True Shepherds in Paul Sasaki and Philip Tsen

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Readings for the Feast Day of Paul Shinji Sasaki and Philip Lindel Tsen:

Ezekiel 34:22-31

Psalm 20

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

John 10:11-15

This open-ended homily was preached by Daniel at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on Friday October 31, 2014. 

Most scholars agree that the most bizarre, obscure, incoherent and offensively pornographic book of the Bible is the book of Ezekiel. The rabbis urge young readers to avoid the book completely until they reach the mature age of 30, which is the same age Ezekiel was when he received his visions. Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest and his mystical and seemingly psychedelic experiences serve as the fountainhead of all Jewish Mysticism. The ancient Merkabah Mysticism, in which Jesus of Nazareth may have dabbled, derives its name from the first chapter of Ezekiel, which describes a spectacular vision of the chariot-throne (the merkabah) of Yahweh, which sits above alien creatures with multiple faces emerging out of fire and darting around like flashes of lightning, a set of wheels being spun by the Spirit within larger wheels and a huge dome made by wings that move like the waves of the ocean. Although you may see some bizarre costumes this All Hallow’s Eve, I guarantee you will not encounter anything more bizarre than what Ezekiel witnessed in his visions. Instead of watching horror films, I would encourage you to read just the first chapter of Ezekiel (even if you’re under 30) or chapter 23 about a disturbingly graphic sex scene or chapter 37 about God opening graves and bringing dry bones to life. These were all images that the priest Ezekiel used and received to try to make sense out of the terror that befell Jerusalem in 587 BCE and the subsequent exile of the Jerusalemites in Babylon. Ezekiel was trying to make some theological sense out of the problem of suffering.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, the book of Ezekiel “commences with judgment and ends with consolation” (Bava Bathra 14b). Chapter 34 also commences with judgment and ends with consolation. The portion we read this morning for the feast day of Paul Shinji Sasaki and Philip Lindel Tsen was the consolation part. At the beginning of chapter 34, Ezekiel judges the leaders of Israel whom he calls ‘false shepherds’: shepherds who remain more concerned with feeding and protecting themselves than with feeding and protecting their flock. If you’re not taking care of your sheep, Ezekiel says, then you’re not a shepherd! Because of this, the sheep have been devoured by wild animals.

However, God promises to save the flock by empowering a new shepherd who will feed and protect them and banish all the wild animals. Ezekiel calls this new shepherd “David” and “God’s prince.” And in the Gospel of John, Jesus claims this title for himself when he says, “I am the good shepherd” and then contrasts his role with the Jewish leaders of his day, whom he insists are false shepherds. With these words, Jesus is clearly referencing the work of the great prophet, priest and mystic Ezekiel and then makes plain one of the great mysteries that the book of Ezekiel attempts to communicate in the midst of all its esoteric obscurity. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The mystery is that self-preservation leads to death and destruction while self-giving leads to life and abundance. Genuine leadership is not about preserving and protecting the leader or the institution. Genuine leadership is about giving of oneself even at the expense of one’s own wellbeing. The true shepherd feeds and protects the sheep even if the shepherd has to die in the process.

As a bishop and spiritual shepherd of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican Episcopal Church in Japan), Paul Shinji Sasaki understood and embodied this mystery. In the midst of World War II when the temptation to self-preservation grew most strong, Paul Sasaki spoke like a true shepherd when he said, “The Church has chosen to comply with the government policy and has forgotten its mission….Since its establishment the Nippon Sei Ko Kai has been making compromises [like false shepherds] with…militarism which [goes] against the Gospel…Our Church has not been able to stand beside those who are oppressed and suffering…We have been a closed Church whose main concern is the expansion of the membership and the retention of the institution, thus being unable to serve as the salt of the earth as indicated in the Gospel” [Statement of War Responsibility, NSSK General Synod Resolution, adopted 23rd May 1996]. Because Bishop Paul Sasaki put the needs of the flock (especially the oppressed and the suffering) above his own, he was tortured and imprisoned by the Japanese authorities. Philip Lindel Tsen, bishop of the Anglican Church in China, was also placed under house arrest by the Communist authorities because of his commitment to protecting and feeding his flock at the expense of his own security and freedom.

Paul Sasaki and Philip Tsen were true shepherds who followed in the footsteps of Jesus, the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. They understood and lived out the mystery which the prophet and priest Ezekiel pointed to, in the midst of all his bizarre visions and graphic images: self-preservation ultimately leads to death and destruction and self-giving leads to life and abundance.

Although self-care is absolutely important and essential for effective ministry, in what ways or in what areas of life do you feel called to lean more towards self-giving and sacrifice and less towards self-preservation? And who are the people [the flock] in your life for whom you would be ready and willing to risk your own security?

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