Sermon of the Week:
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Keywords: The Good Shepherd, Psalm 23, Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted, Charlie Brown. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I was sitting around a firepit recently
talking with someone
Who was musing about
how they felt oddly between generations,
You know, a bit too old to be a Millennial, and yet too young to be Gen X.
Those generational distinctions we make aren’t really all that big a deal.
People are people, and we have so much more in common than we don’t
No matter our age.
But it is also true that we can make some generalizations, sweeping generalizations, sure,
About how a group of people who all experienced a lot of similar things
Engage the world in a similar way:
The Builders, or the Silent Generation, lived through the great depression
and the second great war, for example
and many from that era
understood their lives, lived their lives
through the sacrifice needed to survive that they experienced
living during those significant, global events.
Their children, the Boomers, came of age during the significant enthusiasm that followed
When the US emerged from that world war
as the world’s only remaining economic super power
While at the same time tied up in a cold war with the Soviet Union.
Then came my generation, Gen X:
We were born and raised during the civil rights era,
the post-Vietnam and Watergate years.
There used to be a tiny group called Gen Y,
that’s the window my friend was born in,
Though now she’s technically considered a Millennial,
The first group to experience the full power of computers and information technology,
Though the next group, Gen Z, which means almost everyone else who remains,
Don’t remember a time when cell phones weren’t everywhere,
Not to mention Facebook and Google and Spotify and Netflix.
Just describing these generations succinctly, like this,
Is almost breathtaking.
There’s so much change that’s happened in the last hundred years,
when you stop to think about it.
My friend, around the firepit,
Felt a bit adrift,
A touch too old to join her fellow millennials,
Insofar as she remembered actually using fax machines,
Not just fax machines, but that thermal paper that they used to use,
And a touch too young to join Gen X,
Because she didn’t remember a time before AOL.
Again, I’m not sure that the distinctions between the generations means too much.
While some point out various tendencies and dispositions
among the Builders or the Boomers or Gen X or what have you,
there are always exceptions in every group,
so you have to take it all with a grain of salt.
But I had reason this week to think about how I also felt
a bit sandwiched between generations, so to speak, from time to time.
I gave this sermon the title ‘Good Grief’ almost a month ago,
before I had written a word,
when I read through the post Easter stories in John and in Luke
and started seeing a few common threads in these Eastertide narratives.
I could have called these Easter sermons ‘Good’ Sermons,
Because each of them have Good in their title.
Last week’s sermon was: Good Food,
when we talked about the story in Luke
where Jesus shared a meal with the disciples
after he was once quite dead and then just showed up, alive and ready to get about living,
ready to start serving and loving and teaching again.
Next week, incidentally, the sermon is called ‘Good Company,’
And we’ll talk about how Jesus, the true vine, the one in whom we abide,
Knits us together into something bigger than any of us, individually.
It just so happens to be a communion Sunday,
And it is around the table, Jesus’ table, that we are all welcome,
that we’re all in good company.
But this week, the sermon title is Good Grief
And that led me to Charlie Brown.
I grew up in the generation that still read the comic section of the newspaper.
Oh I loved the comic section.
I remember running to grab the Sunday Des Moines Register when it arrived.
The Sunday paper was massive, all wrapped up in a plastic sleeve thicker than a football
And I pulled out the paper, tossing everything aside
Front page, sports section, all the weekly ads, to get to the comic section.
It was full color, and it was spectacular!
During the week, it would be at the back of the life section
or whatever it was called back then,
and every day I’d go look for Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Dilbert maybe.
And, of course, Peanuts,
Which by the time of my childhood was a far bigger deal than any of those others,
The stuff of Christmas specials on TV and little snoopy lunchboxes with their own thermos.
I think I got the tail end of the Charlie Brown phenomenon, and maybe comics in general.
Later they would move to the web, and I don’t think they’re much of a thing these days at all.
Charlie was responsible for establishing so many pop culture references
for Boomers and us Gen Xers: security blankets, Joe Cool,
Hang on Snoopy, The Great Pumpkin.
And then there was the one thing that I particularly remember,
Charlie’s exasperated sigh: Good Grief!
He’d say it all the time:
When the red-headed girl caused him to get all stressed out and flummoxed
When Lucy yanked the football away from him after PROMISING
that this time would be different.
It became a summary, of sorts, for how Charlie worked his way through life.
Everything was a bit of a struggle.
This resonated for me, and I think a lot of kids, from any era:
Childhood is so full of vulnerabilities and challenges,
but it also provides an opportunity to learn the joy of friendship and relationship and purpose.
Sometimes, when I get annoyed by things, I’ll let out a ‘Good Grief!’ of my own.
And then I might think
about how Charlie Brown taught me to get in touch with those feelings of mine,
feelings of fatigue and exasperation and annoyance.
Getting in touch with our feelings is a good thing,
An essential thing. A healthy thing.
It’s not an easy thing for anyone to do, though,
Much less a kid trying to navigate life.
We’ve talked a bit here about another childhood guide from around the same time
Mr. Rogers, who did something quite similar for the kids of my generation.
Both George Schultz, the cartoonist who drew Charlie Brown and the entire peanuts gang,
And Fred Rogers, in his own way, gave permission for us to understand our feelings
And seek ways to deal with them.
It was comforting.
I always appreciated how these examples tried to help us be open and candid
about our experiences, our emotions and our feelings.
I mean, Lucy was my first introduction as a child to what a therapist was,
With her cardboard psychiatric help stand…
She was someone who offered psychiatric help, a helper, for our stresses and our worries,
even if it was Lucy,
and her advice wasn’t all that useful.
One of the most influential theologians of the nineteenth century,
adopted a line from a humorist named Finley Peter Donne,
When Niebuhr said that the work of the church,
the work of a preacher, the work of faith,
Is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”
Does that resonate with you?
If you listen carefully to some of the way churches like ours,
So-called mainline churches, Presbyterian churches,
Engage these scriptures, these stories,
How we seek, in other words, to be faithful followers of Jesus,
You’ll see that there’s lot in the life of faith
that warns us about getting too comfortable
At least while there remains so much work to do, right,
So many who are hungry,
Who don’t have clean water, who are denied justice,
Who are the victims of racism or homophobia or patriarchy.
And that’s because our faith is rooted in the bible,
It’s a faith that is informed by its witness to who God is, and who Jesus is.
As we, as a nation, continue to come to terms with systemic racism,
with gun violence,
with climate change,
with global covid vaccine inequities
with white nationalism and egocentric evangelical fundamentalism and more,
the church that doesn’t urge us to stand where Jesus stands,
namely, against injustice and with the wronged,[i]
isn’t doing its job.
And a lot of the time, that is what we tend to explore,
Among other topics,
Week after week,
How is Jesus guiding us to get involved, to be engaged,
To be his hands and his feet in the world,
To love our neighbor and to teach that love to others.
It is true that, later in our service, during our time of thanksgiving,
We’ll remind each other of that calling,
A responsibility borne out of deep thanksgiving
Gratitude because God has given us so much,
And a desire to use those gifts for a good purpose.
There is a calling for us, all of us, to be disciples,
To be people who follow Jesus,
Who try, the best we can, to do what Jesus did,
This Jesus who fed and loved and healed and taught,
Who turned tables and protected the vulnerable.
So it makes sense that part of our job is to ‘afflict the comfortable,’
As annoying as that might be to those of us who are often quite comfortable
And who work hard to be so, to make it possible for life to be less hard, less challenging.
And it isn’t that we want it to be harder or anything,
It’s just that the comfort we often feel isn’t shared by others.
Too many people are suffering, this very morning.
And this is important,
Particularly when so many misunderstand this point,
Who would rather offer a version of the Christian faith
That is stripped of any obligation to love our neighbor, every neighbor,
Or to welcome the stranger or the foreigner, the orphan and the widow,
The biblical categories, at the time, for the most vulnerable in their society.
When so many so-called Christian voices
Offer a version of the Christian faith built on grievance rather than sacrifice and service.
We must afflict that understanding of our very own tradition as well.
But it is also so very important
To recognize that this is not the only work of the church,
Because that’s not the only work of Jesus.
The work of the church is not just to afflict the comfortable
But to comfort the afflicted too.
Jesus also offers rest, and welcome, and belonging.
Jesus also offers relationship, and safety, and nurture.
Jesus, by his very own declaration, is a good shepherd,
Who cares for his sheep, his flock, his people,
Out of compassion and dedication and steadfast love.
I am the good shepherd, says Jesus.
Most of us who are watching today aren’t farmers.
We don’t have a flock of sheep.
The only real time we might have ever spent with one might be at a petting zoo.
I grew up in rural Iowa, twelve years,
and yet I had very few run ins with sheep, or shepherds.
This image that Jesus uses, therefore, doesn’t exactly resonate,
Particularly to those of us in urban and suburban areas
More used to concrete streets and tall buildings and population density
Than the quieter repose of a hillside meadow
Where a shepherd might be keeping watch over their flock…
Ever since we adopted our Australian Shepherd Ryder
I have taken to watching more videos of dogs such as these
Doing amazing things with a flock of sheep,
But even Ryder doesn’t resonate with sheep, to be honest,
He mainly just sleeps on our couch,
Dreaming, perhaps, of being out there keeping the sheep in line.
But the Shepherd is a uniquely potent and powerful image in the Bible.
There were shepherds there at the Birth of Jesus, according to Luke,
Keeping watch over their flocks by night,
And most of the time we think of those shepherds
as a sign of how common folk, working folk, everyday folk
reacted to the incarnation, to the birth of a savior…
But it also speaks to the dedication of the shepherds in their task, in a way,
Their commitment to care for their sheep.
They were there. All night. In the cold, when the angel greeted them,
and they saw the angelic chorus sing…
Many of the key figures of the Hebrew Bible were also shepherds.
So was Jacob.
Moses watched over Jethro’s flocks in Midian.
The prophet Amos was a shepherd in the rugged area around Tekoa.
And, of course, there is that Psalm,
The Twenty-Third Psalm,
which might be singularly responsible for connecting the challenging, difficult,
physical work of shepherding…with God:
The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want…
He makes me lie down in green pastures
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
What an incredible, tender image,
God, our Shepherd,
Tending to our need
Laying us down on the green grass
Leading us beside turbulent, whirlpool and rapid infested water…
No, wait, that’s not right…
Beside still waters, tranquil waters…
This God who takes my soul and restores it.
Those who are watching carefully note that there’s a brief moment,
There in the psalm, where the other side of the work of the church gets a mention—
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake—
so that’s important, too, we remember
all that stuff about standing with the hurting and the outcast and the hungry and for justice.
But this Shepherd
Walks with us,
Through the darkest valley
In front of our fiercest enemies
To prepare a table for us
To anoint our head with oil
To pour us a cup that overflows…
Where we will dwell in God’s house, forever and ever, our whole life long.
The one who not only challenges, though God does that,
But who also and importantly nurtures, supports, cares for us,
With love that is so abundant that it overflows…
That is our God too.
And so it is no wonder why this Psalm is so loved,
Why people memorize it and repeat it
When they need just a little bit of strength
To get through their day
When they’ve been dealt a blow
At work, or at the doctors office, or at school,
When we see another report of a mass shooting or police violence,
Any number of times that we say to ourselves Good Grief!
What have we gotten ourselves into today?
In those moments,
we remember we are not alone.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
And then there’s Jesus,
Who says, according to John, that he is the Good Shepherd,
The one who knows his flock, and the flock knows him,
knows his voice,
The one who doesn’t care for them out of self-interest, like a hired hand,
But out of genuine care, and compassion, and love.
This is the same Jesus that, elsewhere, tells a parable
About the lost sheep, and the shepherd that will go out of her way to find it.
The same Jesus who tells us,
In this very passage,
That there are other sheep not here, not part of our community, our fold, our flock,
That Jesus cares about,
A reminder of Jesus’ endless push to widen the circle and to welcome more people in,
And Jesus’ encouragement that we do the same.
Every Church worth the name
Afflicts the comfortable
And also comforts the afflicted:
Through acts of compassion and love and mercy for those in need…
Through sharing of our gifts and resources so that the hungry might have food
And the thirsty water to drink and the divided might find justice and reconciliation…
Through building up a community that seeks to live out love for one another
Maybe through casseroles during times of stress or anxiety,
Through prayer for one another
and support for each other
where someone can call you by name
and you’ll know that it’s because they care about you,
that you matter to them
because you matter to God.
So, two questions, to wrap up our reflections today:
What afflictions within you need to be comforted?
A life of following Jesus can help you with that,
Both in heeding Jesus’ call to share the benefits
and the privileges we have accumulated with others,
so that in their joy we might find our own joy too,
but also in the essential understanding that each of us matter to God
that YOU matter to God,
That God cares for us, and loves us, and wants the best for us,
A place at the table next to our siblings.
There is such incredible value in understanding that basic value and worth we each have.
And, more than that, the ongoing presence of our God
Who will walk with us, through thick and through thin,
Good days and hard days,
To help us do the easy things, and the hard things,
That help share God’s kingdom with the world.
And that leads to the second question:
What afflictions are others experiencing that we can help alleviate?
And not just in our fold, but out there, out in the world?
What can we do to be Christ’s hands and feet?
How can we help others in their grief?
To help them know that they too are not alone, that they matter?
What can we do to combat the things that cause them grief in the first place?
It is the tension, the back and forth, between these two questions
That guides our work as a church,
Drawing upon the amazing love of our God
We find nurture and strength and support and belonging
And we seek to share these with others
So that their lives might be stronger and healthier and happier too.
So may we look to Jesus the Good Shepherd,
The one who keeps watch over us
Who leads us both beside still waters and the right paths, the paths of righteousness,
As we seek a healthy balance: love of self, love of neighbor, and love of our God
As our common purpose together.
May it be so.
Image: The Good Shepherd, He Qi
[i] This phrase is part of one of the Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Confession of Belhar, written in the context of Apartheid South Africa. “We believe…that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”