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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Bad shepherds and the exile of God (B16O)

I’ve written before about “the shepherd thing.” Thinking about it again for this coming weekend, because of all the imagery in the first reading and psalm that are at work in us by the time we hear the gospel reading. There’s a thread of Catholic theology that sees the anointing of Christians in baptism and (to some) par excellence in holy orders as a symbol of being made priest, prophet, and king. These are the castes that were anointed in Jewish scriptures. And in the prophecy of Jeremiah, some of these are also the bad shepherds. 


Kings, priests, and prophets were all good or bad in the Old Testament depending on who was doing the writing. The chroniclers, in the hire of the kings, generally gave them favorable reviews. Prophets and priests often gave the same kings bad reviews, but not the prophets and priests who were in the king’s employ. There were bands of prophets who were “in,” who were affiliated with the royal temple, and there were prophets who were out. Some of these were priests, like Jeremiah. Jeremiah supported and affirmed the piety of King Josiah, but Jehoiakim, his successor, was a syncretist and theological opportunist. Jeremiah, and with him all of Jerusalem, paid the price for Jehoiakim’s unfaithfulness when Nabuchodonosor II destroyed the city in 587 BCE and carried most of its citizens to exile in Babylon.


In Jeremiah’s prophecy heard in Sunday’s first reading, God rails against the false shepherds who have led the people of Israel astray. Since at least the time of the great king, David, in the early 11th century BCE, Israel thought of God as shepherd in their liturgy and song, as we sing in the psalm for today. God is always the shepherd of Israel. Kings, priests, and prophets, and by extension (or a priori) husbands and fathers, were shepherds who were to lead like God. The problem for them, and for us, is figuring out what that means. Our image of God is going to shape our image of the kind of shepherd, or leader, that God is. Clearly, if we think that God is the all-powerful king of the universe who can do anything and does whatever he wants, well, then the shepherd will also be a big, omnipotent protector of the sheep, who may try not to let anything bad happen to them, but herds them with an iron fist. But what if the anointing of kings, priests, and prophets is the anointing of the Holy Spirit of agape, and not the anointing of human kings in the courts of the rich and powerful? What if it’s a different kind of God and a different kind of shepherd, whose most clear image is not an avatar or a metaphor but an incarnation, is Jesus Christ, the shepherd who “lays down his life for his sheep”?



The “bad shepherds” lead, badly, by bad example. They lord it over others, maintain “peace” by violence and threats of violence, substituting revenge and personal vagary for justice. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Which lead me back to good old Jeremiah, carried into exile in Babylon with the rest of Jerusalem. Maybe, after all is said and done, this is how God pastures his flock: by going with them into exile. Maybe creation and incarnation are both, in a way of speaking, the exile of God. Maybe they are manifestations of what St. Paul calls, in Philippians, kenosis, the emptying-out of divinity. Out of that experience of exile, of the destruction of the temple and the ruin of cult worship, Jeremiah is able to prophesy a new covenant that does not depend on cult or priesthood or temple or king. God speaks, through him, of a future where Torah will not be stored in the Ark, but in the heart:

The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the LORD. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more. (31:31-34)


Christians really need to focus on this message, and we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and who he is, how he lived his human life: healer, bridge-builder, servant, welcoming table-host. If God had wanted to show us how to change things by force and violence, then God could have chosen, I suppose, to have revealed self as an emperor or a general or a judge. But that’s not what God did, not for those of us who believe in the gospel. Christ, the “image of the invisible God,” became an artisan, a workman, an ordinary human being subject to all kinds of other human beings, who slowly (apparently) came to the conclusion that, if God alone is God, as the sh’ma he prayed proclaimed, then Caesar must not be, and that living in God’s world means acting with equality towards every other person, putting the sword away, nourishing the body and soul with hospitality and acceptance. If Jesus is the exile of God, then he is also the way home, who levels the mountains and raises the valleys to make a straight highway for the return of the rest of us.


The task of the Church is to continue this work of Jesus, blessed by, anointed by, the same Spirit of agape that made Jesus messiah, the Christ. No servant is greater than her or his master. Good shepherds, the community of the baptized and those ordained to serve them in the name of Christ, all of us are called out of the safe country of our selves into the “exile” of other people. In this, we enter into the very life of God, and walk in the footsteps of Christ, who “alone can lead my spirit.”

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne:

Gathering:  Come to Us (Gather #842, published by OCP) This is one of my compositions, originally on the record and cassette (yes, record) Do Not Fear to Hope, from 1985, which some people still think of as my best work (I really, really hope not, but I’m glad people like it.) I wrote this song after a homily on a summer Sunday probably in 1984, a homily by Vernon Meyer, a St. Louis transplant who became incardinated in the diocese of Phoenix and eventually the third pastor I served with at St. Jerome. He also taught scripture at the diocesan higher education center, the Kino Institute. As often happens in my songs, the lyric transfers the words of Christ more explicitly to the lips of the assembly, that is to say, it tries to allow us to sing who we really are, the body of Christ. I'm also happy to promote, however self-servingly, a beautiful new arrangement by Patti Drennan at Hope Publishing, for choir, piano and flute.

In the words of the great American preacher William Sloane Coffin, “It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos, 'Let justice roll down like mighty waters,' and quite another to work out the irrigation system.” To sing a song like “Come to Us” means that we don’t just say, “Go to Jesus, and he will give rest for your soul.” It says, “Come to us, we are the people Christ made through the Holy Spirit by our baptism. There is rest here among us, we can share the yoke with you.”
 My fellow parishioners at St. Anne make this come alive every day of the year at our local resale shop ("House of Hope") and used to add a massive annual “Annie’s Attic” garage sale, raising over $125,000 for the poor in the Ministry of Hope at the parish. Come to us, indeed. And thanks be to God. It's about the people of God being good shepherds.

Psalm 23: Daigle Gary's Psalm 23 is so beautiful, simple, transparent. The refrain is, literally, "mi-re-do," which is the motif of "Come to Us" as well: I wonder if anyone will notice that? (In fact, I didn't until just now what I was writing about it.) It's sort of the bright antithesis in feel of Sting's "Every Breath You Take," as though reimagined as "You Give Me Breath" and sung by James Taylor. Gary originally submitted this as part of a composers' project called Gathered for God, published by GIA about three or four years ago. It will also be part of "part two" of our new collection of music, the first part of which was released last week at the 2015 NPM in Grand Rapids, entitled Like No God We Had Imagined. Look for the new collection, tentatively entitled To You Who Bow, in early 2016.

Preparation rite: Lead Me, Guide Me (Gather 656)

Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (Gelineau/Cooney)
 (Gather 786)

Recessional: We Will Serve the Lord (Gather 753)

Woe to the shepherds

who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,

says the LORD.