Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Let's talk about sex . . .

     I had originally intended to say that the seeds of this particular sermon were first planted last week with an few Twitter shares and, later data confirmation, before we got this week’s germane news.  Then I got to thinking and praying and realized the seeds were originally sowed fifteen years ago in an entirely different church.  I was serving at a parish in OH, and it was coming off a split that deeply divided the parish and some families.  I was doing what educators would call my “student-priesting” without the benefit of a rector or vicar.  Don’t worry, I had all kinds of supervision to help tell me where I made mistakes.  One mistake that wasn’t, though, was a Bible Study on the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, if you prefer.  As you all know, I prefer to study the books in Scripture that those assigned to me want to study.  If it’s really all about Jesus, as He says the Scriptures are, then there really are no wasted books.  I would prefer, then, to study the books that interest those in my care.  And, let’s face it, there’s a practical side to such studies: I have a much better chance of people showing up if I let them pick the book of the Bible.  If I choose it, the excuse “I’m not really interested in that book” is on the tip of everyone’s tongues.  If y’all choose it, I can guilt you by reminding you that you chose the book, not me.  See, there’s a madness to my method.
     In any event, the parish was struggling over issues related to the recent split.  Families were divided over the split.  With the split came a loss of energy and financial resources.  I learned later some old memories or skeletons had been dredged up.  Perhaps the better analogy is that old scars had been wounded . . . again.  There was a profound sense of abandonment directed toward the diocese, a sense which arose out of that dread I just mentioned, when a bishop excommunicated members of the Vestry and parish during a visitation one day.  There was a sense of abandonment by God, which was understandable given the circumstances.  And they were stuck with a seminarian as their professional Christian.  Not only did they know they would be responsible for my formation, but they knew our relationship would end sometime in the summer of 2006.  Talk about a recipe for pastoral disaster!
     So, they approached me about doing a Bible study.  Truthfully, I had led a couple in my sending parish, so I was not at all worried about doing one.  I told them to pick a book that they wanted to study, and we would study it.  Three of the matriarchs, with a bit more than a twinkle in their eyes, came to me after services one Sunday and informed me they had reached a decision.  They wanted to study Song of Songs.  As I said, there was a bit of twinkle in their eyes, so I asked if they were sure.  I told them that while I was certain they had heard sermons that claimed the book was simply a metaphor describing the love of Christ toward the Church, and I was sure that was part of the message of the book, there was an “earthy” quality to it as well.  Were they really sure they wanted to study the book?  Lots of nodding and murmuring of agreement and giggling followed, so I agreed.  We picked a day to start the next week.
     That next week, I think five or six folks showed up, and we began to work our way through the book.  By the time we finished the book, 56 people were coming to a Bible study class!  We had a hard time breaking 40 for Sunday attendance, but we packed people in to that Bible study.  I’m not sure who was more amazed, those who learned that God had something important to say about sex or the seminarian who found himself in a room full or grandmother and grandfather types talking explicitly about sex!  But the seeds for this sermon harken back to those days.  Yes, God gave us sex.  Yes, He meant for us to enjoy it.  Yes, He gave us a few rules about it because, like everything else in the world, it is or can be corrupted by sin.
     And, although you and I live in a hypersexualized culture, how much teaching from the Song of Songs have you ever heard?  My guess is that you were like my three matriarchs in OH.  If you have heard a sermon on the book, it went right to the metaphor describing the love Christ has for the Church bit.  I see the nods.  It’s not your fault, and not entirely the preacher’s fault in churches that use the RCL.  Did you know that today is the only day in our three year cycle in which the Song of Songs is read for worship?  That means you only have a 25% chance of hearing a sermon on this book, once every three years!  And we wonder at the sexual brokenness in the world and in the Church. . .
     Speaking of more recent times, is there anybody who has not heard the news about the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania over the last couple weeks?  If you are keeping score, that means the Romans have been investigated by 8 states.  Only 42 states more to go!  That’s right, up to 42 more states can investigate how they handled the sexual assaults.  Here’s a bit of prediction on my part: they handled it horribly.  Boys were harmed.  Clergy covered up the harm.  Pray for our RC brothers and sisters.  My guess is that just as healing begins to happen, another state’s results will be released . . . for forty-two more times.
     And while the Church struggles with sex, (have I mentioned that over 40% of regular attending church men and over 20% of women admit to watching pornography weekly?), society is doing little better.  As the RC information in PA leaked, I received several copies of Twitter Screenshots that detailed the downward spiral of pornography.  I wish I could claim surprise or shock, but Kastleman was telling us back in 2005-6 that the brain on porn functions much like it does on any addictive drug.  And just like any addiction, in order to get the same endorphins and “high,” more or, worse, more disturbing things needed to be viewed.  The screenshots that folks sent me were detailing this reality coming to life in a, and I do not overuse this word, gross way.  In fact, were peoples’ comments to be believed, a company was starting to get worried about this uptick in demand for . . . disturbing videos.
     What qualifies as a disturbing video in my world?  As part of my work in the fight against sex trafficking, I have shared a number of disturbing stories.  Believe it or not, I have filtered out some of the more . . . extreme things that I have seen or heard.  Chief among those stories is the increasing demand for “snuff” films, films in which the person, usually a woman, is killed by her lover or, more often, rapist or rapists.  Those who lobby on behalf of pornography like to claim it’s all acting.  I wish that it was.  But even if it’s acting, what does it say about us as a human beings that we “get off” on seeing someone killed during sex?  It turns out that August had seen one of the greatest increases in searches for such material in more than a decade.  And that may be the easiest to talk about and hear about.  The same Tweets pointed out the surge in both anal and oral rape searches and incest.  Disgusted?  There’s more.
     My Monday or Tuesday morning began with everyone texting and e-mailing me about the increase in Sexually Transmitted Diseases.  Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis all experienced huge increases in 2017.  Nearly 2.3 million cases were diagnosed in 2017!  That means STI infections increased by more than 200,000 cases compared to 2016 and that STI infections had risen for the fourth year in a row!  The director of the CDC, a medical doctor, lamented that we are sliding backwards in the spread of STI’s and expressed worry that the system to identify and treat such diseases was near its breaking point.  Worse, he was pretty much resigned to the fact that gonorrhea would have no treatment in the foreseeable future.  Why should this concern us?  The diseases are becoming drug resistant, which means treatment is getting harder and harder (and more costly).  Plus, the fact that so many have the diseases asymptomatically means that serious damage is being done.  Almost half of all chlamydia cases were discovered in 15-24 year-old females.  The longer it goes untreated, the greater the chance for ectopic pregnancies or sterility.
     Too often, we believe that sex is a private thing and should be discussed in appropriate places.   Based on other discussions I have had around here at church, I know some of you are just sort of fuming right now, that this is not the time or place to talk about sex.  The problem for far too many of our youth, of course, is that there never was a good time for a trusted elder to talk to them about sex and relationships.  Far too many college youths, high school youths, and even middle school kids tell me their parents or grandparents or whoever keep saying when they are older they will talk to them about it.  And when we never get around to sharing with them what God has to say about it, we are shocked and dismayed that they listened to friends and others.  So, my first reminder to each of us today is that we need to be willing to talk about sex.  God gave us sex and meant for us to enjoy it . . .  within certain restrictions.  And those restrictions were for our benefit, not because He is mean or capricious.  Our passions, rightly ordered, are wonderful, are God-given, and fill us, in turn, with joy.  I’m not just talking about the endorphin release that comes from the act, but the security, the acceptance, the “committed-to”ness, the knowledge that we are loved that comes with it as God intended.  And, if I can be a bit crass and cause a couple folks to blush, it even makes us a more joyful people.  Why the giggling?
     So we should not be too surprised that God uses the passionate side of a relationship both to teach us about ourselves and to teach us about Him.  I mentioned earlier that one way in which the Song is read is that of a newlywed or passionately-in-love couple.  True, if y’all sat down after church and read the poem to each other, some of the imagery would be lost on us.  Who here loves a neck that looks like an alabaster tower?  What man in his right mind here today would dare tell his wife that her hair reminds him of the goat flocks descending from the mountain pastures of Gilead?  Or that her smile reminds him of shorn hooves of ewes?  Or that her breasts remind him of fawns?  Or that her channel is like an orchard of pomegranates, with nard, saffron, cinnamon, and other spices?  See, I told you it was great love poetry.  You Outlander ladies really should be reading Song of Songs. 
     Ladies, you have some difficult imagery with which to contend, too.  There is, obviously, some translation necessary.  But how many of you compare your husbands to leaping gazelles or young stags?  Fewer of you compare your husband’s eyes to a dove, or maybe not, given the giggles.  How many of you ladies compare your husband’s cheeks to the beds of spices?  Their lips like lilies?  Their legs as alabaster columns?  Knowing most of the men around here, ladies, you might find yourself in a doctor’s office being checked out for a stroke if you tried those lines on your husbands.
     In one sense, of course, the images are important.  When I ask you to consider what it is you love about your husband or wife, each of us present has those characteristics that we adore.  Men may be more crass in the locker room (she has a great chest or awesome butt), but there are things about their wives that men should treasure.  Her scent on a pillow perhaps?  Her eyes that see through me?  And often in my conversations, husbands value those things the most about which the wife is insecure.
     Similarly, we may be impressed with our ability to suck in our guts and expand our chests, but our wives are not really fooled, gentlemen.  Again, why are you all giggling?  I thought I was making a joke but I’m thinking a lot of you guys are doing just that!  Despite our physical appearance, sometimes, our wives love us.  Maybe its our broad shoulders or well-defined guns.  Perhaps it our eyes or our butts.  More likely, in talking with women for fifteen years in ministry, it was our willingness to cook a meal.  Our dedicatedness to the family which included working jobs that . . . let’s face it, were not fulfilling or the best.  But our strength and commitment still sings to them in the way the poetry of the Song sings today!
     One on level, this poem is all about passion and desire, the passion and desire that husbands and wives should have for one another.  But it is a committed passion.  The husband and the wife in this love poem are passionately dedicated to one another.  Make no mistake, the language is earthy because it is meant to remind us of the passion, the desire, that we are called to have for our spouse.  This is not a theoretical love.  This is active, passionate, longing.  At its absolute best, it incarnates the Trinity in the world around us.  I will not go to far into that thus morning, but think of the opportunity for hurt and pain in the midst of such passion.  Men and women speak different languages, are often driven by different needs and desires.  What can unite such unruly passions and desires?  The love of God; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; the redemption offered by Christ.   But enough of the earthy.
     On another level, though, as many of you have heard preached, the poem also teaches us about the desire we should have toward God.  What is it in life that you love most?  What popped into your head at that question?  College football started this weekend and we live in the middle of SEC land, so I bet a few of you have tuned me out in favor of replaying that great game you watched this weekend.  The great Ba’al of our country, the NFL, kicks off next week.  Maybe visions of Titans or Patriots or God’s chosen franchise, the Steelers, are dancing through your head.  We’ve been talking about husbands and wives and sex and imagery, so maybe some of us saw our spouse.  I will not ask you to raise your hands, but how many of us have a first passion, a strongest desire, for God?
     I know.  I see the squirms.  That was a little unfair.  On one level, though, it is hard to read Song of Songs without finding oneself back in the Garden as God intended.  A great deal of the imagery is meant to remind us that we were meant to in love with each other and with God.  And given human passions, what better image that use for desire than sex?  I mean, I like ice cream, but it does not do it for me the same was as sex.  Many ladies love chocolate, but it does not do it for them the same way . . . maybe it’s best gentlemen if we don’t carry that one too far.  Man, there’s a lot of snickering and giggling today.
     Our strongest desire, our greatest passion, our eros, to use the terms of the Greek speaking Roman world into which Christ entered, was and is meant to be God.  He should be the strongest desire in life.  Yet how few of us truly desire Him and His presence above all things?  How many of us create our own idols and chase after them?  How many of us have chased these idols so long that we have become addicted to them and allowed our focus to be shifted away from the One who truly loves us, the One who truly saved us, the One who constantly and consistently chases after us, the One who truly redeems us?  Those of you arguing with me in your heads might well be saying that only Jesus could love God like that!  Without fault, you are correct.  But as His adopted heirs and brothers and sisters, you and I should be so focused at least some of our time; and, more importantly, we should be able to better appreciate His uniqueness and love Him even more!  So, our second reminder this morning is that we should desire God above all things.  We should be chasing after Him, we should be seeking Him and His will for us, like we chase after our spouses, or after our favorite ice cream, or our favorite hobby, or our favorite sports team.
     I mentioned also that Song of Songs has been read exclusively metaphorically by His people through the years.  You have perhaps heard those sermons where the preacher explained to you that Jesus was man in the metaphor and the Church, His bride, was the female in the metaphor.  No doubt after my recent discussion of desire and passion you can well understand how the Church, the Bride of Christ, is supposed to be chasing after Her Lord, seeking Him whenever He seems absent.  Similarly, one overarching illustration of Scripture is that Church is the Bride of Christ and will, at the end, be made radiant Bride, worthy of the Son who redeemed Her.  God knows what the bride will look like when He finishes His redemption, and He is passionate about Her.  Nothing can keep Him from his plans for Her.
     I mentioned a moment ago, but I really want you to focus on this: How hard did God pursue you?  How passionate was God in His effort to woo you?  To win you?  To convince you that He truly loved you and wanted only what was best for you?  To use the language of lovers, for how long did you play hard to get?  Part of why we gather each week, and at other special times, is to remind ourselves that God is passionately committed to His people.  In one sense, all of Scripture is a love story.  God creates human beings and places man and woman in the Garden.  We sin and get kicked out because we do not trust His love of us.  What follows is the effort by God to draw us back into right relationship with Him.  What follows is His effort to teach us how much He desires us!  Desires us!  Time and time again, His chosen people reject Him.  Every once and a while, for a few short years, His people live a He instructs, as He teaches.  But, far too quickly, His people find themselves seduced away from His desire.
     Then, as you each know and as we re, He sent His Son to incarnate that love.  How did we respond to the Incarnation?  Did we say “ah, finally.  We understand!”?  No, we killed Him.  To be frank, we betrayed, we tortured, we allowed Him to be crucified.  Even worse, we mocked Him as He hung there, willing Himself to demonstrate His passion for us, tempting Him to give up the purpose for which He came down from heaven.  In the midst of our failure He demonstrated once and for all His incredible desire, His undying commitment to each one of us!  He rejected our temptations and fulfilled the job for which He came down.
     And, as much as we like to blame those who came before us, how well do you and I do in response to His passion for us?  I know the temptation is to believe that we would do better, were we present at those events.  But would we?  Would we really?  If so, how is it that we, born this side of the empty Tomb and this side of the Pentecost, doubt His love for us?  If so, how is it that we, who read these stories of those who have gone before us in our faith, worry that we are the unlovable one, the one whom God would not really pursue, would not really woo, would not really love?  How easily are we led into temptation?  How easily do we rationalize our sins despite knowing the cost He paid for us and the glory to which He calls each one of us?  No, we would do no better than our spiritual ancestors.
     The third lesson I want us to remember this day is the simple truth that God desires us in the way that we should desire Him.  He cherishes us as a new husband cherishes his new bride.  He is as passionate towards us as young newlyweds are toward one another.  Time and time again we reject His love for us; time and time again we chase after idols and abandon the One who truly loves us.  And though we post-modernists might like to discount God’s love for us as something more theoretical, Scripture is full of reminders of the passion and desire that he has that we would return to Him!  Song of Songs simply spells that passion out in short verse and using an imagery we can all understand.  And, for those who like to study Scripture, this passage in particular helps teach us, helps remind us, that our disordered passions to one another have their roots in the sin in the Garden.
     Standing here this morning, I have seen the squirms, the elbows to the ribs, the consternation on faces.  At various times you have expressed nervous laughter at what I have said today.  I get it.  I understand it.  We like our world organized.  We go to church to be “spiritual.”  We do other things to be seen as earthy.  When that boundary is crossed, we are made very uncomfortable.  The problem, of course, is that you and I live in a culture that talks all the time about sex.  Sex is used to sell everything from cars to hamburgers, from exotic vacations to refrigerators, from movies and miniseries to books.  We will tolerate sex being used all the time in places we should deem inappropriate, but let a preacher point out that God, who created sex, has something to say about it or that God can use it to reach us with His Gospel?  Well, now, there are lines we just don’t cross.  Part of the majesty of the Song of Songs is the reminder, from God, that human love and godly love are not mutually exclusive.  Part of the instruction of the Song of Songs is that we do the world no favors in our efforts to segregate what we think is holy or spiritual from what we think is earthy or crass.  When we keep silent, when we snuff out the light of Christ and wisdom of God that is within us, we allow others to grope about in blindness, in darkness.
     Brothers and sisters, you and I live in a world confused and distorted.  We live in a world that loves the darkness far more than the Light.  Yet we serve a God who intended all that He created for good.  Sex was not meant to be a cheap advertising trick.  Sex was not meant to be an excuse for rape or degradation or humiliation.  Sex was not meant as something undertaken likely, as if it is really “no big deal.”  It was intended as a glorious and intimate act between a man and a woman who were as committed to passionately serving, passionately desiring one another, as God desires us and we should desire Him.  More amazingly, it was meant to be yet another teaching, another incarnation if you will, about God.  For all those differences between men and women, for all those unruly wills and different “languages,” the two committed to chasing after one another and God in all things.  And, even more amazing if we stop for just a moment to consider, such passionate commitments became a physical reminder of the Trinity, even to the point of creating new life where none existed before.
     It’s not often that I preach three point sermons.  As I mentioned at the start, it’s even rarer that I get to preach on Song of Songs.  But brothers and sisters, these are conversations we need to be having.  To use Jim’s turn of phrase, we need to be wrestling with God about sex.  What did He intend?  Why did He create it?  What’s wrong with . . . ?  We need to be having these conversations within these walls, in our prayers, with those in our families, and, as uncomfortable as it might make us, in the wildernesses where we work and play.  Our silence, our partitions, do no one any favors.  Because of my work, you know far more about sex trafficking than any of you wanted to know four short years ago.  Thanks to the work of others, you know far more about sex abuse and misogyny than you likely thought you ever would need to know.  That, and others, are the fruits of our silence.  Brothers and sisters, the world needs to hear God’s voice on this and every subject.  He has chosen you and me to be His herald, His ambassador, His representative, His prince or princess.  Like it or not, it falls to us to have these discussions, to remind people that sex, yes even sex, was a gift from God and meant to point to Him!  And like those young lovers in this poem we read today, He is passionate that you would represent Him and His teachings well, even to the point of giving you His words to say in those conversations you would rather avoid.

In Christ’s Peace,

Thursday, July 26, 2018

On sheep and Adventers and splinters . . .

     Why does God use the image of shepherd to describe His relationship with us?  I suppose, when people really ask that question, they want to know why God is insulting them by calling them a sheep.  But it is a question which has come up in a number of Advent locales the last month.  It’s been a subject in Sunday morning Bible study led by Larry.  It’s come up in our Monday morning and Tuesday evening Bible studies.  It even served as a discussion on social media in light of language and Prayer Revision proposals at General Convention.
     I have to confess I have never really thought of sheep language as insulting or misogynistic or separating us from God.  I have been told that because I am a white aging male heterosexual in the church, I wouldn’t.  Sheep language speaks to patriarchy and misogyny and the oppression of minorities in Scripture, at least according to some.  Like you, I am scratching my head at that one.  I did not give it much thought, truth be told.  I assumed that those who tended sheep in Israel were, well, Jews.  If people tended sheep in Egypt, I would assume that they were Egyptians.  If folks tended sheep in Midian, I assumed they were Midianites.  Quite frankly, thanks to Moses’ wife, I don’t really even think of being a shepherd in the ANE as an exclusively male occupation, though I do recognize that men mostly did it.  But women seem to have been capable of doing the job in Scripture, or at least in the movies about Scripture!
     The other problem, of course, is that we believe Scripture is God breathed.  That means God is involved in the writing, the editing, the collecting, and every other part that goes into His people’s decision discerning that a writing belongs in Scripture.  God does not seem to be too big on insulting or shaming us.  God is all about confronting us with the truth, but He is not a parent who works by shaming.  If calling us sheep were somehow oppressive, I figure the Holy Spirit would have helped remove those references in Scripture over time.  The fact that they remain tells us there is something important in the use of that imagery.
     It’s also helped by the fact that one of my seminary professors was a bi-vocational priest early in his ordained life.  Many of you read the article that Leander wrote for The Living Church looking to the future life of our church, now that GC has made its decisions.  More than one of you have remarked to me or on social media how gentle his article was.  Leander, I am sure, would credit some of his softness to those lessons he learned early in his pastoral life.  FYI—Leander is the one who told the story “Away to me” and the priest who once lost a body.  Well, he did not lose it technically.  He started out performing a traditional funeral in a church cemetery that ended with an unexpected burial at sea.  We are, as he taught from time to time in class, very much like sheep.  In fact, our real problem is that we are removed from an agrarian society.  We assume we know about farm life; when, in fact, most of us would starve were we to use our “knowledge” to feed ourselves and those whom we love.
     For example, how many of us think sheep are stupid?  Go ahead, raise your hands.  Of those of you with hands upraised, how many of you have spent significant time with sheep?  Whoa!  Those went down quick.  Why, then, do you think they are stupid?  Ah, don’t watch where they are going?  Good.  Can’t tell wolves from other sheep, good.  You’ve been told they eat things that are bad, if not poisonous, for them, good.  I’ll actually cover those qualities in a second, but let’s talk about their supposed stupidity first.  They are not stupid animals at all.  Talk to a sheep farmer and you will quickly learn that sheep are fantastic at finding a hole.  If there is a hole in the fence, every one of them will find it and escape.  It’s almost like they don’t want to be penned in.
     How do they find the holes or broken spots in fences?  Some shepherds wonder that, too.  You see, sheep have great vision from about 12-18 inches in front of their face.  Think how their bodies are shaped and they heads work.  Their vision is perfect for seeing what’s in front of them.  But, seeing some distance ahead or some distance behind is nigh impossible.  That frustrates the shepherds because they find the damn holes so easily! 
     That eyesight, too, contributes to predators’ ability to sneak up on them.  They are, as you’ve now been reminded, great at seeing what’s right in front of them.  If a wolf or other predator approaches from the side or behind and, more importantly, from downwind, they have no way of telling who or what is there.  When the dogs herd them, they are responding more to the barking, the noise, than to any real fear of the size or appearance of the dog.  And, if the dog is a good nipper, then pretty much any dog can be used to herd the sheep.
     One other characteristic stands out about sheep: they are incredibly stubborn!  Once a sheep gets an idea into its head, it seems to stay there.  Leander, just to remind you, famously talked about sheep with an incredible urge and drive to start swimming for Portugal from their island pastures off the coasts of New Brunswick and Maine.  In case you did not know it, wool does not make the best floatation device.  And, it’s a long swim from the NE coast of North America to Portugal!  Yet, sheep will work hard to get where they think they want to be.
     Sheep are also evolutionarily weak.  They are really dependent upon others and upon their human shepherds for survival.  Many animals have an instinct for things that are dangerous or poisonous to them.  Sheep have no such quality.  Their method seems to be “if it’s green, I’ll eat it.  If it moves, it must be another sheep.”  Leander would share stories of how shepherds would go looking for their flocks, across a hill or ravine, only to find the flock decimated by a noxious plant or predator.  They simply did not recognize the danger, even after the danger began preying upon others in the flock.
     I could go on, but hopefully you have begun to see why God uses the image of sheep to describe us.  Many of us are pretty stubborn, often to the point of being stiff-necked.  We are often narrowly focused.  We know what we want, and we want it now!  We are often oblivious to dangers.  Why do you think so many of us get hooked on drugs or alcohol or engage in unsafe sex?  Why do you think so many of us eat too much or exercise too little, knowing the long term consequences of such behavior?  We are easily blinded.  If left to our own devices, we can often find ourselves entangled, wounded, or injured.  Although we do not recognize it, we are highly dependent upon someone caring for us.  We tend to follow the herd unless we get a new idea in our head that causes that stubborn streak to rear its head.  One might argue that part of the discord facing our country is the increase in the number of voices willing to shepherd us.  Many of those offered voices do not have our best interests at heart.  I hear and see the rueful laughter and expressions on your faces.  You get that metaphor a bit better.
     There’s another image at play, too, when God is describing us as sheep and either Himself or Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  Kings in the ANE described themselves as shepherds.  The idea was that the people needed someone to care for them, like sheep.  They needed someone to protect, to feed, to tell them what was best for them.  The problem, of course, was that too many kings were intent on their own self-interest rather than the good of their people, much like those “entertainment” and “wisdom” voices offered today in our own time.  God, of course, is the only One truly concerned about what is best for His people.  But we Americans chafe at the idea of kingship.  The idea that one person could tell us what is best for us is an abomination or four letter word.  We can figure out what we need.  We can take care of ourselves.  And so we reject this image because we really reject the idea of bending the knee. 
     Think I am kidding?  Look at the recent GC discussions over the idea of LORD as being too masculine and misogynistic.  How many of us are willing to go along with God, so long as His ideas don’t impinge on our freedom, our knowledge, or our opinions?  How many of us try hard to recreate God and claim ownership of Him?  My God would never . . . My God does not require me to go to church.  My God does not expect me to carry a cross that hurts.  My God understands I need to make sure the Vestry is spending my gifts, my tithes, and my offerings on the right things.  Oooh.  That caused some squirming.  Did I hit to close to the truth in our hearts?
     That understanding, of course, serves as background for one of the central points of our lesson.  He had compassion for them, because they were sheep without a shepherd.  When does Jesus’ compassion, God’s compassion, finally wear thin?  When, in Scripture, are you and I ever taught that God does not have compassion for us and our plights, no matter whether are plights are our own making or the making of someone or something else?  Good answer.  If you did not hear, there was a cry of Judgement Day.  Certainly the parable of the workers in the vineyard speaks to that.  All who get in to work before the whistle blows get the days’ wages.  Time and time and time again, how does God respond to the short-sightedness, the stubbornness, the sin of His people?  Compassionately.  How do we?  How do we who claim Him as Lord and who claim to be His heralds, His ambassadors, how do we respond to the needs of those around us?  Is there a limit to our response?  Is there a point at which we have decided we have helped enough, that we have given them all that He requires of us?
     I have been reminded of the need for Sabbath rest by some Adventers these last few weeks.  It has dawned on some that we do not get away enough.  In truth, I think I have only used three or four weeks of vacation since I arrived at Advent, and all but one of those was the first summer, the last being Amanda’s graduation.  So, in the lead up to this sermon, I knew this would be the classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.  If I stood in the pulpit and chewed us out for not taking our Sabbath, I ran the risk of some Adventers preaching my own sermon back at me later in the week.  Rightfully so.
     Sabbaths are vitally important to us and our life with God, and we may get to that in a moment.  The are needed, vital, for us to tune out the noise of the world and to focus on the still, small voice of God.  I am more concerned right now, though, with the limits of our compassion.  How do we respond to others in need?  Where do we limit our response?  When is enough enough?  These are clearly challenging questions, right?  Jesus leads His disciples away to rest and eat.  But the crowd hunts them down.  As tired as He is and the disciples are, though, Jesus does not send them away.  He sees they are like sheep without a shepherd and begins to teach them.  Heck, we skip over it until next week, but He eventually feeds them, after challenging the disciples about the food!
     As important as Sabbaths are, God values compassion even more.  After all, you and I are called by Him to represent Him to the world.  That means we are required to be open to the need that is around us at all times and to respond as He calls us to respond.  How we respond to those in need, of course, testifies to our belief in God as our Lord, our Shepherd, often in ways we never consider.
     Giving is an easy measure and testimony.  Many of us are happy to give when it is convenient or we have plenty.  But what about those times that it gets in the way?  Say, maybe when you are out to dinner or a movie?  Perhaps when you cross the street or avoid someone because you know the ask is coming?  If God is the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, if He is truly limitless and cares for us, should there be a limit to our giving?  I am not talking about the needs we do not know or the needs that we do not have.  I am talking about those needs we know, those needs we have, and that we guiltily avoid or excuse.  Why kind of testimony are we offering the potential receiver?  What kind of testimony are we offering those around us?  And how do we respond when things, be they money, time, emotions or other, are stretched thin or frayed?  Do we respond as does our Lord, or do we turn miserly?  Selfishly?
     Jesus has the same need for a break in His Incarnated form.  Yet how does He respond?  It’s easy to excuse our shortcomings, right?  I am not God.  Maybe the stories are embellished.  We are quick to think up excuses which justify our actions and decisions rather than to do the best we can to follow our Lord and Savior.  If I helped every bum I encountered, I’d be a bum myself!  If I gave to ever cause God put on my heart, I’d have no money for me!  If I wasted time on all these people, I’d never have time for me.  Squirming again, huh?
     I do not speak this as one condemning, I am right there in the midst of it with you.  Some of you are really good about calling me or visiting me on Fridays.  In my mind, there are 150-200 Adventers whom I know God has given into my cure.  In the minds of Adventers, there may be as many as 600 or so.  Can you imagine the temptation I have not to answer the phone on Fridays?  How many 10-15 minute conversations would it take you for you to let the calls go to voicemail?  Or how many times would it take for an individual to call you on your Sabbath about something non-emergent to let them go to voicemail?  Yet, as the professional disciple around here, what should be my response?  Should it be the response of the world, or should it mimic the response of God?  Of course, we are all disciples of God when it comes right down to it, why should your response to need be any different than what you expect of me?  Yes, time away for rest and refresh is important, but you and I minister among sheep in the wilderness.  Their needs do not always correspond to what is easy for us.  In fact, Jesus would say quite the opposite.  We are, are we not, called to bear crosses, not signs of relaxation.
     In the end, the real teaching of this section for us this season is that we are insufficient to meet the need of those around us.  If left to our own devices, our own resources, we would fail.  We know this, even though we don’t really know this.  Thankfully, mercifully, compassionately, we are not.  We are called by God, equipped by God, supplied by God, taught by God that He is the Good Shepherd, that He is the only One who can meet needs.  It is only He that truly has the best interests of me and you and everyone we encounter in the world at heart.  The best you and I can do is serve as signposts, as pointers, to Him.  Sometimes, that work is best done when we are out of patience, when we are out of supplies, when we are out of resources, because then you and I are reminded of our insufficiency and of His complete sufficiency to meet whatever need.  It is in those frustrating moment of our impotence that His power is best evidenced to us.  What’s the verse, His power is made perfect in weakness?
     Too often, you and I like to think that it is we who are making a difference in the lives of others.  I do not wish to downplay His desire that you and I respond as He asks, but we often inflate our standing in His kingdom in our own eyes, both to our own spiritual danger and to the detriment of others.  Were it not for the Holy Spirit giving us eyes to see, would we see that beggar soon enough to cross a street to avoid him or her and their need?  Were it not for the Holy Spirit giving us ears to hear, would we be able to hear the need that is so often behind the expressed want or need?  How otherwise do we even think to ask the probing question or questions?  Were it not for the Holy Spirit giving us hearts to understand the needs of those with whom we are in particular relationships, would we know to let them go to voicemail or to let the call for help go unanswered?  And were it not for God blessing us, would we have anything, anything at all that might allow us to show compassion in His name?
     Our focus these last couple weeks have been on baptism.  Beginning next week we will begin the shift to the Eucharist.  It’s how the lectionary divided the readings and not Brian’s grand plan.  I do recognize, however, that there has been a real tension in the lives to which we are called and the lives in which we live.  A couple weeks ago, I reminded us all that God, by virtue of our baptisms, has sworn a covenant with us not dissimilar to the one He swore with David.  As a result, we should be mindful of the fact that God is with us, no matter what we face or experience in life and no matter the testimony of the world.  I have also reminded us all these last few weeks that, although God desires each and every one of us to choose to serve Him, He is not “lucky that we chose Him” or His side.  That kind of pride can lead to all kinds of spiritual dangers and even damnation.  The difficulty is reminding ourselves to Whom we are bound.
     If we mistakenly believe that this, all this and the associated ministries here at Advent, are the doings of you and me, we will ultimately fail.  This parish will wither and die.  I’m not bad as far as professional clergy go.  I’m fairly smart, pretty well-educated.  I think I’m attractive.  Wait, why are y’all laughing like I just told a joke?  I can read balance sheets and budgets.  I can speak effectively to the working poor in our community and the Vandy-educated.  But nobody has ever accused me of walking on water, of feeding 5000 men besides women and children, of casting out demons, of healing the sick, of freeing a slave, or anything else of my own power.  Those miracles have clearly been of God.  In fact the stories y’all enjoy the most are the ones in which we, both you and I, marvel at God’s redemptive power, God’s omnipotence, and God’s compassion.  Similarly, nobody in the wildnernesses in which y’all serve should have any suggestion that you are little messiahs.  That role has been filled by the only One who could fill it.  What makes us significant, what makes our work truly valuable, is the One for Whom you and I are called to work.  And it is only through His instruction, His callings, His provision, and even His judgment that you and I are valued.  To put it in biblical language, His image is stamped on us, not the other way around.
     Brothers and sisters, for some months I have allowed to lie dormant the idea of a corporate ministry.  It is not because I have given up or because I do not think we are called to one.  Rather the converse.  I have come to realize, though, that few of us are truly attuned to God, few of us strive to hear the voice of our Shepherd.  Some of us show up for worship most Sundays.  Far fewer really study God’s Word.  Fewer still are engaged in various ministries.  And we have the gall to question, to wonder, why it is so hard for us to hear His voice and to wonder why He is not blessing us in the way that we think we deserve.  Our readings these last few weeks have been challenging, I get that.  We have spoken of the comfort and the fear that should come from knowing He is with us.  But these readings are also full of great and wonderful news.  God wants to use you!  God wants you to commit to Him!  But, to do that, we must commit on His terms, not our own.  And it’s there, perhaps, that we find the most splinters from the cross He asks each of us to bear.  The path that He has staked out to glory for all His children, all His adopted sons and daughters, is one that leads through failure, through pain, through privation, and eventually even through death.  But even our death is not the last word if we are His beloved children, if we have committed to Him, if we have determined to trust Him with everything we have!  Such is the covenant that He is made with each one of us at our baptisms that He would be besmirched, He would be dishonored, were He unable to keep His promises to us and for us.  And so, all those evils through which He allows us to pass is none other than the path that leads to glory.  Not a fleeting glory like the world’s 15 minutes of fame.  But an eternal peace, an eternal joy, of THE job well done, of a sheep that is beside still waters.

In Christ’s Peace,