Good Shepherd – Again?

Here at Christ Church in Bowling Green, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd holds something of a special place.  Since near the turn of the twentieth century, in both the second and third iterations of the Christ Church building, worshipers have looked above the altar and seen Jesus, face somewhat scowled, holding a lamb and a shepherds crook.  Recently, a local artist, John Davis Thompson, took on the project of painting the Mary Wilkins memorial window, and our choir has sold numbered prints as a fairly successful fund raiser.

Christ Episcopal stained glass

We aren’t known as Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, and there are plenty of other stained glass windows that have been added over the years to depict various events in the life and ministry of Jesus, but it seems that the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd had something to say to the people who rebuilt Christ Episcopal Church after the Civil War, and it continue to speak to those who took care to move the window when they built the new church in 1912.

This care of the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is instructive to me this week.  I can get kind of surly about the oft repeated images in our lectionary.  I don’t feel the need for an annual remembrance of one of the many ways Jesus described himself, but the Wilkins memorial window would remind me that for many, this image of Jesus is a helpful one.

As I try to get my head above water and think about preaching for the first time since Easter Day, I’m trying to let this image in.  What does it convey?  What does it lack?  What can I learn about God’s work of redemption through the image of a shepherd?  Where in it can I find a place to rest and find refreshment.  It will be a particularly challenging week to wrestle with a familiar text, but I suppose that is part of it as well.  When these images come up, again and again, it is a helpful reminder that trusting in the Spirit will produce more fruit than my own frustrated efforts ever could.  So, come Holy Spirit, come and open my eyes to see Christ as the Good Shepherd and open my lips to proclaim the truth.  Amen.

God’s Confounding Love – a sermon

Due to technical difficulties, today’s sermon can not be heard on the Christ Church website, but you can read it here.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes the Bible makes absolutely no sense?  I can’t be the only one.  I mean, snakes on sticks is just crazy talk.  Am I right?  Of course, in some cases, the nonsensical nature of God is precisely the point, which might be what we are dealing with this morning.  But, in order to get a grasp on what we are supposed to take away from this strange Gospel passage that coincidentally includes perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible, we need to take a step back and figure out some context; we first must understand when, where, and to whom Jesus is talking.

Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from a larger story about a man named Nicodemus.  It follows on the heels of Jesus cleansing the temple, which, if you’ll recall from Kellie’s sermon last week, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel, and not the end, like in the other three.  It is right around the Passover, the annual festival in which the Hebrews remembered God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.  It is a time in which many faithful Jews came to the holy city of Jerusalem to offer prayers and sacrifices to God.  With the broken tables of the money changers still in the background, we hear the story of Nicodemus, who John describes as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish people.

Nicodemus knew that coming to see Jesus was a dangerous decision.  He had certainly seen what had happened just a day or two earlier in the Temple.  He was, no doubt, aware of the many miracles that Jesus had performed during Passover Week.  The city was teeming with excitement over this new Rabbi who had burst onto the scene, and Nicodemus wondered what it was all about.  So, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus sought out Jesus.  “Rabbi,” he said to Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Before Nicodemus can even ask his question, however, Jesus interrupts, and says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was well versed in the Scriptures and in the Law, but like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, he knew nothin’ about birthin’ no babies.  Still, Nicodemus was sure that what Jesus was telling him made absolutely no sense.  Whatever he came to talk with Jesus about was flung far out of mind when suddenly, Nicodemus found himself engaged in a deep theological conversation over what it meant to be born of God, apart from being born of the flesh.  Jesus is clear, if you want to understand what he is talking about, you’ve got to give up your old ways and be born of water and the spirit.  Nicodemus, as smart and as well educated as he was, had no choice but to throw up his hands and say, “how can this be?”

It is from Jesus’ response to the confused and frustrated Nicodemus that our Gospel lesson comes.  Essentially, Jesus tells Nicodemus that as long as he continues to look for the Kingdom of God to be well ordered and to follow the constructs of human beings, he will remain lost and confused.  To prove his point, Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch his Biblical knowledge a bit. “Do you remember that story about Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness?  It is in the Book of Numbers, one of the five books of the Torah.  You’re supposed to be an expert in the Torah, right?  Remember how the people complained bitterly against God and Moses?  How they wished they had been left as slaves in Egypt?  How they lamented that there was no food to eat, even as they complained about how bad the food they had was?  God got so fed up with them that he sent poisonous snakes to teach them a lesson.  As they cried out in their pain and torment, Moses begged God to do something, and do you remember what God did?

“I’ll tell you what God didn’t do.  God didn’t take the snakes away.  That would have made too much sense.  That’s what the wisdom of the world would have suggested, but that’s not what God did because sometimes, God just doesn’t make sense.  Instead, God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze, and to put it on a stick, so that when the people got bit, and they would continue to get bit, they might look at that bronze snake and live.  Talk about crazy.  Well, Nicodemus, that’s exactly what God is up to in me.  The Son of Man will one day be lifted up so that those who look on me will gain eternal life.”  You can almost feel the uncomfortable silence as Jesus then goes on to utter the most famous line in the Bible, John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  More than snakes on sticks, this line might be the hardest bit for Nicodemus, or any of us, to fully comprehend.  There just isn’t any logic to how much God loves creation.  There seems to be even less logic in how much God loves you.  And don’t even get me started on how it could be possible that God would love me that much.  Yet, that is what Jesus wants Nicodemus to know, God’s love is so much bigger than anyone can possibly comprehend, that its ultimate form looks like the utter humiliation of the Son, lifted high upon a cross, that will, paradoxically, also serve as the exalted throne of the King of kings.

In this encounter, Nicodemus is unable to wrap his mind around the utter illogicalness of God.  He leaves Jesus to return to the same darkness from which he originally sought him out.  For Nicodemus, this love is too big.  His worldview is based on judgment rather than grace.  Here, Nicodemus is not unlike many Christians I have come to know over the years.  They read John 3:16 and focus on the perish bit.  They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe.  Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.

Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to hear the promises of John 3:16 and focus on the love part.  God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of condemnation, but rather, Jesus entering the messiness of this world was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love.  If it is based in love, then the measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but one of relationship.  To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it.  Eternal life isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy; it is something we are invited to take part in creating.  Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.

Sometimes, the Bible just doesn’t make any sense, and that Jesus would let a confused Nicodemus walk back into the darkness seems like one of those moments, but the story of Nicodemus doesn’t end in the darkness of that post-Passover night.  A few years later, Nicodemus will once again seek out Jesus.  This time, it’ll be as the sun is setting on the day before the Passover.  Nicodemus will come with a hundred pounds of precious myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial: the body which he had no doubt looked upon, lifted high like Moses’s snake on a stick, in order to be saved.  No, none of it makes any sense, but that’s just how it is with the love of God.  It might be too big for us to grasp, but thanks be to God, it is so big as to carry each of us to eternal life.  Amen.

The Challenge of a 1st Century Sacred Text

I have always struggled with Philippians 1:21.  Paul write this letter from prison, nearly a decade after his first visit to Philippi.  He is, perhaps here more than anywhere else, aware that his life and ministry could soon be coming to an end.  Like any human being, what is on Paul’s mind tends to reoccur in his writings.  As he ponders the reality of his death, he addresses it three times in his letter to the Philippians, the first of which we encounter in the New Testament lesson for Sunday, which begins with that passage that has always puzzled me.

“To me,” Paul writes in 1:21, “living is Christ and dying is gain.”  The second half of this sentence seems self-explanatory.  Realizing that his date with his savior might be coming sooner rather than later, Paul takes comfort in his faith that life beyond this mortal body will be better than anything he has experienced on earth.  Life in paradise, heaven, the bosom of Abraham, or however a first century Jew turned Apostle of Jesus might describe is was ultimately what Paul longed for.  Not that he disliked the life he had.  Not that he was eager to give up preaching the Gospel.  Not that he was sad about the life he had lived.  Rather, Paul knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that life in the fullness of God’s love would be beyond his wildest imagination.

Where I get caught short is this odd turn of phrase, “living is Christ.”  What does that mean?  Is there an idiomatic expression that I am missing?  I went looking for other translations, to very little avail.

  • For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (NIV)
  • You see, for me to live means the Messiah; to die means to make a profit. – N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters, p. 90)
  • For to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better. (NLT)

The best rendering I could find comes from the CEV, which reads “If I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more,” but it wasn’t until I opened my old standby The New Daily Study Bible by William Barclay that I found something that made it make sense.  “If Christ were to be taken out of life, for Paul there would be nothing left.” (p. 32)  I commend to you the entire paragraph on this phrase on page 32, but I won’t reprint it here for copyright concerns.


All this to say just a few things.  First, sometimes, dealing with a first century sacred text is difficult.  Taking the time to do a bit of research on what it is the original author was trying to say is never a waste of time.  Second, when we do that digging on this passage, it reveals to us that for Paul, and presumably for all who follow Jesus, the life we live should be defined entirely on our relationship with Christ.  Literally, “to live is Christ,” such that we know no other existence but that which has been made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Every moment brings another opportunity to choose life in Christ, and we won’t always be successful, but at its heart, following Jesus is handing our lives, our whole lives, over to him.

The Challenging Call to Preach

Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling.  As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.”  This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced.  After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge.  By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over.  One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.

On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism.  Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence.  I applaud those preachers.  Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives.  The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well.  Still others chose to do nothing.  They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday.  I don’t begrudge these preachers either.  These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.


True, but what does one say next?

That pass runs out this morning, however.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate.  The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement.  He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it.  What are we to do?  I think the task is two-fold.  First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin.  It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin.  His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin.  We need to say that.  And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.

Episcopalians will likely stop there.  We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well.  We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives.  We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts.  We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor.  We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning.  The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.

It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers.  Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us.  You will be in my prayers this week.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

To Whom Was He Speaking?

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most written about speech in history.  Scholars debate the finer points of what Jesus said, as you might assume, but there has been plenty of ink and pixels spent simply discussing the context and setting in which Jesus gave this sermon.  It is helpful, of course, to know something about life in first century Palestine.  It is helpful to know that agriculture was the prevailing occupation, that land ownership was difficult for many, and that the Law had been heavily interpreted by the leaders of 2nd Temple Judaism.  It is equally helpful, though often impossible to really know, to think about to whom Jesus was actually speaking.  This is one of the main sources of controversy around the Sermon on Mount.  To whom was Jesus speaking?

It has been a few weeks since we heard Matthew set the scene for this sermon.  If you’ll recall, Jesus has been surrounded by large crowds who have been drawn to his ministry of healing.  As chapter five opens, Matthew tells us that “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:…”  Most scholars read this to say that Jesus and his disciples took leave of the large crowd in order that Jesus might lay the foundation for the work ahead.  As his popularity grew, Jesus thought it important to take a moment, before things got way out of control, to make clear what this kingdom he was proclaiming was all about.  Some scholars find this reading to be difficult.  The idea that Jesus could be surrounded by such a large crowd and somehow find some space away from them seems hard to believe.  In their mind, it is more likely that Jesus did attempt to step away from the crowd with his disciples, but the crowd, at least the closest few hundred folks, were able to eavesdrop on the conversation.

I’ve probably been in the minority camp for most of my years of Biblical study, but that seems to be changing.   For some reason this morning, as I read the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses, I found myself really struggling to believe that the crowd could have heard all of this difficult teaching and stuck around.  I turned to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and found chapter 8 opening with these words, “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…”  I just can’t imagine the Sermon on the Mount as a church growth technique.  It seems impossible that the crowd would have heard Jesus say, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” or “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and not have at least considered turning around and walking away.  As we prepare to hear more difficult teaching from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, to whom is it now speaking?  How do these hard words ring in the ears of the faithful?  The waffling?  Those on the margins?  How do we take these words and make them real in our context?

We wish to see Jesus

If I’m honest, there are several things I wish Jesus had never said or done.  In last week’s Gospel, for example, did he have to bring up the snake on a pole?  Did he really need to curse the fig tree for not having figs out of season?  Did he have to call the Syrophoenician woman a dog?  And why didn’t he just let those dang Greeks meet him?

Jesus’ response to the request of the Greeks sends such a bad message to the Church.  He gets all theology-y.  He gets all closed in with his small group.  He gets all my-God-and-me-y what with the voice from heaven that sounds like a thunderclap.  Rabbi Friedman says that you can tell a lot about a church  based on its origin story.  If it began out of conflict, it will be forever defined by conflict.  If it began to serve a specific need, it will continue to do so, often to a fault (see most congregations built in post-WWII suburbia).

The Church universal has this high-profile, high-friction encounter between Jesus and the Greeks as part of its birth narrative, and for 2,000 years we’ve had to work against it.  This non-engagement by Jesus is the foundation of the Gnostic heresy which plagued the Church for hundreds of years.  It is the subtle background to every church that chooses to be the frozen chosen rather than engage with the community around it.  It is one of those moments when we shouldn’t forget the larger context of Jesus’ ministry.  We can’t ignore that he spent 3 years meeting with the outcast, the oppressed, and the needy.  As disciples of Jesus, we should respond to “we wish to see Jesus” with “come and see.”

We should be out and about.  We should be present to the needs of our communities.  We should be showing people Jesus in our actions before they even ask to see him.  We should, as the Turkey Take-Out folks say, “love them until they ask why,” and then be prepared to show them Jesus, the reason behind every good work, every act of charity, the very impetus to love.

You’ll see Jesus better standing outside.