The Good Shepherd

The Lectionary – the texts for Sunday worship revolves on a three-year cycle. This may suggest a tedious repetitiveness. For instance, every three years the gospel reading for the fourth Sunday after Easter is always the good shepherd passages from John 10. It’s always tempting for the preacher to recycle the sermon preached three, or six, or even nine, years ago. After all, what new insights can be shared that have not been shared before?

The texts may repeat, but each repetition is read – and more importantly – heard within a new context. 2021 is not 2018, nor is it 2015. Changing context brings a dynamic quality of the unexpected to the reading of familiar texts. Words matter. But it’s context that makes them so.

The historical themes of human folly repeat, but they repeat in new contexts. So much of our recent experience of populist authoritarianism forged in the heat of the cultural grievances that accompany the transition between the collapse of the old order and the arrival of the new– is historically familiar because as Mark Twain wryly observed, history does not [exactly] repeat itself, but it [certainly] rhymes.

Coming out of the Trump presidency we continue to live through the repetition of history’s dark old themes of race and religion expressed in the grasping for simplistic and caustic authoritarian responses in the face of complex social change. History rhymes in our current period. Context changes everything! Even the old rhymes and familiar topes now sounding into a new context of global environmental catastrophe.

Our world – the earth our island home – is shifting on its axis. The earth shifting on its axis is not a metaphor, though it is also this. Our planet is now literally shifting on its axis as the effects of human induced glacier and polar ice melt is literally shifting the geographical magnetic points of axis – generally known as the north and south poles.

Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s environment editor, wrote this past week of the marked shifts in the Earth’s axis of rotation – a process first noticed in the 1990’s and now rapidly accelerating.

The geographic north and south poles are points at which the axis of rotation intersect the surface of the earth. But these points of intersection are not fixed and changes in the earth’s mass resulting from the redistribution of water in the oceans is causing the axis points to shift.

Increasingly dire consequences – if you forgive the pun – will increasingly flow. The currents that stabilize climate are changing because of both ice melt and the pumping of stored land water which eventually flows into the increasing rise of the oceans. These changes – now irrefutably the consequence of human induced global warming – are having – and will continue to have – multiple knock-on effects.

The recent flurry of international efforts – thankfully ones in which the US has retaken a leadership role – only underscore what climate science has been telling us about the dire impact human induced climate change is now having on the very rotation of the planet.

Texts may be unchanging, but the contexts in which they are read and heard are not. Words may matter, yet it’s the constantly changing contexts into which they sound – that makes them so.

Hearing the words in John 10 in 2021 – we find Jesus speaking about himself as the good shepherd. Amidst the environmental catastrophe now threatening a future of global extinction – how does the good shepherd text now sound to us?

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that in the 21st– century context is easily missed.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

The following comparisons make my point.

As we ate and looked, almost spellbound, the silent hillsides around us were in a moment filled with sounds and life. The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view and we watched and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering, as he advanced, a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken with some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer, until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, still it had lost none of its interest. It was, perhaps, one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of that beautiful discourse of our Savior recorded by John. Cited by B.W. Johnson in his commentary The People’s New Testament, 1891)

Reminiscent of the way birds swarm – wheeling and turning – forming intricate patterns before re-swarming and moving across the sky as one – I watched as down in the valley the placidly grazing sheep began to race here and there – scattering before reforming into a flock moving first this way then that and eventually as on flock up moving up the hill side. I heard their panicked sound as they rushed over the brow of the hill – chased by the incessant barking of the shepherd’s dogs –who like the sheep wheeled and turned in response to his shrill whistles – wheeling around to drive the bleating stragglers back into the flock before diving among them -nipping at their heels in order to drive the sheep forward in response to the shepherds’ commands. The shepherd moved towards the sheep pen gate – opening it so that his dogs could drive the panicked and complaining sheep through the narrow opening into the corralled space of the fenced off holding paddock. With the sheep safely inside, the shepherd mounted his ATV and calling his dogs to follow as he headed off into the dusk. As night settled, the sounds of aggrieved panic among the sheep subsided – as with darkness falling, they settled down for the night.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that we are likely to miss because of the changed sheep husbandry practices of the 21st– century context. The point of the comparison is not to suggest that modern shepherding practices in highly mechanized farming economies should revert to ancient Middle Eastern practice. The point is to reconnect with the spiritual message of Jesus’ shepherd metaphor – that is to connect with the spiritual purpose for which he employs it.

The good shepherd offers us timely images. The first is of the shepherd who calls the sheep to follow him – because like the suckling human infant who instinctively recognizes the mother’s voice – his sheep intimately know and trust his voice. The second metaphor is of sheep being driven forward panicked by fear. The sheep in the modern context know nothing of the shepherd’s voice. If they hear his voice amidst the cacophony of whistled commands and incessant dog bark – it’s the voice of impatiently shouted commands addressed not to them, but to the dogs herding them.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Which metaphor will speak to our experience of God?

Jesus uses the good shepherd metaphor to communicate the intimate nature of relationship with God. The essence of this relationship lies in being attuned to the sound of God’s voice guiding us amidst the challenges we face. The voice we can trust – helping us to distinguish in these challenges the new opportunities that will lead us into a future that is more than a mindless, fear driven repetition of our past.

Recognition means to be able to distinguish the siren voices of the choices born of fear; simplistic short-sighted solutions resulting in the exercise of crude power; siren voices that have never led us anywhere good before. Recognition means the capacity to listen for the timeless sound of God’s voice calling to us through the ancient texts of our scriptures as they sound into new contexts. We learn to tune in – and with trust to follow the familiar voice that God uses to call us to our vocation as Christians in the world.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Nothing has changed. It’s still as true now as it was when Jesus first uttered this teaching.

Jesus offered these words to his followers in anticipation of the chaos and collapse that was coming. Through his death and resurrection – the willingness of the good shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep – God opened a new chapter in the story of salvation. Our lives unfold – equipped for God’s purpose -shaped by this story of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

Although we know its ending, this story is not yet over. We continue to live into its truth that through the good shepherds willingness to lay down his life for his sheep a new future is opened up for us.

The followers of Jesus made it through. Trusting to the sound of God’s voice guiding us to better choices – in the knowledge that through the good shepherd’s willingness to ultimately pay down his life for his sheep – we become the good shepherd husbanding the process of God’s good repair.

Superspreaders of Joy

Ross Douthat in a recent op-ed The Secularization of America noted the latest Gallup poll showing that for the first time in its decades of polling, fewer than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. The fall has been swift: From 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

Of course, there is no single explanation for this phenomenon. Generational shift – with many millennials and those following rejecting the value system espoused in the Christianity of their parents. The post boomer generations have come to associate Christianity with the Southern Baptist -Evangelical kind of Christianity which they see as simply a religious handmaid for a paranoid, nationalist, political agenda. The polarizing language of them and us that accompanies this paranoid worldview – repels more spiritual seekers than it attracts. One might argue that this may be a case of tossing the evangelical baby out with the otherwise Christian bathwater. However, such argument is neither here-nor-there when we consider that non-Evangelical Christianity is now seen as only so much bathwater.

Douthat notes that the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The members of this section of the population – to which you and I actually belong, do not take kindly to any external judgements being made on the virtues or not of individual choice – delivered from on high by some remote authority. Like the rich young man in Mark’s gospel we seek the answer of salvation only in as much as it does not challenge our own moral self-sufficiency.

Two influences transformed the experience of the followers of Jesus. The first was pneumatic inflation with the Holy Spirit. According to John’s account, Jesus puffed the Holy Spirit into the band of dispirited followers in the upper room, banishing their fear with his peace. The second was material need. A members of a community of relatively poor individuals, living in a hostile religious and political environment, they realized that a radical sharing of resources was the only way they could survive. They clearly found this approach to a common life supported by their memory of Jesus’ command to love and serve one another.

Both these influences led to the transformation of the followers of Jesus from a disconsolate, grieving band into a dynamic and confident community. Their radical approach to living in a new and inspirited way equipped them to use their limited resources to avoid the pitfalls of what usually happens in situations of scarcity – the tendency to division into haves and have-nots. Willie James Jennings, the current professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale, sums this all up: We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people. Jennings here articulates the heart of the millennial critique of privatized – capitalist inspired – religion.

Luke also records the post resurrection encounters between Jesus and his disciples. The settings and incidental details change but the essential reports of the kind of experience between Jesus and his disciples remain consistent. Yet, Luke hints at a third aspect of the early Christian transformative experience. He tells us that they were overtaken by joy while still in the midst of doubting and questioning.

Shouldn’t joy expel any doubts and questions? It seems that whatever joy is it is not a panacea for doubt.

So, what is joy? In our society we are dedicated  to the pursuit and achievement – if we can – of happiness. After all, doesn’t the constitution guarantee us Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?

In common parlance joy and happiness are used interchangeably. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as: a state of well-being and contentment: joy. It’s my contention that this near universal conflation of happiness and joy causes us endless emotional and spiritual confusion.

Happiness is an emotion – a transitory emotional state – often no sooner felt then lost. Happiness is the fruit of an experience of fortuitous events – something goes well, and we feel happy in response. When the wheel of good fortune turns, happiness is replaced by a multiplicity of opposites: despondency, disaffection, sadness, even depression.

Despite the dictionary definitions – joy is not an emotion or transitory emotional state like happiness. Joy is a spiritual virtue – a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart. Joy is also motivational – propelling – compelling us to choices we might otherwise not risk taking. Joy – persists in the face of the chances and changes – old Prayerbook language for the ups and downs of this mortal life. Joy persists despite the ups and downs in life – because – it’s not a transitory emotional state. Once it enters our lives, along with the companion spiritual virtues of hope and love – joy motivates our future direction of travel.

In trying to tie joy down all I can do is point to an experience of the persistence of joy in my life. Looking back I can trace joy not in the feelings I felt but in the choices I felt compelled to make. It is joy that has sustained someone like me – always doubting, second guessing, questioning – in the Christian faith. But if I can point to one single instance – On the feast of the Falling Asleep of Blessed Mary, the Mother of Jesus, August 15th, 2005 our granddaughter Claire Elise was born. This event became a central organizing experience of joy in the middle years of my life.

All grandparents will know what I am talking about here -parents too – but the joy of grandparenthood far surpasses the joys of parental responsibility. I can only say that Claire’s birth marked a serious invasion of joy that in my experience has little comparison.

Claire’s birth set a chain of events in motion -the end result being a major life change. After 30 years of productive professional and fulfilling personal life in London, joy compelled Al and I to risk a major relocation from the UK to the US at a midpoint in our lives. Joy – a spiritual orientation of the heart – a longing for the connections of love in the life of our granddaughter compelled us to leave the familiar and secure and journey into the unknown of a future with no fixed certainties. Joy – the orientation of the heart became the compass setting – pointing towards the future.

The process of migration – a complex process of leaving, arriving, and the ups and downs of settling involved many emotional and material challenges. Al and I came without jobs and few assurances for the future. The risk for me also included the uncertainties of immigrant status. Moments of happiness came – and – just as quickly went.

I believe that the essence of joy’s persistence lies in its nature as an irresistible motivational compulsion that carries us through whatever challenges we might face – the doubts and the questions.

Douthat laments: My anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis is in some senses comparable to the changes facing the early Christian community. Both situations involve a challenge of transformation. How will joy motivate – propel – compel us to be the active agents in the changes we want to see in the world around us? I think this is a question that lies at the heart of the persistence of joy among us.  In this moment of time new directions open up before us – new opportunities which hitherto we considered unrealistic become imaginable possibilities. However, as with hope and love, joy motivates but also compels us to take a risk.

The presence of joy in Christian communities – the source of which lies in the continued presence of the power of the risen Christ among us – makes us magnetic. To be magnetic is to be a community of attraction. I’m not sure many in the 1st-century flocked to the fledgling Christian communities for rational, worldly sensible reasons. I think they were attracted by the joy manifested by these communities.

We face some enormous challenges concerning the future of Christian communities in an ever-secularizing society. As we face the urgent imperative for renewal, we have to stop asking where is our renewal to come from? The source of renewal lies within us – in our ability to show how the faith within us makes a difference in our lives.

The early Church grew by leaps and bounds because people wanted what the first Christians seemed to have had. In a joyless world they became compelled by joy to join risk-taking communities. No one explained joy to them, they just became infected by it.

Douthat notes it is a mistake to focus too much on overt obstacles to people finding what they desperately seek in the Church. There are many barriers for them to overcome first – an important one being the way the Church currently is. Many barriers to active participation in organized communities of faith could as Douthat notes – be partially removed, rolled back a little way. But the rub is something else will still be needed – which he articulates as the impulse, the push, that makes people seek and knock and ask.

What’s required today as the church faces increasingly rapid institutional decline? I’m convinced that the answers – whatever they may be – lie within us as communities inflated with the Holy Spirit and motivated by joy – continually moving beyond happiness into joy – moving through sadness into joy – joy a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart – a motivational – propelling – compelling force that enables us to persist in taking risks despite our endless doubts and fears. How attractive – how infectious might that be for a world hungry for belonging?

After the Pandemic -Transformation?

Contrary to popular assumption and in many cases widespread belief, vibrant and healthy Christian communities have two key characteristics. Healthy Christian communities have a tolerance for doubt. – being communities that recognise that the seeds of faith are most often sown in the fields of doubt. Healthy Christian communities also prioritize human pastoral needs over doctrinal beliefs – communities where belonging comes before believing. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer being Christian adds nothing to being human, being Christian puts being human into practice.

The American religious landscape is dominated by church traditions where doubt is seen as the enemy of faith and where correct believing opens the doors to belonging – where to admit to honest doubt closes the doors to membership.

The Episcopal Church and its Anglican Tradition stand in vital opposition to the prevailing expressions of both conservative and populist Christianity in America. Anglican Tradition and experience has always prioritized belonging over believing. Our experience – in tolerating doubt and prioritizing belonging – reflects the Scriptural accounts of life in the first Christian communities – depictions coming to us through the earliest N.T. accounts of early Christian community.

John the Evangelist gives us the earliest account of Christian community in his description of events taking place over two consecutive Sunday evenings following the death of the man Jesus and his resurrection as the Messiah or the Christ. He begins:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple police, Jesus came and stood among them – he showed them his hand and side and said ‘Peace be with you’. Then he puffed into them saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit”.

It’s not doors with metal locks, but hearts barricaded by fear that Jesus penetrates. In showing them his wounds, Jesus demonstrates to them – look it’s me, Jesus, and I’m real – I’m not an apparition. Despite the obvious facts that his post resurrection body seems not to be constrained by the normal material limitations – his wounded and scarred human flesh remains the primary identifier of his resurrection body. His wounds show the continuity between before and after – joining his crucified human body with his resurrected body.

Jesus then breathes on them. John uses the Greek pneuma for which a better translation in this context is puff. Jesus puffs the Spirit into them. From pneuma we derive the English adjective pneumatic to describe the action of puffing up or inflating with breath. In Genesis, God puffed breath-wind-spirit into Adam’s nostrils. Jesus puffs the Holy Spirit – the breath-wind of God into his deflated disciples – inflating them into a pneumatic and dynamic community.

John goes on to depict Jesus’ return visit to the disciples one week later – a visit seemingly to encounter Thomas who had earlier announced his doubt – a need for physical proof before he could believe. The epithet doubting Thomas is unfair. He wasn’t the only one to doubt human hearsay. Remember the male disciples had only earlier in the day refused to take Mary and the women’s word that they had seen the risen Lord.

It seems that for Jesus doubt is no barrier to membership in him. What excludes is not honest doubt but anxious fear. We might conclude from John 20 that faith’s opposite is not doubt but fear and the seeds of faith are sown in the fields of doubt.

But it is the pneumatic inflation of the disciples into a dynamic community that is the remarkable discovery from John 20.

In Chapter 4 in Luke’s Acts we have Luke’s second vivid portrait of the community of the first followers of Jesus.

We are surprised to find that within a short space of time a community has sprung up from the band of followers which displays the signs of an incredible pneumatic vitality. We are further surprised to note their shared heartbeat -a bold generosity and willingness to risk departing from conventional ways of living – a community where belonging is an important as believing.

Everyone participates. Everyone dares to show solidarity. Because everyone belongs. Matt Skinner

Many preachers have been quick to deduce from Luke’s description of the Jerusalem community – an early blueprint for Christian socialism. The question that is hard to answer is given what we know about human nature did the Jerusalem community really live this way? The next portion of the chapter tells us of Ananias and Sapphira – who sold property but secretly squirrelled away some of the proceeds for their exclusive use – giving us a glimpse that not everyone was able to rise to demand to hold all in common.

But there is no reason to seriously doubt Luke’s overall depiction. For how else could a fledgling community of mostly poor folk survive in the midst of a wider hostile context? It’s also clear that their encounter with the risen Christ’s pneumatic inflation of the Holy Spirit into them was an every moment experience that accounts for their radical transformation of perspective. For them – as Paul’s fledgling communities continually attest – the power of the risen Christ has turned every normal expectation on its head and they are living in a radically new way.

Taking these two factors together leads us to reasonably deduce that koinonia – the common life – where each gives according to their ability and each receives according to their need – resulted from both material necessity and pneumatic empowerment.

That is then, but what about now? Despite the model of early Christian community presenting a continued challenge to us which we ignore at our peril – the point for us lies not in the simplistic demand to adopt early Christian or even later Christian socialist koinonia as a blueprint for our communal life. The question is more how might this power for transformation inherent in gospel-shaped lives bear witness among us?

Matt Skinner notes that something greater than charity and mission was operating in the community Luke depicts; believers are living out a commitment to belong to one another by addressing the impediments that get in the way of doing so.

Willie James Jennings, the current professor of theology and Africana Studies at Yale, knocks the proverbial nail on the head when speaking of Luke’s depiction of the Jerusalem community he notes that

We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people.

Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis in a way that is in some sense comparable to the early Christian experience of the post resurrection Christ – we are in a moment of time when new directions open up – directions hitherto considered as only unrealistic possibilities.

The long-term learning from the pandemic – galvanized by our current experience of imposed isolation and social distancing – offers us a renewed vision of Christian belonging – We have an urgent opportunity to creatively process our guilt as those relatively unscathed who nevertheless cannot sit unchanged in the face of nakedly exposed fault lines that maintain injustice and gross inequality.

The community Luke depicts may not be exactly a workable blueprint for us, but it might be a visionary encouragement for new directions of travel as we commit to using our resources and privilege to destroy what resources and privilege usually create – impediments to belonging and believing together.

On the Friday we call Good

Cover picture: The Way of the Cross, Sadao Watanabe

Some say love it is a river that drowns the tender reed, some say love it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed, some say love it is a hunger an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed. ….

The Rose, Bette Midler

Love hurts and our hearts have an all too familiar affinity with suffering. Yet, if we dwell on suffering, we are in danger of being little more than mere bystanders – spectators of Jesus’ suffering on his way to the Cross.

It’s so easy to stand and watch from a safe distance – comforted by an image of Jesus as the noble hero valiantly travelling the route God has set for him – seemingly heedless of the costs because after all – he has the comfort of knowing ahead of time how things will end – or that’s the way we like to view him.

But we must go deeper than this if we are to move from spectators to participants with Jesus in his Passion. This requires us to choose a different focus – viewing him through a different lens.

We need Jesus to be more like us than not. We are not noble heroes passing through the drama of our lives unscathed. Walking with Jesus on the Via Dolorosa – his road of sorrows – we need to reconnect with the pain of our own losses and sorrows. When we do so – we do not imagine ourselves to be heroes, somehow valiantly marching on – unscathed. We do not imagine our own suffering to be heroic. Suffering is only heroic when it is viewed from outside – through the lens of the onlooker.

Our commonality with Jesus – is that like him – we too know sorrow and are acquainted with grief. He treads his road, a road he nevertheless chooses to accept – and like us, he knows little more than what is revealed as he takes each step putting one foot in front of the other, one breath at a time.

As onlookers of his Passion – what do we feel? Maybe admiration for someone who has more courage than we; maybe gratitude – as if his suffering has relieved us of the necessity of ours. If this is all, then we fail to see that the way of the Cross is God’s invitation to become transformed not by suffering, but by the power of love. Jesus is no noble victim – coerced into sacrificing his life for the sins of the world. Jesus chooses to tread not the road of suffering but the road of God’s transforming love.

The Way of the Cross requires of us nothing short of a transformation in our whole (moral, emotional, and spiritual) way of being. In Jesus, God’s hands get dirty as Jesus takes the initiative and leads us through example. Our acceptance, our entry into the way of love involves risking as Jesus risked. Risk is the raw material for transformation, for:

It’s the heart afraid of breaking, that never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking, that never takes the chance
It’s the one who won’t be taken, –  who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying, that never learns to live …

Entering into the way of love leads us to more than a new perspective on our own suffering. Entering into the way of love leads us to a new perspective on the world’s suffering. When we enter into solidarity with the suffering of others – those near us – our neighbors, our family and friends; when we feel a connection with the suffering of those far from us – unseen by us except through the screens of our TV’s or online – we cannot remain unmoved by the necessity of love. For us as a community, the way of love means uncovering and facing-down the cosmic forces of dehumanization woven into the very DNA of our culture and our collective memory. It means risking loving and taking hurt’s risk.

Entering upon the way of love – above all else means accepting an invitation to become transformed into a new way of seeing – transformed by a new way of being, one step at a time –  transformed from timid and grateful onlookers – into willing collaborators with God in the vision of putting the world to rights.

From mere spectators to active participants with Jesus on the road to the cross is a movement through belonging-into-believing; a movement from fear-into-loving – from protected isolation into being loved.

This is not a hero’s path.  Jesus shows us that it is a very human path. On the  Friday we call Good, God shows us the way of love, motivated not by an abhorrence of sin, but by the necessity to love – for God – the impossibility is of not loving enough!

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.

The Rose, Bette Midler

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