The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Eighth Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 11); Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 Video
There is so much packed into today’s lessons, I can hardly stand it. Ephesians is where we are going to eventually land, but to get there, we have to start with Jeremiah. We have to start with the state of the world as it is, and the window that Jeremiah gives us onto his world can help us look out upon our own with clear sight.
In a nutshell, things are not good. The shepherds are not shepherding. The sheep are scattered. The shepherds are not attending to the sheep, and it’s not just that they are not attending to the sheep, the shepherds, those charged with leading, those charged with making sure that no one gets lost, those charged with helping the flock find the green pastures and the still waters, those charged with helping the sheep revive their soul and find the right pathway, the shepherds aren’t just not attending to the sheep, but Jeremiah tells us that the shepherds are destroying them. Ouch.
The God of Jeremiah proclaims this: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, oh you shepherds who have not shepherded, I will attend to your evil doings. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.”
And who are the shepherds? As a priest, as a shepherd, as a leader, this is where I start to sweat. Certainly the religious leaders were included in this scathing critique, but Jeremiah and the prophets are never content to limit their critique to just the religious realm. No, the shepherds were all the leaders at every level throughout the nation, and we know this because Jeremiah speaks of that righteous Branch who will be raised up and who will reign as king and deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land. Jeremiah talks of how Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell in safety. God is not just addressing individuals, but God is addressing the whole nation, most especially those who hold power of any kind at any level. God is not happy with the state of affairs in Israel or Judah.
Fast forward to today. We don’t have to look too far to see that sheep are scattered and many are lost. Many can’t find their way to green pastures of plenty, and still waters are a dream in many communities where violence is a daily occurrence. Plenty of souls are weary and in desperate need of reviving. And people can’t find the right pathway for all the barriers that stand in the way. It’s a mess out there. You know it. I know it. God knows it, and God is not happy as
God looks out over our land. And for those in leadership, God is especially not pleased. And here’s the rub, by virtue of our skin color, or education, or position, or financial resources, that is most of us in this room. God is not talking to some far off shepherds; God is talking to us. God needs to level us, bring us to our knees until we can own our complicity in the kind of shepherding that destroys the sheep, so that, so that, God can raise us up as the kind of shepherds who will remember that it’s all about the sheep. It’s interesting what God says, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.” I’ve always heard that “not fearing any longer, or being dismayed, nor shall any be missing” as applying solely to the sheep, but what if God is actually appealing to the heart of the shepherd, as well as appealing to the sheep? What if God is saying that God Godself will raise up shepherds who won’t be afraid to do right by the sheep, and that these shepherds won’t be dismayed—to be dismayed is to lose your courage because you are afraid—what if God is saying that the shepherds God will raise up won’t lose their courage, won’t lose their nerve, and that none of the shepherds will go missing, that all of us will show up as the empowered leaders and guides that God has made us, and called us, to be? Wouldn’t that be something for our land?
Okay, fast forward to Ephesians where all this gets worked out between groups that are engulfed in hostility. So, here, theGentiles (and remember, that’s like, us) are getting a little too puffed up, and the writer, either Paul or someone taught by Paul, reminds them that they were once on the outside looking in. They were once strangers to the covenants of promise, xenos, as in xenophobia, as in fear of the stranger, they were once those feared; they were once aliens, those literally alienated, estranged, from the commonwealth of Israel. And this sense of commonwealth is politeia in the greek, which is about the administration of civic affairs, which is about how we structure our society together, and is the same root that gives us the word “politics.” Oh, it’s all connected!
But back to Ephesians. These Gentiles, who held a lot of power in that society, were once “without hope, without God in the world,” Ephesians says. And there was hostility, animosity, enmity between those who are called “the circumcision” and those who were called “the uncircumcision.” How about that for a little biblical name calling—“the uncircumcision”—the ultimate “not us?” Who are “the us” and “the not us” today? Who are the binaries today? The two in opposition? Who are the groups engulfed in hostility? Well, circling back to Jeremiah, there’s the sheep and the shepherds. There are those at the economic top of the ladder and those who can’t get on the first rung. There’s management and worker. Citizen and undocumented. Black and white. Men and women. Gay and straight. Politician and constituent. Republican and Democrat. Liberal and Conservative. Urban and rural. Advocates of gun control and advocates of gun rights. There are the socially elite and those who don’t know what silverware to use when you get past a fork, knife, and spoon (and I’m in that camp). There are Christian, Jew, and Muslim. There are people of faith and professed atheists. And we could go on and on. Makes you kind of long for just two—“the circumcision” and“the uncircumcision.” When it’s all said and done, we can find a lot of ways to slice and dice the world into “the us” and “the not us.”
We could easily fall into a pit of despair; we could easily resign ourselves to this-is-just-the-way-it-is. But God needs us to be shepherds who can connect to sheep, and God needs us to be sheep who can connect to shepherds. And in Jesus, God has done an unbelievable new thing. Listen to Ephesians again: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostilitybetween us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizenswith the saints and also members of thehouseholdof God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Oh my gosh. Could we just meditate on all of this for the rest of the service today, or better yet, could we contemplate this for the rest of lives? Could we just try to live out this vision? Jesus, in his flesh, has broken down all the walls that divide us and has made both groups one. Jesus has opted for new vision of humanity—not one ruled by commandments and ordinances and societal norms and the way-things-have-always-been, but one in which “the us” and “the not us” both hear peace and know that they both belong. Jesus, on the cross, has put to death all hostility, reconciled all those things that can’t be reconciled, literally taken all of this hostility into his being, held it in love, and drained it of its power. Through this access point of total and complete NONVIOLENCE, Jesus has opened up the pathway for us to be one body, one family, one household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, built on the foundation of those prophets who have held us to a vision of righteousness, right relationship, at all levels of society and built on the foundation of those apostles who are sent to proclaim this unfathomable love who has put to death “the us” and “not us” so that a newstructure, a whole structure can be built from a solid foundation with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone—and that’s a sentence that St. Paul himself could be proud of. And this new humanity embodying new relationships as one body truly is the very dwelling place of God.
What a vision for each one of us! What a vision for our society! What a vision for the whole cosmos! And all we have to do to get there is hold all of our hostilities up to the cross and let them die there with arms outstretched. Are you willing to let your hostilities die? Are you willing to let all your “us’s” and “not us’s” go?
All we have to do to get there is to join Jesus in his complete and utter nonviolence.
All we have to do is let our vision be shaped by his and let him resurrect our lives, our systems, and our structures from this foundation where those who are far off and those who are nearall belong.
All we have to do is let ourselves join him in this new humanity where “us” and “not us” no longer mean anything, where strangers and aliens become citizens with the saints, where all have a stake in one another, and we function as a household where everyone belongs. Take this to heart and everything changes. Every circle we’re a part of, every system in which we participate, they change if this becomes our foundation.
But the change begins by realizing that the definitive breaking down of the walls between us has already been accomplished. Our task is to live into the reality that has already been established through Jesus. When will we start living as those who have already been reconciled to one another? It’s a lot easier to build up a new creation when you realize that the cornerstone has been set and the foundation is rock solid. Let your life be joined to this structure, and together, let us build the world anew. Amen.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 19, 2015