Archive for the Good Shepherd

Why I Believe

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by timtrue


John 10:22-30

Do you know the story of Hanukkah?

Scrape off your history rust for a minute with me here.  Go back to that period of time that falls in between when the Old Testament was complete and when Jesus lived; to that period of time after Persia was in charge and before Rome was the chief player on the world stage; to that period of time between Darius and Caesar Augustus.

Wedged right between our Old and New Testaments is some pretty important history, right?  Only something called Hellenism!  Only a whole civilization called Greek!  Only the whole Greco half of the Greco-Roman world!

When Alexander the Great conquered the entire known world, the Jews were a part of that world.  Alexander’s program of Hellenism included conquering a people, so that they would pay him tribute; but then to allow that people to continue living their lives much as they always had—to keep their particular religious practices, for instance.

Which is what the Jews did, agreeably enough.

Until a hundred years or so went by and one of Alexander’s successors came to the throne that ruled over Israel.  This successor is known to us today as Antiochus IV.  He didn’t allow the Jews to continue their religion without interference.  And one of his interferences was, you probably know, to sacrifice pigs on the Temple altar.

This practice—the sacrifice of unclean swine—was grievous to the Jews, so grievous, in fact, that a couple Hasmonean Jews rose up in revolt against Antiochus IV’s forces.  Judas Maccabeus was one of these Jews, a man whom the nation would call Messiah: this son of David, many hoped, would usher in a new era.

Well, Judas died without ushering in a new era, and thus proved not to be Israel’s savior; and thus Israel’s hope continued (and still continues to this day).  Nevertheless, Maccabeus was a savior in a temporary way.  For he rid the Temple of the abominable practice; he cleansed the Temple; and he rededicated the Temple.

Hanukkah is sometimes referred to as this rededication—or dedication—of the Temple.

And so we come to today’s Gospel passage, which begins: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.”  Today’s passage takes place during the Jewish festival Hanukkah.

But a good Jew will tell you that the revolution against Antiochus IV is not the real reason for the festival of Hanukkah; for Jewish festivals never honor acts of war.  Rather, the story goes that, at the rededication of the Temple, a miracle took place.

The Sabbath was approaching, meaning that lamps had to be lit at least eighteen minutes before sundown.  But after Antiochus’s abomination, alas, there was hardly any undefiled oil to be found anywhere in the Temple, certainly less than enough to last one day.  And the process to make new, kosher oil would take eight days!  How would the priests of the rededicated Temple keep the lamps lit perpetually, as was the custom?

In faith, they went ahead and lit the lamps with what clean oil they had on hand.  Lo and behold, the lamps burned through the Sabbath and continued burning through the following Sabbath, through the eight days needed to make new, kosher oil.  And thus God miraculously provided for the rededicated Temple.

This miracle, then, is what Jews remember today when they celebrate Hanukkah.  The menorah—the candelabrum Jews use over the eight days of Hanukkah—represents these eight days.  Also, latkes, or potato pancakes, are traditional Hanukkah food—food fried in oil, remembering God’s abundance of oil given to Israel in the miracle.

But Hanukkah has become largely secularized in the modern world, losing much of its religious significance.  It falls near the Christian holiday of Christmas.  According to one Jewish writer I read this week, Jews have resorted to lavish gift-giving during Hanukkah in order to prevent their kids from becoming jealous of their Christian friends.

Perhaps lamenting, this writer continues: “It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.”

Perhaps John the Evangelist was being bitterly ironic, too, when he pointed out that this episode between Jesus and his questioners took place during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.  During this very festival, Jesus’ questioners failed to acknowledge that here before them stood the very Light of the world.

“Tell us plainly,” Jesus’ questioners say; “are you the Messiah?  Are you another Judas Maccabeus, someone to deliver us from the oppressive hand of Caesar?  Are you the Son of David, the Savior of Israel?  Are you the Sun of Righteousness, the light of the world who shines so brightly we will never need our menorahs again?  Tell us plainly!”

But Jesus doesn’t answer them plainly (not right away anyway).  Instead, he points them to his works.  “My works testify to me,” he tells them.  His works demonstrate that, yes, indeed, he is the Messiah.

Is this frustrating to you?  Why doesn’t Jesus just say yes?  He has his chance.  I mean, they ask him, are you the Messiah?  All he has to do is say the word.  So why doesn’t he?

By the way, Holly took me out to see a movie last night, Eye in the Sky.  It’s very good, though very intense.  Anyway—without spoiling it for you—for most of the movie we the audience are left hanging in just this kind of suspense.  We’re waiting for someone simply to say yes.  But the man in charge doesn’t!  He can’t really; there’s too much at stake.

Is this why Jesus didn’t simply answer his questioners plainly?  Was there too much at stake?

But, on the other hand, even if he were to answer them plainly—even if he were simply to say yes—would his questioners have taken him at his word?  Would they have believed him?

Belief.  This is the more important issue, isn’t it?

If Jesus were to answer them plainly—if Jesus were to say, “Yes, it is as you say, I am the Messiah”—would they have believed him?

To turn the scenario around, if he were to have answered them plainly, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” they would have had grounds according to their law to stone him.

In fact, this is exactly what happened back at the end of John 8, a mere 65 verses ago:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’”  (“I am”: You can’t get more plain than that.)  “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.”

Back in today’s passage, pointing here to the chief issue, Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.  The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe.”

Belief is the main matter at hand.

Now, to make a couple connections:

First: two weeks ago we encountered Doubting Thomas.  Thomas is not there on Easter Sunday when the risen Lord appears to the rest of the disciples.  Later, when Thomas hears the incredible story of the resurrection, he doubts, saying that unless he touches Christ’s very wounds with his own hands he will not believe.

The following Sunday, who should appear to Thomas but the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself?  Well, to be sure, Thomas believes now.  But we are left with these words about belief ringing in our ears: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And we’re left thinking, “Yeah, that’s me!  I believe and yet I’ve never seen.  I’m blessed all right!”

As for the second connection: let’s look again at Hanukkah.

The Jews who confront Jesus in today’s Gospel were not present at the rededication of the Temple for the simple reason that they hadn’t been born yet.  In fact, they were as far removed from that first Hanukkah as we are from the War of 1812.

Do any of you remember that event personally?  Did any of you experience it first-hand?

Similarly, none of the Jews in today’s Gospel experienced first-hand the rededication of the Temple.  At the very best odds, maybe—barely maybe—one of their great-grandfather’s great-grandfathers might have been there.  Maybe.

And yet—nevertheless!—they all believed!

And I’m not talking a belief that’s merely mental assent, like I believe the War of 1812 happened, because the history books say so.  No, their belief in Hanukkah was a part of their national culture, akin to our Thanksgiving, a holiday with cultural and moral significance.

So, here’s the thing.  They weren’t there—they didn’t see it—yet they believed.  And blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas had to see to believe; when he saw Jesus, he believed.

Jesus’ questioners saw him and yet did not believe.

We think we’re blessed because we haven’t seen and yet we believe.

But Jesus’ questioners hadn’t seen the first Hanukkah and yet believed in it.

Leaving me a little confused, wondering why I believe at all.  (After that explanation, are you a little confused too?)  Is my belief in Jesus Christ simply cultural?  Is it merely moral?  Is it both?  Should there be something more to it?

Then I remember Jesus’ answer to his questioners—his not-so-plain answer: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”

What are the works he does in his Father’s name?

He turned water into wine once.  He healed the sick and demon-possessed back when he walked the earth.  Maybe he even kept lamps lit for eight days despite all odds.

But that stuff doesn’t really matter to me so much.

What matters is that Jesus, as our shepherd, has called this unique and special group of people here today together; and we have heard his voice.  That’s a work he does in the Father’s name.

What matters is that he meets us here and now in the bread and wine.

What matters is that he gives me strength to make it through each day; and that he watches over my daughter and me when we canoe the river or hike a canyon; and that he gives me my daily bread; and that he leads me not into temptation; and that he—presently, daily, hourly, continuously—delivers me from evil.

What matters is that he calls my name and I hear his voice.

These are the works Jesus does in his Father’s name that testify to him.  And these are why I believe.


Flocking Together

Posted in Homilies with tags , on April 27, 2015 by timtrue

John 10:11-18

I am the good shepherd. . . .  I 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.

Sunday after Sunday we recite the Nicene Creed together. “We believe,” it begins.  And so we say our statement of faith, what we believe about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Towards the end, in that section about the Holy Spirit, one of the beliefs we say week in and week out is this: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

One flock.  One shepherd.


Just look around!  In our not-so-large city of 93,064 residents (according to the 2010 census—not including winter visitors), according to, there are 96 churches—and ChurchFinder doesn’t include Mormon churches.  That’s more than one Catholic or Protestant church per thousand residents!

Jesus says, “One flock, one shepherd.”  We say, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  Yet ChurchFinder says that in Yuma alone there are 96 flocks.

Do these conflicting claims make anyone nervous?  Is anyone sort of shifting in their seats right now?

I am.

Some of you know already that this seat-shifting nervousness is part of my own journey to the Episcopal Church.

I started out on my Christian journey in high school.  My parents were divorcing and I was wrestling through my own set of issues founded upon adolescent angst; and I found myself drawn to a Bible study.

I had a lot of questions, of course.  My friends didn’t know any answers.  My parents were too busy navigating their way through their own set of issues.  If nothing else, this Bible study seemed to point me in the right direction when no one else did—or, maybe better, when no one else could.  It didn’t provide all the answers I sought; but it wrestled with many of the same serious questions I was wrestling with—questions about God, sin, salvation, truth, being, and belief.

So, through this Bible study I began to ask questions about things like baptism, Communion, and joining a church.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that,” the Bible study leaders told me.  “Churches are too wrapped up in their own issues.  They’ve established traditions.  These traditions lead to rituals.  And rituals produce religiosity.  You don’t need religiosity; you only need Christ—Christianity.  Churches just get in the way.”

So they said.  Still, as I read through the Bible—with the Bible study but increasingly more so on my own—I couldn’t reason around all that’s in the Bible about community—including organized community worship.  It’s all over the place!  In both the Old and New Testaments!  We are nowhere called to be followers of Christ by ourselves; but everywhere we hear words like, koinonia—fellowship; oikos—household of faith; and ekklesia—congregation, or assembly.

So, I concluded, like it or not, regardless of what my Bible study leaders were saying, I needed to become part of a church!

Well, I don’t need to go into too many more details now.  Suffice that I journeyed from parachurch Bible studies to non-denominational churches to Baptist to Presbyterian to Reformed before—finally, after some twenty years!—becoming an Episcopalian.

Lots of dominoes had to fall to get me here too, let me tell you; and I’m sure many of you have similar stories; but, for now, just the clincher: the final domino to fall:

There we were, worshipping in a small Reformed church built upon its theological confidence.  Truth had been debated long and hard through the ages, but we chosen ones felt we had a handle on it better than almost anyone else.

One of these truths we were quite sure of was the Nicene Creed.  And so, like Episcopalians do most every Sunday, this little offshoot of a Reformed church would confess the faith weekly in its words.

And every Sunday we’d come to that line that says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” and I’d look around.  And I’d see twenty-five or so people saying the same thing.  And I’d think to myself,

“No we don’t!  We believe that we’ve got a better handle on the truth than most other Christians in the world; and so we don’t even want to identify with them.  ‘One holy catholic and apostolic Church,’ my foot!”

Which led me into a long, arduous personal study of Church history, with a specific question in mind: What churches today maintain a tangible connection to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church—in other words, to the early Church?  And my conclusion was (and is) that the main Christian bodies in America today connected to the early Church are Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the Episcopal Church.

And, as you can see, I chose the Episcopal Church.

Now, have you ever tried to seek unity in the (wider) Church? It’s not easy.

On the surface it sounds like a good idea, sure.  But what happens when we get into the details?

What about celebrating a community Eucharist?  We Episcopalians do something along these lines from time to time, actually—every time we celebrate the Eucharist at a wedding, funeral, or (in my own recent experience) school chapel.  In each of these settings, any number of different faith perspectives—or no faith at all—is represented.

And, I can tell you, confusion is the name of the game.

You’ve got good Catholics, for instance, who come forward to the rail because they don’t want to look like they’re making some kind of protest.  But then they put their arms across their chests.  There’s nothing wrong with this gesture, really; but when they do this they’re not actually communing with Christ and his people.

Then there are the Methodists who feel that wine with alcohol is sinful, and that grape juice—preferably Welch’s grape juice (for the Welch family is a great benefactor of the Methodist Church)—is the only acceptable blood of Christ; and so they abstain from partaking of the chalice.

Baptists are weirded out simply by the idea of coming forward to a rail; and, anyway, for them there’s nothing sacramental about Communion.  So they just stay in their seats.

And so on.  Seeking unity in the Church—the universal Church (which is what the word catholic means)—is not easy.  In fact, the tendency seems to be just the opposite: not unity but division.  A part of a congregation finds a problem, a faction forms, and before you know it a group ends up breaking away and forming another, independent congregation, completely dissociating themselves from the first congregation.

Yet Jesus says, “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” It is going to happen.

Leaving us with a question: how?

Well, the short of it is, I don’t know how.  I look around and I see all the controversies and arguments, all the differences and divisions within the Church, and (confession) it’s difficult for me to believe Jesus’s promise.

But it’s like anything else that’s presently a mess.  (Oh, did I just say the Church is a mess?  Yeah, I did.)  It begins with you, as an individual; and with us, a corporate body.

As individuals and as a corporate body of disciples, then:

We need to view Jesus as our good shepherd.

What comes to mind when you hear the word good?  If this word brings quality to mind, you’re not alone.  We describe things as being good or bad, one or the other.  Someone might report, “I found some really good bananas at the grocery store today”; and we have a pretty good idea what that person means.

But the Greek word here for goodkalos—has very little to do with quality.  When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” it’s not so simple as to say, “I’m not a bad shepherd.”  Rather, it has a much fuller meaning, like model, or ideal—something like Plato’s forms.

When Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, he means us to hear that he is ordered, sound, noble, true, competent, faithful, and praiseworthy.

He is everything the hired hand—the substitute—is not.

He knows you by name; and he has your best interest at heart.

But not just your name; not just your interests!  Look around you.  Jesus is the good shepherd to every face you see here today.  He knows each person here by name.  He has each person’s best interests at heart.

And it doesn’t stop there!  Think of all the people you don’t see here today, the billions of unknown names and unfamiliar faces carrying on their lives around the world today.  Jesus knows each of them intimately, just as he knows us.  He is their good shepherd too.

Also, we need to view Jesus as our one and only shepherd.

When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he says the, meaning one and only.  It’s a deliberate definite article.  Jesus is our one and only model shepherd.  Not Buddha; not Mohammed; not Joseph Smith; not Gandhi; not Jim Mathes; not Tim True, but only Jesus.

Yeah, I just went there.  People like me—pastors; spiritual leaders—need to get their egos out of the way and let Jesus truly be in charge!  There’s one shepherd!  Now, there might be some sheep who are better leaders than other sheep; but they’re still sheep!

And therefore, we need to see ourselves as part of one flock—whose main focus is the good shepherd.

We are all sheep together, following one leader, one leader’s vision.  We’re not called to do it independently!  We are called to walk the valley of the shadow of death with others; and to cry out to Christ—bleat to the good shepherd—when one of our fellow sheep wanders away into trouble or uncertainty.

There will be one flock, one shepherd.

Do you truly believe this?  Do you truly believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church?