John 10:22-30; Psalm 23
Good morning! I would like to wish all of the moms in the congregation—including my own mom—a happy Mother’s Day. I also want to remind all of you that this isn’t a happy day for everyone. We must all be mindful that there are women who don’t have children, either because they have had difficulty conceiving or because they didn’t find the right relationship at the right time in their lives to bring a child into this world.
So, to all the women of this congregation who wanted to have children, but have not had them, for whatever reason, let me say, you are loved. We love you. You are every bit as valuable to this congregation and this world. Period.
One more thought on Mother’s Day: please remember that not every mother has a good relationship with her children. This day can be hard for those mothers. Some mothers have outlived their children. This day can be hard for them, too. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to keep silent for fear of hurting others. What it means is we have a duty to know our neighbors, to know all the members of this congregation, so that we know who’s hurting. Yes, you can say, “Happy Mother’s Day!” to my mom, and you can say it with unbridled joy. I’m pretty sure this is a good day for her. But please remember that it’s not a great day for everyone, so know your neighbors and think before you speak.
Here endeth the lecture. Now for a happier story.
An atheist, a Jew, and a Presbyterian minister walk into a cigar shop. I know, to you, this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. For me, it sounds like Friday—almost every Friday for the last several months. I’m building some really good friendships with a number of guys from the cigar shop and it gives me a lot of joy, and also a sense of community.
Cigar shops are interesting places. In many cigar shops, there is a strong sense of community. It’s probably because it takes a long time to smoke a cigar, so you have a lot of time to talk with the other people who are there. You can make friends and build relationships, if you choose. And you will meet people from all walks of life. For instance, on Thursday night I was at a cigar shop in Philadelphia. I spent most of the night talking to a rabbi. Again, this is not the beginning of a bad joke. I’ve known this guy for two or three years, and we always have deep theological conversation and it’s always a great time. Simply put, I’ve made some of the best and most meaningful friendships in my life in cigar shops.
By now, you’re wondering where I’m going with all this. I know it’s a really long introduction. So, here it is: the only place where I’ve made more friendships, more deep and meaningful relationships is church. Like the cigar shops, this is a place where we have the opportunity to really know one another and participate in each other’s lives. We do this intentionally. We carve out spaces for this, like the women’s retreat. We do this through the work that we share, whether it’s through committee service, teaching Sunday school, or singing in the choir. We acknowledge the shared value of all we do together.
That’s the obvious difference between churches and cigar shops—there’s a much greater and deeper sense of purpose in church. Another difference is that the sense of community in a cigar shop often ebbs and flows. The regular customers who hang out at a cigar shop can be a loose-knit collection of people (mostly guys, but not always; I’ve known women who hang out at cigar shops). And then something happens, a new member joins the group, of somebody invites the gang over for a barbecue, and all of a sudden, the group becomes really tight, and it lasts for a couple years, but the community rarely has the staying power of a church. The only place where I’ve made more deep and meaningful relationships is in the church. That’s part of what makes us different; it’s one of the most important things we can offer to the rest of the world, community and relationship, membership in an everlasting community.
This is a stewardship sermon. This is a sermon about our responsibility to care for this particular community of faith. And the Twenty-third Psalm is a great text for stewardship, even if it’s not an obvious connection. Most of you are probably used to hearing this psalm at funerals. I know that I use it in funerals and I usually use the King James Version, because that’s the version that people are most familiar with, and it’s easier to get people to recite it with me in the King James Version. There is something very comforting about the words, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
This is a comforting psalm because it reminds us that God will care for us, always. It reminds us that God is concerned with our lives and God is present when we walk through the darkest valleys. But the Twenty-third psalm presents some challenges for us in the twenty-first century.
First, I don’t think we really appreciate how difficult the life of a shepherd was in ancient Israel or even in Jesus’ time. Honestly, how many of you have worked on a sheep ranch? Show me your hands. And even if you did, it’s a lot different here and now than it was in the ancient world.
We get a lot of rain here in the United States. We have lots of good pasture for grazing. We also don’t have a lot of wild predators. But even if you have been on an open range in Montana, you were probably riding a horse. You could see all your sheep, and if you saw wolves or coyotes, you probably had a rifle and pistol; you could defend the flock pretty easily.
Israel/Palestine is a very different place. They don’t get a lot of rain there. The terrain is very hilly; the soil is rocky. There is grass, but it’s in small patches. In ancient times, shepherds would walk their flocks over great distances. They carried long staffs to fight off predators—wolves and lions. They might have been out grazing for a couple days, sleeping on the ground. It was a different world!
We hear the comfort of this psalm; we don’t hear how difficult it is to be a shepherd. We hear the message that God will provide. We trust in that message, and that’s great. But for too long, we’ve let that message characterize the way we do stewardship. That’s not just this congregation, that’s in all of our churches. We just say, “God will provide,” and we trust that people will put enough in the collection plate to make everything work.
And when this congregation had 500 members, that approach worked. Even when we took out a million-dollar mortgage, that approach worked. We don’t have
500 members anymore, but we still have that mortgage. We have to change. We can’t sit back and say, “God will provide.”
I firmly believe that God doesn’t do for us the things that we can do for ourselves. Yes, God will send manna from time to time, but God also equips us with a great deal of skills and talents, and then he sends his Holy Spirit to nudge us in the right directions—to lead us in paths of righteousness for the sake of his name, right here and right now.
That’s the other challenge of the Twenty-third Psalm. Because we’re used to hearing this text at funerals, and also, we’re used to hearing an older translation. We’re used to hearing the words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” We’ve heard this so many times, and in the way that we’re always used to hearing it, that we don’t really think about it. We hear the word forever, and we think that this is about the afterlife. That’s why I asked you all to read with me. I wanted you to hear and speak the words, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” It’s not just after we die; it’s also right here and right now.
Jesus also uses the images of the shepherd and the sheep in our reading from the Gospel of John. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus said to Peter, “tend my flock, feed my sheep.” This is a reminder to the disciples—and also to us—that we have a responsibility to carry on the work of caring for the flock. We are called to be good shepherds of the resources that God has entrusted to us.
Let me be clear: stewardship is not just the money you give to this congregation. Stewardship is everything that we do, every bit of our talents, time, and treasure that we share with this community of believers. Stewardship is serving on the Session or the Deacons or on a committee. Stewardship is teaching Sunday school or singing in the choir. Stewardship is spending time with the young people of this congregation. Stewardship is knitting prayer shawls for people who need a visible sign of God’s love. All of those things are vital to the life of this congregation and we need people to commit to each and every one of them.
That said, our most urgent area of need is our finances. We have to be different and change how we do finance. We have to be better shepherds of our resources. This is our sheepfold and we need to know what resources we have to protect that fold.
In the coming weeks, we will ask for you to make a commitment to our annual stewardship campaign. I know that some of you are on fixed incomes, while others have a kid or two in college, or maybe two kids who are about to go off to college. I know that some of you are doing all the stewardship you can. So, if you can dig deeper, that’s wonderful. We need the help. But even if you can’t give more, there’s a way to be different.
One way to be different is to make a formal stewardship pledge to this congregation—a pledge of your talents, time, and treasure. Yes, some of us make annual stewardship pledges, but many more of us do not. If you can simply let us know what you can give next year, that’s a huge help. It lets us forecast our income and figure out how much of a shortfall we’ll need to overcome.
Another way to be different—and contribute to the stewardship of this congregation—is to bring more sheep into the fold. There was a time when we didn’t have to do anything special to get people to join us for worship. Times have changed. Some people have left the church, while others have never been inside. Stewardship is reaching out to the people outside of our walls and inviting them in. Inviting them into relationships with us and with the risen Christ.
We do this because we are called to share God’s love with everyone. It’s not because we hope that new members will bring in more offerings. But if we are effective at sharing the love, I’m sure we’ll see more people on a Sunday and more money in the plate.
Our finances didn’t get to this place over night. Nor did our membership. So, we can’t expect this situation to change overnight. It’s going to take time. Dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is not just a promise of eternal life. Forever includes the here-and-now. Forever includes the living. And forever includes the generations to come. We have a responsibility to provide for that “forever.”
God doesn’t do for us what we can do for ourselves. We have most of what we need already, and we have the tools and the talents to go out and bring other people into our sheepfold. This building and this congregation may not last for all of eternity. But if we are willing to change and grow. If we are willing to dig deeper and give a little more of our talent, time, and treasure to this congregation, and at the same time, if we are willing to put ourselves out there and engage more members of the community, and then bring them into the life of this congregation, then we may rebuild this house and thrive in this house for all the days of our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are an Easter people. We are called to be Christ’s church in the world, the world today. We are called to live in the light of Easter morning! We are called to love one another; to act with justice and mercy; to walk humbly with God. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!