Sermon on mermaids, enemies, and the 23rd Psalm

2013-04-21 NBW Sermon <—-as always, I encourage you to listen along. Especially this week. Just click here. It may take 2 minutes more than just reading it.

Happy Good Shepherd Sunday.  It’s not really a festival day of the church, like Christ the King or Transfiguration Sunday are…it’s just that every year, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, the assigned readings are all about Jesus as the Good Shepherd and the Psalm for the day is the 23rd Psalm.  About 10 years ago on Good Shepherd Sunday, when our daughter Harper was 4, my husband Matthew was giving the children’s sermon at his church, he had gathered all the little kids around and was going to have them sing that song, “I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa” and he asked the children the leading question: “Ok kids, what do you want to be? And all the kids say “a sheep!” except our daughter Harper, who says “a mermaid!”.

In the sprit of full-disclosure, that is a cute story, and it happened on Good Shepherd Sunday but it’s apropos of absolutely nothing in connection to the rest of the sermon.

It’s just that, in the midst of such a horrific week, I thought a cute little kid in church story might feel nice. Since, well… everything else kinda feels like crap.

This week I posted something on Facebook that said I was sick of “preaching challenges”. And I am.  I’m sick of bad things happening – things that knock the breath out of us. And I’m tired of then having to figure out what to say about movie theater slaughters and school shootings and vehicular homicide and marathon bombings and crippling explosions. Preachers and pastors are supposed to provide some sort of explanation for things, right? I mean some kind of bland reassurance in the form of platitudes that,  like supermarket sheetcake – are so sweet in the moment it makes your fillings hurt and then 10 minutes later, totally forgettable.

Aren’t preachers supposed to be able to help make sense of the senselessness around us?  Aren’t we supposed to be able to give meaning to meaninglessness and comfort in times of chaos?

Well, I just didn’t have it in me this week.  I just felt…well, tired. Tired of event after event demanding my reaction and ripping at my heart and daring me to come up with some kind of good news.  So it’s just a lousy week to be a preacher.  But it’s a lousy week to be a lot of things: a Bostonian, a person who loves Bostonians, a Muslim American, a Serbian, A cop, a marathon runner, a West Texan, Barack Obama, a Shepherd of a flock.

My dad is a little old fashioned and is for sure the only one in my life who refers to me as a shepherd. Sometimes he calls you guys my flock.  Which of course is hilarious. He’ll say “How’s your flock” to which I sometimes will answer “oh you know, disobedient and a little smelly”.  It’s an old fashioned thing, calling a preacher a shepherd and their congregation their flock and it’s one of many aspects of being a clergy person I want nothing to do with, but never more so than this week. Because I’m no shepherd.

I heard of the bombing in Boston and then the explosion in Texas and the attempted poisoning of the president and I knew for sure, I’m no shepherd. I don’t know where the Hell to lead you in all of this, because like you I am scared and unsure and honestly a little numb. I am tired of the evil and danger and the-CNN-created enemies that increasingly surround us.   I just am no shepherd.

But, in all fairness, I think no one else is either. Who is going to lead us and what is going to really protect us? This week in the media I heard many possibilities.  Our patriotism will protect us.  Cynicism about the government will protect us. Tighter immigration laws will protect us. Looser immigration laws will protect us. Unfettered access to firearms will to protect us.  Tighter gun control will to protect us. The swirling chaos of never-ending news cycles is going to protect us. Ignoring it all and numbing ourselves out with food or booze or sex or Netflix streaming is going to protect us.  Or maybe the next earnest meme on facebook is going to protect us. Save us. Lead us. Shepherd us.

And Oh My God do we choose some terrible Shepherds.

But like sheep we really do need something to come along that will finally make us feel safe and loved and knowing we are going in the right direction and will be looked after.

And all I know is that a sermon isn’t going to make you guys feel like little safe and cared for sheep. Which is why in the wake of this week’s events, I thought that I just can’t be a shepherd when I need so desperately to be shepherded myself.

I’m in good company though.  I’ve often heard Lutheran preachers say that they are really grateful that communion comes after the sermon…because it takes the pressure off.  If they somehow screw up preaching the Gospel…they know people will at least get it at the table.

And I’ve never felt that more than today. See, we think we know the 23rd Psalm really well…I mean what other Psalm do you hear during TV show funerals and what other Psalm is printed on coffee cups.  But I heard something new in it this week. A week of fear and evil and enemies – See, in the 23rd Psalm God does a counter intuitive thing when it comes to our very real fear of enemies. God doesn’t say “Let’s go smite them” and God doesn’t say “Let’s analyze the data ” God says “let’s eat!”

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

I don’t know what to tell you this week. And I’m too scared to be anyone’s shepherd.  I can’t lead you anywhere, But I can gather with you around this table – a table God has set in the presence of everything that attempts to snatch away our peace.  A table set in the presence of enemies and fear and evil. I have nothing to say.  There is no clever theology or social commentary that can take away the sting of this last week.  But I can gather with you around this table and I can tell you the story. I have no stories of my own (just that one mermaid one…), but around this table I can again tell you the story of how God has come to dwell with us, to make us people of God. I can tell you of how the God of Israel protected his people and walked among them. I can tell you how this same God took on flesh and was born in a time as violent and faithless and terrifying as our own and this Jesus of Nazareth was so full of grace and truth and love for his enemies that he was killed by those he came to save. And I can tell you how on the night before he died he gathered around another table with some real screw-ups and held up bread and said it was his body given for forgiveness and how he held up a cup and said it was for salvation and that when we eat this bread and drink this cup we do so in remembrance of him. And I can tell you that even from the cross on which he was hung he did not stop loving the enemy – even those who nailed him to it and I can tell you that despite human fear and violence,  death did not have the final word and that after 3 days Jesus defeated death itself and then he again gathered his friends around a table from which he fed them breakfast and then he said for them to feed his sheep.  And as his sheep, it is at this table where he desires we be fed. Fed by his story and his body so that we can be the people of God who know that not even death can separate us from the love of God, and thus we can fearlessly face this world’s valleys of the shadow of death knowing that there is a love stronger than the grave.

Knowing that Love conquers hate and that death has no sting and Forgiveness is more powerful than violence and that despite it all it is always always worth it to love God and love people and to continue to gather around the tables God has set – so that we can behold who we really are and become what we receive in a world that like us, so desperately needs to be loved – and not feared.  AMEN.

 

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • Tim Sams

    Thank you Nadia–you may have felt like you had nothing, but clearly God had another idea.

    “…so that we can behold who we really are and become what we receive in a world that like us, so desperately needs to be loved – and not feared.”

    AMEN.

  • Kim

    I recently discovered your blog and have been listening to/reading your sermons. Wow–I am inspired by each and every one!

  • Jane Bahls

    Thanks for this, which was linked to on our church Facebook page here in Moline, Illinois. There are sure no easy answers, but thanks for the connections you drew to the Table.

    I heard of a young pastor who kept telling his congregation that he was their shepherd. Finally one of the elders took him aside and reminded him that Jesus is our shepherd. “But if you’re any good, you’ll be a half decent sheep dog.”

  • Sandra Orrick

    Your ministry grows out of our need and your willingness to show up and say what needs to be said. Always healing, always hopeful. Thank you.

  • Joyce Kuhlman

    Jimmy Holecek’s Chickens survived

    Thanks so much for sharing your sermons! Through tears and laughter you have helped open my eyes to things I hadn’t seen and led me to places I hadn’t thought to go… And thank you for this sermon. You beautifully brought me back to the table and the Word. And that is where I have seen the people of West.

    I live in Houston, so I have had the privilege of reading their stories in the Houston Chronicle (Chron.com). The people of West are truly people of God doing his work with their hands, and the Shepherd is there in the midst of them. They are consoling one another, congregations worshiping with building-less congregations, comforting one another. And it seems that Jesus was also a chicken farmer last week. “Jimmy Holecek’s chickens were in their pen 50 yards* from the fertilizer plant when it exploded . They are all safe and sound in the Waco Humane Society.” Peace and Joy.

    The middle school that was severely damages was 2,500 feet away.

  • Paul Timmis

    Thank you Nadia. A wonderful light touch but, as ever, such depth. You continue to be helpful and hopeful and the source of much inspiration. Thank you, again. And greetings from London, England to that smelly old flock of yours…

  • Joni

    Thank you Nadia for your candor and honesty and as always your refreshing insight on the word.

  • Brooks Gardner

    Nadia, I always find something enlightening about your sermons. Thank your for your posts.

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  • Debbo

    I hadn’t thought about Jesus preparing a table. 23 is so familiar it’s easy to gloss it over and not really hear it.

    It’s very hard to find God in those places (Boston, Texas, etc), and very hard to know what one can hang on to. What seems solid? What feels safe and reliable? Who can be trusted to lead us? Where can we safely go?

    Simply answering “God” seems trite, rote. Is there real meat on those bones? Something solid to slide safely into? I have doubts.

    Grandmother God has solid, sheltering meat on her bones. She’s not a deflecta-shield protecting me from harm. But hers are the warm, plump arms; hers is the soft, encompassing lap that takes me in when I’m terrified, lost and little.

    It may be that Grandmother God is also the guy doing the shepherding stuff you preach about. I don’t know, and I don’t trust the bible as a source. It’s been too corrupted for too many centuries by too many’interpreters and translators’. Doesn’t matter to me anyway.

    Thanks for provoking my thoughts and offering a space that required me to orderly articulation. It’s been clarifying.

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