September 12, 2016

Sixty Pound Fleece

Once upon a time there was a sheep named Shrek.

Seriously, about twenty years ago there was a Merino sheep in New Zealand named after the beloved animated ogre, Shrek. Like his cartoon counterpart, Shrek the Sheep was also destined to become famous.

In the late 1990s, while waiting for his annual sheering, Shrek escaped into New Zealand’s mountainous countryside.

Hiding in caves and living off the land, that’s where he stayed and continued to avoid his haircut for six years.

In 2004, however, Shrek’s running days came to an end. His owner found him that April, but by that time, the crafty sheep needed more than a little trim.

Unlike other breeds, Merino sheep don’t naturally shed their wool each year. Shrek, therefore, had six years’ worth of fleece on his back.

His mane covered his eyes and almost touched the ground beneath his belly.

He looked like a gigantic ball of fur with a nose.

In fact, Shrek’s look was so distinctive that photos of him quickly began to circulate, his story became known, and he became something of a national celebrity. (Go ahead. Have a look for yourself.)

When he finally did go under the shears, it happened in front of a worldwide television audience. Millions tuned in to see Shrek’s 60 pound fleece removed and auctioned off for charity.

His fame enduring, Shrek’s story continued to inspire several children’s books and other merchandise and, in 2006, his next shearing was also broadcast—from an iceberg floating near the New Zealand coast.

And Shrek lived happily ever after, so the story goes.

Well, he lived for a very long time, anyway, and along the way he made a lot of people smile and he helped raise millions of dollars to help kids—so, happily ever after.

Of course, sheep and their shepherds play a prominent role in the scripture. From the altars of ancient sacrifices to the angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth, we couldn’t tell the Bible’s story without them.

Inspired authors also repeatedly drew parallels between the wandering ways of sheep and our own.

“I have gone astray like a lost sheep,” is the Psalmist’s confession.

“[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” says the Lord. “And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

In fact, the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd is probably one of the most cherished teachings in the New Testament.

Drawing inspiration from earlier Greek art, the image of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders has been the subject of Christian iconography since the Church’s beginning.

Teachings about the Good Shepherd have inspired some of our greatest songs; “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought,” “Savior, Like a Shepherd, Lead Us,”

The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.

I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.

In troubles times and seasons of grief, the faithful draw comfort from Jesus’ words,
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
Yes, the Good Shepherd and good shepherding habits are bedrock Christian teachings.

Thoughts of the Good Shepherd came to my mind this week through the reading of Luke’s 15th chapter because, in this passage, Jesus defends himself and the crowds surrounding him against charges of misbehavior by, again, shining a light on wayward sheep and the people who care for them.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
This parable’s point is two-fold. First, it speaks of God’s forgiving nature.

Jesus teaches us that God receives and forgives those who humbly turn to God and doesn’t hold their past against them, like some sort of spiritual blackmail.

“Sure, come take a seat at my table, but watch your step or I’ll let everyone know what you did last night!”

That’s not Good News.

No. Jesus tells us that God is extravagantly merciful and filled with joy when a sinner comes home.

Repentance isn’t the sinner’s bargain to get just enough grace out of God to get by. Instead, it is God’s good pleasure to be gracious for “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The parable’s second point is related to the first. If it is God’s nature to forgive, then forgiveness is a holy and sacred act in which God’s people should engage.

If God isn’t willing to let the past write the future, then neither should we.

If God desires reconciliation, then those who worship God must overcome the temptation that allows arrogance and self-righteousness to cloud our judgements, to hold others at a distance, and to restrain the Spirit that makes rebirth possible.

It shouldn’t be lost on us that this is precisely the temptation to which Jesus’ audience was succumbing. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees regarded the sinners and tax collectors as inferior or maybe they would’ve preferred it if Jesus just made them jump through a few hoops before breaking bread with them. Whatever their motivation, their attitude lacked the commitment to reconciliation that Jesus deems fundamental.

“As far as the east is from the west,” says the Word of God, “[that’s how] far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” so who are we to shove someone’s past in their face?

This thought, or something like it, was absolutely on Jesus’ mind when he told this story to the would-be gatekeepers of proper piety and devotion.

The parable about the lost sheep is about a forgiving God.

The parable about the lost sheep is also about God’s call to the faithful to practice forgiveness.

These lessons capture the essence of Jesus’ exchange with his detractors, but a close reading of Luke shows us that, even though Jesus directed his comments at them, he might have had another audience in mind.

Remember how Luke sets the stage for us in verse 1; “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”

For the people closest to Jesus, then, the talk about a wandering sheep wasn’t a theological dispute or a Sunday school lesson. This was life giving Good News!

What they’d been through didn’t define them.

Their future with God wasn’t chained to the past.

And there was nothing that they’d done or left undone that was more determinative of their identity than the reality of God’s love.

Jesus might have been talking to the scribes and Pharisees, but I know that the sinners and tax collectors are the ones who really heard him.

That brings me back to Shrek the Sheep.

Why did Shrek run away?

Had he been planning a daring escape for months? I doubt it.

Something that he heard or something that he saw probably scared him and that was all it took.

I think a great many people need to hear the Good News that the same God who forgives us stands ready to receive and help us and bring healing to us when we’re ready to talk about the difficult places into which our fears have led us, too.

Lord, I never meant to hurt anybody, but I got scared and took off running and now my life is an overgrown mess—just like that famous sheep in New Zealand.

Fifteen years ago, we were afraid—there’s no shame in that—and since 2001, many of us have become well acquainted with what fear can do to us and to the people that we love.

Impaired judgment, anxiety, anger, depression, self-abuse, substance abuse, sleeping too little, sleeping too much—fear hurts us. We know this.

But the Good Shepherd knows the names if his frightened sheep, too, and he calls us home. He calls us to himself.

The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.

I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.

May the words we sing give voice to the faith we share, and may we always give thanks to God for the Good News of our Savior’s love.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

September 5, 2016

Saint Paul's Ninth Symphony

Almost eighty years ago, cultural representatives, official delegations, and eager crowds from around the world descended on Paris, France for the 1937 International Exhibition. The Paris Expo was a celebration of modern life, a “showcase [of] the best of the world’s contemporary scientific and technological achievements.” Attendees were educated, wowed, and inspired by “pavilions…devoted to the cinema, to radio, light, the railway, flight, refrigeration, and printing.” Picasso even painted his famous mural Guernica for display in Spain’s exhibition space. (Source)

For Hitler’s government in Germany, though, the Expo was less a time of celebration and more an opportunity to assert Nazi superiority over all other cultures and people. Like the previous year’s Olympics in Berlin, Hitler wanted the Expo to showcase German strength, genius, and power. However, just as the African American Olympian Jesse Owens proved on the medal stand the folly of Hitler’s racist ideas, a simple act of defiance by a member of the German delegation in Paris embodied the unbreakable spirit and higher ideals that would ultimately cut short the Leader’s plans for a thousand year Reich.

It was a photo-op. The German delegation at the Expo assembled in front of the Arc de Triomphe to have their picture taken. Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry planned to use the photo to further their agenda, so when the photographer fired the camera everyone was to do their duty and extend their right arm in the infamous “Heil Hitler” Nazi salute. And that’s what everyone did, everyone except Wilhelm Furtwängler. When Goebbels reviewed the photograph he saw that Furtwängler, the principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, was noticeably not participating in the proscribed act of tribute. Rather than publishing the photo, Goebbels suppressed it.

The Paris photo-op wasn’t the first time Furtwängler infuriated the Nazis. He had previously called Hitler a “hissing street peddler” and “an enemy of the human race.” He refused to conduct the Nazi Party anthem and he had, on occasion, refused to take a stage under the swastika flag. Most importantly, Furtwängler refused to marginalize Jewish composers and performers and worked to save many from the Nazi’s fury.

His open defiance led some officials to consider sending him to a concentration camp, but the artist’s notoriety provided him with some security against the regime’s most severe machinations. This privileged—although not exactly secure—position coupled with the conductor’s sense of calling to defend Germany’s great musical tradition against Nazi encroachment, inspired Furtwängler to stay in Germany throughout the Second World War.

It was a decision that didn’t come without cost.

The Nazis seized on Furtwängler’s decision to stay as an opportunity to co-opt his talents for their purposes, whether he approved of their efforts or not. If he continued to play in Germany, then the government would hold him up as an example of their cultural superiority, even though he considered the government to be rubbish.

There’s a famous film clip that embodies this dynamic. You can watch it on YouTube.

In the clip, we see and hear a stunning performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. After the music, applause fills the hall and Goebbels emerges from the crowd to shake Furtwängler’s hand.

What a great people! What a great culture! What a great tradition!

That’s what the Nazi’s wanted the world to see.

When Goebbels returned to his seat, though, and as the ovation continued, the camera captured Furtwängler using his handkerchief to wipe clean his hand of the Nazi minister’s stink.

Nevertheless, because Furtwängler never fled Nazi Germany and because he did conduct concerts for Nazi officials, at the war’s end, the U.S military forced him to participate in the formal and legal process of denazification.

Denazification would judge Furtwängler’s participation in the Reich and, if necessary, determine an appropriate punishment, which could include work sanctions, a fine, imprisonment, or even death.

During the proceedings several people came to the conductor’s defense. Jewish artists testified that Furtwängler’s assistance saved their lives. When the prosecution asked if he ever helped any Jews who weren’t well-known artists, people in the gallery began shouting the names of ordinary people who fit that description.

Evidence showed that he was never a Nazi and, in fact, had been a thorn in their side. In the end, however, words Furtwängler spoke in his own defense became the trial’s most powerful moment.

Why did he stay in Germany and,in essence, bless the country ruled by the Nazis with his artistic brilliance?

That was the burning question.

To this, Furtwängler responded,

The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does Thomas Mann [the German writer who was critical of Furtwängler's actions] really believe that in 'the Germany of Himmler' one should not be permitted to play Beethoven?
This was, in fact, a real criticism—that playing Beethoven in Germany during the war was a damnable example of casting pearls before swine.
Does Thomas Mann really believe that in 'the Germany of Himmler' one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.
The court cleared Furtwängler of all charges.

Furtwängler’s post-war trial reminds me of a common reaction to Saint Paul’s letter to a man named Philemon.

In that letter, which we’ve read this morning, Paul writes to a Christian named Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus, who, it seems, had recently become a believer, too.

Philemon was Onesimus’ master and the Roman Empire gave him incredible powers to determine his slave’s fate.

Paul writes,

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment…I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother...
Paul goes on to tell Philemon that the master should welcome the slave’s return as he would welcome the apostle himself, a remarkable request given that Philemon would’ve been within his legal rights to have Onesimus killed for his transgressions.

In fact, in what I think is one of the letter’s most significant verses, Paul even tells Philemon to go ahead and prepare a guest room because he intends to visit as soon as he is able—the implication being that Paul will come and see for himself whether or not Philemon has embraced his new brother in Christ.

To me, it seems clear that Paul isn’t giving his audience much wiggle room. He believes that the Gospel has fundamentally changed all relationships—including the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Brotherly love, therefore, with no hint of division or dominance or violence should be the Church’s witness.

Many readers are critical of Paul’s letter, however, for not going far enough. Pro-slavery propagandists throughout the ages have indeed used the book to make their case, and abolitionists have responded accordingly.

Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery as an institution, they say.

Someone in his position could’ve done more, they say.

Beethoven should not have been played in Nazi Germany and reconciliation should not have been preached to Philemon’s church, they say.

But I disagree with the propagandists and Paul’s critics.

Far from approving any form of exploitation, I think this letter is the practical and real world application of Paul’s most lofty rhetoric and highest ideals.

“So if anyone is in Christ,” he declared, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Individuals, personal relationships, power structures, and social hierarchies—the presence of the Risen Christ among believers must transform these from the bottom up and from the inside out.

Yes, if Paul could’ve cured humanity’s propensity for cruelty and exploitation with one sermon, then I think we’d be justified in criticizing him for not doing it.

Likewise, if Furtwängler could’ve ended the Holocaust with one performance, we would curse his inaction.

But they weren’t in those positions.

The best that they could do was to take the measure of their talent, abilities, and privileges and to employ those things in the service of noble and godly ends.

The best that any of us can do—and for that matter, all that God asks of us—is to take the measure of our talent, abilities, and privileges and to employ those things in the service of noble and godly ends.

Beloved of God, when we are confronted by suffering and sorrow, sadness and savagery—when we find ourselves in positions and circumstances that we would never choose—discouragement and feeling insignificant have always been temptations, but the testimony of the faithful has always been that if we are in Jesus Christ, then no weapon formed against us shall prosper and we will walk in the light as he is in the light.

If we are in Jesus Christ—if his grace is renewing us in his image—then we have what we need to punch against the darkness, to shame the ugliness of sin with the beauty of our lives, to forge the tools of peace from melted hearts once given to violence.

If we are in Jesus Christ then we are a new creation and we have what we need to live faithfully and to love boldly.

Long ago, the apostle Paul wrote these words to a Christian named Philemon,

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.
The saints are still praying for us. May we, then, be blessed to perceive all the good that we may do for Christ and his children in the world God so dearly loves.

Thanks be to God. Amen.