Sermon: A Follower’s Guide

5.10.2014    Preaching Text: “The Lord is my shepherd…” (Psalm 23)

This past week was a busy one. And as such, I didn’t allow sufficient time to plan today’s sermon. I had read the scripture passages earlier in the week but my mind was swimming with incomplete, undeveloped thoughts. It was as if I was going through the Rolodex in my head to come up with something to talk about.

But then “the light dawned over Marblehead!” Why not appeal to God for the answer? Why cast about in a sea of old ideas and preset images? Why not go directly to the source? In the here-and-now?

For how often do we, when faced with real-world questions or challenges, forget to ask God? From all we know about our biblical faith, that would seem to be the obvious first step! Then again we’re human, and it’s altogether typical for us to try to solve things on our own.

It has been said that the various Protestant traditions each tend to focus mostly on just one of the three persons of the Trinity. We in the mainline churches focus on God. The evangelical churches on Jesus. And the Pentecostal or charismatic churches on the Holy Spirit.

The end result is that we tend to be more intellectual than emotive in our worship style and in our general approach to Christianity. While the evangelicals tend to approach Jesus as an intimate friend within an ongoing personal relationship, we, in contrast, are a bit more reserved, if not stand-offish.

In contrast, the Pentecostalists are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, often exhibiting, among other things, loud and enthusiastic worship. The church in the Dominican Republic, for example, where I did some mission work years ago, is very charismatic and its worship services are replete with loud drums, dancing, and, in general, boundless energy and exuberance.

While I prefer a more reflective approach to faith, I must concede the often more personal, existential connection to the divine within the evangelical and Pentecostal churches. And without that personal connection, faith invariably grows stale.

As I’m frequently reminding the Bible Study group, the Jewish and Christian understanding is that the mind, or intellect, is seated in the heart, not the head (which, alas, comes more from the Greeks!).

Yet how often we assume faith to be an intellectual exercise, and Christianity as mostly a philosophy or intellectual worldview. Or perhaps, in similar fashion, it is more a set of abstract moral principles or precepts.

Were we to reclaim the heart as the seat of all religious, intellectual, and moral pursuits, we would come to see faith in a wholly different light.

At its core (as I’ve said umpteen times), Judeo-Christian religion is based entirely on our relationship with God and one another. As such, the heart, by default, serves as its sole natural habitat.

Today, as you know, is Mothers’ Day. Such a celebration reminds us naturally of matters of the heart, of love. Much of what we know about life, about love, about right and wrong even, comes from our mothers. Their care, support, and protection form an essential aspect of who were are and how we understand life.

Of course, it is possible to list on a sheet of paper much of what they taught us in terms of specific ideas, rules, and bits of wisdom. But such a list somehow would prove insufficient in getting at the root of things.

It is instead our heartfelt relationship with our mothers (and theirs with us) that defines reality. Love and love alone, the matters of the heart, define the truths of life.

Years ago I served a church that, unbeknownst to me, had a long history of dysfunctionalism. As I soon discovered, they had been fighting with their pastor and each other for as long as anyone could remember. My predecessor, in fact, had an emotional breakdown in the pulpit one Sunday and had to be physically helped down! Largely this was due to the turmoil and harsh treatment he had experienced in the church.

The curious thing is that the whole town was always fighting. Members of the fire department were repeatedly at odds with other. The Public Hall was typically on the brink of some major disruption. And the Grange, the only other institution in town, routinely broke out into open warfare!

Early on, I told the sympathetic area minister that I would give it two years and no more. And that’s pretty much what I did. I remember just before I left, a couple of members of the governing board told me that, among other things, they were disappointed that I have no sense of humor. Which was curious, given that, though I’m certainly no Jonathan Winters or Tim Conway, I’ve always been known for having at least a bit of a sense of humor!

The point is that our thoughts and perceptions are often quite wrong about God and others unless they are acquired in and through a personal relationship. These people in my former church never bothered to get to know me and thus formed an entirely false image of who I am.

Somebody once said that whenever he encounters anyone who professes little or no belief in God, he asks them, “What does this God look like?” After they describe the God they don’t believe in, he will say, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either!”

In today’s readings we are told that God, Jesus, is our shepherd. Ergo, we are sheep. Our job, ipso facto, is to follow.

Soren Kierkegaard, the once obscure but rediscovered Danish philosopher, contrasted being a disciple of Christ (the word disciple meaning “student”) to being a student in a math or science class.

The job of the teacher is to help the student learn enough that he or she becomes independent. The teacher’s role, in other words, becomes less and less important.

A disciple of Christ, in contradistinction, as he or she learns more about being a Christian, becomes more and more dependent! As we grow in the faith, we become more in need of the teacher.

We have been taught well to assume independence as the ideal of human life. But for the Christian, we learn to become less independent as we turn more and more of our life over to our triune God.

The Christian life, in sum, starts with a renewed relationship with our Creator, and is played out in a continuous process of learning how to let go and let God, of trusting God with our lives, of depending less and less on our own insights and perspectives, and trusting and following the person of Jesus, whose direction as unpredictable and beyond our ability to reason as it is sure.

In short, the more we become like sheep, or followers, the more we are blessed. Amen.