Although the images of shepherd and sheep wind their way through these lectionary texts, they are difficult images for the contemporary church to embrace. I recall many of the adults in one congregation cringing during a children’s time a few years ago, when a well-intentioned volunteer tried to teach the children a song that had them “baa-ing” for Jesus. What are we teaching our children, some of us wondered: To follow the crowd without question? To have no mind of one’s own? To expect someone else to take care of us?
Christians tend to compare their personal conversion experiences to Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. Not all of us, of course, talk freely about what happened in us and to us on the way to becoming Christian. Our levels of comfort with such talk vary widely depending on our congregational culture, our notions of evangelism and our ability to be self-revelatory. But when we do think about that journey, and when we’re willing to talk about it, we say that our conversion was—or was not—a Damascus Road. We tell our young people that their experience does not need to be a Damascus Road experience, although it can be. There are many paths of Christian transformation—and the light from heaven is only one of them.
When I was in grad school, my family moved into an apartment in South Chicago. When we saw that the door of the apartment had four locks, we wondered why we needed so many. I soon discovered that the benefit was mostly emotional. When we got inside at night, after being worried about whatever, we could shut the door on the world and turn lots of little levers. “Click, click, click.” I think of that door when I’m listening to people describe how they cope with their fears.
Just like that, Jesus is gone. He reappears just long enough to say goodbye. Like a wraith, like a dream, he leaves behind no children, no estate, no writings, no trace of himself except this feeling that his presence was real, that his absence is temporary. Christians have this uncanny feeling that he was just here. He must have just stepped out.
These are some of the nicest, happiest verses in scripture, easy to read because we all agree that we should love one another. Sunday school teachers affirm the thought, countless potholders and pillows are embroidered with it: Love one another. And then there's Robbie. Robbie lives a hard life and runs through help like water. After a while you want to tell her enough's enough.
My grandfather was a retired navy officer when he died, so we held his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. We were greeted at the gates by armed guards. Taps played while my grandfather’s ashes were put into a horse-drawn casket. An American flag was folded and presented to my grandmother. At the funeral we saw how the military gives meaning even to death, shape even to destruction, and an idealistic aura to aggression.
A strange king is likely to have a strange kingdom, and the kingdom of Jesus is no exception. The kingdom of Christ is a multilateral community, marked by a deep mutual love and an ongoing push to ever greater love. Our difficulty is not in envisioning the image of community. Our trouble comes with the necessity of confronting those situations in which community is broken, or worse, in which human beings are attacking other human beings. What are the international implications of these readings?
When I was in kindergarten, one of my favorite activities was “What’s in the box?” The teacher cut a hand-sized hole in a box and placed a mystery object inside. You could reach in the box, smell the box, shake the box—everything but open it. Each one of us would take a turn guessing the right answer. “It’s kind of fuzzy.” “Is it a teddy bear?”