Blogging Towards Sunday, May 15 2011
Psalm 23 is maybe the most famous Bible passage, the one most requested for memorial services and other special events. Why is that? It portrays God as a shepherd, which made sense to folks 2,000 years ago in an agrarian society, but what about us today in the urban, pluralistic, technologically-charged cultural context of 2011? How many of us can identify with a shepherd as a leader, let alone have ever seen or experienced one? The good news in this prayer poem is the image of God not as a distant, top-down, hierarchical king, but an infinitely-near shepherd, who leads through caring, community-building and looking for threats on the horizon in order to lead the sheep to the promised land of pristine verdant pastures to sustain life. That speaks to me in my thirsts and hungers today - in between the stress of modern life, the isolation created by supposedly smart technology and the travails of urban living from underfunded public schools, to failing infastructures, to fear of crime - I could use such divine prodding, herding and invitation to life-affirming community.
This major metaphor for Jesus - one of the earliest and most widely adapted in the early church of 1,900 years ago (see the image discovered and photographed from the walls of the earliest known worship spaces in Ancient Rome - the catacombs) - still can speak to us today, yet maybe it needs some translation to our cultural language. It's not about a passive dependent relationship between sheep and shepherd, but rather one that points to an intimate relationship where not just names, but voices are known and recognized. Jesus doesn't cage us, but rather calls, points and leads us towards abundant life. I could use that today, when I all to often long for greener pastures, which seems to be better than what I known, and yet are they?
Acts 2 portrays a concise yet vivid portrait of the community life of the early church: mutuality, sharing, life-affirming, growing, focused on growth which occurs organically through a deepening knowledge of what Jesus taught. It seems idyllic - just the sort of green pasture we may imagine when riding with iPoded others on BART, struggling through the bureaucratic maze of city life, or trying to remember where we parked in a crowded lot like those of Emeryville.
It's all about abundant life. An adjective that I seem to most associate with headaches, complications and problems. Yet Jesus associates with life - in the daily sense and in the life-long sense. Maybe we settle for life, instead of abundant life, to easily. Maybe it's not just about eternal life, as in forever after death, but an invitation to a new way of living and being here and now - individually and as a community of faith? Maybe it's an invitation for us to leave behind the baggage we're carrying, which prevents us from opening our hands to receive the gifts God longs to give us? Maybe it's past or historic ministries that monopolize our attention and energy, preventing us from hearing a call, invitation and exhortation to step out and to be the church for the world today, the world in which we live?