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Good Shepherd is a "neighborhood church" in South Charlotte (NC) with a deep love for scripture, people, and the arts. This is a super-friendly group of ordinary people who follow after an extraordinary God. Check out the website at gspc.net for a look. We'd love to hear from you!

Good Shepherd Presbyterian Sermons (Charlotte, NC) Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church - Rev. Robert Austell

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Good Shepherd is a "neighborhood church" in South Charlotte (NC) with a deep love for scripture, people, and the arts. This is a super-friendly group of ordinary people who follow after an extraordinary God. Check out the website at gspc.net for a look. We'd love to hear from you!

    Weak and Weary

    Weak and Weary

    Text: Psalm 102



    Clay mentioned “The Raven” in his message to the children. Similarly, today’s scripture brought something to my mind as well. I remember the first time I heard “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel. The opening piano grabbed my attention, but it was that quiet opening lyric that was so meaningful: “When you’re weary, feeling small…” The song goes on to offer friendship as a bridge over that troubled water; what an encouraging song to those who are weak and weary!



    That’s what the Psalms are. They are songs for every season of life. They were as familiar to God’s people as some popular songs are to us. Last week we talked about struggle and looked at Psalm 33. This week is close to that: I want to talk about being weak and weary. If anything, perhaps that is a step past struggle. If you are struggling, you still have some fight left in you. “Weak and weary” sounds like what happens after lots of struggling, when you are feeling small. Psalm 102 has four movements to it that I want to look at with you…



    Hear me! See me! (vv.1-2)



    The first movement, in my words, is “Hear me! See me!” It’s such a human cry. It’s what we say and feel when we wonder where God is, if God cares, if God notices us. And it’s all right there in the first two verses: “Hear my prayer… do not hide… incline your ear… answer me quickly.”



    Do you ever pray prayers like that? It takes a certain amount of faith to do it I think. But I remember that being one of the first lessons in this series a number weeks ago… to let human struggle and faith intermingle. We treat them like they can’t co-exist, but scripture – and especially the Psalms – teach us to be honest, be real, and call out to God. So out of that weakness and weariness, you can hear the power of this prayer: “Hear me! See me! Help me!”



    This is My Life (vv.3-11)



    The second movement of this Psalm is what I would call the “this is my life” section. The Psalmist describes the people, situations, and things that have brought him to this state of weakness and weariness. Some of those descriptions are specific and literal: “I forget to eat.” And some wax poetic like “my heart has been smitten like grass and has withered away.” Yet others are strange to us, but equally vivid word-pictures like pelicans, owls, and birds – all alone and forlorn in their places.



    It’s a little ironic, I know: how weak and weary can you be if you are generating poetry like this? But music, writing, and the arts have long been one healthy outlet for suffering. For you it may be writing in a journal, or exercise, or cooking. Or talk to a counselor! Even in this time of social distancing, most counselors will talk on the phone or by video. But however you do it, get it out; find some way to name and express the things that are pressing in on you and wearing you out. Find some way to say or express, “this is my life.”



    Why I’m Talking to God (vv.12-17)



    The third movement of this Psalm is what I would call the “why I’m talking to God” section. We’ve seen this in several of the Psalms we’ve looked at. After an honest expression of human experience, the songwriter will give some time to describing who God is and what God has done. This is such a healthy expression of faith. Even if we aren’t “feeling it” it can be helpful to remember and express what we believe about God. That’s one reason we recite things like the Apostles’ Creed in worship. It reminds us who God is.



    So the Psalmist says – and we are reminded – that God is eternal (v.12), compassionate (v.13), and powerful (v.15). And remembering all these important characteristics brings the Psalmist to what is, perhaps, the key verse of the whole thing:



    God has regarded the prayer of the destitute and has not despised t

    Struggling

    Struggling

    Text: Psalm 33



    We’ve been talking about some of the different emotions and experiences we’ve been having during this season of restrictions and limitations. We’ve talked about grief, impatience, and fear. And we’ve been looking at the Psalms as what I’m calling “Songs for Every Season.” The Psalms aren’t just a bunch of happy clappy prayers or songs; they dig deep into the human experience, the human struggle, and they look for God in the mix.



    Today we are looking at struggle. This is timely for me. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but seven weeks in I’m ready for a change. I’m ready to see people, to get out and about, to not feel confined any more. My brain tells me that the precautions are wise and important, but my emotions are bucking about wanting something different. It’s a struggle! I know some folks have much bigger struggles. They aren’t just stuck working at home; they are out of work or the income stream gone dry or they are sick or fearful.



    Psalm 33 is like the other Psalms we’ve looked at. There are no quick or easy answers. But there is the honesty, faith, doubt, wrestling, and wrangling of someone who has struggled with life and with God. I find it encouraging to know that not only is this experience not unique to me, but it’s part of the Bible itself as if to say, “This is normal; let’s look together for God’s help.”



    So why Psalm 33? Why is this a song for the struggler? It’s there near the end, in this case the struggle is death and famine. And whether you take that figuratively as giving up hope and not having what we need or a literal death and starvation, this Psalm can certainly contain the kinds of struggle we have been facing with a deadly virus, loss of livelihood, stay home restrictions, and more. And in general, if you started bravely, but it’s started to wear on you and you are struggling, I think there is some help to be found here.



    The Psalm breaks into four distinct sections, which is how we broke it apart in the service. I want to look at each one briefly and how they build towards a resource for all who struggle.



    Sing/Praise (vv.1-3)



    Our call to worship today was verses 1-3. That’s fitting because that’s just what they do: they call us to worship. Look at the worship words: sing… praise… thanks… play instruments. Now I get it; I don’t always feel like worshiping. But it’s kind of like love; we don’t always feel loving, but we can choose loving actions. Choosing to engage at all with God is the beginning of worship and while I don’t think we should fake it, I do think we can do and affirm things we believe even if our feelings are all over the place. In fact, our worship services often run this gamut. We come together in praise, but over the course of a service we will be convicted by the Word, confess sin, bring our troubles and thanks to the Lord, and go out with God’s blessing and mission. God wants it all – the highs and lows, the honesty of our feelings, the whole package. But we nonetheless can come expectantly; that’s why I often say at the beginning of a service, “We believe God is here, that God meets us in Spirit and truth.” And God doesn’t meet us to ignore us, but to receive all our struggles and offer help and hope!



    Who is God? (vv.4-11)



    In the next section the focus is on who God is. If we are going to praise and worship, we should know to whom we offer worship. So the Psalmist goes through a litany of who God is and what God has done. God’s Word is upright, His work faithful. God loves righteousness and justice (that’s enough for a “praise God” right there!). Creation itself bears witness to God: the earth, the heavens, the waters. God’s wisdom stands above the plans of nations and people. And over it all is the lovingkindness of the Lord. (v.5)



    If we are going to

    Afraid

    Afraid

    Text: Psalm 27



    Since Easter we have been turning to Psalms as “Songs for Every Season” – particularly because we are in “a season.” It’s not just the scary coronavirus, but everything that comes with it: stay-home orders, social distancing, face masks, change in income, change in work and school, uncertainty about how long this will go on, and more. So we’ve looked at some of the very human and relevant feelings expressed in the Psalms: grief, impatience, and today’s topic, fear.



    Fears Abound



    I think we are more afraid than we may realize. It may be the fear of catching the thing, though other fears may be eclipsing that. There is fear of income loss and recession. There is fear that we will not enjoy the same freedoms we used to. There is fear that we might not get back to “normal.” And on top of all those fears, I am freshly reminded this past week as I read about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, that people of color in this country deal with an extra layer of fear that I do not all the time.



    It would be easy to duck and cover, to run and hide, to live… afraid.



    And yet this Psalm 27 starts out with a bold claim… a crazy-bold claim if you’ve ever known fear:



    The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? (v.1)



    I am reminded of a video I saw and posted this past week where a young woman wrestles with Psalm 23. She reads, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want” and immediately begins thinking of all the things she DOES want. And yet, as if it is the Lord’s own quiet, patient voice, the Psalm calmly asserts: “I shall not want.” This Psalm is very much like that. I’ve already named some of the things we fear… I fear. And yet there is the persistent, strong, and patient Word: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?



    Is the Lord my light and my salvation? Yes – I profess that He is. I believe that He is. The Psalm goes on to say that the Lord is “the defense of my life.” I believe that, too. I’ve seen it before. And the Psalm then asks, “Whom shall I dread?”



    The Psalmist certainly has a long list of things to fear and dread. Look there in vv. 2-3… evildoers come to devour the flesh, adversaries, enemies, an opposing army (that’s what ‘host’ is)… even war! Later, in vv.5-6 the Psalmist describes a “day of trouble” and more “enemies around me.”



    All that to say… it’s not like the song-writer doesn’t know trouble. This is someone whose faced fear and trouble and dread and somehow can declare confidence in the Lord’s defense and salvation.



    Let’s look briefly at what the Psalmist seems to have learned.



    Cultivation of Godly Habits



    There is no quick answer to our fears and worries here. But there are some patterns of belief and behavior – some habits – that can be cultivated to help us when we are afraid.



    CONFIDENCE (vv.1-3): This isn’t what comes first chronologically in our experience, but it lets us know what we can experience. The Psalmist’s confidence isn’t in human or personal strength, but in God and God alone. Think how easy it is and often we do plug other things into that phrase: _____ is my light and salvation; ____ is the defense of my life. Especially right now where we are with the isolation and the distancing, we are quick to reach for easy answers, for blame, for anything that would bring relief. I think that’s one reason so many conspiracy theories are floating around and why demonstrations are popping up around the country. We want light and salvation and defense and we’ll reach for just about anything that might provide them.



    SEEKING GOD’S PRESENCE (vv.4-10): We sang these words earlier today… “one thing I ask and I will seek, to see God’s beauty.” This is a poetic way of describing what it is to cultivate faith and behaviors that loo

    Impatient

    Impatient

    Text: Psalm 13; John 20:24-29



    We are continuing in a series called “Songs for Every Season,” chosen to work through some of the experiences and feelings we are having in this time of COVID-19 and stay-home orders. The Psalms are songs and prayers written from an astounding range of human experiences and they are a wonderful resource to us as we experience things like grief, impatience, fear, weariness, and other human feelings.



    Last week we looked at grief in Psalm 8, noting the way the Psalmist moved through several stages of grief, from anger and blame, to asking for help, to talking to God, to trusting in God. I noted that each stage is a normal and healthy part of grieving, and God is present in each stage (whether we realize it or not). We also looked at one of the post-Easter resurrection appearances and how Jesus walked two discouraged travelers through similar stages of grief.



    This week we are doing something very similar. We are going to consider impatience and will look at a Psalm (13) and another post-Easter resurrection appearance of Jesus. My hope is that if you are struggling with impatience around staying at home or poor health or things just not going the way you want in the timing you’d choose, you’ll find encouragement here.



    Tired of Waiting



    How are you doing with all this? Are you tired of waiting for the waiting to end? Are you ready to get back to work, to school, to life? That, of course, is a different question than whether it is safe to do so. It’s a different question than whether the economic cost is beginning to outweigh the health risk. That’s what is in the news right now as governors and others try to weigh the two things against the other. But overlaying all that (or lying beneath it) is a healthy measure of impatience. We are tired of this sequestered isolation and limitation on our way of life. And though we might want to blame politicians or scientists or God, part of the frustration is that it’s a virus we are frustrated with, and that’s kind of like howling at the wind when a storm comes. Ultimately, we can be careful, we can try to be wise, but we just have to… WAIT. And that makes us impatient.



    Psalm 13



    I can’t think of a more appropriate song for the season than Psalm 13. It’s chief refrain is “How long?”



    “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”“How long will you hid your face from me?”“How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart all the day?”“How long will my enemy be exalted over me?”



    How long? How long? How long?



    And here’s the thing I love about the Psalms: it’s okay to say and feel these things… even with God! Maybe even especially with God! The Psalmist even goes further: “Answer me or I think I will die… my enemies will laugh.” (vv.3-4)



    But I also love the Psalms because they work it out and talk it out. We get a glimpse of our most human feelings and thoughts, but we also see what those feelings and thoughts look like offered to God. And so the Psalmist continues:



    “But I have trusted in your lovingkindness;My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.I will sing to the Lord,Because He has dealt bountifully with me.” (vv.5-6)



    I’m impatient, but I’ll pray. I’m frustrated, but I’ll trust and seek God. I wonder when God will respond, but I also can remember God’s faithfulness in the past. That’s what this Psalm offers us: a pattern for what to do with our impatience. Don’t deny or push down the human feelings; but offer them up to God in hope.



    Impatient Thomas



    You probably know the story of Thomas the disciple. This is the story for which he is known: Jesus appeared to the disciples after Easter, but Thomas was not present. When Thomas heard about it from the others, he declared that until he could see Jesus for himself – see and touch the

    Grieving

    Grieving

    Text: Psalm 6; Luke 24:13-32



    Easter has come and gone; social distancing continues.



    This was to be our 40th Anniversary as a church; postponed, and stay-at-home goes on.



    Students are missing out on graduations, proms, SAT and AP and other end-of-year tests; they continue with online classes as best they can.



    Grandparents, parents, and friends in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are unable to visit in-person with loved ones and must settle for the often confusing connection of a phone call or facetime (if there’s a friendly nurse to help).



    While many are going stir-crazy at home, others in healthcare and essential services are working long, hard, extra hours to provide what we need to keep going.



    Others are cut off from jobs and income and food and needed support.



    What do you do with all this? What does it make you feel?



    I decided to spend this next season of sermons on those questions. I want to look at things like grief, impatience, fear, struggle, and weariness – all things I think we are facing in different ways and to different degrees. And I want to look with you at what scripture has to say about these things. I have long believed that the Psalms were “Songs for Every Season” of life, including the most difficult. We read there of people struggling with death, loss, disappointment, grief, and the kinds of emotions we face, whether from the current situation or one of the many other myriad challenges of being human. So I invite you into that journey with me, in hopes that you will find encouragement, sustenance, support, and hope.



    Today I want to talk about grief, specifically with the current context in mind. Though I believe it has been absolutely essential to follow these stay-home orders to address the rapid spread of COVID-19, we have had to give up many things. With that comes some sorrow and grief. But those feelings and experiences are not new to you or me. So let’s look at today’s scripture. One is a story about two people experiencing disappointment and grief; one is a Psalm or song about grief. In both cases we’ll see how God enters into the situation. And it is my hope that God will enter into yours as well.



    Road from Jerusalem



    On Easter I talked about the women who faithfully and bravely went to the tomb with spices. I talked about the disciples who were hiding out behind locked doors, though two did venture out to see what the women were talking about. One disciple, Thomas, missed Jesus when he did appear and demanded later to see and touch him for himself. But Luke tells us the story of two others who were acquainted with Jesus and were leaving with hopes dashed. We don’t know if they were regular followers or had come lately to believe his message, but they told a stranger on the road that they “were hoping that it was he who was going to redeem Israel.” In fact, they knew about the women going to the tomb, and the angelic message that Jesus was alive. But their knowledge and their experience leaves of at “some went and found the tomb empty, but him they did not see.”



    We don’t really know where they are in terms of understanding or believing that Jesus was resurrected. That Jesus went on to explain things to them makes me think they did not get it. Indeed, if they were hopeful of seeing Jesus, why would they be leaving Jerusalem to go back to Emmaus? It seems more likely to me that they were moving on. And it seems likely to me that they were disappointed and perhaps even grieving what could have been, what they had hoped would have been.



    We were hoping he would redeem Israel!But he was arrested… he was executed… he died… and now his body is gone. Probably the Romans wanted to make sure he was completely done away with. There’s no need to stick around; there’s only trouble here… even his disciples are hiding out.



    I

    Return to the Shepherd

    Return to the Shepherd

    Text: Luke 24:1-12; 1 Peter 2:21-25Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020



    Happy Easter, everyone! Now this is an Easter like no other… at least no other that I can remember. And yet I am struck by the similarities in our situation and that of the early followers of Jesus.



    I come to this passage every year – the one about the women coming at early dawn to the tomb of Jesus. I look forward to the surprise and news of the angels – that “he is not here, but he has risen.” And I give thanks for the women who took this news to the disciples and spurred them to come and see for themselves. It is Easter; he is risen; Alleluia!



    Though I have been aware of it, I have always passed over one detail of the story… until this year. We often speak of it a week or two after Easter, when Jesus comes to the disciples in the Upper Room, through a locked door. But it’s tucked into this Easter morning story as well…



    The disciples are staying home. All but one of them fled the scene of the crucifixion and Peter notoriously swore out loud that he didn’t know Jesus. Reading here that the women had to carry the news of the empty tomb to them, and knowing that Jesus would soon find them behind locked doors, we can surmise that they are staying home. They are hiding out. They don’t want the deadly attentions given to Jesus to fall on them.



    And so they have two challenges before them: they are holed up and avoiding contact and they have mostly all abandoned their Lord, thinking him dead and fearing trouble.



    Holed Up at Home



    I think we know something of what it’s like to be holed away behind locked doors. Our reasons are different. We don’t fear the Roman guard coming to take us to jail or crucifixion, but we do fear contamination, sickness, and maybe even death. We are being careful and doing the things our doctors and scientists caution us to do – and rightly so. But it wears on you, doesn’t it?



    They had been holed up for three days. We’ve been at it for a couple of weeks. You start to go a little stir-crazy. Maybe you even start to question what God is up to.



    Maybe those questions started long before this, after the last really hard thing in life, or maybe after just getting out of the habit. I’m not sure those distinctions ultimately matter; many of us know a bit about what those disciples were feeling.



    Where is God?



    They thought they had found God. Actually, I’m pretty sure they were convinced of that. And then he wasn’t quite what they were expecting; and then he was arrested and executed. That definitely wasn’t expected. And now they were afraid and along some continuum of feeling disconnected from God to having abandoned their faith in God.



    Starting Easter morning and on through the coming days and weeks, each one had to come to terms with those feelings and beliefs in their own time and manner. Peter and John went running to see; others stayed holed up, awaiting word; Thomas missed Jesus coming by and had to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands.



    Return to the Shepherd of Your Soul



    But I am struck by the words of that same Peter, writing years later of these events. And he broadens the application and the invitation out beyond those first followers. After summarizing all that Christ had done, he writes:



    You were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)



    While a pandemic may magnify our faith-challenges, Peter puts his finger on a harder truth: we CONTINUALLY stray from God. That line from the hymn rings true: we feel it – we are “prone to wander.” That’s why the Shepherd image is so compelling. The biblical story is not one of human beings having to accomplish this task or that to make their way ever-closer to God and eventually to heaven or bliss or salvation. The biblical s

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