Decades ago, the school district where I was working wanted to embark on a new initiative. As I recall, it had something to do with adult continuing education and they needed approval from the voters in a referendum.
As the date of the election approached, the
district's superintendent addressed a meeting
of the teaching staff. He wanted to encourage
us to campaign among our friends and neighbors
in support of the district's position. In
making his pitch, the superintendent quoted a
passage from Ecclesiastes 11, I think it was
Put your investment in several
places — many places even. His point,
as I remember it, was that the district needed
to invest in this new initiative in addition to
continuing their existing programs.
But Ecclesiastes is an odd place to find
inspiration for political action. The whole of
verse 2 says,
Put your investment in several
places — many places even — because
you never know what kind of bad luck you are
going to have in this world. [TEV]
After the meeting I went home and read the
whole of the chapter. Then I wrote to the
superintendent suggesting that he should do
the same. In particular, I suggested that the
next verse might be good advice for how to view
the upcoming vote. Verse 3 starts,
which way a tree falls, it will lie where it
fell. You don't know how the vote will
turn out, I pointed out, but then again you
don't know for sure which will be the better
result. Whether the election turns out the
way you hope or not, the result is what you
have to work with — and maybe that will
prove to be the best result in the end.
Or, as Ecclesiastes 11:10 reminds us,
let anything worry you or cause you pain.
My immediate supervisor, however, didn't get the message. He was very much pained that an employee would consider debating scripture with the superintendent of schools. I guess he thought anything that came out of his boss's mouth was the pure gospel, even if it was a quotation from the old testament.
More recently, the Attorney General of the
United States cited Paul's
clear and wise
command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the
government because God has ordained the
government for his purposes. (That's a
close paraphrase of chapter 13, verse 1.) Jeff
Sessions wasn't speaking directly to me, so I
didn't write a response. Others did, however.
Some people criticized the Attorney General for
reading a single verse while ignoring the rest
of the chapter — let alone the rest of
the Bible. He did not mention verse 6,
authorities are working for God when they
fulfill their duties, nor did he mention
verse 8, which affirms that
obligation you have is to love one another.
There was nothing about love, mercy, hospitality,
hope, or humility. So this criticism does have a
Others wondered about the choice of a passage used historically in silencing the abolitionists. And some even made fun of the Attorney General. Yet with all this controversy I did not observe anyone responding with the vehemence with which Jan Hus answered the powerful people of his time.
You remember Jan Hus: The reviver of of John Wycliff's teachings, the spiritual grandfather of the original Moravian community, the martyr whose life we celebrate each 6th of July.
We think it was in 1408, 610 years ago, that Jan Hus wrote to a church leader, Zavis of Zap, in response to accusations that Jan's sermons had vilified the established clergy and, worse, had implied a positive view of John Wycliff and, perhaps worst of all, had done so before a congregation which included women as well as men!
Jan responded, saying,
I would that you knew yourself and the way you have been shearing the sheep … this thirty years or more! Where do you reside? Where do you work? Where do you feed the sheep? You forget the Lord's word:Woe to the shepherds … that feed themselves, but the flock they did not feed.Where, pray, is your fulfilment of this gospel of Christ:The good shepherd goeth before the sheep and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice? In what way do you pass before the sheep, and how do they follow you or hear your voice when for many years together they rarely set eyes on you? …
You ought to take these things to heart and not charge your neighbour with heresy. …
Perhaps this riposte is too subtle for the internet age since its power lies in an awareness of the verses not quoted. Zavis would have recognized the opening of the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, the very scripture we read this morning.
Jan Hus seems to have identified with Jeremiah, more so as the years went by. Both Jan and Jeremiah were put in prison. Each had his books burned. Each had a message to the powerful that God entrusted to him. And this is the message God gave to Jeremiah:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you …, says the Lord. … I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them … [NRSV]
Jan was telling those church leaders not only
that they had failed in their responsibilities
but that they would be replaced by new leaders
who would follow God's commands. Jan wasn't
You ought to resign, or
You ought to be fired, things
which people do say to church and political
leaders today. With the words of Jeremiah, Jan
You have already been fired. You
have no claim to your office and title.
Can you hear that in the words Jan Hus wrote
to Zavis? From the fear and the fire which
followed I know that the functionaries of the
church and of the government heard him full
And what of Jan's second quotation? It is a verse from John 10, which also says this:
All others who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. … The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life — life in all its fullness. [TEV]
Jesus declared himself to be a good shepherd who comes to the sheep and leads them; a good shepherd who stands for life over killing and for plenty rather than theft and vandalism. Jan says, this is what good leaders do. Jan says, this is what you do not do.
There is a difference between then and now. Unlike Jan Hus and the leaders he addressed we live in a participatory church and state. The questions Jan asked are not only for the school superintendents and attorneys general. They are also for us.
Where do you reside? Where do you work? Where do you feed the sheep? In what way do you pass before the sheep, and how do they follow you?
How different the 23rd Psalm is from the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah! The prophet decries the shepherds who do not shepherd God's people. The Psalm celebrates the God who is the model shepherd.
Yet how alike the 23rd Psalm is to the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah! Both of them talk to us about the proper way to order the city and the nation. The Psalm says, this is what good leaders do. Jeremiah says, this is what you have failed to do.
Psalm 23 shows that the good shepherd is the one who cares for the people the way God cares for us. That starts with a concern for the basics of life:
God is my shepherd; I do not suffer from want. God makes me bed down in grassy meadows and guides me by safe waters. God brings back my life.
I have come in order that you
might have life. The good shepherd is the
one who provides food and safe water and a
place to lie down. If we are following Jesus,
these are what we provide as well.
But food and water are not enough for the full life about which Jesus speaks. It is not enough to be well fed and exploited or to have clean water and live in fear every day. God's example leads along the paths of justice and confidence.
God leads me along the paths of justice for the sake of God's own self. Even though I walk in the depths of deathly shadows I am not afraid. Your stick and your crook make me feel safe.
The good shepherd's rod is a source of fear to the wolf, but not to the sheep. Only the shepherds who do not shepherd use their rod to scatter the sheep and drive them away. In the company of the good shepherd the shepherd's staff is a sign of security. If we are following Jesus, we will be walking in the paths of justice and everyone with us will feel safe.
Food and water, justice and confidence, welcome and honor. It is not enough to hand out non-perishable food items and bottled water at the back door. It is not enough to see that justice is untrammeled and that power is not abused. The shepherd of God's people welcomes them all to sit at the table in honor.
You set the table for me where my enemies can see … and you fill my cup to the brim.
Who sets the table for us? For whom do we set the table? Do we feed ourselves, or are we feeding God's flock?
This is the model of the good shepherd, the one who attends to God's people, who opens a full life to all who follow. Food and water. Justice and confidence. Welcome and honor for everyone in the flock.
If goodness and kindness pursue me for as long as I live Then I will be living in God's house for many long days.
This is the role of the shepherd who shepherds.
A leader who does not do this work is no leader
at all, but a thief
who comes only in order
to steal, kill, and destroy. The shepherd
who calls the sheep by name will live
in all its fullness. [TEV]
And so the psalm brings us back to the questions Jan Hus put to the powerful of his day:
Where do you reside? Where do you work? Where do you feed the sheep?