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

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He goes ahead

File:PikiWiki Israel 19308 Settlements in Israel.JPG

Wednesday

This is a reposting of a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday in 2014

John 10:1-10

4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Palestinian shepherds are different than most shepherds worldwide. Most places in the world the shepherds come behind, driving their flock. In Palestine they walk ahead and the sheep follow.

This contrast alone makes this chapter of John priceless. How much religion consists of people being driven? Driven by guilt, by rules, by demands, by self-righteousness, by the psychological needs of the leadership, by history, by desire. Most of life is driven. Driven by our need to provide, our need to succeed, our need to feel safe. Driven by our fears, our wants, our restless sense that we are missing something. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden in their shame. The prodigal son is driven home by his desperate hunger – but the prodigal father runs to welcome his son with open arms.

Jesus leads his flock. He goes before. He goes ahead. And though that often results with us running to catch up, it means we are not going anywhere that Jesus has not already been. Every sorrow he has tasted first. Even the grave. But also the resurrection.

He is our elder brother. He goes ahead. He paves the way. He opens the door. He does not ask us to wash feet before he has washed our feet. He does not ask us to take up the cross before he has taken up his cross. He does not ask us to give what he has not given. He does not ask us to walk where he has not walked. He does not ask us to love anyone he has not loved or forgive anyone he has not forgiven.

There is all the difference in the world between the command to go and the invitation to “Come with me.”

My brother got me to do all kinds of things by doing them first. I learned to swim because my brother went first. I learned to ski because he went first. I learned to hold a pigeon, I walked the streets of Brussels, I picked up a live crab, I left home for college. And there were some things I didn’t have to do because he did them, battles he fought I didn’t have to fight.

God does not sit on a throne spouting orders; he has come as our elder brother, leading the way. There are commands in the scripture, to be sure. We know of the ten, even if we can’t name them all. Jesus himself gave a new commandment – and tightened the others. He talked about forgiving seventy-seven times. But he went first. He goes ahead. He calls our name and bids us walk with him.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_19308_Settlements_in_Israel.JPG ארכיון עין השופט [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Overflowing

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Watching for the Morning of May 7, 2017

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

The fourth Sunday of Easter each year takes us to the tenth chapter of John and the 23rd psalm. In John 10 Jesus uses several metaphors rooted in the care and keeping of sheep, leading ultimately to the declaration “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” His claim that he has the power to lay his life down and take it up again leads to the accusation that he is demon possessed and an attempted stoning.

We should not let sweet images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd with a lamb around his neck obscure the fact that such words nearly get him killed. The language of shepherds and sheep is deep in the Biblical tradition for the relationship of Israel’s leaders to the people. His claim to be the good shepherd means that the Jerusalem leaders are not good shepherds. Indeed, in these opening words, Jesus asserts that they are thieves and robbers. Ironic words given that they will crucify Jesus for being an insurrectionist (here translated as ‘robber’).

These thieves and robbers have no true claim to the sheep – they sneaked over the wall to plunder the sheep. But the sheep (the crowds) hear Jesus’ voice and follow. And whereas the leaders of the nation are thieves and robbers, Jesus is the gate through which the sheep go out to rich pasture.

Jesus is the source of true life, not the pale imitation of life offered by the nation’s elite; but the true life of God’s people, an overflowing life, the good and imperishable life God intended for his creation.

So we hear Peter speak of Jesus, “the shepherd and guardian” of our lives. And we sing with David that the Lord is our shepherd who guides us through death’s vale and grants us rest in good pasture. And we hear Luke, the author of Acts, tell us of this remarkable community living with “glad and generous hearts,” who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Among them none went hungry.

Abundant life. Life to the full. Life overflowing. Life that was meant to be.

Preaching Series: Genesis 1, The Life-giving Word

Last week we heard how, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus took his followers through the whole of scripture to see how it bears witness to God’s self-giving love fulfilled in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Sunday we begin our own survey with a look at the brilliant and courageous work we know as the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Written following the chaos of a terrible war, in a time when Jerusalem was destroyed and the people in exile, the author bears witness to the God who brings order to the stormy primal sea and makes all things good, beautiful, noble. In Babylon, where the world was said to be created from the slain body of the chaos monster – and humans fashioned from its blood – Biblical faith bears witness to a good world called into being by a God who speaks and whose word creates.

The Prayer for January 22, 2017

Gracious God,
guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
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 January 22, 2017

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Luke presents one of his summary descriptions of the early Christian community, an ever expanding community manifesting God’s.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – a song of trust born of reflection upon God’s gracious care and providence through the challenges and trials of life. In the midst of the dangerous intrigues of the royal court, God is the true shepherd who has guarded and guided the poet’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” –
this section of 1 Peter is presumably appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday for its line: “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” but this section of the homily speaks to the pattern of enduring suffering given by Jesus.

Gospel: John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” – Several metaphors from the world of shepherding are taken up as parables of the access to ‘Life’ found in Jesus.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChampagne_tower.jpg By ori2uru (originally posted to Flickr as champagne tower) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

97,000

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Sunday Evening

John 10:22-30

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

File:Rom, Titusbogen, Triumphzug 3.jpgIt’s hard to know how many people perished when Judea rose in revolt and Titus came to crush the rebellion. Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were carried off to slavery. We see their image carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. They are in chains and the temple treasures held high as booty. It paid for the construction of the Roman Coliseum, where many more Jews and Christians would lose their lives.

When John’s community listens to this set of images about the good shepherd, the thieves and bandits, and the hirelings, Jerusalem’s tragic story is not that many years behind them.

‘Perish’ is a soft translation for a word that typically means to kill or destroy utterly. ‘Snatch’ seems like trying to grab something off my brother’s desk when I was ten, rather than the 97,000 taken away by force.

The hirelings are the Jerusalem elite who saved their skins. The thieves and bandits are the rebels acclaimed as messiahs (or condemned as terrorists) who seized control of the city and led the revolt. And the wolf is the Roman Army that came “to steal, kill and destroy.”

The history is brutal as revolutions often are. Consider the reign of terror in Paris or the ruthlessness of the Russian Revolution or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the ISIS beheadings in the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra. The Judean revolt was not different. But it ended with utter destruction and slavery.

Caiaphas will say that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50) Yet the truth of the matter is that the path followed by Caiaphas and the nation led to destruction. The path offered by Jesus would have led to life.

And still that path is offered to us every Sunday around a table with broken bread. But the path of wars and crusades seems too alluring. Compassion, mercy, justice, faithfulness – they don’t rouse the crowd like anger, hate and claims of divine approval. But they are life. Imperishable life.

Followers of Jesus where crucified and slain in the chaos of that war. Some by Rome and its allies. Some by their fellow countrymen. But they knew true life. And no one can ever snatch them from Jesus’ hand.

 

Image of the Arch of Titus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARomeArchofTitus02.jpg By Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of the Arch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARom%2C_Titusbogen%2C_Triumphzug_3.jpg  By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The true shepherd

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For Friday

John 10:22-30

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.

It was winter. It would not have been a Minnesota winter; it would have been a San Francisco one – that damp, penetrating chill. The note that he was in the portico suggests he was sheltered from the rain. It’s interesting to imagine Jesus under dripping, grey skies. We don’t think about the real texture of his life.

John puts him in the temple at the feast of the Dedication. We would recognize it as it Hanukah. It remembers when, after Antiochus Epiphanes IV desecrated the temple and the Maccabean revolt reclaimed the city and temple, they purified the temple. There was only enough oil to keep the lamps burning one day – and the process of preparing new oil took eight – but the lamps continued to burn for the eight days. The light never went out.

Maybe it’s the remembrance of Judas Maccabeus and the deliverance of the nation that leads the Judeans to press Jesus to declare himself openly as God’s anointed, God’s messiah. Were they hoping? Or were they already looking for evidence against him? Were they wanting to dispense with this voice that promised new wine and new birth? This voice that claimed to be the true shepherd unlike the thieves and bandits who bring death in their wake?   And unlike the hired hands who save themselves and let the sheep be scattered?

The words are certainly pregnant with meaning for John’s congregation listening to them in the years after 70 AD – for this is precisely what happened in the War against Rome when hundreds of thousands perished and the temple was destroyed.

Jesus is perceptive enough, perfectly attuned to the Spirit of God, to know the dangerous path the country is following. He answers deftly. “My sheep recognize my voice.” It’s neither a “yes” nor a “no” because he is not, as he will tell Pilate, a king like the kings of this world.   But what he does say is that he will not lose any of his sheep – unlike the shepherds who led the nation to ruin. The disaster they brought fell not just in Judea but throughout the region for, at the outbreak of the revolt, towns loyal to Rome rose up and murdered or drove out their Jews.

But the reign of God in Jesus gives life, the life that cannot be destroyed.

27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_16624_The_Shepherd.jpg  Attribution: תורם התמונה: זינה שיך יוסף [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One heart

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For Thursday

John 10:22-30

30The Father and I are one.”

It’s not an ontological statement. Jesus is not talking about the nature of reality. It is not a claim that he, himself, is divine. It is a claim familiar from ordinary life that to deal with the son is to deal with the father. They are united in mind and purpose. Jesus conforms perfectly to the will of his father.

This is not to take away anything from the later theological formulations of the church. With these I do not disagree. But there is something more important in this text than the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity. Doctrines engage the mind; Jesus engages my life. Doctrines want me to speak precisely; Jesus wants me to love well. Doctrine matters. It matters profoundly. But first we need to deal with the Jesus before our eyes saying that he and the Father are united in mind and purpose.

Do you want to know what God does? Consider what Jesus did. He healed the sick, welcomed the outcast, and raised the dead. He broke bread with sinners and tax collectors. He challenged the pious. He confronted the hypocrisy of the elite. He braved the self-interest of the privileged. He laid down his life for the sheep.

He forgave sins. He offered new birth – birth from above. He opened blind eyes. He gave life to the dead.

Anything else you want to say about God has to begin here – with a Jesus who claims to be one in mind and heart and will with the Father.

We don’t trust such people in our time. They are cult leaders and crusaders who do much more harm than good. We resist all absolute claims. Life is complicated. Nuanced. There’s not much room for someone who says they know the will of God.

But here is this Jesus. He says he does.

And we trust him, because there is no selfish agenda in him. He is not using us to prop up an ideology. He is not using us to fight his battles. He does not look upon us a fodder. He lays down his life for the sheep. He comes that we may have life, and have it abundantly. He comes that we may never perish.

So here is Jesus. And we can’t argue theology. We can’t discuss doctrines. We have to decide if he is one in heart with the father. And if so, then we have to join our hearts with his.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus.jpg  by Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Inversions and opposites and contradictions and a world remade

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Watching for the Morning of April 17, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

The crucified rebel is Lord of All. The lamb who was slain, lives. The Lamb is the Shepherd. The lame and the shamed are brought to the wedding feast. The tax-gatherer goes home justified. The meek inherit the earth. The New Testament is rife with images turned inside out and the world turned upside down. The scripture doesn’t defend the status quo – it promises and brings a totally new one. The God of the Bible isn’t defending morality, but radically redefining it.

It is hard for us to get our heads around this. “The message of the cross is folly to the Gentiles,” writes Paul. The risen Jesus must patiently teach the scriptures again and again, for even with all that his followers have seen, they don’t get it. It’s why Jesus washes feet and welcomes children and declares it necessary for him to eat at the house of Zacchaeus. It’s why his puts up with the insults of Simon the Pharisee when he eats at his table. It’s why he breaks bread with Judas – and serves breakfast to Peter the denier.

So we come again in this Easter season to Good Shepherd Sunday. But it does not present us a pious pastoral image of the tender shepherd with a lamb around his neck. This is the slain lamb who lives who is Lord of all, standing on the throne of God. This is the shepherd who provides a banquet table for the king “in the presence of my enemies.” This is martyrs who make their robes white by washing them in blood. This is the slain singing God’s praise. This is Dorcas dead but made alive. This is sheep given the life of the age to come: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Easter is a deeply unsettling. A profound revolution. But the hope of all the ends of the earth.

The Prayer for April 17, 2016

Gracious Heavenly Father,
shepherd of our souls and guardian of our way,
in the resurrection of your son Jesus Christ
you have opened for us the way of life.
Continue to lead us by your Word and your Spirit
that we may dwell with you in that life which is eternal;
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 17, 2016

First Reading: Acts 9: 36-43
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.” – Peter is summoned to Joppa and Dorcas/Tabitha is restored to life.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – In the midst of the dangerous intrigues of the royal court, where the king is regarded as the shepherd of the people, the poet declares it is the LORD who is his shepherd.

Second Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
“The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
– The prophet sees the martyrs robed in white and singing at the throne of God.

Gospel: John 10:22-30
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” – The conclusion of John 10 that reflects on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALes_Baux_Berger_%C3%A0_la_messe_de_Noel.jpg  By Unknown 1930s (Scan old postcard) [Public domain], via 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

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

In praise of confusion

Friday

John 10

File:Map of Jericho in 14c Farhi Bible by Elisha ben Avraham Crescas.jpg

Map of Jericho in 14c Farhi Bible by Elisha ben Avraham Crescas

6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Jesus doesn’t very often say things plainly. We should take warning that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was talking about. It’s not only John that utilizes this narrative element – the disciples come off poorly in all the gospels. Part of this, of course, is that we cannot understand Jesus until we have seen the cross and resurrection. The crucifixion is the interpretive center of everything Jesus says and does. Words like redemption, which generally meant throwing the Romans out, gain an entirely new meaning in light of Jesus’ death. The meaning of loving our enemies is missed if it’s only seen as a method of getting rid of them or living peaceably with them.

We should not imagine that we understand. Too often we laugh at the thick-headed disciples as if we were clear-headed. Jesus is and should be a puzzle. What he asks of us isn’t naturally obvious. Loving our enemies is widely acknowledged but rarely accepted. And we have substituted one false notion of salvation for another: we think salvation is a prize waiting for us beyond death rather than living now under the reign of God.

People sometimes complain that they don’t understand the Bible – and I want to say, “Good.” The Bible isn’t meant to be understood; it’s meant to change us. Confronted with the puzzle of Jesus’ words, in the struggle to understand, we are changed.

So Jesus talks in parables and metaphors and allusions. He makes us wrestle with who are the thieves and robbers and whether we are sheep and to whose voice we listen. Whose voice do I follow? Does it lead me “in and out”? Does it lead me to good pasture? Does it lead me to life? Does it shape my daily going forth? What is good pasture? What is the pasture to which Jesus leads me? Does he lead me to happiness? Service? Religious ecstasy? Assurance? Peace? Communion with God? A spirit of compassion and mercy? Do I recognize his voice or am I listening to robbers? Am I a robber, plundering other sheep?

Listening to Jesus is not a simple process. He is not transmitting facts. Knowing that the earth is the third rock from the Sun is a different thing than seeing that image of the earthrise on the moon and recognizing what it means that we all inhabit that one small blue marble in a sea of darkness.

Believing the notion that God created the world in six days is far easier than seeing and understanding what it means that I and everything around me arises from the hand of God. I was startled by a spider yesterday and immediately crushed it. My primal instincts asserted themselves – fear and revulsion lead to violence. But I did apologize to the to spider as I tossed the tissue bearing his crushed carcass into the toilet; I am still struggling with the notion that all life is from God.

But these words with which I struggle lead to good pasture. They lead to Life.