Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Lord is STILL My Shepherd!

This is a re-tooling of a sermon I gave on April 25, 2010, called "The Lord (Not Wal-Mart) Is My Shepherd!" In that sermon I gave credit where it is most certainly due, to Jean Kilbourne, author of an excellent article, “Jesus is a Pair of Jeans,” and to Clinton McCann of Eden Seminary in St. Louis.

I'm still no fan of consumerism. I've seen companies use the Alabama tornado relief efforts as a sales pitch - and at the same time, I've seen companies like Jim N Nick's Barbecue very quietly do what they do best, feeding hungry people. No, I'm not advertising. I'm thanking.

Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

1 Peter 2:19-25
For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Psalm 23:1-6

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It happens every time you turn on the television, or listen to the radio, or open a newspaper or magazine, or check your email, or look at something on the internet, drive or walk down the street, or get placed on hold while calling a company. It’s called “advertising.” It may be as complex as a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, or as simple as a familiar logo on the side of a building. From almost the moment we wake up every morning, to the time we fall asleep at night, we are being sold.

The key to sales is not providing information which will allow you to make an informed decision; rather sales are made based on emotions. If, as a sales professional, I can transfer emotion to you about a given product or service, I will be successful.

Part of the reason for the pervasiveness of advertising is that it is an impersonal medium trying to make a personal, emotional connection. The key is simply to make you believe that you need a given product or service. When you believe that you need it, you are unsatisfied until that need is fulfilled by purchasing that product or service. That’s why the same old things are suddenly “new and improved,” why this model year car has a nicer sound system than last year’s model, why the “next generation” cell phone has more things you can do on it (besides make phone calls) than the last-generation cell phone.

According to marketing analysts, Americans see some 5,000 advertisements every day. As those numbers have risen, the need for marketing which rises above the noise and catches your attention has grown as well. Where once advertisers promised better relationships through product purchases – buy this and you will be loved – it seems they’ve crossed into a realm where there is a promise of a relationship with the product itself: buy this and it will love you. Think of it: five thousand times a day, our deepest, most heartfelt emotions are trivialized, our emotions channeled into merchandise. You love your children, don’t you? You’d like to see them be safe, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you agree that purchasing this car will be good for your children?

You love your spouse, don’t you? You would do anything to keep your spouse happy after all these years of marriage, wouldn’t you agree? Doesn’t it make sense to buy this bracelet/ring/necklace/fishing rod/whatever?

Everything – people, relationships, nature, whatever – is trivialized, turned into just so much stuff to be consumed or used to sell us something. And the problem isn't necessarily that advertising whips up artificial needs from nothing, but that it exploits our very real desires.

We are not stupid: we know that buying a certain brand of cereal won’t bring us one inch closer to love, to peace, to fulfillment. But we are surrounded by advertising that yokes our needs with products and promises us that things will deliver what in fact they never can. In the world of advertising, lovers are things and things are lovers.

The Twenty-Third Psalm is a wonderful source of comfort. Its familiar words accompany most funerals, and remind us of God’s love, providence, and protection. And when viewed in the context of our noisy, consumer-driven world, they serve as a radical call to return our hearts to the One who can, and does, truly fill our needs!

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

To be sure, this first verse isn’t at all about never desiring stuff, but about having our needs – our real needs – met. In this verse, and in the one and a half that follow, our physical needs – food, water, peace and joy and restoration abound. When we walk with God, we walk in right paths. Even when our way leads through danger, uncertainty, loss and hardship, God is with us, taking us through. Even when we are surrounded by enemies – outside as well as inside ourselves – God is with us. When God is our Shepherd, we lack nothing.

Instead of being enslaved by what Alan Greenspan called “infectious greed,” where we have to have the next thing, the newest, the fastest, the shiniest, the best thing – In the twenty-Third Psalm, God reminds us that life is not a series of new-and-improved possessions, but a gift.

As last month ended, thousands of people were, in an instant, left without food; the water was undrinkable, and everything they owned was falling from the sky into someone’s yard a county or a state away. And as we speak, still others on the Mississippi delta are watching as their homes and livelihood are engulfed in flood waters.

Who could blame them if their cry was an echo of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
…You brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Instead, what do we hear from them, time and again? I’ve heard it from tornado survivors, and I heard if on NPR just yesterday, from a woman in Mississippi Delta country. In her 80’s, she was already forced out of her home by the flood, and was watching as the water line crept nearer and nearer her daughter’s back porch: “The Lord will make a way.”

So many of these people have learned that hard lesson about “things.” How, no matter what the advertisements say, there is no peace, and certainly no permanence, to what we possess. However expensive our car is, a falling tree can reduce it to scrap. No matter how nice a television we own, it can be washed away in a flood or blown into another zip code.

When we view life as a gift and not as something we earn or deserve, something that can be quantified by the size of our home or the digits in our bank account balance, the appropriate response is gratitude. Especially for those of us who have escaped the worst, knowing that the Lord is our shepherd sets us free to be infectious in our gratitude.

We are set free to share, quite literally, for God's sake – share our food, our drink, and our sources of security with those who are hurting, those who are dying, those who are forgotten, those who are lost – whether they be across the ocean or right next door. We are set free to share even with the enemies who are with us at the table God prepares!

If Psalm 22 is a foretelling of the Crucifixion, then let Psalm 23 be a joyous affirmation of the Resurrection, and let our infectious gratitude be a message to those who are hurting that, most assuredly, God has not given up. Not on them, not on us.

In times like these it’s not just comforting, it’s vital to be reminded that God has called all of us by name. In times like these it’s not just reassuring, it’s imperative to know that in life, in death, and in life beyond death we belong to God. In times like these it’s not just instructive, it’s a life-saving act to remind one another that this al fedjr, this twilight means the dawn is certainly coming. In times like these, when the skies fall and the floods rise, perhaps the greatest thing we as followers of Christ need to rediscover, and remind one another of, is the simple, yet profound truth that transcends theology, doctrine, denomination, race, or higher orthodoxy: God loves us, collectively and as individuals. God cares for us, deeply, nurturing us and protecting us as a shepherd to his sheep, as a mother hen to her chicks.

If I may paraphrase Max Lucado, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If [God] had a wallet, your photo would be in it. [God] sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, [God will] listen. [God] can live anywhere in the universe, and... chose your heart. What about the Christmas gift [God] sent you in Bethlehem; not to mention that Friday at Calvary. Face it, friend. [God is] crazy about you.”

We need to remember this – more than that we need to tell it, not simply in words, because words are just advertising. Love and faith and hope are not emotions, remember? These are verbs, action words, things which are done.

Whatever we do, whether it is a donation to a relief organization, a few hours spent serving meals or making phone calls or loading boxes of relief supplies, our unrelenting message of the Kingdom of God, as children of God, as sheep of the Shepherd, is this:

At those times when we are at our darkest, lowest points, when the sirens wail, when the levees break, when God seems far away: God has not forsaken them, or us. God has not given up on them, or on us.

God has engraved them, and you, and I, on the palms of God's hands.


  1. You said it so well! Thank you for slharing from the heart and putting into words what the many of us are feeling and thinking. God bless!

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