Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 12 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
This is the Sunday traditionally known as “good shepherd Sunday”, and over the course of the lectionary cycle, in different years, we hear different versions of Jesus using the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep to talk about himself and his work. The metaphor always presents difficulties, but this year is, without any question, the most problematic. What we are given here is an excerpt from what amounts to an ongoing slanging match between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his time, a fairly unedifying context to begin with; and, worse, it is a passage which has been taken out of this very particular context and used as part of a long history of Christian exclusivism, and even worse, active antisemitism, something which we must utterly reject.
Once we discard those accretions, one might reasonably ask if there is much that remains. For even the core metaphor is not as easy as it seems on the surface. But if we let the texts for today speak to each other, we can begin to see a reversal of the metaphor, and in that reversal perhaps a way to reclaim a deeper meaning.
Shepherds had a complicated status in first century Palestine. They were regarded with a fair bit of suspicion—they lived out on the edge of society, they were dirty and solitary, uneducated, hardened; in general, it was assumed that they were at least semi-criminal, not above a bit of break-and-enter if the opportunity presented itself. Yet at the same time they carried powerful cultural symbolism. King David had come from those fields, where he too had tended sheep. The psalms and the prophets had spoken of political leaders as shepherds, good and bad, but also, and with striking tenderness, of God as a shepherd, as one who feeds and cradles the lambs. Meanwhile, the urban elites of the Greco-Roman world had a developed and nostalgic image of the shepherd as a sort of exemplar of down-to-earth rural virtue.
But the eventual relationship of shepherd to sheep, however tender it could sometimes be—and there is no doubt that itinerant shepherds can have real relationships of nurturance with their flock—is a deadly one. Some might live for a while producing milk and wool, but the fate of most ancient Palestinian sheep, finally, was to be killed, slaughtered as sacrificial offerings or as food, or, often, both. That is why we need the great reversal which the final setting of the crucifixion narrative brings us, and which is brought home here in the passage from Revelation—the metaphor turned upside down as the shepherd becomes the lamb for the slaughter, becomes sacrifice and food, identifies with the flock wholly and without reserve, the hierarchy of authority ended, all our structures called into question by that offering. The lamb who will be our shepherd knows the sharp blade of death, knows weakness, abandonment, vulnerability, knows what it is to be used and then cast off to die. To hear that voice, to belong to the flock of the shepherd who is the slain lamb, is to accept a strange fate, to live out love’s rejection of power, and the transformation of powerlessness into life.
When Jesus, then, speaks of those who do not hear his voice, this isn’t meant to divide people along the lines of religious tradition — after all, at the time he may have spoken those words, he and his disciples and the people with whom he was arguing all belonged to the same religious tradition—and it isn’t meant to be a tool of exclusion. Basically, you can choose love, or you can choose power. And the choice you make will determine the life you have. Love will be the harder choice; but within that choice is the life we most deeply long for, the water which nourishes our being, the presence which acknowledges and redeems all our pains and each broken heart.
There is something like this message in the story from Acts today. It is a story with more layers than are immediately apparent, and it is worth working through some of the details, because I think we will understand it better that way.
To begin with, the woman at the centre of the story, Dorcas or Tabitha. Evidently, she was someone who, like the early deacons of the church, lived in the complex borderland of Greek and Jewish identities, for she had a Greek name and a Hebrew name; it is the same name, however, for both the words mean “gazelle”— and I wonder if that poetic name is a deliberate callback to the Song of Songs, if we are meant to recall that lovely image of the beloved—who later came to be identified as the risen Christ—peering through the window lattice, calling the loved one to arise, if that is meant to add a level of history and intensity to this moment. But in any case, a woman with a complicated status in her society, and yet one who had spent her life in the fierce hidden work of care.
Most of you can’t see our Dorcas/Tabitha window from where you are—it’s the one on the south side of the sanctuary—but it’s a traditional motif, which you can find in quite a few churches, showing her giving bread to a poor woman and her child; though the mourners, it must be said, seem more interested in how nobody does embroidery like that any more, and it is no accident that our window, like other Dorcas/Tabitha windows, is dedicated to a woman who was an important member of the altar guild of her day. All that hidden, essential, women’s work. And perhaps more than that—she is described as a “disciple.” She is, in fact, the only woman in Acts described as a “disciple,” a term which is not actually all that widely applied. It almost certainly implies that she had been part of that original circle which travelled with Jesus and learned directly from him, and probably that she had a significant leadership role within her community—possibly closer to the role of those first male deacons than the slightly later church really wanted to admit. Certainly, she has been doing a deacon’s work. That work of care and nurture, even the work of unnecessary beauty; the work of the lamb.
She has spent her life listening to that voice, calling her through the lattice, the voice of the beloved leaping upon the hills, the lamb with whom she shares her work, the gazelle with whom she shares her name. So when Peter, probably in a state of some fear and confusion, kneels by her bed and prays, she hears that familiar voice again, and rises.
We don’t need to focus on the literal resurrection from physical death; that isn’t even really the point of this story. Death in many small and large forms is all around us—the deadly black dog of depression, the death of hope, the death of ideals and dreams, the death of good projects and true works, the death of species in this age of extinction, the looming death of oceans and continents. If we are to rise from any of these deaths, it can only be through a long training in love and in listening. And, like the shepherd who is the lamb, like the disciple whose name contains such tension and beauty, we may not be able to reach any resurrection without passing through some kind of death.
We can choose not to try. We can choose, and we often do, to live within the world of death, to live by the values of death. It is only trust which can tell us that, perhaps, if we follow the voice that calls through the window, then all the deaths we face, though real and terrible, may not be an end, and that beyond loss and beyond grief, we may find the gateway to a greater life. We do not know what that might mean, or how hard the journey might be. But the voice is calling, and we must try to hear.