Waldschafe

Learning to be Sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43 OR Acts 13:14, 43-52
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Sheep again, that well-worn metaphor. The Bible tells of countless flocks and many working shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Amos, and the shepherds of Bethlehem. The image of a shepherd tending a flock (the latter a frequent stand-in for the people of Israel) recurs often. In the Old Testament, shepherd imagery may point to God, the promised Messiah, or human leaders appointed by God: prophets, priests, and kings. Some of those human shepherds are said to have scattered their sheep, as in Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ezekiel 34. In such passages, a worthy shepherd is typically promised to gather from the scattered remnants a new, well cared for flock.

Sheep, as I’ve noted in previous lectionary reflections, are not intelligent. Left alone, they wander off, get into tight spots, tumble over cliffs, and fall to predators. After centuries of human-directed selection and husbandry, whatever survival skills wild sheep began with have long since been bred out of their descendants. To be called “the sheep of his flock” is no compliment.

Even so, this week’s readings might tempt us to smug self-recognition, as if, after a perfunctory admission of past stupidities, we are now undoubtedly the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice and will soon enough stand in the presence of the enthroned Lamb (who is, paradoxically, the eternal shepherd). It’s tempting to see those flock-scattering shepherds as someone the other: first century Jewish leaders, members of other churches and denominations, clergy or theologians whose actions or convictions we find appalling. It’s tempting to imagine we know who is and who isn’t on the right side of salvation history. We may well be among the sheep who listen, and we may fervently hope to one day stand before the Lamb, but the smugness and certainty must go. Read more

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Not Yet at the Wedding Banquet

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 62:1-5
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

This is one of those blessed Sundays in which the Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries are almost exactly concordant, the only differences being the inclusion or absence of a few verses in the first two readings. How interesting, then, that today’s gospel reading is often mined to text-proof theological positions in direct contradiction to one another.

That details of the wedding at Cana passage – an episode that appears only in John’s gospel and designated by the author as the first of Jesus’s signs – should be interpreted variously by different ecclesial traditions comes as no surprise. Traditions shape not only what we do and believe, but how we see, read, speak, and hear. What troubles me is how easily differing interpretations can be turned into hammers to smash the heretical Other. Read more

mercy justice

Where Mercy and Justice Meet

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 2:18-24 OR Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

The readings this Sunday are thickly planted with pastoral land mines. Even the revised common lectionary, which typically supplies a kinder, gentler Old Testament alternative to the Catholic selection, offers a passage from Job with a theologically problematic encounter between God and Satan and an unkind reference to women. You decide if that’s safer to preach on than God’s fashioning the woman from the man’s rib. Happy is the preacher observing World Communion Sunday this week.

God knows – and we take as a matter of faith – that Scripture is meant to help and unite, not hinder and divide, but these selections have often been sources of discord. They are hard readings some have used as weapons, particularly against women. They are interpreted differently between and within churches and denominations, dividing the Body of Christ into a host of fractious camps and labels: liberal from conservative, progressive from traditionalist, “accommodators” from “fundamentalists.” Dangerous texts, indeed.

What makes them dangerous is that they touch bedrock aspects of our personhood: bodies, gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships. Many current (and former) Christians conclude that the Church has selectively misinterpreted such passages across the centuries, mercilessly enforcing literalist readings of scattered passages while ignoring behaviors the scriptures more forcefully and consistently condemn: ignoring the poor, harming a neighbor, withholding hospitality from strangers. Agree or disagree, the challenging task remains: how do we, as a Christian community, read these texts together? Read more

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The World We’ve Made

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Hontar: We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.
Altamirano: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world… thus have I made it.”

-Robert Bolt, The Mission

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
-William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Whatever your opinion of Barack Obama, you can’t deny the last full week of June was kind to him, climaxing on Friday as he celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage and delivered a moving eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, killed in the terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

I’ll let others dissect the political implications of Mr. Obama’s recent good fortune. I’ll likewise refrain from comment on the same sex marriage decision. I have good friends on both sides of that issue, some of whom – again on both sides – have been treated quite shabbily by those with whom they disagree. This week’s readings point through the news to something deeper.

What might it mean for North American Christians that the first mixed-race President of the United States spent a morning in June, 2015 cheering a political milestone for gays and lesbians, and that same afternoon eulogizing an African-American man murdered, along with eight others, because of the color of his skin? This ought to matter. Even in an era of much-discussed church decline, the world in which these events occur is – for good or ill – much as we have made it. Read more

Good Shepherd

No Weapon But Grace

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

One morning, when my daughter was about four years old and deep in another “Daddy is Doo-Doo” phase during which my wife’s presence was infinitely preferable to mine, she called for her mother from the comfort of her own bed. My wife was in the shower and unable to answer, and the tone of my daughter’s voice quickly escalated from polite request to imperious demand. Even today, when I think of my now nineteen year-old daughter, I hear Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, saying, “though she be but little, she is fierce.”

I stepped to the threshold of her room and peeked in to reassure myself that my daughter wasn’t in distress, but that was too much for her. She sat bolt upright from her pillow, glared at me with what I recognized as her “evil stare of death,” and bellowed, “Not you again!”

I took it on the chin that morning – at least verbally – but my daughter and I laugh about that encounter now. She’s an accomplished young woman with astonishing emotional intelligence, and if she hasn’t lost her knack for tactical ferocity, she knows I’m on her side and rarely, if ever, bares her teeth in my presence.

I thought of that morning as I read this week’s readings and said, less emphatically than my daughter, “Not sheep again!” I’ve shared my feelings about sheep here before, drawing on memories of my days on the Navajo Nation. I don’t begrudge the little critters their place on earth, though they’d likely vanish as a species without humans forever saving them from peril. For this week’s readings, however, I attended less to the dumbness of the lambs than the witness of the shepherd. Read more