by the Rev. James B. Craven III
In the name of God- Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen
It was an enormous privilege for me to study under Professor Roland Murphy. Roland was a Carmelite Roman Catholic priest who grew up in Chicago. His parents came from Ireland, which Roland called the Holy Land. Roland kept Guinness in his office refrigerator at the Divinity School. One day I saw Roland shooting baskets at Cameron Indoor Stadium so I asked him if he had played basketball in college. He laughed and said “Jim, I didn’t go to college. I entered the seminary at age 12.” Roland taught me the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, and a half dozen reading courses in Biblical Hebrew. I remember well what that lovely man taught us, in particular that when you hear myth, don’t think fairy tale, think truth. That must certainly apply to both of the creation stories in Genesis. You didn’t know there were two creation stories? Check out Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. It would also apply to the story of Moses and the burning bush, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel, Daniel in the lion’s den, and in the fiery furnace, Noah’s Ark, and I could go on and on. None of these great faith stories are capable of objective proof. Every culture and civilization has a great flood epic. Biblical scholars are not sure the Exodus took place historically, let alone the parting of the Red Sea. The burning bush and the valley of the dry bones? Myth, but also truth, in that they are integral parts of our faith history, told and retold over campfires for thousands of years. Mythology, faith mythology, to be sure, but remember, hear myth and think truth.
Imagine walking along and a bush bursts into flames and starts talking to you. A wonderful story of Moses and an important part of our faith history, taught and told for millennia, but I don’t feel bad saying it is myth, myth but truth. And Daniel in the lions’ den and in the fiery furnace. Objectively those are hard to accept in our western scientific mindset, but God gave us the truth of myth.
There is a reason why for 2000 years the nine great Hebrew Bible stories have been read at the Easter Vigil. And this is the Easter season, as we are the Easter people. The Easter season lasts for 50 days, until Pentecost. That’s why we began our liturgy, liturgy being the work of the people, today with Christ is Risen, the Lord is risen indeed.
Another thing to notice about these wonderful Hebrew Bible stories is that there is no time dimension to them. None of them happened in July or August, never mind a particular year. No, they are all in the area of once upon a time or way back when, or maybe a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The stories are not historically specific.
The Easter resurrection and post-Easter accounts in the New Testament are radically different. As C.S. Lewis put it so well, those who think the New Testament is a myth just haven’t read very many myths. There is none of once upon a time, or long ago and far away. No, historic specificity is important and out front. When was Jesus born at Bethlehem? Why when Quirinius was Governor of Syria and Augustus was the Emperor of Rome. That well narrows it down, just as when Roy Cooper was Governor of North Carolina and Joe Biden was President of the United States. And in the Nicene Creed we affirm that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
When did John the Baptist preach out in the wilderness by the Jordan River? Well it wasn’t once a upon a time. No, it was in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontus Pilate was Governor of Judea, Herod was Tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip was Tetrarch of Iuraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was Tetrarch of Abilene. Does that narrow it down enough? Well it was also during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas. This is historic specificity in spades You won’t find any of this in the Old Testament. This isn’t myth. This is for real, it actually happened.
Truly hundreds of people saw and interacted with Jesus after the resurrection. They talked with him and ate with him. He asked for a piece of broiled fish. Thomas placed his hand in Jesus’ crucifixion wounds. Mary Magdalene spoke with him. Two walked with him on the Emmaus road. The resurrection actually happened, folks. There were just too many contemporary eyewitnesses who attested to it at the time. Now I don’t pretend to understand it. It is way beyond my western scientific mindset, but my faith tells me it is so, and it happened nearly 2000 years ago.
The good shepherd is no myth either. In the Gospel account today, from John, Jesus tells us he is the good shepherd and then gives us a powerful example of the hired hand, who unlike the good shepherd, abandons his sheep when the wolf appears. Me first instead of they first. We see that unfortunate attitude today, on the news every night and in the papers every day. There are some good shepherds, to be sure, on Capitol Hill and over at the state legislature, but far more hired hands ignoring the sad plight of the homeless, the hungry, the underpaid, the abused, the transgendered, just basically the others. We are told that a $15 an hour minimum wage will destroy America, but not a $68 million annual salary, with added perks. The political ancestors of the same naysayers told us that abolishing child labor and the 12 hour work day would do the same. And paying women as much as men, or blacks as much as whites? Perish the thought. The good shepherd would not allow folks to be fired for being gay, but the hired hand, concerned not about others, but only about himself, is OK with that. The good shepherd is heartsick over 70 mass shooting deaths in one month, but the hired hand is more concerned with a militiaman’s right to bear arms.
In 1954 the National Association of Manufacturers warned Americans that the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines and fluoride in drinking water were part of a Communist plot, born in the Kremlin, and that mandated overtime pay and a minimum wage, along with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Eisenhower interstate highway system would be “the end of America as we know it” and would take us “in the direction of Communism, Bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism.” Who knew it?
I was not a Marine, but I have known and admired many Marine classmates and shipmates. A great lesson the Marine Corps teaches, and it may go back to 1775, is that no officer eats until every enlisted Marine has been fed. It is inviolate. Officers take care of their men, and now women. Call it leadership, love, or just being the good shepherd.
Parents and grandparents are good shepherds too. I would give up my own life to save the lives of my children or grandchildren, and I know I am not alone in that sentiment. Christian clergy have been good shepherds for 2000 years. Hundreds of clergy died in the Holocaust, killed by the Nazis for preaching the Gospel and providing love and sustenance to our Jewish brothers and sisters. Priests have tended to their flocks during plagues worse than the present pandemic, through the Black Death, through famine, pestilence, fire and flood. I think of Father Maximilian Kolbe who volunteered to die in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz, to take the place of a young prisoner who had a wife and children. Francis, the Bishop of Rome, said recently that his priests, should be like shepherds living with the smell and filth of the sheep as shepherds among their flock. It reminds me of when someone told Mrs. Truman she should get the President to stop using the word manure, and she said it had taken years to get him to use that word.
Another good shepherd was Father Tom Conway, a chaplain in the cruiser USS Indianapolis, torpedoed and sank in the Pacific just before the end of the last war. He was one of 900 men who made it into the water, where they suffered for most of four days in the blazing sun, surrounded by sharks and without food or water. Tom Conway for four days swam from group to group, fighting off sharks, baptizing, giving last rites, hearing confessions and often just hugging men and saying “I love you.” Finally the good shepherd could swim no more and sank beneath the foaming deep, where he sleeps to this day with his ship.
The author of the first letter of John, probably not the author of the Fourth Gospel, but almost certainly a disciple of his, put it well in the epistle today:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us –
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the
world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and
yet refuses him?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action.
Charles Dickens may have had this in mind in giving Sydney Carlton these last words in a Tale of Two Cities:
It is a far, far better thing that I do,
Than I have ever done.
It is a far, far better rest than
I have ever known.
The good shepherd watches over us all, just as the shepherds at Bethlehem paid their quiet homage to the Christ child. May we follow their loving example.