Shepherd.Easter4B.2012

Easter 4B, 2012
John 10:11-18

A Liturgy is also available

SEEKING TO RESTORE DIGNITY AND PUSH BOUNDARIES

Today is traditionally known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday.
You may have guessed that already, as all our biblical readings
were strong with images of a shepherd and sheep.

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The image of Jesus as the ‘good shepherd’, 
reminds many past Sunday school scholars of pictures of a Jesus
with flowing robes,
cuddling a tiny lamb,
while other sheep lie peacefully at his feet.

The scene is idyllic.  Probably conjured up in an urban environment.
And nourished, no doubt, by someone’s infant recollections
of a favourite ‘teddy’ or ‘Pumpkin Patch kid’.

By contrast, the tough shepherd image of one forced
to live outdoors and on the fringes of society as an outcast,
with an ‘honesty’ and ‘trustworthy’ 1st century reputation
on a par with 21st century used car salesmen/women,
has all but been lost.

Everything and everyone seems to have been sanitised and sentimentalised.

So this morning, out of all the kitsch, let’s see if we
can pick up something which is helpful and hopeful.

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To begin with, let me share some comments from another.

West Australian biblical theologian William Loader says:
“The ancient shepherd of Palestine or Asia Minor had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, frequently amid danger from wild animals and sheep stealers, and, above all, had to protect the flock, especially at night...  John 10 reflects this less than idyllic world.  The bland teddy bear image gives way to a picture of tension: positively, a shepherd doing his job to the utmost; negatively, dangers which threaten the sheep... and which will kill him.  Life and death dance together” (WLoader web site, 2006).

And to counter the shepherd/used car salesmen jibe earlier on,
a car salesman in another congregation responded:
“the most untrustworthy people are those who are trading in cars” (Stoffregen/CrossMarks web site 2006).

Over the past six years or so, in both congregational and small group settings,
I have been using a series of discussions based on the DVD series
‘Eclipsing Empire’, produced by Living the Questions.

It features two biblical scholars: Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg,
and their time in Turkey ‘in the footsteps’ so-to-speak, of Paul.

Very quickly we discovered Turkey (like Greece and Italy) teems with
sites and sights of historic and architectural interest,
not the least of which is the ruins of the magnificent Hagia Sophia,
the cathedral of Divine Wisdom,
built in the early years of the Byzantine Empire.

Listen as one modern-day visitor describes this site:
“Here in this vast space are columns in the form of trees reaching skyward supporting the dome of heaven suspended high overhead.  The building itself is a model, a template, of paradise here on earth.  Lines across the floor, dividing the building into quadrants, represent the four rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden.  Many of the magnificent mosaics that once adorned the walls and ceiling were concealed or defaced after it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.  Those that remain portray Jesus and his mother, Mary, John the Baptist and early emperors of Byzantium” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009).

Dr Barry Andrews goes on:
“But none of these depict the most familiar image of Jesus, namely the crucifix.  Throughout Turkey, the birthplace of Christianity as we know it, what one finds are mosaics, wall paintings and figurines showing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, tending his sheep in a pastoral setting, and not the customary Christ on the cross, atoning in his own suffering and death for our sinful ways” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009).

I find that interesting.
The first crucifix appears in Germany in the 10th century.
Prior to that the symbolism of the church was very different.
As Val Webb says in her book Stepping Out With the Sacred,
"While Western art was absorbed with images of a twisted body on the cross as a bloody sacrifice, Eastern icons focused on Christ victorious over suffering and death, the serenely noble GOD-man" (Webb 2010:157-58).

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Initially I thought the burden of this story might be the rural images
of shepherd and sheep, which for urban folk like us,
are just not part of our everyday experiences, apart from
a visit to the meat department of the local supermarket!

But I now reckon there are a couple of other things which can be said
about this story and the image of ‘shepherd’.

Two things stand out for me.  Those are:
(i) Pastoral.
(ii) Power.

(i) The tough ‘good shepherd’ of the biblical stories
loved the ‘sheep’ enough to restore their dignity to them
by ignoring the rules about who belonged or didn’t belong, where!

And we reckon he did this by helping peasant families and workers
and other ‘outsiders’, to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the
taxation, farming policies, and religious codes had labelled them (Bessler-Northcutt 2004).

In a well-ordered society, people know their places.
In Jesus’ world the “few very rich and the many very poor” (Funk 2002:46).
knew very well their places.

But in Jesus’ re-imagined realm of God those ‘places’ were reversed.
That’s the pastoral bit.

(ii) John’s tough ‘good shepherd’ - Galilean, peasant sage -
appears not to be afraid to push boundaries.
Family boundaries.
Life boundaries.
Empire boundaries.

Perhaps the most dramatic biblical story of boundary-pushing (according to some)
is the one which a couple of biblical storytellers tell...
The action of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.

We have already explored this story through the eyes and ears
of the storyteller we call Mark, as well as via a few
contemporary biblical scholars.

But let’s listen to this comment from classics scholar, Richard Horsley.
“... in healing withered limbs and casting out demons from possessed Galilean peasants, fishermen, and workers, Jesus was acting as a prophet to help the People of Israel regain control over their lives and livelihoods...  Whether or not Jesus understood exactly how profitable the Temple services were for the few families that controlled them... few would have mistaken what he was doing” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:78).

That’s the power bit.

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On ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday we can very easily slip into looking for,
and discovering, a sanitised and sentimentalised Jesus, who cuddles sheep.
In the fair dinkum department, I have to say I reckon
that would be unhelpful.

On the other hand, the challenge of this day
is to see and hear the humanity of Jesus
behind the many stories and different images, now.

To see him pointing to something he calls the realm of God,
where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world,
demand to be considered, especially by the Empire.

To hear him inviting his followers to join with him,
to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries
which always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity. (Spong 2001:131).

As my friend and colleague in the progressive movement, Dr Greg Jenks,
has suggested in his The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes:
“It is perhaps ironic that some of Jesus' best known teachings, derive not from the lips of Jesus but from the hearts of his followers as they reflected on Jesus' own actions.
• Jesus did not claim to be the divine/good shepherd; he simply gave himself to others.
• Jesus did not contrast himself to the hired hand; he simply acted differently.
• Jesus did not his talk up his intimacy with God; he simply lived as one intimate with God.
• Jesus did not describe his death as bringing life to others; he simply embraced death as God's will for him at that time” (FaithFutures web site, The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes, 2012).

Pastoral and power.
Restoring dignity.
Pushing boundaries

Perhaps this is how we might give due honour to ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday today.
I invite you to consider this further sometime.

Notes:
Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to see God – Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover (ed). The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Funk, R. W. 2002. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Horsley, R. A.; N. A. Silberman. 1997. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a revolution and transformed the Ancient World. New York. Putnam.
Spong, J. S. 2001. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Webb, V. 2010. Stepping Out With The Sacred. Human Attempts to Engage the Divine. New York. Continuum

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