May 15, 2022

Series: May 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon




         Today’s Scripture is a beautiful passage in which God promises safety to a people who have suffered exile and insecurity and I’ll read it in a few moments.  Safety, security, being protected—these are fundamental human needs. Whether it’s on the national level as we see in the Scriptures or in a contemporary such as Ukraine, or a local level, as people worry about their children’s safety in school with so much gun violence—there was a mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery story just yesterday, or even within the home, we can all relate to this need to feel safe.  The week before last I was at an annual continuing education event with a small group I am in with preachers from around the country.  One of them is a Lutheran pastor and Navy chaplain, and he was talking about how the soldiers turn to God and by extension the chaplain for safety. An officer who trained him, and had survived numerous IED attacks in Iraq, said he would not let his company go out on patrol without first a blessing from the chaplain. 

       From the Navy to the Army, do you recall that gorgeous line in the musical Hamilton, when George Washington is reflecting upon peacefully transitioning from power sings, prays if you will, that people will live in a land that is safe?  “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”  And no one shall make them afraid.  Fear is a terrorizer, though the answer isn’t to just repeat, “Don’t be afraid.”  The quote is “no one shall makethem afraid.”  In other words, eliminate the cause for fear. I was talking with a headmaster from a school a while back and he emphasized of recognizing the whole child.  He made an obvious but poignant statement, “Happy children learn better.  Safe children learn better.”  So, they build an environment to foster that.  As we know, however, not everyone can afford such a school.

       In real life, Washington quoted that line about the fig tree frequently.  It’s from Micah, another prophet, 4:4.  Our prophet from today is Ezekiel, and therein too appears the refrain “no one shall make them afraid” (Ex. 34:28).  Through him God says to his people who have suffered under tyranny:

Ezekiel 34:25-31

       25 I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. 26I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. 28They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. 30They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. 31You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.

       For all the misguided talk of the “angry Old Testament God” the notion of the good shepherd is born there.  God is the one who draws the people in to a safe fold, provides for their wellbeing, and protects them from threats.  Last week we celebrated Mother’s Day a day early because it’s a work day for me and we went to a beautiful labyrinth made by rows of lavender on a farm in Santa Rosa called Bees N Blooms.  It’s the largest labyrinth in California and unbeknownst to us, it happened to be “world labyrinth day.”  What’s nice about a labyrinth, that winding circular path that people walk as a spiritual or meditative practice is that it has any number of meanings.  One of them is that you are being drawn nearer to the heart of God through your journey.  God does not just carry a big stick; God carries a shepherd crook and draws us close.

       Father James Martin, Jesuit priest and author, wrote recently when considering the gospel passage from the daily lectionary from John 10 when Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me,”  Martin wrote, “When I was working in Kenya, a flock of sheep started to graze on the grass outside our office.  They ignored the noise around them—people’s voices, birds, etc.  But when their young shepherd said, ‘Kuja!’ (Come), they all looked up at once.”[1]If God is the shepherd who calls to us, then part of our work is learning to distinguish God’s voice from all the other noise.  Richard Foster said, “Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day.”[2]   Distraction keeps us from hearing clearly the voice of the Spirit.  The sheep—and it’s time to take back that designation as positive—know the voice of the one who calls them home and keeps them safe.  A good spiritual exercise would be to meditate on modern equivalents of the ancient shepherd.

       Of course, material safety offered by God can be problematized.  For as often as people have born witness to God’s protection, we can find examples when such safety is not found, and it is a dangerous conclusion to say whenever one is not safe it is somehow their fault.  Just ask Jesus.  If there is safety in God, it must mean something else too, that faith takes us to a place where what is most so about us cannot be harmed.  This too can be dangerous, for we don’t want to send the message that our role is to simply put up with every wound or injustice.  Quite the contrary.  I was talking with a colleague that other week about the spiritual notion of radically accepting your circumstances.  Her insight was that it is in completely coming to terms with your circumstances that you are most able not just to live with them, but to address them.  While you’re working to correct or overcome them, your deep faith can help keep your essential self ultimately safe.  It’s a tall order, but we have heard of people surviving awful things, torture and the like, because there was a place they could go within in order to withstand. My Navy chaplain colleague reminded me of Admiral Jim Stockdale who survived four years of solitary confinement as a POW.  Stockdale is famous for a moment that produced a good bit of laughter, when in a Vice Presidential debate he began an answer “Who am I?  Why am I here?”  People took it as bumbling and out of place, but Stockdale was a scholar of stoic philosophy, and these were the classic questions with which one should always begin. The person of faith too finds some safety in God by answering, “Who am I?  Why am I here?”

       Ezekiel helps us with answer to both of those questions.  We are members of God’s beloved fold, and we are here to recognize the shepherd as a model of leadership for our own lives.  Have you ever had a boss or teacher or parent or anyone with authority over you who simply ruled with fear?  Accountability is one thing, but fear, threat?  It might work in the short term.  Some companies thrive on this because they know they can burn through employees and find the next eager person to take the place of those who have been burned up or driven out.  Godly leadership, you might say, especially for those who have been violated, threatened, or mistreated, is to help ensure that those in your care are provided for, protected, well-nourished so that they can thrive.  “I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land” (Ez. 34:29).  How can children be expected to learn in school if they are hungry or almost as bad, filled with junk food that cripples their health and drives them to poor behavior?  Yet, so often our culture lifts up those who heroically overcome their circumstances, as if that’s a repeatable model.  How are we making it safe for people in our care?

       The quote on the cover of the bulletin from Archimedes, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world,” comes from a book one of you shared with me, Leading from Within.  It’s various leaders sharing poetry that was grounding to them, for we experience that grounding on two levels, the inner and outer.  As the title suggests, sometimes the safe place is experienced in here (heart) and provides a ground on which to stand.  We would say this is, in part, the place God makes for us even as we strive to make that safe reality present in the outer world as well, just as Jesus asks us to pray it in the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” 

       Without a place to stand, how can we expect one another to move much less move the world. That world has to exist in the outer world as well, not just the confines of our hearts.  British psychologist and former professional basketball player John Amaechi once offered a poignant vignette about the importance of safety or its lack thereof.  He was talking about privilege as he came to terms with it for himself, even though he is a minority on a couple of fronts in his culture, being both black and openly gay.  He acknowledged being taken back by the things he takes for granted as a man.  A woman had posted on Twitter the simple question, “What would you do if men had a curfew after 9:00?”  The responses shook Amaechi not because they were so extravagant, but because they were so ordinary, “I’d walk with both my headphones in.”  “I’d run at night.”  “I’d leave my drink at the bar.”  “I’d watch the stars.”[3]How much life is being stifled because a safe place has not been established, threats and insults kept at bay, and legitimate cause for fear still reigns?

       Today we’re celebrating baccalaureate for our graduating seniors, and what a time it has been for them, and what a world into which they will launch.  They will be given plenty of advice, some quite eloquent, about how they can and shall do extraordinary things, rising above these circumstances, and some will.  I might offer a far less quotable word, to instead cultivate the ability to listen and discern the true voice.  Hear the voice of the shepherd, or whatever contemporary image you came up with, and then become one.




[2] Richard J. Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer