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.

Expectations

On the third Monday of every April, the City of Boston commemorates the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official skirmishes of the Revolutionary War.  Known as Patriot’s Day, this holiday is a day when state offices and schools are closed and everyone has the day off.  Patriot’s Day, however, is not like other Monday holidays.  Under normal circumstances, one might try to get out of town for a three-day weekend, but everyone who lives in Boston seems to want to be in Boston for Patriot’s Day.  It’s the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s the one day each year that the Red Sox play in the morning, it’s a day when people celebrate the end of a long winter and rejoice at the coming of spring.  During a time of the year when we might expect college students to be on edge because of exams and the pressures of looking for jobs, Patriot’s Day defies those expectations and offers a welcome break, an opportunity to take part in a citywide celebration of history, athletics, and community.

I admit that I was feeling a little wistful as I drove to clergy conference in Amarillo this past Monday.  I thought of my friends and family in Boston, wondering how they were celebrating Patriot’s Day, wondering how they were taking advantage of this unexpected break in the calendar.  So I was shocked when I saw a text message from my sister-in-law that said, “In case you’re seeing footage of the explosion at the marathon, I just want you to know we’re home and okay.”  I tried calling her, but the network was overwhelmed.  I called my wife, who narrated what she saw on television: two bombs had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just steps away from Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square.  Three people were dead and scores of people were injured in the blast.  Hundreds of runners were separated from their families and supporters, uncertain what had happened.  An entire city was on edge, worried about the possibility of further attacks.  A day that is usually filled with joy and accomplishment had been blighted with grief and terror.  Two explosions brought untold carnage and shattered our expectations of a day generally filled with life.  It was a sad and scary day, a sad and scary week, a week in which we simply did not know what to expect next.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus confounds the expectations of those listening to him.  One of the most important themes we find in John’s gospel is the question of identity.  Specifically, the religious authorities spend an extraordinary amount of effort trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, or the anointed one.  At the very beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist, the first charismatic religious leader who comes on the scene, is questioned by priests and Levites who ask him, “Who are you?”  John responds by saying, “I am not the Messiah.”  While it might seem that John evades the question, it demonstrates that the religious authorities were actively looking for the Messiah.  The religious authorities were looking for a spiritual leader who would drive out the Roman oppressors, punishing them and reestablishing home rule in Israel.  So when they encountered a charismatic guy who is attracting followers, their obvious question is, “Are you the guy we’ve been waiting for?”  When John says, “No” it is pretty clear that the priests and Levites are disappointed, because they ask him if he is Elijah or the prophet, one of the people who is going to herald the coming of the Messiah.  Once again, John disappoints them and tells them that he is the voice of the one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.  While the religious authorities want to give John a particular title, he confounds their expectations and instead points to what he has been doing, preparing the way of the Lord.

In today’s reading, the religious authorities are once again trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, and their expectations are once again confounded. This time, their questioning is far less subtle.  John tells us that they gather around Jesus and say, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  It’s important for us to pay attention to the context of Jesus’ encounter with these religious authorities.  John’s gospel tells us that this conversation takes place at the Festival of the Dedication.  judas-maccabeus-jewish-patriot-leaderNow this festival is a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the foreign king Antiochus Epiphanes defiled it by sacrificing a pig on the altar in the holy of holies.  This festival is a celebration of Israel’s spiritual identity, recalls the victory of Israel over a foreign power, and celebrates the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, a spiritual leader who defeated and expelled an occupying enemy.  The Jewish people still celebrate this festival, though it is now known as Chanukah.  The Festival of the Dedication is a remembrance of the most Messiah-like person Israel has ever known, someone who expelled foreign rulers and reestablished home rule in Israel.  John wants us to have this in mind as the religious authorities question Jesus.  When they ask him to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah, they have a very specific Messiah in mind, one like Judas Maccabeus, a spiritually and militarily powerful leader who will kick the Roman occupiers out of Israel.  The response of Jesus, therefore, is completely unexpected.  The religious leaders ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory.  Jesus responds by saying, “I’ve already told you, and you do not believe!”  But here’s the thing: as of this moment in John’s gospel, Jesus has neither confirmed nor denied that he is the Messiah.  Instead, he tells the crowd that his works, the things that he has been doing testify to his identity. 

Good_ShepherdJesus is telling his hearers that their messianic expectations are misguided.  He refuses to identify himself as the Messiah because the crowds are expecting a Messiah who is a military leader, someone who will crush Israel’s enemies underfoot.  Jesus disabuses them of this notion through his reluctance to claim the title of Messiah.  At the same time, Jesus makes it very clear that he is not a military leader, but a shepherd, one who knows and lovingly calls his sheep by name, one who, in the words of the Psalmist, is with his sheep even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, one who pursues his sheep no matter how far they stray from the flock.  It’s a stark comparison that confounds the expectations of those listening to Jesus.  They are expecting a Messiah that will wield a sword and wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies, but Jesus offers them a shepherd who gently holds a staff and guides the lost sheep home.  Jesus Christ confounds our expectations and calls us to move us from vengeance and retribution to acceptance and forgiveness.

There is no question that this has been a rough week.  On Monday, we bore witness to the marathon bombings in Boston.  On Wednesday, we watched in horror as a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, killing at least 12 people and injuring scores of others.  And on Friday, a whole city was locked down and a whole country held its breath as authorities cornered and apprehended a 19 year-old boy who allegedly committed a heinous crime.  And yet, even in the midst of this terror and tragedy, we saw people confounding our expectations.  Runners in Boston who had already run 26 miles ran to nearby hospitals in order to give blood.  Volunteer firefighters in Texas entered an inferno with little regard for their own lives in order to rescue survivors and extinguish the flames.  And volunteers at the Boston marathon, upon hearing two explosions, did not cower in fear but ran toward the blasts to see what they could do to help.  In the midst of terror and tragedy, the citizens of Boston and of West, Texas confounded our expectations and exhibited unparalleled bravery and sacrifice.  Even as the events of the last week shook our equilibrium, our communities came together as one. 

As we deal with aftermath of these events, we are left with many questions.  What possessed these two brothers who had lived in this country for years to terrorize the city where they came of age?  Were safety concerns at the fertilizer plant ignored in the lead up to Wednesday’s explosion?  And of course, what do we do with people responsible for these acts?  We may be tempted to stand with the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, clamoring for vengeance and retribution, expecting a Messiah who wields a sword.  We may feel that the person responsible for the Boston bombings has forfeited his right to live.  This may be a reasonable expectation.  But just like those who exhibited such bravery and sacrifice this week, we are called to confound the world’s expectations.  We are called to follow the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who pursues the lost sheep, puts him on his shoulders, and carries him home, no matter how far he as strayed.  I’m not suggesting that we do not seek to bring the people responsible for these acts to justice, but our goal cannot be retribution.  We are called to put away our desire for vengeance, recognizing that violence begets violence, and realizing that the Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd calls us to forgive.  This is not easy, but we affirm that Jesus himself walks with us on this journey through the valley of the shadow of death, accompanying us even when we feel utterly alone and incapable of mercy.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in the Good Shepherd who knows all of us by name, even those who have rejected his love.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in a Messiah who defies our expectations.