Chicago gets a new Shepherd this week. As Mayor Daley retires, after 22 years as our shepherd, over pastures of flower gardens, who on occasion, wielded a big stick, or staff, Rahm Emanuel now enters by the gate he exits, ready and willing, full of ideas and plans, with new chiefs and administrators already appointed. Caring for a large and diverse city such as Chicago is a daunting task at any time, much less when it has a budget deficit of $587 million, give or take, not including the Pension Fund.
When Jesus used this pastoral figure of speech with the disciples, that of a Shepherd caring for the sheep, he did so knowing full well its political implications. “Shepherd” was used to describe the king, or head of state, for hundreds of years, not only for the Jewish people, but for many nations in the surrounding Greco-Roman world. Moses, Israel’s greatest prophet, was a shepherd. David, Israel’s greatest king, was a shepherd too. Jesus, who was of the “house and family of David,” was born in Bethlehem, in the region of the shepherd’s fields, where David once kept flock.
At first glance, this picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is serene and pastoral, simple and self-evident. God, the gate-keeper, opens the gate for Jesus the Shepherd, who calls the sheep by their very own name; the sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and they follow the shepherd into green pastures and abundant life. But, what are we to make of the divisive comments Jesus saves for whoever the “thieves and bandits” are? Those who “climb in the sheepfold by another way,” and “who steal, and kill, and destroy?” This pointed figure of speech, Jesus aimed at the opposition in the previous story to today’s gospel reading, those who are still listening in, those false shepherds in the story of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind from birth, and how the Pharisees, after he was able to see, ran him out of the synagogue.
To make matters worse, the image of Shepherd had suffered significantly in the years leading up to Jesus’ coming into the world, his entry into the sheepfold. Shepherds had devolved into social misfits, shady characters, the poor and often undesirable, those the Pharisees would have considered to be outcasts. Jesus’ reference to himself as the Good Shepherd, and as the gate to the sheepfold, only serves to seal his fate. By the end of this chapter, the Pharisees try to stone him. Though unsuccessful, yet they are undeterred. They do not confront Jesus publically any more, but go out secretly and plot to take his life.
But Jesus stuck with the shepherd image, and even lifted it up after his death and resurrection, in that redeeming story around a shore fire by the Sea of Galilee, after that enormous catch of fish that Jesus had directed the disciples to. After Jesus had cooked breakfast for them, he bids Peter to be the new shepherd of church, telling Peter, that “if you love me, feed my lambs, and tend my sheep.” Jesus identified with the outcast shepherds, and reinstates them as leaders, but in a new way.
Even as Jesus was preparing to “retire” from this world, he carefully made plans for the next Shepherd, Peter, to take office, so that the disciples, and all the followers and believers afterward, all the sheep, would be able to shepherd one another. The church would be the people, not the temple building. Any believer could become a shepherd, and lead others to the pasture, so they could be trained and taught about the Good Shepherd, and instructed on the dangers of those false shepherds who “climb in by another way,” only to protect their privilege, and not the flock. Jesus knew the temple would be destroyed soon, and the people would be the new church. The ones who knew the voice of the shepherd would follow. It would be a new day. Change was coming, and indeed already had arrived. Jesus promised life, abundant life. And we hear how it had taken hold in Jerusalem already in our Acts reading today: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and koinonia-fellowship, to the breaking of bread [in their homes] and the prayers.” “…All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
The world does not grasp on to this koinonia-fellowship naturally, but it needs to be taught over and over again. Disciples are made, not born. An example was brought to my attention just this week, how the Shepherd Paul Ryan, a congressman, who I hate to admit is from Wisconsin, claims as one of his inspirations, that great author of selfishness, Ayn Rand. Ryan loves Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, which advocates the opposite of koinonia-fellowship and sharing, a selfishness that absolves all responsibility to care for the neighbor. It explained a lot to me about Mr. Ryans bizarre, at least to my ears, budget proposal, cutting taxes for the richest of the rich, while undoing the promises of Medicare and Medicaid to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us.
I don’t mean to turn this into partisan politics, only to point out that Jesus jumped headlong into the debate of his day over the leaders of their people, the shepherds, and was quite plain about what God expected them to be: someone who cared for the sheep, and opposed those who used their privilege to steal, kill and destroy. The examples are endless throughout scripture, from Moses, to Isaiah, to Jesus. God brings life, abundant life to the sheep who freely go in and out from the protected sheepfold to the gift of green pasture. The shepherds that advocate selfishness, and getting all you can for yourself, are thieves and bandits. They look at the world and see scarcity. Just the thought of sharing increases their anxiety, and they plot how to justify what they are about to steal, and who they are about to kill and destroy.
In the early church description of the koinonia-fellowship, the sheep and shepherds gathered together, holding all things in common because they believed in the joyful abundance that God offers all people as a gift, as Grace! And it is no accident that when they came together they celebrated this in “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Like the abundance of the gift of mana to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, and like the abundance of bread left over, 12 baskets full, from 5 loaves, in the Feeding of the 5,000, “the breaking of the bread” is the abundance of Jesus own crucified and risen body, shared over and over again in communion, given out in love, to save us and sustain us, without end.
Today we lift up those shepherding ministries we do through Lutheran Social Services of IL. Today we pray for a new Shepherd taking office that he may be devoted to the care of the flock. And today we come to the table of our Good Shepherd, hands and hearts open to the overwhelming abundance and salvation we are given, that we may learn to be shepherds for others, and give this “abundant life” we have, away to others.
“Our vision is to be an urban green space, welcoming everyone into a holy encounter, where we are changed, that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us.”
When I composed this vision statement, out of our Core Values, I wasn’t even thinking about today’s gospel reading, and yet, it fits like a glove! The urban green space is Jerusalem, and the garden where Jesus was raised from the dead, the city which Cleopas and the un-named disciple, return to, after they finally have seen the Lord. There they are welcomed by the eleven and their companions gathered together saying, “The Lord has risen indeed!” And the biggest part of the gospel is a holy encounter, the journey with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and at table with them in their house. They travel much farther than seven miles! They go from their certainty that Jesus is a stranger and, “the only one who doesn’t know what things have taken place in Jerusalem in these days,” to having “their eyes opened, their hearts burning,” and their minds “believing” that Jesus is the risen “Lord.” The word of scripture that Jesus opened to them, combined with the meal, and his “breaking of the bread,” changed them forever. They have been fed by Jesus, literally, and now go and begin to feed others.
The gospel story also recognizes something else about our “holy encounters.” There is a soul searching and grieving, a desolation sometimes, that happens to most of us on our travels, our Road to Emmaus. It’s interesting that today, no one knows where this village of Emmaus was. There is no record of a town called Emmaus, and archeologists have failed to uncover any artifacts of such a lost city. It might yet be found, or just as likely, it could be a literary device of Luke’s, for Emmaus represents something for all believers, as it does for the two who were giving up on their hopes and dreams for Jesus, who were leaving Jerusalem to go home to their old lives, walking away in disappointment and despair that “he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Most of us, at one time or another, could put ourselves in the shoes of that un-named disciple walking with Cleopas. We all have expectations that are dashed, and have not been fulfilled. Perhaps it’s a disappointment in ourselves. A project at home or at work that we thought we would complete but could not. Maybe even a reverting back to old bad habits, a self-destructive impulse, or addiction. A letting go of a friend, or a loss that derails us from where we used to walk in more confidant or healthy ways. Perhaps even running away as fast as you can. What is your road to Emmaus like?
I heard a news interview this weekend with the actor Rob Lowe, and was reminded of his story of descent, and his road to Emmaus. How his rapid rise to stardom was cut off at the knees when, a tryst with an under age woman during his years of drinking, came to light. Now, he has been sober 21 years, is happily married with two children, and continuing to do new film and TV projects. The occasion for the interview was the release of his memoir called, “Stories I Only Tell my Friends.” Lowe recalls in it, when he starred in the West Wing, and how he became fast friends with Martin Sheen, and had already been friends with his son, Charlie, since they were teens. The interviewer asked Rob about the younger Sheen’s current troubles. "It's tough, since I've known him since he was 13,” said Lowe. “And I love him, I love Martin and the whole family. [And being] sober, [I] have a perspective that's probably unique to his experience. …You need to literally be done," Lowe explained. For me, "I wanted to change, I wanted a new life. Different people take different events to get them to that place. Some people have to go way, way down and other people don't."
Lowe believes that, like most of the people drawn to Hollywood, he too was “looking to fill something missing in[side of him], and performing does that. But when you reach the mountaintop, you realize you’re still the same – it didn’t fill you up.”
The holy encounter for Cleopas and the other disciple on the way to Emmaus included not only the joy of the resurrected Jesus, but possibly their worst day ever. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” As that dream was crashing and burning before their eyes, all they could do was remember their story and share it with the interested stranger. Jesus, “whom their eyes were kept from recognizing,” engaged them in their grief, as we see them hit their bottom. They were as low as they could go and they were ready for change, and wanted a new life.
When “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” it wasn’t that Jesus was manipulating his appearance, but there was something about them that kept them from understanding “all these things.” We know that the same thing happened to them before his death, when they were on another road, the road to Jerusalem, and how Jesus predicted three times how he would suffer, die and on the 3rd day be raised again, and they failed to recognize his meaning, or believe it.
But here, on the road to Emmaus, at their lowest low, Jesus tells them about Moses, who was also a rejected leader of the chosen people. And that though he was rejected, God raised him up as a prophet, the one who redeemed them at the Red Sea, and delivered them into the Promised Land. And so of course their hearts were burning within them when Jesus concluded: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things [on the cross] and then enter into his glory?”
Combine this word of God, with the meal of salvation, and we have a sacramental event, a holy encounter we can recognize. This is the moment when the disciples eyes are opened! Here at the table, Jesus feeds us, that we may go out and feed others, share the good news, and offer that which can truly, “fill us up.”
It seemed to take the two disciples forever to get to Emmaus. But now, filled with the bread of life, their eyes opened, and their hearts changed, they flew back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven disciples, “how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Let us come to the table, confident that “we are an urban green space, welcoming everyone into a holy encounter, where we are changed, that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us.”
One of the most dangerous words in the English language, capable of inciting people to retaliation, is the word, “peace.” Naïve as I am, it took me a long time to realize this! What could be more natural and appealing than talking about peace, I thought? Peace is good, right? When people are hurting each other, don’t we want peace? Where there is violence and war, shouldn’t the goal be, peace? But then came the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. They stood up for peace as clearly as anyone. And then I dug a bit deeper and found there were many others: Mahatma Gandhi in India, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Anwar Sadat in Egypt, Yitzhak Rabin in Israel, and now, countless young people and other protestors in Egypt and Tunisia, Libya and Syria and other north African and Middle Eastern countries, this year. What is it about standing up for peace, that brings hatred and even showers of bullets? Why it is that this word “Peace” is so dangerous?
When Jesus came and appeared to the disciples, locked in the house for fear of the authorities, he says, “Peace be with you.” Good thing right? Sounds nice! What could be wrong with Jesus bringing peace? Jesus is the Prince of Peace, we say. I know, I always have that peaceful feeling, especially at Christmas time. And yet, here at Easter time, Jesus comes as a crucified Savior. What kind of a Prince of Peace is this? What does peace look like to you?
A pastor friend of mine said, he never before had a dream about what to preach on Sunday morning, except once, when this gospel text came up, and he ending up preaching one his most powerful sermons ever. The dream he had was really a series of nightmares about executions, which woke him up suddenly. And what occurred to him from the dream was something about Thomas’s unbelief. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe that Jesus could be raised. After all, he had been there when Jesus had raised Lazarus, and he hadn’t objected that day. What Thomas couldn’t believe, was that Jesus, or anyone could be resurrected, after having been executed in such a shameful way, on the cross.
The cross of course was a public humiliation that was designed by the Romans to discredit enemies of the state, and anyone they wanted to make an example of. Thomas represents a belief that all the disciples had, really: They expected Jesus to triumph – somehow, some way, to become the anointed king of Israel, to be enthroned in the Temple and liberate the Israelites from their Roman occupiers. They had all stuck by Jesus, right up until the moment he told Peter to put his sword away, after he cut off the ear of the High Priest’s slave in the Garden of Gethsemane, and let himself be arrested, bound, and led away for trial. That’s when the humiliation began. The cross was just the icing on the cake. Thomas doesn’t just want to see Jesus in order to believe in the resurrection, he demands to see the marks of his execution, the scars in his hands and his pierced side. He couldn’t get that shame out of his mind! How could one who looked so powerless against the superior fire-power of the Romans, in those great Three Days, actually be the one who can save us from it?
But when Jesus returned, on this 2nd Sunday of Easter, and said once again, “Peace be with you,” and invited Thomas to put his finger in the wound of his hands, and to reach out and thrust his hand in his side, Thomas is overwhelmed with a new vision, and the very presence of his resurrected God. Jesus is the same Teacher the disciples knew, but at the same time, he is also a new Messiah, one that they didn’t expect! Jesus was raised by God in spite of the shame he endured on the cross, to conquer it.
It is in the cross and resurrection that we are brought face to face with “peace.” The peace of God, and the peace that Jesus greets us with, the very breath of the Holy Spirit, which is not the same as the way of peace we have been taught, by the ruler of this world. We have been taught that the cure for violence, is to uphold yet another act of violence, one that we justify, in the name of “a sacred order,” which does bring a kind of temporary peace. This is the temptation of the High Priest who says of Jesus, “it is better to sacrifice one for the sake of all.” We call this, scapegoating, or “sacred violence.”
But, by going to the cross, Jesus reveals a third way, God’s way of non-retaliation, that opens the world to true peace. And the cross also reveals how sacred violence, whether in acts of war, or in domestic violence, or in bullying a neighbor – all acts of power that wield control or terror – only create more violence, not peace. And so, as my friend Pastor Nuechterlein says, “The resurrection of the one whom we executed puts us face to face with absolutely the most difficult thing for us to believe – namely, that the only way to ultimately cure violence is to completely refrain from doing it, even if it means submitting to it, revealing its meaninglessness compared to the Creator’s power of life.” Jesus’ words, “peace be with you,” can be powerfully dangerous indeed.
How do you view peace? Can any of us have peace, when our neighbor or anyone else in the world is still entombed by violence or fear? Is it just a coincidence that Jesus’ first greeting to his fearful, yet somehow hopeful disciples, is “peace be with you?” Jesus brings them peace in his resurrected body, a body they recognize by the mark of the nails in his hands and his riven side, marks of his non-retaliation, redeemed and raised up as the first born of God’s new kingdom.
It’s curious to me that after the blood and destruction of a war, there is still no peace until all parties sit down to negotiate terms for how they must now live together. And there is no breaking the cycles of domestic violence until abusers or abused sit down and talk with a mediator or therapist, and come to see and learn a third way they never saw before. Words, it seems to me, are stronger than bullets, and batterings, and fear. Words can create new life and open worlds we did not see before. God created the world by God’s powerful word. Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you,” can change our lives still.
The Jesus who appears to us, locked in our rooms of fear and unbelief, brings hope and a way out. Jesus opens his wounded hands to us, and invites us to touch and see him, in order that we can also touch and feel God’s whole wounded world. Jesus empowers us to be able to face up to the deep wounds of violence in our lives, he unlocks the doors of grief, despair and fear, and leads us out to be true disciples of peace, ambassadors of reconciliation and forgiveness in a broken world. Jesus invites us to eat the broken bread of communion, his broken body, that we may be filled with “life in his name.”