From Judge to Shepherd

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

From Judge to Shepherd


1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18

There is a lot of talk these days about how we relate to our universe. That’s not exactly how it gets expressed but that is what it’s all about: Is our society optimistic, hopeful? Are we creating a generation of people who are angry, caught in a world where they feel like they have no future?

How did we go from the post war times, when the future looked bright and we thought we could solve anything, to this era of Populist politics where we are so overwhelmed by challenges that instead of solving them we blame and demonize others, finding people to turn into monsters and enemies; to this era where we want to retreat into our little clans and tribes and keep all strangers away?

Christianity lost its dominant position in the decades after World War II, which is fair. We had sold out a lot of our principles over the years: buying into the status quo hurt us badly. So, science took over – it claimed that it had the truth, that it had the answers to how the world really works. And now, with climate change, and a pandemic and no magic bullet for either, people aren’t sure what to believe in, so they start to look for easy answers.

Some of those answers look like anti-science rants, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers; some look like hostile forms of fundamentalist religions spreading hate, ignorance and oppression in the name of God and claiming that it’s a return to original values.

That last one disturbs me deeply as a minister, because while different religions all have a version of this, the one closest to home is the one that most painfully challenges my own faith.

Religions are always about how people look at the world; how people fit into the universe. What we preach and proclaim and sing is less about the names we use for reality and more about the way we fit into reality.

People have talked about God for thousands of years and God has been given a lot of different names but in our tradition the basic name is “I AM”. We inherited this from the Jewish faith; this understanding of one God as the ultimate reality, as the source of all existence, of all being, which is just the starting place. In that original tradition, the expression of God’s nature became that of a law-giver, the one who set rules so we could relate to God and others in a just and orderly way.

It wasn’t always like that. With Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God was a friend; a powerful, intimidating friend, but someone with whom you could relate. The laws formalized the relationship but at the core was the idea that relationship was possible; that the Creator wanted to connect with us mere creatures.

Being human, though, we became obsessive with the law part of things and we ended up with a vision of God as Judge. That is not a blanket statement about the Jewish faith. Christians are so attached to a judging God that we have no right to point fingers at anyone else and the Jewish people themselves are clear that their relationship with God is exactly that: a relationship; complex, personal, and often difficult.

In early Christianity we were given the gift of the vision of God being the Good Shepherd. It wasn’t a new vision; Psalm 23 was written centuries before Jesus was born and that image of a caring, protective, supportive God was well established before Jesus took it up.

It’s a wonderful idea: God is the source of all life and being and God is our shepherd; one who cares for us, helps us in the hardest of times, even through death. This is a powerful, hopeful image of our relationship with the ultimate reality.

John’s gospel represents the perspective of a deeply spiritual part of early Christianity and we see that reflected over again in the letters of John.

In our lesson today from 1 John, we see that the idea of the loving, caring God gets carried to its necessary conclusion: the idea that this love that we claim for ourselves, this relationship we want from our shepherd is one we have to extend to others. We can’t be selfish about it, or hoard it to ourselves; we have to share with others, helping them, even to the point of self-sacrifice which is the ultimate expression of love.

If we can stop from panicking for a while, we can learn from our Pandemic situation. One lesson we should have learned by now is that we are not self-sufficient; we are not islands, we need connection, we need relationship.

These lessons today express the most basic, most fundamental, most powerful understanding of relationship in Christianity: our connection to all of reality arises from love and is to be based on love; not on fear, not on hate, which comes from fear; not on isolation and self-defence, which also arise from fear.

On Thursday evening I heard the CBC Ideas program with theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli explaining his controversial idea that Time Does Not Exist. Putting aside the time question, what fascinated me was the way this extreme scientist defined the universe itself as existing

only in terms of relationships. He pointed out the way that we defined atoms in terms of how they are distinct from other forms of existence and how they relate to other atoms, sometimes forming molecules; how they are formed from sub-atomic particles, which in turn are defined in those same relational ways.

To him, nothing makes sense, nothing can be described, without relationship, without a way to refer to something else.

Whether that is an accurate description of the universe or a description of the ways we can talk about the universe, it is a fascinating understanding of the fact that we humans are built to be connected; that we don’t make sense without each other.

On Friday morning there was an interview with a doctor describing the crisis in hospitals right now. One story involved a senior who asked for Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID) during COVID, not because they were ill, but because they didn’t want to live alone anymore.

As much as our society might like the image of the rugged individualist, we are made to connect to each other, to the universe, to God. And no matter what relationships we have experienced, including those really bad ones that convince you that isolation is the only good option, even with all of that, we are made to be connected.

And our connections are called to be loving and so we are called to try to be as loving as the Good Shepherd of scripture .

That’s hard right now: basic safety issues divide us and denying the need for those is wrong. Being loving includes protecting each other. But the vision of reality we are given, the expression of God, of love made flesh is at the core of who we are as Christians.

And so, our calling is to keep trying to be loving, even in the face of obstacles, of death itself, and to realize that this same love is flowing to us, each day to help us, and to overflow enough to share, so that we may spread it to others even in these trying times.


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