4-22-24 - The Looong Goodbye

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

If John’s Gospel is a reliable historical record (a question over which scholars have spilled much ink…), the Last Supper would have lasted a Long Time. As John tells it, after the drama and rituals of washing feet, breaking bread and sharing wine, Jesus delivers himself of many Last Words. This discourse, filling chapters 14-18 of the Fourth Gospel, is dense, elliptical, sometimes repetitive - and full of nuggets of teaching that theologians would later mine in developing core church doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, Heaven.

These words are not a transcript. At best, they are a compilation of memories and themes, filtered through several witnesses some 40-60 years after the events being described, and in conversation with movements and controversies in the early church. Yet I choose to believe Jesus said much of what is set down here, if not in these exact words, sequence, or necessarily on that occasion. At some point Jesus spoke to his followers about vines and branches and abiding in God. And these words still resonate for us: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

Jesus is about to take his leave of these beloved and frustrating disciples. He has said he is going to a place they cannot follow, but know the way to. It’s a good time to talk about pruning and fruitfulness, as he is about to become the branch cut away, despite the manifold fruit he had borne in just three years, the fruit of thousands of lives renewed, loves restored, sins forgiven and infirmity healed.

But Jesus is not referring to himself in this moment. He is the true vine, he says, and God will remove every branch in him that bears no fruit. That means the branches to which Jesus has given life. That means his apostles. And that means us.

This week’s Gospel passage is not long, but it is ripe with metaphor and meaning. Using the image of a vine and its branches, Jesus talks about how we are connected, honed, and nurtured, and how to stay fruitful as servants of God, friends of God. Exploring this passage offers opportunity for spiritual inventory. Today let’s start by thinking about ourselves as branches connected to that True Vine.

How connected do we feel? How fruitful do we feel we are? How much in the way of nutrients is making its way to us?

Jesus needed to be sure his closest followers understood some things before the harrowing ordeals ahead, while he was still with them in flesh. Hence the Long Goodbye. But for us, these words are a Big Hello, for our fruitfulness is ever before us. Let's receive them as such and greet the exploration ahead.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe here. Here are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.

4-19-24 - Freely Offered

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

We are doing the “Being With” course at my churches this Lent and Eastertide. Being With is a 10-week exploration of Christian faith and practice, meeting weekly with a talk and discussion. This past week the topic was the Cross, which gets to the heart of what Jesus’ crucifixion meant and means for us. There are many ways of interpreting this event, depending on which of the four canonical gospels you’re reading and where you sit on the theological spectrum.

There are also no answers to so deep and unsettling a mystery. Did humans operating out of sin and evil kill Jesus? Did God have his own son killed? Was Jesus’ death due to politics, paranoia, personal feuds? Could it have been prevented? Was it simply the inevitable consequence of human choice, or a divine plan?

Perhaps a combination of all of these. Jesus predicted his arrest, death and resurrection often enough that it seems to have been a plan he was enacting. Yet that plan required human beings to make choices that could have gone in other ways. And any notion that Jesus was a passive victim of either human or divine operation is contested by these words attributed to Jesus as he talks about being the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Laying things down, things that we call life, is a constant effort in the life of a Christ-follower. Jesus demonstrated a self-giving love that offered everything, including his life, including separation – if even for a moment – from his Father and the Spirit. Where are we called to sacrifice our comfort or convenience or resources so someone else might have more room to live?

Like many Americans, I am more often in conversations these days about racial reckoning and reconciliation. I’ve heard someone say it’s not enough for those of us born into privilege to say we’re sorry for the historic and current injustice that limits access to the wealth and security we enjoy; we may actually need to get up and out of the chair, to make space for someone who hasn’t had our advantages. That’s a way of laying down of our lives at a high level. There are also smaller scale choices we can make – to lay down our insistence on being right, or knowing better, or having more. What comes to mind for you?

It is our privilege to make a choice to yield our privilege. Like Jesus, we have power to lay down our lives and to take them up again. In fact, when we lay them down, we truly find a richer life to take up. As we lay down those things to which we cling so tightly, we make room for God’s life to expand in us. As we give our life away, we find ourselves living that abundant life Jesus promised.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe here. Here are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.

4-18-24 - Other Sheep

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

Many sayings of Jesus have inspired Christian evangelism through the ages – the Great Commission, for one, or references in parables to an eternity in hellfire for those who do not accept God's invitation of salvation. One of the sweeter imperatives to sharing the Good News comes in his somewhat cryptic remark about “other sheep”: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

In its early years, the nascent church struggled with issues of inclusion and identity. For whom was Jesus’ message intended? How far were they to stretch the boundaries of belonging? Jesus’ original followers were Jews, and a few times he names the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” as the focus of his mission. Yet the gospels record several occasions when he ministered to Gentiles – non-Jews, Romans and Greeks, Samaritans and even a Syro-Phoenician family. And after his resurrection and ascension, the apostles found themselves confronted with Gentile converts to the Jesus movement, and clear guidance from the Holy Spirit that Jesus’ message and ministry were for all people, for all time. (Read the book of Acts!)

This line about “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” seems to support that view, though Jesus might also have meant people outside the norms of acceptability, those lepers and harlots and bruised and blemished folk that seemed so drawn to him. Whatever groups he was referring to, at the very least he implies that there are insiders and outsiders – and that those outside need to be invited in.

One of the most dangerous descriptors for church communities is, ironically, “family.” A congregation that refers to itself as “just one happy family” is often less likely to grow. Why? Because the group identity is so strong it presents a barrier to those who might want to join. Visitors may be greeted warmly and offered hospitality, but are treated as just that, visitors, not part of the family.

As followers of Christ we are to be always thinking of the sheep that are not in the fold, whom Jesus might want us to invite in. And where will we be most apt to encounter these sheep? Out in the pastures, not in the sheepfold. The more we get ourselves out of our folds into the pastures, the better positioned we will be to come into relationship with others, relationships in which we can naturally talk about our spiritual selves and invite them to share theirs.

What is a "pasture" you might hang out in, getting to know other sheep? How might you introduce them to our Shepherd, until they can come to know his voice for themselves? Then the next time we come back to the sheepfold – which we need to do, regularly, for rest and refreshment – some of those other sheep just might follow us Home.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe here. Here are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.

4-17-24 - To Be Known

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

In his conversation about shepherding, Jesus highlights an important quality of a “Good Shepherd” – she knows her sheep. In contrast to a hired hand, who might only know the number of sheep he’s to keep track of, the good shepherd knows the sheep individually, knows what each looks like, its characteristics, which ones follow well, which ones are inclined to wander, which ones are more vulnerable.

Jesus doesn’t discuss this quality in the abstract; he makes it personal: "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."

Being known – it is perhaps the richest, most intimate experience a person can have. (Is that why ancient Hebrew texts use the verb “know” to suggest sexual encounters?) To be known means we have been seen, and studied; been deemed worthy of time and attention. The one who knows us has weighed our strengths and shortcomings. Being known does not imply being loved, but one often follows the other (and not always in the same order).

That we are known individually by the God who made us, who doesn’t just lump us all together as “humankind” but treasures the particularity and specificity of each one of us, is a radical reality. Yes, God cares about communities, and yes, an over-emphasis on “just me and my Jesus” can imperil the integrity of our spiritual life. Yet the personal, relational dimension to Christian faith is undeniably present in the bible, and life-changing when we acknowledge it.

As intimately as the Father and the Son and the Spirit know each other – they who are distinct, yet One – that’s how closely Jesus knows us, our dreams and longings, our disappointments and losses, our passions and foibles, those shadow parts of ourselves we loathe, as well as what we treasure. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and loves us without reservation or condition.

The question is: Will we let him in? Will we open ourselves to this one who already knows us? Will we take the time to get to know this Good Shepherd?

“I know my own and my own know me” begs an interesting question: Maybe it’s not whether or not Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but whether we consider ourselves his sheep.

The choice is always ours – his offer of relationship is always extended. Maybe we should come to know him as he already knows us.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe here. Here are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.

4-16-24 - Hired Hands

You can listen to this reflection here.

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus calls himself the good shepherd – and he makes a distinction between a shepherd and a hired hand: The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Given the increasingly hostile encounters recorded in John’s Gospel between Jesus and the temple leadership, perhaps Jesus is likening the religious leaders of the Jewish community of his day to mere “hired hands,” not reliable guardians of the people for whom they are to care. They seem too preoccupied with their rules and their compensation. They fall away at the hint of danger (is he referring to their careful dance of collaboration with the Roman occupiers?), and fail to provide the spiritual nurture and care they should.

Jesus seems to say that only one who owns the sheep can appreciate their value enough to tend them properly. This is unsettling for me as a religious “professional” – after all, I am a “hired hand.” I think it’s important that clergy not feel ownership over their congregants, but rather see themselves as stewards on behalf of the God to whom all things belong, to tend, feed and nurture spiritual growth. Does the fact that I am financially compensated mitigate my shepherding?

Jesus might have gone further in his definitions, to distinguish between good hired hands and bad ones. A hired hand who is deeply committed to the Shepherd, whose values align with the one who owns the sheep, may be as fierce in protecting them from harm, and as dedicated to keeping the flock together and thriving, as the Shepherd himself. Such a hired hand must remain in close touch with the Shepherd on whose behalf she tends the sheep, to receive instructions about where to pasture, where to find the strays, when to lead the flock into the fold.

I strive to be such a hired hand. I hope congregations can hold their pastors to high standards of integrity and spiritual depth. If ever you wonder why we pray for clergy in Sunday services, this is one reason – so they can balance being in tune with the Shepherd with staying attuned to the wellbeing of the sheep. If your pastor is falling short, tell her. If he is nurturing the flock well, tell him.

And pay attention to what flocks you may be called to tend as a hand working for the Good Shepherd himself. He needs a lot of good hired hands, and they don't all have to be ordained.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe here. Here are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.

4-15-24 - The Good Shepherd

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter our lectionary delivers up a section of Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” discourse from the Gospel of John. This set of teachings is sandwiched between Jesus’ healing of a man blind from birth (John 9), which sharpened the ire of the religious authorities with whom he’d already been tussling, and his raising of Lazarus (John 11), which caused those leaders to seek his execution. So this Good Shepherd passage is far from cuddly or comforting – it crackles with the growing danger in which Jesus finds himself, speaking of death and sacrifice, of negligent shepherds and thieves.

Before we look at all that, though, let’s note how subversive it was for Jesus to compare himself to a shepherd in the first place. The impact of this image may be lost on us, as we tend to think of shepherds as earthy, pan-pipe playing rustics tending the land and their cute little flocks. In Jesus’ time, though, shepherds were considered crude and base ruffians, unkempt, unwashed, often dishonest and generally suspect. That’s why our Christmas story of angels appearing to shepherds in their fields is so astonishing – how could such low-lifes would be the first to hear of Christ’s birth?

Yet, as we know, Jesus made a practice of consorting with people considered by “respectable” folk to be the dregs of society. He was often in trouble for dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, honoring lepers and the ritually impure with his company and healing. Here he claims a demeaned profession as his own. To say “I am the good shepherd” is to assert that there can be such a thing as a good shepherd. In explaining what distinguishes a good shepherd from a bad one, he manages once more to skewer the ruling elite.

There is yet a deeper level of affront to those leaders in this statement: Jesus’ use of “I am” in making this claim. This could not but echo for his hearers the name God gives when Moses demands his name: “I am that I am,” a statement of pure being. Each of the “I am” sayings recorded in John’s Gospel begins in Greek with “Ego eimi…” However, the “I” (“ego”) is implied in the word “eimi,” or “am.” Putting “ego” before it is redundant, rendering it “I I am” – thus amplifying the “I am” so that the comparison to God’s name is inescapable.

In these few words, Jesus manages to offend the powerful on several levels, and to signal to those on the margins of society the Good News of what God is up to. When he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” he redeems the role of shepherd and claims it for himself. And he frames in advance his suffering and death as a redemptive sacrifice, alerting his hearers that this Good Shepherd will be called upon to lay down his life for the sheep he loves.

This Shepherd of ours is a fierce and vigilant warrior – and he is still on watch over us, leading us out, to good pasture, and in, to the safety of the fold; guarding us from forces of evil that would prey on us or try to lead us astray. We still have the freedom to wander, but as we choose to stay near, what joy and power will be ours.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe here. Here are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.

4-12-24 - Proclaiming Forgiveness

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.


If Jesus’ words to his gathered disciples on the evening of the day of resurrection are to be attended, his assurances of peace came with a charge: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. 
…and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

A focus on repentance and forgiveness can be off-putting – too much cultural guilt associated with the idea of sin. So maybe that's not where we begin to proclaim the Good News. But it’s not hard to get there once the conversation is started. People in recovery from addiction understand innately the need to repent; others of us need only look at our behavior in relationships to quickly arrive at the same understanding. To comprehend that we are capable of hurting ourselves and others, AND to grasp that a remedy has been provided, is freedom indeed. That is a huge gift we have to share.

The promise of life in Christ goes way beyond forgiveness to healing and wholeness in every sphere. As witnesses to this source of healing, we maintain a balancing act, keeping repentance in the picture while making room for the rest of the story of our of life in Christ.

Can you think of a time when you felt set free by the promise of forgiveness, whether that came from a person or from God? Can you imagine leading another person to that place of relief and freedom? Today, you might reflect on those moments of connection in your life, and then think about who you might be called to bear witness with.

The proclamation Jesus commanded began in Jerusalem on Easter night. A few weeks later, it began to spread around the region and then to the ends of the earth. If we bear witness to freedom in God’s love, it will continue to spread until everyone has been drawn into Christ’s saving embrace. Then there will be no need for repentance.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe here. Here are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.