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Friday, April 6, 2018

Easter 4B April 22, 2018


Creator God, you make the resplendent glory of the Risen One shine with new radiance on the world, whenever our human weakness is healed and restored.  Gather all your scattered children into one flock following Christ, our Good Shepherd, so that all may taste the joy you bestow on those who are the children of God. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 10:11-18

"This is part of what it means to be the Body of Christ -- to remind each other of God's promises and speak Jesus' message of love, acceptance, and grace to each other."

 "Abundant Life," David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

"Jesus’ sheep are drawn into the unity of love and mutuality of knowledge between the Father and Son."
Commentary, John 10:11-18, Meda Stamper, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"Who are those whose trusted voices showed you what it is to listen for and reflect the Shepherd's Voice? What messages did they offer which stay with you still?"

"Listening for the Shepherd's Voice," Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2015.

"Then Jesus said, "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep;' and you get the feeling that this time Peter didn't miss the point. From fisher of fish to fisher of people to keeper of the keys to shepherd. It was the Rock's final promotion, and from that day forward he never let the head office down again."

"Feed My Sheep," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog.

Oremus Online NRSV Text

This week we have the Good Shepherd from John's gospel.

It comes as part of an overall scriptural unit.  Chapter 10: 1-21.  Most New Testament scholars break our reading up into two sections. The first section is made up of verses 11-16 where in the reader discovers the nature of the shepherd.  The second section is made up of verses 17-18 wherein we read about the specific work of this Good Shepherd.

Jesus is the model of the good shepherd because he is willing to die for his sheep - this is a unique johannine theology amongst the gospellers.  This model is a shepherd who cares for all the sheep and for their very lives. This shepherd is willing to lay down his life for all; and all means all.

The hired hand and the wolf prey on the sheep. They care only for themselves.  They steal and consume the sheep.  What is interesting here is the parallel drawn by scholars to those religious leaders who betray their flock.  Certainly, in the early tradition there is a notion of being sent among wolves.  In Acts Paul reminds church leaders they are to feed their sheep.

I think that the next section is important as a defining boundary for the care and tending of sheep.  The shepherd here does not only know his work, but also knows his sheep intimately.  He knows all his sheep my name.  They recognize the shepherd's voice.  And, there are sheep who are being added to the fold (the gentile mission).  Therefore the shepherd knows his sheep and knows sheep who are to be gathered in.

This tradition falls in the long line of prophetic witness wherein the leaders of Israel have been seen as shepherds of their flock.

As I read through a number of texts on this passage (including my own preaching) I am ever mindful that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep; and that God takes up his life for him when his work is done.  Resurrection, new life, transformed life, comes to the shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep - those in his fold and those without.

Today we live in an age where we protect ourselves at all cost. We do this by projecting out into the world our own desires. We disguise this protection by gathering around us like minded people.  So we get our cause (political, religious, social) and we gather with people who have the same interest in maintaining ego protection on any given topic.

Paul Zahl reminded me in a recent podcats (PZ's Podcast available on Itunes) that one reason why when people accomplish what they set out to do on any given agenda and they usually feel unfulfilled is because they set out based upon ego protection and not based upon their own true nature's need for salvation, grace and mercy.  They set out to change the world because they were sure everyone else was wrong not because their own heart needed transformation.

The shepherd is in need of resurrection when a life is laid down; this mimics the Good Shepherd's own death and resurrection.  The individual who truly lays down their life and loses it will in the end find it.  But it is real life that is lost, a costly ego death, that must be allowed to take place.

This means more frequently a non-heroes death and/or the failure of perfection. 

What does it really mean to be one of the good shepherds, serving the One Good Shepherd?  It will mean being shepherd to all.  A leader must lead and be a shepherd for all the sheep.  All the sheep include: those who agree and those who disagree; those who love you and those who hate you; those who are pleased with your action and those who are pounding down the doors of your fortified ego castle; and the unseen sheep not in our fold.

There more though theologically bubbling beneath the surface. Theologian and NT Scholar Robert Farrar Capon writes "his death is the operative device by which the reconciling judgment of God works - that the crucifixion is God's last word on the subject of sin, the final sentence that will make the world one flock under one gracious shepherd." (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p 376) The authorities, religious and political, have been trying to put this back in their box of control ever since the cross and resurrection.

So as I prepare to preach this week I have a lot of questions running through my mind.  None of these questions have much to do with the loving shepherd finding me in the darkness and carrying  me off to the sheepfold.  Rather, the questions I am asking are based upon that redemption already underway:  What part of myself must die in order for me to be shepherd (in the mold of the Good Shepherd) for all the sheep?  How shall I lay down my life for them?  Am I willing to die a hundred thousand deaths (not as vanquishing hero) but as a lonely herdsman in the midst of a valley of wolves and thieves? 

Ah yes, perhaps that is the real work after all.  You and I if we brave this sacred journey we should be prepared for the silence, the lack of followers, a shameful death, the end God's hand snatching us from the grave.  It is the silent waiting of the dead in which God's love, grace and mercy resides.  That is the meaning of life as a good shepherd; would that we had a church full of such men and women!

Some Thoughts on 1 John 3:16-24

"Unfortunately, there have been trends and crosscurrents of debate and division that have led to a problematic bifurcation that can easily become distorted into a 'faith vs. works' mentality."

Commentary, 1 John 3:16-24, Nijay Gupta, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"The whole idea behind this week's reading from 1 John, and indeed the entire book, is that in the sacrificial love of Christ we see and experience God; in doing so we are compelled to live out that love in word and deed."

"What's the Catch?" Sharron R Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2012.

"The writer clearly envisages a relationship with God where people are not diminished but encouraged to stand on their own two feet with confidence."

"First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages in the Lectionary," Easter 4, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

So it has been a while since we have been in the letters of John. I remember that these come out of the johannine community and that some scholars believe the author of this particular letter may in fact have been the redactor of John's original notes and manuscripts. That really is neither here nor there. Needless to say, it is a more general type of writing than other letters - especially Paul's. These appear to have been intended to be read aloud to communities in general. Early evidence shows that a number of other congregations had the letter. 

The goal of the message? Well, to deal with different ideas that did not coincide with those held by the leadership of the Johannine community - it is meant to combat heresy. There is a bit of heresy in the letter errs on the side of a kind of Manichaeism whereby the spiritual world is good and the world of matter is bad. or fallen. This of course would be ruled quite out of order in the third century. But that was too late to keep it out of bible and after all it adds a little flavor.

We start off well. A reminder that the community saw itself as part of the arc of the community of shalom working to undermine the sibling rivalry that infected the world by Cain's act of jealousy. We are to love one another. That is very clear. 

But interestingly we discover that here in the text we begin already to see that this is the rule for the brother and sister in the community and maybe not those outside of it. It is a kind of reversal of the good Samaritan story. It allows for neighbor to be rerooted into  community from Jesus' original message that neighboring is part of those who follow him do to those who are outside their own community. The text has it right: for a Christian to hate is equivalent to murder. Jesus is clear on this. But, Jesus is clear about not distinguishing this action between those inside and outside the community.

The text goes on to say that Jesus was an example of this having laid down his life for us. This is the kind of love we are all to have for others. The idea is an active love towards the other. If we are truly God's followers in Jesus Christ, then we will act for the other and on behalf of the other. 

It is only this abiding love outwardly shared that reveals within whose community we are belonging. When we abide in Christ and he in us we are loving and not refusing help to others.

What is very difficult about this passage for Westerners is that they see people as individuals then relationships. This text is written in a moral universe where the community is first and the individual is of second consideration. 

What happens when we don't parse this out...(see Jonathan Haidt's work) we miss the fact that we are constantly reorienting the text into a Western version localized on the individual first and their own set of rights and privileges vs. the good of the community which seems to be at both the johannine core (even if it is Manichean and internally focused) or Jesus' own teaching about neighboring.

Some Thoughts on Acts 4:5-12

"The establishing, negotiating, and naming of power and acts of power is inherently political and very often religious."

Commentary, Acts 4:5-12, Mitzi J. Smith, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"How can good come out of corrupt, callous institutions? Answer: because God remains faithful. Good comes because God refuses to let human rejection have the last word."

Commentary, Acts 4:5-12, F. Scott Spencer, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

"If only the Common Lectionary had gone on just one more verse! Stopping shy of verse 13 deprives us from seeing one of the great passages of the Bible. Because it is there that the ruling authorities ”who are seeking to hush up the apostles” find themselves powerfully impressed that the people doing all these things are, all things being equal, hicks and unlettered rubes."

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Scott Hoezee, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015.

Oremus Online Text 

The truth about preaching this Sunday is that most everyone will gravitate to the Good Shepherd text. Why not? It is a great text and you can preach on it a lot and never get to half the good stuff that is in there. Another reason for doing so is to avoid this text altogether. Why? Well because unless you are going to make it about something else it requires that we hear the story as religious leaders and not try and scape goat the past leaders.

So lets take a look and see what we might hear for ourselves that would be important in this missionary age.

Whenever there is really interesting, creative and mission work going on that doesn't look like what we think of as "church" then religious leaders tend to shut it down. We will kill it either by ensuring it gets no funding, support, or attention or we kill by actually telling people to "stop". This is true at the episcopate level but it is also true at the local congregational level.

This is what happens in the passage. The Gospel is being preached, people are being fed, and the Holy Spirit is moving BUT these people have not been properly trained, they are acting strange, and they are doing things that make us look bad - like we don't care about the poor.

They round them up and ask, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" Of course the response isn't particularly helpful to the religious leaders cause. Peter says, "Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth." Ooops. Mic drop. Bad news for the religious leaders.

Peter then goes on to remind them (and us) that religious leadership, powers, and authorities are threatened by the Holy Spirit, and God's continuous breaking open of the boundaries of relgion. It has been true throughout the arc of the Old and New Testaments. Jesus was no different. He was in fact one of a long line of people who God sent and was rejected. This has been true since the time of Jesus too. Religion and its authority doesn't like it when people color outside the lines. Peter reminds them, and us,  "This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”

Then, Peter drops the real anti-religion bomb. He says, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." 

This is big news because it means that God doesn't need religion to save people. God doesn't need religion to save God. God is perhaps a bit suspicious of how religious institutions go about their work. 

I think the issue for people who inhabit congregations and dioceses and who are stuck within a model of religion based upon the Constantinian era, and haven't figured out it is over,  have a real problem with the Gospel for this very reason. Religion doesn't do well when it comes up agains the real God in Christ Jesus who left us with a message that undoes the powers of this world - including the religious powers of this world.

Previous Sermons For This Sunday

No Childhood Good Shepherd Here

Sermon preached at Resurrection and St Michaels churches in Austin on Easter 4b 2015.

Preached at St. Albans and Good Shepherd, Austin, 2011.

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