Shepherd of our Souls 1 Peter 2: 13-25 and Psalm 23
Secure in our relationship with God, we can order our relationships to human authorities
You may, or may not, like visual art. There may be some kinds of pictures you like to see on a wall in a museum or even in your home. But there may be others that, if someone were to give it to you, if you were going to put it on a wall, it would probably be in the closet. If a picture of a person or a thing that be recognized, then which way is “up” and which way is “down” is pretty clear. But a lot of art produced in the 20th century was not “representational”, so unless something came with a big arrow on the back saying, “this side up”, people were sometimes confused.
Henri Matisse who was born in 1870 in France, was an important 20th century artist. He did a lot of painting, drawing, and sculpting. He lived to be 84 years old. In his later years his production took the form of paper cutouts, sometimes framed and other times as murals going all the way around a room. After he died in 1954 many museums around the world put on special showings of his work. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City did one of these in 1961. They got quite embarrassed though, when after Matisse’s paper cutout “the boat” had been on one wall for 47 days, someone was able to point out that the museum had it hanging upside down.
I guess someone thought it looked better that way.
There’s a system that many churches use to determine what parts of the Bible will be read in worship from week to week. It’s called, “The Lectionary”. Not everybody has to use it, and some people are straight against it, but I try to go with its flow here. On a three year cycle, there are four suggested readings for each Sunday: One from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the Gospels and the last from the rest of the New Testament that’s NOT the gospels. Thinking back over which I’d been choosing since I started here in December, I noticed that I rarely preach from the New Testament (except for the Gospels), so I decided that’s what I’d do today.
My problem began when I discovered that the suggested reading was 1 Peter 2, which has a lot in it about submitting to the authority of emperors and slave masters. You see, as a young lad, I wanted to grow up to be a teenager, and as a teenager I wanted to grow up to be a Hippie. Submitting to authority is NOT part of the atmosphere of either of those goals.
The result is that in preparing this week, I’ve treated the reading from 1 Peter the way that the Museum of Modern Art treated that Matisse artwork. I’ve hung it upside down, (and I think it looks and works better that way.)
I: You have been brought back to follow the Shepherd and Keeper of your souls.
So, starting from the end, we read that we have been brought back to the shepherd and keeper of our souls. We begin with considering shepherds and keepers, and then continue on to thinking about souls.
Though few if any of us have ever seen a shepherd with our own eyes (there’s only one place in Taiwan where we can go to see sheep anyway), we’ve probably got an image of someone not unlike the gentleman on the screen who is involved in taking care of sheep, and especially of the one that he’s carrying. The well-being of all of the sheep is his job. At the time of Jesus there wasn’t any industry, nor all that much commerce, nor were there any universities. Most people were pretty close to agriculture, whether growing of crops or taking care of animals, or just seeing that go on. So a LOT of Bible images come from farming and herding. Jesus compared himself to a shepherd sometimes. The Old Testament the prophets sometimes criticized their nation’s political leaders and priests for being “bad shepherds.”
There are some “keepers” in the Bible, too. A “keeper” protects some sort of an institution and those who reside in it…, an innkeeper takes care of a hotel (there’s one in the Christmas story and another in the parable of the Good Samaritan), a jail keeper takes care of a jail (there are several in the Acts of the Apostles).
Though some psychologists, sociologists and biologists have trouble with the idea of the existence of a soul, it’s fairly clear that the people who brought us the image of God as a shepherd and keeper thought that human beings have souls. What, exactly, a “soul” might be is something for philosophers, theologians, psychologists, biologists, sociologists, lovers and haters to discuss & debate, doubt or believe. If you believe that you are a soul having a bodily experience, then the idea of one who will shepherd and keep your soul is comforting. After all, while we have bodies, there are doctors, barbers, beauticians, trainers and massage specialists to take care of us, and for souls, there is a shepherd and a keeper.
Backing up another phrase, but still in verse 25, note that we’ve been brought back (we didn’t return on our own), back from having lost our way. Don’t go pointing your finger and saying this is about “him” or “her”. It’s true of all of us. And beyond being brought back, we’ve been healed. We needed healing because life is not easy, and like someone who has been attacked and left for dead beside the road, we need to be cared for.
II: God will bless you if you endure suffering even when you have done right.
Every religion starts someplace. Within every religion, there are different “places” and different ideas on which of them is the most important place to start. My personal favorite starting point for Christianity is that God is love. It can be hard to defend, though, because it can’t be proven scientifically. A skeptic would ask that first I prove that God IS, and then go on to show that God is LOVE. (Other Christians might want to start somewhere else, but NO Christians would deny that there is an absolutely necessary connection between God and Love.)
Buddhism starts with something much easier to prove. You only have to look around and can see that it’s true. “Life is suffering”. Though different groups in Buddhism interpret the “Four Noble Truths” in slightly different ways, ALL of the groups agree that suffering is the first of the four as taught by the Buddha himself.
Of the 13 verses we read from 1 Peter this afternoon, 5 were about suffering. We read that some of the suffering in the world starts from people’s wrong behavior (and the suffering is a natural consequence of that wrongness). But we also read about suffering that comes, not because someone has done anything wrong, but because the wrong person is in charge. When you’re suffering because someone else is harsh to you even when you’ve done no wrong, you’re being like Jesus (who did no wrong, but got crucified). When you find yourself suffering like Jesus, you’re told to endure. Worse than that, you’re told to accept the authority of those who cause you to suffer, to honor them, and to regard their being “in charge” as legal and right.
Originally this letter was written to people whose identity (in the version of the Bible we use here at Tainan International Community Church) is “servants.” In the original language, the word can mean both “servant” AND “slave”. The result, since none of us here is a slave or a servant, may be that we regard the instructions as being for others. When we meet people such as the foreigners who do domestic caregiving and industrial & construction work in Taiwan, we may think that these are Biblical instructions for them, not for us. But we all have “bosses”: teachers, managers, landlords, dormitory supervisors, and parents. We’re told here that we are to submit to these masters, NOT because it will make THEM kinder to us. Not because it will change anything about them. We are to submit, just because we should. That’s not a very satisfying answer, is it? (And maybe that’s why I didn’t like this assigned bit of scripture until I turned it on its head.) We read that when our masters treat us harshly and unjustly, and we respond by enduring, respecting and honoring, then we’ll be blessed by God. If getting God’s blessing (which I want) can be done some other way, without requiring me to endure, respect and honor harsh masters, I’d rather follow that road. But, hey, I generally want to take the easy way out.
III: Do the right thing
One of the biggest companies in the world is “Alphabet”. It owns Google. In fact, Google STARTED Alphabet. When it was only Google, way back in the year 2000, it’s corporate mission statement consisted of three words, “Don’t be evil.” When Google got too big and reorganized as “Alphabet”, making Google just one part of the whole thing, a longer, corporate mission statement was developed. 4 words, “do the right thing.”
“Do the right thing” also summarizes verses 13-17, where we’re instructed to respect everyone, love people who have the same religion as us, and give honor to God and to the emperor. (When this was originally written, the emperor considered himself to be a god, too.) Nowadays, other than the one in Japan, there are very few crowned emperors in the world. But there ARE leaders of some nations who might consider they have imperial power to order people around, have people executed, and to demand respect from the citizens of the places where they rule. Thank God, that’s not true here in Taiwan.
Like the people who work for Google, we’re not to do evil. We’re free to do whatever we like, but to be careful not to use our freedom to conceal evil. We are instructed to do the right thing so that foolish people who would criticize us for having faith might be silenced, they should find nothing to say against us.
There’s a further reason for doing the right thing here. It comes back to that emperor thing. Whoever is in authority: gentle or harsh, honest or corrupt, wise or foolish, has authority and can use it to praise or to punish. We “do the right thing” so that there will be nothing to punish. That’s an ideal. We’re told that it’s God’s design for passing out authority to the people who are in government. Sometimes those people get it wrong. Sometimes they “hang the picture upside down”. Sometimes they have hung innocent people on crosses. Sometimes WE get it wrong, too.
When Christian religion begins with “God is love” and winds through an image like “the shepherd and keeper of your soul”, it is attractive and comforting. I think that’s why I preferred to look at the verses we read today “from back to front”. When I started with “submit to every human authority,” I was immediately both combative and sad. I discovered too many personal memories of loss.
As a teenager, though I wanted to grow up to be a Hippie, I didn’t. Partly that was because I was part of a church youth group that emphasized discipline, respect of authority, and keeping the rules. We had to do this or, we were assured, God would punish us. Something about the “hippie” life seemed too undisciplined to me. I was afraid. However, for most of the other young people in that church group, and for many of my classmates at school, the “undiscipline” was more attractive than the “discipline”. By the time we were 18 or 19 years old, it seemed that almost everybody else had left the group, left the faith, and wandered away from the shepherd and keeper of our souls. When I reflect on that process, I see myself not as the most righteous one, but as the most cowardly.
By now I’ve lost contact with most of those friends of my youth. It’s my prayer that the shepherd and keeper of souls might bring them back, NOT to the discipline and authority thing, but to the “care” thing. And that’s where I hope that we, here in Tainan, can start, too.
Sometimes turning things around and looking at them upside down looks better to us. Beginning with “you’ve been brought back to Jesus, the shepherd and keeper of your soul, and you’ve been healed,” attracts me to “endure the suffering, including what you’ll suffer from obeying.” That feels better than what I grew up with, “Obey or suffer for not obeying; and, by the way, Jesus is your good shepherd.”
Matisse’s paper cutting and Peter’s musings on authority aren’t the only things that look different when turned onto their heads. We read Psalm 23 this afternoon. Probably half or more of us stopped listening immediately after we heard “The Lord is My Shepherd.” So I ask you to listen as I try it from back to front. Listen for new things that it may be telling you.
“God’s house will be my house as long as I live, with my roommates: God’s love and goodness. There will always be enough food and wine for me and for my enemies. At God’s feast, they won’t be scary, because God’s protection will surround us all and God’s presence will never leave. Even death will hold no fear, because God keeps promises, guides and strengthens. The pool is cool and the bed is soft. It’s all here, provided by my shepherd, the Lord.” AMEN