Have you ever spoken with someone and every time you make a comment, the response from the other is “ya – but”? The conversation goes something like this: “It is a nice day isn’t it?” “Ya – but, my garden is dry and could sure use some rain.” “It’s great to see the church so full.” “Ya – but, my seat is taken by that new family.” “Yesterday’s Volunteer celebration at Gyro park had a nice representation from community groups.” “Ya – but, the food was greasy.” “Jesus the Christ promises eternal life.” Ya – but, I want proof.” And so it goes.
It can seem as if every conversation is peppered with “ya – but”. I can’t speak for all of you, but I sure know that when that happens to me, I get mighty annoyed. I can only imagine how Jesus might have felt when he gathered with the Jewish people for the festival of the Dedication. Over and over Jesus was questioned about whether he was the Messiah. Each time Jesus responded to the question, the gathered group would say, “ya-but”.
The dialogue went something like this: “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus replied, “I have told you, but you won’t believe.” It was a classic “ya – but” conversation. Jesus told the gathered group, “I’ve told you and you have seen.” But, guess what, the faithful just couldn’t quite get it. Over and over Jesus explained that this is the way it is, but boy oh boy, the group struggled to grasp the full truth.
I for one can identify with the sense of disbelief and uncertainty. For even when I see for myself, sometimes I struggle to believe. Even when I’m told truth, I don’t always grasp it. For instance, when I lived in Chilliwack I was always astounded at the swathed hay fields in late April and early May. Now I think I know a little bit about haying having grown up in Alberta and living in Saskatchewan for 13 years, and I know that in the prairies one does not even think about swathing until at least June and often not until July. So, even when I would see precious feed lying on the ground, my head would say, “it’s late April, how can the hay be ready?” I would think that the specific year must be an exception. But guess what, everywhere I travelled in the Fraser Valley, I saw spring swathed fields. “Ya – but” I say.
What happens if each one of us were to suspend our “ya-but’s” and explore the insights and faithfulness offered in today’s lectionary texts? When we read the scriptural lections, we do so with post-resurrection hindsight. Therefore, it is easy for us to condemn the Pharisees for thinking Jesus was demon-possessed or else claiming himself to be one with God. The question “are you for real?” asked by the Pharisees is one that isn’t all together surprising. We too question are you for real when we encounter one who claims to be of God. Interesting isn’t it, that we are pretty critical of those who claim to be of God – whether they are the door to door evangels, or of a different faith perspective to ourselves, or the radical leader of a movement that promotes a oneness with God. We tend to dismiss them as being possessed, but not necessarily by God. Or we suggest that they are not of their right mind. By what criterion do we make such judgements? Facing a similar situation, Jesus asked the Pharisees not to judge him by what he said but rather by what he did.
Surely there has to be some yardstick – some criterion – some principles by which to judge whether something is of God or not. Jesus’ entire life offered a standard of love, justice and compassion. He modelled building up rather than tearing down – helping not hurting – compassion not fear – acceptance not rejection – trust not mere obedience. To be of God is to be committed to the way of love, justice and compassion.
One of the most difficult tasks we face today is conversing with people whose views are in conflict with our own. It may be liberal trying to dialogue with conservative, or radical Christians trying to converse with fundamentalist Christians. It certainly arises when Christians try to understand Hindi’s, Muslims or even Mormons. It is the problem we face in our efforts at communicating across cultures.
A quick read through the newspaper reveals the many struggles in trying to cross the barriers of racism and ethnic intolerance. On Monday of this past week we have welcomed the Awad family to Penticton. This Syrian refugee family is sponsored by our United Church and Anglican Church initiative to sponsor a Syrian Refugee family. They will see first hand the tolerance, economic, faith and ethnic acceptance within Penticton. There is no doubt that there are many challenges before us.
Because of the values and beliefs we hold, we feel drawn to one group or another. In some cases it is a cultural affiliation, in others, a religious one, and in still others a political one. Among those “like” us, we feel a kinship, a bonding, a sense of belonging. But this sense of belonging also establishes the boundaries of who is “inside” and who is “outside”, who is one for us and who is the other.
Jesus recognized this dilemma. He understood that no matter what he said, no matter what argument he gave, the Pharisees would not agree with him because they came from their own perspectives that placed Jesus in opposition to themselves – as an outsider, an “other”. When the Pharisees ask Jesus once again if he is the Christ, Jesus said, “I told you, you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” Jesus recognized them as the other at this moment. They were not of his flock.
This is not to say that Jesus rejected them, but that Jesus recognized that he is not going to change their mind by lots of words. Jesus was aware that the only way they may be open to understanding who he is, is by his works, his actions.
“Ya – but” we say. We try to be loving, justice seeking and compassionate – but sometimes we just don’t make it. And that is why we are followers of Jesus the Christ. We need a shepherd to lead us, guide us, protect us and give us life. As believers and followers of the Risen Christ, we seek to model our lives after Jesus the Good Shepherd.
One of the better known contemporary followers of Jesus the Christ was Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Because he knew his identity as Christian and as a follower of the Good Shepherd he also was a shepherd to the El Salvadoran people.
Bishop Oscar Romero was murdered in 1980 for his work among the poor in El Salvador. Two weeks before he was assassinated, Romero told a newspaper journalist “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, the greatest humility. As a shepherd, I am obliged by divine mandate to give my life for those I love – for all Salvadorans, even for those who may be going to kill me. If the threats are carried out, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and for the resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality. Let my death, if it is accepted by God, be for my people’s liberation and as a witness of hope in the future.”
We give thanks to God that Romero’s life was not filled with “ya-but”. Bishop Oscar Romaro knew Jesus as the Christ. And because of his witness, so too do many of the people of El Salvador. Their identity is clear.
Our identity is also clear. We are people of Christ. We are Christian. And that means that we share in a vision of a world transformed. It is both promise and hope. It is both possibility and deep truth that we live. We know the Shepherd. May all that we say proclaim the Good News. May all the we do reveal the way of faithfulness. May who we are announce to all that Jesus is the Christ. Amen.