Last weekend I had the pleasure to join other family together in Appleton, Wisconsin to celebrate our cousin Britta as she affirmed her baptism and was confirmed. Making the day a little more special was that my uncle, Pastor Jeff Tengesdal, was the preacher for the day. I loved his sermon so much that I wanted to share it all with you. Jeff serves First English Lutheran Church and was preaching at the church’s “North Site” that morning. His sermon below was for Easter 4, based on Psalm 23 and John 10:10b-18. I hope you enjoy this sermon, as I believe it is rich with neighbor love imagery, stewardship thoughts, vocational questions and reflection. Thank you Uncle Jeff for letting me share this message on my blog!
There is a wolf nipping at our heels. It nips at the heels of most – if not every one of us – here. This wolf says, “You are not good enough. You have no worth.” This wolf is one that Jesus the Good Shepherd wants to protect us from.
When I was first a pastor near Williston, North Dakota, I also was a counselor for Lutheran Social Services. One day a Lutheran pastor had an appointment with me. She was feeling down. Lifeless. Really low energy. She recounted the ways she felt like she wasn’t up to the job of being a pastor and all the things that made her unworthy. At some point, I stopped her. I said to her, “You are enough. You are enough in God’s eyes.” Once upon a time, a couple of years before, it had been helpful for me to hear that. It surprised me how much it touched this pastor. She started crying. She took a deep breath and said, “Wow, I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that.”
There’s one thing I most want you to hear today. I want you to hear you are worthy of love and belonging. Here in church – and we don’t always get it right – may be the only place you will ever hear the words most clearly: You are worth of love and belonging.
This is not what we normally hear, and it’s not what we normally believe. Think about it. If our boss reviews our performance and gives us 49 “awesome’s” and 1 “opportunity for growth,” which are you going to remember? The opportunity for growth. Because we have been persuaded by a wolf of the world that we are not smart enough, strong enough, attractive enough, worthy enough, patient enough, or whatever enough.
I have to say, I think part of the problem is how we parent. We hold our newborn and we say, “Isn’t this the most perfect baby in the whole wide world?” Then we don’t let go of perfect. Either for our child’s sake, or for our sake, we want her to make the varsity team by 5th grade and the U. of Chicago by 7th grade. Perfection is not our job. Our job is to say, “You are imperfect, as am I. Even so, you are worthy of love and belonging.”
Today is sheep day. Good Shepherd day. Aside from John 3:16, probably the most famous scripture is the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” What does this mean? The Lord is your shepherd, you shall not want. You shall not be in want. You shall have enough. You shall be enough.
We need to hear that every day, because every day the wolf nips at our heels. I remember my 8th grade year. Don, one of my classmates, out of the blue started calling me a wimp. It was a cruel thing to say, and I let it bother me. I wondered what was wrong with me. I began to think I should be more athletic. I should be more popular. Most of us here – probably all of us – should on ourselves a lot. I even catch myself doing it these days. Yesterday, I caught myself thinking I should be more patient waiting in the drive-through lane. Here’s another one that hooks me: “Pastors should be fascinated by everything everyone has to say.” Shoulds. Shoulds. Shoulds nip at our heels everyday.
Jesus says, “Wolves will snap. Those whom you thought were there for you will run away or cause you to feel shame. But I won’t. I am the Good Shepherd. I lay down my life for my sheep. You are worthy of my death. You are worthy of love and belonging.”
Love and belonging. Like a flock of sheep. The other day I had the privilege of talking to a sheep guy. Until recently, this sheep guy had 26 good friends with woolly coats. One of the first things he explained to me about sheep is that they are a community. Even though each of the sheep has a different personality – some lead, some are curious, some like to stand in the background and watch – they like to be together.
It reminds me of the new research that’s been done on community. Twice in the past month I’ve heard research shows we are biologically wired to be in community. It’s why we’re here. God wired us to be connected. It’s part of the abundant life Jesus brings.
Community, however, is destroyed by the wolf. The wolf’s name is shame. Shame goes like this: Is there something about me that, if others knew or saw it, they wouldn’t want to be connected to me? I am afraid to show you my real self. I’m afraid to be fully in community.
I hope you know and believe Jesus the Good Shepherd is stronger and bigger than that wolf. This is what he says. “Don’t be afraid. Even though you walk through dark valleys with wolves nipping at your heels, don’t be afraid; for I am with you.” And he goes on to say, “I know you. I know your name. I know you are imperfect. So what? You are worthy of love and belonging. You are worthy of my life and death.”
This past week I asked my son what I should preach about today. He said, “Preach about the Lord of the Rings.” I asked, “What about the Lord of the Rings?” He said, “I don’t know. That’s your job.”
It got me to thinking about the movie. I remembered a scene in the second part of the trilogy. The forest is dark. The hobbit Frodo follows the elf-queen Galadriel down the steps to a basin. Galadriel takes up a silver pitcher and uses it to draw water from a fountain. She pours the water into the basin. Then she encourages Frodo to look into the water. She says something like this: “The water . . . it will show you what has been, what is, and some of what will be.”
Today you affirm your baptism. The water shows you what has been. In your baptism God has made you a sheep of the flock. And the water shows you what is. Jesus is your Good Shepherd. That’s what is. And the water shows some of what might be. I don’t know what specifics the future holds for you, but I do know some of what will be. Here, in the flock, in this community of faith . . . here will be one of the very few places where you will hear you are worthy of love and belonging.