Preached by Sophia Jackson, seminarian at the Pacific School of Religion and a recovering alcoholic and addict, for Good Shepherd Sunday, May 7, at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Berkeley, California. Text: John 10:1-10, Psalm 23
This amazing woman needs our help! www.gofundme.com/sophias-seminary-support-fund
The whole idea of relationship with God has been twisted. We were created to be in communal and healthy relationship with everything around us. I, we, need air to breathe; how often do we just sit and really give mindful thought to how we treat or mistreat the air and what does that say as to our relationship with it? What about our expectations; whether it is what we desire or what we need, how do we relate ourselves to it? Do we honor and extol as a matter of rejoicing in all things, or do we attempt to adjust it according to our perception of the nature of it?
Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, we ponder scriptural images of God and Jesus as shepherd. We hear the familiar and reassuring words of the 23rd Psalm that speaks to God’s provision for us – guiding us to nourishment in green pastures, offering us rest and peace by still waters, accompanying us through the dark and frightening places of life that we sometimes enter. We hear Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd – the one who knows each of us, who lays down his life for us, just as shepherds would risk their own lives to protect the flock from predators and thieves. We hear of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who shields us from danger and guides us toward abundant life.
One of the strangest things about being a minister is that I find that my thoughts are never far from what I will call the “fleece”; no pun intended. The “fleece” is that place where I am in constant search of meaning. The “fleece” is also the place where being a minister means that I am vulnerable to the floodgates of other people’s transformations or toxicity as it relates to Christianity or just everyday living; it’s the place where there is no place to hide which can be maddening sometimes, but it’s also an incredibly fascinating and moving experience.
I hadn’t looked up the scriptures for this week because I am in that part of the semester when everything is due and nothing is sticking in my mind save for the deadlines that seem to hover in threatening fashion, like a cold mist, but the other day I was having a conversation with a young woman and as soon as we finished speaking, I was moved to take a look at the lectionary page for this week. We were having a conversation about homelessness and one of the things that stuck with me inspired the title of this sermon and seemingly God’s way of putting into context the meaning of our gospel reading for today.
We were talking about how we label people; people that live on the street. We call them homeless, but aren’t the streets their home? What determines this classification as to homestead really? Aren’t the streets a pasture full of unpenned sheep? Didn’t the Apostle James Brown declare that everywhere he laid his hat was his home?
It is in the fleece that I found something fascinating right in the midst of the familiar words of this reading; I will presume that these words are what caused confusion for the disciples; Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Although the message of this parable is concerned with Jesus as the true shepherd; the Good Shepherd who was willing to die and did die for those of us who put our faith in Him, I’d like us to take a moment and contemplate “the other sheep”; the urban campers. I’d like to just simply place this gentle reminder in the atmosphere; this was a powerful message to the Jewish religious leaders who considered themselves to be the true shepherds of God’s flock.
Have we, as the church become robbers and thieves? Has our voice become unrecognizable? How much longer will we, as a body of baptized believers continue to wring our hands at situations like addiction, incarceration, and urban encampment? Is our inability to navigate toward a solution based on our own lack of recognition that we are the very “gate” by which the sheep pass through in response to the Good Shepherd?
Martin Luther King Jr said, “The church…is not the master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” As we look at the cultural setting of this text, and the political context of the world we are living in presently, can we see that the sheepfold, the large and enclosed area in which the sheep are supposed to find protection, is looking less and less like the green pastures of peace that is described in Psalm 23? Can we see that the sheepfold which is meant to provide shelter for many flocks belonging to different shepherds is now treading dangerously close to becoming a slave to the state?
As we look at our current condition in this country, the words of Martin Luther King Jr’s “A Knock at Midnight” are eerily haunting; he said, “It is midnight within the social order. On the international horizon nations are engaged in a colossal and bitter contest for supremacy…. the clouds of another war are dangerously low… the arms race continues and nuclear tests still explode in the atmosphere, with the grim prospect that the very air we breathe will be poisoned by radioactive fallout. Will these circumstances and weapons bring the annihilation of the human race?”
“Other sheep that are not of this fold”; these words are full of both promise and mystery; who are these other sheep? What was Jesus suggesting; could it be that Jesus is suggesting that God’s flock is bigger than Christianity? Who are these other sheep? Caught up in the “fleece”, and with the image of our urban campers in mind, I started to wonder whether it would be typical for shepherds of that time to have other sheep because in any study you do regarding sheep from the perspective of the shepherd, you will find that sheep require constant care, as they are prone to wandering off, and susceptible to predators and thieves.
As we listen to the words of David in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”; “He makes me lie down in green pastures”; “God’s rod and God’s staff, they comfort me” all tell us that sheep are bonded to their shepherd and Jesus tells us that they respond to the shepherds voice alone. You know that God can inhabit us so much so that we can sound like Him? It seems that Jesus was saying that instead of trying to figure out what we need to be saying, we should learn how to direct our voices, or sound, to the people’s need, so that they’ll recognize that the Shepherd is near. Jesus’ words about other sheep were a surprising and thought-provoking thing for the disciples to hear, and they should be equally as thought-provoking for us as well.
As Christians living in this millennial time of uncertainty, perhaps we should see that Jesus’ words were meant as preparation for his disciples as a matter of being welcoming; whether Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus; undocumented citizens, urban campers and addicts, prisoners, and denominations or congregations; are all one of Jesus’s flocks. Perhaps the point is not to help us discern more accurately how far God’s grace should extend; perhaps Jesus is not helping us improve and refine our judgments about who is in and who is out. Maybe what we are to glean from this “other sheep that are not of this fold” is the challenge of letting go of the desire to make these determinations in the first place. Jesus challenges them, and us, to let go of the desire to make determinations on God’s behalf. Jesus challenges us to encounter every neighbor, no matter how different from us, as if they are a sheep in his flock.
There hasn’t been a day since November 9 that I have not been fuming with rage about the unearthing of vitriolic hate mongering that is going on in this country; about what fundamentalist Christianity is supporting in Jesus’ name.
- I am sick to death of hearing and reading stories of people who think their Christian faith means they are called to refuse service and bathroom access to gay and transgender customers.
- I am sick to death of hearing and reading stories about churches that object to women’s ordinations; denominations that declare that women can never be called to serve as pastors or Bishops because they are same gender loving;
- I am sick to death of hearing and reading stories of people who believe that churches who are welcoming and affirming are being used by Satan to destroy God’s church.
Is it any wonder that the “flock”, the “other sheep” cannot recognize the true voice of the Good Shepherd?
Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus tells us that there are other sheep in other pens, and that they are His too, but he does not tell us how to figure out who they are. What we do know is that we cannot allow the sound of our faith to make us unrecognizable; to make us look or sound like thieves and robbers. Jesus tells us that there are other sheep, but he does not tell us how to recognize them; He does tell us how they will recognize and respond to us.
Our challenge as Christians inside and outside of these walls is to let go of our quest to determine who is counted in the flock, and who is not. Our challenge is to embrace the mystery of a God whose love and grace are far beyond what we could ever imagine. We serve a God who loves us even when we are narrow-minded and petty; when we are stubborn and selfish; when we are judgmental and exclusive; and when we are just plain wrong.
The good news is that we are loved and cared for and guided by a Good Shepherd who loves us, not because we always show up in the right fashion, or because of our well-formed theology, or even our acts of mercy and justice are always on point. We are loved not because of what we have done or failed to do, but because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and Jesus is God, and God is love.
As we are all to some degree or another Urban Campers and “other sheep”, let us leave with the words of the Prophet Martin Luther King, Jr ringing in our ears…
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It (we) must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men (people) everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of (human) mankind and fire the souls of men (people), imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men (People) far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.”