Tag Archives: Good Shepherd

Sunday, May 7th


Acts 2:42–47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19–25
John 10:1–10

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

That phrase has taken on more urgency for me over the last decade during which both Sesle and I have lost our parents and now stand with no further familial buffer against the encroaching shadow. The loss of our grandson, Parker, was a cruel reminder that, in reality, there is no buffer. Death leaps over generational lines with the agility of a tiger to snatch lives fresh from the womb, lives that have yet to offer their tender buds to the world. Daily news clips from Syria and northern Iraq bring us graphic images of whole populations that understand with clarity we can never hope to achieve how “even in the midst of life we are in death.”  The Bible doesn’t offer any escape from all this. Death is our only exit. No one gets off this planet alive. But the Bible, and the 23rd Psalm in particular, assures us that we need not pass through that door alone. “Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

I am not much interested in whether and to what extent the psalmist believed in a resurrection of the dead or any kind of human existence beyond the grave. It was apparently enough for this psalmist to be confident that whatever the end might hold, s/he could count on facing it in the company and protection of the Lord, his/her shepherd. That was enough. Moreover, it must still suffice even in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. For the truth is, none of us know exactly what resurrection is or what new creation looks like. When the Biblical authors speak of it, they must resort to lurid apocalyptic images, parables, limited analogies that, taken too far, always break down. Jesus tells us that those accounted worthy of the resurrection to eternal life are “like angels in heaven.” But what does that mean? Paul tells us that our resurrection life will be as different from our current existence as a flowering plant is different from the seed that gave it birth. So how can we hope to form any reliable image of “the life everlasting” we confess in the creeds?

I find myself confronted with two opposite and unsatisfactory resolutions to this tension. On the one hand, I find a tendency to say more than what we actually know about resurrected life. “Grand dad is looking down at us.” “Happy Birthday Mom on your second year in heaven.” “Good to know that Jeremy is watching over his younger siblings.” I don’t suppose there is any real harm in such sentiments. They can, however, reflect a naïve and inaccurate view of the resurrection’s magnitude and effect. Nothing will be gained if I am resurrected as the same selfish, insecure, bigoted and vindictive cuss I have always been before. If we bring into eternity our old selves with all the wounds, wrongs and bitterness that put us at each other’s throats for all of history, it won’t be anything like “heaven.” If I am going to live faithfully, obediently and joyfully together with all people in a new creation, I need to become a fundamentally new person. I will have to be different-so much so that my new self might not even be recognizable as the old. What, then, does that mean? Who am I without my memories of the events, both proud and shameful, that made me who I am? Will there be enough continuity between who we are and who we will be that we can recognize each other in the new creation? Does that even matter?

At the other end of the extreme I have known plenty of thoughtful and faithful believers who are ready to dispense with any concrete notion of resurrection from death. For them, repentance and faith are death and resurrection enough. The kingdom of God lived out in love under the sign of the cross is as much heaven as they need. It is enough for them to know that they die into God. Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian, (c. 2011 by Marcus Borg, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 201. I have some sympathy with this approach. After all, eternal life is not solely or even primarily a distant future reality, particularly as it is described in the Gospel of John. Indeed, what makes life eternal is not its duration, but its quality. Life that is conformed to eternal Trinitarian love is itself qualitatively eternal. For people like myself, who have lived full lives filled with the love of a good marriage, the satisfaction of productive and  meaningful work, the joy of seeing my children grow up into faithful adults contributing much to the health of creation, this life might conceivably be enough. But what about Parker, who did not ever have the opportunity to learn to walk, talk, fall in love, get his heart broken and grow into a man? What about the millions upon millions whose lives from childhood on are consumed merely with day to day survival? It seems to me that the Triune God, the God who is love from eternity, could hardly bear to leave these unfinished, unreconciled, unfulfilled lives in the grave. I cannot imagine a new creation in which these “least,” these forgotten by everyone but God, are not taken up and woven into its fabric.

At the end of the day, it seems to me we must continue to confess the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come-even though we don’t quite know what we are talking about. It is enough to know that the God who called again from death the great Shepherd of the sheep and who brought us all this way will not abandon us at the end, but instead will continue to give us life. It is enough to know that the God who at the dawn of time scooped up a hand full of dust and breathed into it God’s life giving Spirit will again scoop up the dust we must all become and make of us new creatures. “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” I Thessalonians 4:17. That isn’t nearly all I would like to know. But it’s enough for me to live confidently in the valley of the shadow of death.

Here’s a poem expressing hope for memory that is deep enough and compassion strong enough to hold for eternity all that is true, beautiful and good.

Stories in the Trash

This here quilt’s all I still got of Grandma’s.
Watched her make it when I was a kid.
I’d come tearing through the house,
Always on the way to somewhere else,
And there she’d be sitting on the floor,
Surrounded by old coats, cast off clothes,
Bed sheets, coverlets and table cloths.
It all finally came together in this quilt.

Course, that’s a long time ago.
Quilt’s dirty, worn and not fit for much.
But I expect I’ll hold onto it just the same.
Seems somehow sacrilegious,
Just throwing it into the dumpster.
I’ll leave that job to the kids.
They’ll waste no time in tossing it.
To them it’s just a rag with no story.

I’m not an especially religious man.
Don’t know much about God.
As for the Bible, just a verse or two.
Don’t know or much care if any of it’s true.
I sort of hope, though, there’s Someone
Who remembers the stories in things,
Someone who doesn’t forget
What all the old stuff in the garbage means.


Acts 2:42–47

Like Acts 4:32-35 and Acts 5:12-16 this passage gives us what some would call an “idyllic picture” of the early church. See Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M. The Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1964 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 31. Indeed, there is a tendency among mainline commentators to dismiss this description of the church’s communal existence as Lukan embellishment intended to inspire rather than reflect historical reality. The Anabaptist tradition, however, has taken these texts quite seriously. HutteriteAmishAmana and Bruderhof communities have, each in their own way, put into practice the vision of communal life set forth in the Book of Acts. These countercultural movements are often criticized in mainline circles for their clannishness, lack of engagement with the outside world and parochialism. Yet one cannot help but observe that these mainline criticisms of the Anabaptists sound suspiciously similar to criticisms Jesus warned his disciples to expect from the world-precisely because they do not belong to the world. John 15:19. There is nothing more repugnant and threatening to any society than a community within it that does not share its values, priorities and loyalties. Witness Roman imperial culture’s discomfort with the early church and Christendom’s fear of and hostility toward the Jews. Maybe we mainliners are uncomfortable with the communal Anabaptist groups because they remind us just how thoroughly indistinguishable we are from the rest of society at large. We are fond of touting as a virtue the fact that one “doesn’t wear his/her religion on his/her sleeve,” which is another way of saying that you would never guess that s/he was a Christian if you didn’t ask. Does anyone besides me see a problem with that?

A pastor participating in an online discussion I look in on occasionally recently commented on the perennial conflict between children’s sports events and Sunday morning worship. This pastor suggested that, rather than sitting in a church building and insisting that people come to us, we need to bring church to where the people are. Her specific suggestion was that the church hold a brief worship service on the soccer field prior to the game for all who desire to worship, but do not want to pull their children out of the game. I have no doubt this suggestion was made in the spirit of the great commission with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether making discipleship easier, less costly and more convenient is a faithful path for us to be following. Do we gain anything by continually downsizing the call of discipleship to fit within the ever shrinking gaps in our increasingly busy schedules? The early church called upon its members to give up their lives for the sake of Jesus’ name. Now we cannot bring ourselves to ask them to forfeit a soccer game! If we don’t believe seeking Jesus in the breaking of the bread is worth a soccer game, is it at all surprising that we cannot convince anyone else that church is at all worthwhile?

It is worth noting that, as outsiders viewed the community in the second chapter of Acts, “Awe came upon everyone…” and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Vs 43 and vs. 47. I believe that there are many people out there looking for an alternative to the shallow existence our culture of death offers us. The problem is, they simply are not seeing that alternative in the church. We have become so preoccupied with marketing the gospel at fire sale prices to folks who don’t care that we have obscured its lure from the eyes of those who do. Perhaps it is time for us mainliners to take a second look at our lesson from Acts.

Psalm 23

This psalm came up last in the lectionary on Sunday, March 26th. I refer you to my post of that date for my general comments. Specific to its meaning for this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, I note that sheep are not pets and they are not given the protection of the shepherd because they are cute and cuddly. Inevitably, the shepherd will call upon them to give up their lives-just as he puts his life in jeopardy for their sake. The church cannot read this psalm without recognizing the prospect of martyrdom on the horizon. There is no room for sentimentality when preaching on this psalm or any depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Our familiarity with this psalm can blind us to its discordant images, namely, the shepherd who cares for the sheep and the host who practices hospitality to strangers. In this regard, Professor Bernard W. Anderson has observed: “This problem begins to resolve itself when we project ourselves imaginatively out of our industrial milieu into the pastoral way of life which still prevails in some parts of the world today. The shepherd can be portrayed from two standpoints. He is the protector of the sheep as they wander in search of grazing land. Yet he is also the protector of the traveler who finds hospitality in his tent from the dangers and enemies of the desert. Even today the visitor to certain parts of the Middle East can see the scene that lies at the basis of this psalm: the black camel’s hair tent where the traveler receives Bedouin hospitality, and the surrounding pastureland where the sheep graze under the protection of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, Yahweh is portrayed as the Shepherd in both aspects of the shepherd’s life: as the Leader of the flock, and as the hospitable Host.” Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 208.

St. Augustine’s truly delightful treatment of this psalm as a paradigm of discipleship wherein Christ accompanies the believer from baptism into eternal life is well worth reading.

1 Peter 2:19–25

The lectionary folks, in their paternalistic wisdom, have excised verse 18 from the text so that the congregation hearing this reading would never guess that the admonition to suffer patiently is given to slaves of abusive masters. Granted, this is a problematic text. I wouldn’t blame the architects of the lectionary for leaving it out altogether. But ripping it from its context and making it appear to say something quite other than what it says is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie.

I plan to stay away from this lesson. If I were going to preach on it, however, I would lay my emphasis on verse 19: “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” Mindful, that is to say, of the God of the Exodus. In this context, submission must be taken merely is non-retaliatory. The slave is not called upon to accept slavery. God does not approve slavery, much less abuse of slaves. Yet the struggle for liberation lies in faithful witness to a reign of God not yet complete. Such witness invariably involves suffering. The flip side of recognizing the humanity of the slave is the slave’s recognition of the humanity of the master. In the reign of God, the last are first and the first last. Still, even one who finishes last still finishes. Liberation, not retaliation is the goal.

Finally, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

John 10:1–10

In the prior chapter, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.

Jesus employs the image of a sheepfold where several flocks of sheep are lodged for the night. In the morning, the true shepherd can enter and call out his sheep who will follow him as they recognize his voice. Marsh, John, Saint John, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1968 John Marsh, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 395. Jesus is therefore setting out his claim to be the true shepherd of the people of God. Unlike the coercive power exercised by the religious authorities to keep the sheep in line, Jesus draws his sheep by the sound of his voice which is immediately recognized as genuine. He has no need to employ threats to drive them on. His sheep acknowledge him as their Shepherd and follow him willingly. This image of the shepherd has deep scriptural roots. It is applied throughout the Old Testament both to Israel’s kings and her God. See, e.g. Jeremiah 23:1-8Ezekiel 34Psalm 23Psalm 80.

It is passing strange, then, that Jesus should switch from this familiar and powerful shepherd metaphor to that of the “door of the sheep” in the interest of clarity. For my money, the shepherd image is much easier to comprehend than that of the door. Vss. 1-6. Yet Jesus goes on to distinguish himself from the thieves and robbers who came before him by calling himself a “door.” If the door retains its meaning from vs 2, i.e., the recognized entrance through whom only authorized persons can pass, then this reference to “thieves” and “robbers” could be taken as a) a reference to the leaders of the synagogue that reject the Jesus movement; or b) a warning for the disciples to beware of anyone coming into the church by another name such as false teachers. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 388. It should also be noted that messianic pretenders prior to Jesus had been characterized both by the Romans and the leaders of the post 70 A.D. Jewish community as “robbers” or “brigands.” Ibid. p. 387. That characterization does not seem to fit the context here, however.

The meaning of the term “door” seems to have changed from verse 2 in verses 7-10. In the latter verses the door is not the entrance through which the shepherd comes to call the sheep, but the door through which the sheep go to find pasture. The door, then, serves a double purpose. It is protective of the flock in that it screens out the thieves and robbers who would harm the sheep. It is also the opening out into good pasture through which the sheep may pass. For what it is worth, one commentator observes that in some Middle Eastern grazing areas it is the custom for the shepherd to sleep in front of the sheep door, his body serving as a barrier to any sheep that might otherwise wander out. Bishop, E.F., “The Door of the Sheep-John 10:7-9,” 71 Expository Times (1959-60) pp. 307-09. That would give concrete expression to Jesus’ saying that the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” Vs. 11 (not included in the reading). But whether that practice existed in the first century or whether this is what Jesus actually meant is anyone’s guess.

Professor Raymond Brown suggests that the change of metaphors comes about as a result of Jesus’ change of emphasis. Verses 1-3a concern the way the Good Shepherd (as opposed to impostors) approaches the sheep. Consequently, the emphasis is on the gate. Verses 3b-5 concern the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep and so focus on the shepherd. Brown, op cit. 395. I think that for preaching I will focus either on the “door” or on the “shepherd.” Mixing these two metaphors seems to have confused the dickens out of Jesus’ original hearers. If Jesus couldn’t make this work, there is a good chance it will prove rough sledding for me as well.

Sunday, April 17th

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Prayer of the Day: O God of peace, you brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep. By the blood of your eternal covenant, make us complete in everything good that we may do your will, and work among us all that is well-pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm is probably the one and only Bible passage nearly everyone recognizes. As such, it is enormously helpful to me in doing funerals for people with families that probably haven’t darkened the door of a church since baptism. It provides some familiar ground between us on which to meet. The Twenty-Third is also a favorite of long time believers who recognize in its lyrical verse the image of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Most Hebrew Scripture scholars classify it as a “psalm of trust.” I wonder, though, is Psalm 23 really only a psalm of trust, just a word of comfort and assurance for people going through bad times? Is there another way to read this remarkable hymn?

What if we were to read the Twenty-Third Psalm as a poem of resistance, a bold declaration of loyalty to the Lord over against all other would-be shepherds? Saying “The Lord is my Shepherd” implies that, while I might take counsel or advice from a friend or recognize the authority of a teacher, pastor or government official, none but Jesus may shepherd me. A disciple of Jesus makes the bold declaration that his/her sole shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are serious about that declaration, we can be sure that it will put us on a collision course with a world governed by other shepherds. Frequently, we meet forks in the road where it becomes necessary to decide who is to be followed. To follow Jesus is to reject the call of a thousand other false shepherds who have little interest in the sheep and who promise shortcuts along the more attractive path of least resistance. Sometimes following Jesus means telling the powers and principalities in high places that “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Sometimes it means creating a socially awkward moment when you have to tell your house guest that a racist joke is not welcome in your home. Sometimes the cost of faithfulness to Jesus results in one’s losing career, business and financial opportunities or alienating family and friends. Following the Good Shepherd might cost you your life.

It might seem a little demeaning for a fiercely individualistic people like us to admit that we either have or need a shepherd, but the Bible tells us that independence is not an option. We were created to find our rest, our peace and our reason for being in God. If we will not have the Lord as our Shepherd, something or someone else will slide in to fill the void. Something else will dictate how we live. What’s more, that something will always disappoint us in the end. I wish I could tell you how many parents feel betrayed, empty and lonely when the children to whom they have devoted their lives grow up and no longer need them. How many people do you know that retire from their jobs only to discover that they have been so busy at work that they have never had time to imagine what life will look like when the work is all done? You have a shepherd. The only question is, who is it?

Understand that the shepherd/sheep metaphor will not allow for sentimentality. Sheep are not cuddly little pets. They are farm animals destined to be sheered and perhaps slaughtered. They are kept safe and sound not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the shepherd for whom they must one day suffer and die. So it is that our lives do not belong to us. Life and death are given so that in both we may glorify God and bear witness to Jesus. “Whoever would come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow.” “Where I am, there will my servant be also.” Just as the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, so the sheep are to live-and perhaps die-for the Shepherd.

Well, if that’s the case, why would anyone follow Jesus? The answer is that Jesus alone knows where the green pastures and still waters are. Jesus alone knows the way through the valley of the shadow into the light of the resurrection. Jesus alone can open our hearts to the love which the Father shares with the Son-love that is strong enough to survive even death, love that is able to bind together all the broken pieces of our world, love that can make us genuinely human. You inevitably will have a shepherd. So let him be the one who knows where he is going; the one that can save you from yourself and ensure that you take the right fork in the road-because it might make all the difference.

Here’s a poem by Robert Frost about just such a fork in the road:

The Road Not Taken 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 105. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 9:36-43

In this brief account, Peter raises a woman from death. Luke uses this miracle story to draw parallels between the ministry of Jesus and that of the church through which the Spirit continues Jesus’ life giving mission. Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1989 by Fortress Press) p. 122. Luke’s gospel contains two other such miracles performed by Jesus. (Raising Jairus’ Daughter, Luke 8:40-56; Raising the Widow of Nain; Luke 7:11-17). Some commentators suggest that “Tabitha,” the name of the woman raised from death, is intended to echo the command given by Jesus in Aramaic, “talitha cum” (little girl arise), to the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:41. Id. at 122 citing Wellhausen, Julius, Kritische Analyse der Apostelgeschichte, AGG.PH 15.2, Berlin 1914) p. 121. Though such a literary allusion would be consistent with Luke’s aim of demonstrating the healing presence of Jesus in the ministry of the church, I think it’s a bit of a stretch. If Luke had intended to make such a connection, he would surely have let Mark’s Aramaic rendition of Jesus’ command stand in his telling of the story. As it is, he translates the command into Greek. It should be emphasized that these raising events do not constitute “resurrection” in the same sense that Jesus experienced it. Tabitha will eventually die again as did Lazarus, the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus. Like Jesus’ healing miracles, the raising events constitute not final liberation from death, but only a brief reprieve.

Furthermore, the miracles are never ends in themselves. Peter’s response here is to the distress of the church in Jappa which has lost a valued minister. Tabitha has been raised up to continue her life of good works for the sake of the church and its mission. Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 93.  As the case of Stephen demonstrates, sometimes the mission of the church is served by a saint’s faithful death. Thus, miracles of healing are not doled out as rewards for faithfulness, answers to earnest prayer or any other effort on our part. They are gifts to sustain the life of the church, inspire faith and demonstrate God’s compassion.

There are a number of parallels between this story and that of Elisha’s raising the son of the Shunammite woman in II Kings 4:8-37. In both cases, the deceased were placed in upper rooms. As Elisha was alone in prayer with the corpse, so also Peter puts everyone else outside and prays alone in the room with Tabitha’s body. If these similarities between the two stories are anything more than coincidence, then Luke is once again making the point that the restorative power of God at work in the prophets and coming to full bloom in the work of the Messiah continues in the life of the church.

It is noteworthy that Peter lodges with Simon the “tanner.” Vs. 43. Jewish law regarded this line of work as defiling. Thus, Simon would have been an outcast in polite Jewish society. Peter seems to have no problem accepting Simon’s hospitality, though as we will see in next week’s lesson, he has considerable scruples over dining with Gentiles. Luke is therefore setting the stage for the upcoming story of the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius. This will be the next chapter in the church’s story of breaking down religious and cultural barriers. Luke wants to demonstrate that welcoming the Gentiles into the church is simply a logical extension of Jesus’ welcoming outcasts among his own people.

Psalm 23

Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. As my opening remarks demonstrate, however, that has not stopped me from trying. Nonetheless, given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016Sunday, April 26, 2015,Sunday, October 12, 2014Sunday, May 11, 2014Sunday, March 30, 2014Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Kelly J. Murphy, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, all on workingpreacher.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.

Revelation 7:9-17

For my views on the imagery of the Lamb who was slain, see the posts from Sunday, April 3, 2016 and April 10, 2016. What I find interesting here is the paradoxical statement in verse 17: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This hymn echoes and may be inspired by imagery from Psalm 23. Oddly, Christ is characterized as both lamb and shepherd. The apparent inconsistency is overcome, however, if we accept the proposal of commentator Raymond Brown that, while composed by different authors, Revelation and the Gospel and letters of John share a related theological tradition. Brown, Raymond E., The Community of the Beloved Disciple, (c. 1979 by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., pub. by Paulist Press) p. 6.  Recall that in John 17 Jesus prays not only that his disciples may be one, but “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us…” John 17:21. The “Lamb of God” that takes away the sin of the world now indwells his disciples in the unity of the Spirit and is also the Shepherd.

“Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” vs. 10. The term, “salvation” or “soteria” in Greek might better be translated “vindication” or “victory.” Kelly, Balmer H., “Revelation 7:9-17, Interpretation, Vol. XL, no. 3, July 1986, p. 291. It is not that God is acclaimed as saved. Rather, the ways of God and God’s suffering love so perfectly expressed in the faithful ministry and obedient death of the Lamb are now vindicated as are those whose lives have been forfeited through their faithful following of the Lamb. “The tribulation” (vs. 14) out of which the “host dressed in white” (vs. 9) has emerged is the persecution actually experienced by the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed in the messages of Revelation 1-2. The beleaguered churches are encouraged to persist in their faithful obedience to Jesus and assured that their journey’s end will be the fuller presence of God. The promise that God will “shelter them with his presence” literally translates as: “spread his tabernacle over them.” Vs. 15. The tabernacle, sometimes referred to as the “tent of meeting” in the Hebrew Scriptures, accompanied the children of Israel throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The verbal form of this word “tabernacle” is used in the first chapter of John’s gospel where the apostle tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  John 1:14 “Lived among us” literally translated is “tabernacled among us” or “pitched his tent among us.”

It is unfortunate that the Book of Revelation historically has been a tool of apocalyptic terrorists seeking to sow seeds of fear, foreboding and doom. That was the last thing on the mind of its author, John of Patmos. I believe Balmer, supra, sums it up well: “Revelation 7:9-17 is therefore, an unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” p. 294 (emphases in the original).

This is a powerful message of hope to a church facing extinction under the oppressive weight of imperial persecution. It is similarly comforting to both churches and individuals close to dying and whose faithfulness to Jesus seems futile and ineffective. The Lamb whose faithfulness unto death defeated death shares his resurrection with the saints even as they share his suffering and death. The beast may inflict mortal wounds. But the Lamb bestows immortal and healing love. The last word belongs to the Lamb.

John 10:22-30

The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. Like a snowball rolling down hill, our understanding of Jesus picks up deeper and more nuanced meaning as we proceed through the narrative. Every sentence in this Gospel carries another clue to Jesus’ identity. The Feast of Dedication commemorated the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.E. following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. Jesus previously conducted his own cleansing of the Temple in John 2:13-22. Rather than rededicating it, however, Jesus declared that his body constituted the new temple “not built with hands.” See John 2:13-22. Jesus’ reappearance in the Temple once again points us back to this clue paving the way to a new revelation about to unfold in the dialogue that follows.

Jesus’ opponents pose a very specific question to him: “Are you the Christ?” While there certainly was a wide range of expectation regarding the role of Israel’s messiah, what he would accomplish and how he would get it done, there was no ambiguity in the question itself. Jesus either believes he is the messiah or he does not. So which is it? While Jesus may seem evasive in his response, he is actually prodding his questioners to ask a better question: I have already told you who I am. You already know enough to make your judgment about me. Do you really think my answering your question one way or another will change anything I have already said or add to what you already know? The word ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is just a word. Look at my works. They speak to who I am. Vs. 25. (Highly paraphrased).

“My sheep hear my voice.” The shepherd’s sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. Jesus has previously made this point in John 10:1-6. The sheep cannot be lured away by the voice of anyone but the true shepherd. The converse is also true. Sheep that do not belong to the shepherd will not heed the shepherd’s voice. So this is not a matter of obtuseness on the part of Jesus’ opponents. Their inability to “hear” Jesus’ voice stems rather from a lack of trust. The sheep heed the voice of the shepherd precisely because the shepherd has proved trustworthy and true. Paradoxically, Jesus’ opponents cannot hear him because they do not trust him. Yet they will never learn to trust him unless they heed his voice. Their situation might seem hopeless but it isn’t. These folks are not of Jesus’ fold now. But Jesus says of them: “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16. Jesus has yet more work to do. He will be glorified in his final great work on the cross through which he will “draw all people to myself.” John 12:32. As the lesson from Revelation makes clear in its own poetic way, so also the Gospel lesson assures us that the Crucified Lamb will prevail in the end through faithful, patient, suffering love.

Sunday, July 19th


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

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, powerful and compassionate, you shepherd your people, faithfully feeding and protecting us. Heal each of us, and make us a whole people, that we may embody the justice and peace of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…they were like sheep without a shepherd…” Mark 6:34.

The greatest difficulty with this metaphor is our inability and/or unwillingness to see ourselves as sheep. I would prefer to think of myself less as a heard animal and more like a common house cat. I go where I choose, hang around as long as I get fed and leave for better digs when the opportunity presents itself. My own life story, as I frequently narrate it, contains more than a few first person singular pronouns. This is “my” story of the choices “I” made that make “me” who “I” am.

The truth is, I am a product of a mother who was reading Bible stories and praying with me from as far back as I can remember. I was shaped by the elder siblings I sought to emulate. I was indoctrinated by the hymns I sang in my home church year after year and, though probably in a subliminal way, by hundreds of sermons preached in my hearing. Though the church of my childhood was less than prophetic in naming the sin of racism, it was nevertheless a community in which racial slurs and demeaning stereotypes were not tolerated. It was a place where a kid my age who in those days was labeled “retarded” could find full acceptance and a refuge from the merciless teasing and bulling he faced every day at school. Though far from perfect, my church was enough like the Body of Christ to form in my heart a belief in Christ and a vision the reign of God he proclaims. It was a flock of the Good Shepherd.

Of course, there were other forces shaping me as well. I had peers whose influence drew me in ways contrary to the reign of Christ. I listened to music that glorified drug abuse, promiscuous sex and violence. I attended schools where athletic achievement was celebrated more than learning, popularity more than character and physical beauty more than virtue. Nationalism/Patriotism elevated the flag over the cross, often confusing and conflating faithful discipleship with good citizenship. Furthermore, for all the talk about how political discourse has become so angry, polarized and uncivil in our day, I can’t say that it’s any worse than in my own youth back in the sixties when politicians called each other communists and the generations mutually excoriated each other with dehumanizing caricatures. There were plenty of shepherds out there besides the Good Shepherd seeking to direct me, promising to lead me to the good pastures and quiet waters along easier paths eschewing the cross. That I have remained within the flock of the Good Shepherd is more a testimony to the might of the Spirit of that Good Shepherd working through the means of grace and the care of a faithful community than any decision I have ever made in my life.

I try to keep that in mind when I preach to a people whose televisions and radios broadcast hate speech almost 24/7 into their homes. I try to remember that when I confront a confirmation class that finds Katy Perry infinitely more interesting and inspiring than a 60 year old bald guy with a seminary education. I try remember how the Spirit continues to work through the church with all its faults as I critically examine my own life and realize that, if Christianity ever became an outlawed religion, the prosecutor might have a difficult time amassing evidence sufficient to convict me. I will also work too keep before me the testimonies of faith I heard last week by children, teenagers and young adults at the Ekklesia Project Gathering discussed further below. They are proof enough that the Good Shepherd knows his own and calls, gathers and enlightens them. The Church is in Jesus’ care and it’s going to be just fine.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

The prophet Jeremiah’s ministry took place during the last dark days of the Kingdom of Judah-as did that of Ezekiel (see my post for Sunday, July 5, 2015). The little kingdom emerged from Assyrian domination around 640 B.C.E. under the able leadership of King Josiah, who gained a large measure of power and independence for his country. Under his reign Judah’s territorial control spread beyond even the borders of the united Kingdom of David and Solomon. See Bright, John, A History of Israel, Second Edition (c. 1972 by Westminster Press) pp. 321-322. But that good fortune was not to last. Egypt and Babylonia soon rose up to fill the power vacuum left after Assyria’s fall. Josiah was slain in a fruitless battle with Egyptian forces on their way to join the remnant of the Assyrian army in a last desperate stand against Babylon. The victorious Pharaoh Neco placed one of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim, on the throne as his vassal. Ibid 324-325. Shortly thereafter, in 605 B.C.E., the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzer soundly defeated Egypt in the battle of Carchemish and began advancing into Palestine. Ibid. Seeing the impressive string of victories won by the Babylonian army against Judah’s neighbbors, Jehoiakim reluctantly switched his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzer.

Jehoiakim’s allegiance to Babylon was not to last. A victory of sorts by the retreating Egypt army against the Babylonian forces late in 601 B.C.E. led Jehoiakim to believe that the Babylonian invasion had reached its high water mark and would soon run out of steam. The future, he felt, lay with Egypt. So Jehoiakim switched sides once again, rebelling against Babylon. Ibid 326. This rash decision sealed Judah’s fate. Babylon was far from out of steam.  Nebuchadnezzer advanced against Judah in 597. Jehoiakim had the good sense to die before Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem. His eighteen year old son, Jehoiachin ascended to the throne and ruled all of three months before the Babylonians forced Judah’s surrender and placed an uncle of the king, Zedekiah, on the throne. Ibid.

Zedekiah, was a weak and indecisive ruler easily swayed by his advisors who were intent on restoring Judah to its former glory under King David. Under their influence, the king engaged in a diplomatic strategy of playing his Babylonian master off against Egypt. This was a dangerous game that Zedekiah ultimately lost. In reliance upon a promise of support from Egypt, Zedekiah led his nation in revolt against Babylonian domination. Egyptian support never came and Jerusalem was surrounded and subjected to a brutal siege that ended with its destruction in 587 B.C.E. Ibid 328-321.

This is the context in which we read Jeremiah’s criticism of the “shepherds” of Israel, that is, her rulers. Jeremiah’s critique rests upon a tradition that saw the Davidic monarchy as the champion of justice, the protector of the poor and oppressed. E.g. Psalm 72. Yet in a hopeless effort to achieve national glory, the king and his minions disregarded the covenant at the heart of Judah’s existence. Judah’s kings took to worshiping the gods of other nations and relying upon international military alliances rather than on the Lord their God. The people of Judah suffered the horrific consequences of Judah’s misguided and self-serving political agendas. They were killed in the crossfire of war, driven into exile and impoverished as a result of the Babylonian reprisals. Rather than protecting and caring for the sheep, the leaders disregarded their welfare, exploited and scattered them among the nations. Yet the prophecy ends with a word of promise. God finally will raise up from the line of David a “righteous branch.” Vs. 5. Jeremiah continues to hope for a faithful descendent of David who, like David himself, will rule Judah with an eye toward caring for the sheep.

This lesson comes to us at the dawn of yet another a presidential contest promising to be contentious and divisive. It is appropriate to ask what our would be “shepherds” are doing to unite and care for the flock. Does winning the election trump leadership? Is purely selfish political ambition driving those who would be our shepherds? Judah’s rulers were intent on restoring the former glory of Judah under David and Solomon. That vision was entirely unrealistic under the current political circumstances. Moreover, Jeremiah would have his people know that what they regarded as the “good old days,” were in God’s view a dismal failure in terms of covenant faithfulness. Therefore, Jeremiah had the task of telling his people that God would not support the nationalistic aspirations of its faithless rulers and their diplomatic duplicity. God sought faithfulness, trust and obedience-qualities for which Judah’s rulers with their realpolitik had little use.

Ultimately, Judah’s shepherds were responsible for misleading the people with a false hope. They promised glory without obedience; greatness without faithfulness; prosperity without sacrifice. I might be on dangerous ground here, but I am convinced that all the presidential hopefuls thus far are guilty of the same sin. I also feel compelled to add that we, the people, share responsibility for their propagation of false hope. What we need are leaders that tell us the truth: that we face a crisis of malnutrition, poor schools and declining public infrastructure; that the gap between rich and poor is growing at an alarming rate; that more and more of our citizens are falling below the poverty line; that our disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources is not sustainable. Further we need leaders who tell us that all of these problems are difficult and complex. Addressing them effectively will require sacrifice, hard work and profound changes in our lifestyles.

But that is a message nobody wants to hear and we are not likely to elect a leader who brings us such unwelcome tidings. Instead, we elect leaders who tell us what we want to hear: that the solutions are simple and require nothing from us. We vote for people who tell us that we can have prosperity, security and peace without paying a penny more in taxes, without enduring any risk and without sacrificing an ounce of comfort. Of course, soon after putting these people in office it becomes clear to us that we have not elected the messiah, but another human being who cannot possibly keep the promises that had to be made to win the election. So when the next election rolls around, we angrily kick the false god we have made off the pedestal on which we placed it and set up another one in its place. I don’t see this deadly cycle ending until we finally face up to the truth. Our problems cannot be regulated out of existence nor will they miraculously disappear if only we let the free hand of the market economy do its magic. As long as we continue to believe in lies, we will continue to elect liars.

I don’t have any suggestions for fixing the political system in Washington (or Bergen County either, for that matter). All I can do is point to the righteous branch Jeremiah spoke of. He does not come to us with promises of easy fixes and miraculous cures. Rather, he calls us to the slow work of witnessing to God’s Kingdom and following him in a common life of service to one another. I have always been convinced that the one and only thing the church has to offer the world is a vision of God’s alternative for living together. Jesus did not preach easy solutions. To the contrary, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:25. “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” Luke 13:24. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34. I doubt Jesus could ever get himself elected to public office, but that is not a thing to which Jesus aspired.  The reign of God is made known not in the seats of empire or the halls of congress, but in communities that spring from the righteous branch where “the least” of all people are valued the most, where the truth is spoken in love, where daily bread is enough and where the offer of hospitality is made to all people all the time. That is where the truth that sets us free is enacted. That is where the light from God’s future breaks into the darkness of the present age.

Psalm 23

Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. That has not stopped me from trying, however. Nonetheless, given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything I have to say at my posts for Sunday, April 26, 2015, Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, both on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.

I will say that my thinking about this psalm has been influenced by my participation last week in the Ekklesia Project Gathering in Chicago at which believers of all Christian traditions came together to reflect on faith formation for young people in our respective communities. We heard some very moving testimony from young people whose lives have been meaningfully shaped by learning the art of discipleship in their churches. We were also made painfully aware of how our church is, to a very large degree, failing in that crucial task. What I took away from this gathering is the conviction that we seem to have a problem reaching younger people because Jesus has so much difficulty reaching us. We are called to a life of radical discipleship reflecting the countercultural claims of God’s reign of justice and peace in a violent and oppressive world. But young people (all people for that matter) have a difficult time seeing among us anything different from the rest of the world. To a large degree, we are still operating as though the nation depended upon us to provide religious grounding and ideological support for the American way of life. We have yet to digest the fact that the Empire no longer needs or wants our services. Once we get that new reality into our heads, we will be free to do what Jesus has always urged us to do: become and make disciples shaped by a desire for God’s reign.

Ephesians 2:11-22

This text is a poignant reminder that we in the church are, as St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, “wild olive shoots” that were grafted into the cultivated olive garden of Israel. Romans 11:17-24. This reminder is important because historically there has been a lot of bad theology out there suggesting that somehow the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. This understanding is further exacerbated by our reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as the “Old Testament.” This might suggest that the covenant with Israel is obsolete, that Old Testament history is a story of failure that had to be corrected and replaced by the New Testament. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The God who raised Jesus from death is the same God that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land. The covenant, it must be emphasized, was with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. We gentiles come into the picture for one reason and one reason only: Jesus, the messiah of Israel, invites us in. As Paul makes very clear in his letter to the Romans, God has not revoked the covenant promises made to Israel. Israel still is God’s people and no less so merely because in God’s mercy the benefits of those promises have been extended to us gentiles through Jesus.

Of course, this passage also emphasizes once again that the flesh and blood church, the communion of saints, is the place where God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is made manifest. It is in the church that the mystery of God’s intent for all creation is revealed. Paul places great significance upon the church in this letter. As one very profound observation has it, “Paul’s revolutionary idea in Ephesians is the central idea not just of Ephesians but of the whole New Testament-in fact, of the whole of the Bible. The idea is that God is gathering together groups of people to love God, to love one another, to die to self, to become one. When you think about it, the Bible is about little more than God’s gathering a loving, united people to himself.” Alexander, John F., Being Church, (c. 2012 by John Alexander, pub. by Cascade Books) pp. 19-20. But it is also important to add that “These groups don’t exist for themselves, so they can feel warm and fuzzy. They have a purpose. And that purpose is to gather the whole world into groups that are in unity with God and therefore one another.” Ibid 20. And the purpose of that is to “make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:9-10.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Nothing infuriates me more than when the lectionary people take their unholy pruning shears to the scriptures and begin cutting and pasting together a reading made up of selective verses. That is exactly what has been done here. Between verses 34 and 53 we have Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and his appearing to the disciples in the midst of the Sea of Galilee walking on the water. I suppose this was done because we will be hearing John’s account of the feeding in next week’s gospel. I can understand why one would not want to place these two parallel stories back to back. Still, it seems to me that it would have been better to select another Markan reading that would not have required such brutal surgery. That said, the lesson is what it is. So I will take it as it comes, though I cannot ignore the feeding of the five thousand or the encounter on the Sea of Galilee as they both have an impact on the meaning of the text.

It is highly significant that the sixth chapter of Mark begins with Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth and is followed by his sending out the Twelve to preach and heal. This mission activity appears to have alerted Herod Antipas to the Jesus movement and he is convinced that his old nemesis, John the Baptizer, has been raised. Our text for Sunday begins with the disciples returning from their mission and what appears to be a retreat for debriefing. Jesus and his disciples go out to a “lonely place” only to find that the crowds have gotten there ahead of them. Jesus finds the people much the way Jeremiah found them six centuries earlier-like sheep without a shepherd. It is significant that, just as the disciples relied upon the hospitality of the towns they visited in their mission, so now the crowd is hungry and in need of hospitality. The disciples suggest sending the people away to fend for themselves, but Jesus insists that they be shown the same hospitality the disciples were shown on their mission trip. Five loaves and two fish seem inadequate for such an undertaking but, when placed in Jesus’ hands, they turn out to be more than enough. The reading ends as it began-with crowds of people seeking Jesus.

More than anything else, these verses illustrate for us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the very center of discipleship is hospitality-the willingness to make space, share necessities and take time for the neighbor. That is not so difficult when it comes to welcoming neighbors I know and love. I always enjoy having people from my congregation drop in and see me when I am in the office. I look forward to visiting the people to whom I am pastor. I am less sanguine about the fellow in the ragged, stinking clothes who shows up ten minutes before Easter Sunday Eucharist is about to begin with a problem that needs my immediate attention and, of course, it is a problem that only cold, hard cash can solve. So, too, there are times when I am just not up to hospitality. Spending weeks on the road meeting, greeting, healing, exorcising demons from, caring for and lodging with people all over Galilee has got to take its toll. After all that, having to confront a hungry, needy crowd of thousands pushes the envelope to the limit. This is a poor introvert’s nightmare. Left to themselves, the disciples would have been overwhelmed. But they were not left to themselves. Just as a few loaves and fish in the hands of Jesus feeds over five thousand, so Jesus enables his disciples to stand with him as shepherd to this crowd of lost and directionless people.

In small churches like my own, radical hospitality is a challenge. We seem ill equipped to meet the very big challenges in our community. We fear that, if we were to take the steps we need to take in order to make all people feel welcome, we would be crushed under the weight of their need. Yet I think that behind this fear lies a dangerous misperception. We tend to think of ourselves as the helpers, saviors, givers. On the other side of the counter are the needy, the receivers, the “helped.” In fact, we are in as much need as those we invite and those we would “help” have gifts of their own to offer. Moreover, we are not hosts to a sea of demanding guests. Jesus is the host. Like the disciples, we are household servants as dependent upon Jesus as the guests. Our confidence arises from the conviction that Jesus always has matters well in hand, however chaotic they might seem.

Sunday, April 26th


Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

To be honest, I dread Good Shepherd Sunday. After more than thirty years of preaching on shepherds and sheep, I feel as though I have exhausted the metaphor. I’m all wrung out. I find myself asking, is there anything new to be said here? Is there any other angle? After reading and re-reading the lessons for this week, particularly the 10th Chapter of Saint John, I think there just may be a way of reading these texts that I have never noticed before. Typically, my preoccupation has been with individual sheep. But I get the idea that Jesus is chiefly concerned with the flock-at least in this Sunday’s gospel. He is concerned with leading the sheep, keeping them together in the fold and bringing into the fold sheep that do not yet know they belong to him. Our lesson from the First Letter of John also focuses on the flock and how sheep within that flock are to treat each other. Maybe that should be my focus too.

It is hard for me to imagine myself as part of a flock. We 21st Century moderns are not herd animals. This is increasingly so when it comes to religion. The increase in “nones,” “spiritual but not religious,” “unaffiliated” and so forth testifies to our strong American independent streak. I have noticed that even within mainline churches, individuals often tend to take a smorgasbord approach to the faith, selecting what they like and ignoring what does not appeal. We are more like cats than sheep. We come to worship when convenient, take part in whatever activities meet our personal needs and disappear for weeks on end, often without notice. The voice of a shepherd speaking with clarion authority is often missing. In fact, I think we would probably resent having a shepherd pursue us into the wilderness of our preoccupations and carry us back into the midst of the sheepfold. We are fiercely possessive of our freedom to come and go as we please, to believe whatever we like and to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. To such a modern people, Creeds, Scriptures and preaching seem out of place. Such relics of the past might have served simple peasant folk unable to think for themselves. But we are educated and enlightened. Surely we can think for ourselves.

But do we think for ourselves? Are the choices we make truly free? Is there really such a thing as an individual “self” that exists independently of all other selves? Are we stronger when we think and act independently? Or are we diminished by severing ourselves from the rest of the human race? Are truth, beauty and goodness qualities that we discover independently? Or do we find them in communion with one another, in the wisdom of our ancestors and by the aid of discipline learned through shared sacred practices? Are the Creeds we confess collections of propositions subject to debate, evaluation, acceptance or rejection? Or are they portholes into a mystery, sacred music to which we must be willing to submit and by which we must be taught? Are we anymore “free thinking” when we allow ourselves to be shaped by MSNBC, Fox News or PBS?

I am beginning to think that it takes a flock of sheep to recognize and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. I am coming around to the conviction that maturity is less about becoming individual selves and more about becoming “living stones” “built into a spiritual house.” I Peter 2:5. I am starting to think that growing up is less about learning to stand on one’s own and more about learning to use one’s unique gifts and abilities to slide seamlessly and anonymously into the Body of Christ. More and more I am learning that it is within the flock and in the heart of the fold that the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd is heard.

Acts 4:5-12

Last week Peter and John managed to attract a great deal of attention in front of the temple when, in the name of Jesus, they brought healing to a known cripple. Seizing the opportunity, Peter uses the occasion to preach a powerful sermon proclaiming as Israel’s messiah and God’s Son Jesus, the crucified one raised from death. Not by the power of the apostles, says Peter, but through the name of Jesus the man they once knew as lame now walks and experiences perfect health.

But the apostles have also attracted the attention of the temple authorities chiefly responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate. Annoyed that these men are teaching in the name of Jesus, they arrest Peter and John, holding them in prison overnight. Acts 4:1-4. On the following day, the apostles are brought out before the high priest and the high priestly family to answer for their actions. It is noteworthy that the first question out of the accusers’ mouth is: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” vs. 7. We can see immediately what is at stake here. The authorities seem to have no objection in principle to the disciples teaching the people or even with the fact that they performed a miracle of healing. Sects within Judaism abounded in the 1st Century. For the most part, they were of little concern to the temple authorities. But the name of Jesus obviously set off some alarm bells and raised red flags.

It is not surprising that the authorities should be concerned about this Jesus movement. Throughout his ministry Jesus upset the social and political norms by sharing table fellowship with outcasts. Parables such as that of Lazarus and the Rich Man foretold an upending of the existing order, the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of family and a radical reorientation of the Torah in the service of “the least” of all peoples. How much more disturbing was the growth of this movement into a community living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed! The man they thought they had killed has risen up and come back to them in spades. The authorities know that they are face to face with the Spirit of the risen Christ and have not the slightest clue what to do about it. If you were to read further, you would learn that the leaders find themselves powerless. Their dear old friend and ally, violence, is of no use in suppressing the name of Jesus. Peter brazenly ignores the threats of the authorities and announces his intent to continue preaching Jesus and his kingdom regardless what they tell him. Acts 4:13-22.

It is the name of Jesus that gets the disciples into trouble. Like most governments, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem with religious people doing socially useful work. Jesus would probably not been put to death if he had been content merely to feed the poor and hungry. Our own government applauds such work on behalf of the less fortunate as long as the boundary between “helpers” and “helped” is maintained. We have no objection to helping the poverty stricken to strive for the American Dream. But Jesus did more than that. He gave the poor a better dream. Jesus did not merely feed the poor. He invited the poor to the messianic banquet. He told them they were blessed, that they were rightful heirs to the earth, the primary recipients of God’s richest blessing. Jesus invited the poor into a new way of being human, a new way of living together under God’s reign. He rejected the domination system of the Jerusalem establishment and its Roman overlords in favor of the gentle reign of God. That reign is now unfolding in the very precincts of the temple and the high priest with his cronies can only watch and be afraid-very afraid.

Again, the call of Luke-Acts is for disciples of Jesus to be a community that is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. The church is an alternative way of being human. One might well say it is the genuine way of being human as God intends. That is, of course, a tall order. Even the Book of Acts, frequently said (erroneously I think) to be an “idealized” portrait of the church, demonstrates that the disciples frequently fell short of their high calling. Nonetheless, in spite of its faults and shortcomings, through the power of the Spirit within it “the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7.

Psalm 23

I think that I have probably said about everything I have to say about the Twenty Third Psalm at my posts for Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Georgia on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary is well worth rereading.

I will only add that the recent release of a video purporting to show the killing of Ethiopian Christians by Islamic State-affiliated militants in Libya brings into sharper focus verse 5 of the psalm which reads, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What happens when we read the psalm against the backdrop of the horrific violence against Christians in Libya, the rising opposition to the church reflected in our reading from Acts and the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sake of his sheep articulated in the gospel? Should we be hearing this psalm less as a palliative treatment for agitated minds and more as a call to live the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of a violent and hostile world? Have we allowed Hallmark to hijack this psalm?

1 John 3:16-24

This lesson needs to be read against the gospel. As does the shepherd, so should the sheep do. We know love through what Jesus has done for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. This love shown toward us must be reflected among and between the sheep. The sheep must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other and, that being so, how much more their worldly possessions. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” vs. 17.

All of this sounds simple enough. So why do we have in the same county believers in Jesus (like me) who have more than adequate housing, clothing, access to health care and employment alongside believers who are homeless? Yes, I know that we are advocating for legislation to change all of that. I hope it all comes to fruition. I really do. But in the meantime, our sisters and brothers continue to be in need and, instead of opening our homes, our hearts and our faith communities to them, we offer them social services. Instead of being the alternative to the old order, we produce reams of preachy screechy social statements lecturing the old order in hopes of making it a little less oppressive. Again, I can hear dear old Mark Twain reminding us with a twinkle in his eye, “To be good is noble; to teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” As I have said elsewhere, I believe that the more vibrant and promising models of church in this 21st century are those seeking to embody Jesus rather than implement some politicized abstraction of his teachings. See, e.g. post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.

“God is greater than our hearts” vs. 20. While it is never wise to disregard one’s conscience, conscience does not reflect God’s judgment upon our lives and conduct. The voice of conscience is not the voice of God. Conscience can be misguided, misdirected and grounded in false standards. God’s verdict on our lives is dictated by God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. So, too, our conduct with respect to our neighbors is shaped by that same love. Therefore, John can boil Jesus’ commandments down to the two “great” commandments identified in the synoptic gospels: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and love one another.” Vs. 23. This love is not an abstraction, as in “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” (Good Lord, have I ever dated myself!). Nor is love an expression of my own personal sentiments. The love of which John speaks is quite unintelligible apart from the gospel narratives and the larger context of the Hebrew scriptural narrative about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. It is also unintelligible apart from the community living out of those narratives. Love, then, is the miracle the Spirit imparts to a people that understands itself as heir of the promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and offered to the world through the gracious invitation of Jesus. It is forged in the furnace of a community that strives to follow its Lord.

John 10:11-18

In Chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.

In verses 7-15, Jesus lays down the acid test determining the genuineness of a true shepherd. When the wolf shows up, the fake shepherd flees. He is but a “hireling.” Vs. 13. Because the sheep do not actually belong to him, he has nothing to lose beyond a day’s wage by running away. The shepherd who owns the sheep actually has “skin” in the game. Unlike the hired hand, this shepherd will put himself between the sheep and the jaws of the wolf. The Greek word used for “good” is not the more common “agathos,” but the word “kalos,” meaning “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” Unlike the leaders in Jerusalem who, under threat of Roman violence, are prepared to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save their own skins, Jesus willingly lays down his own life to save the people. There are several levels of irony here. Caiaphas insists that “it is expedient…that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. What he means, of course, is that Jesus must be sacrificed to preserve the status quo which is treating Caiaphas and his cronies quite well. But Caiaphas has unwittingly articulated Jesus’ mission and all that makes him a “fine, beautiful and precious” Shepherd. The sheep given Jesus by his Father recognize his voice. Vs. 14. Such faithful recognition has already been illustrated in the prior chapter by the blind man who could not be persuaded by the authorities (false shepherds) to deny Jesus, but, when confronted with Jesus, worships him.

As pointed out by Professor Raymond Brown, the Hebrew Scriptures are rich in shepherd imagery. God is frequently spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 397. Genesis 49:2; Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52-53; Psalm 80:1. Kings also, particularly David, were referred to as shepherds. Psalm 78:70-72. This title carries with it profound responsibilities for Israel’s rulers and withering judgment for kings failing in their role as “shepherds.” See I Kings 23:17; Jeremiah 10:21; Jeremiah 23:1-2; and Ezekiel 34. It is against the backdrop of these Hebrew texts that we must understand Jesus’ use of this powerful shepherd metaphor. John would have us understand that Jesus is the genuine Shepherd who alone puts the well-being of the sheep first and foremost.