"CONNECTED" - John 10:22-30; Psalm 23

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, May 12, 2019

Texts: John 10:22-30; Psalm 23


            With perhaps the double exception of Adam and Eve, every single human being possesses a navel – a belly button. This is because we are all born CONNECTED to our mothers by an umbilical cord. And when we are born, as you know, that cord is cut, enabling us to sleep in our own bed, be fed by our mouths, and find life as individuals. But the navel, the belly button, is part of all of us forever.

            I have a vivid memory of all of this because of that powerful moment at the birth of all three of our children. The doctor invited me, as is often the custom, to cut the umbilical cord at each birth. It is a simple snip, but it is a significant reminder that we are born CONNECTED to our mother.

            Belly buttons have also become quite fashionable these days. Lots of styles in clothes reveal more and more belly buttons, especially in these warmer months. And it is also stylish to add things to the belly button – like jewelry, or tattoos.

For the record, my belly button remains hidden and pretty plain.

            Since today is Mother’s Day, it is a good day to think about that initial, visible connection to our mothers. For some of us, that connection conjures up memories of wonderful love and care, warmth and support, a special fondness. While the physical cord was cut at birth, we have remained CONNECTED to our mothers; we celebrate a love that inspires us to love, a care that leads us to care. We give thanks to God for a mother’s love.

            For others of us, while we know our mothers give us life, relationships can be difficult, and being a mother is complex. A close physical connection does not always indicate genuine or healthy connections. Many of us struggle with that relationship, or have issues with our mothers, or lost our mothers too early, or recently, all of which can make this a hard day.

            But all of us have belly buttons, reminding us that we were born CONNECTED.

            Jesus had a belly button too. That means many things: though he was Emmanuel, God with us, he was also a human being, born of Mary, his mother. He knew the struggles of life and the struggles of relationships. He is one with us and we are one with him. This is a reminder of how CONNECTED he is to us, knows us, knows our struggles and needs.

            Our Scripture today is not about belly buttons – in fact there is no mention in the Bible of belly buttons; and theology books essentially ignore the word “navel.” But Scripture is very big on being CONNECTED. We are from the beginning always related to God and related to one another and to the earth we live in. Life is best lived CONNECTED – to God, to one another, to the world.

            About 600 years ago, a spiritual woman named Julian lived next to the Cathedral in Norwich, England – Julian of Norwich. Her writings continue to stimulate faithful people. This is one of her prayers that remind us so well how we are CONNECTED: “Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world. Creator, source of every breath, you are my rain, my wind, my sun. You took my form, offering me your food and light, grain for new life and grape of love, your very body for my peace. Nurturing me, in arms of patience, hold me close so that in faith I root and grow until I flower, until I know.”

            Julian of Norwich knew her life to be CONNECTED to God.

            CONNECTED is how we best live. And today’s Scripture is about CONNECTED to God. There may be no better or more familiar passage from Scripture. Listen now, as if you are hearing it for the first time:

            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.

                        This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            We live in a fast-paced world of smart-phones and email, of concrete roads and strong buildings, of busy lives on a crowded planet, with complicated problems and critical issues facing the world. Yet in one sentence, we are transported to a Palestinian hillside a half a world away and three thousand years ago. These words have been affirmed and spoken across all those miles and all those centuries to celebrate how deeply and importantly we are CONNECTED to God.

            Psalm 23 is so familiar, such a favorite of all time, mostly because these brief words affirm that God is good and present; life is good and beautiful and filled with love. But this is not just hopeful, Pollyanna religious-talk. In the exact center of this psalm about the Shepherd and God’s presence and care, we are introduced to “the shadow.” The “shadow” represents all the real life stuff that threatens to blot out the good, the merciful, the beautiful presence and care of the Shepherd - God. In verse 4, we read, “even though I walk through the darkest valley (other translations say – the “SHADOW of death”) – I fear no evil, for you are with me.”

            Our lives are lived in the company of both the Shepherd and the shadow – and through it all – our CONNECTEDNESS to God is what matters. Our CONNECTEDNESS to God makes all the difference. (see E. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, p. 101)

            As we move through life, we carry on amidst many things. We are parents, and on many days, we are good parents. But on other days, we do not think we are good parents. This can worry us and wear us down.

We are also children, and we appreciate our ties to our parents. But on many days, we face worries and responsibilities, frustrations and heartaches as our roles with our parents change and become full of challenge. This can be so trying.

We are people who seek to live and love and serve in the world. We are teachers and students, doctors and lawyers, executives and administrators, employers and employees, striving to help others, make the world a better place. But often, the burdens, the schedules, the exhaustion, the demands, the changes that come our way can wear us down.

We are people with relationships, some of them so healthy and life-giving, . . .  others of them broken. We carry both joys and wounds from the past, and we maintain expectations and uncertainties about the future.

All of this can make us feel dis-CONNECTED, fragmented, frazzled.

More than that, it is easy with all the complexities of life to relegate God to the margins. We ask God to show up at our baptisms, maybe our weddings. Somebody or something has to get things started so we give God that honor. We know God to be the wonderful force or power previous to all things. At the beginning of great enterprises – political terms in office, academic years, maybe business ventures, cornerstone ceremonies – prayers are offered; God’s presence is invoked.

And then in endings, we certainly hope God will be present. At death, the funeral is a worship of God. At the conclusion of careers, academic commencements, anniversaries, and other our endings, God is frequently acknowledged as being present and real.

            But how about the in-between? How about the large living between start and finish? God is the first and the last, but what happens in the middle?

            Psalm 23 affirms God has Shepherd, as caring and present, as loving and serving, as guiding and providing, through all, even the shadows. God does not create and then turn us loose to do the best that we can. God does not just leave us to fend for ourselves, to work and worry, until we die and are hauled off to be judged according to our conduct. God is the Shepherd who guides us in our wanderings, and sustains us even in the darkest places, and provides for us ALL through life. This psalm is about how we are deeply, forever, wonderfully, CONNECTED to God ALL through life. (see Peterson, Ibid, p. 103)

            Karl Barth, a theologian of the last century, was my favorite class when I was doing graduate work at Yale. I learned so much about God from his writings. This is what Barth says: We need not expect turns and events which have nothing to do with God and God’s presence and care. Everything in our lives relates to God’s abiding care, God’s attention, and God’s love. The Lord is never absent, passive, or impotent, but always present, active, responsive, and omnipotent. God is never dead, but always living, never sleeping, but always awake, never uninterested but always concerned. (Church Dogmatics, 3.3, p.13)). With God, the bad thing is never the last thing. (F. Beuchner) With God, the shadows and darkness and death are never the last thing: God is with us; God’s rod and staff, the Shepherd, comforts us.

            And how very particular all of this plays out in this lovely psalm. Nothing abstract. Nothing in general but vividly specific: green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness (which means straight roads), valley, rod, staff, table, oil, cup, house. Everything that is needed, everything that matters is included in the intimate, caring, dependable way we are CONNECTED to God – the Shepherd. God’s care includes protection and guidance, and grace and refuge for everything about our lives.

            Reading this psalm on Mother’s Day, reminds me of a story my father loved to tell. He loved stories. He loved people. Way back at the beginning of my father’s career in ministry – in the mid-1950’s - he was riding the train – the Southern Crescent - from Richmond to South Carolina, going for an interview as a soon to be graduate of Union Seminary to his first pastoral position in Charleston, SC. He was sitting on the train near an older African American man who was reading his Bible.

My father loved to talk to people and here was someone he could not resist – an older black man reading his Bible. As it turned out, he was an AME preacher, on his way to Sumter SC where he was the interim pastor at a large church; he was working on his Mother’s Day sermon. My father asked him: “so what are you going to preach about?”

            And the older man said, “I am going to preach about three things my mother taught me: how to lie, how to beg, and how to steal.”

            Totally intrigued, my father asked the venerable preacher: “how are you going to make a sermon out of that?”

            With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “My mother taught me how to LIE at Jesus’ feet, . . . how to BEG for mercy, . . . and how to STEAL away home to the Lord.”

            He was going to preach about being CONNECTED to God.

He was going to preach about how the Lord is the Shepherd – even amidst and through the shadows of life. He was going to preach about God as part of not just the beginning and endings of life – but ALL OF LIFE – especially the long middle when life can be full of ups and downs. He was going to preach about how being CONNECTED to God is what really matters, indeed it may be the only thing that matters.

            The final sentence of Psalm 23 may be the one that speaks most clearly and powerfully to us today: 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.

            CONNECTED – we are made by God, sustained by God, led and directed by God in Jesus Christ, and our hope is in God through the power of the Holy Spirit. How is your connection?

May we not only affirm. May we live it out – working for justice, embodying kindness, bringing healing and light to the darkness of the world. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we dwell in the house of the (F. Beuchner)Lord forever. AMEN 

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, dear, Shepherding God; help our unbelief. And keep shaping us for faithful life and work following Jesus Christ. Amen.

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship, May 12, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.