Pentecost 2

If I had to name the biggest struggle of my present life, I’d have to say keeping up with my laundry.  On any given day, I go through clergy clothes, gym clothes, yardwork clothes, and just regular clothes.  Then there’s the days that are just like that plus a fire call (gotta change those clothes), and up, a pastoral call late at night, and so another set of clergy clothes.  It can all add up pretty quick.  I think often of the Seinfeld quote about laundry: “Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains, a pretty violent image there.  I think if you’ve got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem.”

 

Blood is usually something we need to wash away, but as you all surely know, blood is the toughest of stains.  Surely everyone has always known this, and so it always seemed strange to me that in the Revelation to John, the angel describes the saints in heaven as those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

 

I always get to thinking these things not necessarily when I’m drowning in laundry, but on the last weekend of our Church School year, when at least of few of our awesome kids will receive their first holy communion.

 

At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the means of re-membering Him and His sacrifice, and the means of literally becoming more holy, more God, by taking in His Body and Blood.  “This is my blood of the new covenant,” He said, reminding them and us that a covenant is not an agreement cemented by a handshake, but a bond written in blood.  They will receive the Blood of the Lamb of God, the lifeblood of God, for the first of hopefully many, many times.

 

“Such thoughts help me appreciate the meaning of “blood” in the Bible.  The ancient world had a way of seeing the obvious: blood carries the stuff of life.  When an animal loses its blood the life goes out of it. It made sense to reverence blood as the carrier and, therefore, a primal symbol of life.  Thus, offering animal blood in sacrificial ritual could symbolize the acknowledgment that life is a gift from God. Everything that modern hematology has to say about the function of blood as carrier of (oxygen and) nutrients and components of our complex immune system only enhances our sense of blood as the stuff of life.”[1]

 

So I guess the question becomes, what does our life look like when it’s washed by and awash in the Blood of Christ?

 

Recently, my mother texted me a picture of me as a baby.  I was in the arms of one Father G. P. Mellick Belshaw, then Rector of St. George’s Church Rumson, and soon to be the 9th Bishop of New Jersey.  I was born into the Episcopal Church, and so born into the tradition we hold so dear, the sacramental tradition, in which we are nourished, strengthened, emboldened by the Eucharist week by week, day by day.  I didn’t know anything else until I went to Elon College, and found the Episcopal Church there to be, well, less than edifying.  I ended up going to the church that was headed up by my football chaplain, Bob Disher, who was the lead pastor at St. Mark’s UCC Reformed Church, Burlington, NC.  Bob Disher could preach; he was the kind of guy you could listen to for 45 minutes and wonder why he wrapped things up.  But St. Mark’s was UCC Reformed (and is now a megachurch, standing on its own) – theirs was not a sacramental tradition.  For the first time in my life I felt it – I felt what it was like to not receive the Body and Blood of Jesus on a regular basis, and I didn’t like it.  I had taken it for granted, as kids are wont to do, and like the awesome band Cinderella once sang, “Don’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone.”

 

Point being, great sermons have their place and I don’t regret a moment of listening to Bob Disher’s, but nothing – let me say it again – nothing – takes the place of receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus.  The very life of God is given to us, somehow and beyond our comprehension, so that we have life, the true life that comes from knowing that our worth is tied not to what we do or to what happens to us, but tied to the relationship we have with the God who made all things.

 

Because we have infinite worth in Christ, we can change our focus to the well being of others and of the world around us.  In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis wrote: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”  One of the great things about receiving the Eucharist week by week, day by day, in being washed by and awash in the Body and Blood of the Lord, we learn to recognize what our Lord looks like in ourselves and in our neighbor.

 

I pray such a thing for our kids who will receive for the first time today, and for all of us.

[1] Dennis Hamm, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/BodyBloodB060318/theword_hamm.html

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Trinity

As most of you have probably heard, Bishop Councell passed away on Monday.  Bishop Councell inherited a diocese that was broken and depleted, treated by his predecessor as both a MAC machine and a misfit toy.  But if anyone could step in and fix such a thing, it would be George Councell, a bright, engaged, humble, and deeply kind man.  I don’t know anyone who didn’t like the Bishop – he was impossible to dislike, really.  If Bishop Councell punched your mother in the face, you’d wonder what your mother did to deserve it.

The Bishop loved Christ Church and we loved him back.  Kate Williamson shared the story of when she served as his chaplain at a service here: at one point Kate addressed him as Bishop and then corrected herself and said “Your Excellency.”  And he smiled and said, “God just calls me George.”

Personally, Bishop Councell gave me two of the best gifts I’ve ever received.  One is my priesthood, which he approved despite the nagging disapproval of his then Transition Officer.  I tried to pay him back for that by shielding him from my colleagues who always seemed to need something from him when he was just trying to eat something during a conference.  Once, during a clergy conference, the Bishop was seated a table alone, just beginning to eat, when he was slowly surrounded by priests who wanted this or that.  “Matthew Tucker,” he yelled across the room, “I need to speak with you right now.”  The priests walked away to their own tables, surely thinking I was in some sort of grave trouble.  When I sat down with the Bishop, he pointed his finger at me like this and said, “Did you see the Dodgers’ game last night?”

The second gift was the unusual permission for me, as a seminarian, to apply to be here as Deacon in Charge.  By the grace of God, George Councell, and our Vestry, I’ve been able to be in Bordentown ever since, serving Christ and this community with you.  Bishop Councell gave me the gift of this place and of all of you, and I can never pay him back for that.

So.  Now on to trying to say something intelligent and intelligible about the Trinity, this being Trinity Sunday.  And since I won’t be able to explain the Trinity with any more success than anyone else, I’ll try to give us a glimpse of what the existence of the Trinity can tell us about reality itself.

“Christians believe in one God and only one God.  But the heart of Christianity is the belief that this one God is three Persons, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  We count only one God.  But when we count divine Persons, we count three.”  It’s just not possible to avoid this problem, this problem of God being someone we can’t possibly grasp with our finite minds, let alone put into words.  But God being One God and yet a Trinity of Persons tells us of His majesty, as opposed to the what our minds can grasp.  Let me explain.

“Whatever its shape, the whole cosmos rests on the loving and caring Persons of the Trinity.  You can’t divide the one God into three more fundamental things which make up the one God.  God isn’t a compound of anything more fundamental.  One is all there is, when it comes to God.

“But here’s the hallmark of the doctrine of the Trinity: you still have to count three.  The three Persons of the Trinity are not really anything else.  They aren’t roles of God, or modes of God.  You can’t reduce the three Persons of the Trinity to some more fundamental something in order to get—at bottom—just one.  In themselves, they are just Persons, and there are three of them.

Science, which I’m a big fan of, by the way, tells us “that everything whatsoever is reducible to elementary particles.  For secularists, (those who believe there is no God, they believe that) at the ultimate foundation of reality there is just the impersonal, the cold and uncaring bits of matter and energy that make up the material world.

“What the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is just the opposite.  At the ultimate foundation of reality, irreducible to anything else, there are the three Persons of the Trinity.”[1]  A divine switcharoo.

This might sound like I’m saying that What you see if not what you get, but that’s not it at all.  That’s not it, because we have seen, we’ve seen God the Father in all His glorious works; we have seen God the Son, we have beheld the glory of his birth, death, and resurrection; and we have seen the Holy Spirit, who comforts us, warms our hearts, gives us life.

The Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, might be too much of a wonder for us to grasp, but the One God holds all of us, the living and the dead, in the palm of His hand.

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Pentecost

A couple years back, Chapman University polled Americans about their fears.  As usual, public speaking was the number 1 fear, followed closely by heights; bugs, snakes, and other animals; drowning; blood; and down the line.  Chapman thought it was interesting to see the difference in the fears of Republicans and Democrats, and it turns out that Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to have a fear of clowns, though clowns just barely beat out ghosts on the bottom of the entire list.  If they had polled just me, fear of clowns would have been much higher, just for the record.

Fear is natural, of course; even the irrational fears we all seem to nurture are natural in their way.  Some fear is good and healthy – our healthy fears keep us from doing things like mishandling fire or driving way too fast or randomly picking fights with badgers.  Fear helps to keep us from needless injury or death, and so fear is not just simply a bad thing.

When the day of Pentecost had come, Luke tells us today, they, the twelve Apostles and presumably most of the gathered Church, were all together in one place.  They weren’t in one place because that place was Club Med and they were all having a phenomenal time together, though that would have been nice.  They were all together in one place because they were afraid.  Fear had gripped them, gripped them to the extent that they were huddled together behind locked doors. 

Please don’t get the idea that I totally blame them for being afraid.  As Joseph Heller wrote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you.”  The Church might not have right in hiding out, but she wasn’t exactly wrong, either.  The Jewish authorities would have certainly mistreated them, to say the least, and didn’t Jesus say something about waiting it out in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit arrived?

But then the Holy Spirit did arrive, and what we get in 11 short verses is the story of the Church Afraid and the Church Not Afraid.  The Church Afraid and the Church Courageous.

Pentecost is the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus referred to as the Comforter, the Advocate.  The Spirit’s actual arrival doesn’t sound comforting, if we’re honest.  Suddenly, the sound of a mighty wind (in this case, not the mighty wind referred to in the Christopher Guest film of the same name).  But the sound was just like a violent wind – that was the best metaphor Luke had available, because Luke had never heard what a freight train sounded like.  Then there was something that appeared to be like tongues of fire, fire coming down from the roof onto their heads.  None of this sounds particularly comforting.

So let’s remember here that the Holy Spirit is the same Spirit who drove Jesus out into the wilderness after His baptism.  The same Spirit who compelled the prophets to speak uncomfortable truths to power.  He is the giver of life and power, judgement and fire.  And the Holy Spirit is, beyond a doubt, the dispeller of fear.

What would our lives look like without fear, or at least without the fears that fill our hearts and hold us back?  What would you grasp more tightly?  What would you let go more quickly?  I remember when I was in my 20’s, I probably should have feared more things than I did.  But in the midst of some good times, I had this lurking dread: I knew deep down I was being called to the priesthood, but I was afraid to pay attention to the call.  I knew that if I listened to God and allowed myself to be examined by the Church, I would have to deal with what was found.  I would have to let go everything I had known and enter the different life.  I would have to go back to school, after years of being free from classrooms and homework.  I would have to submit to the authority of my bishop, God help me (and God help him).  I was right to fear all that, of course, but I had let the fear stop up the ears of my spirit, so that the Holy Spirit’s voice couldn’t be heard.  Did my life change when I allowed my faith to be stronger than my fear?  Oh, yeah, it did, but infinitely for the better.

What would our church look like without fear?  What would happen if the Holy Spirit came down upon us like a fiery freight train?  That’s a trick question: one of the great things about the Holy Spirit is that you never know what the Holy Spirit is going to do, only how He is going to do it.  It’s also a trick question because the Holy Spirit is remarkably strong in this place; He causes us to gather together in praise, to perform the incredible amount of good work we do, to proclaim Jesus in our community.  I don’t know what the Holy Spirit has in store for us, but I do know how He will work it out amongst us: we will ask for His presence and guidance, we will choose faith over fear, and He will grant us the comfort, the courage, and the will to do great and wonderful things.

So what are we afraid of?  For me, it’s still clowns.

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The Sunday after the Ascension

No doubt most of you have seen something in the news about this year’s Met Gala, “where a parade of stars and fashionistas swanned about in costumes inspired by the aesthetics of Catholicism, while a wide variety of genuinely Catholic articles, from vestments to tiaras, were displayed in a Met exhibit titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.””[1]

 

The sights were exceedingly weird.  The Patriot quarterback Tom Brady wore a tuxedo that looked like he was auditioning to be a magician in Atlantic City, while Rihanna wore very little, really, paired with a sparkly silver bishop’s mitre, which was, if we’re being honest, nicer than most of the mitres our actually bishops wear.

 

I’m of at least two minds when it comes to all this.  I’m not delighted with the borderline blasphemy of some of the outfits, and I certainly don’t like using Catholicism as a theme of a debaucherous party.  But I do like that Catholicism – and we can lump classical Anglicanism in here too – is weird enough to inspire such a thing.

 

The Church, when viewed by modern eyes, is gorgeously weird.  Just last Sunday we celebrated the Spring Rogation, during which a whole bunch of us circumambulated the churchyard, chanting and following a person swinging a smoking pot.  Most of the comments we got on the pictures of the procession were about the cope and biretta I was wearing, beautiful things that technically went out of secular style in the fourth century.

 

Just in case you thought the Church has gotten weirder over the years, take heart, she was always pretty strange.  The reading today from the Acts of the Apostles makes that case rather clearly.

 

In it, Peter calls a meeting of the gathered Church, about 120 people.  Just a few days before, Jesus had ascended into heaven, and it was time to find a replacement for Judas.  St. Luke recorded the proceedings, and right in the middle of Peter’s opening speech, Luke felt the need to remind his readers who Judas was, primarily by recording his death, apparently caused by all his guts falling out.  But that’s not even the strangest thing in this story.  The strange thing is Judas’ replacement, Matthias.

 

Nowadays, a church trying to find a replacement for an ordained leader is a crushing task.  In the case of replacing a rector, it can sometimes take months just to find an interim to fill the void, and many more months to find and call a priest.  18 months is the assumed time frame, but it can take much longer.  The search usually starts with a parish questionnaire and profile, then moves on to reviewing resumes and a series of skittery Skype interviews, then background checks, visits to the candidates parishes, negotiations, on and on and on.

 

Way on the other side of the spectrum was the process of choosing an Apostle.  An Apostle.  Luke tells us that whoever would be chosen to fill Judas’ spot had to be from among those who had been following Jesus all along – that was the only requirement.  Two candidates fit the bill – Barsabbas and Matthias.  They’re chosen from amongst the group and the group gets to praying.  “No interview.  No whittling down of a long list of candidates.  No vote.  Just prayer.

 

“Jesus’ first followers recognize that God knows Barsabbas, Matthias and, in fact, everyone’s hearts better than they do.  Since they want their choice to align with God’s choice for a new apostle, they beg God to show them which one (He) chooses.  Trusting that God will graciously show them (His) choice when they cast lots, they cast lots and find that they fall to Matthias.  God adds him to the eleven apostles.

 

“A couple of little details are striking about this account.  It isn’t just that Matthias appears neither before nor after Acts 1:26.  He may not even be in the room when he’s elected to replace Judas!  We might infer that the apostles don’t even ask him if he’s willing to serve in that position.”[2]  That’s wildly weird!  And it’s also how we’re going to start electing vestry members, by the way, so watch out.

 

If the Church seems a little weird, it’s because we are and will always be out of step with the world.  And we’re out of step with the world because the world is out of step with God, and so what we do while we do our best to pursue God can make for some interesting sights, some odd things.  Things like being kind to people, even when they’re annoying.  Things like going out of your way to help people, walking beside the friendless, enduring suffering with dignity, caring for the widow and the orphan.  Things like submitting your will to God’s will, witnessing to something and someone greater than you, or learning to recognize and even crave the appalling strangeness of the mercies of God.  To many, the things that come out of our faith, from the fancy vestments to the values and actions that set us apart, may seem strange.  But I think it’s all beautiful.

 

 

 

 

[1] Ross Douthat: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/opinion/met-gala-catholic-church.html.

[2]Scott Hoezee: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-7b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

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Easter 6

For someone who worked for cutting-edge technology companies, I am not what is generally referred to as an “early adopter.”  I know that I had an email account in college only because my roommate would check it for me whenever a professor would yell at me for not checking it.  When everyone else my age was on their second or third CD player, I was still very attached to my Sony Sports boombox with the double cassette player.  A college friend of mine got frustrated with my Luddite tendencies and insisted on at least a home CD player and a Pearl Jam CD, but the first CD I ever actually bought was Janis Joplin’s Pearl.  The eighth track on Pearl is Mercedes Benz, always a favorite.  “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?  My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”  Janis ends up praying for a color TV and a night on the town on top of the Mercedes Benz, therefore setting a high standard of things for which to pray for hippies everywhere.

 

Janis had some particular needs, a set of problems she thought the Lord might be able to solve.

 

“In the Gospel Reading, Christ suggests a remedy for any problem we have.  The Father will give you anything you ask for, he says, if you will just ask for it in Jesus’ name.

 

“But what is it to ask for something in Christ’s name?  It can’t be a matter of simply tacking the name of Christ on to any prayer.  “I would like a Porsche, please, in the name of Christ.”  Prayer isn’t magic. It isn’t a matter of using the right magical formulas in order to make God do what you want him to do.

 

“It helps here to consider the homely cases in which one person asks something in the name of another. A secretary can ask for the mail in her boss’s name: “I’m just here to pick up the mail for my boss!”   A child can ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar in his mother’s name: “Mrs. Murphy, my mother wants to know if you could lend her a cup of sugar.”

 

“In these cases, the person asking can ask in the name of another because he somehow identifies himself as in relationship with that other: my boss, my mother.  Something—a connection of shared work, a family relation‑—binds the two of them together.

 

“To ask in Christ’s name is like this, too.  You ask in the name of Christ when you are in the kind of relation to him that lets you say “my” with respect to him.  And what would bind the two of you together in this way?  What should follow that “my”?  It shouldn’t be “my servant,”….but “my Lord.”

 

“Take him as Lord, and you have to recognize that, as Lord, he loves and cares for his own. He knows what to give to those who are his in answer to their prayers.  So if you ask the Father for something in the name of Christ… you ask being prepared to accept what your Lord wants to give you.  What you are given will be a good gift if it is in accord with his will, even if it isn’t in accord with yours.  To ask the Father in Christ’s name, then, is to trust Christ with your life as you ask.”[1]

 

This level of trust is not the easiest thing in the world to summon up.  That kind of trust doesn’t exist in most places for most people or in many things.  Think of all the people or entities that you wouldn’t trust with your life.  It’s easy here to think about Facebook, which engendered the trust of 2.2 billion people, only to break the trust of millions upon millions of those people.

 

And yet real trust is still evident all around us.  Military and emergency service is based on trust, the trust that the man or woman next to you has your best interests at heart.  The Church is supposed to be like that, in fact we’re commanded to be like that.  “This I command you,” Jesus says to us today, “to love one another.”  Let’s first state the obvious: “Jesus is not talking about a particular set of feelings or emotions (when He talks about love).  He is not telling his disciples to concoct some particular combination of dreaminess and quickened pulses at the sight of a beloved.  It is clear here that “love” means service, means action, means a life of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.”

 

If we abide in that kind of love, the kind of love for one another that comes from knowing the kind of love that God has for us, then trust, real trust, can bloom and survive.  And when we have this kind of love and trust, it’s then that we can speak and pray in Jesus’ Name, trusting that whatever it is we ask for, God will give us what we truly need and desire.  As for that Mercedes Benz you’ve been asking for, well, that’s between you and the Lord.

[1] Eleanor Stump: http://liturgy.slu.edu/6EasterB050618/reflections_stump.html

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Easter 5

A few years back, we became friends with a young priest named Kenn, who eventually got married here the day after the Epiphany 2016.  Fr. Kenn’s first church was in Casa Grande, Arizona, which is famous for the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, except that the monument isn’t even in Casa Grande, but rather in nearby Coolidge.  Casa Grande is infamous for the Japanese-American relocation camp that was set up outside of town, known as the Gila River War Relocation Center.  The future actor Pat Morita was there with his family.

 

The most striking thing about Casa Grande, which is halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, is that there isn’t anything else in between Phoenix and Tucson.  When Doan and I visited last year for the wedding of our good friend Holly, we were struck by two things immediately:

 

  • While Arizona is very large, there is strikingly little in Arizona. It’s essentially empty, especially compared with the Northeast.
  • Everything in Arizona is a shade of brown. The ground, the hills, even the plants are sorta brownish-green.  The brown theme translates to the buildings as well.

 

Point being, welcome to the American equivalent of the Judean Desert, the setting for today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles.  But before we get to the desert, a little set-up.

 

Early in the book of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The Apostles receive the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, and all heaven breaks loose.  Thousands of people are converted to the Way, and the community of believers was quite lovely, really; they took care of one another, with special concern for the elderly and infirm, the widow and the orphan.  There was some initial resistance from the religious authorities, who weren’t pleased with the Apostles, what with their teaching and healing in the Name of Jesus.

 

As the Church grew, they began to formalize positions within the group.  They began the Order of Deacons, and ordained seven men to serve as deacons among them.  The word deacon is derived from the Greek word diákonos, which means something along the line of table servant, which is why, even today, if a deacon is active in the Mass, he or she is always the one who sets the altar for the Consecration.  Deacons always take a servant’s role; they assist, they do acts of charity, they are always with and for the people.  And so among the seven ordained as deacons were Stephen and Philip, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle.  Now, it was about this time that the initial resistance to the Church turned to outright persecution.  Stephen was arrested and tried for blasphemy because he wouldn’t stop proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, and was subsequently stoned to death.  The Apostles and the other Christian leaders scattered, and Philip ended up in Samaria, which you might remember, was not a place that was friendly to Jews, even Jewish converts to Christianity.

 

It was in Samaria that Philip made a name for himself: he healed people, drove out demons, and essentially started a church there.  Then the Holy Spirit led Philip down a road and into the desert, into the very brown wasteland that is Casa Grande – I mean the Judean Desert, south of Jerusalem.  Where Philip ends up, if it wasn’t the end of the earth, you surely could almost see it from there.

 

It’s there that Philip runs into, of all people, an Ethiopian eunuch, a member of the court of the Candace, the title of the queen of Ethiopia, riding in a chariot, reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  I can’t describe to you how weird that is.  I tried to think of a local scenario, and the only thing I could come up with was if you were driving through the Pinelands and came across Bettina Hagedorn, Parliamentary State Secretary of Germany’s Bundesfinanzministerium, while she read the Bible in the back of a Mercedes Benz.

 

Philip is filled with the Holy Spirit, though, and is therefore undaunted by this encounter.  Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch study the Scripture together, Philip tells the eunuch about the good news of God in Christ Jesus, and the eunuch comes to believe, he sets his life on Jesus.

 

There’s too much in this story to teach it all in one sitting.  We have the power of the Holy Spirit, the spreading of the Gospel even in the desert, converts as unlikely as Ethiopian court ministers, Philip poofing into thin air.  But maybe all of that is the one big point of the story: that you never know what God is going to do in your life until you let God do things in your life.  In Bible Study a couple weeks ago, we talked about how miracles rarely happen anymore not because God doesn’t do miracles anymore, but because we don’t expect the miraculous.  In the same vein, the strange and wonderful things God can work through us won’t ever happen unless we ask to live in His graceful and powerful kingdom.  What will you let God do in your life?

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Easter 4

Back in 1993, my seminary, VTS, was in the midst of a search for their next Dean, and a leading candidate was Bishop Mark Dyer, the Bishop of Bethlehem.  He was in many ways a perfect candidate, except that he stated quite clearly that if he was to become Dean, he wouldn’t go to any meetings that he deemed unnecessary.  As we all know, most organizational meetings are essentially unnecessary, and I try to follow Bishop Dyer’s manner of meeting life to the best of my ability.  And so it was with no mild annoyance that I had to begin going to our annual Diocesan Convention, as was required of me beginning in my seminary years.  But as I was driving to Wildwood, where Convention was in 2007, I happened to drive right past the Cowtown Rodeo, which happens to be the oldest weekly rodeo show in America.  I was delighted by this, and I was delighted in the thought of how annoyed my mid-western friends would be in finding out that Jersey had them beat when it came to cowboys.

 

Real cowboys still exist, of course, and we have to assume that most of them are better at their jobs than the players on a certain Dallas team that presumes to take their name.  But living where we do, we don’t run into many real cowboys.  The same goes for shepherds, I think.  Real shepherds still exist, though mostly in other parts of the world.  Our experience with shepherds is even more foreign than our experience with cowboys; what do we even know about shepherds?  At least Hollywood makes cowboy movies – shepherd movies don’t seem that compelling.

 

But I think shepherd movies would be compelling, if shepherd life was depicted as it really is.  Shepherding is dirty, dangerous work.  Shepherds had to equip themselves for any eventuality, and so they carried a shoulder bag with food, usually things like olives and bread; a crooked staff, as you might imagine; a rod, which often had a blade affixed to the end (thy rod and thy staff dost comfort me); a collapsible leather bucket for scooping water; and a sling and some stones for, well, killing things.  For the Middle East, from ancient times until present day, it’s vital work.  And so sheep and shepherds are all over the Bible.  Abel, Abraham, Lot, Laban, Moses, Amos, David – you get the point – were all shepherds by trade.

 

“Shepherds in ancient Israel likely worked with, among others, the broadtail Syrian variety of sheep, which have large fatty tails and a thick fleece.  The rams of this breed are horned, and the ewes are not. These docile animals are easily led and completely at the mercy of their environment and predators.

Shepherds also cared for goats.  The goats were uniformly black or brown.  Their long, flapping ears easily got torn on thorns and briar bushes as they clambered on rocky hillsides and grazed on shrubbery.  The shepherd faced the ongoing challenge of teaching the sheep and goats to obey his commands.  Even so, good shepherds took tender care of the animals in their charge, even giving them names to which they would respond.  A villager might own only a few sheep.  So he would hire a shepherd who would add the small flock to another one.  Hired shepherds had a reputation for showing less concern for the animals of others than for their own.”[1]

 

And so we get the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  And it’s an oft used image: among the earliest Christian symbols in art, along with the fish and the cross, is Jesus with a sheep.  In more modern times, the images we get are usually a little pastel, in soft focus, a very clean and well-dressed Jesus smiling while coddling a lamb or as with our own image up there, gazing into the future while His hair flows just so.  Those images aren’t bad, necessarily; they line up with the Greek word kalos, which we translate here as ‘good’, which describes that which is noble, wholesome, good, and beautiful.

 

But the Good Shepherd is more than just platitudes, because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, actually went about and goes about His shepherding in real life.  The Good Shepherd showed us how He cares for His sheep.  He cared for everyone: think the Feeding of the 5000 – “He had compassion upon them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  He cared especially for the sick and for the lost, think the words of God through Ezekiel – “I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest. . . . The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal.”  He cares more for us than for Himself – we heard Jesus say today that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

 

We are sheep in the midst of wolves, in a world that seeks to take from us all that is noble, wholesome, good, and beautiful, and give us chaos in return.  But to our great comfort, we have in Christ a Good Shepherd.

[1] https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20121101/the-shepherd/

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