Friday, April 24, 2015

Good Shepherd

Where Are We?
John 10:11-18 (NRSV)
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

I am the good shepherd. There is a lot to be unpacked in just that one assertion by Jesus. Shepherds play crucial roles in the life of God’s people Israel. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all shepherds, as were, no doubt, Jacob’s twelve sons who were the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. King David is the ideal king, warts and all, and began his life as a shepherd. He shepherded his people through repeated times of trouble.Perhaps the most important of all shepherds was Moses who was on the run from the law for having slain an Egyptian taskmaster.

As Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, he encountered a bush that burned but was not consumed. A voice from that bush gave Moses instructions that would lead to the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh’s Egypt. When Moses asked the voice for its name it replied, “I am who I am.”

It is widely understood that whenever Jesus begins a sentence with the words, “I am,” that his is the voice from the bush – which the Fourth Gospel makes clear from the get-go – Jesus, the logos, the Word, was in the beginning with God and was God. And therefore is God.

Of course the words, “I am the good shepherd,” recall the familiar words of the 23rd psalm which once upon a time we used to have to memorize not just in Sunday School but in public school as well.  As comforting and pastoral as the 23rd psalm is, it often goes overlooked that it is written from the perspective of being under siege. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” At one time or another we all know what it feels like to be surrounded by enemies.

Enemies and hired hands abound.  Not much text analysis or cultural analysis is needed to know that that is true. Like the poor, Jesus may as well have said the false and bad shepherds you will always have with you. Often times they are so seductive, luring us into their snares – or running off when we are in most need of shepherding.

Not so our Good Shepherd who was, is and always will be the great “I AM.” His love is so wide, so deep and so broad. He is to be recognized by this love with which he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.

At the end of the Fourth Gospel (chapter 21) is a scene that reflects back on this passage in chapter 10. The disciples are fishing but having no luck whatsoever. They are like sheep without a shepherd. A “stranger” on the shore shouts out that they need to throw their nets over on the other side of the boat. No doubt they ask themselves, ‘What does he know? Who is he anyway?” Since nothing else is working, they give it a go, and lo and behold – the net was filled with very many fishes! Peter declares, “It is the Lord!” Whereupon he puts on his clothes, jumps in the water and swims ashore. There is Jesus with a charcoal fire, cooking up fish and bread. “Come and have breakfast,“he says. It recalls the times when they fed the five thousand, and again when they fed the four thousand and had baskets and baskets left over. Life in God’s kingdom is to look like this.

Then comes the scene that is meant to define who we are and whose we are. He asks Peter, “Do you love me?” “Why of course I love you.” “Then,” says Jesus, “feed my lambs.” A second time he asks, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, I love you.” “Then tend my sheep.” A third time (remember Peter had denied him three times) he asks, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter says yes a third time. “Feed my sheep.”

When the great “I AM” outlines our job description one is left to wonder just what have we been doing? As a church that is. What was meant to be a sharp and tart put-down of Judas is still the case – the poor we still have with us. Hungry sheep abound.

There is a Hasidic tale about a Russian rabbi in jail. The jailer asks him some questions about Holy Scripture. “Why does God ask Adam, ‘Where are you?’ Isn’t God all knowing?” “Do you believe the scriptures are true for all persons at all times and in all places?” “I do,” says the jailer. “Then God is asking all of us, including you, ‘Where are you? What have you done with your life so far? You are forty-six, where are you in your life right now?”

How did the rabbi know his age? The jailer was shaken to his core. So should we be, for we are Peter. What sort of feeding and tending do we do as a church? As a nation that makes such bold claims to being a “Christian nation?”

Three years ago this Sunday I led St. Peter’s in singing this old gospel folk song made popular by Jefferson Airplane. It was to be sadly prophetic. Yet, this early 19th century hymn means to wake us up to what it means if we are going to become the good shepherds God is calling us to be. This version was originally recorded in 1936 by Alan Lomax in a Virginia State Prison Farm where Jimmie Strothers, a blind, itinerant street singer was doing time for having murdered his wife. It is a song that explores the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, just as Jesus does in this tenth chapter of John.

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the blood-stained bandit
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

One for Paul
One for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can't you hear my lambs acallin
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongue liar
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep

The shepherd Moses says to his flock of assorted former slaves, “Today the Lord puts before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” We are all called, with our many and diverse gifts, to choose life, a life as God’s shepherds.  Jesus I Am asks us, “Where are you? Do you love me?” Our answer to these questions holds the power to change the world. Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fiercely Loyal Thomas

John 20:19-31
“…so that you may come to believe…”

It is a particular tragedy of the modern church that the Sunday after the Resurrection (Easter) has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas Sunday,” or even worse “Low Sunday” due to the fact that just a week ago churches around the world were filled to overflowing with people, and just a week later comes what is recorded in most church registers as the lowest attended Sunday of the year. It is as if the Easter proclamation was either so astoundingly fantastic that people are now fully engaged in the word and life of Jesus that there is no time to be wasted by “going to church,” or that the proclamation was so incredibly dreadful that there simply seems to be no reason to return let alone engage in the word and life of the Risen Jesus. Of course it could simply be that after the activities of Lent, Holy Week, and the big-scale production of Easter liturgies, has just exhausted the faithful who need a week off to catch their breath and begin again.

The misunderstandings of this passage which is read every Sunday after Easter, and often again some part of it on Pentecost some fifty days later, abound. Poor Thomas takes the worst of it. In the Fourth Gospel  there may be no disciple more loyal than Thomas.  For it is he and he alone who, when Jesus finally says they are to go visit Lazarus and raise him from his four days in the tomb, and the others begin to whine saying, “But Lord, there are those in and around Bethany who want to kill you, please do not make us go!” It is Thomas and Thomas alone who says, “Let us also go that we may die with Him.” (John 11:6)

And as no less a scholar and priest who understood clearly what the implications of belief really are than William Temple observes, Thomas’ demand to have the same experience of the Risen Jesus as the disciples had experienced the day of Resurrection is evidence of ‘a stong urge to believe, held down by commonsense and its habitual dread of disillusionment.’ (Readings In St. John’s Gospel, p. 390)

Demanding to “see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I shall in nowise believe,” is what Temple calls Thomas’ “strong negative,” a sign of just how deep is his grief over the events of the previous week is, and a profound desire to continue his relationship with the Jesus for whom he personally was willing to give up his own life. Are we really ready to dispense with him so easily by mockingly calling him Doubting Thomas? The life of the church has sadly produced relatively few persons of such character as Thomas from the St. Stephens, St. Pauls and St. Peters, Perpetua and Felicity, all the way forward to the Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubmans, Dietrich Bonhoffers, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutus, and Dorothy Days. He who is believed to have travelled to India and to have baptized the first Christians in that part of the ancient world, we dare to think of him as Doubting Thomas, a name which has entered the vernacular as a description for anyone anywhere who expresses doubts about anything whatsoever? It confirms what Kurt Vonnegut said once in a Palm Sunday sermon, “Leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time!”

Much of our confusion about Thomas comes from our confusion about the way in which the narrator of the Fourth Gospel uses the word pisteu which in modern day English gets translated as believe. First, it is crucial to understanding John’s unique use of this word over 100 times in his Gospel, a word that is not found in the other three gospels, is a verb. He never uses the noun form of the word. That is “belief” in John’s gospel is not some thing or some idea that one possesses. It is rather something we are and do. In what is arguably the most incarnational of the four gospels, John urges the reader and hearer of the Word to embody the Risen Jesus. That is, pisteu, believing, is something we are to become, it is what we are to Be. And as Gordon Cosby, late of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C. used to say often, “Being must precede doing.”

Indeed, it is in the Fourth Gospel that the Risen Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach of the Sea of Galilee queries Peter about his Love and insists that the kind of Love and Believing  Jesus is looking for revolve around feeding and tending the lambs and sheep of His flock, that is the people Jesus cares about and loves the most: widows, orphans, resident aliens, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, strangers, and all those people everywhere who  exist as outcasts on the margins of “civilized society.” (Matthew 25, etc)

Believing is an action that we are to do, not something we possess. It involves a relationship of trusting or entrusting oneself to Jesus, or God, or quite simply to doing those things God and Jesus call us to do (see above). It means something more like the Jesus in John calls us to do which is to abide in him and with him. Abide in the sense of to remain or stay with someone, to continue with, or even to live with or dwell with someone, which is how John’s gospel begins: we are told that the Word (Logos) is God, and that the Word becomes “flesh” and “dwells among us.”  In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, and throughout the Hebrew and Greek Bible, “to dwell” means to pitch one’s tent among us.

So that when Thomas, without touching the wounds at all, makes the first proclamation in John, “My Lord and my God,” he is the first to affirm exactly the claim John makes at the very outset of this gospel, that Jesus is God who becomes one of us, who sets up residence in our midst, and who calls us to a life of believing as a verb, abiding in the Word and the very work God in Christ comes to do – which as even the girls in my World Religions class can see is to show us what it means and how to be human – imago Dei, created in the image of God.

This Sunday after the Resurrection ought to be called Fiercely Loyal Thomas Sunday, and no doubt (no pun intended) ought to cause some degree of fear and trembling to enter our hearts and souls asking ourselves: Am I even in some tiny place in the heart of my very Being able to embody some small aspect of who Jesus is in my life the way in which Thomas is so very loyal and trusting of his Lord and his God?

We can abide with Jesus. We can dwell with Jesus. Our belief can be an active part of who we are and whose we are, and lead us to do those things God in Christ calls us to do. As John concludes, this story, and all the stories in John, are written so that we might entrust ourselves unto the God who offers his Peace, his Shalom, his unfolding reign of justice, peace and dignity for all persons – not some, not a few, not lots and lots of people, but all persons.

“Jesus came among them and said, ‘Peace, Shalom, be with you.” We are to become Peace so, we are to become Shalom, so that like Thomas we may live lives of Peace and Shalom for all people. This is what “to believe”  as a verb is all about.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Happy Easter!

Easter - John 20: 1-18
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Of the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb, this story in John is my favorite. And it is the traditional gospel to be read on Easter morning around the world and throughout the ages.

Early in the morning, so early we are told it is still dark, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and sees that the stone is set aside. In those days a round stone like a mill-stone and actually called a rolling stone was rolled across the entrance to the tomb. Although the text does not say so, she must have looked in because she runs back to tell the other disciples that the tomb is empty. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb!”

Peter and “the other disciple,” quote, “the one whom Jesus loved,” race to the tomb, with the “other disciple” out-running Peter. He looks in and sees nothing but the linen cloths, the burial cloths, lying there – a reminder of the linen cloths that wrapped him in swaddling as a baby in a manger? Then Peter goes in and surveys the scene, followed by the “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” and at that moment we are told that he believed.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Then they went home. Not Mary. She stands outside the tomb, and bends over to look in. The tombs were rather small. It would be hard to stand up inside.  Lo and behold, what does she see?

That’s right, two angels, one where his head had been lain, and one by where his feet had been.  She stands outside the tomb weeping. Jesus had been the one person who understood her and had made her feel healthy and whole again. All her life she had been restless, agitated, uncomfortable with herself. But Jesus had changed all that. Jesus had accepted her for who she was and made her feel like a real person again. Now he was not only dead he was gone.

The angels speak to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says, “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” Which surely would make more sense – that is that someone broke in and stole the body.  It makes much more sense than a dead man three days dead coming back to life again. As she thinks of all of this she bumps into a man and supposes it is the gardener. The tomb is in a garden after all. There must be a gardener.

He asks the same thing as the angels, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says, “If you have taken him away tell me where he is!” Then he replies with only one word. He says her name. “Mary.”

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

There is only one person who ever said her name just like that. But it does not look at all like he used to look. But it is his voice saying her name.  “Rabouni!” she cries out, which means rabbi or teacher.
Evidently she is holding on to him for dear life for the risen Jesus needs to say, “Do not hold onto me because I have to return to Love,  I must return to my Father. But go tell my disciples that I am ascending to my father and your father, my God and your God.  I am going home to Love!” And she told them he had said these things to her.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Several things in all of this. Please note it is a woman who first discovers and announces to others that he is gone from the tomb. And that rather than simply take her word Peter and the “other disciple whom Jesus loved” go to see for themselves, as if Mary Magdalene may not be that reliable. But reliable she is.

And we are told that the disciple whom Jesus loves sees for himself and believes.

It has long been a mystery as to just who that disciple is. The long standing assumption is that it is the disciple John who perhaps is the narrator of the Gospel of John. From there the list goes on including the possibility that it is another woman, a Samaritan woman, whom Jesus met one day at the well of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.

There is, however, another possibility, one which I believe makes the most sense. The other disciple whom Jesus loves is the reader or listener to this story and who, like the person in the story, believes. That is the beloved disciple is you, or me, or anyone who hears this story and believes.

Gospel means “good angel” or “good news.” If I am right, this is really good news because any one of us and in fact all of us can be the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loves. This is really good news! This is why the world over beginning Easter Sunday and all week long, and for the next 50 days, people everywhere shout out:

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!