An audacious challenge

File:Loews Protest - Against GOP Retreat.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 22, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

The shepherds of Israel are under attack in the first reading this Sunday. The priestly class are under indictment by the preaching of Peter and John. The governing elites judged Jesus a liar about God and a threat to the nation and sentenced him to death. Peter and John are saying that God voided that sentence and declared Jesus innocent. The year-long purgation of the rotting corpse that marked the removal of sin from our mortal bodies was unnecessary for Jesus. God raised him from the dead.

It might sound esoteric to our ears, but it was a direct confrontation in that day. Peter and John are saying this in the temple, in the home-court of the high priestly families. What’s more, the name of this Jesus is being used to heal the sick and lame. This Jesus is the rejected stone that God has made the cornerstone. This Jesus is the source of God’s healing and life. Healing won’t come from the rich and powerful house of Annas that possesses a firm hold on the high priestly office. Those who are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel are false shepherds who failed to recognize the true shepherd.

And so on Sunday we will join the psalmist to sing “The LORD is my shepherd.” And the Gospel of John will have Jesus say to us, “I am he good shepherd” – the true and noble who does not abandon the flock but lays down his life for them. And the words that seem so sweet and comforting will echo with an audacious challenge to all those rulers of the earth who claim authority but only fleece the sheep.

And in the presence of this bold challenge to the way of the world will come the urging of the author of 1 John: “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The Prayer for April 22, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
Christ Jesus our good shepherd laid down his life for our sake
that he might gather one flock from all the nations of the earth.
Be at work within us
that we might hear and respond to his voice,
and follow him in lives of service and love.

The Texts for April 22, 2018

First Reading: Acts 4:1-13 (appointed 5-12)
“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” – Peter and John are examined by the authorities after having been arrested for preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead (a message that invalidates the authority of the High Priestly leadership because it declares that God has reversed their judgment against Jesus.)

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – The famous song of trust in God that reverberates with social, political and religious meaning in a world where the king (or ruler) was regarded as the shepherd of the people.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
– The author encourages his community to remain faithful to God and one another despite the departure of a schismatic group from their community.

Gospel: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – The middle section of chapter 10 where Jesus employs metaphors drawn from shepherding. Here he identifies himself as the true shepherd who cares for the sheep, freely laying down his life for the people.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loews_Protest_-_Against_GOP_Retreat.jpg By Seth Goldstein [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

I am your David

Sunday Evening

Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

File:Heilig Land Stichting Rijksmonument 523633 de goede herder, reli-art Piet Gerrits.JPGThe LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

11 “I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
12The hired hand,
who is not the shepherd
and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away–
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
13The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
14I am the good shepherd.
I know my own
and my own know me,
15just as the Father knows me
and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.

I have tried to preach on these texts many times without much success. I look back on old sermons and find scattered notes rather than well-assembled manuscripts. I wish I could look back at sermons that I have stored on those old floppy disks. I wonder if I had any better luck 20 years ago than I did ten. Somehow I doubt it.

I decided last night that the problem is that preaching on these texts is like taking apart a piece of music from Bach or Beethoven or Mozart rather than just listening to it. My life isn’t really enriched by knowing what the notes are, but by letting them play – letting myself be immersed in their glorious sounds.

Psalm 23 is a prayer. Prayers are better prayed than preached upon. So let me try this:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD is my King David who guarded his flock with his sling. The LORD is my David who fought off the bear and the lion and saved his flock from fearful enemies. The LORD is my David who slew Goliath with that same sling and five smooth stones. The LORD is my David who has beaten back every enemy. The LORD is my David who has enlarged the land. The LORD is my David who has made us to dwell securely.

The LORD is my shepherd, my righteous king, my defender, my hope. I shall not want.

I shall not be in want. I shall not lack for those things upon which life depends. Oh, I have plenty of wants and desires, but in him I lack no good thing, no true thing. In him there is the bread of life. In him there is the water of life. In him there are true pathways. In him is my way and my truth and my life.

He feeds me at his table. A table rich and abundant, a table filled with compassion and mercy, a table filled with grace and forgiveness, a table filled with joy and song, a table filled with love.

In the darkest valleys, he is my light. In the shadow of death he is my hope and promise. In weakness he is my strength. In fear he is my confidence. In sorrow he is my comfort.

The LORD is my David – and so much more than my David. He is my companion, my guide, my solace, my song. Even when surrounded by enemies, he is my overflowing cup, my soothing balm. He is my breath, my calm.

Israel was pursued through the wilderness by plundering tribes, but what chases after me is his goodness and faithfulness. Death and fear and sin and sorrow stalk me, and yet what truly pursues me, what seeks me, what follows after me, is God’s determination to enfold me in his life and love.

The LORD is my David, my perfect king, who lays down his life for me.

And now here is Jesus standing before me saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Good Shepherd, the true shepherd, the noble shepherd, the true and righteous king, the faithful king, who sets the life of his people before his own.”   Here is Jesus before me saying “I am the true shepherd who leads you to life.” I am the honorable shepherd, the faithful king, who lays down his life for you. Who calls you by name. Who knows your name. Who gathers you to myself. Who gathers others to my flock. I am the true shepherd, the true voice, who leads you to true pasture. Verdant pasture. Bread of life and living water.

I am the good shepherd, I am your David, I am your Moses and Abraham and Noah. I am he who walked with you in the garden and will open wide the gates of the city to come.

I am he who prepares for you a table. I am he who anoints you with my Spirit. I am he who seeks you. I am he who has prepared a place for you. “In my father’s house are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you.”

I am he who washes away all sin. I am he who quenches your deepest thirst. I am he who turns water into wine, tears into joy, mourning into dancing. I am he who opens blind eyes, who strengthens feeble knees. I am he who meets you at the well with living water. I am the light that cannot be extinguished. I am the rock that cannot be shaken. I am the fountain that never runs dry. I am the eternal dawn, the morning light that does not fade.

I am your David, your perfect king, your noble shepherd, your eternal life.

And I have other sheep. Sheep that listen to my voice. And I must bring them also. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Amen

 

STatue: Nederlands: Heilig Land Stichting Rijksmonument 523633 de goede herder, reli-art van Piet Gerrits  Photo: By Havang(nl) (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Everlasting friend

Saturday

1 John 3:16-24

File:Good Shepherd 04.jpg

Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the early Christian catacomb of Domitilla/Domatilla (Crypt of Lucina, 200-300 CE)

17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Let’s just skip past this one real quickly.

Why don’t we stay with:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Or maybe:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

There are so many nice, sweet, comforting thoughts on which we could focus in the texts this week. Jesus is our shepherd. He provides us good pasture. He protects us from the wolves. He is our everlasting friend.

And, yes, he is all those things. But our everlasting friends said, “A new commandment I give to you.” He told that story about the Good Samaritan. He invited himself to dinner at the home of Zacchaeus without asking him to repent first. And then he sends Philip to the Ethiopian Eunuch and Peter to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius.

We don’t get the everlasting friend without the new commandment. Try as you might, we don’t. Israel tried this. Temple. Priesthood. King. Sacrifices. Ritual. Glory. But they didn’t do justice or mercy or even Sabbath, and marching armies came to tear down all those things in which they trusted. Back to the drawing board. Back to eternal love and the commandments.

So here we are struggling with First John’s troubling question:

17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

We can play games with the text. We can duck and weave and try to avoid its direct and pointed word. But I was never very good at dodge ball as a child, and surely not now. And I don’t want to dodge this word either.

Christian faith is about abiding in God’s love and God’s love abiding in us. This is easier for some of us than others, I know. We all have our wounds and scars. But sometimes it seems like some of us aren’t trying. We are content to gossip, judge, condemn, and go about our lives hidden among the masses, making no difference, bearing no witness, adding no grace or healing to our wounded world. It’s what makes Christianity to be despised in the culture around us, especially among the young.

There is an everlasting friend for us. But he is friend also to our neighbor. And he wants me to treat others not only as I want to be treated, but as he has treated me.

No other name

Making up for Thursday

Acts 4:1-13

File:Florentinischer Meister um 1300 001.jpg12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Well there it is, that troubling sentiment expressed so poorly by some who assert or imply that everyone who isn’t a Christian (and usually, everyone who isn’t their kind of Christian) is going to hell.

Here we face the great challenge of rightly understanding the message of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke are all quite clear that Jesus proclaimed that people should turn and show allegiance to the dawning reign of God. And even though the Gospel of John uses very different language to describe the reality of this life that has come in Jesus, yet the fundamental elements of the message are the same. For John, who uses the language of eternal life (in Greek the life of the ‘aeon’, the life of the age to come), this life is something we have now in Christ. It is not waiting for us in heaven after we die; it is a present reality he describes as abiding in the Father. What the other Gospels describe as ‘the kingdom of God’ is this same imperishable life, a transformed existence of a world – and our lives – that has been brought into the realm of God, brought under the gracious life-giving governance of God’s Spirit. All four Gospel bear witness to Jesus bringing a world restored, healed, transformed, resurrected.

If our fundamental narrative is that good people (good morally or good from good works or good from trusting Jesus) go ‘up’ to some place called ‘heaven’ and bad people (bad morally or bad because they did not trust/believe in Jesus) go ‘down’ to some place called ‘hell’ then this statement – “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” – is going to sound very different than if our fundamental narrative is that God has come to heal the world in Jesus, to carry us from this broken age of sin and death into a new age of grace and life.

If Jesus is the only way to get into a place called heaven, and I don’t believe in Jesus, then we are stuck putting me and all those like me in hell. But if Jesus is the one who heals a dying world, who reconnects God and humanity that they might dwell together, then his ‘name’ is what heals. Regardless of your religious experience or behavior, regardless of your psychological health or moral history, his name, his power, his identity, is what heals.

It still leaves open, of course, the question whether I am going to show allegiance to and trust in that ‘name’, but it will not be my trust that gets me “into heaven”; it is Jesus who brings heaven to the world.

The Greek words ‘to save’ and ‘salvation’ mean to heal, to restore to a full life in your social context – to restore you to family and friends and fields and the religious life of the nation. Someone who has been ‘saved’ gets to return home. They get to return to the temple. They get to return to their life. Saving the world means restoring God’s creation so that we live in harmony with God and one another. God doesn’t want us to dwell in heaven (the heavens) with him, he wants to dwell on earth with us: the lion and the lamb, the new Jerusalem, the wedding banquet that has no end. The martyrs under the altar in Revelation 7 are waiting for God’s New Jerusalem on earth; they don’t want to stay under the altar.

It is Jesus who brings healing to the world. It is the crucified one, who did not wreak vengeance on his enemies but forgave them. It is the risen one, whom God declared as his true and righteous one. It is this one who would not be tempted to turn his power or authority to his own ends but remained the perfectly faithful son (the ‘son’ we have not been) that brings wholeness to all existence.

Power, War, Sex, or any of the governing powers and ideologies of our world will not do this. War can’t bring peace. It can crush an army, but it cannot bring peace. My mother can force me to share with my brother, but force cannot make me want to share. Only a boundless generosity and love can create me as a loving, generous person. Only the boundless love of God manifest in Jesus will heal the world. That is a far different claim than “believe in Jesus or go to hell.”

Christians don’t have to – and shouldn’t – surrender and say there are many paths to heaven to avoid the ugliness of “believe like me or die.” We have to only understand that “heaven” is coming to us. Jesus is bringing to us the healing of the world.

And we are invited to show allegiance. We are invited to trust it. We are invited to live now the healing that awaits us. To forgive as we have been forgiven. To love as we have been loved. To open wide our hands and arms as God has opened wide his arms to us.

 

Image credit: By Florentinischer Meister um 1300 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That stubborn claim

Friday

Acts 4:1-13

File:Villamblard église vitrail choeur détail.JPG1While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them…

I don’t know whether ‘annoyed’ is quite the right term for the anger of the Jerusalem leaders towards the apostles, but it is helpful to recognize in this simple sentence what ancients and the poor understand about authority: it serves the powerful.   They didn’t like what the apostles were saying so they arrested them. This is not a world in which people have rights.

But why should the preaching of these two from Galilee come to the attention of the Jerusalem leadership, and why should it offend them? It is common for people to suggest, because the Sadducees are named and the Sadducees didn’t find resurrection in the Torah, that the problem is the Sadducees didn’t like that the disciples were teaching the doctrine of the resurrection. But the resurrection was a common idea in Judea and Galilee and there were members of the high council that themselves held this opinion. The problem isn’t a doctrinal dispute. The problem is that Peter and John are preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead – the Jesus that these leaders executed for blaspheming God. To suggest that God resurrected this Jesus is to say that God was on the side of Jesus and not the leadership of the nation. Indeed, it says the leadership of the people has betrayed and forfeited their office for they rejected God’s anointed one.

To proclaim that the high priest no longer represents God is good reason for the high priest to have you arrested.

This is the same thing that gets believers in trouble when they declare that Jesus is Lord. When Caesar claims to be lord of all, he will not tolerate anyone declaring that someone else is Lord.

This is the joy and dilemma of Christian faith in every age. When Rome passes a law requiring every woman to be married and bear children, a woman’s choice of virginity becomes a declaration that her body does not belong to the state but to God. So St. Lucy is put to death. When the amorous advances of a suitor are spurned, he betrays her to the state. In the same way, the martyrs of Uganda perish when they reject the sexual predations of their king. Hitler made it the duty of every German woman to bear children for the Reich. Our culture now mocks virginity and considers our sexual self-expression essential to our humanity. A lot of money is being made selling sex, beauty, and little blue pills, but on that altar many of our young people are being sacrificed.

When St. Francis walks away from his father’s wealth to embrace a life of poverty, he is rejecting the implicit claim of wealth and privilege to supremacy. When Christians do such a simple thing as tithe, giving away the first portion of their income, they testify that wealth and possessions are not our master. Our cultural masters need us to buy more stuff – even at peril of the creation itself – for it serves the bottom line. But we do not belong to the economy; we belong to God.

The dark side of the argument in support of Charlie Hebdo is the idolatry of personal freedom – the belief that I am my own master, that no one can tell me what to do. To this Christianity must say “No, not quite.” There is another to whom your life belongs. He alone gives true freedom.

This is why Christians ought not equate “God and Country”. The two don’t quite match up. I may choose to serve my neighbor by serving my country, but my country is not my Lord.

Nor does God and prosperity quite match up – despite the numbers that Joel Osteen and ilk attract. Jesus kept saying things like “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” and “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” Jesus is standing in line with Joshua (“Choose this day whom you will serve,”) and Elijah (“How long will you go limping with two different opinions,”) Deuteronomy (“There is no God besides me,”) and Isaiah (“Besides me there is no god”). God and Asherah, God and Baal, God and wealth, God and sex, God and country, don’t match up.

There is a stubborn claim in the heart of Christian faith that life belongs to God alone. He alone is Lord. It is a claim that “annoys” civil, cultural and corporate leaders. It lands Peter and John in prison – and many after them – and many still today.

But God has raised the Jesus this world crucified – and to him all creation belongs.

 

Photo: By Père Igor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Our true shepherd

Watching for the Morning of April 26, 2015

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

File:WhSouthLawn.JPEGWhen we read Psalm 23, or hear Jesus declare, “I am the good shepherd,” we think of peaceful, pastoral images – rolling hills, green grass, gentle waters. We do not think of the intense conflict of the royal court, the constant rivalry for wealth and power in the capital city, the alliances made and broken for the sake of fame and greater access to the media. Nor do we imagine the intrigue of the renaissance papacy as cities and kings fought for control of its wealth and power. Nor do we imagine even the petty bickering and desire to control that rattles around a town or business or local congregation. But in Israel the language of sheep and shepherds is used of the courts of power.

Jesus is the true shepherd, the noble shepherd, the good shepherd, who does not feed off the sheep but leads them to good pasture. He does not use them as canon fodder or sweatshop labor, but lays down his life for the sheep. They are not masses to be manipulated, but people to be saved, healed, and protected from the thieves and robbers who sit on thrones.

On the fourth Sunday of Easter every year, when we have told the stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, now we point out the truth to which all those stories bear witness: this Jesus is our true shepherd.

In our first reading, Peter and John bear witness to the Jerusalem elite who have arrested them in outrage at their preaching – for, if God has raised the one they crucified, then God has stripped these leaders of all claim to authority. They are not true shepherds, but hired hands protecting themselves.

David sings his song of trust in God, acknowledging the LORD as his (and Israel’s) true shepherd – a noble claim for a potentate.

And the author of First John reminds us that the model for our life together is Jesus who laid down his life for us. We who are students of the noble shepherd must live as he lived, not just talk about loving one another.

The Prayer for April 26, 2015

Gracious Heavenly Father,
Christ Jesus our good shepherd laid down his life for our sake
that he might gather one flock from all the nations of the earth.
Be at work within us
that we might hear and respond to his voice,
and follow him in lives of service and love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 26, 2015

First Reading: Acts 4:1-13 (appointed 5-12)
“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” – Peter and John are examined by the authorities after having been arrested for preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead (a message that invalidates the authority of the High Priestly leadership because it declares that God has reversed their judgment against Jesus.)

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – The famous song of trust in God that reverberates with social, political and religious meaning in a world where the king (or ruler) was regarded as the shepherd of the people.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
– The author encourages his community to remain faithful to God and one another despite the departure of a schismatic group from their community.

Gospel: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – The middle section of chapter 10 where Jesus employs metaphors drawn from shepherding. Here he identifies himself as the true shepherd who cares for the sheep, freely laying down his life for the people.

 

Photo: By PHC C.M. Fitzpatrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons