March 22, 2020
Second Sermon at First Lutheran
“Our Shepherd of Hope”
Rev. Joshua Graber
Grace and peace in the name of God our Loving Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Well, it’s been another strange week for us as a church! This may have been the week that you have gone from curious about Covid-19 and its spread to the realities of staying indoors in social isolation with the rest of the world, seeing the stock market have one of its worst weeks ever, and hearing the news that people are starting to die in Wisconsin due to this new virus. Unfortunately, on Friday, I received news that the first person to die on Covid-19 in Milwaukee was a member of an ELCA Lutheran congregation. This is definitely hitting home, while all of us are staying in our homes. It may seem like we went from the height of modern comfort to the dark ages in a week. It’s scary.
There’s been blame and anger represented in many of the leaders in our country and other nations. It’s hard to watch when these are the people we see on TV trying to explain this to us, but we also have seen calm leadership and wisdom that we are grateful for.
In times like this, we are reminded that we need a shepherd, and we are grateful for the shepherd we have in Jesus.
In our Old Testament lesson, we hear the story of a similar situation. Samuel the prophet has reluctantly anointed Saul as king over Israel. God does not want there to be a king but the people call out for this centralized power and united kingdom, as other nations have. So Samuel anoints Saul king. Saul is a man that looks the part: tall, handsome and a strong warrior. He leads the Israelites to victories. But Saul begins to trust in his own strength. He does not wait for Samuel before a battle and does not follow the commands of the prophet, but rather trusts his own wisdom and judgment. So God turns his favor from Saul and sends Samuel to anoint a new king.
Samuel goes to Bethlehem and God tells him to go to Jesse’s family because the next king of Israel is among his sons. Samuel meets each of the sons. It’s unclear whether this is an interview process. Samuel passes over each one, before asking, “Are there any more?” Now this has been panned as a sign that Samuel was deeply unimpressed, as if he was saying “Really, is this the best you’ve got!?” But God has instructed Samuel to know who is the chosen person based on their heart rather than appearance or any normal interview results. Jesse tells him the youngest is out with the flock. Samuel waits and when he comes back, Samuel knows this boy is the one that God chooses and anoints David.
David does not go with Samuel or take up a throne—which seems a little anticlimactic. As I hear this story, I think of the farming families I knew when I was growing up in rural Western Wisconsin. I can imagine the brothers and Jesse looking at each other and saying, “Well, that was weird,” and then going back to work.
We hear in the next chapter how David comes to the king’s camp. Saul, after losing the blessing of God, has a troubled spirit, and, the text says, an evil spirit torments him. Perhaps he is thinking of the Philistine army coming near and a confrontation awaiting without the blessing of the Lord on him. Perhaps he is thinking of memories of bloodshed and battle. Whatever the reason, Saul does a curious thing. He asks for music. Saul asks for someone to play the harp for him. Someone who is from Judah, knows Jesse’s family and says that he knows that the youngest son is gifted in music. Guess who that musician is?… so that is the story of how Saul sends for David, a musician who will be king.
So it is not military skill or political ambition that brings David to the king’s presence, it is his skill as an artist and musician. David is sent off from Jesse to the king and he plays music for Saul and the king is comforted.
I don’t know how many of you have leaned on art and music to get you through this strange experience of social isolation, but I assume many of you have fears and worries like Saul did. We can empathize with him. In this story, we hear that David has an artist’s heart and loves to play music to express his feelings. Many of the psalms are attributed to him. When Martin Luther was challenged about whether his love of music and song was appropriate, he pointed to David as an example and said that song, music and art had a central place in the life of discipleship. After all the Bible tells us that God chose David’s artist heart because it was like God’s own. So how can we keep from singing, when God loves music and art?
How will we cope with this time of social isolation, where fears of the future may creep in and torment us from time to time? How will we support each other? I hope that music and the arts can be part of what we share to remind us of God’s heart, God’s love for us, and God’s love of human creativity. And I am working with leaders at First to find ways of sharing not just sermons and devotions, but ways of learning, growing spiritually and creatively! We need it. When I went to Bible school in Seattle, a couple of decades ago, I volunteered at an organization called Real Change. Real Change was a homeless empowerment project that was an international model for homeless newspapers, but it also gave those experiencing poverty and homelessness opportunities to share their artistic voice with a broader community. The motto of Real Change was “Bread and Roses for the Poor”. We need art and chances for self-expression, in order to be fully alive and to live into the life that Jesus invites us to—an Abundant Life that we share.
During this strange time, while we have been facing difficult decisions and trying to learn new practices for washing hands, surfaces, and safe distances I have been thinking of my grandmother a lot. Whenever I see a young person not taking this seriously I try to say, “If you aren’t worried about this for yourself, then worry for your grandma!” But of course it is convenient to blame a younger generation when we know ignorance and defiance of rules is not just with the young but all ages. But this virus does not discriminate and it can make anyone sick. We are all in this together and that’s the only way we will defeat this unseen enemy.
But back to my grandma…
My grandmother moved next door to me when I was in 6th grade. I remember in 7th or 8th grade I went over to do an interview with her for a school project. We were supposed to interview someone who had lived through World War II. My grandma had lived through World War II… but just barely. She, my grandfather and aunt Maren, spent most of the war in prison camps in the Philippines [I will tell more of that story next week]. But my grandparents had also been in the European theater as well.
After my grandfather graduated from seminary and they got married, the couple went to Norway, spending their extended honeymoon at a folk school in Norway [I’ll talk more about folk schools next week too!]. One day they were out cross-country skiing and they looked up and saw planes overhead. A closer look revealed that the planes were from the German Army. Norway was being invaded!
My grandparents were part of a group of Americans that devised a plan to get out of Norway by going through Nazi Germany by train, pretending to be Norwegians. They were able to get to Florence, Italy and from Italy to Spain and from Spain back to the United States.
Even with all that drama and the drama that met them in the Pacific months later, when I interviewed my grandmother, the part of her story that she emphasized and that stuck with me the most, was a story of what happened when they reached Italy.
My grandmother told me of the relief that the party felt getting through Nazi Germany, but they knew they were still in the middle of Mussolini’s fascist Italy, so they hardly felt safe. They were all experiencing the shock and the terror of an unknown future taking over the world like a dark cloud. In the midst of staying indoors and planning the next part of this escape journey, my grandparents, newlyweds that they were, decided to take the opportunity to see at least some of the art in Florence.
They went to the outdoor statue of the David by the Renaissance artist Michaelangelo. They looked up at this statue of the Biblical figure of David, and they took in the timeless beauty of this art, which is known as one of the greatest sculptures of all time [If you have a smart phone or computer feel free to search for an image of this sculpture now]. After awhile, my grandfather wanted to leave to get more errands done, but my grandmother found herself unable to leave. She asked him to leave her there with the David a little longer.
My grandmother said she spent most of the day in the presence of that statue, soaking in its beauty as a meditation on the goodness of humanity. The good that we humans can create. To her the statue was a light in a dark world. All around her she saw the terror of war and humans mistreating other humans growing. In the presence of the David, she absorbed the memories of the good, she absorbed the light and it gave her strength to face the fascist forces and threats of war with courage, hope and love.
She said that she thought of how many times of conflict and war that statue had survived. How much had changed in the world in the centuries since it was created. And yet, this art had survived all of that. It gave her hope for a future different than what she was currently experiencing. Now Italy is the epicenter of Covid-19 in Europe. I wonder how many Italians spent time looking at that same statue before they went indoors. I hope it gave them hope as it did my grandmother 80 years ago.
I hope we find similar hope in art during times when it may seem like the world is falling apart or that it will never be the same. I hope we can appreciate the light of art and also create together. And just like my grandmother felt hope in the presence of David, we are invited to be in the presence of Jesus, who shepherds us to hope during difficult times.
I hope with the blind man in the story from the Gospel of John today we can still be “astonished” at what God has done and is doing in our midst.
The blind man was given sight and felt free, even when others in authority tried to put him back in a prison of sin and isolation. He knew that he had been liberated and he had sight to see Jesus and be a witness to him in front of everyone. So much so that they say, “you were born entirely in sin and you are trying to teach us”. He playfully asks why they are asking him all these questions… “Do you want to be his disciples?”. The blind man sees hope. The blind man sees past the darkness of those that seek to reduce his value and into to the authority of Jesus’ healing power.
We are each invited into that power and presence wherever we are. Whether we are confined to our homes or in a prison cell somewhere, God has freed us with his love. God gives us the gift of each other, the gift of creativity and community to comfort and inspire each other during suddenly dark times. We are invited into a time where we suddenly have time, to reflect, to create, to look around us and see possibilities and hopes for the future. Even at the same time, we see the reality of a very real threat in our midst and remind each other to be vigilant against this threat.
The Letter to the Ephesians tells us, “For once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light—live as children of the light.”
When we were baptized, we hear these words from the Gospel of Matthew, “Let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” We are that light in the world. We can shine out from our homes in new ways together even if we are forced to be apart. The Good Shepherd knows who we are and where we are. Jesus continues to be with us and to surprise us with hope, comfort, love and all the gifts of his presence.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.
In response to the sermon I invite you to say out loud the words of the 23rd Psalm.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.