The Sunday Sermon: Messiah & Shepherd

Good Shepherd Sunday, May 8 2022
Penelope Bridges
Messiah and Shepherd

Once again we are jumping around the Gospels; leaping backwards from last week’s post-Easter breakfast on the beach to the middle of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is still doing the signs that demonstrate who he is, for those who have eyes to see. This conversation with the Judean authorities comes on the heels of the story of the man who was born blind. You may recall that Jesus opened the man’s eyes on a sabbath day, infuriating the authorities, because healing counts as work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath.

There’s a long and quite humorous story about people demanding to know how the man was healed, and the man saying Jesus did it, and his parents saying they know nothing, and in the end the man and his parents are expelled from the community for having the temerity to suggest that perhaps this was an act of God. The more Messiah-like actions that Jesus takes, the blinder the Pharisees become to his identity.

In today’s reading, the community is celebrating what we know as Hanukkah, the December commemoration of the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after an uprising led by the Maccabeans drove the pagan invaders out. Jesus is at the Temple, and the people around him are looking for a new Maccabeus, a military leader who will once again liberate them from pagan oppression. This is the Messiah they expect to see, and they are blind to any other possibility.

Tell us plainly if you are the Messiah: lead us into battle and give us glorious victory over Rome. They are unable to see that the signs enacted by Jesus: turning water into wine, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, calming the sea, and giving sight to the blind: these are plain signs of God’s Messiah, the one anointed and chosen by God to bring healing, peace, abundance, and vision to the world. And when Jesus refuses to take on the role that the people expect of him, they take up rocks to stone him to death: that’s the very next sentence in the Gospel.

Human beings still demand signs to prove that God is God; we can still be blind to the signs that God sends us, when we are looking for the wrong kinds of signs, the wrong kind of God. Our God is not the God of conquest and coercion but of love and liberation.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday we celebrate our relationship with the God who is our good shepherd. Following the shepherd is all about relationship. This is the basis of our life in the church. Not everything can be explained or analyzed: there is always mystery involved in our life in God. We cannot expect to know everything about God’s plans for us; we are called only to follow where God leads. The sheep don’t know where they are going but they trust the shepherd.

In the book of Acts we hear about a faithful woman called Dorcas. That’s her Greek name. She is also known by her Aramaic name, Tabitha. The description of Dorcas might not seem unusual or exceptional to us: a woman who quietly provides for the church family, who is known for her good works, who is greatly loved.  We all know and love women like Dorcas. The church has always depended on such women, but they often stay out of the limelight and are rarely honored as leaders.

Religious authorities have historically been blind to their critical role in the community. And the most exceptional thing about Dorcas is, we know her names. Very few women are named in the New Testament, and we know the names of hardly any of the people who are healed by Jesus or the apostles. Furthermore, Dorcas is described as a disciple: this is the only time in the New Testament that the feminine form of that word is used.

Dorcas was evidently someone very special, and she represents a multitude of faithful women who have kept the church going through the ages. The two names we are given for this woman tell us more about her: that she straddled the two cultures of her time: she was a bridge, bringing together the Jewish Christians with the Greek Christians. As the book of Acts unfolds, we read a lot about the early struggle for identity in the church: would this new religion be Greek or Jewish? The story of Dorcas tells us that even in the earliest days there were people – women – who stood in the gap to unite the community.

The prominence of Dorcas highlights the invisibility of her sisters. Women were the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection. Women stayed at the Cross when the men hid. Women funded the travels of the apostles as the early church took shape.  Women held together the two cultures of the new faith. And yet today we still struggle to honor 50% of the human race; we even struggle to acknowledge that women should have full agency over their own bodies.

The multitude we read about in Revelation also holds together diversity: it is from all tribes and peoples and languages: nobody is excluded from this vision of the beloved community. All come together to witness and worship. Revelation is all about resistance to the Empire’s values.  The early Christians to whom Revelation is addressed lived in a hostile world. They rejected the dominant values of violence and repression. They didn’t have much worldly power: all they had was prayer, the  faith community, and their unshakeable conviction that Christ had risen from the dead, giving them the courage to risk death because death was no longer the last or worst thing that could happen.

Worship can be an act of resistance. It may not protect us from harm, but it bears witness to the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus; it holds us together; it brings us comfort. It’s not always safe or comfortable to be a member of the flock of Christ. People ensnared in the evil of chattel slavery knew that their lives were fragile; that if they resisted the dominant culture they were risking death.

But they sang their songs of faithful resistance; they developed the underground railroad; and they worked for freedom. They risked everything to change the world for themselves and their children. And today, in the face of multiple efforts to restrict choice and the full implementation of democracy, as we work for expanded voting rights and the right to choose what we do with our bodies, we also can be witnesses to the liberating love of God.

This passage from Revelation lifts up a deeply subversive claim: that salvation belongs to God. In the Empire, salvation belongs to the bully, the one with the gun or the whip or the legislative agenda. The way to achieve “salvation” in the Empire is to work more, buy more, accumulate more than the next person. By contrast, this great Scriptural multitude is made up of martyrs: those who have suffered by witnessing to their faith. The great ordeal is the struggle for justice and freedom that lurches forward and then back again throughout history.

This uncountable multitude is made up of faithful witnesses: Dorcas, Simon Peter, Cornelius the centurion, Mary Magdalene and the other women who first announced the Resurrection; Lazarus and his sisters; the Ethiopian eunuch and the blind men and the lepers whom Jesus and then the apostles healed; Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King and Pauli Murray and Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich; and the innumerable saints known only to God who have witnessed and served through the ages.

The Jesus movement was never meant to be compatible with Empire. Empire favors coercion, violence, oppression, and death. Empire wants to keep power for itself. Empire wants to see “us” as good and “them” as evil. Empire doesn’t want change. Jesus, on the other hand offers liberation. Jesus offers transformation. Jesus offers individual agency, the freedom to choose whom we will worship, whom we will love, who we will be.

The Judean authorities in the Gospel are looking for a Messiah who behaves like the Empire, meeting violence with violence, using military force to regain control over the land. The Messiah whom God sends is one who quietly gives life, who welcomes the outcast and cares for the lost lambs. So, we who follow the good shepherd are called to stand against Empire, just as the people John was writing for in Revelation were doing.

When the world is full of lies we are to tell truth. When the world leans in the direction of oppression we are to push back towards liberation. When the world directs us to be silent and invisible we are to insist on being heard and seen. And when the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, Revelation tells us to gather in witness, to worship God with songs of praise, to offer strength and support to one another and, when we are weary and discouraged, to proclaim that salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb, who is our good shepherd, and who will show us the way forward and lead us home.

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