Sunday, May 12, 2019

Shepherds, sheep, and cats

Sunday, May 12, 2019

In my search for images about eternal life, I found this cartoon. I couldn’t resist sharing it.


Today, I want to talk about relationships. We have relationships with our parents and grandparents [Happy Mothers’ Day!], with our siblings, with our neighbors, with our coworkers, with our church family, and so forth.


Jesus talks about relationships by talking about sheep and shepherds. But, I don’t know much about sheep, so it makes sense to talk about cats, which I do know something about.




This is a picture of our cats, Miss Kitty Russell and Marshall Matt Dillon. Miss Kitty is the calico, on the left. In this picture, they are sleeping on one of the blankets we keep on the end of our bed just for them. Sometimes they sleep there, sometimes they choose other spots, like next to my pillow.


Kitty and Matty are siblings, from the same mother but different fathers, different litters, so they have always had a relationship with each other. And they have a relationship with us. We adopted them from the shelter when they were 4 and 10 months old. They are now 5 and 5-1/2 years old. They are not lap cats, but they like to be close to us.


They know how to ask for treats and get them, more often than they should, because it delights us to give good things to them. They depend on us, and we know how empty the house is without animals. We have a relationship with each other based on love and trust.



Shepherds and sheep have relationships as well, perhaps similar to the relationship Mike and I have with our cats. Though, I suspect that most shepherds don’t want sheep on their beds! Shepherds make sure the sheep have good grazing land, moving them to fresh fields every few months. They shear the sheep yearly and check their health. I once got to assist a friend in the birth of a lamb. That was pretty awesome! My friend knows her sheep, and they know her.


Like a shepherd, Jesus tells us he knows us; he knows every single sheep in his flock, the human ones as well as the ovine ones. In the same way that shepherds train their sheep to follow their voice, and only their voice, Jesus wants us to follow only his voice.




How do we know it is Jesus’ voice and not someone else’s voice? Above all, Jesus’ true voice will offer love and grace for all, however we hear it. His true voice will not tell us we are better than others. His true voice will not tell us to harm others or ourselves. His true voice will tell us how much he loves us. His true voice till tell us about welcoming and loving strangers as well as the people we know.


It takes practice to hear his voice, It takes having a relationship, and it takes exposing ourselves to his voice often to really hear it. Sometimes, we hear Jesus’ voice, but don’t know it is his. Sometimes, we tune out his voice because he is saying things we don’t want to hear. Sometimes, we are too busy talking to let his voice enter the conversation.


Last weekend, Pastor Rob Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Evangelical Mission, talked at the Pinelands Conference Gathering about the importance of contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is silent prayer, first listening for God’s presence, then listening to God’s message. His suggestion is 20 minutes, twice a day.


Some people enjoy contemplative prayer. Most people find they prefer to pray in other ways: bagging food for the homeless, or singing hymns and praise songs, or studying the Bible. Many people start the day with a Scripture reading and a prayer based on the reading. Many people spend time asking God to heal loved ones, and to bring peace to the world. Most people say tiny prayers all day long, like “thank you” and “help!” And “wow!” These are good ways to pray and I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with them.


I am suggesting contemplative prayer is another way to pray that can help us have a different kind of relationship with God. The ability, the passion, for contemplative prayer is often a gift from God. But it can be learned by anyone, and I encourage you all to try it. It is through this more intentional prayer time that we learn to hear to God more easily because we are still, quiet, enough for our hearts to listen.



To get started, try setting aside just a few minutes each day. Most of us can spare five minutes for God! Maybe you need to start even shorter than that, maybe just a minute or two. Light a candle to remind yourself that God will be present. Take a couple slow, deep breaths. Say hello to God as you would to any friend. And wait in silence.


A breath prayer can help you focus and chase away the distractions. For example, on your breath in silently pray, “Be still and know” and on your breath out pray, “that I am God.” [Practice breath prayer]


Try to practice this daily, even two or three times a day. You are spending time with Jesus. He will welcome you whenever you come, and for however long you stay. As you become accustomed to taking, making!, time for God, I hope you will discover you like it and want to do more of it. You can add time each week or month as you get used doing to contemplative prayer.


During this silent prayer, it is best if you try not to make a list of how God should fix all the things that are broken in the world. When this happens (and it will!) forgive yourself, go back to your breath prayer, and start again.


I hope you will practice contemplative prayer this week. It’s called practice because you are not expected to be perfect at it. Next week, or even during the week, let me know how it is going. You can call, or email, or send me a Facebook message. I will check back with you in a week or two, so don’t forget, and don’t give up!




Frequent prayer leads into knowing we are experiencing eternal life. Many people think eternal life happens only after we die, and they spend their lives trying to be good enough to make it into heaven.


But, for Jesus, eternal life is living in relationship with Jesus, right now, today, as well as living with Jesus after we die. We have no idea what heaven looks like. Yes, Jesus told some stories about heaven, but they are not necessarily accurate descriptions. They are more like his parables, stories with a pointed message. Most of our images of heaven come from Dante and John Milton, not scripture.


Because we believe in Jesus, we already have earned our way into eternal life, so let’s enjoy it now. Knowing we have God’s love and grace, we respond by being Jesus’ hands and feet. We spend time serving as Jesus’ justice fighters. We spend time creating pictures and dance and music, expressing Jesus’ love through art. And, we learn to spend significant time in prayer, listening for Jesus and to what he has to say to us.




In this time of transition for St Matthew’s, it is important to have as many people involved in praying as possible. I hope you will intentionally pray, not for the right pastor, but for God’s vision for St Matthew’s to be made clear. God will send the right pastor to develop the vision.


Eternal life will come through prayer, whether you are praying silently, with your hands, or in Bible study. Eternal life will come, indeed it is present, because you / we all have a relationship with Jesus. How will you, the people of St Matthew’s Lutheran Church, find eternal life today and into the future? How will you help others in the community find eternal life?