Good Shepherd Sunday

– Psalm 23. Heard it a lot recently / often picked at funerals and we had a few. Brings consolation and comfort. But it’s good to hear it in another context b/c it is not only for funerals (although the TM for this Sunday is widely about Resurrection). The psalm is also about the way God is with us in everyday life / sense of Providence. We may think about Providence when something very unexpected happens / money appears from nowhere (we had a few of those miracles here) but Providence is also about the goodness that is right in front of us. We often miss it. I typically had this experience this week. I was for a few days at clergy conference in Adamstown and although we had sessions of work, we also had some time off. And I thought: I need to use my time off to do something /write my sermon. Started thinking about the psalm: “enjoying green pastures and still waters” and wondering what could be the deep meaning of these images, suddenly I realized there were just there: green pastures, still waters. I was in the middle of the countryside and God just wanted me to enjoy goodness, not instead of working I guess, but being able to receive God’s goodness so I could do the work.

– God does the work / helps us do the work – We keep busy busy to please God / to do God’s work and we forget to let God please us and to do good to us. Yet, if we don’t let God fill us with good things, we end up tired and feeling empty and in the worst cases burnt out, bitter, addicted. But often we just need to pause and see what’s right in front of us. Green pastures, still waters, a table set before us. That’s what Sunday should be about too. We come to church and even if church business keeps us busy all week and early Sunday morning, when the service starts we need to sit and relax, to take in the beauty and the peace, receive the word and the music, the bread and the wine, enjoy companionship / conversation around a table with coffee and cookies. Listen to some kind of teaching about the Scriptures or practice a spiritual activity…We often think we do something for God at church, we forget God also wants to do something for us. Jesus said he came to serve us…

– And so we need to learn to rest / to receive from God. Rest for us is often collapsing in front of the TV after a busy day or when we find some ways to treat ourselves / reward ourselves with indulging a little bit (or a lot!). But the rest the psalm talks about is the reviving of the soul. It is rest for the soul. It is not about collapsing or getting busy doing something else than work, it is about slowing down and taking the time to find the goodness in front of us, around us, here and now, knowing that God is in charge.

– Which means of course that the psalm and this image of Jesus as the shepherd is not only about rest / not only about comfort if it’s about reviving the soul. Rest is part of it, yet the shepherd does much more than providing / comforting. His job is to guide us / guide us even through dark times. Not only does he provide, comfort, protect but he does so as as he leads us somewhere. I don’t know a lot about shepherding, but I recently learned something interesting: the shepherd’s staff has two ends, there is a crook for drawing the sheep away from danger but there is also a blunt end for prodding them towards places they would not want to go. God’s job is not always about comforting us…sometimes God let us also experience some discomfort b/c God leads us somewhere, towards unfamiliar places. It is not always about grazing, it is about getting somewhere. Nudging us when we get stuck or complacent or a bit lazy. Often crisis happen in our lives when it’s time for us to move to another level. God wants us to grow.

– Yet as God leads us / is in charge, God does not lord it over us – something that can be hard for us to understand. What today’s Gospel may clarify.

– Today, once again, we have a discussion about the true understanding of who the Messiah is / how he saves us and how religious people at Jesus’ time thought about it. And I don’t know what you think but sometimes we may find the Pharisees a bit stupid when they say something, but sometimes it is much easier to relate to them. When they say: “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” – I think we have all been there. Asking Jesus to make himself clear: “Tell me what you want / plan”(and I’ll do it). “If you are the Messiah…certainly you can help me…” The Pharisees wanted to know who was the boss / what God had to say to them. They were looking for authority. At some point, we have to acknowledge that we look for that as well. We want God or somebody sent by God to tell us what to do / who is in charge so we will obey them and won’t be in trouble. But the paradox is that it’s often when we look for authority that we put ourselves in trouble.

  • In politics. When we look for someone to tell us what to do and who will solve all our problems. Happened many times in History – but those leaders are tyrants when they don’t acknowledge the complexity of our issues and the need to debate, they just give orders, they make us feel we’re not smart enough to solve our problems, they work on our fears. Fear of lacking / fear of others / welcoming others and sharing with others (Psalm 23 insists we will lack nothing!). It’s not new! There are a lot of stories about “bad shepherds” in the Prophets.
  • In the same way, we may also look for spiritual authority. Somebody who tells us who God is and what God wants. We trust blindly religious authorities. I am reading the story of Karen Amstrong, a former nun, and how she was broken by her superiors as they kept pretending obeying them was obeying God (Maybe they truly believed it!) Abuse is the abusers’ fault of course, but it also happens when the church and its members close their eyes and ears and surrender their responsibilities.

– And so Jesus will refuse to play that role of being the boss, the one who is right and give orders. Instead, Jesus says he is the companion on our path, helping us, nudging us, comforting us – it’s very different.

To me, it has two main implications:

– First of all: we have to accept to be free. It can seem evident but it is not. Freedom is very desirable but it is also scary: we can make mistakes, fail, hurt ourselves, we have to accept doubts and uncertainties and also responsibility for our choices. Museum of the Bible presents the Bible as a user guide to life “That tells us what to do to become a good person” but the Bible is mostly about people struggling with God, trying to find their way and how God shepherds them. Leads them from a basic / sinful / mortal kind of life to life abundant, joyful and fruitful. Jesus’s resurrection models ours (Cf Acts / Resurrection is given to the disciples) Jesus is the shepherd leading us to life…through our life! Their is no ready made model to apply to that, we figure it out with him as we go!

Jesus helps us change our hearts and we can become the best version of ourselves. Worst things in life: not so much what happens to us but the way we react to it (fear, anguish) we have to go through our broken selves and it can be very dark…God cannot spare that, but walks with us towards our healed and whole selves so we can receive God’s love!

– 2nd point (and consequence): God comes to us not through obedience to authority but through trust. Belonging. We first have to trust not b/c we are compelled but b/c we love, we experience God’s goodness and God’s companionship, God’s humility: Jesus is the shepherd but he is also the lamb (cf Revelation) as he is our companion, he does not fake it – He knows exactly what it is to be us b/c he has been there, he has been powerless on the cross and also at many times during his life. He understands what it is to be one of us / with us. The problem with the Pharisees, those who ask for proofs is that they don’t love Jesus. (It doesn’t mean we cannot question, but we need to do it from a place of trust, not like a trial (what actually religious people will end up doing)). I think that what Jesus tells them is: “You can’t understand who I am b/c you don’t love me” and isn’t it true that we don’t understand people when we don’t love them? We don’t see who they are, what they mean, we are just defensive – The Pharisees are so afraid Jesus is going to lead them in a dangerous place.

– Back to our first point. We can rest / need to rest / rest our souls b/c our first job is to love God or maybe even more: to let ourselves be loved by God: guided, comforted and nudged. As the shepherd, God gathers us together as a community / we walk together to discern his voice. If we let God love us, we’ll love God and then we’ll understand. Do we come at church thinking the most important thing we can do is to let God love us?

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