Friday, 1 May 2020

Shepherd or Thief?

When we read Luke’s description of the early church, it’s easy to become either nostalgic — “nostalgic — “Those were the good old days ...” or depressed — “What are we doing wrong?” Before falling prey to either reaction, however, it’s worth considering that we now live in a culture that no longer assumes church attendance is either expected or obligatory. That is, people no longer go to church because they feel they should. Instead, they give their time, energy, and resources to those activities and institutions that make a real difference in their lives.

So perhaps we should ask people what they want, what they need, even what they crave from their faith communities. My guess is that the variety of answers we receive will have one thing in common: we want life, real life, a life of meaning and purpose, a life characterised by fulfillment, generosity, and love. This is still probably the most important thing even though we are currently worshipping virtually or apart. Which is exactly what Jesus promises in the Gospel reading from John 10:1-10 today: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”

There are still “thieves and bandits” promising life to our people but failing to deliver. They can set the context for our preaching. In response to the false promise of acceptance—if you become thin or beautiful enough—that animates so many diet fads, the Gospel promises unconditional acceptance. In response to the false promise of escape in the face of hardship that drives many to drugs and alcohol, the church offers a community that shares all in common (Acts 2:44)—including joys and suffering. In response to the false promise that contentment comes by having more stuff, the church reminds us that “the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1 NRSV).

You see, to me the audience craving abundant life has never been larger. So, let’s offer it.

 The quest for good leadership is a universal struggle. Good leaders bring life, peace, and joy. Poor leaders don’t. Some even seek power for no other reason than to control and fleece those under their (lack of) care. Leadership in the world currently, in face of the Covid-19 crisis, does seem to be somewhat lacking. In the Gospel for this week, John presents Jesus as the ultimate leader who loves and brings life to his followers, who, in turn, are called to lead and love those under their care. This is the message of this week’s Gospel reading.

This section does not stand alone. It is part of a much longer discourse and flows out of the preceding narrative. The John 9 story of the Sabbath-healing of the man born blind sets up Jesus’ statement about making the blind see and the sighted blind. In reaction, Jesus is challenged by Pharisees who ask if his words apply to them. His response begins the discourse that continues, uninterrupted, into John 10 — “Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

While this story appears to be part of the sequence beginning in chapter 7 at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, 10:22 seems to indicate that the Shepherd discourse happened a few months later at the Feast of Dedication (or Hanukkah), which commemorated the Maccabean confrontation of true and corrupt leaders (about 160 BC). Since the Ezekiel 34 prophecy about the wicked shepherds of Israel was customarily read at this festival, it makes sense for this to be the setting for the shepherd discourse. But John certainly wants to keep the connection with the blind man in our minds.

In the discourse of John 10, the “blind” religious leaders of the previous chapter are Ezekiel’s wicked shepherds and Jesus’ thieves. Jesus, mixing his metaphors, claims to be the opposite. He is the good shepherd who enters through the gate with the gatekeeper’s permission. He is the gate through which the sheep enter to find safety and protection and go out to find pasture. He has the interests of God’s people at heart, unlike the thieves who “steal, kill, and destroy” the sheep. Bad leaders sacrifice the sheep on the altar of their own greed, power-hunger, or need for control. Jesus sacrifices himself for the sheep that they may find abundant life. It’s a simple test of leadership: who gets sacrificed, the sheep or the shepherd?

Every person is a leader in some sense, and we are all called to be “good shepherds” who lay down our lives for our “sheep.” To the extent that others are sacrificed or damaged by our needs for control, power, or material gain, we are less “shepherd” and more “thief.” But insofar as we lay aside our needs, insofar as we embrace sacrifice so that others don’t have to, we are the good shepherds that Jesus calls us to be. And only in this way can we, and those we lead, find life.

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