Good is not the same as Gentle

Sermon on John 10:11-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Last week I had the enviable opportunity to spend time with our fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. As is often the case whenever I talk to the youth of this parish, I was struck by their intelligence, sensitivity, and passion for the faith. Moreover, I was deeply impressed with the constructive criticism the students offered, including some carefully considered suggestions about how to improve the sermons here at The Redeemer. In fact, they had a three point plan that they suggested I bring to the next clergy meeting: 1) make sermons shorter, 2) add more humor to the presentation, and 3) be more emotional. On one level, these are the same shopworn suggestions that kids have been making to preachers since time immemorial. Conversations like these are an important part of what it means to be pastor. On a deeper level, however, these suggestions belie one of the fundamental assumptions about our culture: that everything ought to be catered to our individual desires and expectations. This consumerist assumption tends to inform everything that we do: our buying habits, our political participation, even our experience of the divine.

imagesThis morning, we are presented with one of the most well-worn symbols of our faith: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A favorite of stained glass artists and children’s book illustrators, this image from John’s gospel is ubiquitous in our culture. As a matter of fact, when it is conflated with Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, as it often is, the tenth chapter of John gives us one of the most recognizable pictures of Jesus there is: a meek and mild savior carrying a lamb across his shoulders. For many of us, calling Jesus the Good Shepherd is a way of making him the calming presence in our lives. Even when we feel overwhelmed with the stresses and challenges of the world, we can return to the Good Shepherd, who will lovingly embrace us in his strong and gentle arms. The problem with this popular picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd is that it does not accurately depict the passage we read this morning or the vocation of a shepherd. Indeed, very little about the role of shepherds, good or otherwise, can be considered gentle at all.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we mishear the shepherd imagery in Scripture. After all, the twenty-third psalm, the ultimate biblical job description for a shepherd, has been a source of great comfort to people of faith for thousands of years. But I think it is helpful to examine the nature of that comfort. The psalmist acknowledges that there will be times when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, when he will suffer all that flesh is heir too. Yet even in the midst of that, he trusts in the abiding presence of his shepherding Lord. Moreover, the psalmist affirms that he is comforted by God’s rod and staff. In the ancient world, a shepherd carried both small, clublike stick (a rod) for warding off predators and a long, slender staff for directing the sheep away from danger. Occasionally, the staff would be used to yank a sheep from the edge of a cliff or shove her out of the way of an oncoming gullywasher. In other words, the shepherd’s rod and staff were not the gentlest of tools. Nevertheless, they were both designed to protect the sheep, to give them what they needed even when the animals weren’t sure what that was. I suspect that this is the source of the psalmist’s comfort: the recognition that God knows what we need even when we aren’t sure what that might be.

Francisco de Zurbarán_Agnello di Dio_c_ 1635-40_Olio su tela_cm 35,6 x 52,1_The San Diego Museum of Art
Agnus Dei (1640) by Francisco de Zubaran

This is why Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. Christ’s identity as the Good Shepherd is not an articulation of his gentleness; it is an affirmation that his mission is to give the world something that can only be given by God, something that defies the world’s expectations. Immediately after Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he tells us that “the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This statement is anything but gentle, but it is consistent with our understanding of who Jesus Christ is: the one who lays down his life in order to pick it up again, the one who gives himself to those who would betray and abandon him. The infidelity of the disciples partially stems from the fact that Jesus frustrated their expectations. The disciples and those who opposed Jesus expected him to overthrow the Roman occupiers, reestablish Israel’s glory days, and put himself at the head of a religious kingdom. As the Good Shepherd, however, Jesus eschews worldly power and becomes instead the Passover lamb, the one who is sacrificed on behalf of his people. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus gives the world not what it expects or desires, but rather what it needs.

Over the past several decades, the Church has found herself in a challenging position. The cultural primacy of the church has eroded as fewer and fewer people feel obligated to attend with any regularity. Some have suggested that reason for this decline that the Church has become irrelevant, that we are no longer in tune with the zeitgeist. Those who have made this diagnosis have a very simple prescription: we should make church participation and the Christian life as easily digestible as possible. We should cater to the tastes and interests of prospective members and “give the people what they want.” Invariably, people will frame this as the “pastoral” approach, with the understanding that “pastoral” means fading as much into the background as possible. But our text this morning reveals that the pastoral vocation, the vocation of a shepherd, is about something very different. If the gospel teaches us anything it is that God our shepherd does not necessarily give us what we want; God gives us what we need. What would it look like if the Church once again recognized that it had something the world needed, even if it didn’t know it yet? What would happen if we recognized that the true pastoral responsibility of every Christian is to recognize and proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform lives? The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd invites us to embrace these possibilities as it calls us to follow the one who defies our expectations in order to give us what we need.

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Here’s Jimmy

I have a confession to make.

Over the past several weeks, my wife and I have been ardent devotees of the Tonight Show.  Every weeknight at 10:34 (CDT), we stop whatever we are doing and turn on the television to watch Jimmy Fallon host a 60 year old television variety show.  We even watch the commercials.

UnknownThis happened quite by accident.  When we saw that Jay Leno’s tenure as the host of the Tonight Show was coming to an end, we decided to watch his final show and take a look at Fallon’s first outing.  Though we were immediately entertained and impressed, we didn’t think it could last long.  Surely Fallon’s habit of breaking or laughing at his own jokes would invariably torpedo the show.  We continued watching, mostly for the sick thrill of watching the show crash and burn.  But something weird happened: it didn’t fail.  In fact, it seems to have returned to the glory days when it was hosted by Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show has only gotten better, to the point that I can say with some confidence that it is currently my favorite thing to watch on television.

How did this happen?  How did a somewhat annoying television personality and his team revitalize a storied, yet struggling institution?  It occurs to me that there are three things Jimmy Fallon does as the host of the Tonight Show.  First, he has an enormous amount of respect, almost reverence for the institution that he has been tasked with stewarding.  Fallon frequently makes reference to the Tonight Show’s storied past, celebrating the lives of those who have performed and been interviewed  under its banner.  Second, Fallon is willing to use new means to engage his audience.  He is an avid user of social media and he encourages participation by the people watching at home.  Even if you’ve never sent anything to the show, you get the sense that your opinion and your participation matters. Finally, Jimmy Fallon exhibits an infectious enthusiasm for his work.  When he jokes with Higgins during his monologue or banters with The Roots during an interview or plays a silly game with his guest, he exudes a spirit of awe, a sense that he can’t believe he has the great privilege of doing what he does.  All of these combine to create a Tonight Show that is engaging, innovative, and exciting to watch.

It occurs to me that these three elements of Jimmy Fallon’s hosting of the Tonight Show are really important when we think about revitalization in the Church.  In some ways, the Church and the Tonight Show have been in similar places: both are storied institutions that have been struggling with questions of “relevance” over the past few decades.  I think, however, that Jimmy Fallon shows us a few things we can do to breathe life into our church communities.  First, we can have respect for the institution we have been called to steward, to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, from apostles and martyrs to church members of generations past.  At the same time, we must be willing to try new ways of engaging with the people in our communities, whether that is through social media or other means.  People should be able to look at our churches and feel as though they are connected to them, even if they’ve only visited once or twice before.  Finally, and most importantly, we must recognize what a great privilege discipleship truly is.  We have been given a wonderful inheritance and a wonderful opportunity to serve Jesus Christ in the world.  I pray that each one of us will have grace to recognize this opportunity and embrace the community we have been called to serve.

Engagement

Sister Act was on television the other night.

imgresFor those who don’t remember this quintessentially ’90s movie, Sister Act is the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who witnesses a brutal crime and has to hide out as a nun at Saint Katherine’s Roman Catholic Church in a rundown neighborhood of San Francisco.  Under the alias of Sister Mary Clarence, Deloris has trouble fitting in and ruffles a few feathers along the way, particularly those of the stridently traditional Reverend Mother (played ably and delightfully by Dame Maggie Smith).  It eventually becomes clear the only way Deloris can contribute productively to the life of the community is by directing the choir.  Under Sr. Mary Clarence’s direction, the choir’s repertoire shifts from traditional choral literature to adaptations of songs Deloris would sing in her nightclub act  (“Nothing you can say can tear me away from my God” and the like).  And since this is a ’90s movie, that one change revitalizes the parish.  The church goes from being half-empty on Sunday mornings to bursting at the seams.  The parish raises money to fix the roof during the course of a single montage.  And of course, the pope requests a special concert at Saint Katherine’s during his visit to the United States.  The implied message: if you want your church to be relevant, have the choir sing songs by ’70s girl groups.

A friend of mine has commented that Sister Act ruined a whole generation’s understanding of church revitalization.  After watching scenes like this, we became convinced that making a single change in our worship was the liturgical equivalent of opening the floodgates.  I mean, did you see that video?  Those totally non-threatening street toughs were literally drawn in from the streets by the upbeat music and clapping!  The reality, of course, is that this is not how church revitalization works.  Sure, some people may be attracted by new forms of music and liturgy, but people engage when they are connected to the worshiping community in a deeper and more meaningful way.  It seems that Sister Act totally overstates its case.

Or does it?  When I was watching the other night, I saw a scene that I did not remember.  Just after the choir performs “Oh Maria,” the Reverend Mother dresses Sister Mary Clarence down in her office.  Just then, the Monsignor walks in to congratulate both of them on the musical offering, when Deloris turns and says, “the Reverend Mother also wants us to go out into the community.”  What follows is a montage of nuns painting walls, tearing down fences, jumping double-dutch, repairing cars, and most importantly, meeting the people of the neighborhood.  This is a pivotal scene for those of us interested in the future of the Church.  Ultimately, Saint Katherine’s was renewed not by an entertaining choir, but rather by engaging with its community.   More importantly, the people of Saint Katherine’s did not do this in order to draw more people into church, but because they recognized their call to serve those in their neighborhood.

During the season of Lent, I encourage you to follow the example of Saint Katherine’s in Sister Act.  Turn your focus outward and engage with your community, not to see what you can get out of people, but because you have been called to serve.