Harrowing Of Hell
May 12, 2019

Jesus our Shepherd

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

I think I might have better luck with this question here in Seattle than I did while I lived in New York City. So, I am going to ask it. How many folks grew up on a farm or a ranch? Can I see a show of hands? And how many of you raised sheep? Okay, so folks these are the people who might have some idea of what a shepherd actually does. The rest of us. Well, we just have a romantic pastoral idea of shepherds – and we are not the only ones –notice how this word that we use for the keeping and grazing of sheep and cattle is also the word that we use for a form of literature that portrays an idealized version of country life.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we probably all bring an idealized version of the Shepherd  – one that we have learned through our recitations of Psalm 23… “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….he maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

 For many Episcopalians this may be the one psalm we can recite out loud with the same kind of confidence with which we say the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed – although I should note that most of us prefer the King James version to the one found in the Book of Common Prayer.  

But Psalm 23 is beautiful, isn’t it? It is speaks of God’s assurance that God will protect us, lead us and be with us until the end of our days—that God will guide us through the darkest times of our lives… “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”  And as Christians, it speaks to us, too, of Jesus’ promise of eternal life. Just as Jesus promises his disciples, it reminds us that we will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

The promises made in Psalm 23 are not to be discounted. As Jews and Christians, our faith is rooted in the fact that we have a shepherd who watches over us—who has chosen us to be God’s people.  And this psalm tells us a lot about our relationship to God. The promises made to us are real. Yet, we have to be careful that we do not fall prey to our sentimental interpretations of this psalm – and this is not to say that we shouldn’t delight or take solace in the words – but rather that these words are an invitation to walk forward with faith rather than an exposition on how to remain ‘safe.’

In today’s gospel, we encounter Jesus’ understanding of the shepherd which, on the surface, seems decidedly less comforting and reassuring than the 23rd Psalm. And that is to be expected. Jesus is in the midst of a charged situation in a time fraught with anxiety. Although we are still in the Easter season, our gospel today finds Jesus in Jerusalem during the feast of the Dedication. Or as it might be better known today; Hanukkah.  While we Christians think of Hanukkah mostly in terms of menorahs and its close proximity to Christmas, this festival was established in 164 BCE to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple – the very Temple in which Jesus is walking today. This re-dedication had taken place after seven years of military unrest and had been necessary because Antiochus the 4th, who was the king of the Hellenistic Syrian kingdom, had defiled the Temple by, among other things, placing a statue of Zeus above the altar. But this situation was made even worse because while it was the King who enforced this – it was a Hellenistic Jew – a quasi-priest, who actually allowed the statue to be placed in the Temple.  So, the Jewish authorities who ask Jesus to tell them if he is the Messiah or not – they are asking him this question in the context of a Festival which celebrates priest-turned-warrior, Judas Maccabeus removing all the idols from the Temple and re-dedicating it to the God of Israel. So, keeping the Temple free from blasphemy would have been front of mind for them.  During the Festival, too, the previous persecution of the Jews from political rulers of the Empire and the internal societal splits and religious schisms that formed in those difficult and dangerous times would have also been on their minds. It taken over seven years of warfare and turmoil to right the sacrilegious and blasphemous acts done in the Temple. And it had taken another 20 years for Israel to given some measure of self-governance again. So, when Jewish folks ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, it comes at a time when the Jewish authorities are again worried about reprisals and split on many issues –many of which haven’t changed much in the intervening years– just a tiny piece of which concerned Jesus. It isn’t any wonder that they cannot hear what Jesus is saying to them.

But one thing is for certain, after Jesus answers their question today, they come to a consensus on this —  that they believe Jesus to be both a danger to society and a blasphemer.  In the verses following today’s gospel, we are told, “The Jews took up stones…to stone him (which the book of Leviticus tells us is the appropriate punishment for a blasphemer).Jesus asks them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?”And the Jewish leaders answer, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 

The temple authorities live in a precarious and uncertain time where their survival is dependent, to a large extent, upon keeping the peace with Rome. And so, they don’t see, as we wouldn’t have seen, themselves as part of the historic division between successful Hellenized Jews who benefit from their connection to the empire and the larger Jewish community.  They also do not make the connection that many of the same divisions that had led to the Maccabean revolt are still at play. Because then, as now, there were many different sects within Judaism.  This is an important detail for we Christians to remember. Because we too live in divisive times. And as Al Einstein noted in our sermon prep meeting this week, we see those opposed to Jesus today referred to in the gospel of John with monolithic broad strokes as “the Jews.” But it is not ‘the Jews’ as a whole who rejected Jesus. It was some of the leaders of the various sects of Judaism who rejected Jesus. And some of those folks, good religious folks probably a lot like us, did so because they wanted security for their families. They were afraid when someone as powerful as Jesus came to Jerusalem because they feared social unrest and turmoil. Because lives were at stake. And they wanted to be safe.

I know this historical stuff seems to have very little to do with our idea of the Good Shepherd. But it is a part of it. Really it is. Because you see, our ideas about the Good Shepherd often have to do with our own desire to feel safe and secure too. One of my favorite images of the Good Shepherd is in the Chapel at the General Seminary in New York – in this sculptural part of the reredos, Jesus is carrying a little lamb on his shoulder. I think I love this so much because it is reminiscent of how my Dad used to carry me as a little one. It is so exhilarating as a child to be up that high, and yet firmly seated on a loved one’s shoulder and help securely in their hands. And I honestly think Jesus wouldn’t mind that I love this image so much. God’s loves us as God’s children – God knows us intimately and holds us in his hand. In fact, in today’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he will care for and keep his sheep safe. “My sheep…I know them… I give them eternal life, 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.”  We matter to God so much that Jesus himself says that he loves us…greater than all else and he will keep us safe. The Lord is, indeed, our shepherd.

But the Lord is our shepherd here in the midst of this life. The problem with idyllic pastoral or personal images is that they can lead us to discount our shepherd as just a beautiful ideal that is exceedingly difficult to interact with outside of a story book. And in our ideation of the Good Shepherd in terms of foggy notions of a future heavenly realm, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to truly interact with our shepherd right now. As those who grew up on a farm or ranch can tell us, and as Jesus and those around him would have known, shepherding—animal husbandry isn’t idyllic – it is hard, demanding, and perilous work. So as those who are so loved by God, we are not just assured of God’s love in some future perfect scenario – we are assured that our fierce and powerful shepherd is strong enough to hold the wolves at bay and astute enough to lead us through the arid and dry places to the green pastures where we can find sustenance. We are loved by a God throughout it all – in our darkest times and in our best. In the sweet by-and-by and in the present Kingdom of God. When we really rest in this knowledge, we find ourselves emboldened by God’s love to not only go forward on our spiritual journeys but also bring others into God’s fold—to tend to, to feed—and to care God’s sheep.

In last week’s gospel we were reminded that loving Jesus—that being a disciple of Christ– isn’t just about a sentiment or a feeling we have toward God– it is revealed in feeding and caring for others. When Daddy Joe, which is what I called Dad as a toddler, held me on his shoulder, I felt tall enough, strong enough and big enough to anything. Now I will admit that even though I am from Montana, I did not grow up on a farm or ranch – so I know next to nothing about being a shepherd. But I can tell you that at 5, trusting in God I guess, I held our tiny kitten up firmly and safely on my shoulder as our neighbor’s dog, barking furiously, kept jumping on me to try to hurt her. My little heart knew, without a doubt, that she would not make it if I didn’t. So I would not let that dog snatch her out of my hands.  And at my Father’s funeral, as my heart felt like it might break, I led our recitation of the 23rd Psalm as a priest, who honoring her father’s last request, presided at his funeral. I am not very brave. But we can all be fierce when we love. I know we live in divisive times – in a world that is split not just politically but socially and religiously as well.  But when we hear God’s voice, we do not need to be afraid – to help—to hurt—to love—to feed. For the Lord is our Shepherd… and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.