God Is (Still) Here

Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Even though I will be with you for one more Sunday yet, next week, as your associate pastor, this Sunday—because we are having a little brunch and some special farewell prayers will come at the close of this service—this morning feels like the right time to reflect on my three years here with you all.  And in order to do that and think about our scripture lessons from Jeremiah, Ephesians, and Mark with their image of shepherds and lessons about Christ, I want to go back to the beginning of my ministry with you. Back to October 14, 2018—my first sermon. 

The Gospel lesson that day, also from Mark, was about Jesus telling a rich man to give away his possessions. And I said this to you, or I guess I should pray that this God said to you, and I was the messenger: 

“Remember, now, this is not Jesus’ prescription for us. This is not some new law or rule, that demands we give everything away.  What the Gospel does recommend we give away, though, is how we understand What is good and Where it comes from. There is so much about St. Andrew’s that is good.”

And of course there is still so much that is good.

“You’ve got a beautiful past, and a bright future with new members, and active small groups, and an experienced and faithful pastor…”

All still true.

“You’ve got young adults who are actually interested and engaged, you’ve got a charming staff, and faithful volunteers…”

All still true too! The pandemic didn’t take any of these things away from you.

“These things are so good. But Jesus might say, ‘Why do you call young adults good…? Only God is good.’”

Jesus might also say, “Why do you call pastors good?” I went on:

“If we take what Jesus says in Mark seriously…  it’s a lot—a lot—more than just ‘good.’ These words of Jesus don’t reject the good stuff of a healthy church. Instead, they’re reminding us to recognize that this good is supernatural stuff. This is God stuff, because only God is good. If you know that St. Andrew’s is doing good things if you see that St. Andrew’s is working to serve others and help make their lives better and their faith stronger… Then call a spade a spade: God is here.

And both back in 2018, and now in 2021, I still believe that God is here. I believe Jesus’ message in Mark, and God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah today is much the same. It’s about seeing the extraordinary right here in the ordinary—to the presence of God. 

These two messages about shepherds are warnings about spiritual leaders, and warnings to leaders who represent God.  Pastor Krey and I have had a fun time working together. We don’t see eye-to-eye on every little thing, of course, but we have been a team. And as I have been saying goodbye to you, you all have made clear to me that we have been a good team. You’ve told me you’re sad to see me go, and I thank you so much for your kind and generous praise. But having good pastors, good shepherds, I think is a little dangerous. 

Jeremiah’s prophecy comes at a time when the leaders of Israel and Judah, thinking they had the best interest of the people in mind, were indicted by God. To these kings, these shepherds and leaders, despite their best efforts: God says, “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” That makes me squirm! That is the last thing I would want God to say about me as a pastor! 

But as we read on in Jeremiah, a very important point arises:  “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock,” says God.  And Jeremiah continues:  “The days are surely coming, says the LORD,  when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch…” 

As Christians we believe this message is about Jesus. Jesus is the final and ultimate king. Jesus is the shepherd, the leader, the guide for God’s people. And we hear that echoed in the Gospel of Mark. As Jesus and the disciples—or the apostles they are called, because as we heard a few weeks ago, they’ve already been sent out into the world—Jesus and the disciples are trying to rest. But they cannot because the wants and needs of the people are so feverish. 

Mark writes: “Now many saw [Jesus and the disciples] going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

I think it’s very important to remember that we all, pastors included, are part of this rabble of people that are storm-tossed, who are sick and suffering, who are searching for a shepherd. Just as young adults and healthy and generous giving, are not good, in themselves, as ends but are signs of the Holy Spirit here. So too, pastors, however good or effective, are not good in themselves. 

I am only good in-sofar as I have helped in bringing you closer to God, to Christ. And if I have, then let’s thank God together, since of course we confess and believe it is God who chooses us, God who transforms and teaches us, God who puts all these things in motion. So the only real conclusion, I guess, as I bid you all such a fond and bittersweet farewell, if I have in any little way helped you feel chosen, transformed, educated, or moved—then we must admit, amazing as it might sound: God is here, God has done it all. 

The letter to Ephesians tries to put into words this amazing, even outlandish, truth. The author is trying to explain all that it means for “Christ to tend to the crowds” in so many words, as Jesus does in Mark. In Jesus’ incarnation, in his bloodied revelation on the cross, all barriers between us and God are torn down. Not only that, all barriers between kinds of people are torn down, because what it means to be a “person” has completely changed. The greatest division conceivable in the time of the writing of Ephesians was Jew and not Jew—Judean and Gentile. 

And Ephesians says, “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

Let me read on, it gets both bigger and grander, and yet more detailed and closer to home: 

“So Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

Or, in other words, God is here!

God is not just then, God is not just there. We all, as apostles and prophets ourselves make up, each of us, one stone in the foundation, but Christ is what holds it all together. And Christ’s work, as all the images used to describe Christ show us: shepherd, stone, gate, sacrificed lamb, high priest, king—Christ’s work is to show, remind, proclaim, teach, and transform us to know something that is otherwise so hard to believe: God is here. 

God’s dwelling place is in you, in you all as you gather as God’s people.  Right now, not a different time, or a different person, not because Pastor Sullivan or you or anyone else is so great (if you think that is so), and neither does God leave because of something you might have done, or left undone. You can’t screw this up. No amount of decline or decay or success can change this. It’s only because God so chooses—so promises—to be here, because God loves, and is. Amen. 

Will you pray with me?

God who has brought us near,
God who is close,

We give you thanks for your presence in our lives.
I give you thanks for the ways you have made yourself known to us
at St. Andrew’s, made yourself known to me,
in all of your people who gather here for to hear you Word
and make use of your Sacraments.
In the weeks and months ahead of transition
I pray you would continue to remind Pastor Krey
and Cassandra and Michele and Brian
and all the leaders of St. Andrew’s that your are with them,
your Spirit rests on them.
I ask that you would keep all those gathered here,
in-person and on the livestream, all those who belong to the St. Andrew’s family,
keep them strong in faith, gentle in heart, and open in hand.

In Jesus’ name I pray all these things.