Easter 4 May 12, 2019

The Rev. Janet Campbell

EASTER 4  Year C

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

 

Christ Episcopal Church

Tacoma, Washington

The Rev. Janet Campbell

Sunday, May 12, 2019

 

It was the Festival of the Dedication,

Hanukkah

(which means “dedication”)

and Jesus was walking

in the Jerusalem temple . . .

 

Look out,

because something significant always happens

in John’s Gospel

when Jesus turns up in the Temple . . .

 

It isn’t the innocent visit

of a holy day pilgrim

but an action with a particular intent . . .

provocative, even . . .

 

What was he up to

that Hanukkah?

 

It helps to know a little

about the festival.

 

 

Some 200 years before Jesus was born,

and before the onslaught

of the rising Roman Empire,

in the year 198 BCE,

Jerusalem and Judea

were overtaken

by the Seleucid, or Syrian, empire.

 

Non-Jewish kings,

products of that empire’s

Hellenistic (or Greek) thought, religion and culture,

ruled in Jerusalem for more than 30 years.

 

Jewish religious practices

were forbidden

and the Jerusalem temple

became home

to a plethora of Greek gods and goddesses,

represented by their statues.

 

Hellenistic culture was elevating, exciting, enticing  . . .

and many urban Jews embraced it.

 

But in the year 167 BCE

a Jewish priest

and revolutionary

named Judas Maccabeus,

with a small group of followers,

began a series of guerilla actions

against the Hellenizing influence

of the Syrian regime.

 

 

The success of those raids

brought many more followers,

enough to form armies

and engage the Syrian forces

in battle after battle . . .

 

resulting, after several years,

in the complete defeat of Syria

and the return of Jewish rule

and religious practice

to Jerusalem and Judea.

 

Thus began

the 103-year reign

of the Maccabean kings,

who would be overthrown in their turn

in the year 37 BCE

by the Roman invasion and conquest

of Jerusalem.

 

So, Hanukkah,

the Festival of the Dedication,

celebrated

both a great victory

after years of the carnage of war,

and the subsequent eviction of

the Greek gods and goddesses

from the temple

and its rededication

for Jewish worship.

 

 

 

So what was Jesus up to

choosing to appear

in the temple on that festival day

some 70 years

into the brutal Roman occupation

of Jerusalem?

 

The answer, I think,

is found in

the question of kingship and shepherding  . . .

 

 

Long had Israel’s prophets

referred to their kings

as shepherds . . .

 

Just as shepherds cared

for their flocks,

Israel’s kings were meant

to care for God’s people

as God cares for them . . .

 

“The Lord is my shepherd,”

wrote the psalmist.

 

God provides everything I need:

guidance, food and drink, rest, protection . . .

God treats me with goodness and mercy . . .

my life is a green pasture.

 

 

By that measure,

most of the kings of Israel

were failures,

as were

most of the rulers

of the surrounding empires,

as was Caesar,

who styled himself a god.

 

Jesus’ affection for,

his preference for,

the downtrodden, outcast,

poorly-served, destitute,

was well known.

 

Perhaps his presence

in the temple on that day

was an indictment of the rule of kings,

the arrogance of priests,

the futility of power politics,

the cruelty and folly

of military “solutions” that never seem

to solve anything . . .

 

the temple had been cleansed,

rededicated,

but for what?

 

 

 

“Are you the Messiah?”

Jesus’ questioners asked him,

meaning

“are you the warrior king

in the image of Judas Maccabeus

come to lead a rebellion

to deliver us from the clutches of Rome?”

 

“If you are the Messiah,

tell us plainly.”

 

“I have told you,” said Jesus,

“and you do not believe.

The works that I do in my Father’s name

testify to me,

but you do not believe;

because you do not belong to my sheep.”

 

Jesus’ works, of course,

were not the works

of war, of domination,

of exploitation, of division and exclusion . . .

 

but the works of the one

he called his Father,

the works of justice and peace,

of servant-hood,

of feeding and healing;

of gathering together and inclusion,

of goodness, and mercy.

 

The works of a good shepherd

who serves not himself,

but the flock.

 

“My sheep hear my voice

and I know them,

and they follow me,”

Jesus continued.

 

Just before this passage,

Jesus had reminded his listeners

of what anyone who knew anything

about sheep and shepherds already knew . . .

the close bond between them . . .

 

how the sheep know the voice of

their own shepherd,

 

and when the shepherds call

their various flocks

out of the communal sheepfold

to lead them to pasture,

each flock responds

to the voice of its own shepherd,

gathers to him

and follows him . . .

and no other.

[John 10:3-6]

 

 

But Jesus’ questioners,

whom he would gather into his flock,

have failed to recognize his voice . . .

failed to recognize him

for who he is . . .

 

not the warrior Messiah

of a warrior God,

 

but the shepherd son

of a shepherd God . . .

calling, gathering, leading, caring for

all God’s people . . .

 

 

Jesus had also spoken earlier

of the difference

between a shepherd

to whom the sheep belong,

and a hired caretaker . . .

 

When a wolf attacks the flock,

the shepherd will give up his life

to save the sheep;

 

the hired hand will give up the sheep

to save his own skin.

[John 10:12-13]

 

Who were the hired hands

of Jesus’ not-so-subtle example . . .

 

but the leaders of Israel:

the priests,

the Pharisees and Scribes,

the council,

the wealthy property owners . . .

the governors and proconsuls

appointed by Caesar . . .

 

anyone who, out of fear,

or hope of gain,

was a collaborator with

the Roman occupiers,

 

abandoning the people in their care

to the wolfish depredations

of Caesar.

 

The self-serving behavior

of such hired hands

was not, of course,

limited to Jesus’ time.

 

It seems endemic

to every people and nation

and every time.

 

 

The author of the book of Genesis,

Israel’s origin story,

puts the blame where it belongs:

 

And not on a snake . . .

 

but on the inability of human beings

to be satisfied with ourselves

and what we have:

 

and so we

want what is not offered

take what is not given

 

with no heed to the consequences.

[Genesis 3:1-6]

 

And when the wanters and the takers

have power over others,

 

when they are hired hands

rather than shepherds . . .

in government,

the military,

religion,

big business,

 

their wanting and taking for themselves

creates hurt, pain, suffering,

inequity, injustice

for the very ones

they are supposed to serve.

 

 

Hired hands care nothing for the sheep,

the green pastures,

the still waters . . .

 

This is not the way

to the kingdom of God.

 

Jesus points to a different way.

 

“I give (my sheep) eternal life,”

he said, “and they will never perish.

No one will snatch them out of my hand.

What my Father has given me

is greater than all else,

and no one can snatch it

out of the Father’s hand.

The Father and I are one.”

 

The promise that follows the indictment.

 

Jesus promised

what he called eternal life

to all who would listen and hear  . . .

 

eternal life,

not to be confused with some

in-the-hereafter compensation

for present suffering . . .

 

but a life to be entered into

in the midst of suffering,

in this damaged world,

and lived secure,

held in God’s hands.

For there will always be

false shepherds

in places of power . . .

 

God calls but they will not listen,

God asks but they will not answer,

God leads but they go their own self-serving way . . .

 

God never forces

but continues to call, ask, lead.

 

And there are those

who recognize God’s voice,

who listen,

answer and follow,

who work for justice and peace,

care for and shepherd one another.

 

 

Every fourth Sunday of Easter

in our three-year cycle of readings,

we hear a part of what is called

the Good Shepherd discourse . . .

 

assigned for this day

because it proclaims Easter’s promise

of a re-created humanity

in a re-created world . . .

the gentle, peaceable kingdom

of our shepherding God.

 

 

After his resurrection,

the Risen Christ

continued to shepherd

his scattered disciples,

sought them out,

called them out of hiding and fear,

 

gathered them back together

and led them into their own vocation

of doing and proclaiming

the wondrous works of God.

 

And so it continues

in every age,

even to this time and place,

the Risen Christ,

the good shepherd,

gathering us into his flock,

his living body,

the church,

conferring on us the same vocation . . .

doing and proclaiming

the wondrous works of God.

 

 

To support and sustain us

in this life,

he leads us here,

into this green pasture –

 

this place of song and prayer,

of silence and stillness,

of rest,

of hope,

of God’s encouraging, challenging

Word proclaimed,

of a Table spread for us . . .

of a soul-reviving feast for all who come . . .

 

of the sound of our shepherd’s voice

now calling us out into the world . . .

 

We have only to listen

to his voice

and follow his lead

to do what God would have us do . . .

 

. . . in all the places of our lives

to be not hired hands

but good shepherds

doing

the works of justice and peace,

of feeding and healing,

of gathering, inclusion,

of goodness,

and mercy.

 

 

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