Sunday, April 29, 2012

An Open Gate: Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

When Sister asked the children in her class what they wanted to be when they grew up, little Tommy said he wanted to be a pilot.  Elsie said she wanted to be a doctor; Bobby, to Sister’s great joy, said he wanted to be a priest.  Then Mary stood up and declared she wanted to be a prostitute.

“What was that again, Mary?”

“When I grow up,” said Mary with the air of someone who knew exactly what she wanted, “I shall become a prostitute.”  Sister was startled beyond words.  Mary was immediately segregated from the rest of the children and taken to the parish priest.

Father was given the facts in broad outline but he wanted to check them out with the culprit.  “Tell me what happened in your own words, Mary.” “Well,” said Mary, somewhat taken aback by all this fuss, “Sister asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up and I said I wanted to become a prostitute.”

“Did you say prostitute?” asked Father, double-checking.  “Yes.”  “Heavens!  What a relief!  We all thought you said you were going to become a Protestant.”[1]

Even the worst Catholic is better than the best Protestant (and vice-versa)!  Religion seems to be about sorting out “we good people” over and against “those bad people” as defined by divine sanction. Something like this appears to be going on in Peter’s confrontation with the high priestly aristocracy, defending his actions by invoking the name of Jesus, saying, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

In the mouth of Peter, Jesus’ name appears to become yet another basis for the age-old dynamic of defining “us” vs. “them.”  This raises the question: “Is it possible to have a form of religious (or for that matter, any form of human) togetherness that is not defined by the creation of a non-religious (or less than fully human) other?”  Does our justification depend upon the condemnation of others? 

If Jesus came simply to redefine the terms of the “in-group,” then it seems to me that our spiritual evolution has not advanced a wit.  The revelatory power of the Jesus-event lies in its subversion of this whole dynamic; creating a new and expanding sense of “we” that does not rely upon the exclusion of anyone.  

Jesus himself is working this out as he plays with the metaphors of shepherd and sheep.   Here, he is drawing on a well-known biblical image from Hebrew scripture, but improvising on the theme in such a way that the meaning of this figure of speech eludes his hearers.  His interlocutors are unable to grasp the point of the picture Jesus draws for them because he is stretching the shepherd metaphor to the breaking point: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”[2]

It requires an imaginative leap to grasp this truth.  We are not the only sheep in town.  We know that.  But do we know that we can relate to those of other folds without defensiveness, rivalry, or scapegoating?  Can we imagine one flock, one shepherd coming together without coercion or homogenization?  I believe Jesus is inviting us to imagine just such a possibility and, in fact, realizing that possibility by walking through the gate that he opens for us.

The stretching of imagination that the Good Shepherd evokes moves through a series of interpretative steps.[3]  Behind Jesus’s use of this image lies the prophet Ezekiel’s fierce denunciation of the corrupt leadership of Israel’s rulers, asserting God’s sovereignty as the true shepherd of Israel.  Israel’s leaders had exploited the public for their own benefit: they fleeced the sheep rather than feeding them. The weak, the sick, the injured, the marginalized had been treated with harshness rather than justice. This failure of leadership led to the complete disruption of the bonds of social life that held the community together, leading ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.

In the midst of this corruption and chaos, God speaks through the prophet Ezekiel saying,

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.[4]

One way to imagine the Good Shepherd image is at what I would call a pre-critical level.  It is a common interpretation in Christian tradition that sees Jesus as the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.  God has condemned these wicked Jewish leaders and come Himself in Jesus to become our shepherd.  In being killed by those wicked leaders, Jesus became the foundational sacrifice of a new religion, and those sheep that hear his voice are no longer led astray.  The Jews are now the wolves of the parable, from which Jesus gave his life to protect us.

This pre-critical reading is an idolatrous reading, because idols demand sacrifices.  The death of Jesus becomes the justification for the sacrifice of Jews to shore up Christian identity and goodness.  Today, we might replace Jews with Muslims, but the dynamic is the same.  What in Ezekiel was a self-critical moment in Israel’s life becomes an unreflective preoccupation with identifying the wolves outside the gate that must not be allowed to enter. 

With a little stretching of the imagination we might capture something of the intent of Ezekiel’s prophecy and move into a self-critical reading of the Good Shepherd.   It is an interpretive move beloved by good liberals.  Here, we understand the Good Shepherd coming to deliver us from the bad faith of our own leaders, providing an internal critique of the status quo of our own community, transposing the Jewish critique to a Christian setting. 

In this case, the “we” is the victims of Church and society.  It is our own leaders who have “have abandoned their sheep (that is to say, us), they have scattered their sheep (that is to say, us) by their harsh doctrines, making it impossible for us to gather together in a safe space.”[5]  In their focus on reputation, power, and privilege our preachers and moralists have proven themselves to be hired hands, who abandon the true point of religion, which is the practice of justice and mercy, the moment it threatens their security.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd is clearly on our side as the friend of outcasts and sinners, who reserves his harshest words for cynical, religious hypocrites.  The bishops covering up sexual abuse and the televangelists fleecing the vulnerable are the “them” against whom “we” are defined.  This self-critical reading strikes me as an improvement on the pre-critical reading, capturing something of the compassionate concern of Jesus and the prophets before him.  Yet, in its preoccupation with the hired hands, it “is utterly dependent on there being another over against whom my protest has its validity and dignity.”[6]

There is yet another, post-critical, way to read the Good Shepherd, focused entirely on the transformative encounter between shepherd and sheep.  In this reading, we no longer focus on identifying wolves and hired hands.  Jesus no longer is the accusing gatekeeper we can invoke against those we condemn.  Rather, he becomes what he has been all along: the gate itself, through whom we pass on our way to becoming part of an all together new way of defining “we.”

As James Alison notes, Jesus says that he is the gate or door, and this in a special sense.  The purpose of gates is to define what is inside and what is outside.  Jesus as gate, however, marks an open passage – a following of Jesus through the death of our old identity as insiders or outsiders – into a new freedom to move in and out between pasture and shelter so that we can be fed without needing to be confined or defended against others.   Our identity defined by insider vs. outsider collapses. 

The preoccupation with hired hands and wolves recedes as we come to realize that they, too, are just sheep of another fold.  As we begin to embrace our freedom to move in and out, we find ourselves being transformed from sheep into good shepherds or models for others, as well as open gates through which others can discover for themselves the responsible freedom and dazzling diversity of the one flock that the Good Shepherd is gathering. 

To follow the Good Shepherd is to embrace a life of self-giving love and forgiveness that encompasses this expanding sense of “we.” It is to receive a new identity that is entirely gratuitous, no longer dependent upon “them.” This is what it means to believe in the name of Jesus and love one another.   To affirm that his is the only name, by which we can be saved, is to affirm the universality of the gate through which all are invited to pass on the way to abundant life.  Amen.

[1] From Anthony De Mello’s Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations, pp. 77-78.
[2] John 10:16a.
[3] I’m indebted to James Alison’s reading of this text, “The Good Shepherd,” at
[4] Ezekiel 34:15-16.
[5] Alison, p. 4.
[6] Ibid.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Cross is Good News?

There is a lot of confusion and ambivalence about the death of Jesus, both inside and outside of the Church.  I have a friend who is a Buddhist priest.  She grew up in the Church of Scotland and recalls seeing a particularly gory Corpus Christi as a young girl that caused her to burst into tears.  She ran out of the church crying, “I didn’t want that to happen!”  She kept on running until she met the Buddha on the road.  I’m not sure if she killed him, as the Zen koan instructs us; but if she did, it was metaphorically speaking.  She is done with bloody sacrifices to appease an angry God.   Can’t say that I blame her.

Even those who remain within the Church are more than a little bit embarrassed by all this talk of blood and sacrifice.  The doctrine of the atonement – how we describe the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection – has become the stepchild that nobody wants to claim of much contemporary Christian theology.  Typical is the comment of a theologian who remarked, “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all.  I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff . . .”[1] It is Jesus’ life and teaching that are important: inclusive welcome of all people, healing broken hearts and broken bodies, resisting injustice.   We just need to try to be good, like Jesus.    Let’s focus on celebrating “community, with a moment of silence, as it were, for the untimely demise of our late brother.”[2]

Given the myriad ways in which the Cross is used to justify both masochistic passivity and sadistic violence, one can understand this sentiment.  Nowhere has this been truer than with respect to anti-Semitic uses of the Passion narratives.  As Gil Bailie reminds us, this is more than a little ironic.  To blame “the Jews” for Jesus death is to miss the universality of its importance, and to participate in the very process of scapegoating that it serves to expose and condemn.  Moreover,

The Cross became the revelation it is largely because it occurred in a Jewish setting. Only in a culture predisposed to empathize with victims could the crucifixion have had its full effects. If the forces that militated for Jesus' crucifixion were Jewish, so were the men and women whose lives were fundamentally altered by it and who first experienced its historical and spiritual impact. The Jewishness of Jesus' opponents should never be given more weight than the Jewishness of Jesus' disciples and those who first felt the power of the Christian revelation and proclaimed it to others. It was Jews who rejected and reviled Jesus; it was Jews whose lives were transformed by him, and it was a Jew who was reviled and revered in each case.[3]

In John’s Gospel, “the Jews” often refers specifically to “the religious leaders.”  If we affirm the universality of the meaning of the Cross, then we would do well to remember that those leaders in our time and place are almost uniformly Christians. 

The Cross, its violence, and the language of sacrifice used to describe it, are central to the New Testament witness.  It is the necessary foundation of any adequate account of Christian salvation. “Belief that Christ’s death has fundamentally changed the world seems so integral to the grammar of faith that its absence amounts to a debilitating speech defect.  A church that falls silent about the cross has a hole where the gospel ought to be.”[4]  Fair enough, but how is the Cross good news?

The Cross is good news because it reveals the truth about humanity and about God.  First, the truth about humanity: here, we have to recognize how ordinary is the Passion Narrative.  The death of Jesus is, in a sense, nothing special.  Such violence is the way of the world.  We humans are making victims of one another all the time.  This is true in ways large and small, from the character assassination of idle gossip to the murders and massacres that drive the daily news cycle. 

Now, that is hardly news, and it certainly isn’t good, but it is true.  What is more difficult to see – and to admit – is that we believe that we can not live without violence – without the making of victims.  In fact, we make of our violence something righteous, something sacred.  We construct a sense of identity and meaning in terms of us vs. them.  We require the sacrifice of victims to make us feel united.  We justify our violence as necessary for personal – and national – security. 

Caiaphas was not the first, or last, national leader to declare that it was better that one man should die rather than that the whole nation should be at risk.   Counter-violence especially is always seen as righteous, whether in the form of capital punishment or predator drone strikes.  It doesn’t matter that on average five death row inmates are exonerated each year.[5]  It doesn’t matter that 20% of Pakistanis killed by predator drones were civilians (including 160 children), some of whom were murdered by follow-up strikes while assisting victims or actually attending funerals.[6]  Here the question of innocence or guilt is secondary, so long as the victims serve a larger purpose, reasons of state, punishing  evil, deterring enemies and so on. 

The Cross stands in judgment, not just of human violence – the way of the world – but also and especially of righteous violence.  Jesus is executed for reasons of state (to preserve order) and as a blasphemer (to preserve purity).   His death reveals how distorted our humanity has become through our entanglement in the scapegoat mechanism, creating pseudo-community based on violence and exclusion.  What begins as a sacrificial system meant to build up unity leaves us even more separated from each other and from God.

What is truly good, as well as news, is what the Cross reveals about God.  God, it turns out, is not One who requires sacrifice, but rather One who, in the form of Jesus, gives himself as a sacrifice for us. Jesus shows us our deep complicity in violence in the only way God could do so without participating in the violence:  by willingly occupying the place of shame, as a victim.  In so doing, Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with sacrificial systems.  They are purely human constructs. 

This is, certainly, a profound act of love.  By joining us in the place of shame, Jesus gently invites us to see the truth about our world and turn back to the Source of our being, in God, and discover there the power of love and life that allows us to begin to imagine a new world, to cooperate with God in completing the fulfillment of creation that God intended for us. 

As Pastor Paul Nuechterlein confesses, “Yes, the cross is violence.  But we must see how it is decidedly our violence, our righteous violence.  It is never God’s violence, in any way.  Rather, the cross is our violence meeting God’s unconditional love, and forgiveness, and power of life.”[7]

As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, since God has forgiven us already, there is no longer any offering for sin – no longer any reason for us to participate in the system of sacrificial violence. 
By willingly entering into the very heart of the violent dynamic of our broken world, Christ offers himself on the cross and is raised up by God so as to undo our complicity, our powerlessness, and our fear from the inside out.  Now we can acknowledge the truth about our lives and enter the place of shame in solidarity with victims, knowing that God will meet us there. 

The place of shame has now become the sanctuary, the holiest of holy places, where we are united with God and restored to our identity as beloved children of God.  We, too, die in that place, and are raised up into the life of Christ.  We can live beyond and without violence.

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.[8]

[1] Quoted in S. Mark Heim, “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?” The Christian Century, March 7, 2001, pp. 12-17.
[2] Heim, “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?”
[3] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 218-219.
[4] Heim, “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?”
[5] From fact sheet at
[6] Estimates on civilian casualties come from the careful analysis of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British non-profit news organization.
[7] Paul J. Neuchterlein, Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?, sermon delivered at Emmaus & Zion Lutheran Church, Racine, WI, April 13, 2001.
[8] Hebrews 10:19-23.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Ride of Choice

Giotto's Entry Into Jerusalem

It is a truism that in America, the ride of choice reveals a lot about the driver.  You are what you drive.

Are you bad to the bone?  You won't be trading in your Harley for a Vespa anytime soon.  Defined by your human cargo?  Then you probably drive what one wit has called the equivalent of “Mom Jeans” on wheels: Dodge Caravan, Toyota Camry, or Chevy Impala equipped with a DVD player to keep the kids from killing each other in the back seat.

Then there are the Testosterossa:  Camaro/Firebirds, Corvettes, and Vipers exuding a stench of masculine insecurity that is almost as thick as the cologne marinade applied by their drivers, guys who confuse virility with velocity. 

And then there are those driving a big car, who can’t see over the dashboard (or much of anything for that matter), can’t hear you when you honk the horn at them, and even if they could, couldn’t care less.  This marks the official entry into the “Nothing to Lose, the Later Years” category:  Buick Park Avenues, Cadillac DeVilles, Lincoln Town Cars, Ford Crown Victorias, and Mercury Grand Marquis.  These are the cars you own when your name appears in your obituary![1]

Now these stereotypes are silly, but also illuminating to the extent we see ourselves in them (and not anyone else).  They also help us to see the significance of one small detail in the Palm Sunday story that illuminates the whole Passion Narrative:  Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.  And his ride of choice tells us a lot about him and his mission. 

In fact, Mark’s version of the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem lingers on the details of Jesus’ ride: how the donkey was procured, the fact that it was a colt, never ridden and therefore untrained, how it was covered with cloaks before Jesus sat on it.  Mark wants us to pay attention to this donkey.

Perhaps Mark lingers on these details so as to give his first hearers, who would have been very familiar with Hebrew scripture, time to catch the allusion to the prophet Zechariah:

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.[2]

Jesus is a king, but not the kind of king the people were expecting, unlike any king they had ever known.  He doesn’t come riding on a war-horse or a chariot, brandishing weapons and surrounded by soldiers.  He rides a donkey, indicating peaceful intentions.  And not just any donkey: a colt that has never been ridden.

Now, I am no horseman, but I understand that a colt that has never been ridden is challenging because it isn’t trained or, probably, even neutered.  Riding such a donkey is dangerous because there is no way of knowing in advance how it will respond.  Jesus is doing something new, something untested and risky, as he rides this colt.[3]

Jesus is taking risks for peace, offering a non-violent alternative to the kingdoms of his and every time and place.  It is quite possible that just about the same time Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the east on a donkey, the Roman governor, Pilate, was making a very different entrance into Jerusalem from the west.  It was, after all, just a few days before the Passover festival, when Jews from around the world streamed into Jerusalem by the thousands to celebrate their liberation from Egyptian slavery.  

With a full retinue of soldiers demonstrating military power and underscoring Roman imperial domination, Pilate would have been anxious in the days just before the Passover festival to remind the Jews gathering there just who was in charge.  Against Pilate’s triumphal entry on his mighty war-horse, Jesus would contrast his entrance on a humble donkey.[4]   We have here a full-on military parade vs. a nonviolent protest march: two very different leaders representing two very different kingdoms.  Jesus’ action and his timing could only have been seen as provocative.

Of course, Jesus’ nonviolent alternative not only threatened Roman imperialism, it also disappointed his fellow countrymen.  The same crowd that hailed Jesus as a king on Palm Sunday would become a lynch mob demanding his death in less than a week.  It is here that we see the real novelty of Jesus alternative kingdom, the depths of the risk he was taking.  He was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of reconciliation between enemies, embracing all as God’s beloved children and refusing to scapegoat anyone. 

Jesus stood in uncompromising solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the disposable people of the world, in judgment on those whose privilege rested on the misery of others.  Yet, he did so for the sake of calling all into a new community of healing and forgiveness, in the name of a God who sends sunshine and rain on the just and the unjust alike.  For Jesus, judgment and mercy were inseparable, and so both injustice and vengeance had no place in his kingdom.  Such a vision could satisfy neither tyrants nor revolutionaries.   So they crucified him.

Now, we know that this is not the end of the story.  But the challenge of the story remains.  We are presented with two very different visions, two very different kingdoms.  In which will we claim our citizenship?  War-horse or donkey:  the ride we choose reveals a lot about ourselves, and our ultimate loyalty.

[1] Thomas Bey, “What Your Car Says About You”,
[2] Zechariah 9:9-10
[3] Mike Baughman, “And the Horse You Rode in On”,
[4] Carl Gregg, “Jesus’ Subversive Donkey Ride”,