The Beautiful Shepherd

John 10.11-18

Part of the fun of translation is that words do not map directly to each other between languages. One word will have two meanings in the other language and the translator will have to choose. A perfect example is John 10.11 where Jesus says “I am (yes, it’s an ‘I am’ saying) the kalos shepherd.” For the more literal minded, he actually says “I am the shepherd the kalos one.” But regardless of the form kalos is what he is.

The fun part of translation is that kalos means both “good” and “beautiful.” Thus Jesus can be the “Good Shepherd” or the “Beautiful Shepherd.” This is not as weird as at first it may seem, the Greek philosophers argued about The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, holding that these were the highest level things about which one could think. That which was Good was held to be True, the Truth was itself Beautiful, and Beauty was the physical reflection of The Good. Thus all three combined as the highest and best of the cosmos, those things about which we could and should truly concern ourselves.

Calling Jesus the Beautiful Shepherd makes sense then (there’s even a popular song about it), but does it change the way we understand who he is or what he does? A little bit yes and a little bit no.

You see, Jesus is still the Good Shepherd even when he is also the Beautiful one. What he does and who he is remains both Good and Beautiful so that part doesn’t change. Our understanding of beauty must however change if we are to take the rest of the passage seriously.

We have been taught to think of beauty as simply prettiness, as if the only point of beauty was to be appreciated by others. Yet beauty is a quality which shines through our being, showing forth what is intrinsically deep within ourselves. Thus Jesus’ beauty is actually his goodness shining into the world. And what is this goodness? Laying down life for ta idia.

We don’t really have this concept in English but ta idia means “one’s own.” It means more than “my stuff, my pile of objects” it means most deeply “the things which are proper to/part of my Self.” We handle this as “one’s own” but in the opening chapter of John the word is used to refer to the people of God. “He came to ta idia and ta idia knew him not” Jesus came to the people and the home which was his and was rejected as “not from these parts.”

Just as in the psalm where his rod and staff comfort, he prepares a table in the presence of our enemies, and is with us even in the valley of the shadow itself, so in this passage the beautiful shepherd faces up to the wolf. He does not flee the threat but stands up to it. Deep in the valley, with the wolf coming over the wall, with enemies around, Jesus lays down his life.

We are used to seeing this as “dying for” and that is certainly the big death we expect in the valley of the shadow, when the wolf comes, but this is not at all mandatory. Jesus can (and does) lay down life itself each day to us and for us. Jesus lays down life so we can live. He lays down life so we can take it up. He gives us the gift of life each morning and looks to hear each evening what we have done with this one wild and precious day.

Yes the beautiful shepherd laid down his life on the cross of us and received it back again but that can be called a one time thing. The truth however is that Jesus is always laying down life for us, just as a perfect parent lays down their life in big and little ways for their children, just as a lover lays down their life for their beloved, Jesus lays down his life for us each day. Our challenge then is seeing this life laid down for us and the beautiful shepherd who lays that life down in us in order to take us up again with him.

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Touch Me

John 20.19-31

Touch is a part of intimacy, a concrete and often tender reminder that both of you are real and really present for the other. Whether this touch is a tender glance, a hand on the shoulder, or something more involved, touch matters. In fact, one of the best indicators for a child’s wellbeing is how often and how tenderly they were handled as an infant. Energetic, warm and consistent touch is the groundwork for a healthy and sane individual. Harsh touch or even worse, neglect is the source of what are politely called “attachment disorders.”

Our fundamental need for touch is in fact the reason abuse is so horrific. We come to one from whom we have the right to expect tender touch and receive harshness and violence instead. We come in trust and our trust is broken. Over time, regularly broken trust leads to broken beings, seemingly normal and functional people who are fundamentally unable or unwilling to trust another enough to even bother with touch. Or else they have learned that only some kinds of touch are good and possibly even prefer violent touch because it’s familiar.

These disorders of touch block us from the profound reality of the goodness of creation. Add to this our cultural bias against the material world in favor of an etherial “spiritual” world and the fact that we are even vaguely spiritually sane is truly miraculous. But none of this actually sets up the discussion of “doubting” Thomas, except that it does.

Thomas is a concrete kind of person. The root of this is not explained in the text. Perhaps he has had too many trusts betrayed, too many pranks played, to ever “just believe” what people say. Maybe he was just one of those people who is naturally skeptical of the world around them, we do not know. What we know is that he took what the other disciples said with a great big pound of salt. In this he’s not alone, you know, the disciples didn’t believe what the women told them about having seen Jesus either.

So in John 20 Mary sees Jesus but doesn’t believe it’s him until he speaks to her. Then she sees and knows and goes and… is doubted. Then the disciples (still locked behind the doors because of fear) see Jesus. They see and know and go and… Thomas doubts them. So far, everyone in the story starts out not believing and then becomes believing and then is doubted by the next one in line.

So Jesus shows up a week later and Thomas is there. Jesus walks up to Thomas and says “Peace be with you.” And then he says something a lover might say, something a dear friend would invite, something sung in that most famous song in Andy Webber’s famous musical about kitties. Jesus says “touch me.” Don’t hold back Thomas, no longer be untrusting (apistos) but trusting (pistos).

Before you wonder at my use of the terms, those are the accurate translations of the Greek behind our cruel message to the fearful that they need to “stop doubting and believe” or that their life stinks because they need to “believe harder.” Doubt is not the opposite of faith, because faith is trust without reservation. Doubt is what leads to questioning. Questioning leads to testing. And testing can lead to deepening of our relationship. These questions are part of what energizes those famous DTR discussions which can lead to deeper trust. So again, it comes back to trust.

And how do we build trust? By touch. We touch the other person, sometimes physically, sometimes with words, sometimes emotionally, but in all these moments, we touch the other. We make a relationship bid and they respond. We then see if their response means we can trust them or not. If they throw off our hand or recoil from us in fear, we lose trust. If they grab us harshly, we lose trust. If they touch us well and we respond well, trust grows. And all of this happens through touch.

So Jesus invites Thomas to touch and Thomas responds “my Lord and my God.” Jesus invites us to touch and we respond… how? Do we touch Jesus with hope, longing and love? Do we hold back in fear? Do we recognize that communion is a concrete way in which he touches our lives? And then, shaped by the touch of Jesus, how do we touch others? Are we warm and welcoming? Do we touch with grace and kindness? Do we say yes to each other or do we hide from each other? And what about “those people” the dangerous/dirty/different ones. How do we touch them? Do we touch them at all? If someone moves to touch us, how do we respond? Do we flinch, panic, run away?

None of this is easy, none of this is something we could do on our own. The process of trusting someone else enough to touch them or to let them touch us is… agonizing and long. It’s actually astonishing that we do it at all. But the real power of touching freely and being touched belovedly is so profoundly real and affirming of the goodness in us and all creation, that we can begin to understand that God loves us with a hug and invites us to touch and trust.

So as Jesus invited Thomas, he invites us: “touch me.”

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A Physical Resurrection

Easter Theology

In the back of our rationalist mind there’s an uneasiness about Easter. A certain voice echoes back there, the one that says “Jesus didn’t really, physically rise from the dead, that’s just stupid.” Folks call it a “powerful metaphor.” Marcus Borg even describes it as a “wonderful idea” but the whole “physical Jesus rising in a physical body from a physical grave?” Oy, the things these simpletons believe!

Our well trained, rational mind shies away from the whole idea because it’s too messy, too arms and legs and body parts for our neat, ethereal certainties to take. Christian culture has loved the idea of resurrection, but put the blood and sweat and farting over there please, you’re messing up our flannelgraph.

The problem with this ethereal, ‘spiritual but not physical’ preference in the church is that it makes us the judge of what God can do, surrenders to heresy, oh, and denies the good creation.

Heresy is a word we associate with Those Close Minded People who Just Say No To Everything. The word is however quite accurate and connects to a historical problem in the church. In our early days, we fell back on Plato’s idea of the physical world as a shadow of the Real, Spiritual world. This played into the assumptions of what became known as the gnostic heresy. A central tenet of gnosticism is that the material world is Bad and the spiritual world is Good. We are, to a gnostic, immortal souls trapped in a disgusting meat bag we call a body. Our deepest hope and longing then is to cast away this mortal clay and ascend to higher worlds above.

Gnostics absolutely love the idea of Jesus’ resurrection being “just a nice idea.” A physical body rising up and walking around? To a gnostic that’s just messy and disgusting, an ethereal idea “rising from the dead” is much more desireable. This, ultimately is why gnosticism is actually inhumane and disgusting.

To understand what I mean, look at (or imagine) someone you love. In spite of their flaws and foibles, they’re beautiful and beloved but to a gnostic, they’re just a sick festering mass of mortality that should be shunned and scorned. Small cute fuzzy creatures? They’re sick, festering masses too. Flowers, trees, sunsets… to a gnostic, they’re all vile and disgusting because they’re material and concrete. That’s why gnosticism actually ends up being so inhumane and ugly, it hates the material world and the beauties we see and touch and taste all around.

While that may seem to be bad enough, here’s the fundamental flaw in the denial of a physical resurrection: it denies value to creation.

You see, If Jesus didn’t physically come into the world, physically die in the world, and physically rise again in this same world, then the world itself doesn’t matter. If matter doesn’t then matter, then nothing I do in this world or to this world matters either. Dump trash in the water? Doesn’t matter. Poison the air? Doesn’t matter. Beat someone to death? Still doesn’t matter. In fact, if matter doesn’t matter then I can do anything to you that I want because your body has no value, and neither does mine. Beatings, rape, murder, abuse… none of them matter if creation has no value.

Sure, you can argue for beauty or truth or justice, but those are concepts we agree upon to form society. As Pratchett famously reminds us “there is no Justice, there’s just us.” So if we decide that slavery is cool, then it is because there is no goodness inherent in bodies or beings. Should we decide that women are property to be used by men, then it is so if creation has no intrinsic worth. Outrage at the strong preying on the weak is entirely misplaced if the material world has no more meaning than a used kleenex. And this is why the physical resurrection is so massively important.

The Incarnation (God taking human, material flesh and walking around touching the world) and the Bodily Resurrection (Jesus really rose up and walked around touching the world) are fundamental to any notion that the created world has value. That God chose to touch, delight in, and walk around in this creation. That the Ineffable and Holy took on concrete material flesh. That the death was real and the resurrection was real means that the material world has been touched and redeemed even in its broken state. Even battered and bleeding as it is, even covered in warts and acne, full of selfishness and foolishness, even now, even this God embraced it all.

Lots of Creation Theologians just assume that because when God made the world “it was very good” that this goodness somehow miraculously came through the breaking of creation in Genesis 3 entirely unscathed. But creation was fundamentally changed because of our sin. And yet, even though we got carnivorousness, murder, and the endless war for supremacy after sin broke creation, God still chose to touch it all and embrace the whole mess into the resurrected self who ate fish with the disciples and touched Thomas.

If only the soul matters in the end, if only the idea of resurrection is important, then the material world itself doesn’t matter, you don’t matter, and I don’t matter. But Jesus lived in this material world, died a material death, and was raised as a material being and thus matter DOES matter. You matter and your body matters.

Jesus rose up and walked on the earth with tender feet. He touched the fearful with physical hands, and he ascended as a physical being into the Trinity where the dance of perichoresis goes on forever. Because our physical being is connected to Jesus’ risen and physical self, our body is part of that dance even today. Battered, creaking, and by no means model perfect, our physical body matters because Jesus’ resurrected body matters.

Because matter matters.

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Going into Galilee

Mark 16.1-8

Easter Sunday is the Big Day in the life of the church. It’s the day preachers preach about “newness of life” and being “new creations in Christ.” We struggle to find a way to explain ‘life from the dead” in a way that doesn’t turn out sounding like zombie Jesus to our TV saturated parish, and try to reach for the notion of new and hopeful life among a people who are, on the whole, pretty healthy and happy.

But even if we manage to get across the idea of new life-from-the-grave, there’s the whole “so what?” question. So we have new life, so what? I don’t feel new and empowered by God. In fact, I mostly feel tired and worn.

For that matter, while preachers trumpet “new” and “good” and “life” like ad men pitching improved laundry detergent, life feels anything but. People are sick, people are dying, the ongoing “I hate you,” “well, I hate you more” of modern politics thunders across our TV screens. Overall, if you want to see life falling apart before your eyes, you are, as the Brits say “spot for choice.”

Having Gloomy Gussed all over the new life in Easter story, what hope can we offer? May I direct you to a little phrase we rarely note in our rush to the Easter Buffet.

“He is going before you into Galilee, just as he said.”

There are two parts to this sentence. The first is that, looked at ‘just so,’ it is a theological repeat mark. Jesus was in Galilee? When did that happen? “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee…” Yep, if we want to see Jesus in Galilee, we have to go back to the beginning of the book and read the story again. Like a musical repeat mark, we go Da Capo and read back again through the story, seeing more richness and depth because now we know where it is going.

The second part is all Greek and really challenging. You see, Jesus has proagei into Galilee, not erchomai. Erchomai is the verb we usually use for “going places” it means “to go” or “come into a place.” The majority of ‘moving about’ words in the New Testament are rooted on erchomai, proago is rarely used.

This actually makes sense because proago is a compound of pro “before/ahead” and ago “to lead/bring.” So Jesus hasn’t just thumbed a ride to the next town, he’s going ahead, leading ahead, bringing us ahead into Galilee. And that is a horse of a very different color.

Jesus is not just ‘going and hoping we can catch up’ nor is he heading out with a ‘cheerio chaps, I’m off!’ Jesus is going into a place into which he is also leading us. This place is Galilee and where exactly is that? Does anyone remember where Jesus met the disciples in the first place? Yep, Galilee.

In other words, Jesus is leading the disciples into the same place they’ve always been only now Jesus Is With Them (can you say “Immanuel” boys and girls? I knew you could). That’s right, Jesus is leading the disciples right back into their “chop wood, haul water” lives. And since Jesus met us in media res he drops us right back into the pot and gives it a good stir.

We started our life of faith in the middle of going somewhere else and Jesus keeps us going on the road. Only this time we have Jesus doing a ride along. But he’s also in the place we’re going, working as the advanced team, prepping the place for us at the same time that he’s coaching us so we’re ready to be there. Jesus is leading us into the place, preparing the place, and making us ready to be in the place and that place is our life. The shorthand for all this is “going into Galilee” but it means so much more.

It means that we are going into life, into new living, because Jesus is moving us there. We are standing up from the places where we were down and going into new places that are really the old places we’ve been only now we have eyes to see them. But to get there we have to move.

We have to go into Galilee, go where Jesus has already gone.

Now this is not easy. In fact, we can find ourselves unwilling, unable, and unbelieving of our ability to move. Jesus wants so much of us and really, we’re tired. The whole ‘new life from death’ and complete transformation of being that we are promised in the resurrection is really more than we can handle.

And sometimes, we find ourselves in the middle of Susan Ashton’s song “You Move Me.”

“This is how it seems to me. Life is only therapy. Real expensive and no guarantees. So I lie here on the couch, with my heart hanging out. Frozen solid with fear like a rock in the ground.

But you move me. You give me courage I didn’t know I had.
I can’t go with you and stay where I am, so you move me.”

Even when we’re frozen in fear, stuck in habits, addictions, mental traps, and situations beyond our control, Jesus is moving us. That’s the bloody, blessed, bloomin POINT of the resurrection. We can’t move ourselves all the way, we can’t make it that next step, we may even be debating whether the next breath is worth taking, but what matters is that Jesus Is Alive and Leading ahead of us into Galilee.

He’s going ahead of us, he’s going with us, he’s going and we will get there too. No matter what else goes on. And that is the reason his being raised matters, because he’s not done with the resurrection work. He’s going into Galilee with us and drawing us on.

You go whistling in the dark, making light of it.
And I follow with my heart, laughing all the way.
Oh, ’cause you move me.


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That’s a Resurrection

Easter Sunday

A classic clergy joke/fantasy is of calling up the head of the congregation on Easter weekend and saying “You’ve done Easter services so often, you don’t really need me there to lead, so I’m going on vacation. See you in two weeks!” Ah, for clergy deep in the emotional work of parish care and multiple sermon prep, the siren song of skipping ‘just this one time’ is sooooo appealing. (sigh)

But we don’t because that would mean missing one of the most important parts of our life of faith: the moment we get reminded that we can stand up again. This is because, ultimately, the work of resurrection is standing up again. It’s what the Greek word for resurrection, anastasia actually means. It means to stand up, to rise up again. So every time we stand up, there’s a resurrection.

For old film buffs, this may ring a bell. In the film “On the Waterfront” Father Barry preaches a sermon where he connects the evils we do to each other and calls them “a crucifixion.” He looks at the way people “don’t see” and let things slide because “it’s not my job” and calls them crucifixions. It’s a powerful moment when he pulls back the curtain of the world and shows us the spiritual underpinnings of it all.

It also leads to a question for us: where’s the resurrection?

That is kind of the point of Easter. Death doesn’t win, the crucifixions: the mob bosses who kill, the cops who get away with violence, the drug pushers, the pimps, and the abusers who are today’s attendants at the crucifixion don’t win the game. Jesus takes their crap and evil and barbarity into the tomb with him and leaves them there. All this is good and beautiful in its way but this is only part of the story.

Where are the resurrections?

It was Jesus’ death, burial, AND resurrection that makes the moment powerful. Lots of people die and are buried, not so many take the next step.

So if the final resurrection is That Great Gettin’ Up Morning and that morning is part of the time described as “in that day, declares the LORD” are there little resurrections? Are there moments when we stand up again, when we anastasia from the place where we were?

  • When a woman recognizes that she has a voice that matters, there’s a resurrection.
  • When a child accepts that mom and dad are wrong to beat them, there’s a resurrection.
  • When a man sees through society’s lies about “being manly,” there’s a resurrection.
  • When black lives matter, when trans lives matter, when life itself matters, there is resurrection.

There are a lot of moments in life where we stand up and walk away from the people who yell at us, hit us, and belittle us. All of those are resurrections.

There are moments when we stand up to the lies we were told, the lies we have carried with us in our hearts, those too are resurrections.

There are times we look at the horrors of our past and say “you were then, I am now” letting those moments go into the great forgiveness, even those moments are resurrections.

This is because resurrection is the movement from sitting to standing, from loss to living, from frozen in fear to moving in the dance. It is a movement we can engage in because Jesus is real and risen. It is a movement for which we have the power because of the Risen Christ in us.

And that is why, even though we “all know how this story ends” already and we’ve “done this like, a hundred times before” we’re going to get up early and celebrate a resurrection because there, right there in front of us all, That’s a Resurrection.

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A Wile E. Moment

Holy Saturday

The church is regularly and subtly attacked by the whisper that we “shouldn’t be so sad” because “we’re too blessed to be depressed.” This is a lie and it seeks to get us to lie to ourselves and each other, thus dividing us from the truth that gives life. It is a lie that takes away life and the hope of life. I will leave to your reflection what the source of such lies might actually be.

Suffice it to say that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous together and that the sun shines on us indiscriminately as well. Good and evil come and go through our life like birds flitting between the branches of a tree. None of them stay over long, moving on and leaving the branch largely unchanged for their visit. The branch remains, the tree remains, and the birds go flitting off to other places.

Over time we learn to experience what is happening now: good, evil, or neutral, and let most of it go while fondly remembering the good. We get into trouble in two ways, by trying to lie to ourselves and others that “everything’s fine” and by bundling up the evil and carrying it around with us like anti-treasures.

The first error requires us to lie to ourselves and others. This kind of lying is foundational to the addiction process and is the reason the 12 Steps emphasize again and again that fundamental to the recovery process is the ability to be completely honest. We have to see and show our ugly parts as well as our beauty if we are ever going to see ourselves as we are and do something with who we are. After all, if we are working to get a fantasy self to change, our efforts do not change who we really are and so our effort is wasted. Then we can give up with a sigh of frustration saying “I tried but I just can’t do it” and stay just as we are anyway.

The second error, carrying the evil around with us like anti-treasures, gets us to reject the goodness and beauty around us because “we’ve been bad” or “bad things were done to us.” The first idea invites us to choose bad things in the future as punishment for “being bad” in the past. But since we can never really atone for being bad (only doing bad) we will always choose the moldy sandwich because “we deserve it.” The second idea, that bad, horrible, shattering events in our past are an incurable injury we must carry with us forever, drains any hope from our present and our future. Some things are absolutely horrible, child abuse and neglect, sexual assault, war, the madness of “love” that devours instead of gives, but (and this is important) those things do come to an end.

We no longer live in a war zone, mom isn’t hitting us any more, even the most vile abuse ends at some point and we are left to find as many pieces of ourself as we can and build something out of our mess. It is absolutely not fair and we will have to break the mess we’ve cobbled together more than once and start over, but the HorribleVeryBadNoGood Thing has ended. We are alive here and now and have the power to make changes.

All of which is a long reflection on hurt and our future but it also skitters away from the point of this post. Holy Saturday is the time in the church where we sit there, like a mourner in disbelief, like an abuse survivor when the abuse has ended. The physical stuff we have to do, eat, sleep, dress ourselves is all going along on automatic but our heart is stopped. While our living, moving, be-ing has shuddered to a crashing halt, the world spins on around us unconcerned. We’re caught in a Wile E. Moment.

You know the kind I mean. Wile E. Coyote has been chasing the roadrunner and somehow once again run off a cliff. There’s a moment or two where he hangs there suspended, neither running nor falling but caught in a timeless moment before time (and gravity) catch up with him and send him to the bottom of the canyon.

Unlike secular society which flatly denies that any such thing could happen, the church has an official festival to commemorate that moment. The life of faith includes the faith we have even in those “the world has ended, why is it still spinning” moments. We explicitly recognize that people of faith are not “too blessed to be depressed,” lying to ourselves that evil is not happening around us. We commemorate the moments of utter, mind-numbing horror that intrude on and even destroy life as it has been.

We do this because these things are an ugly but real part of life. Because life and faith exist even here in that moment after running off the cliff and before gravity grimly takes us down. Life, faith, and God exist even in the moments when our minds shy away from the enormity of evil, the utter ‘this is not happening’ horror of the world in which we live.

Jesus was dead and in the tomb. The disciples were stunned and grieving. And even here in the depths, at the ending of all things, even here God is abiding, remaining, and enduring. God was present with them when they did not know. God is present with us when we do not know. Thank God for being there even in the Wile E. moments.

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