Sunday, May 7, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Poimen o Kalos: The Good Shepherd"

John 10:1-16

I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. 2 The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. 5 They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” 6 Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.

7 So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest. 

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. (CEB)

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Three

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the legacy of segregation still lives and breathes as surely as you or I do, and it is not playing the race card or trying to induce white guilt out of you to say it.

How’s that for an ice-breaker?

If you do not believe that there remains still more work to be done, consider that in 2008—less than a decade ago—the high school in Charleston, Mississippi for the first time hosted an integrated prom, with the help of a quite famous and justifiably beloved actor, and even then, a group of white parents insisted on going forward with a whites-only prom.

And the actor who helped make possible the first-ever integrated prom? A certain Morgan Freeman.

But rather than focus on him, I want to focus on two people involved in throwing that dance several years ago, and what it meant to them—Chasidy Buckley, who was then a high school senior in Charleston, and Paul Saltzman, a Canadian filmmaker who helped facilitate Freeman’s involvement. Both of them spoke to Leonard Doyle of the UK-based Independent:

For Ms. Buckley the strain of racial segregation, however informal, is evident. “We have a 15-minute [lunch] break and all the whites are like in one area, except there are a few blacks and whites that hang out together.”

As she understands things, the reason for having segregated prom night is the parents. “That’s the way that it’s always been for them,” she said. “But I mean, things have changed, so I didn’t get why they kept on doing it. But they said, ‘why change now? Let’s just keep going.’ It’s just horrible.”

Like elsewhere in the US, racial tensions are “like a scab that nobody wants to disturb,” said Mr. Saltzman. Rarely are the issues discussed openly, although they are constantly talked about within the black and white communities. He discovered this after sitting down with the black chairman of the school board and the white school principal. “They both said, ‘You know we’ve known each other for 27 years, but until now we have never talked about race.”

For 27 years, race never came up. That really isn’t something to strive for, certainly not against the backdrop of a still-segregated school-sponsored event like prom. If we are to bring together people into one flock that is not scattered or segregated by wolves, then pretending that the scattering and segregating isn’t happening is not the way to do it.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents and teaches us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we’ll be using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

We began this series two weeks ago by rewinding to Good Friday to the image of Jesus the man being hauled out before the chief priests and temple authorities by Pontius Pilate, and we remained in Good Friday last week for the removal of Christ’s body from the cross, and the image of Mary holding her dead son’s body that was immortalized most famously in Michelangelo’s (the Sistine Chapel painter, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) statue of the two, called the Pieta.

This week, we turn to a very famous and well-known image of Christ that Jesus Himself conjures up for us in John 10: the image of Him as the Good Shepherd, leading His sheep, sheep that He describes in this passage as ultimately being of one flock, since, after all, they are all of the one God. It is an image that, in the form of statues, frescoes, and paintings dates all the way back in Christian art to the 200s, when the church was still an illegal sect in an emperor-worshiping Roman Empire.

So from the beginning, the Good Shepherd has been a comforting image, a pastoral image, and it is meant to be, even as the verse in the middle of it—“I come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest” is taken out of context and proof-texted into oblivion by prosperity theology hucksters like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar to back up their notion that God wants you to be materially wealthy and that if you are not, it is a direct reflection of your faith (or lack thereof in their eyes).

And that isn’t what this passage is about at all. It isn’t about material reality, it’s about emotional, spiritual, and relational reality. It’s not about the reality between me and my stuff, but between you and me, and God and us, and Christ and us. While a harmful religious figure like a prosperity gospel preacher or like the Pharisees would, in this comparison, be simply a hired hand who isn’t really emotionally invested in the flock put under their care, Jesus is completely and fully invested in us.

That’s why this passage is comforting and pastoral, and what it is right to see it as such. But it would not be right to simply leave it at that. A passage can, and should, challenge while simultaneously comfort, and Jesus challenges us here to not only see His care for us, but to live out that care for others because of the basic truth that we are all of one flock. As the great Roman Catholic Bible scholar Raymond E. Brown wrote in his commentary on John, “His (Christ’s) love goes out beyond “his own sheep” of (John’s) community to others who believe adequately in him. These…constitute the one flock of v. 16… (Yet) once again his words cause a division among his hearers.”

So a message of integration—of bringing together one flock that already existed within the gate (which Jesus also speaks of Himself as in this passage) with still another flock outside of it—gets met with still more division.

Sounds like a familiar pattern? It should. It is how we have always treated people, Jesus or no Jesus. The Good Shepherd tries to bring us together into one flock, and we insist on scattering and segregating one another under His eye.

That is not what our tradition was built upon. It is not what our connection with God and with Christ ought to be built upon. But it has become what our lives—including our church lives—have become built upon.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said once that the most segregated hour of the week in the United States is Sunday at 11:00 am, and the reality of that statement has not changed a great deal since.

And not only in regards to race—although that does remain true—but in terms of socio-economic status and generation as well. There are church planters today who are told, basically, “Pick your target demographic and go all-in on that” instead of, simply, “Minister to the body of Christ.” So if your target demographic is, say, left-handed horoscope enthusiasts with silent vowels in their names who are fans of Nickelback (but why?), well, then, that’s who your church is supposed to consist of.

For far too long, schools like the high school in Charleston had separate proms, separate social circles, separate everything, and that doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon—a judge in Alabama recently ruled that a community could legally withdraw from its school district with motives that were, on face, racist towards students of color.

The phrase emblazoned on our marquee, “Everyone Welcome,” shouldn’t be such a countercultural statement. And yet it is. But we also have to be able and willing to live out that statement, by actually being one flock that is not only willing to, but enthusiastic about, growing the flock rather than segregating it further and further.

And that comes down to you and me as sheep rather than to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We can follow that Good Shepherd or not, but it’s tricky to claim to follow Him without…well, actually doing so. Yet for so long, that is precisely what the church has done: claimed to follow the Good Shepherd, the Poimen o Kalos, without wholeheartedly endeavoring to be one flock.

The mandate from John 10 is clear: we cannot act as the gatekeepers of the flock. Jesus is the gate, and far be it for us to try to keep Him. He cannot be kept. He will not be kept.

So let us not worry, then, about guarding the gate that is Jesus, and instead worry about whether we have tried to block that gate to others and, in so doing, to ourselves.

Because Jesus must not be kept by us, or solely for us.

Jesus must not be kept.

No Good Shepherd may be kept.

So follow that Good Shepherd, then, instead of keeping Him. Let Him keep you and guide you through that gate instead of placing yourself in front of it to keep your fellowship from passing through.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 7, 2017

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