Most of the Bible texts from the Revised Common Lectionary this week present us with the well-worn and comfortable Biblical image of sheep and shepherds. Jeremiah rails against the shepherds of Israel “who destroy and scatter the sheep of [the Lord’s] pasture,” pronouncing God’s intention to come and be the Shepherd in their place. “I myself,” says God, “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
The Psalmist picks up the ball and runs with it in what may be the most famous piece of Hebrew poetry ever written: “The Lord is my shepherd,” he declares and we proclaim it with him. And then Mark’s Gospel continues down the field with the observation that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
The odd man out is the Epistle lesson, part of a letter claimed to be from Paul to a church in the Asia Minor port city of Ephesus. Not a single sheep or shepherd to be found. Instead we get talk of circumcision, of aliens and strangers, of dividing walls being torn down, and a “holy temple,” the “household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
Yesterday, July 14, was the 185th anniversary of the preaching a sermon which is said to have been the beginning of the Catholic revival in the Church of England. The sermon was preached at St. Mary’s Church Oxford by the Rev. John Keble, Provost of Oriel College and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The sermon marked the opening of the Assize Court, the summer term of the English High Court of Justice. The Assize sermon normally would have addressed matters of law and religion, but in the summer of 1833 the Parliament of the United Kingdom was debating whether to abolish (or in the language of the time “suppress”) some dioceses of the Anglican Church of Ireland which, at the time, was united with the Church of England. It was an entirely financial issue in the eyes of Parliament, but Keble and several of his friends believed this to be an encroachment of the secular establishment upon the religious and an altogether wrong thing, and so it was this portending legislation that Keble addressed in his homily, which he titled National Apostasy. He began with these words:
On public occasions, such as the present, the minds of Christians naturally revert to that portion of Holy Scripture, which exhibits to us the will of the Sovereign of the world in more immediate relation to the civil and national conduct of mankind. We naturally turn to the Old Testament, when public duties, public errors, and public dangers, are in question. And what in such cases is natural and obvious, is sure to be more or less right and reasonable. Unquestionably it is mistaken theology, which would debar Christian nations and statesmen from the instruction afforded by the Jewish Scriptures, under a notion, that the circumstances of that people were altogether peculiar and unique, and therefore irrelevant to every other case. True, there is hazard of misapplication, as there is whenever men teach by example. There is peculiar hazard, from the sacredness and delicacy of the subject; since dealing with things supernatural and miraculous as if they were ordinary human precedents, would be not only unwise, but profane. But these hazards are more than counterbalanced by the absolute certainty, peculiar to this history, that what is there commended was right, and what is there blamed, wrong.
It was to Samuel, the prophet whom God empowered to commission and anoint first King Saul and then King David as rulers over Israel, that Keble looked in his sermon. Today, the lectionary bids us look back, in the Old Testament, to the prophet Amos and, in the New Testament, to the prophet John the Baptizer, but the application of Amos’s and John’s witness to our own time is no less apposite than was the application of Samuel’s counsel to Keble’s.
It had gone on so long she couldn’t remember a time that wasn’t like this. She lived in constant fear. She wasn’t just cranky and out-of-sorts; she was terrified. Her life wasn’t just messy and disordered; it was perilous, precarious, seriously even savagely so. It was physically and spiritually draining, like being whipped every day.
Many in her situation might have given up, given in, curled up, and died. But not her. She was determined to stay alive. She was, after all, a daughter of Eve, created by God to join her husband as partners with God in conceiving, bearing, and giving birth to other human beings. She had had those children and now she had to look after them, to raise them, to ensure their survival.
But . . . she was going to die. She was convinced of that. If she continued to live in those circumstances she would die. There is simply no doubt about it.
So when she heard that there was even the remotest possibility of liberation, she steeled her resolve, left her home, and sought it out. We don’t know how far she had to walk, what trials she had to endure. We can imagine what it must have been like trudging through the hot, desert sun. Her younger children were with her and as terrified as she was. And yet they pushed on until he was in sight.
For recreational reading these days, I’m into a novel entitled Winter of the Gods. The premise is that the ancient gods of Greece are still with us, immortal but relatively powerless beings blending into the human world around them. The story is set in current-day New York City where the goddess Artemis, mistress of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo, lives and works as a private detective. As the novel opens, Selene (as Artemis is called) and her partner Theo, a professor of classics at Columbia University, are consulting with the NYPD about a bizarre murder. What they know, and the police don’t, is that the victim is Hades, god of the underworld.
This is the first death of an immortal god in millennia and the rest of the gods are thrown into turmoil. They have to join forces and work together to solve the murder before another one of them killed. This is difficult because if the Greek gods are nothing else they are a dysfunctional family. After all, they are all descended from Kronos, the divine son of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth. Kronos overthrew his parents and ruled during the mythological Golden Age. He married his sister Rhea and fathered several children, but prevented strife by eating then as soon as they were born. Eventually, Rhea grew tired of this and tricked Kronos into not devouring Zeus, who overthrew Kronos and cut open his father’s belly and freed his brothers and sisters.
As a theologian and a preacher, I am very glad I don’t have that mythology to deal with on a weekly basis! Finding something good to preach based on the stories of that dysfunctional family would be a task I don’t think I’m up to.
What do you suppose it was like in Jerusalem on that Pentecost morning so long ago?
Did you watch the coverage of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle yesterday? Did you see the crowds along the streets of London as they took their post-nuptial carriage ride? The narrow streets of ancient Jerusalem would have been something like that. Shoulder to shoulder people moving through the streets and alleyways, past vendors’ stalls, moving toward the Temple to make their festival offerings.
Our Christian holiday of Pentecost takes its name from the Greek name of the Jewish festival called Shavuot. The Hebrew name means “festival of weeks” referring to the fact that it takes place seven weeks after the Passover. The Greek name comes from words meaning “fifty days” referring similarly to its being the fiftieth day after Passover. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt remembered at Passover. This is why our Christian feast of Pentecost occurs fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus which took place at Passover.
Today we are welcoming Reed C_____ F_____ into the Household of God through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. We are also commemorating Dame Julian of Norwich, one of the medieval saints of English Christianity. Twenty-eight years ago I was ordained a deacon on Julian’s feast day which is actually on Tuesday, May 8. So the lessons we heard this morning, and the second of the two collect I offered after the Gloria in Excelsis, were from the propers for Dame Julian’s celebration. But I would like to read you also the brief Gospel lesson appointed for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, which is also from John’s Gospel
Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
In this sermon, I hope to address the nature of the ministry to which all Christians are called and commissioned through the sacrament of baptism, for a small part of which some of us are set apart through ordination to the sacred diaconate or the holy priesthood. A few verses in particular are of interest: one from the gospel for Julian’s celebration: “The Father seeks such as these to worship him”, and two from the gospel lesson I just read: “You did not choose me but I chose you” and “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Every year, for as long as any of us can remember, on the Second Sunday of Easter the church has told the story of Thomas, Thomas the Doubter, “Doubting Thomas” who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, the poster child for those who are uncertain. But, believe me, Thomas gets a bad rap! He was no worse a doubter or disbeliever than any of the others, including Peter!
Consider this from the end of Mark’s Gospel:
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.
I’m a great fan of Sesame Street. The generation after mine in the Funston family, my niece Saskia, my nephew York, and my own children, Patrick and Caitlin, grew up with that show and it taught them a lot of good things. The show taught my kids literacy, counting, simple logic, and social skills. It did so using a rapid-fire mix of puppetry, animation, and short films. Created in 1969, “it was designed to deliberately mimic the fast pace and style of TV advertising in order to ‘sell’ learning to kids: An Aesop-friendly story featuring the recurring characters on the Street would be intercut with rapid-fire ‘commercials’ for that day’s ‘sponsors’ (‘Sesame Street has been brought to you today by the letters A and S, and the number 7…’).”
Always, it was sponsored by two letters and a number. I thought about starting this sermon that way: “Today’s sermon is brought to you by the letters A and R, and the number 15.” But if I did that, you’d think I was going to, again, preach about guns and mass murder and the killing of children.
Well, you wouldn’t be wrong . . . but you wouldn’t be right, either.
(Note: This essay began as a Facebook post, but I thought I would put it here, too.)
Let’s get something straight. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t solve; they salve. “Thoughts and prayers” are not salutary; they are palliative. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t provide a cure; they provide comfort.
“Thoughts and prayers” are all well and good, but they are not an end in themselves. “Thoughts and prayers” must lead to actions or they are simply meaningless futility. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. . . .[F]aith apart from works is barren . . . [F]aith without works is also dead.” (James 2:18-20,26)
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.
And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.