Lectionary Commentary

July 19, 2009
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 11

Commentary by Rick Marshall

See also: [Year B Archive]


Psalm 89:20-37
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Reflecting on Preaching:

The practice of preaching is like many other professions which describe their work as practice. Doctors practice medicine, lawyers practice law, dentists practice dentistry and preachers practice preaching (and pastoral care). In a similar way, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be a practicing Christian; that’s what discipleship means, following a discipline. Instead of the preacher holding forth as if the very voice of God, the preacher is a human being first, reflecting on life from a viewpoint that is philosophical, theological, biblical, contextual and existential. Where does hope come from? How do we live a life that matters? What is the source of well-being? How do we react to a threatening, fearful world? How do we respond to death and grief? What makes for peace? As abstract as these questions are, they give the preacher access to what is most deeply human. That which is most deeply experienced is most universal. At its best, preaching is transformative. Through powerful texts, new possibilities can be introduced into people’s imaginations, opening up a whole range of further new possibilities, seeing life freshly, hopefully.

Discussing the Texts:

Last week, we saw John the Baptist’s head served up on a platter, the food of revenge. Herod is king and continues to be a threatening presence, if only under the surface of this Sunday’s text. Violence and politics are the context of the gospel stories; Rome is never far away. Following a detailed description of the courtly machinations that led to John’s death, we immediately come upon the story of Jesus feeding the crowd. The lectionary text doesn’t get to the feeding. Instead, we see the crowds going here and there, probably based on rumors of Jesus’ whereabouts, as if blown by the wind; they are looking for help in their lives, so they are looking for him. The scene moves the gospel to make a sad observation: “As he (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” This observation is a commentary not only on Herod the king and the kind of ruthless leadership he used, but a more general indictment of the sad history of failed leadership in general that Israel has experienced over the years. The history is familiar, it goes all the way back to Israel’s first experience with a king, Saul, and then compounded by the haunting presence of the unfulfilled hope and eventual failure of King David. The story is up close and personal and not a mere abstraction: the death of John the Baptist was a result of the ruthless, deadly power that King Herod used. He is unpredictable, corrupt and deadly. Everything that is wrong with bad shepherds is embodied in King Herod.

Jeremiah focuses on the same problem in much stronger language. “Woe to the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” Its a strong indictment of failed leadership in Jeremiah’s time. Even in the text from the psalm, praising King David and the Lord’s promise of steadfast love, things turn sour immediately after the text for this Sunday. But this time, the indictment is against the people: “But now you have spurned and rejected (the Lord’s anointed); you are full of wrath against your Messiah.” Psalm 89:38. We will see the same process of rejection in the case of Jesus as Messiah. It’s hard to say who is at fault; both the people and their leaders deserve each other. I think that could be said of many governments then and now. Its as simple and as mysterious as human nature. One of my daughters, not long ago, bought a new car. She went by herself to a dealership, walked into the showroom and pointed to a shiny convertible and said “I want that car” to the salesman. She now owns a car that is worth far less than she owes. Who is at fault? Both her and the sale’s man, of course. She has learned that people will take advantage of her if she’s not prudent. She will never go to that dealership again. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Spoken (and mangled) by a president who, after lying to a nation about war, was re-elected. The biblical use of the image of shepherd is as relevant now as it was when written.

The use of the metaphor of Shepherd to discuss leadership is rooted in the world in which the Bible was formed; the metaphor is everywhere. Ezekiel chapter 34 provides the most explicit use of the metaphor, and of course Psalm 23. Ezekiel connects the dots for us and describes what constitutes a bad shepherd and what constitutes a good shepherd.

Later in the gospel story, Jesus will be called the Good Shepherd. The difference between the Good Shepherd and the history of false shepherds is one of the reasons for the gospel story itself. Why is Jesus the Good Shepherd? Its not a difficult comparison. In our time, its like asking the question: what is the difference between a good mechanic and a bad one? Well, the good mechanic fixes the problem and doesn’t try to take advantage. He is open and honest with his customers. A good shepherd takes care of the sheep and protects, guides, and feeds them. A good shepherd has a stake in the safety and well-being of the sheep. A bad shepherd is in it only for himself and will take advantage of the sheep and disregard their safety. What, then, makes for a good leader? The answer does not require self help books on how to be the best kind of leader, though such books might be helpful. We already know all the ways leadership can go wrong. We see it almost daily in the media; we know the litany by heart: corruption, disloyalty, dishonesty, making decisions for the privileged few against the many, acting as if one is above the law, harming others. It is easy for anyone aware of current affairs to connect all the dots.

The Ephesians text claims that Jesus is the anointed one, the Messiah. The writer goes on to describe the attributes of the Messiah and what it means for the whole world. This Messiah, this leader, is defined by peace, which is based on reconciliation. Jesus is the unifier (unlike the one who recently claimed to the the Unifier; he was also the Decider). He has taken away the use of the law to prove righteousness. Now both Jew and Gentile are brought together. There is one humanity; all are children of God. We are all “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” In Messiah Jesus, we are a “whole structure” a “holy temple” “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Messiah Jesus brings what no other leader has brought: peace, reconciliation, rightness with God, well-being, healing (we also know this litany of virtues by heart). This is the golden rod to measure current political, economic, and religious behavior.

The movement of these texts forms a large narrative arc going from Messiah David to Messiah Jesus. The David narrative is probably the strongest narrative arc in the Jewish scriptures and the Jesus narrative is, without doubt, the strongest arc in the Christian scriptures. Messiah Jesus wouldn’t be possible without Messiah David, and Messiah David would still be an abstraction for future consummation without Messiah Jesus. Both forms of Messiah needed each other. They merge in this Sunday’s selection of texts, which reaches strong expression in Ephesians. There is a before and after argument, then and now. Addressing the Gentiles, the writer of Ephesians makes the point that before Jesus, they were without Messiah and therefore without hope. Now, with Jesus, they have a Messiah and it is Messiah Jesus that brings everyone together as children of God. What was promised to Israel is now expanded to include all, which was the divine intention from the beginning. God wanted to bless all nations through the people of Israel. Messiah David is less superseded than extended to encompass the whole earth. Messiah Jesus is universal in the sense that all of creation is included. The universality of Messiah Jesus does not suggest that there is only one universal. He is the universal based on the biblical narratives. There are other different cultural narratives that suggest different universals. With Messiah Jesus there are no more walls; everyone is enfranchised, in this case, Jew and Gentile. The coalescence of these narrative threads in the early church proved to be powerful. Think of the many ways the Roman Empire came to an end. We wonder what part this biblical critique of political leadership and economic policy played in undermining the Empire orthodoxies of power and privilege.

Process Theology and the Texts:

The way process philosophy analyzes the becoming and passing of an actual event is highly abstract. Analyzing an event in this way allows for the model to be applied to the complexity of the real world and gives an account of how the world can be seen as a dynamic arrangement of interrelated events emerging and passing in reaction to the past, and in response to divine possibilities for becoming concrete. The world behaves like an organism, events within events, arising and passing, becoming part of successive events, forming even more complexity. Take the human body as an example. Our body is an organism which is composed of other organisms in relation to still other systems of organisms, all interrelated and working together: cells, organs, fibers, electric impulses, chemical reactions and vessels. Our conscious awareness of the present moment is the dominant actual occasion that is possible because of so many other actual occasions which make up our particular bodies. Our own human experience gives us the most accessible window into accounting for the present moment, for we, too, are a succession of actual occasions of experience, in continual process of accounting for our immediate past and reacting to divine possibilities for our becoming, and then how we contribute to subsequent occasions of our experience. This sounds overwhelmingly complex because the world, as it unfolds, is mind-bogglingly complex. The immensity of this process sustains the divine experience. If the world is God’s body, then God experiences the world in a similar, though limited, way in which we experience our own bodies. This is a very rough analogy, but its better than the Ghost in the Machine idea.

This is why particularity is so important in preaching. The Bible contains stories of particular characters, acting in specific ways, with certain consequences. Stories become arch-types, models, which illuminate our own experience. Even these stories are still abstractions and they can drift away in preaching and so need to be connected to our personal experiences of the world. Last week, we saw one story nested into another in the Gospel of Mark. But that is a simple model of the complexity of life, stories within stories, woven from more stories, all complexly interrelated and growing and ongoing.

Preaching the Texts:

The temptation for a preacher is to point out the obvious use of the Shepherd metaphor and to connect the dots with the aim of comforting. It is important to do this, but its overuse can prevent any fresh hearing of the text. It has been used so much in preaching; it is a challenge to say something new about it, or to look at it from a novel angle. It is so easily left in the past and therefore rendered ineffectual. It has become a highly abstract piece of narrative. The metaphor of Messiah is also highly abstract and finds it’s full expression in the particular narratives of David and Jesus.

It might be a good preaching strategy to apply the metaphor of Good Shepherd to our current social situation. This would be a more prophetic use of the texts, that is, using them to critique the social, political, and economic orthodoxies of the government of USA. This is always risky, not only to protect the church from the IRS, but also because anytime a preacher goes “counter-culture,” he or she is easily labelled and dismissed.

Which brings us to another issue for preaching, and that is the way empire tries to leverage religious matters into the realm of abstraction. Many Christians, for example, argue over the second coming of Jesus and are concerned about being on the right side when he arrives. Many Christians are focused on heaven and the afterlife. As the old hymn says “This word is not my home, Im just a passin’ through, my treasures are laid up some where beyond the blue.” Such abstractions are the equivalent of the old parody of theologians trying to argue the number of dancing angels that can be accommodated on the head of a pin. As long as religious groups are busy fighting each other over relatively trivial matters, the empire can then conduct its business without interference. As long as religion is preoccupied with heaven and getting into the next world, then they don’t focus on this world, which leaves the powers that be free to run the world according to their own agenda without interference from religion.

Society would like its preachers to play it safe. Leave the stories in the times in which they were written. Don’t make  connections between the Bible and current political realities, certainly not economic policies. Don’t question the powerful orthodoxies that have been blessed by empire religion. As preachers, we are reminded by the Bible that prophets generally come from within a society; rarely are they outsiders.

The less abstract and the more particular a preacher can be will be in service to the texts and to the congregation. The texts are interested in particulars. A sermon could be current and focus on the economics of, say, California and the failed state it has become. In forming a budget, what has to be cut? Who loses and who wins? What are the special interests giving strong voice to their own agenda? Is a government budget a moral document? If measured by “trickle up” theory of economics, how is the state doing in caring for the least powerful and most vulnerable? When the widows and orphans, the sick and the poor, do well, all of society is healthy. This would be a way to particularize the texts.

Children and the Texts:

This seems to be an occasion where the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd should be used in a simple way with the children. Connect the dots between what makes a shepherd good and why it is important to children. The preacher could talk about the nurturing and caring aspects of God. The preacher could use the Mark text where Jesus sees people who need help and they don’t know where or how to get it. They are without someone to guide them. People called Jesus the Good Shepherd. Explain how God wants to guides all of us to well-being.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.

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