends them out—As the Father sends me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

    There it is. There’s the call. The disciples are sent out, scars and all, with a Gospel to proclaim, sins to forgive, peace to offer, and a church to build—the only problem is they don’t seem to know how to get started. They’re at a loss for what to do, exactly. Following Peter’s lead, the disciples go fishing.

    Ironic, isn’t it? It was not long ago that Jesus called them away from their boats to fish for people. But now, despite the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the disciples have returned to their old way of life. They’re almost like the Hare in the fable—the disciples are easily distracted from the path that Jesus has set them on. Instead of sharing the incredible news of God’s power over death, they stayed hang up a sign that says, “Gone Fishing.”

    As a congregation, you may feel like the disciples in this passage. You have a mission and ministry in this community, but now you’ve entered a time of pastoral transition, and you are still grieving the loss of a very beloved and key member. You may feel at loose ends—at a loss for what to do, what’s going to come next, what the future holds. What’s the next step and how do we take it?

    We can feel this way in our personal lives as well. This last year, I have been unsure myself of what God wants me to do. My husband and I were working very hard at new mission development and we had to stop due my chronic migraines. I was at loose ends—I was not sure what to do, what was going to come next, and what the future was going to hold.

    Our temptation in these situations of uncertainty is to join the disciples in going backwards—to re-tread the past—to go back to what we were doing before, rather pay attention to what new thing God might be doing. I would encourage you to resist this temptation because you’ll notice that this did not work for the disciples. They were experts at fishing –and they fished all night and caught nothing! They’re totally flunking. Going backward hardly ever moves us forward. We can learn lessons from our past, but our future is not there.

    But then the story in John shows four practical ways to move forward on the path in front of us, even when we don’t know what to do, nor what the future holds.

    1. Jesus gets the disciples set back on the right path by appearing on the beach that morning. He invites them to cast their net on the other side of the boat—we know that the sides of the boat are port and starboard, but I might call this the forward side instead of the backward side of the boat. And they caught 153 fish—it strained the net, but it didn’t break!

    It’s an odd number- 153. It doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible, so why 153? One hundred fifty three is the known number of species of fish during the first century! Jesus did call them to fish for people, so perhaps this is John’s way of foreshadowing that the good news of Jesus is to be proclaimed to all “species” of people to the ends of the earth. Everybody’s in! The net won’t break because God can hold us all! You are in! Ferguson is in! The journey is the reward—and being part of God’s great plan to love and redeem the world is blessing enough! You may be in transition, or at a crossroads, but the mission is the same—reach everyone with God’s love no matter what. The journey is the reward.

    2. Then the funniest part of the story comes—Peter is fishing naked, and when he sees Jesus, he puts on his clothes to jump in the lake and swim ashore. Don’t we usually work while clothed and strip down to jump in the lake? (In the first century the one who saw someone naked was dishonored, so Peter is actually honoring Jesus by putting on his clothes, but it seems all backward to us!) But the point is, Peter is naked. John wants us to see Peter in all his vulnerability. He denied Jesus three times, and even though Jesus has given him a new mission since the resurrection, Peter has reverted back to his old profession and he’s failing miserably at it.

    Jesus sees right through Peter—he can put his clothes back on, but none of us can hide ourselves from God. Jesus sees us and knows us in all of our failings, fears and falling backwards. So stop trying to hide. Don’t act like such a big shot. You’re not so bad God can’t love you and you’re not so good you don’t need Jesus! Peter gets to Jesus as fast as he can—he got this part right! Come to God in prayer, talk with Jesus throughout your day—rant and rave if you need to, cry if you feel it, dance when you’re moved—just don’t run the other way from Jesus because he already knows all of who you are and all of what you need and all of what you’re capable of. Don’t be such a big shot—join Peter and come to Jesus as fast as you can. Take it all to the Lord in prayer.

    3. In the midst of this complete, stark-naked-knowing, Jesus invites Peter and the disciples to join him for breakfast on the beach. Jesus feeds them, body and soul with the physical food and the spiritual relationship they need to run with perseverance the race he has set before them—to carry the good news of God’s love throughout the world. Always eat a good breakfast. We can’t survive on this journey of faith, this mission of good news without proper nourishment. We need to be fed and loved at this table, where Jesus appears to us in Communion—our breakfast on the beach—to be loved, forgiven and strengthened for the day, even and especially when we don’t know what’s coming next. Always eat a good breakfast physically as well. We can’t carry out the mission of peace and love when we do violence to our own bodies by over-functioning as if the kingdom depended on us while not taking care of ourselves! This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.

    4. Jesus re-establishes a relationship with Peter and all the disciples based not on their good behavior, not on getting everything right, but based on love. Peter’s 3-fold denial is redeemed when he affirms that he loves Jesus 3 times–which he can do only because Jesus has already loved and nourished and forgiven and blessed him. It’s not just about how much Jesus loves us, it’s about how much we love Jesus! Slow and steady wins the race. Take time to experience Jesus’ love and let Jesus know you love him! Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t have to rush to prove yourself. You don’t have to rush to find an interim. You don’t have to race and around and make sure everything is done just so. It’s about love; it’s about being as much as doing. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Order your life around love: love of God, love of each other, love of all 153 species of God’s people, love of your community, love of Ferguson.

    Even when we don’t know what to do, our faith gives us the daily and weekly practices we need to remain faithful in the in-between times of transition. I was off work for a year—but I knew I wasn’t forgotten, because like all of us, I ‘m part of God’s mission in this world, part of the 153 species! I came to Jesus in prayer, I ate a good breakfast and came to worship and Communion, and because church’s like you asked me to preach, I knew God still loved me, so thank you, Zion! Thank you for helping me.

    God loves you Zion as an important and valuable part of God’s mission in this world. The repetition of your faith practices will serve you well as you use them to discern the next task, the next month and the next chapter of your life together! All you have to do is the next right thing. So fear not, Zion! And remember that

    • You are part of the 153 species that God loves, so the journey is the reward!
    • God knows you fully and completely, so come to Jesus in prayer and don’t act like such a big shot!
    • Nourish yourself in worship, Communion and in your physical well-being - always eat a good breakfast!
    • Your mission is all about love-how much God loves you and how much you love God, so remember that slow and steady wins the race!
  • From Sheep to ShepherdA sermon preached for Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, on Psalm 23John 10:11-18 & Acts 4:5-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on April 22, 2017

    The Children’s Message that took place before this sermon learned some new ways to understand Psalm 23 with gratitude for the commentary on Workingpreacher.org.

    The Lord oversees and guides my journey, giving me rest and nourishment when I need it (a temporary repose!);
    The Lord leads me in finding righteous grooves to travel or ruts in the ground to follow, so that I have right and healthy relationships with others that honor God.
    The journey doesn’t go from green pastures to the house of the Lord, I will go through hard times (like Jesus did), and I get through them because God is with me.
    I survive the hardest parts of my journey because God is with me to guide, protect, help, and comfort me.
    God provides me with everything I need, and even when I think all is lost, You remind me I am your beloved child and you sustain me.
    With God I know that only goodness and kindness will pursue and chase me every day I walk this journey.
    I will continually return to God’s presence in thanksgiving my whole life long.

    Have you ever wondered why Jesus calls himself the “good” shepherd in this Gospel reading from John? Why isn’t he the “Awesome” Shepherd, the “Most Excellent” Shepherd, the “Outstanding, Amazing” shepherd, or the “Greatest Shepherd the world has ever seen?” Surely Jesus fits all these descriptions. We do hear such lofty language in other passages of Scripture—In Isaiah 9 for example—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

    We just affirmed in Psalm 23 with the children, that Jesus really is the “wonderful, mighty, incredible” shepherd of our lives. He provides for all we need: strength in our weakness, rest in our exhaustion, guidance in our confusion, hope in our fears, comfort in our sorrow. He gives us rest when we need it, and a prod in the behind when we want to linger too long beside still waters. Life is pretty good as sheep with Jesus as our Shepherd wouldn’t you agree? That’s why Psalm 23 is the most popular and beloved Psalm, and probably the best-known passage in all of Scripture. As the Shepherd, he even provides salvation from our sins. Jesus even says so in verse 15 of our John passage: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

    So if he does all that, why does Jesus describe himself as just the “good” shepherd? I’m not sure we’re going to like the answer. Perhaps Jesus only refers to himself as “good” because Jesus is not the only shepherd he’s referring to. Our passage from John 10 foreshadows a later passage in John 21 when the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at daybreak after their night of fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. They enjoy a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. And then Jesus begins to quiz Peter:

    'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.'  He said to him the third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'

    Did you catch the shift? Who’s the shepherd now? Peter, and not just Peter, but all the disciples—who are called “apostles” after the resurrection. And not just the apostles back then, but all of us who follow Jesus today. Jesus calls all of us to follow in his footsteps and become a shepherd. It’s so easy to focus on how great it is to be the sheep, that we miss this part of the story. We love being sheep! We’d like to stay over there with the children’s message and remain sheep. They can stay sheep for now, but we adults, we apostles, we followers of Jesus the Shepherd—it’s time to step up and become a shepherd. Part of our experience as the sheep, is to prepare us to become a shepherd.

    For we know how important it was to be found when we were lost, to be guided when we were confused, to be comforted when we were afraid, and to be helped when were in the valley of the shadow. We know that WE would be lost without Jesus as our Shepherd, so Jesus calls us to use the truth of our own experience, as the motivation to shepherd other lost and lonely sheep into the fold.

    Maybe that’s why Jesus uses the word “good” shepherd. If he were the “extraordinary, out of this world, most awesome” shepherd, we would give up before we even tried to follow in his footsteps. We would come up with every excuse we could and say, “it’s not our job to seek and save the lost. I’m not extraordinarily awesome. I’m much happier just being a sheep, thank you very much!”

    But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook—the shepherd’s hook so easily. With Peter, he says to us, “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” You see, this whole good shepherd discourse in John begins with Jesus healing the man born blind at the beginning of chapter 8. Jesus finds the blind man, this lost sheep, where he’s sat his entire life—begging for anything that might keep him alive. Then he tells the religious leaders that Jesus healed him, and they kick him out! Jesus goes and finds him again! Jesus finds the blind man in his lostness and brings him back into the fold of his love, not once but twice—he kept on trying until he stayed! 

    That’s why in our passage today, in verse 16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in also.” And Jesus looks at us and asks, “Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd and bring in the missing sheep? Will you seek out the lost sheep, and welcome them, love them? Will be the shepherd who finds the rejected, the downtrodden, the refugee, the hungry, the lonely, and the homeless begging on your street corners? Will you make sure that those who have been previously rejected—people who are mentally ill, or have special needs, or are lesbian, gay or transgendered—will you go out of your way to reach them with my love, so they can hear my voice, and come into my fold? Will you? Will keep trying until they stay?”

    We don’t have to be the “most awesome, incredible, greatest shepherd the world has ever seen,” but Jesus does call us to be “good” shepherds who really do seek those outside the fold. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that the lost sheep that Jesus welcomed into the fold, were the ones the established religion hated the most—prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and blind people. It's the same issue in our passage from Acts. The apostles are in trouble  with the religious extablishment because they healed a crippled man--another outcast--and brought him into the fold. It’s why our inclusive welcome—on the altar and on the website—must be explicit. Because the people you don’t see among us have always heard that they are rejected, outcast, and should stay away.

    To welcome lost into the fold is uncomfortable, challenging, and can cause disagreements. But of course, you know that because you’ve done the hard work of creating St. Luke’s welcome statement. I hope we can continue an intentional, inclusive, transparent process to consider becoming a Reconciled in Christ congregation—the official welcome of LGBTQ-friendly congregations. A faithful process and conversation does not guarantee nor manipulate an outcome, but because shepherds are in the “welcome and protection” business, it’s important to continue the conversation and discern to whom God calls us to give an explicit and generous welcome.

    We need to have a similar conversation about welcoming homeless people—I met Kenneth at the corner of Belt Line and the North Dallas Tollway this week—and about how we will interact with our interfaith partners, and others to whom God sends us in this community. There will be times when we want to go back to being a sheep with other sheep who are just like us. And Jesus, our Good Shepherd will love us, and forgive us, and then prod us forward when we want to linger too long beside the still waters, and he will say, “try again.” Jesus will ask us if we love him and we will say, “yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that we love you.”

    And Jesus will say to us, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, yet. I must bring them also. Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd here at St. Lukes?

    “Will you tell the lost that I oversee and guide their journey and will give them rest and nourishment when they need it? Will you find the lost and tell them I have helped you find your righteous groove to follow so you can have healthy relationships that honor me? Will you? Will you find the rejected and the lonely and reassure them that I am with them through the darkest valley and that I will guide and help them as I have done for you? Will you, St. Luke’s? Will you tell the outcast that when think that all is lost and there’s no way forward, I will remind them they are my precious child and I will sustain them? Will you? And will you find the lost sheep and tell them that goodness and kindness are chasing after them, and I will keep chasing them until they’re found? Will you? Will you seek the lost and hungry and invite them to return with you here, to my presence so that I can love them as I have love you? Will you, St. Lukes?"

    And we will answer, “yes.”

     

     

     

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