Lay It Down, So You Can Pick It Up

Acts 9:36-43 36Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Psalm 23
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Revelation 7:9-17 9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

John 10:22-30 22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”

Good morning, St. Matthew!
We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.

And so we pray.

Lord, this is a day when we are keenly aware of what has changed, is changing and of change to come. In the celebration of Mother’s Day, we are beginning to learn that the two-dimensional versions of motherhood we have celebrated have not only excluded many, but actually wounded some. And we are working to change our language and practice to end that isolation and pain. In a graduation, we are aware of endings and beginnings and how life is never static, but forever moving forward. We don’t like change, we like to pretend that there is a static, unchanging place where we can keep everything the same. But you don’t call us to that head buried in the sand, hide in a cave way life – you call us to a unknown faithful journey. Further, you promise us that we will never walk it alone. On this change filled morning, remind us of that accompaniment, and help us again to say “You, Lord, are my shepherd and I shall not want.”

As we gather on this Mother’s Day, there is a celebrity family that is in deep mourning for their mother. Winona and Ashley Judd are having to walk a valley of death that neither anticipated, and which, in fact, they named as being a journey in unknown territory. Their mother, Naomi Judd, took her life this past week, succumbing to the demon of depression. Later, Kurt will sing one of the Judds’ songs, called “Love Can Build A Bridge”. On the song, Naomi gets a song writing credit. Now I don’t know if you get how big a deal that is. In my theatre background, there are a few actors unions one can join, and they are good, but in the arts community, we all stood in awe of the Musicians Union. They do not play around – so if someone has a writing credit, you can be sure you are hearing the words they wanted to say. And this is important to know, because in this song, we hear her faith filled conviction that love is the power behind true connection and reconciliation.

That love based connection is unique to a Christian view of the world. For the Jesus believer, our world isn’t ordered by law, or karma, or retribution, or justification – but by loving grace. And that is not something that we humans accept easily. We look to literally every other explanation, before we will accept that God is standing there right in front of us saying, I love you. Let me help. And it should then come as no surprise that the people who hear that voice the best are the ones most in need. Naomi was in need. Depression is a real disease, an imbalance in the brain, but there are also life circumstances can that threaten to drag us under. Remember that her life was filled with pain and challenge. Her brother died of leukaemia when she was 17 and a year later, she was a new mom to Wynona in a shotgun marriage in Kentucky. Shortly after her second daughter, Ashley was born, she became a single mom. She then trained as a nurse, and through force of will, made her family into the stars they have become.

But that worldly voice that told her she was still that loser backwoods girl – remained. It was a snarly evil voice that spoke lies. Yet another voice was also there – and she recognised it as the Lord, speaking love and healing to her wounded soul. And like anyone drowning, she grabbed for that lifeline. Listen to her words: “I would swim out to save you in your sea of broken dreams/When all your hopes are sinking, let me show you what love means”. In a moment of need, she knows it isn’t law, or karma, or retribution, or justification that will lift her – it is love, the love that the Saviour offers, the love that can call us back from death to life, the love that walks with us no matter how deep the valley, the love that, when spoken, resonates so deeply within our hearts that every soul on earth and heaven vibrates with the tones and turns to it.

That is the voice that speaks in Jesus’ teaching, and to which the ones in need respond. The sheep of Jesus’ pasture are the ones who have come to the realisation that it is not their own cleverness that will save them – it is the loving grace of the Lord. At the induction of the Judds into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ashley stood with Wynona where Naomi was meant to be. And at the end of their speeches in which Wynona remarked in tears, how hard it was to stand in such a blessed moment with such a broken heart, she and Ashley concluded by reciting the 23rd Psalm, and many of those present joined in. Why is this psalm so often spoken in circumstances of death and loss? Because it is the most beautiful summation of what we know to be true in our bones; that even in the valley of the shadow of death, which is so heartbreakingly real, we are not abandoned or forsaken. That even in our most broken moment – we are blessed by a loving God.

In the English, we hear that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives”. And the unfortunate thing is, that as beautiful as the English version of the psalm is, it fails to capture the impact that the psalmist intended. The Hebrew verb used here is radaph – meaning “to chase after or pursue”. God’s grace doesn’t politely follow along behind us, quietly waiting to be noticed. No – God’s grace fiercely comes for us and will not let us go. There may be some who will say that Naomi Judd’s suicide was evidence that grace fails – but I am here to say to you that that is lie the world tells. God’s grace never let her go, even when she could not hang on to God. The grace that pursues us is stronger than anything that tries to pull us away from God – including death. Aren’t we Easter people? Aren’t we people who talk about the saving power of the Lamb? A seminary professor once told my class in Revelation, again and again the author sets the stage for a triumph, and when we all turn to see the entrance of the superhero, resplendent in cape and tights, we are instead given a sacrificed Lamb! Why? Because as the Scriptures lift up again and again, God is pursuing us with the reality that human power isn’t at work here – GOD’s power is! And God – to make the point clear that we aren’t in charge of this grace – continually uses the most contrary thing to drive the point home. Bloody lambs, crucified Saviours? That’s how God rolls! So if you think that death was the end of Naomi’s story – I got news for you. God was right there to catch her as she fell, and instead of that shadow valley having the last word – God’s voice booms – this is my beloved child, wrapped in my grace and surrounded by my love, and I will never let her go!

Lean into that understanding; those words that Paul writes to the Romans in chapter 8: 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. There are so many voices today that want to tell us how that’s not how it works; that’s not how any of this works. And it’s easy to give into those voices, to try and follow law, karma, retribution, or justification. The shelves are full of books that tell us what new thing to try, what new trend to follow. But a colleague, The Reverend Becca Erlich, has a book that challenges us all to rethink that grab as much you can mindset, and not just about physical things. In her book called Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living, she really challenged me personally to think not just about the stuff that clutters our lives, but the old beliefs, the outdated thinking, the retrograde stances that no longer serve the current moment and jam up the works. When Jesus sends the disciples out the first time in Mark chapter 6: 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff: no bread, no bag, no money in their belts, 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

Did you catch that? The disciples are to travel so light that they don’t even carry the dust of disappointment with them! What would such a faithful life look like? To trust that God will truly provide and to believe that we can set down all our worries about law, karma, retribution, or justification – and instead be caught by God’s pursuing grace and relentless love? It means that when we are challenged to think new thoughts and live new lives, we won’t hold onto past expectations. So when someone says “Mother’s Day hurts because I haven’t experienced motherhood in the ‘normal’ way” – we don’t dismiss them and tell them to get over it. It means that when a sibling tells you they live as nonbinary, and have preferred pronouns – we don’t dismiss them and tell them I can’t be bothered with all that. It means that when a sister has an abortion, we weep for the moments that brought her there and offer her our hand and our help – we don’t dismiss her with condemnation and judgement. It means that when a sibling of colour reports the systems we always thought were fair are most emphatically NOT – we don’t dismiss them and instead lean into how we can work together to realign those systems to become more equitable and just.

All of this means we have to lay down what we thought we knew to walk into a new, more faithful way. It means we have to ask ourselves what voice are we listening to – the voice of the world or the voice of the shepherd? God doesn’t promise us safety and unchallenged lives of ease – there will be crosses, valleys, and yes, death. But at no point in that journey does God stop pursuing us with their love nor chasing us with their grace. And in that pursuit, God never stops speaking. Let’s drop our expectations and shake the dust off our feet and listen for the voice that leads us through that valley to the table where our cups overflow.