Gratitude for the Shepherds

Fall harvest with the text "Let Us Give Thanks"

This sermon was presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on November 22, 2020.

As of Friday, 399,806 people have been tested for coronavirus in New Hampshire; 16,797 people have tested positive; 12,201 people have recovered; 108 people are currently hospitalized; and 3,981 people are walking around today with Covid-19 amongst a population of 1,359,711 people in the state of New Hampshire. According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human sources.

Yet the day before, Time magazine released an article saying over 70,000 people have been hospitalized nationwide; hospitals are understaffed; and outside morgues are filling up with people. These two stories paint a very different picture as we enter into this week of Thanksgiving and the beginning of our Advent season.

Amongst these stories, we received word this week from the NH UCC conference recommending an end to in-person worship until the end of the year- not an order from the NH Governor but a recommendation from our fellowship in the UCC conference.

A recommendation which the shepherds of our worship team have discerned, and our Vision and leadership team are currently discerning. 

But this call of discernment is not just about in-person worship, it is also about Thanksgiving; about how do we remain in community; about how to not only survive but grow in faith; and it is about how each and every shepherd who is listening to me right now will discern how we will each engage the world over the next few months during this second wave of covid-19, during this second time of isolation. 

To all of you righteous shepherds of God, I offer my unending gratitude. 

Before we go too far let us pray,

Eternal Shepherd clear our minds of the clutter of a thousand voices speaking and open our souls to Your pasture of eternal Grace. Let Your teachings become ingrained within our beings as we guide – teach – and become an example of Your loving heart. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You, God.

Beloved, the shepherds I am thanking today are not only the known leaders – the health care professionals – the teachers – but also, every one of you. For although our scripture often uses the terms sheep and flock to describe our fellowship, God did not make “sheep” out of Her followers – God created us as shepherds who righteously care for one another daily. We heard this call of the shepherd when we joined this congregational type fellowship. We live this fellowship each time we share our voice or lead a team. We share this fellowship of shepherding discipleship every moment we live as an example for others. And for all of these beautiful ways, you reveal this call – I am grateful and wish to say thank you.

But today, we are confronted with the difficult discernment around this second wave of isolation and coronavirus, mask use and Thanksgiving, faith and school traditions; we are confronted by these and I wonder what is motivating each and every one of your discernments. This wondering came about when I was in the grocery store this week and I witnessed people walking this way and that – not wearing masks – leaning over one another to take something off the shelf. At that moment, I assumed these people do believe Covid-19 is real. That they only follow the rules as far as they have too; so, they may avoid some external shaming from others. Similarly, I know some souls who have not seen anyone since March – avoid even socially distanced interaction and I assume this choice is due to the fear of contracting this disease from some external source. I assume the motivations in both these cases but only God and you know your motivation for your choices in this life.

And external rewards from not being ashamed to not getting sick – from good grades to being paid – from socializing to alone time can all be great temporary motivators for our actions. These types of motivations are of the Earth though – temporary and not the long-lasting motivations which God calls us to embrace as righteous shepherds.

An idea I invite you to consider as we look at today in our Christian calendar – a day which marks the ascension of Christ. Consider the motivations of the disciples in those days after Jesus had died on the cross and Christ ascended into Heaven to become one with God. I imagine there was fear and loneliness in the isolation which they had known when Jesus died and felt again as Christ left the Earth – And in those days, our fore parents – the first disciples each had to make a choice on how to remain as one community, as one people of God, as one fellowship. Was their motivation based on some external markers of circumcision, of sacrifice, of ritual cleansing or was it some internal call of the righteous Shepherd which Jesus revealed through his life, death, and ascension? 

Personally, I believe their motivation was based on the internal call as revealed in our passage from the book according to Matthew, a book of the Gospel attributed to one of Jesus’ first disciples from those days when our fellowship felt isolation and discerned how to remain in community. In this passage, the author reveals the Good News that God is calling each of us to make discernments not because we feel that it will get us into the kin-dom, ahead in life, or because someone says it is right. Rather, our discernment comes from within, it comes from the heart, comes from our faith as Shepherds both individually and as a way to encourage our community.

This message is shared through the passage telling of not just sheep; but the sheep of the right hand – the righteous who are surprised when they discover they were good to Christ – not for some external benefit – not for a golden ticket into the kin-dom; but because they followed in Christ’s path and were kind to another human being when they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the isolated people who were sick or prisoners. 

Furthermore, when we help out the least of those amongst us – not due to some external source, like the NH UCC Conference; but because of the internal joy of helping one another through these difficult times -we become not just sheep but Shepherds and our whole lives become an example of Christ’s teachings guiding – leading – teaching other souls the Way of Christ. 

The theologian William Barclay explains the motivation of the righteous sheep as the “uncalculating reaction of the loving heart,” a discernment and choice made not from an external benefit but from the natural outpouring of Christian love we have for one another. And this call to help other people – for Christ within other people – for God within all Creation is what I see as the motivations of the righteous Shepherd. 

So, how are you motivated through this life – through times of isolation – through this second wave of Covid-19. Are you blindly following an external motivation or are you following the Way of Christ – the Eternal Shepherd?

Only you can answer that question; but I pray that you are all the righteous Shepherds of Christ. For, I cannot make these choices alone – we are a congregation and need to hear your innovative ideas of how we may remain in community – worship – and fellowship – together through this second wave of isolation. We need to know what brings you comfort, joy, and reassurance. How you are engaging faithfully in our traditions like Thanksgiving.

Through this gift of your voice – we as a congregation can discern how to engage our traditions, our comfort, our fellowship not as a knee jerk reaction of following as blind sheep – but as the righteous Shepherds who are looking at these events with a thoughtful manner and helping the souls who are the most susceptible to the deadlier strains of this virus – the people who need to work in order to keep a roof over their head – the people who have become prisoners in their own home. By embracing this Way of Christ, even if there are external motivators for our actions – we will become like the first disciples building an innovative church, an example of God’s loving heart for all people, and following God’s call for every one of us to live as the righteous Shepherd. Thanks be to God for each of you who walk this Way with me as we embrace fellowship amongst isolation. May God grant you each a week full of gratitude for the righteous Shepherds as you imagine, discern, and share the faithful Way for our beloved congregation. Amen

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