Sunday, May 31, 2009


Acts 2
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

My brother went to business school and I bought a book. He pays Ivy League tuition and I bought the Ten-Day MBA for $16.95 plus shipping. He has classes and assignments and deadlines, and I can do my entire MBA on the back deck. He will have a degree conferred by some pretentious sounding school, and I have a certificate on page 397 where I can write my name and herewith be known to gain all the rights and privileges of the “university of self taught.”

Ivy League tuition or $16.95 plus shipping? So who is the smarter business person?

Turning to the first chapter, I’m already learning about the church. There under the general heading of “marketing,” I discovered something called “product life cycle” and thought of today. Understanding where you are in your product life cycle is critical to any marketing campaign, and so I’m prepared to give you a little MBA for free, which, by the way, makes you smarter than me or MBA boy.

The first stage in the life cycle of a product is called simply “the introduction” and is characterized by the question “what is it?” This is the realm of the early adapters, the gadget guys and geeks who have something first and spend much of their time showing off and explaining what it is. I may have been the only kid in 1973 living in a home with an answering machine, which makes Dad an early adapter. I could go on, but I don’t want to put him on the spot.

The next stage is growth and the question “where can I get it?” Satellite radio and VoIP are in this category, products that are increasingly familiar but new to some. New stage is “maturity,” asking the question “which one?’’ The product is very familiar, you now feel you need one, and it becomes a question of comparing features. If you are finally ready to ditch the Brownie Hawkeye and go digital, you are in this stage.

The last stage is called “decline.” Everyone who is going to get one has one, people are generally tired of the product, most manufacturers are out of business or soon will be. The ironic thing here is that if you are the last company making VCR’s or turntables, there is money to be made on the vinyl geek or the person who hasn’t managed to find a DVD version of “Flashdance.”

And so, on the anniversary of the birth of the church, where are we on the “product life cycle?”

On Tuesday we covered the first three hundred years or so of the history of the Christian church and I think my little group would concur that Pentecost to 325 was “the introduction.” The growth stage will come this week as we look at the spread of our religion into the corners of the known world and into the places of power. The maturity stage, surprisingly enough will come on week three, around the time of the Reformation, where people were confronted with variations on a mature tradition and the fragmentation of the Christian marketplace. So that would bring us to decline, the final stage, where the vacuum tube and the rotary phone made their last stand, and where the church looks anxiously into the future and tries to maintain a little dignity.

Maybe it’s a little too obvious that I’ve spent the last 48 hours in a church meeting, me and 400 of my closest friends: trying to stay hopeful. Maybe bad air and sitting on a hard chair has altered my historiographical look at the last 2000 years, or maybe I’m just tired. Whatever it is, I think I need Peter’s help to find a way forward.

Tom Long, professor of preaching and a remarkable storyteller told us that the very section of the second chapter of Acts that we are most likely to edit out of our reading may, in fact, be the most important. The very verses that trip up even the most skilled lay reader, the frightening list of locations and civilizations that populate the story may be the very heart of the passage. Listen again:

8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

This Judean mash-up makes for one of the most eclectic gatherings of seekers and pilgrims the world has ever known, covering the places near and far where trade and migration took people and brought them home again. But there hidden in the names and places is a surprize, a puzzle perhaps, that a handful of Medians had travelled though time from their long-dead civilization to attend that day to the birth of the church.

The people of the once great empire called Medes were witnesses to the fire and wind of Pentecost, people that long ago passed into what we think we know about history, a people who sadly left no texts, no inscriptions, no grammar: only a couple of chunks of cuneiform in Old Persian that might, might be a scrap of the Median language. But it might just be Old Persian.

Peter is preaching to a crowd that we learn is at least 3000 strong that day, but how can we know for sure? How can we rely on an accurate counting when the Holy Spirit is not bound by time or place, and reaches back to what was, reaches out to what is, and reaches beyond to this morning at Central, the great will be. How can we rely on the accounting that scripture gives us when all of creation, past, present and future is crying out to be saved by the transforming love of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Like all good preachers, Peter, finds the right scripture for the occasion and tries to make the meaning plain:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

And like all good preachers, Peter says the time is now, this Word is fulfilled in your hearing, this eternity is happening in your sight. True enough Peter, the time is now, or was then, but the time is still now, so once you started messing with the timeline of history Peter, the time become something else altogether. You welcomed long-dead civilizations into our fellowship, and they already had last days, and your last days, circa 33 were not really last days either. And Peter, Peter, you need to know that we seem to be living in the last days, at least it seems like the last days when I hear the news and when I check my portfolio.

Our dear friend Peter loved his Bible, and preached the last days, but maybe didn’t know that the 3000 who heard him that day would be unmoved by the gathered crowd that day, because, let’s face it, there wasn’t much going on anyway. And unmoved, perhaps, by the idea that these were last days, because peoples have always faced last days and the world carries on.

No, it took more than a crowd and a prophesy to move them, it too more than rushing wind to move them, as impressive as this may be. No, it took the voices of Medes to move them, it took the voices of those who were silent for 500 years to move them and convince them that God was doing a new thing here: that the message of life was for all people, that reaching back in time and reaching across the known world and reaching out to the future that they could only dream about was happening at that very moment, in Jerusalem, on the birthday of the church.

We don’t have a mature product, and we’re not a vacuum tube and we’re not a Polaroid. We are time travelling with Peter to Medes, where Jesus speaks fluent Median, and we're in the heart of Rome, where Jesus speaks to power, and here in the heart of Weston, where Jesus speaks to and through us to a neighbourhood that needs his love. We’re shiny and new, never newer, never more relevant than this birthday, the birthday of the church. Thanks be to God, amen.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Seventh Sunday in Easter

Acts 1
21So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place* in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Time for honesty: Hands up if you have read your horoscope in the last week. How specific was it? Was it correct? Those of you making a full confession here are participants in the ancient art of astrology, a sub-set of the overall category divination.

Isn’t it time to branch out a little, find some new, equally ancient way to divine what the future holds? Here are a few alternatives, in no particular order (and no specific endorsement).

Alectryomancy means studying grain on the ground after a bunch of birds have been pecking at it.
Aeromancy is looking for patterns in clouds.
Abacomancy is looking for patterns in the dirt.
Arithmancy is looking for patterns in numbers.
Axiomancy is the quivering of the blade of an axe that has been thrust into a wooden table.
Aeluromancy involves interpreting the movement of cats.

And this is only a section of the “A’s.” There is no shortage of practices under the general category of divination, with the ancients recording and practicing countless ways to discover the future or interpret events. The fact that cleromancy (casting lots) is mentioned seventy-seven times in the Bibles gives you a sense of it’s common usage in the ancient world. Almost as common as astrology.

So the eleven remaining disciples of Jesus are faced with a problem: somehow they must replace Judas and restore themselves to the number that Jesus seemed to intend for such a group. In a sense, then, we are seeing the first example of church polity, or maybe the second, if you include Jesus appointing Peter the leader of the group in Matthew 16. Either way, the eleven must come up with some process to become twelve once more.

They begin with scripture. Looking at Psalm 109, they discern that one who falls to wickedness must be replaced. Peter then sets out some criteria:

21So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.

So basically there are two criteria set out here: the new disciple must be a man and he must have been around for a very specific timeframe, from the baptism of Jesus to the day of resurrection (or ascension, the text is vague). It is more than a little sad that the first act of policy-making within the nascent church is sexist. This is not a sermon about sexism in our tradition, but of the 120 men and women cited as followers at this moment in the Christian story, we know that many were women. We also know that many of them played a key role in the development of the tradition and some might argue the defining role since John makes a woman the first witness to the resurrection. Peter’s stock hits a low at this point in the story.

Having set out some criteria, two candidates are brought forward: Barsabbas (aka, Joseph, aka Justus) and Matthias. I’m not sure why Barsabbas wasn’t automatically excluded for having too many aliases, but somehow he remains in the running. It may be that of the 120 followers in Acts 1 only Barsabbas and Matthias fit the criteria, but the text is silent on the matter. Now somehow the disciples must decide.

And once again, while the text is silent on the matter, it might be fair to assume that Barsabbas and Matthias were equally qualified for the job. Two resumes, side by side, equal in every way, the trick is to come up with a fair and unbiased way to make the decision. A vote would be a popularity contest, and certainly not appropriate for something as important for choosing a member of the twelve. So they turn to cleromancy, casting lots.

The assumption here is that God will provide the answer. Confronted by two strong candidates, the disciples remove themselves from active decision making and trust that God will direct the outcome to provide for the best choice. I find it fascinating that something that appears seventy-seven times in scripture as a decision-making tool is completely absent from out tradition. Maybe we’re just not ready to surrender the power over decisions in the way that the ancients seemed willing.

The job for which Matthias was selected also deserves a look. Acts says “one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” It’s a very concise job description and one that seemed covered in the original criteria for the job itself. Remember the successful applicant had to be present “until the day he was taken up from us” and was therefore a witness to resurrection. The only way to make sense of this is to translate the job description into a job title called “Witness to the Resurrection.”

So want does a Witness to the Resurrection do? What makes this the alternate job title for one of the twelve and to what extent is this still relevant to our life together? If we accept the premise that we are all disciples now, then Witness to the Resurrection is our job title too, the task we have inherited. The idea of identifying the twelve fades quickly from the tradition, but the job remains.

St. Paul said “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” In other words, the message of new life, the message of the end of death through the resurrection of Jesus is the very centre of our faith. It seems a fitting way to end the season of Easter: to be reminded that resurrection is the centre, and the central task we receive is to witness to this reality. We proclaim the end of death, the triumph of life, and God’s desire that each of us have life in abundance (John 10).


So we have a promise and a task and we have the reality on the ground. We can laugh a little at all the divination that happened in the ancient world, following cats around to figure out the future, but the same lack of direction that leads people to find meaning in completely random things plays itself in our world every day. You have likely noted that I’m generally not one to condemn the modern world or the state of society, but this week I feel like I’ve had about enough.

The death of little Tori Stafford, and the news items that describe the details of all the participants in the story, amounts to some of this most depressing stuff I’ve read in a while. The wreckage of personal lives, stories of “hillbilly heroine,” and the death (once more) of innocence in a small community are all too much to bear. I read the paper in a mixture of sadness and disgust knowing that the promise of abundant life is far from every person in the story, before and after the murder of little Tori.

In time, lawyers and sociologists will put all this wreckage in perspective for us. Reasons will be given, sentences will be set, and we will gradually put this story out of our mind until the next tragedy comes along. It is hard to face the actual reality of life on earth, so we look away, we go to the mall or we pour a second glass of wine and try to put things out of our mind.

After a week like this, the job description of Witness to the Resurrection becomes more critical than ever. First we have to witness to ourselves. We have to remain confident in the belief that death is not the last word and that God desires for each of us a life with abundance and the promise of something more. Then we must witness beyond these walls, witness to the potential for resurrection in everyone’s life, the potential for new life for those with ears to hear and hearts open to the message entrusted to us.

In a few minutes we will gather to hear about the latest Habitat build, this one in our community, where volunteers will construct homes for people the banks have said do not deserve home ownership. Bands of counter-cultural people with hammers and nails will get together to reject the values of the marketplace to say that having a good home should have less to do with a credit score and more to do with commitment to the community and the willingness to expend a little sweat equity. It is good news story.

And we need more. We need more drop-ins and Habitat builds and more Meals on Wheels to counteract the stories that too often fill our newspapers and our minds. We need new neighbourhood stories that witness to the resurrection whether done by believers or not. We need new stories, stories of resurrection and stories of hope, stories to lead us to God’s abundance, amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fifth Sunday in Easter

John 15
1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

At one time my neighbourhood was described as the realm of "Irish cops and TTC motormen." In time it became an Italian neighbourhood, a secret unknown to many who now know it as "Greektown." I imagine it is because the Italian period was relatively short, and the Greek presence so pervasive, that my little stretch of the Danforth never enjoyed the designation of "little Italy."

The first house I owned had all the telltale signs of what I came to call the Italian Renaissance. Every outside surface was concrete: porch, path, parking pad. There was a generous amount of wrought iron and (the most telling trait) a giant fireplace in the basement suitable for cooking. I recall the house inspector's glee as he went on and on about the concrete porch: "Do you know why there are no termites on this block?" he asked. "No where does wood touch the soil. I just love this porch." He was alone. I called it the bomb shelter.

The other telltale sign was the grapevine. Planted just beyond the patio (concrete!) were four large vines, supported by a rusting trellis. Judging by the thickness of vine at the ground, these were mature vines with high production potential. I soon discovered just how high. The trick with grape is pruning. If you want to encourage new branches, then prune back as far as you can and watch the vine put all it's energy into filling the area with new growth. Prune conservatively, and the vine goes into fruit mode, with a single vine producing hundreds of clusters of grapes. With four grapevines, cleverly connected to the house with wires to direct the growth, there were times I worried that the sheer weight of fruit would bring down the house.

For my neighbour Yanni, fascination with grapevine had long ago turned to hate. Yanni's grapevine emerged from a small hole in his concrete walkway and threatened to take down his fence. First he tried cutting it off at the ground. Then he tried cutting it off below the ground. Then he tried chemicals. Next he cut it off, mixed up his own batch of concrete and put a cap over the hole. Every time the grapevine would return, even pushing out the concrete cap in an effort to live. If you have any doubt about the potential for life and nature's desire to continue, call Yanni. Or drop in. Look for the fence with the grapevine.


Back in Preaching 101 we learned a few basics that I think have served me well over 20 years. The first one is never psychologize Jesus (“He is feeling sad here…likely something y’all did”). Another is remain humble before the text and avoid statements such as “Jesus said (and I think we was right).” A third would be don’t preach against Jesus, since you’re kind of preaching against the head coach (“Jesus said ‘go for the touchdown, but I say to you…’”). In other words, let the red letters stay red, and tread lightly when questioning or interpreting statements from the mouth of our Lord.

So Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Having just set out the rules, I’m not going to disagree. Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. We are his disciples, we live and move and have our being through him. But the grapevine: it seems to have a life of it’s own. Which leads me to believe that it’s not a simple equation at work here (more Jesus equals more fruit) but something a little more complex, something rooted, I imagine, in the Bible Jesus read.

Reading through, then, the Bible is filled with vineyards. There are early ones, like the one Noah plants moments after the ark lands. It the same vineyard that produces the Bible’s first account of drunken nakedness (or is it naked drunkenness?) See Genesis 9 for more information. There are vineyards in the Promised Land, which come with special instructions regarding thankfulness, owing to the fact the Israelites gain them but didn’t create them. There are famous vineyards, like the one Ahab wants and Jezebel gets (see 1 Kings 21) proving that being smarter than all the men in the story won’t help you if it’s the men who eventually write it down.

Then there is some wonderful vineyard poetry. And since Jesus loved poetry, and loved the Book of Isaiah, we might do well to pay attention to Isaiah 5:

1 I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.

2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

3 "Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.

4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?

5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.

6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it."

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

It seems Jesus is setting out much more than a neat metaphor about remaining connected. This is more that being connected to the True Vine, critical as that is. It is about membership in the household of God, and what that membership means, and the extent to which we all make up the vineyard.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress

The two most common references to the vineyard involve Sabbath and gleaning. I will look at them in turn. Sabbath means rest, and most often we think about Sabbath in the realm of self-care: Honour God by resting and using that rest time to reflect on God. Fair enough. Everything is commanded to rest, even the field and the vineyards, but most of all the workers. And resting workers create more work for more workers. Take the 40 hour work week, a proud accomplishment of early labour. Historians have spun it to suggest the 40 hour work week was about added leisure time and quality of life, but in fact the 40 hour work week meant employment for more workers. It was unjust to have some work 60 hours while others were unemployed, and the rule of 40 hours solved this.

Next was gleaning. It begins in Sabbath, as the idle fields are to be left for gleaners, the poor and the landless who can eat what is produced in a fallow time, and thereby avoid the indignity of begging for food. And in non-fallow years, similar provisions are made:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

The vineyard is a location for justice precisely because the most vulnerable are cared for and saved from hunger. A portion of the harvest belongs to God, but rather than gather it up and deliver it to the Temple, God cuts out the middleman. Food on the edges or food fallen to the ground is ready for the gleaners, the poor and the alien, whom God loves, and feeds like the Israelites in the desert were fed. The command to keep Sabbath and the command to leave the edges is the Bible’s own social assistance, recognizing that all were once slaves in Egypt and all depend on God’s gifts.

John 15 is recreating a household, recreating a vineyard Kingdom where justice is restored through an ongoing connection to Jesus. It means abiding in the command to keep Sabbath and protect the vulnerable and ensure that enough harvest is left that all may be fed. Failure to abide in the love of Jesus will not mean less grapes but less mercy, less righteousness, and less Kingdom.

The potential for growth in the vineyard is limitless. God ensured that. And God gave is the tools to ensure all this potential is distributed. Now we seek the wisdom, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to do the important work of the vineyard, remain the household of God, now and ever, amen.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Fourth Sunday in Easter

John 10
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Sheep smell.

I know this because I have met some, and I can confirm that sheep smell. The church, you see, decided in her wisdom to send new ministers to small far-off places where we could do minimal amounts of damage while to brought years of book-learnin’ to the people we serve.

For me it was three little churches: Althorpe, Bolingbroke and Calvin, in three communities that no longer appear on the map. The third, Calvin United Church, was also the location of a lovely Victorian manse, located directly across the road from a working sheep farm.

And so I can confirm that sheep smell. And just to reassure you, this is not the second sermon in a series called “smelly things in the Bible,” though it is awful tempting to follow Roman fish sauce and sheep with something equally smelly next week. Leave it with me.

There is another link, however, between fish sauce and sheep, and that would be in the area of ubiquity. Just as every table had a pot of garum, every field had sheep. The land was well suited to herding: too mountainous and too rugged for cultivation, but perfect for sheep. And like fish, sheep were so common that they were never far from the popular imagination, and a ready source for metaphor.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” And just to make sure they understood, he said it again. Jesus is speaking outside of time here, speaking to the disciples and explaining who he will be to them, and also speaking to the early church, beset as they were with wolves in the form of Roman persecution. And so the character of the shepherd becomes central to the community: trusting that “the good shepherd” will remain steadfast in a time of trouble.

But he says more. He draws a comparison between himself as the good shepherd and ‘the hired hand,’ the bad shepherd who runs off at the first sign of trouble. He makes it clear to the first readers that even death will not prevent him from guarding his flock, that as he laid his life down for the sheep, he has taken it up to continue to be a risen presence. We remain one flock, with one shepherd, and even in the valley of the shadow of death we have nothing to fear.


So we know that the Bible is a source of smells, but it is also filled with clues. The text of filled with allusions and links that range for the obvious to the hidden. Three times, in our eight verses from John this morning, Jesus uses the phrase ‘hired hand.’ As I said, he is making a point of comparison, but I think there is more.

The hired hand, it seems, was about the most common type of shepherd. It was an occupation for the landless, people who were not inheriting the family farm, which in the Ancient Near East described just about everyone. And so people would hire themselves out for this solitary life. And like most consultants, their prospects were directly related to their trustworthiness: do well this season and word would get around and the work would continue.

This, then, makes Jesus’ description of the hired hand even more mysterious. If they succeeded based on past performance and maintaining their reputation, we can assume they were doing a good job. So why the harsh critique? The clue may be in the other common type of shepherd: the youngest child. Some families, with a surplus of children, would simply put the youngest out in the field. Farming was hard work, which the youngest couldn’t handle, and so they found themselves among the flocks.

And this is beginning to sound familiar: that young lad out in the field, too small to be selected to take on the most onerous task, best left with the sheep. All the other brothers are present, but poor David, only big enough to watch the flock. If Jesus was unwilling to trust a hireling to do the work of shepherd, the first readers minds would naturally wander to the most famous shepherd in scripture, and that would be David.

David was the George Washington of the Hebrew Bible. There was the broad outline of his story, there was a list of accomplishments and firsts, and there were stories, some true and some dubious that made up his story. Such is the life of a national hero. His story was told and retold until it became hard to separate fact from legend, but the abiding point remained: there was no greater king than David, he was the one against whom all others were measured.

And he is also credited with writing the 23rd Psalm. The most familiar passage in scripture is the second way that early readers of John would naturally assume that Jesus was drawing a link to David. Psalm 23 was written to portray the kind of protection a good king would offer: prosperity and fruitfulness, protection in danger and membership in a household built on righteousness. It becomes another test against which shepherds are judged, a way to determine which shepherd deserves the title ‘good.’

But there is more. The prophets also weigh in on this question of good versus bad. Ezekiel 34:

The word of the LORD came to me: 2 "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.

Suddenly it has become very political. The Kings of Israel, always known as shepherds, are not simply directed to care for the future of the nation but care for the most vulnerable, to heal the sick and find the lost. And in this we have circled back once more. Reading like a day in the life of Jesus, Ezekiel’s critique is a list of everything Rome was not, everything that Jesus did for those he met and everything he promised to do in his risen life.


So maybe it is time to look at the sheep themselves. Sure they smell, but we’re used to it now, and they are far too cute to let a little smell get in the way of affection. St. Augustine said, "By loving the unlovable, You (God) made me lovable." All we like sheep have gone astray, and everyone has gone his own way, but God insists on loving us and following us and finding us when we have wandered off. "By loving the unlovable, You (God) made me lovable."

God has made us lovable and promised the protection of a good shepherd. God has lifted up the ideal king for us, and we in turn know what to expect from kings and governments as they are confronted my injustice and the difficult life of the most vulnerable in our midst. And God has promised Jesus, crucified and risen, will walk with us and find us when we stray. We are lovable and ever loved, lost and imperfect, and the good shepherd remains, now and always, amen.