I am still working through other people’s end of year lists, and so this can only be considered provisional. (Check some out -David Congdon, NPR, Pitchfork, Metacritic, MPR) Nevertheless, here is the next in what is probably my longest running blog series. Links are to exemplary tunes. (* Marks an album especially worth checking out)
Albums I Wanted To Like:
Savages, Silence Yourself
Best Electronica – Dance, Pop, Instrumental, w/ Singing, Dark, Mixed, and Otherwise:
Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe*
Tegan And Sarah, Heartthrob
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories*
Gold Panda, Half of Where You Live
Jon Hopkins, Immunity*
Classixx, Hanging Gardens
Daniel Avery, Drone Logic
Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Best Mix of Surfy Dream Pop and Black Metal That Reminds Me of Zao’s Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest:
Best Old-Timey New Music:
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, The Jazz Age*
- Also winner of sexiest song
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It!
Mavis Staples, One True Vine
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
Glen Jones, My Garden State
Best, uuuhhhh, Indie Stuff(?):
Local Natives, Hummingbird
Low, The Invisible Way
Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito
The National, Trouble Will Find Me
Keaton Henson, Birthdays
Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero
Beach Fossils, Clash the Truth
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Volcano Choir, Repave*
Owen, L’Ami du Peuple
Arcade Fire, Reflektor*
Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold + All The Things That You Broke
Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia
Washed Out, Paracosm
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City*
Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia
Best Album By a Trio of Sisters Rockin Guitars and Harmonies:
Haim, Days Are Gone*
Best Guilty Pleasure:
Lissie, Back To Forever
Best Folk & Country:
Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
Jason Isbell, Southeastern*
The Civil Wars, The Civil Wars
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond*
Best Hip-Hop, R&B:
Caroline Smith, Half About Being a Woman
Mayer Hawthorne, Where Does This Door Go
London Grammar, If You Wait
James Blake, Overgrown
Aby Wolf, Wolf Lords
Blood Orange, Cupid Deluxe
Most Heartbreaking And Cathartic Album:
Daughter, If You Leave
Most Trailblazing Album For an Established Band:
Sigur Ros, Kveikur*
No Explanation Needed:
Chris Thile, Bach Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. I*
Favorite Record of the Year:
Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse
I’m not under the illusion that this can somehow lay claim, in an objective sense, to the best album of 2013 – it’s far down on most lists if present at all – but there is something about the weirdness of the record, the uncomfortable beauty, the exploration of in-between spaces, that grips me. It’s explicitly a metaphysical record, a making-the-familiar-odd record, and in that sense an analogical record.
September 19, 2013
A couple months ago, Ben Myers wrote a dandy post against the types of books that force students to read, not the primary sources about which they are supposedly to learn, but books talking about them.
“Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one?”
Spot on. To the “student book” I would like to add another problematic form of writing that does pretty much the same thing, with the results, if anything, being more sinister. This form is common in the same student books but exists outside of them as well: Namely, the organization of theologians and their thought into typologies. Myers again, in a more recent post, lays out a new atonement typology in patristic thought contra Aulen, yet having laid out a more complex scheme says:
“Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs.”
Myers, I think, sees the work that his typology can do, but in the very act of constructing a new one is able to see the myriad ways his improved scheme falls short of accurately and fully describing the works under discussion.
But it’s not simply that typology cannot accurately represent the works that fall under its sway that riles me up – surely one should be able to accurately summarize a view without it being some kind of betrayal – it’s that once a theologian or work has been typologized and the scheme imbibed into the academic bloodstream, it becomes unnecessary for the student or pastor to bother with the thinkers who fall into the ‘bad’ category. As with the ‘student book,’ we no longer need bother with primary sources, but not having read them, we can roundly dismiss them!
A classic example of this can be found in the way Anselm is routinely marginalized as a proto-evangelical who (from scratch!) came up with “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Here we see not only the influence of Aulen but also the neo-patristic synthesis of modern Orthodox theologians. (One of David Bentley Hart’s lasting labor may be in his multiple defenses of Anselm and Duns Scotus against such typologies)
Speaking of the Orthodox, we also often see typology being used in service of declension narratives; yet using them this way works as a kind of shortcut past the harder work of constructing a disciplined genealogy. Even in the sustained work of Hans Frei or Karl Barth it’s not hard to feel that something is lost in the anti-liberalism – this despite the post-liberal I am.
The surest way around these problems seems to me to be to adhere to this dictum: Primary sources are for everyone, secondary sources are for specialists.
July 31, 2013
“God has called us to unfold a growing message, and not to rehearse a stereotyped tradition” – B.F. Westcott
I have learned a great deal from Ephraim Radner, mostly having to do with Scripture and with attempting to be an academic theologian in a sentimentalist’s theological world, and I’m deeply indebted to him for this – but lord help me, when he ventures onto First Things I’m never sure what to make of his rather incoherent political ramblings. In a recent piece he seemingly assumes that political conservatism necessarily flows from theological ‘orthodoxy,’ or at least ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics. Though his piece is purposely vague, Radner is quite clear that ‘liberal’ theology leads to a relativizing of Scripture’s authority, to ‘dogmatic dissolution’, and to a ‘laissez-faire’ view of ‘human relations.’ (Whether this statement is simply about sexuality is unclear. Does this indict conservative laissez-faire’ economics as well?)
The difficulty in engaging an essay like this goes back to language usage. Is all ‘liberal theology’ intrinsically unorthodox? Or is it, perhaps, that only liberal theology that ends in unorthodoxy is ‘genuinely liberal?’ My problem with Radner’s usage is that it needs some historization, something which, as a distinguished historical theologian, he ought to be doing automatically. In rereading the essay several times I think we should understand Radner to be suggesting something like ‘liberal theology is unorthodox, or at least leads to unorthodoxology. If it is still orthodox, it is not liberal.’ Bracketing, for the sake of discussion, the politics of what counts as ‘orthodox’ and what does not, I would like to assert that what has historically counted as ‘liberal theology’ is not often in direct conflict with traditional affirmations of the Christian faith. Indeed it is rather part and parcel of what is required of theological work attempting to articulate a faithful proclamation of the Church’s witness.
But what is ‘liberal theology?’ Rather than answer this straightforwardly, I think it would be more fruitful to point to theologians who have consistently been called liberal. Classic examples from Germany include von Harnack, Schleiermacher, and Bultmann; in the contemporary anglophone world, J.A.T. Robinson, Raymond Brown, or Marcus Borg. But a great deal more than these have been considered ‘liberal,’ at least by their contemporaries, yet their insights have often been normalized and their reputations vindicated through time. Since Dr. Radner and I are both Episcopalians, I think some Anglican examples are apropos.
Bishop Charles Gore comes to mind, obviously, being considered the father of ‘liberal catholicism;’ So also does the Cambridge trio Westcott, Hort, and Lightfoot, whose work on the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers can hardly be overestimated (Brown touted the genius of Westcott’s commentary on John in his NT Introduction). We might rightly add the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who, like liberal catholics before him, wasn’t afraid to incorporate historical criticism in his exegesis. With perhaps Gore only excepted (for his creative exploration of kenosis), there is hardly any thought that these scholars are not ‘orthodox,’ and while they may not now be considered ‘liberal’ generally, all wrote works that were controversial in their day using liberal methods. Just think of the stink around the usurpation of the Textus Receptus and the revised translation based on the critical text.
Liberal theology is responsible for critical editions of the Bible, for advancements in historical work, for experimental integration of science and religion, for feminist theology, and a great many other things that have proved invaluable for Christians. It is doubtful whether conservative theology, left to its own devices, would ever have done as much. That liberals can err is no more remarkable than that conservatives can err, and no more clear evidence that they are fundamentally askew than that all conservatives fall prey to arianesque traditionalism. The continuing task of theology will require renewed pressing at the edges of what is respectable language. The tradition, in other words, should be non-identically repeated. I don’t think we need liberal parties, or liberal identity policing (what is authentically liberal?), but we need the openness to the strangeness and newness of our encounter with God’s active grace; openness to the possibility that some assumed beliefs have grown wild and must be hacked off; that certain traditions cannot be maintained because they are actively harming people. “Christianity is not an uniform and monotonous tradition, but can be learned only by successive steps of life.” F.J.A. Hort
June 26, 2013
As Adam Kotsko has said, learning a language is not hard, it just takes hundreds of hours of work. There’s pretty much no way around that fundamental aspect. Even once you understand the underlying rules of syntax, you still have to memorize morphology, vocab, and exceptions for any new language. This assumes one actually wants to have a reliable working knowledge of a language and not just the foundation for future half-remembered phrases.
To that end teachers have long found creative ways to make learning a language easier and more enjoyable. Take, for instance, the songs and poems that my Latin teacher learned as a boy in English schools. Or the work of Clyde Pharr on Virgil and Homer. But what about contemporary technology? Can it aid in this learning?
I was just introduced by a friend to a phone app called Duolingo. The app is free. They also have a website, so one doesn’t even need a smartphone to use it. I’ve found it so helpful and fun that I’ve inadvertently decided to use this Summer to beef up my German. By working through a “skill tree,” competing against yourself and friends, acquiring points, and advancing levels, the system practically makes you want to learn. That it uses all major language-teaching immersion methods – German to English and English to German translation, hearing German, speaking German, reading German, and so on – makes it effective.
What it has done is allowed me to utilize free time – waiting in line, riding a bus, fooling around at night – as time spent learning the language. That is, it makes me put in the time necessary to learn German. What’s more, this is how we ‘young people’ actually use technology. Ultimately there’s no way around the time, so just creating new technology cannot nor will it ever be a quick fix. But if you can integrate it with how technology is actually intuitively used, I think you might be on the right track.
So the question this has raised for me is can Duolingo or something like it be helpful for the Classical languages? Here’s where I think we might brush up against some problems, given the complexity of Classical syntax. I’m not sure one could “learn Greek” on an app. But I think that if done after the manner of Duolingo, the hard memorization of vocab, morphology, and basic syntax could be aided significantly by such technology, even if it was only supplementary to a course. Perhaps it could be structured to follow along with a classic textbook?
Preached 9 June 2013, Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, Albuquerque
You may have heard the variation of that old joke about the wife who is trying to get her husband out of bed on Sunday morning. He’s says, “I don’t want to go church this morning.” And the wife says, “I really think you should.” And the husband says, “Why” And the wife says, “Because I really think you need to hear the sermon this morning.” The husband says, “How do you know?” And she says, “You left it open on the computer when you finished writing it last night.”
I can assure you Deborah didn’t have any trouble getting me out of bed this morning. I am excited to be here, but after reading it over again this morning I realize this sermon is definitely something I need to hear.
When hearing these lessons, the thing that my mind goes to right away is the pain that these mothers, these widows must have felt at the death of the children. In the reading from 1 Kings, we have a widow, who in the passage just previous to ours was preparing a final meal for her and her son, expecting that after that last meal they would die of starvation. Elijah comes along, asks her to make him some food. When she does, her supplies are miraculously multiplied and she and her son are saved from starvation. And, then, just like that, her son dies. And she turns to Elijah and says, “Is this some cruel joke? Did God save my son from starvation just to have him die?
As a father of one, with another child on the way, as someone who in the past has felt the pain of miscarriage, as someone who has stood by as people very close to me have dealt with infertility, I can only just begin to understand the devastation of losing a child, or of not being able to have children. It is a devastation that I couldn’t adequately put into words even if I wanted to. But it is an important aspect of our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. The biblical writers only hint at the agony these mothers, these two widows, must have felt at the death of their children.
These two readings remind me of another story, found in 2 Kings, in which Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, encounters another woman who extends hospitality toward him, and when he finds out that she and her husband cannot have children, he prays and she conceives and gives birth to a son, only to have that son die several years later. And there again is that heart-rending question, why? Why God did you give me this gift only to take it away? In fact the Bible is full of these stories, having to do with children, of couples who have trouble conceiving, of children nearly dying, or dying, of sometimes getting raised back to life, and sometimes not. There are literally dozens of stories like this in both the old and new testaments. What does all this say about us, about children, and about God?
As mentioned earlier, my wife and I are expecting our second child, so I have been brooding about these questions for some time before I began preparing this sermon. I have been experiencing what is hopefully a normal phenomena; I call it world-nesting, where I not only want to make a place for my unborn daughter in our home, I want to make a place for her in the world, meaning I feel compelled to solve all the world’s problems for her, make everything perfect; you know real quick, I’ll just figure out a way to end violence in our schools in between painting the nursery and buying a new crib. Ask Deborah, when she is pregnant, I become the recycling Nazi, because I don’t want the world my little girl grows up in to be a dump. The morning paper becomes my to-do list for things in the world that need fixing before it is safe to bring my daughter into it. And of course I can’t get past the first headline. And then a few weeks ago, I ran across an interview with the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas. Dr. Hauerwas was asked about radical Christianity, radical in the sense of counter the culture of this world, radical in the sense of living into the strange and revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God. He was asked, what was the most radical thing a Christian could do? Here was his answer:
“One of the most radical things that being Christian commits you to is the willingness to have the patience to have children. It’s very radical. What it means to have a child is to learn to live without control. And to learn to live out of control. We try to become very good at controlling the world, to make the world safe for children. And as soon as you try to make sure that your children are not at risk, because you want to make sure they can get out of life alive, then you do them a disservice. This is a dangerous world. And by being a Christian, it makes it more dangerous.”
The willingness to have the patience to have children, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. As much as I like to be in control, or more accurately, as much as I enjoy the quaint illusion that I are in control, I cannot hold onto that as a parent, and we cannot hold on to that as followers of Jesus. We are not in control. That is the first message of the stories of the two widows who lost their sons. The world is a dangerous place, and none of us, and none of our loved ones can make it out of life alive.
So why, why does God give us children, why does God give us anyone to love, why does God give us a caring community, only for it all to go away? It is easy to give in to fear, to become pessimistic, or nihilistic. It’s easy to wonder what the point of it all is. But then we come to the second message of our two readings. I like how Hauerwas puts it:
“Christians have children, in great part, in order to be able to tell our children the story. Fortunately for us, children love stories. It is our baptismal responsibility to tell this story to our young, to live it before them, to take time to be parents in a world that (although intent on blowing itself to bits) is God’s creation (a fact we could not know without this story). We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living—and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,” but because God is the hope of the future.
Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of hope, in spite of the considerable evidence to the contrary, that God has not abandoned this world. Because we have confidence in God, we find the confidence in ourselves to bring new life into this world.”
That is why children were the most important people to Jesus. Why he had compassion on the widow and raised her son from the dead. That is why we must have the faith of a child to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. That is why our most important job as Christians is to be patient and caring toward our children, and not just our own children, but the children in our church and our wider community. In fact, it is why we must be patient and caring toward all those who do not have anything to offer in return, because that act bears witness to the grace and compassion of a God who, in our weakness, came among us, became weak with us, and showed us a better way, a way of redemption and reconciliation and peace for all. When Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead, the people exclaimed, “God has visited his people.” God has not abandoned the world, quite to the contrary, Christ on the cross abandoned himself to the world, and for the world.
And so we must be patient. And that after all is what ordinary time is about. If Easter is about Resurrection, about Christ conquering death, if Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the church, then Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost, is about patience. Patience means trusting in the promise of Easter in the face of everyday life, both its mundane parts, and its incredibly painful parts. Patience belongs to the ones who accept that they are not in control, the ones who know that through patient caring for one another, for the weak and for the vulnerable, we can live into what we are destined to be as the church: a sign that God has not abandoned the world. Amen.
June 5, 2013
Wednesday, June 5th 2028 -
Today the Episcopal General Convention discussed a recent blog post from 2013 stating that young people are leaving Facebook at a startlingly high rate. Several Boomer priests concerned about the continued loss of financial benefactors, or ‘parishoners’, proposed that a committee be formed to study if young people are indeed leaving Facebook. The Committee to Maintain Cultural Relevance Among Young People or C2MCRAP would release their findings via group email one month before the next General Convention in 2031, along with some suggestions on what The Episcopal Church should do about it.
Debate was fierce on the floor. Fr. Jim Jefferson, well known for his blog ThinkingProgressivelyBetterThanOtherAnglicansEspeciallyTwoThirdsWorldOnes.com, was fired up, saying that young people are leaving Facebook and TEC because of tired old stale orthodoxies that just don’t make sense in a 2020′s world. “Why are we saying that Jesus rose from the dead? Twitter is 22 years old. Get with the program!”
Fr. Jeff Jimmerson, himself famous for StandingFirmLikeAStickInYourAss.com, decried the conversation, saying that the reason young people are leaving Facebook and TEC is because the church abandoned the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. “None of this would ever have happened if we had stuck with Eucharistic Prayer C.” When it was pointed out that Fr. Jimmerson wasn’t even in TEC anymore but in a random splinter-cell that used a mixture of the 1549, 1928, 1979 BCPs and the Roman Missal, he started screaming something incoherent about apostolic succession until escorted out by security.
Shortly after that the Super Ultra Very Right Rev Dr Feff Fifferson told a very moving story about a young person in his diocese which, while sentimental, had almost nothing to do with the topic at hand, though somehow everyone felt moved to “be more missional” after his speech.
As debate rose to a fever pitch eyes turned to the young Rev. Sarah Evans, aged 42, as everyone demanded to know why young people like her weren’t coming to church anymore. When she said she’d love to stay and chat but had to go pick up her 15 year old daughter from school, murmurs of “kids these days” filled the arena.
April 24, 2013
I vividly remember the first time I felt completely unprotected. In fact, as an adult reflecting back on the event, I am more horrified than I was experiencing it as a child. It’s one of my earliest memories; I was just three or four years old. My father, who was then a young man in his twenties, had a friend who was over, showing off a new convertible sports car. A sports car that my father, in all of his paternal wisdom, had refused to let me near. They were saying their goodbyes, and I, a willful child that had spent the better part of the day begging for a ride in the two-seater, decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. My father’s friend had not understood what the big deal about the car was, so when I climbed into the small space between the driver and passenger seats as he was leaving, I remember him saying, “Let’s have a little fun with your old man.”
The engine roared to life, the car jumped forward, and then swayed lithely from side to side as the air around us filled with the screech and stink of spinning tires. As a child that spent life drifting little matchbox cars around imaginary race tracks in my mother’s yard, I was in ecstasy. I felt my stomach hug my spine in an awkward embrace as the tires grabbed the asphalt and the car surged forward. The moment was testosterone fueled bliss until I turned to look over my shoulder at my dad, thinking he would be just as excited as I was. My father was shrinking quickly, but the look of panic was growing. Of course, all my little eyes could interpret on my father’s face was anger, so I began immediately to plead with his friend to turn around and take me back. He said, “Sorry, I’m already on the road, and I have a quick errand to run. I’ll bring you back later.” I remember feeling vulnerable, helpless, and completely convinced that the look on my father’s face meant bad things for me. So, I did what any reasonable terrified child would do. I lashed out like a cat trying to dodge a bath. I kicked, screamed, bit, and pulled hair.
Today, I think back and am amazed that he was able to keep the car on the road with a feral preschooler attacking his face. Needless to say, I made it home and was not permanently harmed in the incident, though, I never saw my dad with that friend again. For me, the enduring lesson of that day is that there are circumstances that will leave us feeling unprotected and out-of-control. It was obviously a powerful moment for me as a person, because it was the day that the childhood illusion of safety was broken. All things considered, though, it is a nice story to tell because it is also a safe lesson. There was no lasting harm. We might even be able to enjoy the humor of visualizing a raging toddler wrapped around the head of a man driving down the road in a convertible.
The unfortunate reality that this world is not a safe place remains, however. It is harsh, but nonetheless true, that many people learn that they can be made vulnerable in violent and horrific ways. Some are made vulnerable by having their source of protection snatched away by accident or illness.
And, of course, we all gather today with a sense of questioning and grief. We are concerned, and we contemplate the losses that we as a nation have suffered because of recent events. Around our country this week, (and I assure you around the world,) so many innocent people learned that they can be made vulnerable – that this world can be an unsafe place.
We have the happy coincidence of a Gospel reading that addresses these exact issues this week.
Of particular interest, especially in light of recent tragedies which include the bombings at the Boston Marathon, is the fact that John utilizes an exchange between Jesus and “the Jews” in the Temple at the Feast of Dedication to illuminate a new paradigm. This feast is probably better known to us as Hanukah. It is significant that the Jews ask a question about whether Jesus is the Messiah at the Temple during the Feast of Dedication, because this is the very Temple Judah “the Hammer,” or Judas Maccabeus, defeated the Seleucid army, winning back the Jews’ right to worship freely. It’s an event retold in your Bible in the book of 1 Maccabees.
As a result of his heroics, Judah “the Hammer” earned a spot among other beloved leaders in Jewish history. He stood out along with the likes of King David as a warrior-leader, and many began to wonder whether he was the promised Messiah. We know from other passages in the Gospels that some near Jesus expected that he would fulfill their desires for a warrior-king in likeness of King David or Judas Maccabeus. They waited for a courageous leader that would lead the Jewish faithful in an uprising that would bring down an oppressive Roman occupation and elevate Israel to its former glory. It’s likely that these Jews in John chapter 10 had a similar hope in mind when they ask Jesus to demonstrate plainly whether he is the Messiah during the Feast of Dedication.
Jesus’ response, then, might have come as somewhat of a shock when he explains that he has already demonstrated clearly that he is the Messiah. They sought proof of an insurrection, but he calmly explains that one of Yahweh’s other promises has already been fulfilled in their midst. Jesus recalls imagery of the promised shepherd of Israel in his response. While many throughout the Jews’ history were intended by God to fulfill the role of protector and nurturer, they all had failed. Jesus points out that the signs and teaching he provides are proof positive that he is the Good Shepherd of Israel.
It is somehow fitting, during this terrible week that we read a passage where many Jews found themselves under oppression, yearning for the justice and retribution that a military hero would bring, only to find a Messiah that planned to bring about a different reality, a Messiah that promised to fill a different need.
This passage in John provides an opportunity for even deeper reflection, though. Present in this passage is a demonstration of the early church’s struggle with the person of Christ. For the first few centuries of Christianity, scholars and church leaders wrestled with the paradox of Jesus’ dual natures. It was their struggle, and interestingly enough, it remains one of our struggles. Just how should we understand the person of Jesus Christ? How does Jesus exist as the eternal God that became truly human?
The answer comes in part from how St. John handles our Gospel reading today. When Jesus claims to be the Messiah by fulfilling the promise of the Good Shepherd he does so by giving a simple equation with a surprise twist that shocked the Jews.
Jesus tells them, the answer that they seek has been plainly revealed, but they don’t believe, because they do not belong. Here’s how he says it works: the Father sent Jesus, the works Jesus does in the Father’s name testify about his status as the one being sent.
Jesus’ ability to work signs is God’s ratification of his ministry and status. God’s ratification comes, because Jesus is a righteous, loving, obedient son. According to Jesus, all of this is possible in the first place, because Jesus the Son, and God the Father are One.
In John, Jesus declares that we can know what God is like by seeing what Jesus does. In his declaration as Messiah, Jesus drops a bomb and essentially says, “Your promised deliverer isn’t just sent from God, He is God.” Further, Jesus explains that his purpose in coming is to make the Father known. And here is an essential lesson in our theology. If you want to know what God is really like, look at what Jesus does.
Up to this point in Jewish history, God’s chosen people have relied upon the Old Testament to be a demonstration of God’s true nature and will. This is a difficult thing, even for the Jews, because the Old Testament is comprised of many documents that are in tension with not only each of the other documents but also within themselves. For centuries, the Jews were left puzzling out what God was like through the way they saw him acting in their own history. Consequently, as they texts of the Old Testament follow the historical events of the Israelites, you see how the people interpreted their experiences in relation to God. When they were obedient and victorious, God was a bloody warrior-king or a majestic-mysterious presence right in their midst. When they suffered oppression for their sinfulness as a nation, God was distant and indifferent to their plight – he was an absentee father or a scorned lover.
Regardless of the ways these texts point to how God was acting in Jewish history, one huge problem remained for the Jews (and remains for us). God was transcendent. He was distant and enormous. He was “out there,” even when he was acting on their behalf or sitting in the holy of holies. God remained utterly unknowable and totally unassailable.
But in our Gospel reading Jesus promises that God can now be known, because he is here in the flesh. Working backward through Jesus’ own statements; if he and the Father are one, then the works that demonstrate his Messianic identity are also the works of the Father. We need Jesus to show us what God is like in terms we can understand. God, being eternal and transcendent, becomes knowable through his own humanity. Consequently, we have a clear way to understand what God is like. We just have to look at Jesus.
It is a powerful declaration, then, that when pressed in the temple at the Feast of Dedication to prove whether he was the Messiah (you should understand this to mean, “If you’re the Messiah we expect, then it’s time to get with the military campaign”) he prefers to be the Good Shepherd and not the Warrior-King. When faced with the plight of humanity and the oppression of the Israelites, Jesus chose to be a protector, healer, teacher, and priest – a suffering servant. He did not choose to incite rebellion, to call down angelic armies, or debilitate the regime of the oppressor – he is not, here, a conquering hero. All of this is particularly significant, because he expects us to receive his actions, miracles, and signs as a direct expression of what God is like.
Many of us will struggle with this, especially in light of recent events. We want evil to be eradicated criminals to be apprehended, and perpetrators to be punished. When we are robbed of security and peace, we want the thing that disturbed our lives to be removed, abolished, or controlled. These are exactly the kinds of things the Jews wanted their Messiah to do for them. Instead, he taught with patience, healed with compassion, loved with no boundaries…
In the midst of shocking realities like the fact that Jesus represents God in the unity of the Holy Trinity or that his purpose as Messiah would be to deal with the hurt of humanity through love and healing, we might just miss the promise in this morning’s text. So, let’s read it again…
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”
We find that all of this is happening in our own lives within the larger context of Eastertide. So, what should we do in light of the Resurrection? Of all the metaphors that Jesus’ uses for his relationship to the world, you’ll find many of them rely heavily on a notion of companionship. Among others he is the Vine that abides, the Bread that sustains, the Water that quenches, the Light that endures, and (here) the Shepherd that is known by his sheep. Why do the sheep know his voice? Because they know him, and because they abide with him.
It is because of this, and because as Christians that intentionally follow the pattern of Christ’s life year in and year out, that we understand that walking with Christ in his suffering, in his death, and in his resurrection means that we ought to do those things that he has done. By participating in his life, and doing those things he gave us to do by example, we are enacting the will of God in this world. We become participants in the building of his kingdom, energized and enabled by the power of the resurrection.
Therefore, we could not have hoped for a more clear indication of how to respond to the evil we see in this world. In being shepherded by the Good Shepherd, we learn what it means to be a shepherd to others – to protect, to guard, to love, and to serve others. These are the actions of God himself in the face of suffering, pain, and evil.
So, what exactly does shepherding others look like? I know it has become somewhat kitschy to quote at this point, but as the British wartime adage goes, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
It’s simple. It’s succinct. It points to the fact that many of you have spent lives dedicated to bringing about good. Just because evil rears its ugly head in horrific ways, it doesn’t mean that your work is in vain. It means that we must continue to do good work, to continue to train others to do good work, to support and love those that have not yet learned how. It means that we continue to shepherd in our own small ways, in spite of pain or trouble. Keep calm and carry on in your good work.
Allow me to suggest that you already know the voice of the shepherd, and in turn know what to do to shepherd others.
First, you should pray. I learned quickly this week that I did not want to spend a lot of time reading news reports on the internet, especially the comment sections. One commenter, presumably of some faith or other, stated early that she was praying for all those in Boston. Another person, presumably of no faith, commented back, “Yeah, sure, pray…great way to make yourself feel like your doing some good without actually doing anything. What a waste of time.” I have to admit that my initial reaction was, “well, there might be a point there” and it bothered me – but, the more I reflected on it, I began to realize nothing was further from the truth. When we engage in genuine prayer, we are not only petitioning action from our God, we are also making a concerted effort to humble ourselves and be changed by the Holy Spirit. If everyone in this world made a genuine effort to purge their lives of selfish ambition, pride, and all those things that drove us to act only in our own interest and not in the interest of others, this world would indeed be a different place. WE would be a different people. Pray. Pray for yourself and pray for others.
Second, you should give. I know the immediate thing that jumps to mind is giving economic resources, and it’s logical. We constitute a physical people in a physical church with physical needs. We all give in order to continue the ministries of this church. But, please, do not stop there. Do not underestimate how much it means to others in this community when you give of yourself. When you volunteer your time, your talents, and energy, you are giving sacrificially. It is a personal sacrifice that is meaningful, valuable to the community. It is a sacrifice that is pleasing to the Lord, and beneficial to your own growth. Give. Give out of your resources. Give out of your time. Give out of your abilities. Give of yourself and give to others.
Third, you should worship. Our personal acts of worship are for the glory of God, but there are beneficial to us personally and to our congregation. When we bless God and each other with our worship, we both demonstrate and proclaim that the light of the world cannot be overcome. When violence seeks to silence, we should sing louder. When despair tries to darken, we should shine brighter. When evil threatens to steal our hope, we should trust our Savior and throw ourselves at his feet with abandon. When we come together to worship we encourage and strengthen each other. I must confess that I was eager to get to church this morning – both to check on you and to connect with you. Your presence here is valuable. Your hugs, your smiles, and your interactions make this a wonderful place to be. Your worship helps the light of Easter to shine more brightly.
In seeing the actions of Jesus we know the character of God; and in sharing the power of his resurrection we are enable to so behave. Because he is the Good Shepherd, we are able to shepherd others. These are the basis of our ability to see the weak and the vulnerable protected. They are the foundation of our confidence that the light of good, that the light of Easter, will continue to overcome the darkness in this fallen world. Alleluia! Christ is risen!