Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the most well-know and most beloved psalm in the Bible. It is written by an unknown ancient poet to remind us that in our hardest times we are not alone.
It has been a particularly difficult week in this community. After months and years of observing the epidemic of gun violence that has reached into schools, public gatherings and places of worship, as well as in the privacy of homes, where anger bubbles up and overflows, this week the violence has come close, with the shooting death of Meaghan Burns, a member of this parish.
Some of you knew Meaghan. Many of you know Carolyn. Regardless, the news of this senseless act of violence has impacted all of us. It is for times like these that Psalm 23 was written. Its text speaks to the deepest places in us.
I’ve seen the depth to which this psalm speaks to us in an experience I’ve had more than once, and I know Heather, Ann, and Jane have, as well. Sometimes when visiting a person who is gravely ill - even near death - who has been unresponsive, when I have begun praying Psalm 23, their lips move in silent accompaniment. They know those words, and the words matter, and they join me from somewhere far away, praying those words.
Psalm 23’s words and images are deeply reassuring in their promise of G’s presence & guidance in our time of need.
4th Sunday of Easter known as “Good Shepherd Sunday – a tradition that originally came from Roman Catholic tradition, that has been adopted by the Episcopal Church with our adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary.
It always includes Jesus’ discourse from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, in which he asserts that he is the good shepherd:
-whose sheep know his name and follow him
-who are given eternal life
On 4th Easter, the “Good Shepherd Gospel” always accompanied by Ps 23. We are accustomed to reading Ps 23 on its own, but in its placement in Book of Psalms, it is a partner and companion-piece to the preceding - Ps 22. Ps 22 is Psalm of lament, even of anguish – we read it in 2 Lent, after the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, and again on Good Friday.
Its themes are of great suffering and hopelessness.
Ps 22 opens with words that are particularly familiar to us because Jesus spoke them on the cross. He was reciting a psalm that was very real to him.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Ps 22 comes from times of deep despair in history of Hebrew people, when hope did seem to be gone but they cried out to God for relief and redemption.
Ps 23, then, is not just a random expression of appreciation of God’s guiding presence, but it is the answer to Ps 22 – an acknowledgement of having been saved from deepest pain and despair by the Lord who is my Shepherd.
The image of God as Shepherd runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures; when J spoke of himself as shepherd, he was building on an established metaphor in the tradition of his faith. Here are some examples:
Ps 95 : We are the people of G’s pasture and the sheep of his hand
Prophet Ezekiel writes: thus says the Lord God: As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
And from the Prophet Isaiah: He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
These passages must have resonated with the people of Israel, including Jesus’ contemporaries because they knew about the work of herding of sheep and goats as a major form of livelihood: sheep were source of food, a necessity for Temple sacrifice, and their wool was a staple for clothing and blankets
Because sheep were important in their world, both contemporaries of Psalmist and hearers of Jesus and John knew the importance of Shepherds.
It may not be flattering to our sensibilities to be likened to sheep, but whether we like it or not, there is truth in the analogy.
Sheep are vulnerable – vulnerable because they are not very bright. They need a leader: without one, will wander, including walking into danger.
Sheep are prone to get lost, to get caught in brambles. They need to be led to water; they can’t find it on their own. Further, sheep will only drink from still water, not from briskly running stream.
The rod and staff referred to in the psalm are essential tools: the staff (or shepherd’s crook, a replica of which carried by our Bishops,) has hook for grabbing the neck or leg to rescue a sheep caught in thicket or to capture fleeing sheep.
The rod is heavy straight pole to used to prod sheep when driving them from behind OR to ward off predators.
God our Shepherd cares for us, as Jesus says at end of today’s Gospel, that we may have eternal life.
God provides those green pastures and still waters that we need, and allows us rest in the midst of violence and discord that fill our world:
-God allows our souls to be restored when we are exhausted and worn out by the cares, the sorrows and difficulties of life.
-The Lord our Shepherd does not remove from our lives the things that terrify and trouble us: we still walk through the Valley of the shadow of death.
-We still live in the presence of those who would harm us
But God the Shepherd is by our side, allowing us to live and thrive DESPITE the presence of those things that threaten and sometimes destroy our peace.
God’s care for us is such that God’s goodness and mercy follow us –
In Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, he says it this way: God’s beauty and love chase after us
All the days of our lives.
Today you may hear Psalm 23 in a place of knowing God’s loving presence. I encourage you to pray your gratitude.
You may encounter the psalm today while walking in the shadow of death – from a burden you carry or sorrow you bear. Pray that sorrow – offering it to God, that God will help you in bearing it.
You may hear the Psalm, today, from a place of uncertainty or confusion. That uncertainty can be offered in prayer, as well, that the strong hand and guiding staff of the Shepherd will bring you rest.
For the love, the guidance and comfort of the Holy One, the Shepherd, thanks be to God, today and always.Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we remember and celebrate and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. We remember an empty tomb that gave hope to Jesus’ disciples, who were grieving his loss after having witnessed Jesus’ execution three days before. It is a story that gives hope to us today as well, as we grieve the profound troubles of our own world.
The New Testament actually gives us four different accounts of what happened on the third day. The resurrection story told in John’s gospel, which we have heard this morning, is the most complex and interesting of the Easter stories in the canonical gospels: it involves three disciples who each had a different experience.
John’s account of the third day begins with Mary coming to the tomb in the dark, only to discover the stone rolled away. Imagine Mary’s distress – already deeply bereaved by Jesus’ death, now discovering that the body of her teacher has disappeared. Startled, grief-stricken, probably frightened, Mary runs to secure the company and the assistance of two of the other disciples, Simon Peter and John. Unlike the gospel accounts in which the rest of the disciples don’t believe the women’s report of the empty tomb, John tells us that Peter and John respond quickly to Mary’s witness, and they hurry with her to the burial site.
What follows, in John’s text, is where the story gets interesting. When the men arrive John initially lingers outside while Simon Peter enters into the tomb itself. Peter observes the linen wrappings in which the body had been interred, but he doesn’t seem to react. Perhaps Simon Peter is troubled or bewildered, maybe just taking time to process what his eyes tell him. John then joins him, and observing the burial cloths, immediately believes. John tells us that up until this time the disciples had not understood the scriptures indicating that the Messiah must rise from the dead, but, by implication, they now are starting to get it.
John reports then, simply, that the disciples returned to their home. He doesn’t tell us what they made of their strange experience or what they intended to do with it. I suspect that they needed to talk with one another and probably with the others, to puzzle over the strange things they had observed.
But Mary was not ready to leave; we don’t know whether the other disciples even suggested that she do so. She stands weeping, and, taking up her courage, finally leans in to take her own look into the burial place. Mary sees a vision that the other disciples apparently had not – two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying.
And then finally, the most surprising claim of all. Mary turns and sees a figure that she takes to be a gardener, though John tells us that it is, in fact, Jesus, himself. The figure speaks, asking who she is looking for, but she does not recognize his voice any more than she has known him by sight. Despite not recognizing him, Mary opens her heart to the stranger: Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.
When Jesus speaks once more and calls her by name, Mary knows. She understands. She believes. Just as her world changed when Jesus was crucified three days before, Mary’s world is again, suddenly, different. John tells us that when she returned to the disciples, she told them: I have seen the Lord.
Why did the three disciples who visited the empty tomb that morning have such different experiences? Simon Peter saw linen cloths and returned home. John saw the same cloths and believed, but then also returned home. Mary saw angels, and then met Jesus.
Perceiving and understanding are separate processes, even though they often happen together. We see or hear something, and we identify what it is that we have seen or heard, and we figure out what it means. Two or more of us can witness the same evidence and see very different things.
And often, what we EXPECT to see determines how we interpret what we’ve seen; sometimes we’re not even capable of seeing what we don’t expect, what we are not open to seeing.
When Mary first saw and heard the risen Christ, she saw a gardener. There was something in her heart, however, that resonated with some familiar tone, some subtle nuance, when he spoke her name. There was something in her that allowed her to discover the unexpected – something that enabled her to know that Jesus had risen from the dead, that Christ was present with her. Something that changed everything.
Beginning with Mary at the tomb on Easter morning, the good news that Christ is alive transforms lives. The good news that Christ is alive makes things new. Just as some quiet readiness in Mary’s heart enabled her to perceive what the other disciples had not, it is within us whether we can perceive the risen Christ around us, whether we can open our hearts, whether our lives can be made new by that presence. We are surrounded by the marks of God’s power and promise – but it is in us whether we can see.
Two and a half years ago two parishes in Western Massachusetts were both faithfully following the gospel, but both were facing the challenges that confront all communities of faith in today’s shifting landscape of religious practice.
One parish had a wonderful long history and many active ministries serving the surrounding community, but they were confronted by the daunting reality of a large, aging campus in a period of declining church income.
Another nearby parish was quite a bit smaller but no less faithful, with deep bonds between members and strong and committed leaders, but equally challenged by declining numbers.
The easier and apparently safer perspective for these parishes to take would have been for both to keep soldiering on as their parents and grandparents had, before them. But somehow, as the lay and ordained leaders of the parishes began a conversation together and then extended the conversation to include all of the members, the seed of a new vision took root - a vision of joining together to become one new parish.
Many of you were there – it happened with astonishing speed. In mid April of 2017 – on an unforgettable Sunday morning right after Easter - St James Episcopal Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church became the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew.
In her sermon that morning Heather offered the analogy of a marriage in which the new partners would need to figure out how to merge the details of their lives – not only how to spend Christmas Day in their new life together, but where to put the coffeemaker and what brand of toilet paper to use.
Merger has involved discovery, joy, new energy and tremendous creativity. It has also required patience and generosity in the face of loss, as many have had to let go of dearly-cherished ways of doing things, as the new parish has walked into its new life.
Our story of new life is part of the larger story of new life discovered by Mary, John, Peter, and the other disciples. Just as something in them enabled them to meet the resurrected Christ in a gardener, and in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus and on the lakeshore, something in these two former parishes enabled them to perceive the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, inviting them into a bold risk of new life.
Trust in the God of whom Jesus spoke and who Jesus trusted compelled the disciples to continue Jesus’ ministries and to preach the Gospel to all lands. Trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ is our calling, as well.
Life after death. The drive of all beings toward wholeness, toward healing. Life renewing itself, through the power of God, the presence of the risen Christ.
Our opportunity – our privilege – is that we can make a difference in this world despite the death, destruction and divisions we see around us. We can open our eyes and ears and hearts to the moments of resurrection with which we are surrounded. We can move forward boldly because the love of God in Christ transforms things.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Rev. Dr.Molly Scherm
In this Epiphany season in our year with Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Today we have heard the blessings and the woes, and next week we will continue with Jesus’ teaching about right behavior toward one’s neighbor.
In the narrative we’ve heard in this Epiphany season
And now he begins to teach what it is that the Realm of God looks like.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, often talks about “God’s dream for the world”. In the teachings of the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus begins to outline just what it is that God envisions, what God dreams, what God pays attention to.
In short, God’s dream for the world pretty completely reverses the world as it is:
Those who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping now are blessed by God,
While those who are rich, and full, and laughing now have had theirs, and will find themselves without.
Jesus echoes the words of Mary’s song, that God “fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty”. In the same vein, Jesus has described the nature of his own ministry using the word’s of Isaiah:
God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
Reversing the conditions of the world as it is.
We even see this in the details of the way Luke pictures the moment for us: unlike the sermon in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus ascends a mountain to teach, here Jesus stands on a “level place”, right in the midst of those who have come in need of healing.
His words, too, are direct: rather than declaring “blessed are those who…”, he speaks personally to those in need: “blessed are YOU…”.
There’s even a fascinating suggestion in Luke’s observation that Jesus “looks up” to address himself to the disciples. Have the disciples stepped apart from the unruly crowd to separate themselves?
Is he perhaps saying to them:
“These hurting folks around us are the ones who God notices, the ones God cares about. We need to do the same.”
Father Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the first to articulate the themes of Liberation Theology, observes that God has a “preferential love for the poor” not because the poor are any better than anyone else spiritually, but because they suffer in an unjust world, and because it is God’s nature to love where there is suffering.
If the world were divided into those who suffer and are blessed and those who are comfortable and are not, where would I find myself? It’s an unpleasant question to ask. So what do the blessings and the woes mean for us who are advantaged? Are we cursed to the extent that our lives are easy?
I think the wisdom Jesus offers here is that wealth and privilege are dangerous because they have the power to separate us from God and from the human community. When we are comfortable, we so easily lose touch with our need for God. We start thinking that the stuff of the world is what’s important and meaningful.
This is basically what we heard from Jeremiah this morning:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
(but) Blessed are those whose trust is in the Lord.
The opportunity those of us who have been either inadvertently or by our own efforts privileged by the world is to notice those who are without worldly blessings, who are hungry or lost or suffering, and to care about them, sharing what we have.
We are invited to stand on the level ground with those who are broken and oppressed, to address them personally, and to do something that makes a difference.
As I have been thinking about this gospel passage in recent weeks, I have thought a lot about one of the ministries of this parish that I am incredibly fortunate to be a part of.
The Caregivers Support group has met every other week since September 2016, as a place where those who are caring for a loved one with a chronic condition can be together. Members do both practical sharing of problem-solving strategies AND they support one another by listening with acceptance and understanding.
I have learned from my own listening in the group that living with chronic or progressive illness – whether as the sufferer or the caregiver – is an experience of loss. With serious ongoing illness
Jesus said “Blessed are you who weep”. Walking with the caregivers has shown me ways in which this is true.
The caregivers in the support group model and convey God’s love to one another as they listen, as they laugh together without judgement, as they offer practical tidbits of advice on how they have dealt with common problems. They offer God’s love as they care about one another’s losses.
I observe, also, that in acknowledging their fatigue, their fears and frustrations AND YET continually rising to meet the challenges that face them, these caregivers are experiencing the God who is within them and working through them.
Honestly, at the end of the day I don’t think any of us are exclusively woeful or exclusively blessed.
The Good News is that God hears us and cares for us, God is close to us and remains with us.
Our is to accept the blessing and to BE the blessing.
Let us stand together on a level place and listen to one another.
Meet our preachers
Lay Preacher, Faith Community Nurse
The Rev. Jane R. Dunning, Priest Associate
Coffee with Clergy
Do you want to get together to talk about your spiritual life or learn more about our community? Contact us and we will find time to get together.