As a child, Jesus would never have said this about himself: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is saying this when he’s in his early 30s. But as a child, Jesus would never have thought of himself as “the good shepherd.” He was not a shepherd: good, bad, or indifferent. At least there’s no record in the scriptures that he ever kept sheep. It would never have occurred to him to think that he was “the good shepherd.” As a child, Jesus would have learned and prayed Psalm 23 in the same way that we have: “The Lord is my shepherd.”[i] The Lord was his shepherd. He would have known Psalm 78, about the good shepherding of God for his people: [The Lord] brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness.”[ii] The God whom Jesus called “Lord” was the good shepherd.[iii] In a land where sheep abound – their wool to make blankets and clothing; their meat for the daily diet – metaphors about sheep and shepherds would be in common parlance. In the scriptures, there are more than 300 references to sheep and shepherds. Jesus would have known about sheep, and the Lord being his shepherd, but he was no shepherd.
At a young age, Jesus would also have known that ancient Israel’s kings, beginning with King David, were known as shepherds of the nation. Clearly, Jesus was no such shepherd-king. He certainly did not appear royal. He grew up in Nazareth and the reputation was that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. We are not even sure if Jesus was employed. So what happened? When did Jesus’ sense of identity shift. Why did he come to understand himself as a shepherd, a good shepherd, and identify with the Good Shepherd? Why and how? We know some things for sure, and other influences we can conjecture. Just like for all the rest of us, many things influence us. A whole collage of things form, or deform, or reform the tapestry of our calling in life – our vocation. So it was for Jesus. Something evolved in his identifying with shepherds. What happened?
Something significant, but not surprising, happens in the gospel today. Jesus has just told the crowds, that the Father and I are one. The consequence of such a statement is outrage, and as we hear today, they took up stones again to stone him. It is clearly not the first time Jesus has provoked such as response. The difference in this case, is that attitudes are hardening; divisions are more pronounced; and once again the threat of arrest is all too real, but he escaped from their hands.
In many ways none of this should surprise us. From the very beginning, in a sense from the moment the Baptist testified that [Jesus] is the Son of God, the division between those who believed, and those who did not, was bound to occur. What is new today, is that those divisions are becoming irreconcilable.
It is a question that lingers in the air, even today. Who are you? is not a question asked only by those who encountered Jesus in the flesh, long ago. It is a question people ask today. It is a question which even we must ask. It is especially a question we must ask, as we stand on the threshold of Holy Week. Who are you? The answer, our answer, will determine what we see in the days ahead.
Self-denial or dying to self are common themes among martyrs honored by the Church. In fact, our Gospel reading today has been used for The Martyrs of Japan, Blandina and Her Companions, John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, and, Saint George, dragon slayer. In what way could these examples of suffering and pain, stories of self-denial, cross bearing, and loss of worldly life teach us more about the way of Jesus? Well, I’m inspired, especially, by the stories of Saint George and Blandina, because they show us two helpful ways of understanding Jesus’ words, and two ways of dealing with the fear we might feel in response to Jesus’ call. First, we’ll look at Saint George.
Saint George was a compassionate and loving Christian, known especially for being a warrior of unmatched courage who gave his life for his faith. He’s typically portrayed as the patron saint of soldiers, and although many Christians today might not be soldiers, we still have a spiritual battle to fight. We can remember the words of Saint Paul when he writes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
From a contemplative point of view these rulers or cosmic powers of darkness are the demons lurking within us, hard at work convincing us that we’re separate from God, from others, and our own True Selves. This spiritual battle is deceptively simple, because although it comes down to making a single choice, making the right choice can seem very difficult.
Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17
From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.
On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.
As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.
These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.
The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. ‘We don’t belong here anymore’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, ‘cleansed’ or fled in terror from their homes and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.
Sermon for Independence Day, 2020
Deut. 10:17-21; Matt. 5:43-48
It seems quite a natural thing to have warm feelings for one’s homeland. Even today, when the majority of Americans report that they don’t feel proud of their country right now, most of us still feel a strong bond of connection and devotion to this land and to this nation. All of us have been stirred to pride by parts of our collective history, and all of us have felt the shame of other parts of our story. There have been times when we have been leaders in the world and models of courage and compassion, and other times when as a nation, we have been dishonest, scheming, and manipulative; when we have flexed our power to achieve and maintain a place of supremacy in the world at the expense of peoples and nations who are weaker and poorer. Experiencing this mixture of pride and shame can root us in a place of humility, where we can acknowledge the great gifts this country has given to the world, and at the same time look honestly and regretfully at its equally great shortcomings and sins.
We must never leave this place of humility, and always be on guard against arrogance and pride. There are some of us who have put devotion to our country above all else, refusing to acknowledge its failures and valuing it more highly that it deserves. Patriotism is our religion, and America is the god we worship. Others of us see nothing but failures and injustices, refusing to recognize the goodness in our fellow countrymen and in the institutions we have created for our governance. We find ourselves mired in apathy, cynicism and negativity.
As Christians we are bound to remember that we belong first and foremost not to our country, but to God. Our true citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. Our identity as people of God takes priority over our national identity. We pledge allegiance to God alone.
One day, a little boy was walking home from Sunday school, lost in thought. As he walked, he kept thinking about something the teacher had said, something that didn’t seem to make any sense. When the little boy got back to his house, he decided to visit his grandfather, whom the boy considered very wise. He found his grandfather working in the yard, pulling weeds from the garden, and, without any preamble, the little boy asked, “Grandpa, what’s hell like?”
The boy’s grandfather looked up from his work, wiping his brow with a gloved hand. “Why do you want to know,” he asked.
“Well, the teacher was talking about heaven and hell in school today, where good people and bad people go, and…. I was just wondering what hell is really like.”
His grandfather paused, and turning to face the boy, closed his eyes for a moment. “OK,” he said, opening his eyes, “it’s like this.”
“In hell, there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in hell are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”
Given that Br. Luke (our acolyte today) went to a lot of trouble learning how to pronounce all those difficult names, I feel it’s only right that we should reflect on the lesson from Nehemiah this morning.
It might help to first establish a context for these words. You may remember that early in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians. It was a devastating defeat. The temple at Jerusalem was completely destroyed, as was the city itself, and the majority of the people were carried off into captivity. Only a small remnant remained. The period of exile lasted 70 years, and gave rise to the book of Lamentations and to several psalms of lament – Psalm 137, for example: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). In the year 538 B.C.E., Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians. The Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, was a wise and compassionate man who not only gave the Israelites permission to begin returning home, but also provided the resources they needed to rebuild the temple. A first wave of exiles left Babylon to return to Judah.
It took over eighty years before a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by the prophet Ezra, in 455 B.C.E. Ten years after this second group departs, we find Nehemiah, a Jew still living in Persia, serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. Nehemiah hears a report that deeply troubles him: the Israelites are still struggling to establish themselves in their home country. They have managed to rebuild the temple, but the walls around Jerusalem are still in ruins. After four months of prayer, Nehemiah decides to risk approaching the king. He asks for permission to return to Jerusalem with a third group of exiles, with the expressed purpose of rebuilding the city’s walls.
July 12, 2019
If I were to tell someone how much they mean to me, and I said to them, “You, my dear friend, are more important to me than sparrows.” I think this friend would be nonplussed. Probably offended. Deeply. So what’s going on with Jesus’ rhetorical question, “Are you not of more value than many sparrows…?”
It’s worth considering the value of a sparrow in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day, when making an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem, the poorest of the poor could not afford the offering of a lamb; they brought sparrows. Two sparrows were sold for one Roman penny. Two pennies made farthing. A farthing was 1/64 of a denarius. And a denarius was the average laborer’s wage for one day. So a common laborer’s daily wage would buy about 130 sparrows. It would have been one thing if Jesus had said, “you are of more value than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” But no. He says, “You are of more value than sparrows.” Sparrows.
When I was a quiet little fourth grader I had a pretty unusual answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted to be a priest on Sundays and a baker during the week. But whenever people would ask me, I wouldn’t tell them that; I would give them an expected fourth grade answer like teacher or baseball player. I couldn’t see anyone else doing what I wanted to do, so I kept telling myself that my dream was impossible. Even though I had heard Isaiah say “this is the way; walk in it” (30:21) and Jesus say “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6) I didn’t trust that to be the case for my way. But as I grew older I started to embrace the unconventional path that has led me here to preach at a monastery in the middle of the city, something I never thought I could do. And a month from today I’ll be following this way to Plainsong Farm in Michigan to dive deeper into the intersection of food and faith.
I was so afraid to start walking in this way though. I didn’t see anyone else doing what I wanted to do. But I knew that Jesus used agricultural metaphors in so many of His teachings. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). We are told to trust 98 times in the Gospel according to John. But I had a veil over my eyes, I couldn’t see far beyond my own doubts. When I let myself be vulnerable and I let that veil be lifted by Christ, I saw that I was not alone. In my time here at the monastery I have seen fruit beginning to grow. I have baked so many loaves of bread for supper. I have come to see cooking and eating as an act of worship in community. I have been given a clearer sense of calling. And most importantly, I have made connections with folks who are following Christ in beautiful, unique ways.
We remember Philip and James today. We really don’t know much about James the Lesser besides his membership among the Twelve. We do know that Philip was an early and enthusiastic follower according to John as he told Nathaniel to “come and see”. (John 1:43-46). Not long after this, he questioned Jesus at the feeding of the 5,000 saying “six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7) but he saw Jesus feed them all with plenty to spare. In today’s gospel we see that Philip is having a hard time grasping what Jesus is saying about His relationship to the Father. There is some tension between them during this farewell discourse as Jesus prepares His disciples for His Passion. But even though there was tension and Philip couldn’t see clearly, he followed and received the Holy Spirit with his community. The Twelve all dropped everything and turned away from the status quo. As they followed the Way of Christ they found each other.
Jesus tells us that He is about to return to the Father, but He does not leave us alone. We are given peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of community. We are told that if we follow His way we will do great things. So follow that unconventional path and you will be lead to places and people you never imagined could be possible. Don’t try to fit the expectations of the world. Follow that still small voice telling you “this is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).
Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2 Chapters 10-21 Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Exegetical Perspective by Jaime Clark-Soles. Page 141