THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, May 7, 2017
Voluntary or Involuntary Poverty
Our texts for today revolve around the word “shepherd.” The fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and over the three-year cycle of the lectionary we share with a number of denominations we hear all of John 10closeAn error occurred.. We hear how Jesus is the gate and the gatekeeper, the only way to salvation and how he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. In the end he provides proof of his authority to be the Good Shepherd. His sheep are those who believe who have been given to Jesus by his Father.
The psalm for this day is always Psalm 23closeAn error occurred.. We sang a metrical version of the psalm as our opening hymn. The Scottish Psalter version was sung a week ago at Maryanna Cassady’s memorial service. My personal favorite is the Isaac Watts paraphrase set to the American folk melody “Resignation,” number 803 in our Glory to God hymnals. The psalm is a song of the sheep who is praising the goodness of the Shepherd who is the Lord. The Lord provides. The Lord directs. The Lord leads. The Lord restores. The Lord guides. The Lord protects. The Lord comforts. The Lord feeds. The Lord anoints. Life under the Lord’s care is good. Life in the presence of the Shepherd is blessed.
We get a very different picture of life from the 1 Peter reading. The passage is under a cloud because the verse which opens the paragraph and underlies the included thoughts is omitted. The verse tells household slaves to submit to the authority of their masters, whether the masters are kind or harsh.
We are 21st century Christians and slavery in any form is not to be tolerated. Before we jump of the rails and throw a fit at the letter’s author, let us reflect on the context of the people to whom the letter was written. Many, if not most, of the new Christians were slaves in pagan households. They were often harassed for their beliefs. They lived in a world which required them to jump to the master’s every whim. They would be severely punished if they didn’t obey their master’s requests. Having to endure insults about their religious beliefs and practices was more than the fledgling Christians could bear.
The author of 1Peter attempts to offer a pastoral word to these folk. He makes a distinction between suffering for a just cause and suffering for an unjust cause. The author seems to suggest that suffering under certain circumstances may be acceptable. Reasonable discipline for mistakes and wrong-doing is appropriate. However, the writer does not say that suffering is a legitimate condition for those who are abused, coerced, or oppressed. Nor is he condoning a stoic tolerance for violence against anyone. And nowhere does he suggest that God’s name be invoked as the hand strikes or the belt comes out. But also note that the author does not say that Christians should seek out and revel in suffering as an acceptable way to live out their faith.
The 1closeAn error occurred. Peter author urges believers to seek to live out an ethic which was an alternative to the pagan culture of which these fledgling Christians were a part. Such an ethic was also different from the culture of their own backgrounds before coming to Christ.
These new Christians have the model of Christ, a radical disinclination to return fire when under attack. That is more than any of us can imagine, yet that is how Christ lived his ministry. Abuse must not produce more abuse. Suffering must not produce more suffering. Giving hurt is not the knee-jerk response to being hurt.
To trust God in the midst of suffering was considered the high calling to which these new believers should aspire. That is the model of the psalmist’s sheep. “You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!” That’s a hard lesson for any of us under any condition. For slaves it must have been brutal.
The idea that Christ’s sheep know his voice when they hear it and that they follow him suggests a different kind of servitude. But it is a servitude of grace rather than abuse, of desire rather than necessity.
We live in an either-or world. Everything seems to be extremes. The middle ground between extremes is where all the verbal and ideological grenades fall from the opposing sides. Compromise is a dirty word. Our author wrote to the struggling Christians and suggested that their world may not be as restrictive and enclosed as they thought. To suffer ridicule or abuse from their master does not ultimately determine their own self-worth. God will exercise just judgment on both master and slave. In the midst of all the ways in which life is frightening and dangerous, God offers a way.
In solidarity with our first brothers and sisters in the faith, we understand something of what it means to be boxed in or even enslaved. While we are not in the situation of first-century slaves, we have plenty that makes us feel less than free. People in all generations have to deal with bosses, spouses, parents, children, diseases, political cultures, neighborhoods, cultural practices, idolatrous sports teams, celebrities, media stars, religious spokespersons, and all manner of narrow-mindedness. Everything seems to be geared towards an us/them opposition. Fears and dangers in our own world enslave and limit our creativity for solutions. Anxieties about health and work and the next paycheck or pension payment can enslave our instincts for hope in the future. How do we learn from these early believers about trust in the midst of our own suffering?
We are like a ping pong ball paddled back and forth in an never-ending volley. The paddles care nothing for us except to send us back across the net in hopes that the other paddle will hit us out of bounds or miss us completely. We shrink from the continual batting about. Yet we see ourselves locked into system of living which offers no other option. We have involuntarily impoverished ourselves seeking what the world calls riches, rather than voluntarily giving ourselves into the fullness of God’s shepherding care, a care that the world scorns as poverty.
We need Jesus to come the gates of our prisons and call our names so that we may go out with him. We need God’s Spirit to burst open the tombs of our dead lives and liberate us into the fullness of God’s grace in Christ. When go out with Christ we can enter into a life that might actually mean something, might actually have grassy meadows and restful waters, where we truly lack nothing.
A shepherd always has more than one sheep. Hearing the shepherd’s voice, the flock moves in the shepherd’s direction. For the most part they work as a community. From the beginning, the church was more than a group of people who got together for an hour or so a week to hear the Word and receive communion. They prayed together. They studied the scriptures together. They ate meals together. They gathered in their homes as well as at the synagogue. They shared with one another. If someone needed something, someone else supplied it. This was a community that knew each other so well that they knew what everyone needed and offered it without thought.
Yes, we will often suffer sneers, barbs, or shunning from the world. But our cup will overflow with God’s goodness and faithful love and we will live in God’s house as long as we live and breathe.
Thanks be to God.