Tuesday, April 23, 2013

vulnerability and protection: The biblical image of the Good Shepherd

 The biblical image of the shepherd, though not a common contemporary reference point for us, still speaks to the faithful in meaningful ways.  The 23rd psalm and the images of Jesus the shepherd are most often associated with death, with funerals.   The image and the Psalm bring comfort to those who mourn.  Shepherd images for God were long part of the story of Israel.  Some 500 years before Jesus, Ezekiel the prophet spoke of God as a shepherd when he said:
 “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Ezekiel 34.

The people of Israel were depicted as lost sheep, their rulers and leaders as bad shepherds who abandoned the sheep to protect and provide for themselves. In the period of Babylonian exile, these words reassure Israel, that God has not abandoned them to wicked foreigners.  God will lead them home. Ezekiel makes the assertion that YHWH himself will come as a shepherd to lead the people out of trouble and into a good pasture.  Ezekiel speaks during captivity in Babylon and the hope to return to the promised land of Israel again.  With the help of YHWH, the good shepherd, they will come home to the land, be fed, strengthened, healed, defended against predators.  God will bring justice.
Jesus, in John's gospel,will appropriate this image for himself.  It is sometimes difficult to believe in the shepherd image of God.  In a week like this one, we can feel like vulnerable sheep without a protector. We witnessed a large crowd at a finish line of  marathon (an international event in a historic American city) as they experienced the shock and destruction of bombs.  One trauma doctor said the injuries sustained were like those we might see in bombings in Baghdad or Israel.  And I was reminded that, in comparison to many other cities, more ancient biblical cities for that matter, we are safer.  We do not have to deal with the threat of bombings everyday like some people do.  It seemed like simultaneously an explosion in a small Texas town brought the threat of mere accidental destruction into our news. And a teenage girl fell off a roof at a party in Philadelphia.  Another accidental death. Where were her angels?  When faced with violence and tragedy we must ask, "Where was the good shepherd this week?"
 In the gun control debates, we hear two opposing sides about what legislation makes us safer, legislation that reduces access to firearms or legislation that arms all people.  Do we rely on self-protection, police protection, government protection, military protection?  We cannot rely on government alone to provide protections for the vulnerable.  But we can hold government accountable to their calling to provide it, within their powers. We do not need more or less government in our lives; we need good government that is a representation of the people, for the people, by the people.  But this is not a civics lesson.  
Why are we debating this?  It’s not about guns or assault weapons or magazines or the NRA or Gabby Giffords or mass shootings.  It is about vulnerability and protection.  It is about fear and violence.  Americans, in our faithlessness, have forgotten God and so we have forgotten the truth about ourselves. We doubt that God is like a shepherd because, in a post 9/11 world, we feel less secure. We do not protect ourselves, we cannot.  We are human, vulnerable to accident and attack.  We are flesh and bone, blood and sinew.  We are not Ironman or Superman, though all of us wish we were.  My faith tells me that vulnerability is the truth of life, but it is a truth the drives my faith in God.  God becomes vulerable by taking on human flesh and dying on a cross.  AND God raises the dead.  We say taht God cares for the suffering and dying, comes to the aid of those who call out in pain, in suffering, in grief.  I do not own a gun. I cannot deny your right to own as many guns as you want.  I do not need a gun. I must trust God to protect and provide for me and those I love, in this life and the next.  The story from Acts confirms that God was personally involved in the saving of Dorcas or Tabitha through the ministry of Peter.  The church brings God’s mercy, protection, provision, and peace to a vulnerable and frightened world.  We needn’t be overcome by fear.  The Lord is our shepherd. We are called to a ministry of protection.  Luther himself may not object to gun ownership as a way in which Christians might responsibly protect their neighbors. I may not be there, but I am with a church that protects the weak from hunger, from Malaria and AIDs.  I am with a church that protects the elderly from loneliness or abuse.  We can protect people from themselves by being present and caring for them. How can we lead people, lost and afraid, into good pastures?  I think we begin as sheep, following the voice of the good shepherd.  He invites us to eat and drink with him.  He says to you and me, "Do not be afraid.  I am with you. You belong to me. Trust and believe.  Everything the Father has given me, I give to you.  You will have life in my name. Go where I send you.  Do as I have done.  Serve them. Pray. Be courageous. Lift them up. Christ is risen.  Alleluia!" Amen. 

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