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Friday, May 13, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23:1-6, I Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

When I ask, “Who are we?,” I tend to move to traditional theological phrases like, “We are the Body of Christ,” or “We are the People of God.” Such phrases, while each having significance, have become trite or stale. They also have enough subtle overtones and possibilities of misinterpretation that some are hesitant to use them.

I’m talking about the movement of people who have some connection to Jesus, inside the organized church or outside. Who are we? The images in this week’s lectionary readings are both warm and fuzzy and disturbing. The overlapping images include (1) eating together and sharing what we have, and (2) sheepfold with sheep and shepherd going in and out through a gate.

Let’s start with the eating together. It’s one of the things most churches do well. Every occasion has “refreshments.” I grew up with “potlucks.” Everybody brought a dish to share. Sometimes they were planned, so that according to where your name was in the alphabet, you brought salad or a main dish or dessert, etc. Other times, when it was more free-wheeling, it was could be surprising how many different bean dishes there were, without much else. In some churches when I was serving as pastor in the eastern U.S., these meals were called “tureens,” the name of the dish in which many people cooked “casseroles.”

Meals, of course, don’t always go well, and not everyone has good table manners. Some get fidgety and want to be excused. Some are impolite. So let’s not idealize this image. “Eating together” as an image of the church is more than a time of warmth and intimacy. It is a call to self-consciously model compassion, inclusion, and justice.

The banquet or feast appears more than once in the Bible as an image of God’s ideal. Consider Isaiah 25:6—“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Jesus instructs, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (Luke 14:12-13) One can even, by implication, say that one’s “enemies” are included. Certainly the table set in the 23rd Psalm (one of this week’s readings) is “in the presence of my enemies.” (Psalm 23:5)

In both Testaments, a meal is one of the central “rituals”—the Passover Seder or the Lord’s Supper. Both, in the origins, were regular meals, not something tacked onto worship with wafers or bread cubes. In the New Testament the phrase, “the breaking of bread,” gains significance, so that in last week’s story about the Emmaus road, Jesus is recognized in “the breaking of bread.”

The lectionary reading from the book of Acts describes a gathering which includes “the breaking of bread and the prayers,” and says that “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:42 & 46) Just as the inclusion of unexpected people at the table can disturb us a bit, so do the descriptions around this post-resurrection gathering in the book of Acts. Some have seen in it a call to socialism. It says, “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.” (vss. 44-45)

Church historians tell us that the church wasn’t often faithful to this image as an ideal, but it is clear that gathering at the table in the Bible is about more than sharing food. If we look to this image to guide us in understanding who we are, we are in for some serious sharing. Are we ready? Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?

It is true that our congregation, and many congregations, do a good deal of sharing beyond our walls. It is even a case for rejoicing like that which we see in this Acts passage, but the challenge of an ever-expanding inclusion is still there.

Let’s move on to the sheep and shepherd. The Gospel lesson is all about the way the shepherd knows the sheep and the sheep know the shepherd. I’m not going to get into the detail of the epistle reading from I Peter except to note that it ends with the words, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (I Peter 2:25)

The parable in John seems to have several foci, although it begins and ends with the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:1 & 10) Are the hearers (and we) perhaps being warned to pay attention to who we follow, to know the leaders to whom we give our loyalty?
Overall, I don’t much like the image of sheep and shepherd, nor is it one that is easy to grasp in the nonagricultural settings where most of us live. Sheep are dirty and not very bright. They seem to play “follow the leader” somewhat blindly. Is that who we are? I know there are traditions that dwell at length upon what “sinners” we are. Scripture does tell us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) and the verse already quoted from I Peter talks about sheep who go astray. In the more progressive churches (and perhaps quite a few others), we don’t like to think of ourselves that way. We’re not sure we really need a shepherd. I don’t like to think of myself as a submissive sheep who doesn’t know how to take care of himself.

Therein lies the rub, and the power of this image. Without dwelling too much on “sin,” it is true that we all need someone to know and care for us intimately. That doesn’t have to mean blind submission. Parables suggest images, not exact likenesses. We are not exactly like sheep in all respects. The story is told, in part, to remind us that we are part of a loving community where there is a spirit of caring, the kind of caring seen in a shepherd, or in Jesus. Moving beyond the image of sheep we are able to become a community where we care for one another.

In reading about the sheep and the shepherd this time, my attention was drawn to the sheepfold. When I was growing up, this parable seemed to be about going to heaven. Jesus is the gate (or “door” as the older translations have it) to the sheepfold. (Isn’t it interesting how Jesus’ place in so many of the parables shifts? He is the host at the table as well as the bread. He is the shepherd, but also the gate. Does this perhaps suggest that the parables do not have a single set-in-stone interpretation? Maybe they are meant to stimulate our imaginations about the many ways in which we can participate in and grow as members of a caring community.)

I see the sheepfold as the community of believers. It is another image of who we are. Notice that it is a place where the sheep come and go. It is not a destination. The “gatekeeper” opens the gate and leads the sheep out. (John 10:3) They “come in and go out and find pasture.” (vs. 9) In Jesus’ time, more than one shepherd would have had sheep in that sheepfold. Each shepherd came and called and only his sheep came, because they recognized the voice. That’s really more detail than I want to digest right now, but it suggests that the population of the sheepfold is not just a narrow group of sheep. It is a diverse mixture of flocks. Now there’s something to think about! And if I don’t understand the full implications, I’m in good company. It says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (vs. 6)

Images rich with implications and possibilities as we seek to understand who we are. Let them stir our imaginations about the inclusive love that empowers our life together.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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