Green Pasture or Shadow Valley

(Psalm 23; John 10:11-18) – J G White
Sunday, Earth Day, April 22, 2018 – UBC Digby

Rev. Laura McCue introduced us to a wonderful movie this year.  All Saints.  A true story of a little Episcopal Church in Tennessee; I would like to show it to you sometime.  A new priest is sent to the church. His work: to care for the handful of people, and to sell off their building and everything in it.

All Saints

All Saints

But, one of the surprises that comes along is this: the dying Anglican congregation takes their lovely few acres of land and plants a farm.  The shadow of death that hangs over the church seems to become a green pasture. That’s just part of the story.  When that little church’s crop was ready to be harvested, a torrential rain came, the creek rose, and the people panicked. Their farm was going to be ruined!  

I won’t tell you the whole story; no ‘spoiler alert’ needed.  You’ll just have to see the film.

Today is Earth Day.  I have two questions today.  The first is this: Is the universe friendly?  Is creation basically good to us, or bad to us? Green pasture or valley of the shadow of death?

We do live in a deadly world.  Shelley Maas remarked last week: five people from the area she knew died on April 14th!  Five on the same day. And the illnesses and injuries we hear about among those we know sometimes seem to pile up far too much.  

And “man’s inhumanity to man” is still with us.  People harming and killing other people. On Thursday I attended the amazing one-man show called “Solitary Refinement.”  It is the story of a man imprisoned and tortured for fourteen years, in the mid twentieth century, in Russia. The audience was reminded that the story of the persecuted church continues in our day and age, in many parts of the world.  I recently heard Father Vincent tell of the terrible violence and oppression against Christians in his home nation of Nigeria, in Africa.

Of course, every race and faith group suffers.  In places like the Middle East violence continues.  Digby resident Shekrallah K_____ had one of his nephews killed last week in their hometown, in Syria.  

Humans have sometimes thought themselves the pinnacle of creation, the crowning glory of what God has made.  But we know how terrible and dangerous we are.

Is creation – us included – friendly or not?  It is a mixed bag, a variety, a dangerous / beautiful place.  Thank God we learn to sing, from deep inside:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way;
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll…
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul.  

There is good and ill for us all in all things.  So we look for guidance. A way through this life.  A Good Shepherd. For thousands of years now people have sung, to hundreds of different tunes: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.  

Our faith and experience confirm what we read in Psalm 23 and John 10: we have a Good Shepherd for the green pastures and for the ‘shadow of death’ valleys.  

It is a faith statement to declare: the Universe is good.  It is beautiful. It is for us, not against us.  Our knowledge of God as Creator and Shepherd gives us hope when all seems lost.  Gives us purpose when we are blind to why things happen. Gives us connection to everything when we seem torn apart.

Time for the second question today, Earth Day.   After ‘is the universe friendly?’ we ask ourselves: Are we friendly to the universe?  Are we mainly good in creation, or bad for it?

What do you say?  Is the planet better for having people on it, or not?  And why? Say more…

In the role of preacher I could speak from Psalm 23 of the soul-restoring qualities of nature. Of the right paths of care for creation. Of the valley of the shadow we have created by our pollution and destruction and extinction of life.  Of this creation that does provide everything we need. This could be my sermon.

But Psalm 23 is not actually concerned with the environment, with creation.  It is concerned with people and God. We cannot impose environmental- ism on the Bible.  But the setting of Psalm 23 is our familiar natural world: the hills and fertile valleys, the sheep and the humans who shepherd them, and the deadly wild places.

Our experience in the world is real and true: our breathing, our feasting, our enjoyment of beauty and our amazement at what is awesome.  And the Good Shepherd who guides our human lives, our spirits, is the Lover of all creation.

As a faith family what do we do?  We are believers in a Creator; how do we as a church live within creation?  
Find ways to use less oil and electricity.
Find ways to use up less paper.
Find ways to use up less plastic.  
Share a building with other churches.  
Educate and inspire people about earth care.
Get active in community clean-ups and so forth.
Speak up in our province about the important issues – be prophets, whether we are listened to or not.

There are new ways we have learned through the years.  We take better care and walk lightly upon the earth. What is different now from when you were a kid?  How do we live now as better stewards of earth?

If a congregation were to take creation seriously, we would set a new goal each year – perhaps on every Earth Day, April 22nd – and act on it.  Take a good step, change our habits and ways of doing things: every year make progress. Just as you and I can do in our own lives.

What could our next step be?  

Share some ideas…

We people can be a good thing for Earth; make green pastures instead of creating valleys of death.  Do you hear the Shepherd calling us in that direction?

In the name of God: Creator who keeps creating, the Firstborn of all Creation, and the Spirit brooding over the chaos.  Amen.

Holy Week Concert

Holy Week Concert
With Carol Dondale
Accompanied by Cairine Robertson
Noon, Wednesday, March 28, 2018 ~ Digby Baptist Church

Welcome to our Holy Week Concert, featuring soloist Carol Dondale, accompanied by Cairine Robertson on the piano.
This time draws our attention to the story of Jesus in the week of His pain and execution. There are many paths we can take to follow Him, many stories from scripture that can guide our personal devotions. The songs Carol has chosen tell the story in their own creative way, and instill a response in our souls.
I chose to punctuate the music with the Psalms. As the ‘hymnbook,’ so to speak, of the Jews, is was, of course, Jesus’ hymn book also. Twentieth Century theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, taught that the secret of the Psalms, for the Christian disciple, is to remember we are hearing Jesus pray, whenever we read these ancient poems.
So we start with words of Psalm 25, and work our way back through a few pages, as Jesus descends into the depths and darkness of His suffering and death. Christ knew these words at least as well as we do. Listen for his heart at prayer with the Psalms today. And listen for your own soul, praying with Him.

The way of God: Psalm 25:1-5

Just before the music begins, let us pray.
To You, O LORD, we do lift up our souls. With the songs of the day, may we ponder anew what You, Almighty, can do. You lay aside might and power and control, and show yourself in a Man who submits to rejection and execution. Lift up our hearts to have hope: that violence may cease, blaming can end, and light shine out of darkness in our world.
In Jesus’ name. AMEN.

I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked

That classic devotional song inspires our sanctified imagination. We imagine ourselves in those Bible scenes. We picture them as best we can. And, sometimes, the presence of the Holy One shows us something new we had not found before.
The next song is one of my many favourites, among the wealth of English hymnody. We have here the scene of Jesus welcomed into the City that holy week, long ago, the people waving branches and calling out to Him.
Psalm 24 is one of my own favourite Psalms, with its words of welcome into the Temple of worship. In your mind’s eye see the King of Glory coming in. Not the glory of battles won by violence, but the glory of bowing down to enter the desperate human plight.

Entering the gates: Psalm 24:7-10

My Song Is Love Unknown

‘Tis Midnight: and on Olive’s Brow is still in hymn books today – including ours here. It has an interesting lyric, to me. As it reflects on Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives, it says:
yet he that hath in anguish knelt
is not forsaken by his God.
Though we sometimes speak, and sing, otherwise, we find that God the Father does not desert God the Son. The whole Trinity of love and power is seen in Jesus, as He dies. In Jesus we see God, and Love.
So our beloved Psalm 23 is very fitting. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me…. Remember again, Jesus knew this poem as well as we do.

The darkest valley: Psalm 23:1-6

‘Tis Midnight; and on Olive’s Brow

It is the time of the Saviour’s woe. The end has come. One of His so called ‘seven words from the Cross’ is the first phrase from Psalm 22. We are told Jesus said this out loud. For other Jews watching that day, who knew the Psalms, it would bring to mind the whole prayer of desperation and deliverance. In our Bibles this lyric is two pages long. It cries out about a horrible situation, at great length. But ends with trust.
For the moment – this moment of Jesus’ death – let us hear the first eight verses.

Abandonment: Psalm 22:1-8

They Crucified My Lord

This ‘greatest story ever told’ is, I believe, intended to touch every person’s story. Your life story. My life story. Where love needs to break in, it breaks in.
Our own late poet, Leonard Cohen, famously sang
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in (Anthem, 1992)
Flipping back the pages, the biblical poet next gives us a Psalm of Thanksgiving for Victory. Is that what you see in the Cross of Jesus? Psalm 21 has a word in it, one of the greatest words in the ancient Hebrew language of the Bible: Hesed. ‘Steadfast love’ is the best we can do to translate it. This Psalm is actually about their king. With Christ we can see a King, very different from others, who is all about this holy ‘steadfast love.’

Steadfast love: Psalm 21:4-7

How Deep the Father’s Love for Us

Jesus, beyond the Cross, lives, we Christians say. We say it with our whole lives, not just our words, eh? A prayer for victory such as Psalm 20 uses phrases about our answers, our help, our favour, our heart’s desire, our petitions. Down in our heart of hearts, where hurts can be hidden, it is there that Holiness meets us, joins us, heals us, shines with inner light.
Jesus is the anointed one – Messiah and Christ are just two other words for the Anointed One. He rises and stands upright. He lives within my heart.

Your heart’s desire: Psalm 20:1, 4-8

He Lives Within My Heart

Now let us go out to love and serve the Lord. Even in this dark and holy week. Thanks to Carol and Cairine for this musical program they prepared. I think the journey has been not only beautiful, but personal.
The tables are prepared in the hall for us to share our lunch with one another. Join us for this feast of fellowship. Amid the chatting and munching, may we know that a shared meal is also a holy and gracious time.
Prayer of acceptance: Psalm 19:14

Let us have grace for the meal.
Jesus: for the feast of music and scripture we give thanks. For the unity of sisters and brothers we rejoice. And for the generosity of food at Your tables we bow with gratitude. AMEN.

What Pleases God

Lent 4 (Ps 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; Matthew 25:14-30)

March 26, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White

Try to find out what is pleasing to God.  

A dear old friend and mentor of mine, who is now dead, spent much of his career as a divinity college professor, in Wolfville, teaching theology to up-and- coming pastors, for 32 years. (M. R. Cherry) Well into his retirement, he was always asked back to teach one lecture a year in a certain class.  The lecture was on “the will of God.”  After his death, as my family went through his papers to send to the university archives, a long-time friend of the professor asked, “If you ever see anything from his lecture on the will of God, save it for me, make me a copy of it, please.”

It has been claimed that if a church offers a study group on “how to know the will of God for your life,” people will flock to it, and some will come back again and again, whenever it is offered.  (Dallas Willard)

D’you suppose this is still the case?  Do devoted followers of the Master still strive to know what the plan is for their lives?  And day to day? I wonder if younger generations of Christians – people my juniour – are as much interested as many of us have been.

Seeking God’s will for my life was a basic thing I was taught, by all the methods of my local Baptist Church, as I grew up. Something God had were plans for my whole life, and for each day.  A path to be revealed.  Right ways and wrong ways to choose.

Amid the serious warnings of Ephesians ch. 5 – about moral behaviour and sensible communication – the letter-writer says:  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Along with the generic morals and ethics of human life that we seek to know and live by, are the particular things for me to do, for you to do, that please God.  That’s the way it is, ain’t it?

Our grandson is four years old today.  When he comes to visit, he is very active.  He spends a lot of time doing things that are completely within the will of Nana Sharon and Papa Jeff, though we often don’t need to tell him just what to do.  He wants to play hockey in the hallway, with his net, hockey sticks, puck, and little soccer balls, and a few other toys.  Fine.  Then he goes to tap on the piano.  Then he comes to the kitchen for a snack.  Next he gets out a remote control car.  Fine.  He is free and within our will.  Now, when it is time for bed, or time to leave, he may want something else. Then, Nana and Papa’s will gets enforced. 🙂  Much of the time he is free to do whatever his enthusiastic heart desires.  

We read a contemporary wording of Psalm 23 today, and we focus upon that common biblical picture, of being a sheep of the Good Shepherd.  Every Sunday the choir and I are here, and get to gaze at a stained-glass image of a pale, european-looking Shepherd holding a sheep.  The church I grew up in also had a stained-glass picture of Jesus as a shepherd with sheep.

We who know this experience – the church experience – get to know this Good Shepherd and sheep paradigm.  Jesus speaks this: I know the sheep and the sheep know me.  The sheep know the Shepherd’s voice.  They don’t heed strangers.

Indeed.  It is a great image.  And if we think about it for a minute, we realize something about the guidance and the freedom of sheep with a shepherd.

Let me tell you a bit of a story I may have told before; I’m not sure.  One of the many stories out there about a children’s Christmas pageant.  This one is set in a Presbyterian Church in the Midwest.  Every child who wanted a part in the play, got a part…

Then there were the sheep: a couple dozen three-, four-, and five-year-olds who had on wooly, fake- sheepskin vests with wooly hoods and their dads’ black socks pulled up on their arms and legs. The Pageant was a lot of things, but smooth it wasn’t. And one of the chief problems was these very sheep… The only sheep most suburban kids have ever seen are on the front of Sunday church bulletin covers: peaceful, grazing sheep who just stand there and look cute and cuddly.

Half of the kids here live on farms. They’ve seen real sheep, many of them. They know that sheep don’t just stand there. They know that sheep don’t often follow directions. They know that sheep are dumb. They know that all sheep want to do is eat.

So, when the young mothers casually instructed the two dozen sheep to act like sheep, they really should have known better. Some of the sheep started to do a remarkable imitation of grazing behind the communion table. Some wandered over by the choir to graze, and others went down the center aisle. Some of them had donuts they found in the church parlor to make the grazing look even more realistic. When one of the shepherds tried to herd them a bit with his shepherd’s crook, some of the sheep spooked and started to scatter just like real sheep do. Everybody knows that’s how sheep act. It was, in fact, a remarkable imitation of sheep behaviour, even though a bit out of the ordinary for a Christmas Pageant. (Michael Lindvall, Good News from North Haven, 1992, pp).  

Sheep guided by a shepherd have a lot of freedom to be sheep.  Even when the Shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and we, a Church, are the sheep.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  Even the Shepherd’s grace and mercy shall pursue me, follow me, not lead me.  

So, the desire for the total will of God in our lives can go too far.  Trying to find out what pleases God, we can try too hard.  It is possible to try too hard to hear from the Holy Spirit.

Some Christians want a message-a-minute.  Every waking hour, every little chapter of the day, what is the will of God?  I knew a person who was rather obsessed with this – looking for the Spirit to guide her every step, every choice, moment by moment.  And she thought she was getting that kind of guidance.  

But I have also met those meek folk who seem so fearful and guilty of doing little things wrong every day.  Not saying the right thing to the person she met at the post office.  Saying the wrong thing when so-and-so called on the phone.  A day of probably many, many sins against the mysterious will of God for that individual’s life!

Some believers want to say it’s all in the Bible.  Every bit of guidance we need is here, and everything here is guidance for my life and yours.  No wonder people through all the centuries have played Bible roulette, finding specific divine guidance by pointing their finger at a random page.  

Other folk want to believe whatever comes is God’s will. God is sovereign, in control, King of the world, and God’s will will be done.  Something good happens – God is blessing us.  Something bad happens – God means it for good in the future, or is at least teaching us a lesson now.  

This can take us to a point of not being responsible anymore for our actions, for our life.  Everything is of God: God’s will, God’s plan, God’s guidance.  Every prayer ends with “if it be Your will, Lord,” and so, whatever happens must be God’s will, because God stops all the wrong things from happening.  Only God is left responsible for what happens in our lives.  

As ordinary sheep in the pasture of our Extraordinary Shepherd, we still have a lot of freedom, within the plans of God for us, within our guidelines.  God gives us responsibility, and options, all the time.  God wants us to take initiative, to choose, to enjoy freedom

We sat at Jesus feet today, and heard his Parable of the Talents, recorded in Matthew 25.  Oh, what a chapter that is, with its three big stories from Christ.  Today’s, read by Peter, is a story of investment and initiative and responsibility.  Many a preacher and Bible teacher has instructed us on the skillful talents we have, and how they should be used.  Being musical, or organized, or personable, or prayerful.  The story is about pieces of money called ‘talents.’  Perhaps we should call it the parable of the loonies.  Except one ‘talent’ was worth far more than a labourer would make in a whole year.  

Anyway, it is the slaves given more money, who invested it, used it, and made more, who are commended.  The one who did nothing but keep the one loonie safe is scolded.  He failed.  

Did he do the will of the master?  When the master left them all in charge of things, they were not told what to do.  They were left with freedom.  Freedom to take some initiative, to make their own plans and see them through.  The one slave who simply kept his loonie hidden away failed… failed to take initiative and do something worthwhile.  And he could not be trusted with more the next time.  But the slave who used 5 loonies well was given more.  That servant was creative and did what seemed good, without being told what to do.

I shall always remember Industrial Arts in high school.  One year, grade 9, I suppose, we were in a new woodworking shop.  I think our teacher’s favourite word was ‘initiative.’  It was his agenda, along with the skills of the woodshop, to inspire initiative in us boys.  (Yes, in 1985 it was only boys in Industrial Arts.)  Figure out something to do next, without being told.  

Our Creator God is like my teacher then – a Creator who wants us to become creators.  Wants to mold us, more and more, into people who can take new paths and decide on the next steps for ourselves.  It takes time, and training, and sometimes even testing of our initiative.  It is our character development.

I think Jesus got at this one other time. Again, we have to put ourselves back in time, into an old culture of slaves and masters.  There, Jesus once asked, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”  (Lk 17:7-10)

When we have done only what God has dictated for us to do, we are not to be commended?  There is more for us to do than what God decrees. Yes, indeed.

God is very pleased when we are at a stage to be trusted with more.  More responsibility.  More of our own decisions that are still within ‘the will of God.’  More initiative to live the good life in the Kingdom of God in the here and now.  

John 8:31, 32 Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  

It pleases God to give us freedom.  To train us for freedom.  To welcome us as apprentices in the divine woodshop.  Learning the ways of the Carpenter, and learning to be creative.  

May God’s Kingdom come: God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It pleases God to set us free.