Monday, April 30, 2012

shepherds and sheep

Shepherds and sheep 042912
Ezekiel 34:1-7, 15-16 and John 10:11-18
Margaret Scott

It’s still the Easter season in the church; as John said the Sunday after Easter: this resurrection story is too big for just one day.  So we’ve had resurrection appearance stories since.  Till today. For some reason the tradition of the church has become to put the shepherding texts in at this time of year.  What’s with that?  I’m hoping we might get to that as we look at these texts.

Whatever year or date this image of shepherding shows up in our readings, it always centers around John 10, around Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd.  The whole chapter is about a sheep and shepherding culture, less familiar to us today than for many, unless you live and watch what happens at the farm on the corner of Ayrault and Turk Hill!

It’s a lovely metaphor, this pastoral image of shepherd and sheep, much beloved by all who know psalm 23 by heart.

But it’s a disturbing metaphor.  It would have been for the early Christians, many of whom came out of Judaism and were struggling to figure out what it meant to include non-Jews, Gentiles, pagans, in this new community of Jesus followers.

Disturbing because they knew their scriptures.  They knew texts like the Ezekiel bit we read, or like others in Jeremiah.  They knew that GOD is the shepherd, and that humans entrusted with the care of God’s people had failed miserably.
(You have NOT  searched for the lost, fed the hungry, tended the lambs etc.)

So when John suggests that Jesus said “I am the good shepherd”,  the response might be, wait a minute Jesus. Only God is our shepherd.
“I and the father are one” he replies
Gasp.  You’re saying you are intimately part of the divine?

It would have been mind blowing

In fact, if we’d read on we’d have seen that this kind of talk really caused division; no wonder.  It’s subversive, and raises all sorts of questions, like
Who really is our shepherd?  Really.
Who are the sheep, especially all the “other” sheep?
Who are the hired hands?

I don’t much like asking, let alone answering, these questions.  I’d much rather hunker down in the cozy sheepfold of psalm 23, and draw a safe wall around me.

Yes, it’s a disturbing text. But if I’m going to struggle with it, you know I’m not going down that road alone…..I’m taking you with me, so here goes.

Who really is our shepherd?  Really.  Who ‘owns’ us?  On whom do we depend for nurture and nourishment—not just in the safety of Sunday morning, but to whom do we entrust ourselves day by day, as we leave the house each morning
as we  wander and work in a difficult, sometimes dangerous world
as we return home and snuggle down safely at night?
IS God our REAL shepherd?   Really?

Who are the sheep, especially all the “other” sheep?
In Jesus’ day, as he talked with the religious leaders called the Pharisees, this would have been doubly disturbing.  First, he’s implying they are like the leaders of Ezekiel’s day, who’d failed in their shepherding job   AND  he is casting doubt on the exclusive claim of the Jews to be God’s people.
Then by John’s day, this saying would encourage and affirm all those who had been brought in from those ‘outsiders’ but still disturb those who were ‘in’—if we let them in, who’s next?  And what will happen to our privileged position with God?  Mindblowing
By our day?…..
I read a story this week about 2 people discussing a third who often goes out of his way to help people:  “Joe is the best Muslim I know, “ said Mohammed, much to my surprise. “But Joe is a Catholic,” I replied. “The definition of a Muslim,”  Mohammed calmly said, “is to be submissive to God, and I don’t know anyone more submissive to God than Joe.”
Who’s the shepherd?  Who’s the sheep?
Perhaps we must revert a moment back to who is the shepherd, for Jesus says these other sheep in other folds will be brought in by him, and learn to hear his voice.

Like the witnesses we talked about last week, we might remember that it’s the shepherd’s job to bring them in; it’s the shepherd’s voice they will hear.   I am afraid that too often, ‘other sheep’ simply hear the  bleating of us churchy sheep, and not the voice of the Shepherd.

On with the disturbing questions: Who are the hired hands?
Well.   As a pastor, this is a tough one.  But it will be just as challenging for all who considers themselves any kind of faithful leader in the church.  Do we see things through, or quit at the first sign of trouble?  Do we work to tend the sheep like the shepherd, or run off when things don’t go our way?
The contrast Jesus makes is not about being paid to do the work, but about ownership of the flock….and ownership is about relationship.   Earlier Jesus says that the sheep hear his voice and follow him; he knows them, they know him.  Is that our kind of flock?
Whose flock/church is it?  It’s not mine.  It’s not yours.  It’s not even ours.   This has implications for how we live as flock, how we follow as disciples, how we trust as dependents.   Which brings us back to the question 
Who are the sheep?   Who are we as flock? How do we live and trust and depend and follow the shepherd?

Notice I’m using we language.  In these texts the word “sheep” is always plural.
It is common in our linear thinking since the Enlightenment to emphasize
individuality, it’s all about me and my needs and my goals,
which leads us to assume
scarcity –  there’s only so much to go around so I have to get what I can for my self and my family
which leads us to practice
competition and rivalry – for resources, in sports and games, at work, politically
which leads us to believe in
exclusivity—who’s in/out in cliques and teams and gangs and churches and neighborhoods and races; who’s going up/going down in religion

Shepherding and flock language biblically blows that thinking right out of the water.
We are NOT firstly rugged individuals, personal believers, or ‘me’ achievers.
We are FIRST a community of faith, which can and does resource and become a means of grace for individuals.
You might think that’s not very controversial—but it’s really not how we or our society lives.  If you doubt me, pay attention for a week or so about your language, or others’ language just about this church, for example.  I hear talk about whether it meets my needs, or you tell staff or leaders, ‘you’ need to do such and so, or  “I want”

Many of us see church as an institution designed to serve me, or my children, or my aging granny, or my wedding or funeral needs.

But if we’re a flock first, it’s our ‘sheep-ness’ (I made that up) together, and our shepherd that make those things possible.

The FLOCK follows the shepherd
The FLOCK hears his voice
The FLOCK provide milk and cheese to feed the world, and wool to clothe those in need
It’s the FLOCK’s behavior that reflects who they follow and who is attracted to this shepherd. 

Obviously, like any image or metaphor, one can only go so far.  Jesus even got bogged down in the image in this one chapter, and later he uses the image quite differently when he tells Peter, and us, to become shepherds who are like him: feed my sheep, tend my lambs.  Whoever the good shepherd ministers to is who shepherds-in-training, disciples, us, must tend.  But that’s another text, another sermon.

So, let’s come full circle and see if we’ve figured out why this Shepherd stuff comes up in the Easter season…..let me share this from something I read this week:
If Jesus wasn’t the good shepherd, he wouldn’t have hung around to heal, reconcile and commission a community of failures into an ecclesia. (turn sheep into a flock) He would have headed straight for heaven like so many of his followers today seem hell bent on doing….not the good shepherd though….the good shepherd picks up loving and caring, cajoling and commissioning just where he left off before they strung him up and left him for dead….It’s the kind of shepherd who won’t go home to rest until he knows all the flock have entered into their rest.  A shepherd, who even when dead tired or just plain dead, gets up and continues seeking and calling until all the sheep are home. Peter Woods, I Am Listening, 2012
The shepherd has come to bring life, and doesn’t let death forces get in the way…come to shepherd us ‘beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life’ (anthem)
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Peace be with you

 Peace be with you….and also with you.  Passing the peace sort of gets out of control in churches sometimes. It’s wonderful for extrovert belongers, but for those who’re not as “in”, it can be uncomfortable.  Like all blessings, there can never be enough of it.  But like all blessings, it must be meant, and often isn’t.  Sometimes it’s just a rote response.  

 That first time, 2000 years ago the story goes, in some mysterious but real way Jesus showed up and said, deeply, meaningfully, Peace be with you.  Exactly the right blessing for the occasion.

These disciples are understandably a bit uncertain, cynical maybe, certainly confused.  Thought they were seeing a ghost.  All the early gospel writers struggled to find words for what was happening in this thing called resurrection.  So I hear those friends in our story and other first hearers of the news, in that sarcastic or cynical tone of voice of today: Really? I mean, Really?

But Jesus counters that cynicism.   No, really.Touch me and see.  Maybe the writer wants us to know this was physically real, and maybe it was, but for me today its realness isn’t in its physicality….its in its vulnerability.  Touch me and see.

Let me tell you Jean’s story:
There is a very old black woman with dreadlocks, one tooth, and generally "scary looking" who shuffles around the Pines and is often found sitting on one of the benches. While dropping off the Pines' kids after their visit today, I happened to glance in my rear view mirror and saw her shuffling from the bus stop carrying several bags trying to make it to her apartment almost a block away. She moves about a foot a minute. There were several children heading towards her seeming to harass her. I immediately turned the car around and saw this sweet little girl, about 9 years old struggling to help carry her bags. Talk about Jesus in action!
The kids in the car thought we should go help, so we picked up the lady, as well as Ashley (the little girl)  and drove her home. They all helped carry her things up the stairs to her apartment. Sent chills up our spines. 
In some mysterious but real way, vulnerably Jesus comes.  Jean says that the children were Jesus in action.  In some mysterious but real way, Jesus shows up, and thank God for that!

But also Jesus was there as the vulnerable woman.  Touch me, let me into your car and your busy day….sometimes we’re so busy with how we’re involved we aren’t all that open to the vulnerable Jesus coming into our space.

In the hallways of nursing homes many spend hours aching to be touched by a loving hand.  A face lit up this week,and a heart touched, when I was at Wesley Gardens and spoke to a woman sitting slouched at the elevator door. She raised her gnarled old hand, and said bless you.  The lit up face was mine.

Touch can be good and bad, which is why its such a vulnerable thing….but at its best it can be the means by which the risen Christ shows up and says, Peace be with you….

The whole flow of this Bible story, of Jesus’ words in fact, begin with peace and end with witness.  I think we need peace within us and among us before we can be effective witnesses. Witnesses stand and say aloud what they have seen and heard, and what it has meant to them.  Those first witnesses to Jesus’  teaching & healing, his life and death, his resurrection and mysterious but real Presence, means we are here, doing the same thing, continuing the same story, finding our own place in that story of life.

 I read a story this week about a pastor having to be a witness in a nasty custody case where one of the couple completely denied what this pastor was saying.  She said, if I hadn’t felt centered in my soul, and at peace in this very troubled situation, I would have been more shaken that I was.
In some mysterious but real way, Jesus shows up…PBWY

She pointed out that she was glad she was just a witness, not the judge.  We are not in charge of what happens next.  It is our job just to tell the story as it is true for us….what WE know of Jesus standing among us offering peace…what WE know of being blessed, healed, nurtured, taught.

Each of us is somewhere on that continuum between peace and witness, moving back and forth, sometimes more needing a blessing of peace for a worried mind or a troubled soul, sometimes full of doubt and hoping someone will speak a word of witness and hope,
sometimes in between, needing a touch of that mysterious but real Jesus.

Each of us is also somewhere on that continuum between peace and witness in terms of giving, not receiving—at times offering a blessing of peace (children at end of day or SS)
Or holding a hand wrinkled by time and awaiting death—touch and see that mysterious but real Presence
Or boldly inviting someone to church, speaking out about an injustice, or praying with someone in need

Wherever we are, Jesus shows up.  Free.  But it costs.  It takes an open heart to receive a blessing.  It takes active hands to reach out and touch.   It takes an open mouth to witness, or speak a blessing.

I invite you to end this sermon with me, with a prayer for openness (Joyce Rupp)—if you are able, please stand; if not, you can do it seated right where you are: let us be in a spirit of prayer
Touch your fingertips to your forehead, repeat after me:
Open my mind to remember your Presence
Touch your fingertips to your mouth,
Open my mouth to speak your wisdom
Touch your fingertips to your heart,
Open my heart to extend your love
Hold your hands out open, palms up,
Open my hands to serve you generously
Open your arms wide,
Open my whole being to you.

And the people of God all said, Amen

Monday, April 16, 2012

Is the Biblical Prohibition Against Homosexuality Applicable Today?

The biblical prohibition against male same-sex sexual expression is found in Leviticus:  “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” (Lev. 18:22) and also, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13).  These passages are from the so-called “Holiness Code,” which contains a variety of rules and consequences for violating these rules. Some of these rules we would clearly see as morally binding (“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.” Lev. 19: 11). Others we do not see as morally binding (You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. Lev. 19:19).

One of the central questions of the early Church was to what extent the particular laws of the Jews, such as the Holiness Code, were to apply to Gentile Christians. This question was resolved by the Jerusalem Council. Gentile Christians were to “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20b). “Fornication” is sometimes translated as “sexual immorality.” The Greek word is porneia. This means that the question, in the first instance, is whether or not same-sex sexual behavior must always be an instance of sexual immorality.

It does seem clear that St. Paul, for example, believed that same-sex sexual behavior was immoral. However, this was clearly not because it was prohibited in the Holiness Code. After all, St. Paul believed that the Holiness Code did not define morality. Instead, St. Paul believed that same-sex sexual behavior was immoral because there was no social context in which instances of such behavior could be seen to be anything other than unbridled lust. Such behavior could not be within the context of marriage in St. Paul’s world. Marriage was an economic and procreative institution in that world. Same-sex unions had no possible morally permissible place in that context.

The question facing United Methodists and other Christians today is this:  will we honor the social space that has opened up in at least some cultures for same-sex relationships that embody the kind of mutual love and respect that makes sexual expression within them morally appropriate? Sexual expression in such relationships is by no means “incompatible with Christian teaching.” There is no compelling argument that the Bible teaches otherwise. Acceptance of same-sex sexual behavior within the emerging context of same-sex unions and marriages does not mean that one denies what the Bible teaches. The notion that one must deny biblical teaching to believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons should be fully welcomed into the life of the Church is simply false.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

a rotten ending.....

Mark 16:1-8

You don’t have to answer this out loud, but do answer it in your mind….Why are you here? What are you looking for?

The three women have gone to the tomb where Jesus was buried. They’ve come to take care of his body properly, for there was no time right after he died before the Sabbath prevented them doing any of the work. They know what to do, just like some of us do coming here today, to pay our respects, tip our hat in token appreciation for the holy aspects of what has become a cadbury bunny and chocolate holiday.

They’ve come expecting a particular thing to happen—they’ll find a dead body, do what they have to do, and leave. They know what to expect, just like some of us do coming here today—lilies, songs, maybe trumpets, uplifting music. We’ll sing and smile, here the same old story then go on home having done our duty, and relegate the story to the dusty shelves of our souls.

They’ve come also worried, who will move the stone away for us? Just as some of us come, a little concerned that we might have to do something hard….like Nicole playing the Widor toccata! We sure hope someone else does the hard work for us…..

They also have come in grief. They have lost their dear friend. And they’ve been waiting helplessly through Sabbath, in the darkness of sorrow. Their dreams have been dashed. And some of us come, sad with loss, or hurt by the death of a relationship, uncertain of the future. Perhaps we come, knowing our life’s work has lost its meaning, or the love we once had has died in us...

And what happens? All their assumptions and expectations get turned upside down. The stone’s moved, so someone’s done the work already…there is no body, so we can’t just do what we thought and move on….and they get the word that Jesus is alive, not dead. Dashed dreams may be reborn? sorrow is not to last? a very real loss has been transformed into something new? They, and we, stand on a threshold of a complete change of thinking.

Jesus isn’t there. This mystery apparition at the grave says, you’ve come looking for something dead. He’s not here. He’s alive and gone ahead of you, and is waiting for you.

He’s not here….but you are. Go and tell, says the vision.

They, and we, hear a new thing….death doesn’t have the last word. Violence and hurt aren’t the way of God. Life is. That’s the good news of Easter that God is offering!

Go and tell. And what happens? Mark says, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

What kind of ending is that, Mark? No resurrection appearance of Jesus…..the silence of the women…..their fear? I’ll tell you what kind of ending it is. It’s a rotten ending.

That’s probably why later editors of the story added a couple more endings, and the first of them has Mary Magdalene telling but nobody believed her….that’s almost as bad an ending as Mark's original. Eventually of course, someone did tell. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And I'd be out of a job.

But originally, Mark ends his story there. Like your favourite TV series, he ends one season with a cliffhanger. Huh? We’re left with a question. Now what?

And that’s where Mark’s genius shows. He’s not a rotten storyteller; like Jesus before him, he leaves the meaning up to us.

Jesus is not here. But we are. What will WE do with this news?

God takes what looks like death and failure, and transforms it into something new. God’s way is NOT crucifixion and scapegoating and retaliation – God’s way is LIFE….new life,

life that is different from what we came looking for and expecting,

life that turns its back on all the stuff that crucifixion stands for

and turns forward to living by resurrection power instead.

As for the three women, so for us: Jesus has gone before us as well… invite us into a new way of life, to draw us forward into that Life force that gives us wisdom and fortitude and courage to BE what we call the Body of Christ.

Jesus is not here. But we are…..WE are the hands and feet and heart of Jesus, called to do what he did

Jesus is not here to walk out of the tomb into new life…we are, and the dark places that hold us have had their stones rolled away already..we need to walk out of those old ways of death-thinking

Jesus is not here to feed the hungry….we are, and poverty needs resurrection’s life force

Jesus is not here to heal the sick…we are, and health care needs resurrection’s life force

Jesus is not here to proclaim the good news of God’s power to transform lives, but we are, and there are a lot of people living in dark tombs of dashed dreams that need resurrection’s life force.

Jesus is not here to stand up to the forces of violence and death. We are.

Jesus is not here. He’s alive and gone ahead of you, and is waiting for you, inviting you into a new dance of life.

Go and tell…or are we afraid? No! We do not live by rotten endings. We live by resurrection power. So this isn’t a rotten ending, it’s a great new beginning.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Palm Sunday Message

Parades of Power
Mark 11:1-11
April 1, 2012
JW McNeill

It turns out that there was more than one parade going into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.

We all know about the one parade. Procession. With Jesus going into Jerusalem on a donkey, colt. Palm branches and children singing.

We know about how Jesus had sent a disciple or two to get a colt and bring it to him.

We have heard perhaps that this sign of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a humble animal hearkens back to an oracle of the prophet Zechariah 9:9 and 10.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

But there was indeed another procession going into Jerusalem that day. It was a Roman procession.

You see the Roman governor would go to Jerusalem at this time of year because of the Passover festival.

Roman governor did not reside in Jerusalem. Lived in a newly constructed city called Caesarea Maritima, Caesar on the Sea about 60 miles west of Jerusalem.  Nice seaside resort kind of place. Waterfront. Private beach, perhaps.  Cooler breezes. Didn’t have to mingle with the locals very much.

Jerusalem, the traditional capitol of the Jewish people was hostile to the Roman occupation.

But because of the Jewish festival of Passover, the Roman governor and companies of Roman soldiers made their way inland and uphill to be in Jerusalem for the holiday.

They went to Jerusalem, however, not in reverence or out of respect for the holy days of the Jewish people. Instead they went to keep order.

Remember, this holiday was a remembrance and celebration of the time when God had delivered the nation of Israel from its bondage to another foreign power, namely Egypt.

This was a holiday that could stir up thoughts of liberation and freedom. Rome needed its governor and its army close by to make sure that any dreams of salvation in the present would be quickly and brutally put down.

This parade of power entered Jerusalem from the west, as a sign that Caesar was in charge and would brook no rival.

This imperial procession must certainly have been impressive. Cavalry on horseback, foot soldiers, banners, weapons, the beating of drums. It was designed to convey if not shock, at least awe to those who looked upon it and heard the tromping of warriors’ boots in the street.

I imagine the onlookers silent – and resentful. This is an insult to our celebration of our liberation from slavery under Pharaoh.

At the same time, from the east, there entered Jesus on a donkey. He too was coming to Jerusalem on account of the Passover festival. He and his disciples had been heading toward Jerusalem for quite a while.
And those closest to him had come to understand that he was going to Jerusalem not simply as a religious pilgrim as a sign of piety, but because the truth was crystallizing around him that he was the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, that is – the true King.

There was something of a shadow, of course, around this parade because those closest to Jesus had also heard from Jesus that he would be killed in Jerusalem. But then, he was always saying strange, unexpected things. Perhaps it meant something else, or it was a warning just to make them more vigilant.

And so from the opposite side of the city, from deeper within the Jewish people, Jesus enters Jerusalem, in a parade which displays no power. No soldiers, no weapons of war, no pounding of military drums. Simply the one who enters as King, messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of God. At once both victorious and humble.

If we compare these two parades you might come to the conclusion that one is worldly power and one is divine power. From the west we have Roman political, military, economic power and from the east we have Jesus entering Jerusalem with divine power. They really are not opposed to each other. Perhaps we can simply find a way to combine the two.

But hear this clearly: This is not possible. It is not possible to combine the two. You see, the problem is that the Romans do not see themselves as simply an earthly power. Their emperor, their Caesar Tiberius, like Caesar Augustus, and Caesar Julius before him were not mortal political rulers. No, no. They were gods. They were gods who had been destined since Aeneas had escaped ruined Troy to rule from Italy and bring peace to the world. A peace based on the arts of war and politics – political and martial arts that bring all the known world into the subjection of Roman power. A power that would tolerate no rival.

The prophet Zechariah says that the days of the warhorse and the chariot and the battlebow are to be cut off. This King will command peace to the nations: a dominion from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth.

The whole New Testament proclaims that it is not Caesar and Jesus. It is Caesar or Jesus. It is either the Empire of Caesar or the Kingdom of God – or as perhaps you prefer with me:
The party of God.
The dance of God.
The revolution of God.
The dream of God.
The mission of God.

Jesus says quite clearly: You cannot serve two masters.

So the depth of this day is quite clear. The atmosphere of each of parades is quite distinct.

The military parade of the Romans is met with silence and resentment. It is met with the shame subjugation.

The parade of God’s power is met with rejoicing, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!

The parade of the power of God is met with rejoicing at the image of liberation.

God liberated us from the cruel slavery of Pharaoh, is God to deliver us also from the yoke of Rome?

Holy week stands before us. We are presented on this Palm Sunday with a parade of power that enters from one side of the city: an army that will rely on its weapons, intimidation, violence and brute force. Allied with this parade were the fearful and the cowed. Those who thought it was better to follow the orders of those with the power of wealth and the power of the sword.

Across the city another parade of power comes through the gate. Yet this power is quite different. It is the power of God which finds its way in love and mercy, healing and compassion, humility and justice. Allied with this parade are the hopeful and the joyful who shout Hosannas to the King of Kings.

These parades clashed on Good Friday and on Easter the victor is revealed.