Making Sense of the Good Shepherd in a Violent and Chaotic World: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2015

The news from across the world continues to horrify us. Just this week, ISIS executed thirty more Coptic Christians, for no reason other than that they were Christian, and probably because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was travelling to Egypt, where he would meet with the Coptic pope and participate in memorial services for the 21 Coptic Christians executed by ISIS in January. Last month, Islamic extremists attacked a university in Kenya and killed hundreds of Christians. The death toll rises and as it does, extremist rhetoric in the US is reaching a fever pitch as well.
This unimaginable violence against Christians is occurring as a backdrop to our own culture wars, where debates and conflicts over religious freedom and human rights erupt as politicians, pundits, and media celebrities seek to gain influence, power, and wealth by fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance. The juxtaposition of those images—Coptic martyrs kneeling with ISIS fighters holding swords at their throats over against interviews with conservative Christians in America crying fear of persecution for refusing to bake wedding cakes are so extreme that many of us feel we’ve come unmoored; we don’t know where we’re headed as individual Christians or as Christian communities. We’re not sure what we’re supposed to believe, or how we are supposed to behave.

All this comes at a time when the world, or most of it, commemorates the centennial of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the twentieth century, a horror that cast its long shadows even here at Grace, where we welcomed refugee families of Armenian Christians in the 1910s and 1920s, a legacy that is commemorated in one of the stained glass windows to my right.

I’m also deeply concerned about the violence taking place here in Madison. Earlier this week, I listened as the captain of the central district of Madison’s PD talked about incidents that took place in bars and student residences downtown, as altercations that began with words quickly escalated to stabbings and shootings thanks to the prevalence of weapons in our society. Our world, our society, our city seem to be spiraling out of control into violent chaos.

All this may want us to appeal to the image of the Good Shepherd, to rest in the certainty that God cares for us, cradles us in the arms of God’s love and mercy, protecting us from all evil, leading us beside the still waters and green pastures, and keeping all of the concerns and fears of the world far away.

 The image of the Good Shepherd appeals deeply to us, tugs at our heartstrings, tying into notions of God’s loving care for us. It is also very nostalgic, evoking for us ideas of a simpler, less complicated world and time, either individually, when a loving parent protected us from harm, or an earlier era in human history, when life was simpler and less dangerous.

But the emotional appeal of the Good Shepherd conceals the violence and conflict in the gospel reading itself. The discourse on the Good Shepherd occurs at a time in the gospel when conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities is ratcheting up. In chapter 9, Jesus healed a man born blind, and that entire chapter is given over to conflict over Jesus’ authority to do such miracles, and Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. In the next chapter, Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead, which seems to precipitate the plot to kill Jesus.

So Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd come in the context of intensifying conflict and danger. And as even a cursory reading of today’s text reveals, conflict, violence, and danger permeate Jesus’ words. We may overlook that in the powerful emotional appeal of the good shepherd, but after identifying himself as the good shepherd, Jesus immediately states that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

The strangeness of that statement probably doesn’t occur to us, but reflect on it for a moment. What shepherd would do such a thing? What shepherd would sacrifice his life for the life of the flock under his care? Would you? Oh sure, you might put your life on the line to save your family, we might put our lives on the line to protect our deepest held beliefs, or our country. But would you really sacrifice your life to protect a flock of sheep?

Jesus is drawing a sharp distinction between himself and his opponents. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who knows his sheep by name, and whose sheep know him. His relationship with the sheep is intense, personal, connected. In contrast, the hired hand works only for pay, does what he does for personal gain. I wouldn’t go further than that and suggest that Jesus is saying something about his opponents in the religious establishment here. 

Instead, I think what’s important here is the quality of the relationship between sheep and shepherd that Jesus is describing. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. In a few chapters, at the Last Supper, Jesus will say something similar—No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

At the Last Supper, in several different ways, Jesus emphasizes his love for his disciples, his friends, and the importance of their love for one another. Here, he’s saying much the same thing, using slightly different imagery. The love the good shepherd has for his sheep, the depth of the relationship between good shepherd and sheep is comparable to the relationship between Jesus and his Father—I know my Father and my Father knows me just as I know my sheep and my sheep know my name. His willingness to lay down his life for them, for us, grows out of his love for us, which grows out of his love for God and God’s love for him.

Jesus’ voice and words call us into relationship of that quality, draws us into deep relationship with him and with God, relationship that is modeled on the relationship between Jesus and his Father. It’s almost incomprehensible, the depth and expanse of that relationship—a relationship that is symbolized by the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. In the laying down of that life, we experience and know God’s love, a love we are called to model for others.

But I wouldn’t take that too far, either. I was reminded this week of the pernicious effects of misdirected attempts to force the laying down of one’s life. I came down for breakfast one morning and found Corrie fighting back tears. I asked her what was wrong. She explained that she had just read the Pulitzer Prize winning series from the Charleston SC Post and Courier on domestic violence in that state. It’s a chilling examination of the ways culture, politics, misogyny, and Christianity combine to put women in danger from their husbands and partners. Pastors admitted openly to telling abused women to submit to their husbands, or holding joint counseling sessions with couples in abusive relationships that led only to more abuse. More than ten years ago, Corrie had organized a symposium on domestic violence and Christianity at the college where she taught. It’s outrageous that all these years later, nothing seems to have changed. Lest we congratulate ourselves in Wisconsin on our superiority, I need hardly remind you of the news stories here of horrific domestic violence.

I’ll just point out what ought to be obvious. Jesus’ words about laying down one’s life for one’s friends, or one’s sheep are an expression of a deep, intimate relationship of love and knowledge. They are not telling us what to do or how to behave. They are not telling us what to do if we are abused or attacked. Get help! Seek protection.

The violence and chaos of our world cannot be avoided by appeals to the saccharine piety of an image of blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. We can’t fathom the faith or experience of someone who has been killed for their faith in Jesus Christ; most of us, thank God, can’t fathom what it must be like to beaten by someone who claims to love us.

But we can bear witness. We can bear witness to a Christ who invites us into and models life-giving, loving relationship. We can, in our relationships at home, at work, and especially in our congregation, seek to embody life-giving, loving relationships. And we can call for justice in our community and in our world, justice that embodies such love.


Naming Evil: The Armenian Genocide

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the event that became the Armenian genocide. On this day in 1915, Turkish authorities rounded up around 200 Armenians in Constantinople. Most were eventually killed. Over the next decade, the Armenian population fell from over 2.1 million people to less than 400,000. Diplomats and journalists at the time recounted stories of mass killings and deportations. In 1915 alone, The New York Times printed around 145 articles on the atrocities against the Armenians. Background from vox here and the Times here and here.

The Armenian genocide took place during World War I, when Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies. After the war ended, the victorious allies carved up the Ottoman Empire. As Amanda Taub points out on Vox:

Several of the Turkish officials who had been architects of the Armenian genocide went on to found the modern Turkish state that emerged from the Ottoman Empire’s ashes.

Those Turkish officials became heroes of modern Turkey, and their reputation wrapped up in the legitimacy of this new state. Admitting that the genocide happened would risk tainting the Turkish state itself, as well as the individuals responsible. “It’s not easy for a nation to call its founding fathers murderers and thieves,” Turkish historian Taner Akcam told the New York Times.

The question of whether to call what happened to the Armenians “genocide” has long been tied up with Turkish nationalism and international politics. Thomas de Waal, author of a recent book on the controversy, explains in Foreign Affairs wonders whether the word “genocide” itself has become part of the problem:

Simply put, the emotive power of the word has overpowered Armenian-Turkish dialogue. No one willingly admits to committing genocide. Faced with this accusation, many Turks (and others in their position) believe that they are being invited to compare their grandparents to the Nazis.

It may be that the word “genocide” has exhausted itself, and that the success of Lemkin’s invention has also been its undoing. Lemkin probably never anticipated that coining a new standard of awfulness would set off an unfortunate global competition in which nations—from Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan to Sudan and Tibet—vie to get the label applied to their own tragedies. As the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov has observed, even though no one wants to be a victim, the position does confer certain advantages. Groups that gain recognition as victims of past injustices obtain “a bottomless line of moral credit,” he has written.

Whatever it’s called, it was a crime against humanity, a great tragedy, and a great evil. Humans continue to witness and perpetrate such evils in the twenty-first century. Naming evil, having moral clarity on evil is one thing. Reconciliation is something else. We cannot hope to create a more just and peaceful world community unless we are able to recognize and name evil, and to seek such reconciliation in its aftermath.

NT Wright on the Resurrection

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jn 21:16

There is a whole world in that question, a world of invitation and challenge, of the remaking of a human being after disloyalty and disaster, of the refashioning of epistemology itself, the question of how we know things, to correspond to the new ontology, the question of what reality consists of. The reality that is the resurrection cannot simply be “known” from within the old world of decay and denial, of tyrants and torture, of disobedience and death.

And this is the point where believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century. Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.

NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, HarperCollins, 2008, pp. 72, 75

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, April 9, 1945

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While in prison, he wrote a series of letters to his close friend Eberhart Bethge in which he began speculate about “religionless Christianity.” While this notion has received considerable attention over the decades beginning in the 1960s, his words remain as challenging and questioning in the twenty-first century as they did when he wrote them while imprisoned for his participation in an assassination plot against Hitler, and as World War II was coming to an end:

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form–perhaps the true form–of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless–and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?)–what does that mean for “Christianity”? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity–and even this garment has looked very different at different times–then what is a religionless Christianity?

I’ve previously written about Bonhoeffer here and here.

Easter Wings–George Herbert

Easter Wings

By George Herbert

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.


My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Resurrection Imperfect–John Donne

by John Donne

SLEEP, sleep, old sun, thou canst not have repass’d,
As yet, the wound thou took’st on Friday last ;
Sleep then, and rest ; the world may bear thy stay ;
A better sun rose before thee to-day ;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth’s face, as thou—enlighten’d hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale ;
Whose body, having walk’d on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.

Desunt Caetera

Seven Stanzas for Easter: John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

John Updike, 1960.