28 April 2010

Easter Shepherds

Yesterday was the Sunday that comes every year in mid- Easter we know as "Good Shepherd Sunday" when the 23rd Psalm is at the center and all the readings seem to circle around it. I've been trying to figure out why that happens in the middle of Easter. My guess is that with all the excitement of Jesus' constant random appearances showing up on the road, passing through walls,barbecuing on the beach, it's easy to forget the why of all this. It's a reminder that the purpose of resurrection life for the risen Jesus is to be as a shepherd. For us urban folks, we don't have much connection with real sheep. They're just not around, except in petting zoos at school street fairs, usually with bits of urban detritus caught in their wool as they mill about among goats and other small animals. Shepherds exist for us only as metaphor rooted in nostalgia for experiences we haven't had. When my kids were small, the closest I could come to a workable image was Kenny the porter of our building who always watched them to safety on their way to and from school.

Ironically, even in Jesus' day the metaphor was already one of nostalgia. Perhaps the psalmist was really David who actually was a shepherd, but in first century Palestine, most folks didn't have much contact with shepherds. They were the only folk who didn't come inside the city gates to sleep at night. Even farmers slept inside and would go out to tend their fields then return. The shepherds literally lived outside the gates, on the margins of society. How fitting then that they would be the first to witness the birth of Jesus, the first to celebrate. The power and center of the image thus begins at the margins.

Nevertheless, the psalm has deep resonance for almost all of us. I've never done a funeral without the family requesting a recitation of the 23rd Psalm. It's one of the few verses we still can recall, usually in the King James Version. We respond to the sense of constant presence, the protection, the comfort. Most of us have known our travels through the "valley of the shadow of death." And the sense of humiliation that is answered by a table spread in the "presence of my enemies." From the margins, from valleys of dread, we are invited to dwell "in the house of the Lord forever."

If Jesus is our shepherd, if we are called to be his living risen body, what are we called to do? We look at Peter, impulsive, rash, a triple denier and only capable of responding with philos, friendship and like when Jesus offers and asks for agape, self-giving love. This is the one on whom the church will be built and who raises up Dorcas from the dead. That's a pretty clear clue as to what we are to be about in an Easter life, in Resurrection living. Easter is more about our resurrection than that of Jesus. We are both subject and object of resurrection. We are called to raise the dead. This is personal and relational as we all have living deaths from which we must be raised, some more dramatic than others. It may be grief for a lost loved one or lost love, of addiction or illness or maybe even a hidden life we are afraid to claim as our own. We're called to "shepherd" one another, lead one another, to resurrection living.

But it also a communal calling, whether it is a congregation exhausted by the battle or a whole church that has come to the point of death by exhausting itself by guarding the gates of exclusion. The lgbt movement for inclusion has been like an EMT trying to breathe life back into a moribund body. Like "shepherds" trying pull the church back from the edge of the cliff. It's exhausting work. But the promise is we are not alone. We have learned to feast even when surrounded by enemies. Let us feel that comfort and protection and promise as we continue to live into Easter.

Bob Brashear is Pastor of West-Park Presbyterina Church

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