Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

The theme for this morning’s message has to do with Jesus the Good Shepherd and our relationship with him. But, as you will see, that relationship is

expressed  not in 1 but 2 important ways. Having said that, I want to move into that theme by talking about a funeral I officiated at last Saturday.

 

In our Lutheran tradition, when a funeral is held, it’s customary that the scripture chosen for it follows the same pattern as on a Sunday morning.  

That is:  

·        a first lesson, usually from the Old Testament;

·        a psalm;

·        a second lesson, from the New Testament;

·        and, finally, a passage from one of the Gospels.

 

And that’s how it was for last week’s funeral. As always, family members received a list of readings to choose from. Listen carefully now to these opening verses  

from some of the psalms that are listed.

          Psalm 23:     The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

·        Psalm 46:     God is our refuge and strength,/ a very present help in trouble

·        Psalm118:    Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;/ his mercy endures forever.

·         Or Ps. 121:  I lift up my eyes to the hills;/ from where is my help to come?

 

These are all very appropriate. Which psalm, however, do you think the family members decided on? Psalm 23? Psalm 46, which is the one on which Martin

 Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based?

What about 118—giving thanks for God’s blessings? Or Psalm 121— seeking God’s help?

Well, those of you who chose the 23rd Psalm would be right.

As it turned out, not only did the family choose it, but they also directed me to read the version that appears in the King James Bible. That is what I am going

to do now. But beforehand, I want you to close your eyes so you can better visualize the images in it…Ready?

 

                        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; they

            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

            forever.

It is nearly unmatched poetry about trust in God’s goodness, in God’s blessings—

even in the midst of facing the end of one’s life. Using the image of a sheep and shepherd, it expresses such a personal, intimate relationship  

between God and the believer:  

            The LORD is my shepherd.

            He makes me to lie down

            And leads me beside still waters.

            He restores my soul.

 

            Your rod and staff comfort me.

            You anoint my head

            And my cup runs over.

            Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

 

On this day—what is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday—we see that the Gospel also lifts up an intimate and reassuring relationship—  

again, through the image of a shepherd and his sheep. But there’s at least one crucial difference. And you will quickly understand what I mean,  

as I read a few phrases from the 10th chapter of John:  

            [The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out

            [into the pasture].  

            …he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him b/c they know his voice.

             [Jesus said:] I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

While Psalm 23 focuses on the trusting relationship between God and the individual believer, the Gospel focuses on the same sort of relationship  

between God and a community of believers. It’s the difference between Jesus and one sheep and Jesus and an entire flock of sheep. 

These two readings remind me that, when it comes to spirituality in the Christian faith, there are two sets of directions—up and down  

and back and forth. Let me explain that.

 

Imagine two lines that intersect each other at right angles. One is the vertical: the relationship between the individual believer and God.  

The other is the horizontal: the relationships among a community of believers. And Christ is at that point of intersection. Without him, we do not know God  

the Father. And without him, we do not live as a community of the faithful.  Jesus is the one at the center of both relationships, is the one who, in the shape  

of a cross binds us both to God and to one another. The vertical and the horizontal.

Often in this day and age, Christians seem to stress more the first relationship & less & less the second. That is, what seems more important to maybe a majority  

of Christians is how the individual relates to God.  

·        Private prayer.

·        Private acts of charity.

·        Private worship, say, somewhere out in nature.

 

In and of themselves, there’s absolutely nothing wrong w/any of these.  And perhaps many who should practice them don’t. But, as important as they are,  

they should never be regarded as replacements, as substitutes, for congregational prayer and worship and responding to the needs of sisters and brothers

in Christ and those beyond on a strictly one-to-one basis.

 

It’s also important to keep in mind that even in congregational worship.  Christians can still remain somewhat separated from others, for example,  

scooting into the nave at the last minute and scurrying out just as quickly at the end.  It’s true that some of us are very outgoing, very extroverted,  

while others tend to be quiet, keep a low profile, even want to go unnoticed.

 

One thing is for sure: There is no such thing as a private Christian.  The Christian faith is, by definition, a social faith. One cannot truly have  

a personal relationship with God without also having personal relationships with other followers of Jesus. It can’t be done. The vertical line  

without the horizontal line just doesn’t work.

 

And the same goes for the opposite. I have known persons associated with certain church groups who leave God almost totally out of the picture.

E.g., the town I spent my year in as a vicar had a very active church league in softball. But some players on the team from my congregation  

I seldom saw on Sunday mornings, but noticed they never missed a game.  (And actually, one or two may not have been church members at all,  

but were “ringers” who had been recruited.)

 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with social groups in churches.  And it’s a great thing when brothers and sisters in Christ become friends  

and like spending time with one another at times and places beyond strictly congregational life. The important thing to remember is  

that the horizontal without much of the vertical can be nearly as imbalanced as the other way around. Being social with other Christians without having

Jesus in the center doesn’t work, either.

 

Here now is a positive example—when both come together.

For a couple of years—when Deborah and I lived in a duplex—on the other side were two young women. They had recently joined a church—  

a large, nondenominational church. A requirement was that everyone belong to a small group within that congregation. Each group gathered at

least monthly, maybe more often, for Bible study. Its members would take turns hosting the activity, while others did the same with bringing desserts.

 

Our neighbors once invited us, just so we could see for ourselves what it was like.  It was a social time: They enjoyed one another’s company.

But, it also was a time that included God—Jesus being at its very center.

In this congregation, I see a real need for something like that.  Maybe once upon a time not so much because, throughout the 1950s Christ Church

was still largely  a neighborhood congregation.  Most people actually walked to this house of worship. But today, many of us may hardly even

imagine that it had once been like that.

 

 Since the late 1960s those who belong to downtown churches tend to live all over greater York. Evidence of that exists, for example, in the fact  

that the children and youth here represent 6 or 7 public school districts and also two private ones.

 

Each of us living out our faith in our personal, individual relationship with God— as in the 23rd Psalm—and in our relationships with other believers—  

as in today’s gospel—is no small task. It’s no easy thing. What is important is remembering it’s Jesus at the cross who holds everything together.

 

This is what a former Lutheran pastor, named Chad Bird, recently wrote on his blog. It’s from an essay, entitled, “Christianity Is Not [only] about  

a [Private] Relationship with Jesus.” Here is an excerpt:  

            Above all…Jesus calls us into a living, active, worshiping community…

            We are washed into his body [i]n the stream of baptism. We eat

            the communal meal of his body and blood. We sing together,

            pray together, confess together, grieve & heal and eventually die together

….He gives us brothers and sisters in the faith. He gives us children to teach, elders to emulate, and even less than likable people to love as those

for whom Christ died….Jesus is [continually] reshaping us into his image,

in the church, surrounded by others, all of whom together…are

the one body of Christ.[i]

With his help, let us lean ever more deeply into that identity.



[i]http://www.chadbird.com/blog/2017/4/26/christinaity-is-not-about-a-personal-relationship-with-jesus.