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The Shepherd Knows My Name

“The Shepherd Knows My Name” Ezekiel 34:1-16; 1 Peter 2:11-12, 18-25; John 10:1-18 © 5.7.17 Easter 4A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

For the people of Judah, living in exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, Ezekiel’s description of the Lord as a shepherd brought back memories of a happier day. The image came from the time of their beginnings, before nationhood, when their ancestors had been nomadic herders. As much or more than any other picture of God the Hebrews used, the idea of God as a shepherd had arisen from their experience and their culture. God guided his people, who often wandered off like sheep. He stood guard over them, protecting them from harm.

As years went on, the shepherd metaphor came to be applied not just to God, but to the leaders of the people as well. Of course, Moses and David were quite literally shepherds, taken from tending flocks in the wilderness to care for the flock of God in tabernacle and palace.

If every leader had followed the good example of Moses or David, perhaps the history of Israel would have been different. But they hadn’t. Ezekiel lamented the way in which those with oversight of the flock of God had become more like wolves than shepherds. Prior to the exile to Babylon, they had oppressed the people, enriching themselves at the expense of the poor and powerless, using their office and influence to make money. Charged to provide sustenance of soul that would have preserved the nation’s life, they cared only for heaping up goods for themselves. Ezekiel lays the blame for Judah’s sorry plight squarely at the feet of kings, priests, and court prophets, the latter being yes men who told the king God always approved of what he, the king, wanted to do.

Since these leaders have abdicated their responsibilities, Ezekiel says, Yahweh himself will be the shepherd of his people. He will rescue them from the hands of the evil and corrupt pseudo-shepherds. The Lord will give his flock the nourishment they need, leading them by still waters, restoring their souls, defending them in threatening dark valleys. He will bring them security and freedom as they lie down in green pastures. In the end, the Lord would set up one shepherd over Israel. That one would be none other than the Messiah.

A later prophet, Zechariah, picked up on this imagery and spoke of a shepherd who suffers death and brings about a decisive turn of events. But the reputation of shepherds suffered considerable damage in the years following the Old Testament prophets, so that by the time of Jesus, the rabbis were reticent to speak of God as a shepherd. They considered such people to be thieves and cheats. Shepherds were even without civil rights, despised as much as the worst collaborators with the Romans.

So Jesus’ description of himself as “the good shepherd” is somewhat significant and surprising. Significant, because he names himself as the Messiah promised by the prophets. He’s the one who would lead God’s flock, guiding them to safe pasture, bringing a new day. Surprising, because in calling himself a shepherd he identifies himself with the downcast, the disenfranchised, the stranger, the despised.

The rabbis had wondered aloud how the psalmist could ever have called God “my shepherd.” But now Jesus claims it’s not the shepherds who are liars and thieves. It’s the religious leaders of his day; it’s any leader in any time and of any nation who betrays and/or preys upon the people he or she is charged to guide and protect. Jesus gives honor to the despised.

That would have come as good news to the people who read and heard the letter we call 1 Peter, written around the same time as the gospel of John, approximately 90-100 AD. They felt alienated from their culture because of their faith. Some of them were even quite literally aliens in the land, having been brought there as household slaves of pagan masters. The members of these churches in Asia Minor were looked upon by both neighbors and government as oddballs and weirdoes, with strange habits and subversive beliefs and practices. They were misunderstood and maligned, even suffering verbal or maybe physical abuse for their faith.

The writer reminded them that Jesus had suffered, too. Jesus, their Shepherd and Guardian. Even in the dark night of their alienation, even when the neighbors were laughing or the master was treating them cruelly or the local magistrate was asking for an account of their faith, the Christians could know there was one who cared for them personally and completely.

When you’re lonely, it’s good to know someone knows your name. When you’re lost, it’s comforting that there’s someone who knows the way. When you’re suffering, it’s encouraging that someone has hurt the way you are hurting. When your world comes crashing down and you feel terribly insecure and frightened, how wonderful to hear that there’s someone who can provide protection, who’s in the business of rebuilding broken dreams and opening closed tombs!

The shepherds of old, as I understand, had pet names for their favorite sheep, such as “Long Ears” or “White Nose.” Our shepherd calls us by name as well, in baptism, and he knows us inside and out.

This is what writer Robert Raines has termed a “blessed name-calling.” He tells the story of a little girl who was praying the Lord’s Prayer for her mother. The family happened to live in New Haven, CT. When the child prayed, she said: “Our Father who art in New Haven, how did you know my name?” (A Faithing Oak: 66.)

That child had a wisdom beyond her years. It’s amazing that God knows our names and what we’re like. But in Christ he’s been where we are, walked where we walk. He addresses us in intimate terms.

In the old King James Bible sort of English, there was a distinction in second person pronouns between a formal, corporate address and a personal, familiar address. We’ve lost that difference now, but it’s still preserved in other modern languages. “Thou” was the close, intimate term, while “ye,” in addition to being plural, was the more distanced. God always addresses us as “thou,” as subjects, not objects, as those with whom he is thoroughly familiar and for whom he cares.

In Christ, this Shepherd God who knows his flock by name gave himself for us, laid down his life so his beloved sheep might go in and out and find pasture. Christ suffered and died so we might live. Not just survive. Really, truly live a life of love, a life of relationship, that he called “abundant.”

Because Jesus not only laid down his life, but took it up again, he gives this life to all who hear his call, who follow him. And his goal is that as we know this life, we may experience fellowship with each other, and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

Alleluia, alleluia! Give thanks to the risen Lord, the Shepherd who knows our names.

Entertaining Mystery

“Entertaining Mystery” Luke 24:13-35 © 4.30.17 Easter 3A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There are any number of reasons someone might be unrecognizable. He or she could have had “work done,” as we say, so that his or her face is not the same as before. Think of actress Renee Zellweger. Or perhaps a person has been disfigured in an accident, combat or fire. There was an episode of the PBS drama Downton Abbey in which a con man tried to take advantage of such injuries in WWI to pretend to be a cousin of the family. Or maybe someone is wearing a clever disguise or mask or is somehow controlling another’s perception of reality. That’s a device relied on in science fiction and fantasy, with its invisibility cloaks, shape-shifters, and Jedi mind tricks.

But then we have the story before us this morning. We might think at first that Luke is suggesting some supernatural force at work that keeps the two disciples from recognizing Jesus, and maybe that’s so. It’s also possible and probable, though, that their grief and sadness had blinded them to the possibility that the man who joined them on the road and seemed a stranger was in fact Jesus. We see what we want to see, what we expect to see, and neither one was anticipating seeing Jesus alive. Time had run out, and hope was gone.

At one point, they stopped walking, after Jesus asked his first question. “They stood still, looking sad.” That’s more than a statement about their ceasing forward motion. Sadness, grief, crisis debilitate us. We stand still. When the bills pile up or the unexpected happens or we get bad news, that’s all we can focus on. We feel frozen in place, not knowing what to do, how to proceed. The whole world shrinks to a bubble with just us and the crisis before us. All else is a blur and darkness, and someone has to help us open our eyes and recognize possibility, see more than the problems that confront us and set our sights on the road ahead so the journey can continue.

That’s what Jesus did for the two otherwise unknown disciples. He started a process with them that ended in recognition and renewal. The road they had walked in sadness became the one they ran along in joy as they returned to Jerusalem.

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Some Questions

“Some Questions” Psalm 16 © 4.23.17 Easter 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was a pastor in Alabama, there was a young elder in the church named Gary. Invariably, in a Sunday school class or Bible study, Gary would raise his hand at some point and say “I have a question.” I knew Gary was a sincere and good man, who was genuinely interested in both the subject matter and truth in general, so his queries were not attempts to sidetrack the conversation or intimidate or embarrass me or anyone else. For that reason I welcomed his asking.

This morning I propose to follow Gary’s example and say to the psalmist: “I have a question!” Actually, several questions. So, here goes.

First, what in the world is a miktam? That’s the heading given the psalm by the editors of the book: “a miktam of David.” The phrase is verse zero in Hebrew. Nobody really seems to know how to translate the word. One possibility is “inscription.” Another is “special psalm.” Yet another is “a literary or musical term.” So let’s go with that for a moment. I have some possibilities for you. Since we aren’t sure what the word means, my ideas are as good as anybody’s, right? Maybe it’s a “song for harp, kazoo, and orchestra.” Or “for accompaniment by eight string classical guitar.” Or how about “psalm for jazz quartet”?

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As Secure As You Can

“As Secure as You Can” Matthew 27:62-28:15 © 4.16.17 Easter A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Pilate let his mind wander, only half listening to the men who had come to waste his time yet again. By Jupiter and Mars, how he despised these people and their wretched stifling, city! He especially hated those obsequious toadies the Sadducees. They thought that by licking the boots of the Romans they would gain favor and prestige. But as far as Pilate was concerned, all they got for themselves was disdain, for they had no honor and no principles. As a warrior first and a politician second, he could not respect anyone without character. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were too highly principled, men who focused so much on tiny details that they missed the big picture. But, better perhaps to stand for too much than too little. He only wished they were all out of his sight so he could get on with his day.

What were they going on about? Not Jesus again! Wasn’t he dead and in the tomb? Pilate himself had given Joseph of Arimathea possession of the corpse. So what was it that worried these religionists this time? They seemed to be afraid that the man’s followers would come and steal the body in order to scam the public into believing Jesus had risen from the dead.

Jesus. Now there was a man with courage. And honor. Pilate wanted to release the Galilean, especially after the disturbing dreams that had plagued Pilate’s wife. But in the end, even a severe flogging was not enough to satisfy the leadership and the crowds that had become their puppets. So he had had a holy man put to death. And despite his public disclaimer, Pilate felt regret and guilt that would haunt him, perhaps for the rest of his life.

It seemed the only way to get rid of these priests and Pharisees was to give them what they wanted. He could spare a couple of grunts to guard the tomb. His men could certainly stop any peasants and fishermen who tried anything. And it went without saying that no one needed to worry about the silly, sentimental women who would come to weep and wail. “All right,” he said. “Go make the tomb as secure as you know how.” And, Pilate muttered under his breath, don’t bother me again with your stupid superstitions.

Three days later, when word reached him that the soldiers had fallen asleep, and the tomb was empty, Pilate couldn’t believe it. No man in his garrison had ever failed in his duty. Besides, Roman soldiers who fell asleep on guard duty were put to death with their own swords, and no one would risk such punishment. No matter what he accepted officially, Pilate knew there was another explanation. And it made his skin crawl. What Jesus had predicted had come true by the power of the God of Judah. And even the crack squads of the Roman Legion could not stand against it, could not defeat it, could not outguess it or even plan against it. At that moment, Pilate realized he would have to rethink everything he believed he knew about security.

And, it would seem, so do we. For, like Pilate and any reasonable, rational person of his day or ours, we have bought the official line of the Empire, under whatever name it happens to do business. Security is in “know-how,” technical skill and competence, the ability to adapt to and assimilate more knowledge. It’s posting a guard at a tomb already sealed with a great stone, which today translates into double-encrypting our phones, making our passwords strong, shopping only on the websites with the little padlock icon displayed, shredding all documents with our name and address, paying companies to look after our data. Making things as secure as we can means standing in endless TSA lines, submitting acceptable IDs, having our luggage and person scanned. It’s locking our doors, even to take the dog for a walk down the block, not leaving valuables visible in our cars, installing alarms in home and business, doing everything we can to protect ourselves and our kids from the evil that stalks us in various guises.

Security is in being able to analyze and name our maladies, especially psychological ones, and to heal ourselves. It’s erecting emotional force fields and walls brick by cynical, bitter brick around our psyche, because as the old song by Carole King put it, people will “hurt you, and desert you; they’ll take your soul if you let them.” Security is shutting the door of our hearts, assigning a sentry to our feelings and not allowing anyone, including ourselves, access to them. It’s compartmentalizing memories and regrets and guilt, knowing, as another song has it, that “what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” It is not thinking or talking about anything unpleasant, especially death—our own or somebody else’s.

Security is found in having money in the bank or investing in the best performing funds so we meet our financial goals for retirement. It’s wearing the right clothes or driving the right car so we will be welcomed by our peers, along with living in the right house and befriending the right people so we might show and maintain our status. If we only have enough data and the right tools, we can fix anything, including the human soul, and do it quickly. We are very good at making things as secure as we know how, as secure as we can.

But then something happens that renders us as mute and frightened as guards at a garden tomb, some seismic shudder that undermines the very ground of our being, sending our carefully constructed lives crashing to the ground. A horrifying news story. A betrayal by someone we let into our lives and trusted or by an institution we counted on. An accident. A diagnosis. At such times, we long for explanations, for stability, for assurance that life will return to normal, because the answers we depended on no longer make sense.

So we might like to believe the tale Matthew tells and embrace its hope. But who can when we have been so used to finding security and truth elsewhere? The players in this story are not the official spin doctors of the Empire or those we trust to tell us what to do. They are an angel from heaven, surely someone outside the normal boundaries of our experience, unless as the biblical writer observed, we have entertained angels unawares. They are some women, whom no court in that day would even let testify, much less believe. The knowledge offered in the story is not the technical kind we crave or the sort that will give us power over others. It is merely the assurance that the empty tomb is to be explained only by the raising of a dead man. The security given is an angel sitting on a stone, as if to keep it from rolling back into place. The competence called for is the ability to see Jesus in the everyday events of life in our Galilee, the place of the familiar and routine. The tools are a single pair of glasses, with lenses ground according to a prescription containing one word: “resurrection.” Absurd! we cry. Ridiculous! Not admissible! Unscientific! Not anything like real life!

No argument there. And we could cite even more objections. But when “as secure as you know how,” “as secure as you can,” doesn’t work anymore, when things fall apart, we discover and rejoice that there is another knowledge, another power, another world, another truth. And behind and within them all stands One who is able to turn the daily into the divine, the ho-hum into the holy, tombs into turning points, and the lifeless into the gloriously living.

Thanks be to God.

A Parade Remembered

“A Parade Remembered” Matthew 21:1-11 © 4.9.17 Palm Sunday A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Note: This sermon is a fact-based imaginative first-person account from a fictional character.

The events I want to tell you about happened long ago, but it seems to me I witnessed them only yesterday. That’s how vivid my memories are. I’m an old man now, with great-grandchildren, but then I was an excited and excitable boy of thirteen. I say “boy,” but in Jewish tradition I had just become a man, a bar mitzvah, “a son of the commandment.” On the Sabbath following my thirteenth birthday, I was blessed by my father Joseph in the presence of everyone in the synagogue. This was all the more special because he was a Pharisee, a leader who strictly observed the law of Moses. To know he was pleased with the progress I had made was a great joy to me. After my father’s blessing, I was invited by the rabbi to read from the Torah and the prophets, then give a speech to the worshippers. Of course, I was scared to death, but somehow I got up the courage to say what I had practiced for weeks. After worship, there was a big party, and I got lots of gifts.

To say my bar mitzvah was a turning point in my life would be an understatement. I could then be counted among the quorum of ten mature males required before public prayers could be held in a synagogue. I was now accountable for my sins, which meant I was taken seriously as someone who could make decisions. There were also certain duties I had to perform, such as fasting on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and going to Jerusalem on Passover, Pesach.

That’s why we were heading to the city that time so long ago. With a group of other pilgrims, my father and I journeyed from our village of Arimathea to Jerusalem. He had been there on many occasions, whether to celebrate Passover or sit on the governing council, the Sanhedrin. But it was my first time, and I could hardly contain my excitement. I asked so many questions I was surprised my father didn’t get angry with me. But he patiently explained what was going on and pointed out things he particularly wanted me to see. My father had so much knowledge. I don’t mean just what he knew in his head, but in his heart as well. He cared for the poor and lonely, the sick and hurting. Maybe it was his reputation for genuine piety that led to his election to the council.

I had heard my father speak many times of his hope for a Messiah, a deliverer who would come help God’s people find true holiness again. He said that if the people of God proved themselves worthy, and lived in holiness completely for just one day, the Messiah would come. In my study of Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as Devarim, “the words,” I had learned that God promised to send another prophet like Moses to teach us. My father even thought that the now almost defunct line of David would produce a good king. But no one like that had appeared.

The hopes of others were very different.

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Apron Strings and Open Tombs

“Apron Strings and Open Tombs” John 11:1-45 (ESV) © 4/2/17 Lent 5A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, M. All rights reserved.

You touch the “end call” icon on your phone and try to collect your thoughts. A long-time friend, in fact, your best friend, is dying. You’ve stood by each other in thick and thin, shared laughter and tears, been there at marker events and major holidays. Wouldn’t you without hesitation drop what you were doing and rush to the friend’s side, both to see him or her again and to offer whatever comfort and assurance you could? Or if somehow you were absolutely prevented from going, wouldn’t you call just so you could hear that familiar voice once last time and say goodbye, maybe arrange for a video call so you could both see and hear your loved one? Of course you would. And so would I.

Not Jesus. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were our Lord’s best friends, but he didn’t go. When Jesus finally got to Bethany, after what the text tells us was an intentional delay, Lazarus was in the tomb, and Martha was livid. She was convinced that if Jesus had really cared and made the effort to come in a timely way, her brother, our Lord’s friend, would have been healed and lifted up from his sick bed, fully restored. Her sister Mary said the same thing a little later.

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With Blessings Like These, Who Needs Curses?

“With Blessings Like These, Who Needs Curses?” John 9:1-41 © 3.26.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a time for talk and a time for action. The disciples favored the former. They had decided to do some armchair theologizing. The common kind we all engage in. We wonder about somebody else’s sins while ignoring our own. They got what they deserved, but we feel unfairly singled out. Or there’s the blame game, wondering whether God or people or both are responsible for some horrible event or unrelieved suffering. And all of this is typically done within the usual comfortable, convenient, conventional categories of unimaginative, settled religion.

Jesus, on the other hand, went for doing something instead of just standing around speculating. And, while he was at it, he wanted to remind the disciples and us that there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy, that there may be something going on that we have to step outside our shadowed boxes to see.

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