Sermons For These Times
The parish where I served before coming to Grace Cathedral, St. Peter’s in Port Chester, New York, was always overflowing with food. Literally. Feeding people was in this community’s DNA: they hosted a soup kitchen 13 times a week, feeding thousands of people; area grocery stores dropped off endless crates of food donations for passersby to rifle through on the lawn; and there was almost always someone cooking up something delicious in the kitchen. Every Thanksgiving, we gave away 200 turkeys. One day, someone we’d never seen before knocked on the door in the pouring rain and, without explanation, dropped off 1000 bagels. The quantity of food that was served and eaten on any given day was staggering and, even on the days when the soup kitchen volunteers were forced to forage through the pantry and scrounge up a meal out of whatever odds and ends they could find, there was always more than enough to go around. Most days, I was sent home from work laden down with food that, no matter how hard I tried to refuse, I couldn’t: steaming styrofoam containers of soup kitchen leftovers, whole chickens that wouldn’t fit in the freezer, heaps of produce leftover at the end of the day that otherwise would have gone to waste. I rarely brought a lunch to work and could go weeks without needing to grocery shop.
Prior to serving that community, I might have told you that the Biblical feeding of the thousands was an improbable or perhaps exaggerated miracle, but now? I believe it because I have seen it, over and over again. I believe because I have experienced miraculous, divine abundance in my own body and tasted its sweetness. Feasting in a community scarred by food insecurity. Generosity flowing out of real and urgent poverty. Abundance overflowing despite fears of scarcity and without calculating the cost. Community being built while organizing canned goods, chopping onions, and ladling out big scoops of spaghetti.
These feeding miracles, where Jesús and his disciples find themselves in the midst of an enormous, hungry crowd and turn a preposterously small quantity of bread and fish into a lavish feast, appear in slightly different forms in all four Gospels. In every case, the disciples balk and scoff at Jesús’ command to feed the crowds with so little food. These stories speak to a universal, hard-wired human fear that runs deep in all of us: a fear that there will not be enough. Not enough food, not enough money, not enough jobs.
But the fear goes deeper than panic over a lack of material things. Underneath all of those very real and very practical fears, there’s an undercurrent of terror, a demonic voice that plants a seed of suspicion in our hearts that there’s not enough love to go around. Not enough attention. Not enough respect and recognition. That fear, when it runs unchecked, drives us to compete for resources, even when they are abundant. To hoard and stockpile, to bolster our sense of security however we can. That fear makes us defensive and anxious. When we are in its grip, we fail to recognize the abundance of what we really have – and the even greater abundance that would be possible if we opened our hands instead of clenching our fists.
When we read these stories about the feeding of thousands, it’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities, proposing theories for how exactly Jesús was able to make this tiny amount of bread and fish last for so many people. Maybe everyone ate only a tiny crumb. Maybe the people in the crowd were inspired by Jesús’ generosity and added their own little bits of food to the basket as it passed them. Maybe a lot of things. We really don’t know.
But I venture to say that, when we overanalyze the miracle, we’re missing the point. This story exists, not as a how-to guide for hosting a massive picnic with limited resources, but as a challenge to all the ways we have convinced ourselves that there is not enough to go around – or that we are powerless to change the status quo. Where we have bought into a false narrative of scarcity, the story of the loaves and fishes is a powerful counter-witness to God’s outrageous abundance. Where we feel paralyzed by overwhelm at the tasks that face us, the Gospel reminds us that small actions, undertaken with great love, can cause a cascade effect, bringing healing and nourishment to thousands, without regard for our limited sense of what should be possible.
We all have our own loaves and fishes stories. They might not have anything to do with bread or seafood, it’s true. But we all have had moments in our lives when we got more than we thought we deserved, or when something was easier than we expected, or when there was, in fact, more than enough food to feed all our guests. Moments when God challenged our fear of there never being enough and gave us a glimpse of that heavenly abundance that God always dreams of bringing into reality on earth. I invite you to take a moment and reflect – where are those loaves and fishes stories in your lives? Those moments that are beacons of grace in times of struggle, signposts in the wilderness of our fear, and nourishment to keep going forward on our own journey with God? Where have we encountered abundance beyond our wildest imagination? How has it transformed us?
The key to understanding the miracle of the loaves and fishes isn’t actually in the Gospel story at all. It’s in one extraordinary verse from the letter to the Ephesians that, not by accident, the lectionary pairs with this story from John’s Gospel. It’s a verse that, if you’ve ever attended Evensong or prayed evening prayer, might be familiar to you because it’s one of the options for closing our common worship: “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Repeat.
It’s one of my favorite Bible verses of all time. It reminds us that, while all power is God’s, we are the vessels. God doesn’t act in a vacuum. God works through us. Through our hands and hearts and words. Through our fragile and imperfect human bodies, God is able to turn a bread crust and a few fish into a feast for countless thousands. Through us, even through our fear and doubt, God is able, not just to exceed our expectations, but to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Grace upon grace.
In my own experience, the miracles of abundance that God works through our human bodies usually aren’t especially glamorous. They tend to involve things like unloading 70 pallets of canned goods in 90 degree heat, washing towering stacks of crusty serving dishes, or figuring out how many favors to call in to keep 200 turkeys frozen when they unexpectedly get delivered a week before Thanksgiving. I don’t imagine the Biblical feeding of the thousands as a serene, peaceful picnic – I imagine it more like the average soup kitchen line, with people squabbling over who was there first, trying to cut the line, and complaining that, actually, they don’t really like bread and fish and would like an alternative option please. We don’t do ourselves any favors when we romanticize this story. Miracles can be gritty and embodied and human and still be miraculous.
The question becomes – as people who have received such abundance, who have seen and heard and tasted this grace beyond measure, how will we live differently? Will we let these experiences of grace start to change our story, start to challenge and calm our deep seated fears that there isn’t enough? Can we begin to trust in God’s abundance and relinquish our death grip on those things we think will keep us safe and secure? Can we begin to share our own loaves and fishes without fretting over how far they will go or how much we will have left for ourselves? Can we trust that we have enough? Can we trust that we are enough?
Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesús forever and ever. Amen.
In her 1985 comic strip, Dykes to watch out for, the cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, first introduced what we now know as the Bechdel test: a set of criteria that seeks to measure the representation of women in media. The test has 3 simple parts: to pass, the piece of media needs to have 1) at least 2 women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. The Bechdel test is an imperfect barometer of representation, but it is a useful starting point when engaging with media. Mostly, it is stunning how much of the content we consume does not even come close to passing.
And the Bible is no exception to this trend. You need to scour the Scriptures very closely to find stories that pass the Bechdel test and, even then, most of them just barely fit the bill. Mary and Elizabeth? Close, but they’re talking about their babies in utero who are both…male. Ruth and Naomi? Also good candidates – the Book of Ruth features many conversations between these two women, but even they spend a lot of time figuring out how to set Ruth up with Boaz. The truth is, the Bible speaks about women plenty, but it rarely lifts up non-male voices. A slim minority of the women mentioned in the Bible actually have names. And Biblical women are often typecast in much the same way the modern media slots women into narrow,
one-dimensional tropes – Eve, the temptress; Mary Magdalene the repentant sinner. None of this is especially surprising. The Bible is a product of its time and cultural milieu. It describes a world that was built for and by men, and that had little use for recording the private lives of women. But the Bible, subversive and holy text that it is, also regularly transcends the world it describes, giving us glimpses of a different way of being, a new, divine world being born among us right in the midst of our ordinary, imperfect existence.
In our Gospel reading today, we see the gap between those two worlds, in another story that comes close (but not quite) to passing the Bechdel test. The story of the beheading of John
the Baptist is most certainly not where most people go when they search the Bible for subversive, feminist texts. Herodias and her daughter are not celebrated as Biblical heroines like Ruth, Esther, or Mary. In contrast to the revered “good girls” of the Bible, who follow God’s word and establish themselves as moral exemplars, we have before us today two Biblical “bad girls”. Women who scheme and plot and arrange the murder of a prophet out of their festering resentment. Women whom history casts as villains.
But are they really so bad? Or is that just what we’ve been conditioned, by centuries of patriarchy, to think? Let’s take a closer look. This story, for all its complexity, is a very rare account in the Gospels of 2 women speaking to each other without a man present, and the ONLY instance in the entire Bible of a mother speaking to her daughter (ponder that for a second – I didn’t believe that could be possible when I stumbled across that factoid, but it is true). It is a grisly tale of blame, oppression, and violence. It is a story of desperate, angry women who do what they need to do to survive in a world that isn’t built for them.
The writer of Mark’s Gospel sets the scene: Jesús is doing deeds of power and arousing the suspicion and fear of those in authority, including Herod. The death of John the Baptist is really only included here as a flashback, because Herod hears about Jesús and is paranoid that John, whom he beheaded, has come back to life. Herod had John arrested and imprisoned on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. John had (correctly) told Herod that it wasn’t lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife while his brother was still living. And so, we’re told, Herodias (interestingly, not Herod) holds a grudge against John, wants to kill him, but can’t. Whoa. Let’s stop there for a moment.
Who is at fault here? Is it really Herodias who, oh, by the way, doesn’t even really have her own name but is referred to as a derivative, a possession of her powerful husband? Or is it
the oppressive force of misogyny that allows Herodias to be handled like a trading card, shuttled around between powerful husbands with no say in the matter, only to then be accused by a
sharp-tongued prophet of violating religious law? If you were Herodias, wouldn’t you be annoyed too? Is she really the deserving target of John the Baptist’s ire?
Fast forward – Herod throws himself a birthday party, a lavish and probably debaucherous celebration. If we read between the lines, we can infer that his wife and daughter (who is also called Herodias – take note, even royal women are lumped together into one, indistinguishable, subservient category) weren’t invited. They lurk in the wings until Herod calls for his daughter and asks her to dance for his guests. This is not a cute, innocent, or voluntary dance – this is a forced dance of oppression and abuse, the objectification of a child to satisfy the appetites of powerful men. In works of art as well as in theology, Herodias is depicted as a morally depraved, promiscuous temptress but, here again, we must ask ourselves – who really deserves the blame? Is it the child? Or is it the people who forced her to dance in the first place? We might think the answer should be obvious, but a closer look at our world today reminds us of how much easier it is to place blame on the victim than to face pernicious systems of oppression head on – the sky high juvenile incarceration rates of BIPOC children in our country and the continued detention of migrant children at our border speak for themselves.
But this dance, fraught though it is, brings an unexpected opportunity. Herodias’ performance pleases Herod, who, suddenly overcome with emotion, beckons his daughter to come close and offers her anything her heart desires, up to half his kingdom. It is a ludicrous proposition, illustrative of Herod’s capriciousness – what would this oppressed child, who doesn’t even have her own name, do with half a kingdom?
But Herodias is savvy. She sees Herod’s offer for what it is – a Golden ticket – and runs to consult her mother on how to best leverage it. And, of all the things they could have asked for, they request the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Why? Why this? Perhaps it’s because, in this deeply imperfect and broken world, this was as close as these women could get to an assertion of freedom. John the Baptist wasn’t the real source of Herodias’ anger, but perhaps he was the only target she could safely lash out against. Power repressed will eventually find an outlet, healthy or not. Violence begets violence. Realistically, there wasn’t much Herodias could have asked for that would have measurably improved her own quality of life and her daughter’s. Life inside the palace, miserable though it may have been, still brought more security than life anywhere else. These women were trapped. And trapped people do desperate things.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning what Herodias did. Murder is still murder. There is no turning her into a Biblical heroine. But there is so much more to this story than meets the eye. Grisly and distressing as it is, this tale paints a picture of the world that Jesús came to save – and the oppression that Jesús came to liberate us from. Toppling the thrones of the powerful and lifting up the oppressed. Sweeping away an unjust system where blame is placed on victims while the powerful escape unscathed. Breaking cycles of violence and creating a world where all are free to exercise their own agency. A world where we don’t need tests to measure representation because everyone is known to be worthy of their own name, their own voice, and their own story
The portion of the Gospel we read today is not a particularly hopeful chapter, and that’s ok. It’s one scene of a much broader story of salvation, just as the darkest chapters of our own stories are part of a much bigger narrative tapestry. But, if we want the healing, the new life, the redemption that Jesús offers, we cannot erase the ugly and unflattering bits of our history. We
must bring them to light of God’s grace. And we must read these stories – our stories – critically, examining our own complicity, our own tendencies to blame victims and turn a blind eye to oppressors, our own perpetuation of cycles of violence, so that we can begin to welcome in the new world God longs to build in our midst.
Let us pray now, for the coming of that world:
Just and loving God, grant us the expansiveness of your vision. Where we are quick to assign blame, give us curiosity to look deeper. Where we reduce our fellow human beings to tropes and labels, give us courage to listen to one another’s stories. Where we feel constrained by the limitations of this world, give us strength to shatter walls of prejudice and oppression. And hasten the coming of your dream, where every human being may live in dignity. Amen.
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Sunday 14 May 2017 Mother’s Day
The Way, the Truth and the Life
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (Jn. 14).
This morning in three parts I want to consider the gift of Jesus. What does it mean for him to tell his closest friends that he is the way, the truth and the life.
1. The Way. In Marilynne Robinson’s early novel Housekeeping a mother drops off her two young daughters Ruth and Lucille with graham crackers on their grandmother’s front porch. Then she deliberately drives her car off a cliff. At first the grandmother takes care of them then, after she dies, two great aunts do. They in turn are glad to hand off this responsibility to the girl’s formerly homeless aunt.
As the girls grow up they feel such a deep longing for their mother. At first, it pulls them together but eventually they become completely estranged. In their last summer together the two find themselves lost overnight, in the moonless wilderness by a lake. This becomes a kind of metaphor for their whole childhood. “It seemed that we were bewilderingly lost in a landscape, that with any light at all would be wholly familiar.”
Near the end Ruth writes, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell… [Jesus] was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be him…”
Ruth goes on in a way that might sound like the way you feel about your mother or your childhood. “There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and that the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.”
This longing, this loneliness, this sense of loss, sometimes may be how we feel about God. Perhaps the biggest problem of religion is that we all have such different experiences of the same events. For some the abiding presence of God is the most obvious thing about our life. Others search and never even find a trace of the Divine.
The twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that we can never experience God, the creator and ground of worlds, as God truly is. We would not expect a housefly landing on a page of my son’s calculus textbook to learn the quadratic formula. But comprehending God is more impossible for us than this.
We are thoroughly physical creatures and, according to Barth, God must become a concrete thing for us to understand. But as soon as this happens, what we are experiencing is not quite the same thing as God.
As a result, every experience of God’s Word both reveals and conceals something at the same time. When God speaks to us it can never be set apart from the other events in our lives. We experience God only in what Barth calls, “the garment of creaturely reality.” He writes, “[God] will not and cannot unveil himself except by veiling Himself… the divine givenness of the Word of God… also fixes our own limits.”
This is the mystery of God and the mystery of who we are to ourselves. We are like children lost in the dark and that is the reason we rely on Jesus as the way to God.
2. The Truth. But this brings us to the second part – the truth. John 14:6 may be one of the most misunderstood sentences in human history. At the last meal that Jesus shares with his very closest friends he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14).
We have been told countless times this means that unless you believe in Jesus, you will not go to heaven. I disagree completely with this interpretation. On Friday morning at Archbishop Neiderauer’s funeral in St. Mary’s Cathedral I sat between two friends who are rabbis. Before the gospel this line was read and I wondered what they were thinking. I wanted so badly to have the chance to tell them what I believe this means.
Let me explain my reasoning because ultimately we all have to draw our own conclusions about this issue. Let’s begin with the context. Jesus and his friends are not talking about people of other religions or even no religion. Jesus is not answering the question, “who can go to heaven.”
Instead, he is talking to friends with “troubled hearts.” They aren’t asking if there are Hindus in heaven, they are saying, “will I be okay?” And so Jesus reassures them about the many dwelling places for them in God, that he is preparing the way for them.
Thomas and Philip clearly feel troubled and ask him pointed questions. Thomas says, “How can we know the way?” Philip implores Jesus saying, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (Jn. 14). These are questions that come from their fear and doubt. I think they have in mind some kind of secret knowledge, like a password, as if “the way” is a kind of road map or written plan.
Jesus feels frustrated with them because knowing the truth about God is more like the way that we know a person than it is how we might know a map, a plan or a fact. In effect Jesus says, “you are asking for a fact but what matters most is our relationship, that I am standing right here with you.”
The twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) distinguishes between an “I-It” relationship between us and objects in the world and I-Thou relationships that we have with other people and with God. Jesus calls us to be his friends, to have a continuing relationship with him through prayer.
For me, the irony is that so many people today have read this in exactly the opposite way. In place of seeing Jesus himself as the way for his disciples to reunite with the Father, they have substituted a statement about believing in Jesus. They make everything contingent upon a dogma rather than the freedom of God. Jesus and the disciples are not just talking about heaven. It is about wholeness and health right now. This comes from directing our life towards God and feels like the difference between life and death.
3. The Life. This brings me to my last section. Jesus says, “I am the life.” The Greek word is zoē like our word for zoology. In 1995 the MIT professor Nicholoas Negroponte predicted how the Internet would soon transform humanity by matching news articles and videos with our tastes and personality. He called this “The Daily Me.” Today every time we click or share something online we communicate what we like, and restrict what we will see in the future.
It is human nature to want to surround ourselves with people who share our perspective, just as it is to avoid those who disagree with or upset us. Today technology vastly amplifies that impulse. We know what a bubble is. We see its effects playing out in our political life.
The life Jesus promises is not The Daily Me, not isolation from the world. Jesus calls us to know and to love our neighbors, to open ourselves to the unexpected and new for the sake of others. Jesus shows us how we can be the way that God blesses the world, just as he did, in forgiving the very people who were putting him to death.
This week at the San Francisco Interfaith Council monthly breakfast John Trasviña the Dean of USF Law School spoke about his fear that beloved traditions and practices of our democracy are under attack. He cited the firing of the Director of the FBI, executive orders on immigration, attacks on the judiciary, scientists and the press. This might be the time when Jesus’ life becomes even more evident.
The theologian David Bently Hart (1965-) writes, “Christ’s… is a truth that is only made manifest in being suppressed; its gesture is that of the gift, which is given even in being rejected; and so, on the cross, Christ makes the sheer violence that underlies the economies of a worldly truth transparent to itself, and opens up a different order of truth…”
Last week at the Forum a gentle ethicist from Santa Clara named Tom Plante described life as a potluck. Each of us has a completely unique gift to contribute to it (mine is marshmallow yams). For this week’s homework ask yourself two questions: what is my unique contribution and how can I deliver it in a way that it can be received?
In this world in which there is so little to remember of those who we have lost and God can seem hidden from our sight, Jesus is the way. When we take false comfort in tribalism and manipulate facts to realize our longing for control, Jesus introduces us to the truth. As modern life with its Daily Me presents a greater proliferation of ways to drown in narcissism Jesus shows us the way of life.
Brothers and sisters the gift of Christ is intimacy with God. Let me close with a final quote from David Bentley Hart.
“We are music moved to music… Creation is… a partaking in the inexhaustible goodness of God… its ceaseless flow of light and shadow, constancy and change, mirrors both the “music” of God’s ordering words and the incomprehensibility of his changeless nature, while the restless soul, immersed in the spectacle of God’s glory, is drawn without break beyond the world to the source of its beauty, to embrace the infinite.”
 Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (NY: Picador, 1980), 130
 Ibid., 194-5.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Vol. I.1 tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: Continuum, 1936), 165.
 D. Mark Davis, “Incarnational Truth vs. Propositional Truth,” Left Behind and Loving It, 8 May 2017. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com
 Martin Buber, Ich und Du (1923).
 “Salvation is not to be construed as going to heaven after physical death; it is recovering human health and wholeness by exiting from the cave of non-being at Jesus call and being unbound by one’s bystanders.” Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 339n.
 Dan Heischmann, “The Daily Me,” The National Association of Episcopal Schools Weekly Meditation, 8 May 2017.
 John Trasviña, San Francisco Interfaith Breakfast, 11 May 2017.
 “… a different story, one told anew and with ever greater power every time violence is employed to silence it.” David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s, 2003), 333.
 Ibid., 195.
Older than the Cross
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10).
The Sarvāstivāda School is a form of Buddhist philosophy. It’s name means literally the “Everything Exists at the Same Time” School. They believe that the past, present and future live in every moment. This perfectly describes my experience last week going back to Cambridge, Massachusetts for an alumni reunion.
I always hesitate a little when someone asks me where I’m from. In short, I think that you are from the place where you learn to drive. For me that’s the great central valley of California. But before then and after then I lived in Massachusetts.
When my great Aunt Fran’s husband died from appendicitis at the age of twenty-nine, my grandmother Ruth and her sister Louise came down to Cambridge to help raise my Aunt Jessie Lou. For seventy years some combination of them lived in a brick apartment building close to Harvard Square.
When my father was a child, and when I was, we visited these aunts. We would bake peanut butter cookies as we played gin rummy. We would ride the subway for fun, go to the natural history museum and run across Cambridge Common. This week I walked by the places where my grandparents and parents met and were married.
I passed the cooperative gardens my uncle farmed, the computer labs where my dad worked in his twenties, the 75 bus stop where I would go to visit my grandparents after they retired and my grandfather had had a stroke.
The memories felt so tangible, as if they were somehow still happening right now – it was as if while walking in springtime as a middle-aged priest I was also just leaving the American Repertory Theater with my parents in a snowstorm. At the same time, I could smell spring mulch, the summer rains on the pavement and autumn leaves in the Yard. I felt an intense sadness on the sidewalk where I said goodbye to my grandparents for the last time when we moved west.
When I moved back to Cambridge in my twenties I added whole new layers of memory. Last week in my mind’s eye so many of my old teachers and friends came so close to me. I would turn a corner and suddenly experience the rush of feelings I had when my Hawaiian wife Heidi made her first snowman, when I preached for the first time, the place I proposed to her, our first apartment above the P & K Deli. Somewhere in my heart are all the feelings I had learning to row a single shell, becoming a father, taking long walks with the baby backpack and graduation.
Everywhere I could feel the presence of these ghosts. They must be with me all of the time, just beyond my awareness. But for one week I let them lead me.
The church has memories like this of Jesus. Jesus is with us today and has always been with the church. In the beginning Christianity was illegal. Followers of Jesus’ way met secretly in catacombs and private houses. Today archeologists know how the first Christians pictured their savior. The earliest drawings and symbols never include any kind of cross or suffering. They are pictures mostly of the Good Shepherd, images of loaves, fishes, grape vines and symbols of abundance. They imagined the church as the experience of being safely on board a boat with Jesus.
Those were times of terrible persecution and fear. The authorities could kill you for having found new life in Jesus. Today we still experience doubt, incompleteness and anxiety. Sometimes our life seems empty of meaning, a kind of broken dream. We feel unmoored, as if we have lost something that really matters. We feel distant from people who are supposed to love us.
You probably have an idea of what brought you here, but what if the real reason is that your shepherd has called you here by name? What if Jesus invited you here to fill you with what you need, to bring you home to your true self? In the place where our oldest memories abide, at the deepest level of our self, we recognize Jesus as our shepherd, as the one willing to die for us.
Make no mistake when Jesus talks to his friends about being the good shepherd, he is angry. After healing a man born blind, the authorities cannot decide what to do about Jesus. Some of the leaders conclude that since the healing happened on a Sabbath he must be dangerous. They have threatened to excommunicate, or put out of the synagogue, the formerly blind man, his family and anyone else who suggests that Jesus might be the messiah.
The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE – 50 CE) was a contemporary of Jesus and also contrasted good and bad shepherds. He uses the two names of Moses’ father-in-law to illustrate his point. The bad shepherd (Jethro) chooses human things over divine things and gives instructions to the wise. The good shepherd (Raguel) reveres authority, seeks the divine herd and brings forth justice and good judgment.
Jesus talks about the “thief and the bandit” who climb the wall of the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate (Jn. 10). My friend the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen believes that Jesus is referring to local religious leaders like Yochanon ben Zakkai. On the one hand ben Zakkai is like a thief (kleptēs) for ingratiating himself to the Roman leaders and in a sense stealing the authority they bestow on him. On the other, he is like a bandit or outlaw (lēstēs) by being willing to use violence against God’s people to maintain order.
Jesus says that in contrast the Good Shepherd calls the sheep by name. When they are confused Jesus tries another (paroimia) figure of speech. He says, “I am the gate of the sheep” (Jn. 10). I am like the one who lies down in the entryway in order to protect the sheep. We experience Jesus as the way we come into God’s presence. The Greek word for sheepfold, aulē also means courtyard and connects Jesus again to the temple. John through his gospel leads his readers to regard the temple not just as a stone building in Jerusalem, but as the living human body of Jesus.
In this chapter Jesus speaks for the first time about the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people as, “other sheep not from this fold.” He says, “I will bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (Jn. 10:16).
So here we stand. The false and the good shepherds take sheep to green pastures and streams for drinking. Both kinds of shepherds bring them back home to the sheepfold and in many respects may seem almost identical. But when the wolf comes the false shepherd flees and the good shepherd risks his life for the sheep he knows by name. What do false shepherds look like today?
I’m sure that many of the people around secular San Francisco might be tempted to believe that they don’t have a shepherd, or perhaps that they are their own shepherd. I often here people say, “I don’t believe in anything.”
But it is impossible to be human and to not believe. Some of us believe in saving and good accounting systems, others in having a good time. Almost all of us believe in money and power. I have friends who believe that their workout gym body will protect them from death. At times we believe most strongly in our own anger, in withholding forgiveness and nursing our grievances. We need a good shepherd.
During Easter we revisit the very earliest recollections of Jesus. We remember Mary Magdalene unhinged by grief at the tomb, Peter and John racing to tell their friends what they saw, Thomas’ feelings of being left out of the most important moment in history and his friend’s life, Paul’s shocking encounter on the road to Damascus. We remember that Jesus did not just leave them to their own devices.
In the middle of their fear and doubt, their guilt for abandoning him, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I stand between you and the way of death and sorrow. I am watching for you, helping you to find your true path.”
It is easy to feel demoralized this week with all the news we hear. In the midst of our breakups, fears for the future, the damage we do intentionally and unintentionally, the ethical compromises of daily life, the pain we bear – when we persistently choose death, Jesus blocks that way. Jesus says to us, “I love you no matter what you’ve done. You will be part of my family.”
In Jesus we are never abandoned, or overlooked, or alone. Our life is precious in his eyes. And so this good shepherd constantly invites us into a new beginning, to become a new person in a new tomorrow. Isn’t this what abundant life means? As God’s children we can experience, happiness, peace and full participation in the Kingdom right now.
I began by talking about the uncanny contemporaneity of past, present and future, how people and places and feelings from different times are with us always. On Thursday members of my old churches surprised me at Evensong for my birthday. As I looked across at all my old friends I saw Alice. I instantly had a vivid memory of being with her as her husband declined with dementia. After his death she reassured me! She said I know that Jesus is with me and that I’ll get through this.
Maybe the Sarvāstivāda School is onto something. Perhaps in the world of spirit everything does exist in the same time. This week in Cambridge and at Grace, Fran, Ruth, Louise, Elmore, Alice and George felt so near. Jesus is with us in the same way. With our life we can cultivate a spirit of invitation. We can walk away from the false shepherds and turn to the one who stands between us and death. We can say yes to the real reason we are here. We can have life and have it abundantly.
 Charles Hallisey, Lecture: “The Presence of Buddhism in Our Public Life,” Harvard Divinity School Bicentennial, 28 April 2017. See also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_philosophy.
 Paul Scott Wilson, “No Dead End in Christ,” Preaching John’s Gospel: The World it Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008) 157ff.
 “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (Jn. 9:23).
 Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 260.
 Ibid., 262.
 Paul Scott Wilson, “No Dead End in Christ,” Preaching John’s Gospel: The World it Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008) 157ff.