Podcast Version: DVT_A002_170506_2148.MP3
I’m going to show you a quote, and I want you to tell me who said it. I will just say that these words were spoken on the 30th anniversary of the Civil Rights march on Selma, Alabama.
“Those days were filled with passionate convictions and a magnified sense of purpose that imposed a feeling on us all that events of the day were bigger than any one individual”. “Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal has been gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, ‘Welcome to Montgomery. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten. May our history be always remembered.”
Anyone? These words were spoken by Governor George Wallace of Alabama. For those of you not familiar with who this man was, he delivered some of the most stunning words at his first inaugural address in 1963, when he said, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”. It was George Wallace who tried to face down the US government after the desegregation of schools. For generations, Wallace was a symbol of racial prejudice, Jim Crow, and segregation. In the latter years of his life, he repented of his racism, and by the time he died, Wallace had appointed more blacks to cabinet positions and directorships of state agencies – positions of real power – than any other governor in American History. Sick and too weak to give his own speech, one of his last public appearances was in the St. Jude School, where he spoke eloquently about the struggle for civil rights, the pain he had caused, and his deep desire to make amends.
President Bill Clinton, now an advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, signed the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in 1996, by cover of darkness, just after he instituted “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military – two acts that took nearly two decades to repair.
And the last time that we extensively quoted St. Peter in this church, the words he spoke were, “I don’t know him. I don’t know him. I told you I don’t know him!” Peter, the denier, now speaking eloquently in the second reading about how we must follow Jesus in his suffering, and how we are to turn back to the Good Shepherd as our leader. Peter empowered, not of his own accord, but through the power of Christ who summarily, by his death, and in his post-resurrection appearances, assures Peter that all is forgiven.
Peter gets a do-over, a change of heart for Peter, but not a change of heart for Christ, who is, after all, the ultimate authority on forgiveness and renewal, and second chances, and thus as our Shepherd, tis Jesus needs no change of heart. That particular change is up to us.
Second chances. Changes of heart. New directions. In a world that is just plain wacky, has the church lost its voice, its moral and ethical authority to effect change? Is there not a direct link between our recognition of Jesus as Shepherd and our ability to be constantly renewed and reformed, calling us to resist the sinful abuses of power all around us? Is it time for an ecclesiastical change of heart? If so, what does it mean for us here and now?
On this Sunday, traditionally known as “Good Shepherd” Sunday, we would do well to reflect on who this good Shepherd is, on how the sheep are to respond, and on how Jesus, both shepherd and gate, can assure us of abundant life, making our lives a fulfillment of his saving action.
Sheep get a bum rap. I have to admit that there are times in the past when I have resented being compared to a stupid, smelly animal. What I didn’t realize years ago was how smart sheep really are. Well, I should qualify that. As animals, go, sheep have figured out how to follow and how to be trustful and safe. When cowhands drive cattle, they get behind the herd and make a lot of noise, driving the herd forward. Cowhands along the sides make sure that the cattle are held in reasonable formation as they are pushed to their destination. A cattle prod is sometimes used to speed up a slow herd. Not so with sheep.
If you get behind a flock of sheep and yell at them to go forward, they will drive you crazy, because they will do everything in their power to get behind you. They cannot be pushed. They can only follow. And over the long evolutionary period in which sheep have been led by shepherds, sheep have learned to follow a familiar voice. If the familiar voice leads, they feel safe. If a stranger tries to lead them, they retreat in fear until they know and trust the new human leader. In the relationship between sheep and shepherd, if the shepherd deems the path ahead to be safe, the sheep follow. And in this world of the shepherd leader, the first to encounter danger ahead is not the flock of sheep – it is the shepherd. This only serves to strengthen the image given by Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels of a shepherd laying down his life for the sheep.
And so, my fellow sheep, what does this say about our relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd? Do you experience Jesus as someone who pushes you, shouting commands to drive you forward, to frighten you into submission? Does Jesus carry a cattle prod to jab you in the hind quarters when you don’t move fast enough? Or is Jesus truly a shepherd, leading us to safety, a safety we can trust. A shepherd out in front, willing to lay down his life for us. A shepherd leading us to the cross, but then beyond the cross to the resurrection, the ultimate place of safety, life…abundant.
At times, I have to say I am not convinced that I unfailingly believe in the power of Christ, the Good Shepherd. I have been known to waiver in my trust of Jesus, and at those times I rely too much on my own sinful need to be in control. We can forget that it is Jesus Christ who does the leading. Good modern Christians that we are, we can forget that salvation comes from the action of the shepherd on the sheep, and not the other way around. Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd never stops leading, even when we don’t follow very well.
In the midst of the reformation, Luther was asked to what extent he believed he needed to reform the church. His immediate reply was that he had no intention of reforming the church. Why? Because, he said, only Jesus can reform the Church. As we reflect, in all humility, on our lives as Christians, the chief premise always must be that there is one Good Shepherd.
The church, at times, has faltered in its understanding of Jesus as the good Shepherd. As a church, we would do well to recover the theological meaning of the shepherding imagery. By the fourth century, Jesus as Shepherd was gradually replaced by Jesus as pantocrator, a Greek term meaning the divine elevated ruler of all things. This was when Constantine united the church with the secular state. As the church became an expression of imperial power, the shepherd’s staff was replaced with a gilded Crozier; a crown of thorns was displaced by the triple tiara of the Pope. And let’s face it – the Anglicanism that gave birth to the Episcopal Church didn’t improve things a whole lot by elevating the Monarch to the role of governor of the Church.
According to the Scripture scholar, Molly Marshall, “Recovering shepherding imagery could call the church to simplicity, sacrifice, and solidarity, needed in a time when many have lost their way.”
And this leads me back to Peter, the chief denier turned teacher and leader. This Good Shepherd, Jesus, has never required perfection from the sheep. And frankly, that leniency from the Good Shepherd who refuses to use a cattle prod on us has allowed us at times to really screw up. Like Peter, we may have denied Jesus Christ many times. In our failure to help the poor and disadvantaged, in our ability to hold grudges and avoid resolving conflict, in our narcissistic preference for people who remind us of ourselves, in our quest for power and control.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “In most, when you go to church, most churches when they have images of the good shepherd, they show Jesus carrying a nice fluffy lamb. Now fluffy little lambs don’t stray from their mommies. The sheep that will stray is the most obstreperous, troublesome sheep.”
In the bigger picture, this benevolent Good Shepherd has allowed His church to splinter into denominationalism, “my church is better than” yours-ism. It has allowed splintering, even within denominations, and sadly within congregations. This gentle Good Shepherd has allowed the church, throughout its history, to sink into dark periods of oppression and war, often in the name of that same Good Shepherd.
OMG! Maybe today should be called, “What in the world is the Good Shepherd THINKING?” Sunday! If I were the Good Shepherd, I would have a cattle prod for sure, and that sucker would be electrified!
But thanks be to God I am not the Good Shepherd. And even though the Latin word “Pastor” means Shepherd, there are days I can assure you when I am not even A good shepherd, let alone THE Good Shepherd.
When it comes right down to it, we are all sheep, all in need of new life and community offered because of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And by the grace and forgiveness offered in Christ, life is not one change of heart; it is a lifetime of change, and heart, and listening, and following, and trusting, and teaching, and pointing the way forward to a world of peace and justice.
What would it mean for us, the church, all of us, to totally surrender ourselves to the care of God’s Good Shepherd? What would that look like? Would we be more inclusive? More forgiving of the faults of one another? More inclined to see and respond to the needs of others? Could we encounter a poor beggar and without blinking an eye say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are healed?” Could we multiply bread in a hungry world? Could we stockpile plowshares? Could we, no matter how sinful we can be, trust that the Good Shepherd can lead, and teach, and heal through us?
What would it mean for us Christians, all of us, to totally surrender ourselves to the care and leadership of God’s Good Shepherd? Could the world ever be the same?