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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Be Your Own Shepherd--A Sermon


Be Your Own Shepherd
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 26, 2012
First Sunday in Lent

John 10:1-42 (Scholars' Version)

We are making our way through John’s gospel.   John’s gospel is about Jesus.  But the Jesus depicted here is not the historical person.  John’s Jesus is an imaginative construction.    The events and the dialogue we just read from chapter ten are probably not events and dialogue that took place, that someone (ie. the author we call John) wrote down, but rather, a scene created by some author we call John.   

Now that makes a big difference.    For those who believe that the Bible is inerrant, to say what I just said would be blasphemy.   To say that there is a difference between the historical person of Jesus and theological and literary construction of Jesus really messes with people’s heads.   Some people get angry about such a suggestion.

That was the reaction to the work of the Jesus Seminar in the 80s and 90s when they meticulously went through every saying and deed attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels and in other gospels to see what could be historically plausible and what was literary or theological creation.    Folks were mad as heck.  

Not only were the folks who didn’t want scholars messing with their Jesus upset, other scholars were upset as well.  It appears that they didn’t like that the Jesus Seminar did this all in public and offered their methods and conclusions in language that non-specialists could actually read.   The Jesus Seminar let the cat out of the bag. 

This type of historical-literary criticism has been used in academic circles for decades, centuries even.    But it was so shrouded in academic language that it seldom left the academy.   We preachers got the message both from seminary and from our congregations that sharing this type of stuff with church folks was unhealthy to one’s career.   Furthermore, we were instructed that offering critical assessments of scripture or theology was damaging to the faith of the sheep. 

The sheep are simple.  The sheep need to be fed.  The sheep need to be led.  The sheep need to be protected against wolves like the Jesus Seminar and against hired hands who don’t care about the sheep, like ministers who share blasphemous ideas like ‘Jesus probably didn’t say most of the stuff the Gospel of John said he said.’   

Won’t somebody think of the sheep?

Baaaa.

One of my favorite criticisms over the years has been by other ministers that I am leading my sheep astray.    That would be you.  In this schematic you are the sheep and I am the shepherd.   How is it that ministers made that assumption about themselves?   Who dreamed up this plan?  Even the word “pastor” comes from the pastoral metaphor of a shepherd as pastor of the flock. 

Now granted some ministers are quick to say, “Jesus is the shepherd.  But we are the under-shepherds.”  Yeah, whatever.   There is a reason why those in authority like to think of themselves as shepherds or under-shepherds.  That is to have control over the sheep.   It is loving control of course.  Because the sheep need to be fed.  The sheep need to be led.  The sheep simply cannot handle life at all except that a loving shepherd tells them what to eat, where to sleep, and what to think.   If you are a sheep you don’t need to do a lot of thinking.  Mostly just obeying.  Listen to the voice of the shepherd and follow.

In the Five Gospels, the Jesus Seminar wrote this about the tenth chapter of John:
“…there is no echo here of the authentic voice of Jesus; the Johannine community is attempting to work out its self-definition in terms delivered from the scriptures.”  P. 436.
In other words, John made it up.   

John borrowed images of shepherding from the Hebrew Scriptures in places like Ezekiel and the Psalms and of the story of David as a shepherd boy and applied them to Jesus.     I doubt that the historical Jesus ever thought of himself as a shepherd.    To me Jesus was more like a guy who would say,
“Don’t wait for a shepherd.  Be your own shepherd.”  
His parables and aphorisms were about inspiring people to find their own voice and to use it.  
“The kingdom of God is within you!” 
“You are the light of the world.” 
“You are the salt of the Earth.”
Why then does John turn Jesus into a shepherd?

This is not about Jesus.  It is about John.   He wants sheep.   The theme throughout John is to believe what "we" told you.  “We” being the ones who control and own the story.     Some scholars suggest that the original ending for The Gospel of John was the end of chapter 20.   It is the scene in which Thomas the doubter is scolded by Jesus for not believing the others. 
“’Do you believe because you have seen me?’ asks Jesus.  ‘Those  who can believe without having to see are the ones to be congratulated.’”
 Then the book seems to end with the narrator saying:
“Although Jesus performed many more miracles for his disciples to see than could be written down in this book, these are written down so you will come to believe that Jesus is the Anointed, God’s son—and by believing this have life in his name.”    
Don’t doubt.  Believe.  Be a good sheep.

Elaine Pagels in her book Beyond Belief suggests that the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas (that did not make it into the Bible) represent competing communities.   Whereas John saw Jesus as an object of belief, Thomas saw Jesus as inspiration to discover oneself.    This section in which Jesus addresses the character Thomas, Pagels sees as a dig at the community that centered itself around the Gospel of Thomas.   Don’t be like Thomas.  Don’t be like that group.   They will lead you astray.

Interesting stuff.  Thomas’ Jesus is made up too, although the Jesus Seminar discovered that more of the sayings of the historical Jesus have been preserved in Thomas than in John.  However, Thomas’s Jesus is also a creative theological fiction as is John’s Jesus.  These early communities were competing over not only who Jesus was but who Jesus is.     

Those competing visions of Jesus were competing ways of living.   That competition had to do with authority.    It had to do with boundaries of who is in and out of the community and what was the hierarchy of authority.    One can imagine that it might be easier to build a church around the Gospel of John than around the Gospel of Thomas

I offer this critical assessment for a number of reasons.  The Bible is not always what it seems.  It was created by numerous human authors.  Every one of them had an agenda.   They created these stories and these images for a variety of reasons.  Reasons that we may never know.

Still today these stories in the Bible are used for certain agendas.    People will quote from the Bible and from Jesus as if it or he were the final authority and then claim authority as under-shepherds to interpret it and him for you.  

Now you may say, "John Shuck, why should we believe you?"   My answer is you shouldn’t.  If you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible, good for you.  Be your own shepherd.   I can’t lead you astray if you are not sheep. 

If I succeeded at least in part by encouraging you to look at John’s gospel, and actually the whole Bible, critically, good.  That was my devious plan.   I also want to offer another spin on the shepherd story.  

There is something that is endearing and comforting about the shepherd.   In our busy industrial society, the notion of leaving it all and moving to Kansas to wander around with sheep all day sounds like a pleasant idea.  

There is a reason why the most beloved psalm, the psalm that is most likely to be known by heart is the 23rd Psalm. 
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
He makes me like down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil.
For thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff
They comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,
Thou annointest my head with oil.
My cup overflows
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I remember it in the King James version.

The image of Jesus as The Good Shepherd is a comforting image.   As comforting images go, it is one of the best, at least one of the most popular.    In those times in our lives in which the valley is dark and life is anything but peaceful and pastoral and we are surrounded by enemies and dangers, when we do fear evil, to know that the Lord is my shepherd and that the Lord has a face, perhaps the face of Jesus as we have imagined him or have seen images of him in artwork, is comforting.   We can reach this Jesus through meditation, prayer, scripture, and song.  It restores the soul.  

Even as I advocate critical study of images, I find that image and others to be powerful and comforting.   In part because I grew up with it and it is embedded in my psyche.  But also because there is a longing we humans have for a comfort and an anchor, for a shepherd.  That is why our hymns are filled with that kind of imagery.      

But the image of Jesus or of God as the shepherd or the gate or the anointed one or God’s Son and so forth is an image.  They are all images.   They are the way our brains work to get in touch with the ineffable.   

We can make an idol of any these images.  We can make an idol of our religion as a whole.  We can make an idol of the Bible, our images of God, Jesus even.  Idol-making usually leads to violence.  Think of the craziness in Afghanistan over the Qur'an burning.    Christians can be equally crazy when criticism of creed or the Bible is equated with blasphemy.    The critical study of these images is important because it keeps them from becoming idols.   

Yet we wouldn’t want our critical study of images to keep us from using them.    That is where I part ways with those who want to do away with religion.   I think these symbols and images can help us live meaningful and joyful lives.   

In traditions that use icons for prayer, the instruction is not to pray to the icon, but through the icon.   The icon or image is a vehicle.   The image of Jesus as Good Shepherd is, for me, a vehicle, not an end.  As I have come to see it now, the feelings of comfort, of belonging, of care, of peacefulness of purposefulness, are the real thing.    Jesus is the vehicle, but at the end of the day, you are your own shepherd. 

You are your own shepherd. 

Those feelings of love, comfort, belonging, care, and purposefulness are not dependent on something or someone outside giving them to you.  They are yours.   You can activate them within by many means, including by the use of these beautiful images.   

So go ahead, sing the songs, pray the prayers alone or with others, and embrace the tradition with awareness.  Yes you walk the lonesome valley.  But you do so with the awareness that the kingdom of God, the lamp of truth, and the love that holds the universe is within you.  

Amen.
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