“Easter Bunny now Easter Shepherd?” – Easter 4

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

So here we are in the Season of Easter. We have been considering the post-resurrection experiences of Jesus and suddenly we are asked to consider Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is such a, “turn left NOW!” intrusion, that some traditions actually call this Sunday, “Shepherd Sunday” just so people will know it going to be different.  Trying always, as St Ignatius of Loyola taught us, to “think with the Church“, I set about wondering what the Good Shepherd could possibly have to do with the Resurrection?

I began musing on the after-tomb experiences the disciples had with Jesus. How he appeared mysteriously and almost magically in locked rooms, on the road, on the beach; always encountering the disciples. I found myself wondering if I were Jesus, if I would really have wanted to go back and hang out with the people who had betrayed, denied and deserted me as a crucified criminal. People who, apart for the women, left me for dead!  I am not sure that being with my fickle followers would have made my “after the bucket” list.  But, that is just me musing of course.  I am sure more forgiving people would do as Jesus did.

Parents probably. Don’t you just love how as parents we never quit on our kids no matter what they do to us? Priests possibly. I am amazed at the abuse the clergy put up with for the love of Jesus.  We may make a list that could include other forgivers like teachers, social workers, nurses, firemen? Lawyers? No NOT lawyers! Shepherds?
Ah! At last I understood why Shepherd Sunday falls right in the middle of the Easter season!

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. He would have headed straight for heaven like so many of his followers these days seem hell bent on doing, if you know what I mean?

Not the Good Shepherd though, the Good Shepherd who has “the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again” picks up loving and caring, cajoling and commissioning just where he left off before they strung him up and left him for dead.

In this respect he reminds me of the Buddhist notion of the Boddhisattva. A Boddhisattva is one who sets about “cultivating supreme moral and spiritual perfection, to be placed in the service of others. In particular, Bodhisattvas promise to practice the “six perfections” of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom in order to fulfill their bodhichitta aim of attaining enlightenment for the sake of all beings.(Reference).  A Bodhisattva will keep reincarnating until they have helped every other being attain Nirvana ahead of  them.

It’s kind of like a Shepherd who won’t go home to rest until he knows all the flock have entered into their rest. A shepherd, who even when he is dead tired or just plain dead, gets up and continues seeking and calling until the sheep are all home.
To make this even more profound, our Good Shepherd has more than one flock. He said so. He also said that his work wasn’t done until he had also brought them. All the flocks.

I would like to think the Boddhisattvas will be there helping him too? Perhaps that is all the help there will be for Jesus, given that the Christians are in such a hurry to get themselves to heaven, and damn the rest!

Why God doesn’t…

This Sermon is available in Audio by clicking here Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.‘” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” One of the real challenges I set myself by using the Lectionary (which is not required by my denomination) is to come to the texts once in three years and not remember how I worked with them last time around. It was very tempting to look for someone else’s take on the reading this week, particularly as I return to the mainstream lectionary after detouring into the Season of Creation series during September and a week off preaching whilst leading a retreat on October 3rd. This past Sunday I was with St Francis blessing the animals, but now it is back to the extraordinary text this Sunday in Ordinary time. As I read this well known pericope, I instinctively know one thing. This is not about nagging prayer or an unwilling God, it is about a God who bears the suffering of people with them. I think I speak for most of us from Western Christian backgrounds when I say, “We would like to have all our problems fixed quickly.” It may even be one of the main reasons we pray at all. Prayer thus becomes what one Textweek blogger recently referred to as , “a process of giving God a ‘to-do’ list” That is not what Jesus understood by prayer. Jesus had been speaking about the suffering and confusion that was to take place within the lifetimes of many of his hearers. The coming of the Kingdom of God, was going to be in the midst of tumultuous upheavals. Luke continues, “Then Jesus told them a parable…” It is a strange story of a nagging widow that pesters a judge for justice against those who have wronged her. The story is almost inaccessible to us when we read it in 2010, for our context is so different from the one into which Jesus was speaking. We cannot comprehend what it was to be a widow in the time of Jesus. This was not a society where everyone was entitled to their day in court. The irony of the story in its context is that the widow would have no rights and she certainly would not have access to a judge in a formal procedure of law. So her crying out for justice is in fact a parody. A little background may be in order: “Women’s behaviour was extremely limited in ancient times, much as the women of Afghanistan during the recent Taliban oppression. In Jesus day:

  • Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father.
  • Married women were not allowed to leave the home of their husband.
  • They were normally restricted to roles of little or no authority.
  • They could not testify in court.
  • They could not appear in public venues.
  • They were not allowed to talk to strangers.
  • They had to be doubly veiled when they left their homes.”(Reference)

So as a woman with no man to speak for her, she would have been walled behind her veil and widow’s weeds. Effectively silenced, the very setup of this story Jesus is telling would have evoked interest and bemusement in his hearers. It was loaded with ironic fantasy. This woman can only cry out to the judge unofficially. Perhaps she calls to him as he passes her on his way to the city gates to judge the disputes and charges of the men for the day. The cries of the woman eventually sway the cold heart of the judge who gives in to her request. A mistake many exegetes of this passage make is to miss the ironic subtlety of Jesus. This is not an encouragement to badger God with incessant “to-do” requests and requisitions. The message I hear from Jesus is this, “If hard hearted judges can be moved to act, how much more will your ABBA-Parent be willing and eager always to help the children of God?” Yet this is still not the main point of this parable. I say this, because the parable ends with Jesus asking, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Why should the Son of Man not find faith on earth? Perhaps there is doubt in Jesus’ question because it is very difficult to keep praying in trust to a loving parent, when every circumstance of your life seems intractable and horrific. How do we keep trusting for “justice, liberation, wholeness, and cure” when there is no obvious way out? It is here that the widow becomes our teacher. The widow had no rights. She in fact did not have access to the judge, but that did not blight her to bitterness, nor temper her trust. She kept right on calling, trusting despite all evidence to the contrary that there would be a breakthrough in her hopelessness. I heard recently of a monk who had disrobed and left the order to pursue life outside the monastery walls. Months later he wrote back to his monk friends and said, “I am living my new life, but have realised that this is not IT“. When I heard the story something in me wanted to say to the ex-monk, “Yes, this is IT” The “IT” being the constant unsatisfactoriness of life. Buddhism calls this “dukkha”, a difficult word to translate but a concept that points to the suffering and stress of life. Buddhist Scriptures say, “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.”(Reference) I find this honesty of the Buddhists refreshing. “Suffering exists” is the first statement Buddhists make about reality. It is their first Noble Truth. Jesus is honest about the suffering of women and widows in his time. The quick fix, romantic and utopian obsessions of our culture will always be tempted to expect our relationships with God to be fulfilling, successful and to have positive outcomes. If my life experience as a parent teaches me anything it is that this is not always so. My relationships with my children and theirs with me is not always rewarding and fruitful. That does not mean that they, nor I, intend them to be so, but the “dukkha” of life somehow directs that the longed and worked for perfection does not always follow according to my schedule or theirs. Yet despite all my experiences of suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness I still cry out to my ABBA and long with God that it could all be different. Somehow the calling helps. It helps even if nothing changes. I have discovered that it is far more consoling to have a God who feels the pain with me and who longs for a better world than to have a MacGyver God who fixes everything at my beck and call. A Mr Fixit God leaves me fickle and superficial. It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable. This is IT!” Life isn’t following the script I wrote for it. Some situations are unworkable, stuck, and full of poignant, imperfect, suffering and stress. But I still trust that good things may come. I still have faith that in the end it will all be perfect or that I will see the perfection of the seemingly imperfect. “Will the Son of Man find faith upon the earth?” As long as people who are immersed in dark nights of suffering dream, rather than despair, I believe he will.