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Friday, May 9, 2014

Yeast, Shepherds, and Demons (A4E)

Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
 not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
 
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:8)
 
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. (Psalm 23, 2)
 
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened. (Mt 13:33)

Preparing for this fourth Sunday of Easter, I was thinking about this whole shepherd thing again, and remembering the 2nd reading on Easter Sunday about leaven (see quote 1 above), and a talk my brother-in-law sent me from a priest at St. Louis University, a homily on the gospel of John on Easter 2, the Thomas story. All of these point me in this appealing direction about God, since it always seems to me that God and God’s way are so far beyond us that sometimes they seem like evil, or subversion. The question is, subversion of what? If the status quo, inside me and my life, or in my country, or in the cosmos, is unjust or going in the wrong direction, subversion is just what we need.

There’s a thread that goes through all of the teachings of Jesus about this: it is the thread of the parables. The parables peer around corners at the kingdom of God, they look under the tablecloth of the ordinary at the richly laden table God’s reign. They are as though O. Henry or M. Night Shmalayan tell the story of the human heart, and twist the knife of fiction to reveal the truth of life, and not its strange shadows that are so much more “apparent” to us, and masquerade as truth.

“Leaven” or “yeast” is always a corrupting agent in Jewish literature, including the scriptures. Yeast is a fungus, it renders food impure. It is unleavened bread that is pure, that is the food of the Jews. When Jesus compares the kingdom to a woman (already, we’re in the realm of the unclean here, or at least of the second-class being) kneading leaven into “three measures of flour” (a huge amount, enough to feed a hundred people) he’s both alluding to the fact that a little bit of yeast makes the bread rise, but it also corrupts the flour. If the bread she is baking is the bread of Caesar’s kingdom, then a corrupting agent (leaven) offers the possibility of change, of a new world.

And what is true of leaven is true of shepherds. “Good shepherd,” in the thinking of the pious Jew of Jesus’s time, is an oxymoron. It’s like saying, “nice gangster,” or “honest thief.” In this Sunday’s gospel, the way to Jesus’s being the good shepherd is roundabout, he is “the gate” through which the real shepherds (here, the twelve) lead the sheep. Jesus announces, “I am the good shepherd” in the verse immediately following the end of the gospel this week, which ends at John 10:10. But we’ve heard the whole story before, and the church is sure we won’t miss it because we sing Psalm 23 and hear in the second reading that “you had all gone astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” Again, if the world of leadership in that or this or any church is to be left to the devious folk known as “shepherds,” Jesus wants us to be sure to follow a good one, one whose voice we recognize as true, one who “lays down his life for his sheep.”

Father Coutinho of SLU, in his homily mentioned above, points to the fact that, when we want to see who actually recognizes who Jesus is in the New Testament, the only ones who reliably recognize him in the scriptures are the demons. “We know who you are, Holy One of God!” (Mk. 1:24) Miracle after miracle, truth after truth, the apostles and crowds get it wrong, and identify a miracle-worker and possible king or at least a general. The demons see Jesus for who he is. Fr. Coutinho’s ultimate lesson is to look into the darkness, to hold onto our chaos, our doubts, our demons, our sin, to be sure we know that we are in touch with the very place God dwells, our point of sure grace. It’s a good story to hear, for those few of us who can’t seem to shake any demons off, for whom the darkness has become our light!


What to make of all this apparent flimflammery, this subversion of what appears to be authentic and reliable, our status quo? For one thing, if you are not a member of the bourgeois church who can take or leave a God of freedom and agape and who makes the rain fall and sun shine on the good and bad alike, if you’re one of the eighty percent or so people in the world who qualify as “have-nots,” then the reversal, the yeast, the shepherd, and the demons look pretty good to you. They are demons in the church of Caesar, of war, violence, and economic manipulation.

For another, for me, it’s always good to recall that God triumphs in our weakness, and to be reminded that we can’t make ourselves good enough for God. What is bad and dark in me, sinful and vulnerable, is the most reliable place of encounter with the vulnerable invulnerable Light.

Best movie about a good (yummy) shepherd(ess): Manon of the Spring (Manon des Sources). Run, don’t walk, to rent it. But you have to watch its prequel first, Jean de Florette. Amazing little parables of movies that will stay with you as long as you live. Life, love, revenge, redemption are all there; these two movies find their spiritual center at the place where Les Miserables and Sweeney Todd intersect. But that’s all just my romantic side; Manon herself is the shepherdess, and all I have to say is, “Baaaaa, baby.” OK, OK, so technically, she's a goatherd, don't argue. I think that Jean de Florette was my introduction to the work of Gerard Depardieu, but you will also see Yves Montand, and Daniel Auteuil in one of his first roles, and he has gone on to become one of France’s best and most sought-after actors. Manon is a dish of yummy shepherd's pie.

Exactly what that has to do with Good Shepherd Sunday suddenly eludes me, but at least I didn’t recommend that God Is Not Dead flick, which was a different kind of quadruped.

Gathering: "All the Earth (the late, lovely Lucien Deiss’s version of Psalm 100 from 1965 or so, singable and fresh as ever, even in translation. The reason is the reference to “we are the sheep of his green pasture,” though you don’t really need a reason to sing this wonderful song.)

Glory to God: Mass of St. Ann, by Ed Bolduc

Preparation of Gifts: "Yours Today," or Liam Lawton's "I Shall Be the Vine."

Mass of Creation

Lamb of God based on "Gift of Finest Wheat" (WLP)

Communion: "Gift of Finest Wheat" (Kreutz/Westendorf classic written for the 1976 Eucharistic Congress)

Recessional: "On Holy Ground" (Peña) or "Lift Up Your Hearts" (O'Connor)