May 11, 2014 – 4th Sunday after Easter
Here in the season of Easter, we are still thinking about the resurrection and, I’m suggesting, more than just think about it, we are called to practice it.
Clarence Jordan wrote, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of…transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that [Christ] lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”1
Clarence Jordan was born in 1912 and grew up in the Southern Baptist church. At church, Clarence was taught a vision of racial equality but he was troubled by the inequality he saw all around him.
He earned a degree in agriculture and then a Ph.D. in Greek New Testament from Southern Seminary here in Louisville. He felt called to take Jesus’ demanding words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously and in 1942 he and his wife and another couple purchased a plot of land near Americus, Georgia and called it Koinonia Farms–named after the Greek word for “fellowship” or “communion.” Clarence Jordan wanted to unite his skills in agriculture and his commitment to radical Christian discipleship. He hoped Koinonia Farms would be, in his words, “a demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.”
From the beginning those at Koinonia Farms put racial equality into practice. Remember, this was 1942 in rural Georgia and the Ku Klux Klan made it very clear the practices of Koinonia Farms were not welcome. In response to his neighbors who wanted him to uphold the segregated racial status quo, Clarence Jordan often said, “Your choice seems quite clear. It is whether you will follow your granddaddy or Jesus Christ.”2
Clarence Jordan wasn’t that interested in what you said you believed about the resurrection. He wanted to know if it transformed your heart and your life. So what if the stone was rolled away from the tomb if we in the church don’t give evidence of the Spirit’s power moving us to change the world.
To practice resurrection, as we hear both in the psalm and in the gospel, requires listening and following. Listening to and following the Good Shepherd.
Psalm 23 is probably the most well-known psalm and perhaps the most well-known passage in the bible. It’s often relegated to funerals but it’s not just for funerals. It’s a psalm for our whole life.
“O God, you are my shepherd” says the Common English Bible. “I lack nothing.”
Right off we know this is some different kind of life with God as our shepherd because who can honestly say “I lack nothing”? We live in a culture that is built on stirring up want in us. Stimulating need where we didn’t know need before. Generating craving for what we don’t have. Making us think we lack most everything: the right clothes, the cool car, the big house, the fancy appliances, a fabulous vacation, the perfect partner. Or we think we lack the right attributes: we’re not cool enough, sexy enough, thin enough, smart enough, hip enough, athletic enough. We’re too old. We’re too young. We don’t have enough money or the right job or enough work or the best connections. We don’t have enough time or enough love or enough opportunities.
What if we didn’t give credence to all those voices?
Can you imagine saying “I lack nothing”?
Can you imagine what that would feel like?
I lack nothing. Because God provides all I need.
That is a radically different way of living. The psalm attests “to a confidence in a God whose purposes of restoration and redemption are …so comprehensive that in…God’s abiding presence we would lack no good thing.”3
“You restore my soul” says verse three. That word “soul” is a paltry English translation of a rich Hebrew word. The Hebrew word is “nephesh” and means one’s whole self. It’s the totality of our whole being. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. God restores and repairs our whole self.
Psalm 23 shows up at funerals often because of the line “the valley of the shadow of death” from the King James Version. A more accurate translation one scholar says is “valley of deepest darkness [or deepest] despair.”4 Which is part of why this is not just a psalm for funerals. Deepest despair can accompany us at any time in our life. But the psalmist asserts that even when we are in the pit of despair or even when we have enemies all around, we do not have to fear because God is with us. We are accompanied by the One who leads the sheep to grassy meadows and still waters.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” ends the psalm. My friend Janice who is a Hebrew scholar says “follow” is another anemic translation of the Hebrew word that really means “vigorously” or “doggedly pursue.”5 God’s goodness and mercy (or “faithful love” is another way to translate “mercy”) don’t just follow us passively. God’s goodness and faithful love chase after us in order that we would not be without these good gifts.
This conversation about shepherds and sheep continues in John 10. Here Jesus follows the story of the man born blind in chapter 9 with a conversation about the thieves and bandits who climb over the wall of the sheepfold and the shepherd who enters the sheepfold by the gate.
“In traditional agrarian societies” a sheepfold is “an enclosure for…sheep…constructed of a stone wall with one gate or entrance.”6 Often the shepherd or the gatekeeper hired by the shepherd would sleep in front of the gate to keep the sheep safe at night from human or animal predators. It really is true, says one scholar, that in many traditional societies, shepherds know their sheep by name and the sheep recognize the particular voice of the shepherd. “To this day, in the Middle East, a shepherd will go into a crowded sheepfold” (holding the sheep belonging to many shepherds) “and call out [their] own sheep one by one,”7 calling them by name. Those sheep will recognize that distinctive voice and come to their shepherd.
Does that remind you of the Easter Sunday story of Mary who is having a conversation with the man she thinks is the gardener about where the body of Jesus might have been taken? Then the man says her name, “Mary” and she knows immediately it is Jesus who is talking to her. (John 20.16)
Practicing resurrection requires listening. Listening for the voice of the shepherd who calls us by name. Whose voice we can learn to distinguish from the voices of those who pretend to be the shepherd but are really imposters only out for their own gain and have no interest in restoring and repairing our whole selves.
How do we learn to listen in this noisy world filled with all kinds of voices who say, “follow me,” “follow me,” “no, follow me.”
We listen when we pray. Not so much the laundry list of words many of us were taught to pray. But prayer that is listening. Quieting our hearts and minds to listen for the still, small voice of God who desires to speak with us.
We listen when we get quiet. When we slow down enough to notice what is going on right in front of us and right inside of us. When we find places of stillness where we can set aside the chatter in our brains even for a few minutes and open ourselves to hear God calling our name.
We listen when we notice our impulses and our cravings and watch them rather than giving in to them mindlessly and slavishly. Because those impulses and cravings are usually the voices of the imposter shepherds who are far more interested in their bottom line than our well-being.
We listen and practice resurrection every time we say, “O God, you are my shepherd. I lack nothing.” Reciting this prayer “against and in spite of the life-diminishing voices that tell us [lies about] who and what we are.”8
Hearing the voice of their true shepherd, the sheep follow. It occurs to me that the sheep follow their shepherd out of the sheepfold and into the sheepfold. Leaving the sheepfold, the shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters; walks with them through the deep valleys and in the midst of danger. The sheep are provided for by the shepherd. They lack for nothing.
At the end of the day, the sheep follow the shepherd back to the sheepfold where they will be safe through the night.
This may not be thinking like a sheep or a shepherd but if I were a sheep, I might prefer the green pastures to the sheepfold with all the other sheep. Especially if it was a community sheepfold where multiple flocks of sheep stayed. I imagine that sheepfold is smelly. Sheep can be dirty. Some sheep are mean. Now I’m thinking metaphorically and not so literally, but going back to the community sheepfold means being part of a community with others who might not be your first draft pick or even your last pick.
The honest truth is that listening to and following the Good Shepherd takes us to places we wouldn’t necessarily have gone ourselves. We find our lives changed by people we might not have befriended if it was just left up to us. We discover our hearts and minds are transformed in ways we couldn’t have anticipated and might not even have taken the risk on our own.
But practicing resurrection is the way to abundant life. “I am the gate for the sheep” Jesus says. And the gate and the shepherd provide the path to abundant life–whether it’s out to the grassy meadow or into the crowded sheepfold. Abundant life is life that is held in God; that is nourished by what we need; that sustains even through deep despair; that endures even in the face of hatred; that is infused with goodness and faithful love not because of circumstances but because of God’s abiding and enduring presence.
Now it might be tempting to gather up this abundant life, to practice resurrection, just for ourselves. But it’s never just for ourselves. The end we seek in practicing resurrection by listening and following is that we might be transformed disciples of Christ and that the church might be carried away by the Spirit–not to heaven to escape the world–but carried away by the Spirit right into the middle of the beauty and brokenness of the world that we might be made whole by the God who is in the middle of all of it and who calls us to practice resurrection that we might be part of God’s transformation of the world.
* * *
1 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/practice-resurrection-progressive-christian-theology-for-easter/, accessed 8 May 2014.
2 This summary of Clarence Jordan’s story and the quote come from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/practice-resurrection-progressive-christian-theology-for-easter/, accessed 8 May 2014.
3 J. David Dark, “Psalm 23 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p430.
4 Alice W. Hunt, “Exegetical Perspective – Psalm 23,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p435.
5 Thanks to the Reverend Janice Catron for this translation note.
6 Donald Senior, “Exegetical Perspective – John 10.1-10,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p445.
7 Tom Wright, John for Everyone – part one, (London: SPCK, 2002) p148.
8 Dark, p434.