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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 04/21/2013

A funny thing happened to me a couple of years ago, something I never would have predicted would happen; I’m still a little embarrassed to talk about it; I started reading poetry.  Prior to that Kathy had given me a couple of books of poetry because she thought it would be good for me but it sometimes takes me awhile to listen to her advice; I did look at them and thought, Oh, that’s nice, but that was about it.  Even before that, Brent Clark had given me The Oxford Book of English Verse because he too apparently thought I would benefit from reading poetry but I have to confess that after politely receiving it from him it sat mostly unread on my shelf for a long time. 

I just never liked poetry unless it was a limerick that started with “There once was a man from somewhere…”  It was about two years ago though, there was an interview with the editor of Poetry magazine in The Christian Century in which he said he thought all those who preach should be reading poetry; of course what else would he say being the editor of Poetry magazine?  For whatever reason though, that prompted me to start reading.  Maybe after ignoring a couple of strangers on the beach I finally paid attention to one. 

I started with some of the more accessible contemporary poets who with their use of words create beautiful and thought provoking images, and I like that, but I also pretty quickly challenged myself with some weirder stuff.  Some of it I must say I don’t understand at all, but then there will be a line that really catches me.  I still might not understand the whole poem, but there’s a line that makes me stop and think. 

One of my big insights though, and one of the reasons I think reading poetry has been good for me, is that I figured out that I don’t have to understand.  You read poetry differently from how you read other things and, as a poem I like by Billy Collins says, you don’t have to beat a poem with a rubber hose to find the right meaning because there isn’t one right meaning.  You poke around, you chew on it, you go back and read it again, not to figure it out, just to see where it takes you.  Poetry slows you down and for me and I think most of us that’s a good thing, because in slowing down, you notice more, you see different things.

I also think that many poets are what I would call accidental theologians.  Their poetry may not be overtly religious, although some is, but more often they come at God and spirituality in unorthodox, imaginative and playful ways, not necessarily according to any doctrine or creed but in more open ways that then allow the reader to apply their own faith and image of God to it; but with poetry you can say things you can’t say any other way.

Reading poetry has changed how I read the Bible.  More and more I am convinced that large portions of the Bible are meant to be read the same way one reads poetry because the Bible is not a history book, it’s not a science book , it’s not body of material to be figured out, mastered and understood.  It’s meant to help us to encounter and be in relationship with God, a God who even with the help of doctrines and creeds cannot be figured out, mastered and understood.  Reading poetry has made me less inclined to search the Bible for answers and explanations and less inclined to think that I have to provide you with answers and explanations even though I know there’s a part of me and a part of you that wants that.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  When it comes to those answers and explanations about God, people have always wanted them as evidenced by this question from today’s gospel.  John’s gospel though is not particularly inclined to provide answers and explanations.  Of all the gospels, it’s the most poetic and because of that, if you’re looking for answers, it can be the most frustrating. 

What I think John does though, throughout his gospel, is to throw out poetic images of Jesus.  He tells stories about Jesus too, but often the stories also contain imagery about him or about what he does.  But it’s almost as if John says, “There’s no way I can explain to you or offer rational arguments concerning who Jesus is or how God is revealed in him, but try out these images; see if they help you to understand.”  So for example in today’s gospel we get Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep.  “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.” 

With that we picture Jesus as a shepherd and many find that a most comforting image.  Many of us then connect Jesus to the 23rd Psalm just like the lectionary does and we get the same kind of comfort from the shepherd and the green pastures, the still water and so forth.  But you notice that this isn’t about explanation and analysis, it’s more about emotions and feelings that help to make Jesus’ presence real, to make what he means to you real.  We know him through this image and the image is inexhaustible; you can keep going back to it.  That’s the nature of good poetry.

John does a lot of this.  His gospel starts with Jesus as the Word made Flesh; in the next chapter John the Baptist says of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Now both of those, the Word made Flesh and the Lamb of God, are familiar phrases and images describing Jesus.   One could engage in an effort to explain them, and explanation might even be helpful.  In some respects that’s where doctrine comes from.  I think though, that we’re at a time in the church where we can’t let the doctrine dictate the image.  We can’t tell people, “This is the way you have to understand this image or else you’re wrong.” Again, that’s not how you interpret poetry; it’s not about right and wrong.  We can respect the traditional explanations and still work imaginatively with the images and I again I think that’s what John invites in his gospel. 

Whether it’s the shepherd, or the bread of life, or the vine and the branches or the light of the world, John throws out these images as ways to help us know Jesus.  John is clear in his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but with these images he provides an invitation into a relationship rather than simply providing information. 

If you think about it, this approach makes sense.   Again, when you talk about God, explanation is inadequate because you’re talking about something that is beyond human explanation and comprehension.  Just one image of God or Jesus is also inadequate because no one image can convey all that needs to be conveyed.  So John provides a bunch and each one adds something in coming to know the God revealed in Jesus, a God who loves us, who forgives us, who watches over us, who searches for us, who wants to be in relationship with us.  The images though are much more effective than mere statements.  They affect us in a different way.  They help to make it a relationship rather than just a fact to be learned. 

This is Good Shepherd Sunday; the focus today is on this one image that is very comforting to many of us.  Some years I would leave it at that; in a perfect world I could leave it at that, but once again this week, with the bombing is Boston, we’ve been reminded that we don’t live in a perfect world.  In terms of numbers of dead and injured what happened wasn’t as bad as some other events that have reminded us that we don’t live in a perfect world, but when there’s an innocent little kid killed, I have to say that it bothers me more. 

Maybe it was seeing a picture of 8 year old Martin Richard with his goofy, toothless smile, wearing what I assume was his First Communion suit, holding a banner with his name on it that he had apparently made for the occasion.  It made me think that he had probably been in Sunday School, that he was probably told the same thing we tell our kids, that Jesus loves you and watches out for you, maybe he knew the 23rd Psalm “I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” and then evil comes and takes his life away in a moment.  Where was the Good Shepherd?

One answer is that he was there in the police officers and doctors and EMT’s who immediately went into action.  He was there in the complete strangers who didn’t run away but held someone’s hand as they waited for assistance.  They were good shepherds, but still, in some ways, the image of the shepherd failed.  Those helpers aren’t going to bring little Martin back.  But that’s part of why it makes sense to approach this as poetry.  The shepherd represents an image, it’s not an absolute statement. 

Maybe it’s not an accident that the Shepherd Psalm immediately follows the “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” of Psalm 22, a psalm for those times when your image of God has let you down.  Throughout the Bible we’re given images to help us into a relationship with God but that relationship also gives us permission to say “Why God?”  At that point, just as Psalm 22 moves to Psalm 23 I would prefer be led back to the image of the Good Shepherd rather than for someone to preach to me doctrine that says that God is all knowing and all powerful and therefore this must be part of his plan.  I don’t really want to hear about a plan that kills innocent children.  I would rather be led back to the image of the shepherd so I can sit with it and poke around in the valley of the shadow of death for awhile, until the waters are still again and I can see the shepherd through the tears. 

Looking more closely, you see that the shepherd has holes in his hands and feet; he’s well acquainted with evil.  He’s well acquainted with evil and he won’t let it have the last word.  As the poetry of Revelation says, the shepherd will guide us to springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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