Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quantum Shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.1925; John 10.1-10
Sunday, May 15, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands


The shepherd was a well-known image for first century Jews and Christians. Not only were shepherds part of the everyday landscape of their agrarian society, the image of a good shepherd would have had significant political and religious meaning for these people. King David, the best known and most loved of Israel’s monarchs was the Shepherd King – an ordinary shepherd boy who God anointed to be king, who would go on to become the greatest of kings, the standard by which all future kings would be measured. In fact, the long-awaited Messiah was anticipated to be a king of the line of David, with all the positive attributes of David and more. The Psalmist, who may have been David himself, writes of God as protector and provider using the imagery of shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me like down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” (Ps 23.1-2). And in later times, the vision of the Messiah would even incorporate the image of shepherd, as portrayed by the prophet Isaiah: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Is 40.11). So it is significant for the original hearers of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel that he fulfills Israel’s hope for a good shepherd, and more importantly, a messiah in the form of the good shepherd. The simple imagery carried a loaded message about who Jesus was.


Even in our non-agrarian culture, we still find the imagery of sheep and of the good shepherd comforting. But most of us today have no experience with sheep other than at a petting zoo. So how does this imagery speak to us in our present day, in a context completely opposite of the original? Well, the meaning behind the imagery is no less true today than it was two thousand years ago.

Jesus uses imagery of himself as both the shepherd and the gate into the sheepfold. While a little confusing, being both shepherd and gate, these images help us to understand something of what it means to be his followers.

As shepherd, Jesus specifically addresses three characteristics about our relationship with him: the shepherd leading, the sheep following, and the shepherd being known by the sheep. First, Jesus tells us that the shepherd leads the sheep out of the sheepfold and goes before them, leading the way, and second, the sheep follow the shepherd. What this clearly means is that Jesus leads and we follow. Not that we lead and expect Jesus to follow. We may not always know where the path will take us, but we have to have faith that Jesus knows the way, pioneering the trail for us. We often get bogged down in the minutia, only seeing what is immediately in front of us, immediately around us. But Jesus has the big picture, seeing longer range than we are able to see, or longer range that we are sometimes willing to see. So a big part of this is trusting that Jesus is leading is on the right path, which really is a path only he can fully know. And the other part is being willing to give up our own needs or desires for control, letting Jesus lead the way, trusting that Jesus knows better than we do.

The ability to do this is all tied in with the shepherd being known by the sheep. Jesus says the shepherd calls his own by name and that “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Very important piece. Jesus himself even comments on it, talking about knowing the voice of the shepherd and not knowing the voice of strangers, of those whom he refers to as thieves and bandits. We are willing to follow because we know the sound of his voice – we know the sound of his message and are able and willing to do the critical work of comparing what we hear at any given time with what we know to be the truth. Is the voice we are hearing, the message being proclaimed, consistent with the truth as proclaimed in Scripture, the law and the prophets, as well as the words and actions of Jesus himself; as proclaimed in our historical understanding of the experienced tradition as passed down through the last two millennia; and as revealed in the reasoning necessary to apply the shepherd’s teachings to the present circumstances? Only when filtered through our understanding of scripture, tradition, and reason, can we discern if what we are hearing from the Church, from our leaders, clergy and lay, is the path Jesus is leading us along, or some other path.

As gate, Jesus specifically addresses three characteristics about what his followers can expect: that entering through the gate provides safety, allows us to find pasture, and provides us with place and identity. First, Jesus tells us that “whoever enters by me will be saved.” By entering into a life in Christ, we are assured of shelter from the world. This is not to say that what happens in the world will not impact us. It most assuredly will. What saved means is that if we place our trust in Christ, with making following him our first priority, we will always have the love and protection of God to fall back-on when times do get tough. We will have the resources of God’s family backing us up, our church family to care for us in our times of need. We will have the strength of our faith and the assurance of God’s love to stand upon and to guide us through whatever we may confront in life.

Second, those who enter the gate “will come in and go out and find pasture.” We don’t know much about pasture in our contemporary lives, but pasture is a place of comfort, rest, and sustenance. In this case, it is not necessarily physical respite. Rather Jesus is speaking of a spiritual comfort, rest, and sustenance that come from being his followers. By coming into the sheepfold that is the Body of Christ, that is the Church, we are assured of the spiritual comfort and rest from the cares of the world outside these walls, even if only for a brief time. This is a pasture where we can come and be nurtured and cared for, where we can recharge and gain the strength we need to go back out and face the world, to do ministry in the world. And that comes through the sustenance we receive every week in Eucharist – in the hearing of the word proclaimed, and at the altar where we are nourished by the bread and wine, by the body and blood of our Lord.

And third, by entering through the gate that is Jesus, we have a place and an identity that is determined exclusively by relationship with him. We have a place at the table. We have an identity as members of his body, as a part of the family of Christ that is the Church. We are part of a community that is defined by Jesus, the gate through which we enter, but also that is defined by and consists of the flock of which we are a part. For being part of the larger family through Christ, of being Christians, is essential. But so is the flock, the local community of which we are a part, as here at Trinity. For it is in the local community of faith that we discern and live out what it means to enter the gate and to follow the shepherd.

While all of this stuff about the Good Shepherd is meant to be comforting to us and descriptive of what it means to be Christian, there is something missing from the imagery. The Good Shepherd and the gate describe the nature of the Church as a body, of community and its centrality, and of our place and identity within the community. But it does not really say much about what the community does. We need something else to help round out the image, to give the flock some sort of purpose, other than just standing around in a group, grazing in the pasture. We are not quite the same as sheep, are we? As humans we are not content to just be as sheep. We need some purpose for the flock. For that, we can look to something called the Quantum Sheep project, or the “Poetry of Sheep.”

In 2002, Valerie Laws received a grant of 2,000 pounds from an arts council in northern England, to create living poetry using sheep. She spray-painted a single word on the backs of 15 sheep. As the sheep wandered around, the ordering of words took on a new structure every time they stopped moving. The reason Valerie undertook the project was out of an interest in quantum mechanics. She noted that randomness and uncertainty are apparently central to how the universe was formed and operates, and that this is quite difficult for many of us to understand, particularly since we rely on order. The sheep project was an attempt to explore such principles of quantum mechanics as randomness, duality, and the influence of the observer on the observed; to explain how something of meaning might come out of the randomness of the universe. Specifically, the project explored how the random movement of the sheep might occasionally result in somewhat meaningful poetry. Even if not rational, some of the resulting poems certainly had a whimsical, even comedic, quality.

While Valerie Law’s experiment was intended to illustrate something of quantum mechanics and the workings of the universe, particularly in a whimsical manner, it also ties in nicely with the story of the Good Shepherd and what it means to be part of his flock.

First, the Quantum Sheep project demonstrates that you can’t write a poem with only one word. We need most, if not all, of the words painted on the flock to make a meaningful poem. This reinforces the fact that we need each other, living in community, to do the work God has called us to do. One cannot do it by him or herself.

Second, the flock sometimes gets spooked and scatters. Be it by some outside influence or at the hands of an inept or uninterested guide, the flock can easily spook and scatter to seek safety. So too with communities of faith, which must be handled gently and tenderly. For sometimes we too become spooked, with the community scattering, individuals running for cover. But generally this is only temporary, for we come back together because we ultimately know that in community we are safer than by ourselves; that we have the community for support and protection.

Third, the flock sometimes is a jumbled mess, with each of the sheep just sitting there doing nothing. When this happens, the poem makes no sense. It is just words strung together without meaning. Communities of faith can be like that, too. When we are together, we sometimes have a jumbled mess that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But the reality is that even if we look like a jumbled mess, we are still together in community, still taking in sustenance as when a flock grazes, drawing nourishment from each other and from the sacraments. The jumbled mess is an in-between time while we wait for movement and for meaning to occur, for our purpose, our message, to be revealed.

Fourth, sometimes the flock does not have all the words it needs to make a complete or comprehendible poem. Other sheep with other words, which are not like us, may be needed to expand the vocabulary and allow for even richer, more meaningful poetry. As a community, we may not have all the resources needed to carry out some project or ministry. Sometimes we need others to come in and add to our vocabulary, to add their gifts and talents to ours, adding to the richness of what we are capable of.

And finally, and most importantly, the members of the flock occasionally surprise the observers by arranging themselves to form a poem that is both coherent and beautiful. As we stumble about in our lives within the community, we occasionally surprise ourselves and write an absolutely beautiful and poignant poem that shows to God and all the world what we are capable of. And when we do this, the Shepherd delights in what he witnesses.

That’s what the Good Shepherd is all about. By trusting in Jesus and being willing to follow, even when, especially when, it seems as if we don’t know where we are going; following him whose voice and message we know and that we know to be true; by entering into relationship with Jesus Christ, who promises us safety and shelter from the world; who promises a place for comfort, rest, and sustenance; who provides us with our own true identity; we are freed to, open to, called to, be the community of faith God has ordained us to be – one in which we can rise to the occasion and write beautiful poems that are witnessed by our God and by others – poems that bear witness to the love and grace of the Good Shepherd in our lives individually and together as his flock.

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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Doubting Disciples?

Second Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2.141, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.3-9; John 20.19-31
Sunday, May 1, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands


The Sunday after Easter is commonly known as “Low Sunday,” due to the fact that attendance is markedly lower than on Easter Sunday, and is typically even lower than regular Sundays. After all the excitement of Easter, particularly as a culmination to all the drama and emotion that comes with traveling through Holy Week, with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then the climax of the Great Vigil of Easter, we might think we deserve a break, a little respite from all this church stuff. But scripture says otherwise. In his Gospel, John barrels on ahead, picking up with the disciples on the evening of Easter, immediately after the scene with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, where the Risen Christ reveals himself to her. There’s still a lot of work to do, and we can’t be wasting any time.


Now what most of us tend to focus on in this particular Gospel reading is the part where Thomas, not present at Jesus’ initial post-resurrection appearance to the disciples, says “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” – leading to the rather unflattering descriptor of “Doubting Thomas.” Now every time I preach on this passage, I am quick to rush to Thomas’ defense. But not today. In fact, many make the other disciples out to be the epitome of faith while denigrating Thomas. But not me. I’m going to drag them all down – every last one of them.

If you really look at the story, Thomas was not the only one of the disciples who doubted. It may not be expressed quite as explicitly, but it’s there in John’s description of events. All of the disciples initially doubted the reality of the Risen Lord. At the end of the Easter Gospel, we are told “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” (Jn 20.18a). But here, in today’s reading, which, remember, takes place mere hours after Mary’s announcement, the Risen Christ appears to all the remaining disciples minus Thomas, who is inexplicably absent. They did not rejoice upon seeing him. First he had to talk to them – “Peace be with you.” And when that didn’t elicit a response, Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Only then do the disciples rejoice in the appearance of their resurrected Lord. Despite having been told by Jesus himself that he would die and be resurrected, despite testimony from Mary Magdalene, they would not believe until they had seen the wounds that bore irrefutable proof that this was their Lord, risen.

And then, of course, we know about Thomas. After the Risen Lord had appeared to his ten comrades and they tell him about the experience, he responds with his famous statement of doubt. Before he is going to believe, he demands the same proof that the other disciples had been party to – to see firsthand the wounds resulting from the crucifixion. Jesus appears a week later saying, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Upon seeing the wounds, Thomas believes that his master had been resurrected, responding “My Lord and my God!”

But even before the events of today’s Gospel lesson, we have Mary Magdalene filled with doubt about the fate of Jesus. Upon finding the tomb empty, she goes and tells the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And later on, she weeps because she does not know what happened to Jesus, maintaining that someone must have taken his body away. This despite Jesus having foretold his death and resurrection. It is only when Jesus appears to her and calls her name that she recognizes him as her Lord, risen as he had promised.

So you see, it was not just Doubting Thomas. It was also Doubting Peter and Doubting John. It was also Doubting Mary and all the other doubting disciples. But what is more striking is the fact that as the story progressed, first with the appearance to Mary Magdalene, and then the disciples, and then Thomas, each party at each succeeding step had more and more information. Each had testimony from previous post-resurrection appearances. Why did Mary doubt when she had Jesus’ word that he would be raised from the dead? Why did the disciples doubt when they had Jesus’ word, plus Mary’s testimony that he had indeed been raised? Why did Thomas doubt when he had Jesus’ word, plus Mary’s testimony, plus the testimony of the other ten disciples?

Overall, it appears that there is a general lack of faith among the disciples. Not so much a lack of faith in what Jesus had told them. After all, no one had ever been resurrected before, at least not under these extreme circumstances. It would therefore be natural for the disciples to question Jesus’ foretelling of death and resurrection. They did not know what that would look like. Rather, the lack of faith that they experienced was in each other and in one another’s witness and testimonies.

Okay, maybe I’ve beat up on the disciples enough. To their defense, this was a very tense time. The general theme of the day was distrust. The local population had a broad distrust of the Roman Empire and its forces that were occupying their homeland. There was distrust of the locals who collaborated with the Roman occupiers. The disciples would have had distrust for the Temple authorities who had conspired to have Jesus arrested, tried, and executed. And now there was distrust of each other. After all, one of their own had betrayed their master for a few pieces of silver. Who’s to say the Romans or the Temple authorities might not come after the disciples next? Who can be trusted in times like these?

In these early days, when so much was still tenuous, so much was still uncertain, the disciples would have been looking for assurance. What the events of Easter Day as portrayed by John tells us is that all the disciples need assurance that this person who appears before them is the one who was crucified, died, and buried. The Risen One must have the wounds in his hands and feet and side – to manifest the triumph of God’s grace and love over death – visible signs of God’s grace and love, visible signs of the ultimate defeat of sin and death. Seeing the wounds would have been assurance that the one before them is indeed the one whom they had been following, and was indeed the one whom they would continue to follow.

So while there may have been some initial distrust, the disciples, through their cautiousness, provided a valuable service. They did the hard work, vetting the Risen Lord on behalf of those who would come after. Because of the due diligence and testimony of Thomas and the other disciples working on our behalf, we are able to have faith and believe. We are blessed because of those like Mary Magdalene and Thomas and the other disciples who have gone before. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus proclaims blessing on all those who have not seen the Risen Lord with their own eyes, who have not had the opportunity to see the wounds, to poke their fingers into his wounds. That would be us.

When I look at the initial post-resurrection appearances, like the one we have in today’s Gospel, like the comparable versions we have in the other three Gospels, where the disciples are doubtful, it always amazes me that our religion, based on the foundation of Christ’s resurrection, even got off the ground. In those early days, no one was willing or able to accept what had happened. How do you expect those who had not been witnesses to any post-resurrection appearances to come to believe? How is it that we, two millennia later, have come to believe and continue to tell the story?

In the days following Christ’s resurrection, each of the disciples had to find their own way to process what they had experienced, to find their own way to make such an unbelievable experience real for them. That is what we are seeing in today’s Gospel reading – the initial attempts at processing. Once the disciples got over their initial shock, distrust, even disbelief, once they had irrefutable proof from their Risen Lord, they were able to embrace the story wholeheartedly. They came to believe and to understand in a way that became a part of their very being, so that when they told the story to others, as in Acts, as in First Peter, you can just tell that it’s true.

Throughout Christian history, those like us, disciples who did not have benefit of first-hand post-resurrection appearances, came to believe because of the telling of the story. You feel the passion, the zeal, with which the story is told and retold, and you get caught up in it, coming to believe it yourself. It is the story of the resurrection, along with that passion and zeal that is passed on from believer to new convert, on through history to our own day, to our own hearing of the story. It is that passion and zeal that have kept our faith, our religion, alive these two thousand years.

It is often said that we are an Easter people. That is true. The story of Easter is our own story – told and experienced with passion, with conviction, passed on from believer to convert from the first Easter day until now. Our job as Easter people is to keep that story alive. Like the first disciples, we have to find our own ways of processing the story, making it real for ourselves, and then sharing it with others in our words and our actions. For if we truly believe the story and live it in our own lives, others will see the passion and sincerity and will be open to making the story their own.

It may sound a little na├»ve, but it’s true. That’s the concept behind our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. If you’ve ever talked to their teachers, if you’ve ever talked to our little ones or watched them in worship, it becomes obvious that they know the story, and they know the story to be true because of the sincerity with which it has been told to them and the experiences they have of it. And they are willing to share the story with others, with that same passion. Out of the mouths of babes comes the secret to being Easter people and to perpetuating our Easter faith.

It all boils down to the importance of believing the witness to what happened on the first Easter, as shared by those who have gone before, of continuing to focus on the resurrection – Christ’s resurrection and the hope and assurance of our own resurrection, and carrying that joy and passion out into the world.

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