Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017
Rev. Jane Mayrer
Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do, to be followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is an article in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine that seeks to understand “why conservative evangelicals lined up behind Trump.” This is a question a number of people are asking: How could so many conservative Christians [the figure is 81 percent] have voted for a thrice-married adulterer who ran a gambling empire and bragged about assaulting women, and who rarely goes to church?” There is a photograph of President Trump at a rally of evangelical Christians: a mass of white faces, mostly young people. A woman is holding up her young child for Trump to kiss. A big sign reads “Thank you Lord Jesus, for President Trump.” The article examines this state of affairs from a sociological perspective, considering the nature of evangelical Christianity, its origins in America, and how it has evolved to its current practice today. My own take on the situation is not sociological but theological. Evangelical “Christians” are no longer paying attention to Jesus. The thieves has gotten into the sheepfold, and the sheep are listening to their voices.
Religion gone astray is not a new phenomenon. Jesus thought that had happened in the Judaism of his day. When he told the parable we have in today’s Gospel lesson about sheep and shepherds and thieves and bandits, he was engaged in a controversy we might recognize, namely, a contest between “real” facts and “alternative” facts. Jesus has restored sight to a man blind from birth. This healing happened on the Sabbath, a day on which good Jews did no work. Instead of the healing causing everyone to praise God for the miracle of restored sight, it generated controversy about the blind man and about Jesus. Who is for real, here? The question divided the crowd, the man’s friends and acquaintances. Was the “so-called” healed blind man for real? Was he the same man they had known to be blind ever since he was born? Or was he someone else who just looked like the man they knew. They took the controversy to their religious leaders, who wanted to know if Jesus is for real. “Yes, he’s for real,” the man who experienced the miracle insisted, even though he could not explain the miracle. If Jesus weren’t real, how else could he have restored the man’s sight? “No, he’s not for real,” the religious leaders insisted. In a confused logic familiar to us, the religious leaders concluded that because Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, Jesus was a sinner; and everyone knew that sinners cannot heal. So, the religious leaders accused the healed blind man of making up alternative facts, since what the man said had happened did not fit into their perception of God’s reality.
Jesus responded – not with debate, but with a story – a parable. And he used the everyday, ordinary experience familiar to the people who heard him – sheep herding. At night, a family’s sheep were kept inside an enclosure to protect the sheep from wandering around and disappearing, and to prevent them from being attacked by predatory animals. In the morning, the owner of the sheep, the shepherd, would lead his sheep out of the pen to pasture and water.
Often, families would share resources by keeping several different flocks of sheep within one sheepfold. They might hire a gatekeeper to watch over the sheep at night to make sure that none escaped or were stolen. The shepherds would arrive in the morning to take their sheep to pasture and water. Each would assemble his own flock from the larger crowd with a distinctive call, which his sheep would recognize and follow. There was a close, intimate relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, much like our relationship with the animal members of our household. The shepherd knew each of his sheep as well as we know our dog or cat. Likewise, the sheep knew and trusted their human caretaker. They knew his voice; they knew it was safe to follow him. And, they would not go off with a stranger, someone whose voice they did not recognize.
The crowd to whom Jesus spoke was confused. They understood sheep farming, but they did not understand why Jesus seemed to have changed the subject by suddenly talking about it. But, of course, Jesus was not talking about shepherding. He was talking about himself and the reality of who he was – and is – as opposed to the religious leaders and the reality of who they are. And he was using the power of metaphor to describe this reality. Jesus is like a shepherd, who loves and cares for his sheep. The religious leaders are like thieves and bandits. The real shepherd, the true shepherd, calls his sheep by name and leads them to good pasture and clear water. The false shepherd, the thief and bandit, comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus the shepherd gives abundant life. The thief brings death. The choice of whom to follow – the shepherd or the thief – depends on voice recognition that comes from relationship.
And that is our challenge today, just as it was in Jesus’ time. Today we hear many voices calling to us and offering us an abundant life, a safe, secure life. There are voices that tell us that buying stuff and gratifying our wants will make us happy. If we drive a certain car, or wear certain clothes, or purchase whatever item is being advertised, we will look right, feel right, and be like all those people out there who are living full and satisfied lives. Abundant life is equated with having an abundance of possessions. The problem with these voices is that they do not deliver what they promise. Obsession with possessions generates anxiety, depression, and despair. These voices rob us of joy and peace of mind.
Then there are voices telling us that to be acceptable and accepted, we must look a certain way, be from a certain place, come from the “right” people, speak in a certain way, hold certain beliefs. These same voices warn us to exclude people who are not like “us,” who do not look, or dress, or talk like us. These voices tell us our safety depends upon fearing strangers. They tell us we must protect ourselves with weapons and walls. But these voices do not deliver what they promise. Instead, they beget fear, hatred, and death. They rob us of safety and security.
The voices I’ve described are secular voices that come to us from the world. But these voices – rather than being challenged and influenced by the church – have instead crept into the church. So, we have churches that preach a prosperity gospel, which says that how much God loves you is measured by how much stuff you have. The membership of our churches today reflects the history of slavery and segregation that churches not only failed to condemn, but embraced. And now that, finally, the church is beginning to confront the sin of racism, it still seeks to exclude “others” not like “us” regarding sexual orientation.
I recently met a woman at a community meeting who asked me whether she would be welcome here at St. Luke’s, since she was no longer welcome at the church she had been attending. I said, of course she would be welcome; St. Luke’s welcomes everyone. Then I asked her why she was no longer welcome at the other church. She replied, the welcome was withdrawn when her partner, a woman, came to church with her.
And then, we have the church telling us that bringing guns to church is necessary for our safety, even though Jesus, while being arrested, specifically ordered his disciple Peter to put down his sword. It is not only churches in the south that advocate arming their members, Here, in our own diocese, there are parishes that oppose the resolution that requires all parishes in the diocese to be gun-free zones. The “right” to own and carry guns must be exercised, even on church property – because we are afraid.
Jesus’ voice calls us to a much different reality. Jesus’s voice is the voice of love. We are loved. God loves us, accepts us, forgives us. And because God loves us, we do not have to fear or reject others. Jesus’ voice calls us to love, hope, peace – the true abundant life. Metaphor often speaks clearer than description. So. I offer a poem by Andrew King, entitled “Pasture,” in which we can hear the voice of Jesus calling us by name to abundant life:
like quiet meadows where flowers spread,
like green grasses by gentle streams;
a place where the heart feels nourished,
where the mind is hopeful, unhurried,
where the spirit is glad and at peace.
We’ll name this place fulfillment,
we’ll name it healing and thankfulness,
we’ll name this good place pasture
for there we seek to feed.
And there is a voice we can hear that calls us,
a gentle voice, melodious
a voice like songbirds and laughter
like a mother comforting her children,
like a shepherd calling his sheep.
We’ll name this voice acceptance,
we’ll name it mercy and forgiveness,
we’ll name it the voice of God’s love,
inviting us gently to feed.
It invites us to enter pasture
when we think we’re too hurting to listen,
too angry or grieving or fearful
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.
It invites us to enter pasture
when we’re sure we’re too busy to listen,
too burdened or worried or pressured
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.
It says: Come in and go out and find pasture.
It says: We are safe with the shepherd of all sheep.
It says: Meadows await us, in this moment.
It says: Rest in love. Where you are. Joyfully feed.