Monday, April 30, 2007

He Calls Us Sheep?

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

Is it a compliment to liken us to sheep? I hear they aren’t the brightest bulb in the barnyard.

What comes to my mind when I hear “sheep”? A sheepdog tearing circles around a scattered flock that starts rolling across the hillside like drops of spilled mercury on a countertop. If we’re sheep, does it take a sheepdog’s boundless energy to guide the flock?

That’s shepherding in the western world. I don’t know if shepherds have dogs in the Middle East, but I don’t recall that image anywhere in either the Hebrew scriptures or the Christian, so I’ll guess that wasn’t the way sheep were herded in 1st-century Palestine. As a pastor, I’m relieved. The hard-running sheepdog with its tongue hanging out of its mouth could have popped up in parables, as if to say, “Here’s what it means to lead the flock, to be an apostle, to be a pastor.” Run like the wind. In circles. Faster than the sheep. It’s all up to you. The sheep haven’t got a clue. Keep tightening that circle ‘til they’re in the pen. Whoops—watch the right flank! Now the left! Run, dog, run!

No. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. If you’ve done Bible study with this passage before, you may have read the same commentary I have, claiming that in a more communal interdependent first-century world several shepherds might pen their sheep at night together. Then, by morning light, the sheep would be released. The shepherds would place themselves apart from one another and with just their voices call out—and their sheep would come to them. If you think that overestimates the intelligence of sheep, take that up with the commentator. That’s how it was done, he claims, suggesting that sheep have (or in that culture had) a good instinctive sense of recognizing the shepherd’s voice.

In fact, we have that on higher authority in the opening verses of that tenth chapter of John’s Gospel

'Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate
but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate
is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear
his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought
out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his
voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not
know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did
not understand what he was saying to them.

Ah, yes. The sheep are doing fine recognizing the Good Shepherd. The human disciples are stumped. Hmm. Whose is the brightest bulb in the barnyard?

Shepherding is a metaphor for care-giving. In this tenth chapter of John, it gives Jesus—and John—the perfect setting in which to mount absolute diamonds of theology. Listen:

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and
find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may
have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays

down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own
the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf
snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does
not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the
sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and
they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

We may feel that being called sheep isn’t much of a calling. But we’d miss the point badly if we didn’t recognize that there’s no higher calling than to recognize authentic love, unconditional caring, the inviting voice of the Good Shepherd, God. If we develop this instinct, we’ll hear our truest calling. If we don’t, then we’re left dumber than sheep. The metaphor isn’t a passive one, as if saying to us who have come to church today, “You sheep are just on the receiving end here, so soak up the music, the message, the sacrament, and the coffee and go home.” The metaphor is an active one: “To be in this flock is to commit yourself to belonging, to keeping enough silence, investing enough discipleship, immersing yourself deeply enough in community that you develop the instinct to listen, hear, and obey the call of God to take care of one another and your world.”

Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep. We heard those words last Sunday as Peter the sheep was called into transformation to become Peter the shepherd. That he is the prototype of popes is not as evident as that he models the transformation required of all Christians: to move from being sheep to being shepherds.

If you can receive one more parable in this vein, remember this one?

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the
ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he
has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he
calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have
found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over
one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no
. (Luke 15: 4-7)

I remind you of this to speak of transformation again, this time the attempted transformation of a society, South African society, from one of violence and degradation (as it was in the era of apartheid) to one of what South Africans call ubuntu, the interdependence of humanity. This transformation was a reclaiming of truly African heritage, detoxifying their culture from the poisons introduced by an oppressive (though ostensibly better-educated and more sophisticated) alien culture that made its way by intimidation and violence.

It’s one of the greatest stories of our time. In 1990, President F. W. de Klerk announced the end of apartheid, amazing the world. Four years later, Nelson Mandela was released from twenty-seven years of political imprisonment, the voice they could not silence. Another belonged to Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace laureate. Together, these good shepherds led South Africa into a peaceful biracial future not by pretending that the monstrous abuses of apartheid had never happened, nor by trying and punishing the guilty, but by granting amnesty and actively forgiving all who would come forward, admit their guilt, tell the story and face their victims and their victims’ families. By ubuntu, perpetrators were understood to be victims also, because apartheid had poisoned their hearts and numbed their souls. Justice, ubuntu-style, is not about revenge and retribution, but about restoration and reconciliation.

From 1995 to 1998, Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded the public testimony of twenty thousand South Africans, blacks and whites, the prominent and the lowly. It was all about hearing the voice of truth in order to find the voice of justice. Listening, hearing, recognizing the interdependence of humanity.

Which brings us to hear some words of Desmond Tutu:

The point is that, if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons, then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed. Much more importantly, it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to change for the better. Theology said they still, despite the awfulness of their deeds, remained children of God with the capacity to repent, to be able to change…

In this theology, we can never give up on anyone because our God was one who had a particularly soft spot for sinners. The Good Shepherd in the parable Jesus told had been quite ready to leave ninety-nine perfectly well-behaved sheep in the wilderness to look for, not an attractive, fluffy little lamb—fluffy little lambs do not usually stray from their mummies—but for the troublesome, obstreperous old ram. This was the one on which the Good Shepherd expended so much energy.
-- from his book "No Future Without Forgiveness"

I expect you will go home today remembering that I worked the metaphor of sheep and shepherd like a sheepdog. I hope you’ll keep working it, too. Archbishop Tutu showed how it stands for unconditional caring, authentic love; how Jesus, calling us his sheep, calls us to be shepherds. To be in his flock is to commit ourselves to belonging, to keeping enough silence, investing enough discipleship, immersing ourselves deeply enough in community that we develop the instinct to listen, hear, and obey the call of God to take care of one another, to take care of ourselves, and to take care of our world.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

We're All in Peter's Boat

“I am going fishing,” announces Peter. Six others like the sound of that, so off they go, this little clutch of disciples, trying to normalize their lives. They have lived through deep trauma, the bleak execution of Jesus their teacher, whose word and way had given new birth, new meaning to their lives and was himself the hub that joined them in a community of purpose, bringing to earth the reign of God’s justice and peace. The brutality of death on a cross had suddenly disrupted life as they knew it, and shock waves were still rippling to the edges of their world.

In light—and shadow—of the week we’ve just seen, it’s good to remember that each time our Lord Jesus Christ appears from Easter morning on, his purposes include helping his friends normalize life after the mayhem. He keeps moving them through their grief by doing two things at once: by letting them revisit his wounds, see them, even touch them if they need to, and by treating his friends as he always would have treated them.

“Shalom,” he says to them on Easter night, exactly what they would have expected him to say whenever they reunited around the table. And today, he’s all about fishing because they’re all about fishing. Even before they know he’s watching, he observes how they aren’t catching anything and so he gives them advice where to throw their nets. They don’t seem to know who he is yet, but in that moment didn’t they feel him teaching them again?

And what happens next? Breakfast. He’s got a charcoal fire going, and the menu is bread and fish. By then, they surely know who he is: the head of their family is providing for them, hosting them on familiar ground, the same seashore where he had first recruited them.

Normalizing life can be a Godly thing, just the right remedy after trauma. The closer to the epicenter of the tragedy, the harder that is to do. On this first Sabbath after the shootings at Virginia Tech, imagine the choices today for sixty-two families (I mean to number the families of all who were injured and of all who died, including the killer). When will they be ready to say their own equivalent to “I’m going fishing,” and step out in public, or back to the workplace? Perhaps, understandably, they are still like the disciples on Easter night, staying behind well-guarded doors so as to have the safety of an inner circle of family and friends around them.

Do you recall how the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 caused the earth to wobble? In a like way, a tragedy of epic proportion knocks normalcy out of its usual spin. I believe that in certain ways we need it to, and let me say what I mean.

Before Seung-hui Cho opened fire on April 16th, any Virginia resident of age and with basic identification could do what he did, walk into a gun shop and purchase a semi-automatic firearm with frightening ease. And then return 30 days later to purchase another, as Cho did. Anyone still can. This is normalcy, the kind that must be changed.

What made this young man a deadly risk with firearms was his particular burden of mental illness. Our society, as advantaged and sophisticated as it is, has barely a clue how to successfully treat people who live with mental illness. Nor is this enough of a priority at either state or federal level to see that mental health care is adequately funded anywhere in this country. That is another status quo that we need to change. And not just in circles of insurance, health care, and providing options like group homes that are so badly needed—but in all circles, including schools and colleges and churches and communities that need to learn how to live as neighbors and colleagues and relatives of people who have particular burdens of mental illness.

“Feed my lambs… tend my sheep.” Peter isn’t the only disciple needing to learn that God’s reign of justice and peace depends upon compassionate and consistent care of human beings as children of God. We’re all in Peter’s boat. Each national tragedy like the one we’ve lived through this past week shows that our society is in this same boat, needing a deeper wisdom to guide where we throw our nets. And needing new safety nets, the old ones long gone.

Thirty-three peopled dead. One by his own hand, thirty-two by his, with twenty-nine injured.

That we are all of us vulnerable in ways we can’t always control does not adequately explain what happened, last Monday morning. That thirty-two gifted, admired, loved and loving members of an academic community, some of them heroes, should have their lives snuffed out by the madness of one person is way beyond any acceptable norm of human vulnerability. This should not happen, must not become more normal. Yet it did happen very near the anniversary of the Columbine shootings. The killer appears to have admired the Columbine killers. And the broadcasting of his sad testimonial caused outrage because it could perpetuate not only the trauma, but also the invitation to copycats intent on making their mark.

We’re not facing only a madness that is in one person, then another, and another. We must face also a madness in our culture, prone to use guns and force to even a score and settle a grudge. In its global shape, this madness believes that shock and awe can make the world a safer place. It’s closer to the truth to say that violence is the last recourse of the impotent and the desperate.

St. Paul knew about that. To use antique language, he had breathed threats and hate against the Christians until he met the Christ and the Christians whose compassionate consistent care restored him to health, opened his eyes to his madness and to God’s unboundaried goodness. The love of God in Jesus Christ is stronger than human madness, can meet a person on the road to mental disaster, and can meet a society on the road to breakdown—and speak grace and truth that madness has never let in.

Every story about an appearing of the risen Christ makes the same point: the love of God in Jesus Christ is closer to us than breath itself, but it requires disciples, apostles, through whom that love can move. In our Gospel today, our Lord is all about fishing in part to normalize life for his traumatized friends, and in part to teach them to fish for people.

Let’s go fishing. Let’s find the will to keep semi-automatic weapons only in the trained hands of the police. Let’s make the treatment and support of people living with mental illness a high priority nationally and locally. Let’s learn how to protect the health and safety of all in our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Let’s learn how to become a church committed to compassionate and consistent care of human beings as children of God.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Shalom, Doubter!

Shalom. St. John, telling the story of Easter night, says that this ancient greeting is the word Jesus spoke—perhaps in its Aramaic version—to his friends and partners in ministry, the disciples. This is how Jews have greeted one another since, well, forever, still do, and forever will. You might say that this word passing across his lips was both the sweetest word they could hear, and the most normalizing. Nothing he could say would have better announced his presence in the reality of that moment in their lives than this thoroughly ordinary greeting which was, I bet, exactly what they would have expected him to say on an occasion of reuniting at the table.

But this is far from a normal occasion. What would he say next, to speak to what he saw in their eyes and on their faces? Astonishment, fear, confusion: what would he say to what the disciples were showing in that moment? He said nothing more, right then. He showed them his hands and his side.

Let that tug at your heart. Picture Jesus of Nazareth, age five or six, having cut his hand on a blade in his father’s shop, running to Mary or Joseph, opening it to their sympathy and care, entrusting to them his wound as any child might, both to be treated and to be kissed. “See what happened to me!” the child says, without words, showing the wound that had come from life.

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. It appears they were speechless until then. And is it reading too much into it to say that until they saw his wounds they did not see the Christ? Jesus was standing before them, but with his execution on Good Friday came also the death of their hope that he was the One sent by God to redeem Israel, to free the nation and cause the kingdom of God to come on earth as in heaven. His death would have been hard enough, but his public execution as a criminal was just impossible to take in. But now he claimed their hope again wordlessly, silently showing them his wounds to say more powerfully than words could, “This is how it happens.”

Redemption, the freeing of humanity, the new creation, the breaking-in of God’s rule of justice and peace—this is how it happens. By servant leadership that washes feet, touches lepers, feeds the hungry, heals the uninsured, reconciles bipolar humanity, seats children in places of honor, welcomes and includes all people and creatures in the shalom of God, speaks truth to political and religious power, bridges the troubling disparities in the human family, and is willingly open and vulnerable, prepared to pour itself out for the sake of the mission. This is how it happens.

With this Spirit, my Spirit, you will forgive; and only by this Spirit can you judge. Those are the only other words St. John records Jesus to have used in his intense preaching on Easter night. All else was conveyed by the wounds. But he verbalized the message, With this Spirit, my Spirit, you will forgive; and only by this Spirit can you judge.

Now, Thomas was not with them when Jesus came. Poor Thomas—he does get a dodgey reputation, doesn’t he, as we go on calling him Doubting Thomas. Martin Smith, in his rich little book A Season for the Spirit, urges patience, even respect, for our own doubting. God is not some elderly clergyman coming for tea, Smith says. We don’t have to arrange for our outspoken, skeptical teenager to be conveniently out of the house when God comes. In prayer, we’re in just the right place to have our true feelings and listen to the voices that put us to the test. Martin writes, “Faith urges us to give our doubts the chance to emerge into the open and give ourselves the chance to see how God meets and answers them.” We need to keep in practice, in touch with our doubts, he says, so we won’t be surprised and overwhelmed by them when we feel their full force, like at times of emergency, crisis, sickness and bereavement.

Hear a little more from Martin. “Sometimes in the climate of prayer we discover that certain doubts are like angels, agents of the Spirit of truth who is struggling to strip away from us superstitious and immature beliefs. ‘Doubting the divinity of Christ’ for a time may be the only way the Spirit of Christ can get us to start again from scratch and believe in his total humanity. The divine Christ of many people’s conventional faith is a fiction, a demigod, not the man who is the Word made flesh. Doubts about doctrines and moral rules may be the only way the Spirit of truth can get us to move from accepting Christianity at second hand, to appropriating it for ourselves in the light of our own experience and questions. The Spirit can work better with us even if our faith is stripped right down for a time, than if we are cocooned in a complacent religiosity which we are not prepared to have disturbed.”

Smith recognizes that doubt can be dangerous. Especially if what is found implausible is the very being of a loving God. We’d rather keep that doubt behind a stout and well-guarded door. But if we’re really paying attention to life, we may have to go there. Theology cannot avoid addressing questions posed by the Holocaust. Or by our having dropped the atomic bomb. Or by the AIDS pandemic. Or by genocide in Darfur. Or by the suicide of an effervescent, talented, beautiful young woman.

Martin says that even when doubt feels strong and dangerous, to give it room in our praying may lead us back to the foot of the Cross of Jesus, or to that upper room and the circle of men and women, disciples in anguish from Good Friday, who, face to face with the wounded one, find his wounds teaching them truth.

So let’s lighten up on Thomas. And pay attention to what the story says. The disciples are hunkered-in, there in the upper room, the doors of the house locked because of their fear. Thomas is not there. What does that say about Thomas? Where is he?

He could be hiding, all by himself. Or he could have returned to something familiar, his home or his people or his work. But wherever, and whatever, he was out in the world that the others found so frightening a realm.

It’s in keeping with John’s story to assume that Thomas was out there alone. The other disciples seem to have made up their minds to stay together, that there was somehow strength in numbers. About that, Thomas may have had mixed feelings.

The way John tells the story, there is something different about Thomas. The others are afraid. Thomas is angry. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. I’m not saying that this is the only way to hear these words, but in them I hear anger. And, in the puzzle of dashed hopes and profound grief, anger fits.

Dashed hopes, by the way, that had to be broken up like a storm-tossed fishing boat on the rocks, splintered by life so that death, disassembling the parts, might leave empty and open the space the Spirit will fill. With this Spirit, my Spirit, you will forgive; and only by this Spirit can you judge.

By the terms of the story, Thomas isn’t there to receive this gift of the Spirit of Jesus. He may not have been afraid, like the others, but they, in their shaky and quaking little community, are a step ahead of him in receiving this commissioning that Jesus does through his risen presence. Without this commissioning, Thomas may remain in the grip of his anger, his heart locked just as tightly as the doors to that house.

He gets his chance by returning to the circle. Jesus is there, as he promises to be in all such circles, and he follows the same pattern: Shalom is passed to them in greeting, and, this time with words, Jesus invites Thomas to see his wounds and touch his injuries. Believe, Jesus invites. This is how it happens. Do this, and learn to touch with shalom your own wounds, and the wounds of your world.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Losing Life, Finding Faith

Her life was over. Widowed by war, left childless by war, she had lost all desire to live in such a world. Her life, as she knew it, had ended. There was nothing more to say to anyone, for there was nothing more to want. Except the Great Silence, and permission to enter it.

This is what brought her to the priest. She had given up—or had been robbed of—everything, except one last knowing. She knew this one option for herself, and it required his authority for her to leave the world and enter the convent, where she would live as a hermit. She would let Jesus Christ teach her how to be alone. Not because she could accept all that had happened to her as being the will of God, but because it was all she could choose, all she still knew after she knew her life no longer. She still knew that there must be a place for her in the deepest chamber of the nautilus of her ancient faith. A shell is all she asked for, a place to hide.

“Very well,” answered the priest, “But first I will ask you to do something. Last night, she arrived. Sixteen, seventeen. Silent. Has no one. Take her home, give her bread, give her a blanket. One week, two weeks.”

Lacking the strength to refuse, the woman took the girl’s arm and guided her home. A week passed without speech between them, between these two women of war, for there was nothing either of them could say.

After mass, she sought the priest again. “He’s seven, eight,” he said to her. “The light is gone from his eyes. We found him on our steps this morning, on his way nowhere. I need you to take him.”

And so it went. They were as young as two or three, as old as twenty. Orphaned by war, expelled from their torched villages, set on an exodus without a promised land, carried by instinct, by hope that life would somehow open up to them and swallow them in safety.

She took them home. Was it the littlest one who caused her to speak again? Did that toddler roll away the stone all by himself, I wonder?

Her once-empty shack became filled with children. As it filled, so did her heart. They found her, these wanderers. Through them, Jesus Christ showed her how to use her solitude.

As many as two hundred children have lived with her. She houses them and teaches them in great steel containers, the kind you see stacked on trains. To get them, she had to find her voice. And to get holes cut in the walls for air and light.

That’s all I know of her story. I lost the signal as I was driving. I don’t know her name. I don’t recall her country, though I believe her church was one of the ancient traditions, perhaps Coptic or Orthodox. I’ve googled, I’ve searched NPR’s archives, and so far have come up empty-handed on the details.

But it’s the story that counts, isn’t it?

What this story isn’t, I suspect, is a story of how we want resurrection to appear in our lives. Becoming responsible for two hundred children? We’d prefer a more congenial model of salvation.

But place yourself among the two hundred in this story. That is what the Gospel story of these holy days requires of us: that we stand honest in our need for a truer life, a bolder love, and a finer hope offered to us by Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

This woman’s story may show us how faith is found, or found again. How it requires our acting on what we already know, trusting who we believe we can trust, and daring to be surprised. Even into doing what we may never have expected to do, and be met there by grace that teaches us newly to be free, to serve, to love—and then to believe and to understand.