Sunday, May 3, 2020

Phil Kniss: The shoving shepherd

Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 4 – “In the manner of sheep”
Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

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Anyone tired of being in lock-down?
    Weary of the quarantine life?
    Had enough of being forced into a life you didn’t choose?

So . . . this would be a good Sunday to talk about the good shepherd,
    wouldn’t it?
    We can all escape, in our minds eyes,
        to those greener pastures,
        with still waters,
        and peaceful paths,
        where life is lush and abundant,
            and where we can, like a lamb,
            nestle safely into the crook of our Good Shepherd’s arms.

I can’t begin to tell you, in my 37 years of ministry,
    how often someone said Psalm 23 was important to them,
        in a time of loss, of distress, of chaos, of danger.
    And speaking of those times, we’re in them.

It’s not enough we’re dealing with COVID-19
    and lives are being upended.
    We still experience life’s routine stress and grief.
        Death of loved ones.
        Loss of income.
        Social instability.
        Serious illness.

So let’s all wrap ourselves around with this comforting image—
    Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

And as we do, let’s ask ourselves . . .
    what makes Jesus a Good Shepherd (capital G, capital S)
    and not just an average run-of-the-mill shepherd?
    Why do we call Jesus’ shepherding practices . . . good?

    Because Jesus protects us from every harm and danger?
    Because he scares off every wolf and foils every thief?
    Because he cradles us gently, comforting and calming us,
        that we might always live in peace. . . ?

    If that is why Jesus is a Good Shepherd,
        we might wonder if our Shepherd is on vacation right now,
            or walked away from the sheep pens and gone AWOL,
            leaving us to fend for ourselves.

No, the Good Shepherd does not guarantee either safety or comfort.
    Even this comforting Psalm 23 assumes hard times.
    It explicitly says we will
        walk through the valley . . . of the shadow . . . of death.
    It says there will be times that we find ourselves surrounded . . .
        in the presence of . . . our enemies.
    Life does not cease to be challenging or dangerous
        just because the shepherd is with us.

So what makes Jesus a Good Shepherd?
    Well, one place to look for an answer to that question
        would be today’s Gospel reading from John 10.
    Because here Jesus spells out the metaphor, in some detail.
    He identifies himself, right off the bat, as the Good Shepherd.
    And he paints a picture of sheep inside a sheepfold,
        a place to protect them overnight.

    The true shepherd of the sheep—that is, Jesus—enters by the gate.
    Others show up as imposters—
        thieves and bandits, Jesus calls them.
        They don’t use the gate, but climb in another way.
    But when the good shepherd comes to fold, he comes in the gate,
        he calls the sheep by name, they recognize his voice,
            and he brings them out for the day,
            and leads them wherever he wants them to go.

Just a little aside . . . Jesus mixes his metaphors here.
    In John 10, he says one place, “I am the Good Shepherd,”
        and at another, says, “I am the Gate.”
    So if anyone criticizes you for mixing metaphors,
        just say, “That’s okay. I’m following Jesus.”
    One image can’t say it all.
        Jesus used many different images to describe himself.

Here, I think Jesus the Gate . . . and Jesus the Good Shepherd
    is saying, “Come into the Kingdom through me,
        attach yourself to me,
        and I will lead you where you are meant to be.”

I thought about that, and figured,
    well, that ties this lesson up all very nicely.
    And then I found out something a little unsettling.

You see,
    we are very comfortable with the image as it appears—
    a sheepfold keeping us safe through the dangers of the night,
    until our shepherd comes calling in the morning,
        and gives a cheerful whistle or sheep-call or something,
        and then walks out the gate
            and all the sheep gladly trot after him.

    But there is a word in this passage that changes the picture.
    It’s the verb Jesus chose for “bringing them out” of the sheepfold.
    In v. 4, it says,
        “When he has brought out—brought out all his own,
            he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him.”
        After they are out in the open,
            then he gets in front of them,
            and leads them to pasture.

And by “brought out,” he meant “shoved out.”
    The verb Jesus uses here is “ekballo.”
    It’s used all through the New Testament,
        but never in the sense of gently walking in front
            and saying, “Yoo-hoo, here we go, come along now.”
    No. It’s the same verb used when it says
        that Jesus “cast out” an evil spirit.
    It’s the same verb used when it says Jesus took a whip
        and “drove the money-changers out of the temple.”
    It’s the same verb used when it says the Holy Spirit
        drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.

Virtually everywhere this verb is used in the New Testament,
    it implies pushing someone somewhere they don’t want to go.

That is not only interesting.
    It is disturbing.
    It is upsetting to our mental image
        of Jesus as Little Bo-Peep
            and the sheep wagging their tails behind them.

And here’s the problem.
    We sheep, if left to our own devices,
        might rather prefer to stay where it’s safe.
        Secure in the sheepfold. Behind sturdy walls.
        Far from the reach of wolves and other who do us harm.

But Jesus is pointing out an important truth here.
    As sheep, staying in a sheepfold is not
        where abundant life is found.
    Abundant life is found in coming in and going out of the gate,
        coming in and going out,
        coming in and going out.
    Seeking nourishment where there is some risk involved.
    Eating only out of a feed trough in a barn,
        will not result in strong healthy sheep.
        Sheep need to graze.
        On the same pastureland where live the wolves.

So out of love for us sheep,
    out of a strong and fierce love for us,
    Jesus shoves us out of the sheepfold.
    Jesus is a loving shepherd.
        And therefore, is a shoving shepherd, if you will.
    Jesus shoves us out from where we feel safe and secure,
        and into a broken and dangerous world
        that desperately needs what God’s kingdom has to offer.
    A world that needs the healing and reconciling
        and peace-building and justice-seeking of kingdom people.

And we need that, too!
    If we are to “have life, and have it abundantly,” to use Jesus’ words,
        we need to live into our created purpose.
    We were not created to live our lives behind stone walls.
    We were created for an active, dynamic life in the wide open,
        and dangerous, world.

So what does this mean for a people in quarantine?
    The answer might confuse us a little,
        because isn’t this what all the protests are about right now?
    People want to break out of their cocoon of safety,
        and explore the wide open world.

    Well . . . maybe not.
    It might seem that way on the surface.
        But I honestly wonder whether it’s the opposite.
    I wonder . . .
    Whether, for the protestors,
        and those yearning for crowded beaches and malls
            and theaters and sports arenas,
        that the secure sheepfold . . . is the frenzied life that was.
    Whether there is actually comfort in losing ourselves
        in a life of constant distraction.
    Whether the busy, striving, self-protecting, approval-seeking life,
        actually shields us from the wolf of self-examination.
    And whether the scary wilderness
        is being held inside our own homes,
            in a space too close for comfort,
            forced to confront the darker side of ourselves,
            unable to prove our worth by our productivity,
            being more raw, exposed, and helpless.

Maybe to apply this parable to our current situation,
    we should say those following the shepherd into the wild,
        and taking risks out of love for the shepherd,
    are the ones staying home,
        inconveniencing themselves, by choice,
        finding other ways to be present with others,
    or the ones assuming great risk to help those in need—
        like the first-responders, health workers,
        grocery-store employees, and others who serve us.

And then we might very well conclude,
    that those protesting the stay-at-home orders,
        or refusing to wear masks,
        or crowding the beaches,
        or taking automatic weapons into state capital buildings,
    maybe, in this parable, they are the ones
        resisting the shove of the Good Shepherd.
    They may be resisting the fuller life, the riskier life,
        of grazing in the open fields where the wolves are.

It remains up to each of us to apply this where it fits in our own life.
    You know where your sheepfold is.
    You know where the wild life-giving pastureland is.
    The Good News for today is that our loving shepherd
        not only shoves us out there with the grass and the wild things.
    That loving shepherd still walks out in front,
        still picks up the traumatized lamb,
        still walks with us all the way to where this life leads us.

    Sometimes we need to be cradled.
    Sometimes we need the shove.
    Both images are true.
    And both are love.

The other piece of Good News is that we are a flock!
    We are not solitary sheep.
    When one of is overwhelmed with the wilderness,
        there are other sheep nearby.

Right now is a time when there are many among us,
    who need some others of us to step into the gap,
        and give us courage to take another step,
        or to hold on to life a little longer.

Maybe you find yourself in the position of needing someone
    to hold on for you,
    maybe you are the one holding on tightly, on behalf of another.
In either case, maybe this song will be some encouragement to you.
    Join with us in singing, please,
        “When pain or sorrow . . . hold on”

—Phil Kniss, May 3, 2020

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