Be the Cup Overflowing
William Sloan Coffin, in his book “ The Courage to Love” states:
The currents of history are churning into rapids, sweeping before them all the familiar buoys that long have marked the channels of our lives. And when we look at the ship of state, ours or almost anybody else’s, all we seem to see and hear is the canvas (of the sails) tearing and cables parting. In such disorderly and frightening times, it is not wonder people want their answers clear, clean, and easy. But it is not the task of preachers to give their people what they want, rather, to give then what they need.
I would add that it is up to the church to give what the people of the world need, not what they want. This is the mission of God, this is our mission. So the question remains What do we need? What does the world need? More war or more peace? More hunger or more grain, more inequality, or more justice, more hate or more love?
The scripture lessons for today point to what God intends for the world and Jeremiah warns against leaders who do not bring to the people in their care closer to this intention. Jeremiah uses the very familiar image of a pasture, one we have heard used in the Psalm 23, the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He makes lie down in green pastures. In God’s eye, all are invited to this pasture, it is a home, not made with stones and wood, but with eternal love, compassion, justice, peace, a land flowing with milk and honey, a place where there is no fear, no anxiety, no doubt, no depression. This pasture is a sacred place, all of us, are invited, all of us are welcomed, all of us are attended to.
Jeremiah starts in this section with three warnings, Woe to the
Leaders who destroy the sheep
Leaders who scatter the sheep
Leaders who do not attend to the sheep
Leaders who destroy the sheep: These are people who are in leadership positions who take advantage of their authority, to take advantage of those under their care. Sexual abuse is perhaps the most infamous case of how people can be destroyed by the actions of someone in whom they put their trust. However, cases throughout the ages have also revealed religious leaders who like the case of the salem witch trials put people to death. We as followers need to be careful about those leaders who call us to destroy others, and to hold them accountable when they destroy the lives of the sheep.
Leaders who scatter the sheep: When it comes to scattering the sheep, it is to take them from the comfort of the flock, of the pasture, and raise such a fuss that the sheep are then isolated from one another, and from the shepherds care. As a result the sheep are vulnerable to attack from wolves and other predators, they have no one to protect them.
On December 1, 2007 we will observe World AIDS Day, and it reminds me of the experience of working with men and women through the years who are living and dying from this horrible pandemic. I remember particularly well the story of one young woman, who was a single Mom who was a recovering addict, she had contracted AIDS through a infected needle. Once it was revealed that she had the virus, her husband left her to raise their two young children alone. Her church kicked her out they simply could not cope with her disease, or the fact she had been a closet drug abuser, she was a sinner who was no longer welcome. Her family also disowned her, and she hit rock bottom, left with no means to support herself, no resources to pull her out of the free fall her life had become. Fortunately, her doctor became her lifeline, and she started on the medications, got into rehab and then found the Strength for the Journey retreat financed and supported by the HIV/AIDS task force of the United Methodist Church here in Southern California. She found friends at this one week retreat, that gave her the support and the energy to live a sober life, and be a shepherd to her children.
Lastly, Woe to those shepherds who do not attend to the sheep. If you have any kind of pet, you know how dependent they are on you, to feed them, to keep them healthy. Sometimes it is a pain, like when my dog ate something, that well, shall we say did not agree with him, and I need to get out the carpet spot cleaner. Shepherds who do not attend to their sheep, are not aware of when to move them to greener pastures, when to bring them up the mountain for grazing, and back down for the winter are poor shepherds indeed. To attend to another is to know exactly what they need, not what they want.
God ends these warnings with a promise, again three fold, God promises to
Attend to the shepherds
To attend to the people
To raise up new shepherds
God promises to attend to those poor shepherds who have lost their way, and have led others badly. This is not what we want, instead we wished God would punish those shepherds, to make them suffer because of the suffering they caused. But God does not give us what we want, rather God gives those abusive shepherds what they need. This profound action is based on the law of mercy, no one is excluded from God’s pasture not matter how sinful, no matter how unlovable they appear to be.
Second, God promises to attend to the people. Even though we may wonder if anyone cares, even when the world turns their backs on us, hate us, God promises to give us what we need. My greatest fear is that I will do something to someone which will be so wicked bad, as we Massachusetts natives would say, that God would turn away. But even then, God promises to attend to me, to those who have been scattered, destroyed, ignored.
Thirdly, God promises to raise up new shepherds who are good, who are worthy of trust, and even will change the world. This summer after a 7 year absence from attending a strength for the journey retreat I was able to spend three of the 5 days with this years campers and staff. I was overwhelmed with joy as I observed how some of campers who had started when I was co-dean, are now experienced staff members who have found a new meaning and purpose for their lives in serving others.
As we move into Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke, we see many of the promises of God echoed in the words in the Gospel. Now however, we are told of a shepherd that will change the world, who will fulfill the promises of God. Zechariah also prophecies there will be one who will prepare the way of the Lord. As we consider the next few weeks the theme of Anticipation of the Messiah, I invite you to accept that you too are being called by God in three ways. We are called to prepare the way, to give knowledge of salvation, and to focus on God’s mercy
John the Baptist knew that he was not the Messiah, but he also heard the call of God to prepare the way for Jesus. John’s main task was to preach repentance, for people who had lost their way to commit their lives to the work of God. John called the people to turn away from their evil ways, and to turn towards the goodness, the holiness of God. Instead of signing a letter of commitment, a legal contract, pinky swear, they were only to enter into the water, be baptized by John, cleansed by God and start all over again with a new focus, and new strength.
Preparing the way included then the act of Baptism, and then people would experience the gift of salvation, of a place reserved just for them in the heavenly kingdom. John called people to repent so they could open their hearts to the gift of salvation, which was poured from God’s heart to their own, in such abundance that all their sins were washed away, and they were right with God. This of course was not only a one time event, but was in fact the reality of life, to strive to make your life a holy service to one another, yet also recognizing we would from time to time need to offer confession when we had strayed off the path.
Preparing the way, give knowledge of salvation and always focus on mercy this is the way we anticipate the messiah.
I want to push this second task a bit further in our understanding of how God and Salvation works
First, we need to be abundantly clear that our salvation is in God’s hands. it is not our actions, but Gods that offer the way of salvation.Yes, we can act in ways that will bring us woe, bring others woe, but God never gives up on us. We are never discarded, we are always a prayer away from God. The Messiah of the Old Testament gives way to the life and teachings of Jesus. So many of the laws and regulations had done more to exclude than include people in the Kingdom. Because Jesus is our King, our shepherd, we are all invited, we are all welcomed, we are all attended to, and given what we need. Humans often cannot believe in this all inclusive mercy. Many would rather set up rules and regulations thinking they have to guard their salvation, to justify their standing to God. I remember one summer camp, my first in fact, when I spent a week in the Appalachian mountains at the Boy Scout reservation in Woronco, Massachusetts. I was less than a tenderfoot, brand new to the troop. I slept under a tent on a platform, the only tent that had room. All the other Scouts knew each other, and had already reserved tents with their friends in them. One particular tent group even went to the extreme of posting guards outside their tent to keep out the riffraff like me! I never forgot that feeling of being excluded, and I owe that early experience to leading me to church where all were welcome, and no guards were at the entrance to keep out the riffraff, in fact the ushers were always friendly and welcoming. God includes even the worse sinner, the worse law breaker, the person who you hate!
Repent: even though we are given our salvation as a free gift, we still have a choice to make, we either chose to accept this gift, or to deny it, curse it. Sometimes it is hard to let go of these addictions, to let go and let God. Again, Jesus calls us to lose our lives, to lose all the wants, let go of all the destructive patterns, and welcome the mercy of God into our hearts. This is a life long process, often we will take two steps forward and three back, but if we continue to turn over our lives to God, we will experience our needs being fulfilled and will be able to lead others to Christ so their needs will be fulfilled.
Third, we need to trust in God’s forgiveness. We often try to put down ourselves or others. So often we do not understand how complete the mercy of God is. We want to dictate to others the requirements that are necessary rather than trust in God. We want to determine which sheep are worthy, when God welcomes all.
In the early days of Christianity, you were welcome if you first have been circumcised, later if you payed for pew, later if you were anglo saxon. Many religious sects sprung up due to the various requirements required for followers to believe, you must be baptized by immersion, you must take communion using real wine, you have to be a man to be a pastor. How must God look at all this division, how must God wonder why the pasture that is open to all be partitioned off by shepherds, this is mine, acting on what they want, not what the people need. Because we remain divided, the great needs of the world are not met, people starve, people die, people war with one another, because we give into the temptation of want.
We as a church, and as individual Christians need to provide leadership that do three things
First, Invite the scattered. We need to find those who have been isolated, those who have no community, no family, who have been labeled as unworthy of care and attentiveness. Jesus does so much to show how the sinners excluded by the religious institutions in his time, were loved by God. John Wesley took on the religious leaders of his time to bring the gospel to those who had been left out by the church, the prisoners, the miners, the sinners. How is God challenging us to attend to those sheep who have been left out? And do we justify our actions because we fear our own salvation being taken away if we associate with certain others? If this is true would Jesus sat down with tax collectors, with adulteress, with Samaritans?
Instead of excluding we need to
Attend to the sheep. In the book Cracking Your Congregation’s code, the authors say this: The principle of service is what separates true leaders from glory seekers. Jesus the leader, served his people. Most religions teach that we are put here to serve God; yet in Jesus, God is offering to serve us. True service inspires service. The true attitude of serving-is a softening agent that works on the hardest of hearts and situations. True leadership therefore is sharing of oneself.”(p. 135) This is the light we can offer to the world/
This is what it means then to attend to the sheep, giving of ourselves and giving up of judgement, want, and self serving attitudes.
The mercy of God is overflowing abundantly to all of life, once we are connected to that mercy through repentance and desire to serve, our cup will overflow with justice, compassion, peace and love.
So BE The light! Amen.