Sunday, November 24, 2019
Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost
She was a big Hawaiian woman or at least she seemed that way to me. I was probably 8 or 9 years old at the time; small in every way – height, weight, stature. I was convinced I could outrun her on dry land but in the ocean, that was a different story. One day while we were swimming next to the wharf and boat ramp at Keauhou Bay, she gestured to us to watch the magical moment that followed.
She had long hair that floated on the surface of the water. She swept her hair on the left with one hand and on the right with the other and then waited as her hair undulated in the ocean. Not long afterward, tiny baby manini or convict tang with their black and white stripes and mamo or the damselfish with a similar but distinct pattern and coloration appeared.
They started nipping at her hair and soon it became apparent to us - the other children and me - that the fish thought they had discovered a thick growth of limu or seaweed swaying with the ebb and flow on the afternoon tide. Then she drew her hair into a circle as though she were herding the fish together.
The one thing I know about sheep is I am allergic to wool. That’s basically it. So I always feel that I am somehow less appreciative of cultures where sheep and shepherds abound.
I know about herding fish into nets and I have seen someone herding fish into her hair, but herding sheep from a hillside in the country – no. But over the years I have come to appreciate any and all allusions to sheep and shepherds in the Biblical text.
Our reading from The Book of Jeremiah provides us with an unflattering “announcement of judgment against ‘the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep’ and an announcement of salvation to the ‘flock.’ The Lord will remove their reasons for fear by giving ‘the shepherds who will shepherd them’” (Preaching Through the Christian Year C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, page 475).
Biblical scholars disagree about who wrote this morning’s passage and its origins. There seem to be two writers. But most agree that the text was written from the time just before or during the exile to Babylon. In 589 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II laid siege to Jerusalem destroying the city and the Temple in the summer of 587 or 586 BCE.
Our reading of the Bible must always take into account the “who, when and what” of the text. Our reading from Jeremiah this morning is no different. Who wrote the text and to whom was it written? When was it written? What is its significance for to those whom it was written and perhaps more importantly, what is its significance for us today?
What is inescapable in Jeremiah’s account is this: the “’shepherds,’ both good and bad, represented political and religious leaders. Concluding a section of The Book of Jeremiah concerning the last kings of Judah, the reference is definitely to the series of rulers, but it could just as well apply to the officials as a whole. The ‘shepherds who will shepherd them’ (Jeremiah 23:4) could be either the succession of righteous kings or, more broadly, political and religious leaders” (Op. cit.).
Keep in mind the upheaval we are in seeing in countries around the world today – in South and Central America, in the Middle East, in Europe, Russia, Africa, China, the U.S. and many island nations - and consider Jeremiah’s words of judgment and salvation: “We hear of shepherds who do not guide, protect, rescue or restore. We hear of God’s anger toward unfaithful shepherds of God’s people and God’s promise to raise up faithful ones. We are told how to discern between the two: look at the sheep given into their care. Under the care of a faithful leader, the people are not afraid or dismayed nor are any of them missing” or ignored (Reflections on the lectionary, Yvette Schock, Christian Century, November 6, 2019, page 19).
But Yvette Schock, a Lutheran minister, in Spokane, Washington points out on the other hand: “The unfaithful shepherd leads by sniffing out and stirring up fear; by fragmenting communities through confusion, violence or threat; and by treating some in their care as expendable.” (Op. cit.)
While it may seem odd for Jeremiah to contrast shepherds with religious or political rulers, the text does call our attention to the importance of the pastoral imagery in the biblical expectation of a Messiah. To some extent, the imagery is indebted to David who himself was a shepherd (1 Samuel 16:19) and who would later become a king. When it is applied David, “the image is a rich combination of power and gentle care; the pastoral king and the royal shepherd” (Op. cit.).
That is what we hope for in our political and religious leaders – a combination of power and gentle care – a power that acknowledges as Jeremiah proclaims: “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). It occurred to me late last night that we often think of Jesus as the good shepherd, but I would like to think of him as the good fisherman instead.
Andrew, Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee as well as Thomas and Nathanael and at least two others all worked as fishermen. When Jesus called them to be his disciples he knew enough to say to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:10).
The image of a rich combination of power and gentleness is evident. “And when [Jesus] got into the boat [one day], his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.
And when they went and woke him up saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’
“Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was dead calm. They were amazed saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’” (Matthew 8:23-27). Power.
But in time, it would seem that whatever power Jesus may have had, began to wane. At his crucifixion, there were leaders who scoffed at him saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (Luke 23:35). There were soldiers who also mocked him. One of two criminals who were crucified with him mocked him as well. But the other criminal did not. When he spoke, there was “none of the fear, scorn, or doubt we hear in the others’ voices. Instead what we hear in his voice is confession – in the sense of sorrow, the admission of guilt, and repentance, as well as in the sense of faith. He knows he is as a sheep lost in the wilderness, and somehow sees in Jesus the good shepherd, who lays down his life so the sheep can come back safely to the sheepfold. The thief sees the fear, violence and degradation around him, and somehow he sees in Jesus the faithful shepherd, the king who rules with justice and righteousness” (Op. cit.).
When the thief said to Jesus – the good shepherd, the good fisherman - “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” I would like to believe that Jesus’ reply was said not just with power but with gentleness, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”