O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
At least two decades ago, Garrison Keillor spoke of a Lutheran pastor who never remembered names of his parishioners. He tried hard to remember their names, but the names slipped away. Even when people were in serious counseling sharing intimate details of their lives, the pastor would sometimes address them using the wrong name.
Understandably those who came to him lost trust. He had the outward show of caring, and persuaded himself that he wanted to have that ‘show,’ but he did not deliver, he did not know them by name.
Many ministers have told me that they love gay and lesbian people but just don’t approve of what gay and lesbian people do. Sometimes I have asked such a minister to tell me about a specific lgbt person or a specific lgbt couple and how the minister manifests love.
Some have demurred saying “I don’t want to invade their privacy.”
“Of course not. I understand. Just give me a first name. You can even make up the name.”
Almost never have their responses cogently revealed connections. They seem awfully much like the pastor Keillor described, someone who wants to appear pastoral but has little authenticity.
It is a unconvincing to hear a majority of the Anglican primates talk about people like me in hostile and derogatory terms while claiming to love us. In most cases, these are shepherds who do not know the names of their lgbt sheep. My lgbt Christian friends in their dioceses move heaven and earth not to risk being known by them.
Most Anglican primates do not speak authentically about lgbt persons; most have not experienced lgbt Christians in our faith journeys, and fewer still have spoken vulnerably about their own faith journeys and their own experiences of sexual identity.
Several have listened to us pruriently. They let us take all the risks. Every human being has a sexual history. Why should lgbt persons be the only ones required to give account of ours?
This dynamic is not present when as a gay person I speak with Jesus. When I hear him, I recognize his voice, and he knows me by name.
Pray that I will have the strength and the courage to follow where he leads.
Ernest is an international flight attendant, and occasionally I fly with him on one of his working trips, enjoying spousal rates, to parts of the world I have not yet visited. Typically we fly all night, arrive early in the morning, spend one full day at the destination, and fly back to Newark on the following morning.
That’s how I wound up in Joppa on September 21, 2004. I did not want to spend most of our one day traveling to and from Jerusalem; and Joppa was a short walk from our hotel by the beach in Tel Aviv. We could see Joppa gleaming in the bright sun.
I could imagine Jonah when he set off on a whale ride from there. Even more, I
could imagine Peter rejecting the strange foods let down to him on a sheet in a dream that he had napping on a rooftop in Joppas. Furthermore, centuries ago an artist had painted the scene on that rooftop as the backdrop of St. Peter’s in Joppa. ====>
Tabitha lay dead in humble surroundings in Lydda, near Joppa. Tabitha had been a seamstress. Peter, summoned from Joppa, was greeted by many widows wearing clothes which they said Tabitha had made.
The text says Peter turned “to the body.” The text mirrors the perception of those gathered, that Tabitha had died. But Peter did not accept the body as just a body. He said, “"Tabitha, get up."
Names in the bible have had an enormous influence on names that Christians give to their children. Google turns up 67.4 million hits for “Martha,” for example and 302 million for “Mary“, but only 5.1 million for “Tabitha“; yet Peter raised Tabitha from the dead.
No one has a monopoly on news genuinely good. It can come to non-descripts in out-of-the-way places, to someone like Tabitha in Lydda, even to an old quean like me on South Harrison Street in East Orange, New Jersey.
In 1983-84, I taught at Er Wai, The Second Foreign Language Institute in Beijing, at the eastern edge of the city. It took me half an hour on a clunky one-speed bicycle to ride from Er Wai to Tiananmen Square due west into the heart of the city.
One of my many responsibilities was to give a weekly lecture on rhetoric to all the senior English majors at the institute, but they had access to no textbooks that I might assign for the course. Therefore, I commandeered many short and memorable texts for this task, including Psalm 23, surely in the top five of all memorized passages in English literature, and a treasure trove for rhetoricians.
I pointed out, to the warm smiles of my communist colleagues, how the psalmist suckers in the reader, from a point of view of talking about god to the point of talking to god, with no clear transition.
It begins, “The LORD is my shepherd…. He ….he… he…” Then the psalm quietly slips into “You are with me. Your rod…. You anoint….”
The strategy of the psalmist is not to provide argument, but a religious encounter.
The psalmist does not announce god; the psalmist simply has god show up.
From a critical point of view outside the psalm, one should ask whether that strategy is as accidental as it appears. Might the rhetoric be quite intentional?
Diction is also a part of the psalmist’s strategy. Shepherds and sheep were ubiquitous in the daily lives of most for whom the psalmist wrote. Compare
That would not have worked with the original audience. While they had kings, they did not expect kings to provide for people as much sheep expect the shepherd to provide.
Even shepherds cannot provide everything. For example, they cannot guarantee absolute security. A shepherd cannot remove every lurking enemy Instead, in the presence of the sheeps’ enemies, the shepherd prepares a feast.
The shepherd does not vanguish evil and threats; the shepherd circumvents them with love.
Most of all, the Lord removes the need for fear. Even instruments of discipline, “your rod and your staff,” protect and secure the speaker.
In the last verse the psalmist departs from the sheep-shepherd trope altogether. The psalmist also stops talking to God and returns to talking about god. In the end, the psalmist has the reader of the psalm make a believer’s claim about God:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the
sheepfoldhouse of the shepherdLORD forever.
Try rewriting the psalm with a different beginning using vocabulary specific to our times, for example:
If these don’t work, why not? If you can create a new beginning that works satisfactorily for you, explain how it does.
I was not arrested or dismissed. However, Er Wai did cancel Christmas that year, and a party official visited me, ostensibly to wish me greetings for the Western holiday. “I even went to a Methodist primary school,” he told me. It appeared, however, that another reason for his visit was to inspect the Christmas cards which many of my students, anxious to show their growing understanding of the visitor’s culture, had sent me.
Fortunately the students escaped any reprimands because they had signed the cards with only their English names, and the party official knew them only by their Chinese names.
Today’s gospel responds to the party official’s ruse:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
This is my favorite small bit in this passage:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows."
On many occasions someone has asked me a question merely as a pretext -- not really caring about my answer, but seeking an occasion to give her or his own answer, which the person hopes will appear more spontaneous, lest canned if said in response to someone else. Anyone else will do.
The next time someone tries to use me as a foil, I hope that I will duck the opportunity saying, “You are the one that knows.”