I of course have to begin my sermon by lifting up Ray, who got his very own interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) for his work with the All God’s Children service here at Christ Church. It was on CBN and then on ABC Family channel. Last week he won the 5K autism run. So now Ray can both out-run me AND out-talk me, two marks not in the pastor’s favor. I think I am in trouble.
So now Ray is famous, and Jane is famous. Tony is famous, and he even learned how to talk without using his hands. We’re going to have to do a red carpet runway thing here at some point. Maybe that would be a good AGC theme.
But these extraordinary experiences have all come from following God’s call, from the way God is working in their lives. It got me thinking about all the other wonderful blessings people are being shepherded into here at our church:
Godfred told me last Sunday that he was promoted at work, a huge surprise to him. And a huge blessing in his life.
Vicki and Elizabeth are back in school, Vicki for her AA degree and Elizabeth to become a phlebotomist.
Elena turned 70.
Cynthia and Michael got engaged—on Easter day—here in church.
Heidi Ackley is preparing to graduate from college. Gail Bonker is preparing to go to college. And Sharon’s son is getting married this summer.
Melanie Swift got her teaching credential. Sean got a new job. In January, Dave became EMT captain at his firehouse. Linda just got back from a cruise .
Lana sold her house and she and Tony are getting ready to move closer their new grandchild (although that is only wonderful for them not for me).
Karen is preparing to retire and begin a new chapter of ministry in her life. And Felicia is signing up to be a lesson-reader for our congregation, so she is just beginning her life of ministry.
Am I missing anything?
Just imagine the work that God is doing on any given day, right here in this little church in each of our lives. In our spiritual growth, our ministries, and our own practical or personal ways we are being changed and blessed. Now multiply that by all the other sheep in the fold and the sheep we don’t even know about. Think about God’s effort to reach every human God has created, leading and shepherding, and guiding them. That’s a pretty big job to do.
This reading in the gospel is partly about all who will come into the fold of Jesus and the Christian faith. But when we consider the power of the Psalm 23 we realize that dwelling in the house of the Lord forever is only the best part of a life overflowing with blessing and care from the shepherd. Imagine that each one of our souls has its own geography. We all have very particular shadows and valleys, specific green pastures and different tables full of bounty and cups running over. We all have our very own places of restoration and rest.
So we are not all following lock-step close behind the shepherd to get into the exactly perfect Christian path, or the one socially acceptable way to live our lives. Instead God has to help maneuver us through this geography into a deeper relationship with Him, into the blessings He wants us to have in our lives.
Valleys will come, and with His help we go through them and not around them. But on that wider map, God is seeking to move us from the valley to the tables set in the wilderness, from the desert to the green pastures. God is trying to shepherd good things into our lives. The Psalms list some of them: presence, protection, comfort, abundance, rest, goodness, and mercy. These are the things God wants to bring to us, both in our spiritual walk and our day to day lives.
But God cannot force that good on us. We make a choice to follow the voice of Jesus. We have to be willing to trust in his care for us in order to get to the next stage in our journeys.
Now if you have even one child or even one cat, you know how difficult it is to get someone to do what you want them to do when they have a mind of their own. Imagine all the work that God has to do to shepherd all of these good things into our lives. If we don’t take the time to explore the whole terrain of our souls, we don’t see the whole map of our lives. But even if we did, we don’t know the whole picture the way God does.
So when we are in a valley, it is hard for us to believe that God is with us and that Jesus is leading us to a spring of water on the other side. If we are on a hill covered with scrub-brush, it is hard not to say, “well this is good enough, this works. I’m hungry but not dead yet. How can I trust that the shepherd is leading me to a green pasture, to abundance, to a cup overflowing with blessing?”
Or sometimes we sit by some nice cool stream and say, “I’ve made it! I’ve got nothing left to learn about God (or about myself for that matter). I’ll just stay right here the rest of my life.” We have free will to stick right where we are and never move if we don’t want to, both in our spiritual lives and in the rest of our lives. God will not force us into restoration or blessing.
BUT God sees the whole terrain. Actually God sees the whole map, how we border others souls, how we overlap with those we love. God sees how the valley will be followed by the pasture, which will be followed by the wolves, which will be followed by the table set in the wilderness, which will be followed by the restoration of our souls. All of this bigger picture God sees.
God wants us to move safely under his guidance to the next place in that journey. Staying in one place is not an option in the Christian life. We are always being coaxed to move forward. Not forward like we get better and never face the valley again, but forward always to the next place to which God is calling us. Forward to the next thing we need, the next terrain we are meant to add to the growing wisdom of our souls and blessings of our lives.
Think about Mel, Elizabeth, and Vicki going back to school. It may appear sometimes as more of a valley than a green pasture to them, but they trust it will lead to more of an abundance in their lives down the path God is taking them.
Think about Karen discerning what’s next for her in retirement, and Elena and Linda always taking on new adventures in their retirement. Always ready to embrace new things and continue to seek the Lord.
Think of letting a child finally grow up, whether by starting in the workplace or getting married, and what it takes to let go and give him or her over to the love and shepherding of God.
There are so many ways God coaxes and calls us to change, to embrace growth, to take the next step in our own journey of faith. And when we embrace the blessings God is sending our way, when we take the opportunities we are given and see how God is present and comforting and leading us in our lives, we turn more and more to Jesus as the source of our strength. We claim more and more from our relationship with Him, and experience the abundance of His blessings.
God has a destination in store for us, and then one after that, and then another one after that. A valley to get through or still water for us to drink from. He has green fields for our rest and a feast for our tables.
But then God has to get us there. And that has to do with how our wills and God’s will manage to work together. The shepherd calls, coaxes, pressures, and pushes.
And the question is do we believe? That God is with us in the valley. That his rod and staff comfort us. That surely goodness and mercy will flow into our lives. And that in our final destination, we will look back on the geography of our whole lives, and dwell in the house of the Lord forever.