Compare and Contrast

As any of us who have ever been in school know, “compare and contrast” is a typical way of coming to grips with a wide variety of subjects. It is both a learning tool and a tool used to measure what one has learned. We may have written or read essays in which two philosophers or philosophies are compared and contrasted. Or two musical styles or two historical figures. How are these similar, and how are they different, and what do those similarities and differences tell us?

This week I checked out some web pages offering help in composing “compare and contrast” essays and even offering potential topics in case you have writer’s block: Compare and contrast the on-screen Harry Potter to the Harry Potter of the books. Or compare and contrast a starting pitcher and a reliever, or Fred and Shaggy, Star Wars and Star Trek, mitosis and meiosis (I’m not sure why my search engine brought that one up), Christianity and Judaism.

Today, Jesus himself shows us an exercise in compare and contrast, to consider the good shepherd vs thieves and bandits; the voice of the shepherd vs the voice of the stranger; self-serving vs abundant life.

People hearing Jesus talk about shepherds and sheep would have compared his words to those of the prophet Ezekiel, who warned about bad shepherds who did not care for God’s people, who left them to fend for themselves, who pushed the weak out of the way and scattered the flock, who fouled the flock’s water and trampled their green grass. God spoke through Ezekiel to say that God was just going to take over the job of caring for and protecting the sheep after the bad shepherds, the bad kings of Israel, had abused them, exploited them, using the sheep for their own gain. The fact that Jesus says these things just after the Pharisees have pushed out of the synagogue the blind man who Jesus healed would have hit home. You will remember that story in which Jesus restores sight to a blind man and the Pharisees are angry because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. They interrogate the man and his parents and argue that Jesus cannot be from God because he broke the Sabbath laws, so he must be controlled by a demon or even that the man wasn’t really healed. They are blind themselves to the miracle of God’s healing and restorative work and instead stir up a controversy in which the formerly blind man ends up barred from his community - scattered - and his parents would be too except they were too afraid to get involved.

Jesus invites us to compare and contrast God’s work of healing and restoration, of the promise of abundant life - the central, overarching tenet of Jesus’ mission - I came that they might have life and have it abundantly! to the Pharisees’ work of dissolution, narrow thinking, and technical nitpicking. He wants us to see that it’s pretty much all contrast. 

And he also invites us to compare and contrast the voice of the shepherd with the voice of the stranger. 

How many voices there are out there, vying for our attention! Voices that contradict what the Psalmist tells us, that we have a shepherd who protects us and cares for us and provides us with everything we need so that in fact we lack nothing. I shall not want, the Psalmist affirms. 

But so many voices in our world want to train us to want everything that we take those voices to be normative. We want all the things! 

I find it very easy to get mixed up on this. What is abundant life if it isn’t a life in which I have all the things? I can go to the store to buy one pair of shoes and happily come home with three. Ah, that’s life abundant.

Except it isn’t. When I begin to think that having a closet full of shoes is what makes life good, I am following the voice of the stranger who is interested in making a profit off me. The products those voices want me to buy may well make my life nicer or easier or prettier or more comfortable, but I must remember that that stranger has his own well-being, not mine, in view. The stranger needs me to listen to her because I and my buying power can be the means to her success. 

Jesus wants us to compare the voice of the shepherd who knows us, who loves us, who has given and will continue to give us more than we can ever ask of imagine to the voice of the stranger who tempts us to think in terms of scarcity instead of abundance and encourages us therefore to pad our own nests to excess in order to protect ourselves from want.

The voice of the stranger calls us to worry about making sure we get our slice of the pie, to think in terms of limited resources, to live as if we do not dwell in the house of God but in the house of  the rugged individualist who first needs to look out for number one. The stranger assures us that we don’t need to worry about whether others have shoes because that’s their own problem but that we do need to make sure we have more than enough ourselves. The stranger warns us not to give too much away because of “what if, someday?” The voice of the stranger says: You can never have enough!

But our shepherd is Jesus and he is all about abundance. Remember the hundreds of gallons of wine at Cana, the thousands of loaves of bread? Remember how he said, don’t worry about what you will wear or eat or drink? Remember how he brought Lazarus back to life? The psalmist says, God will set a table for you that overflows with goodness right in the middle of all the troubles in your life and will be there with you. Our relationship with this shepherd is based on intimacy and trust - because the shepherd knows us by name and has our well-being in mind rather than his own. He came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

And so when we listen to the voice of our shepherd, we are not only comforted, but we are also challenged to live into that life of abundance. To let go of our anxieties and realize the freedom we have to create and give because we truly know that there is indeed enough and that when we give we will be given more, not that we will simply have less. To not only realize how much we already have (and so to shut out the voice that says we never have enough) but to begin to look around and see those for whom abundant life has not yet become a reality. And once we see them, to begin to wonder how we might share from our own abundance so that those members of God’s flock also may eat at the overflowing table set in the midst of their troubles. 

I was talking this week with Stan Barnett, our kitchen ministries coordinator, about how impressed I am with all the delicious food we provide here at St. Stephen’s to anyone who wants to eat - Wonderful Wednesdays, Community Suppers, Capital Campaign dinners, coffee hours, breakfasts, luncheons. Gary and I have talked about the summer community suppers on the lawn and how we want people walking by to see us eating together and know St. Stephen’s as a place that brings that kind of abundant life to the neighborhood. I know it can be difficult to manage all of that, and it doesn't just magically appear like manna, but it powerfully symbolizes that table in the midst of troubles, it brings to life the wedding at Cana and the thousands of loaves. Our tables overflow here through our own generosity in response to God’s overflowing goodness.

And there are other ways we can be life-giving to those whose lives have been diminished for whatever reason. Making our space here fully accessible, not just partially so, to people with mobility issues is another example, as is offering healing prayer on Sunday nights. 

Our shepherd wants to lead us into that place of abundance. Let us listen to him and not to the voices that preach scarcity. Let us compare and contrast imagining opportunities to be a community of abundance versus focusing on our narrow and self-serving anxieties. Let us without fear compare and contrast the gifts we have been given to the gifts we have to give. 

Because the Lord is our shepherd and we shall never be in want.