A Shepherding Love

[A sermon preached on Psalm 23 and John 10:1-18 at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]

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One of the best things about spring is the return of baseball season! I have to admit, I don’t follow baseball all that closely – I’m more of a football and basketball fan, personally – but the other day, I clicked into a sports article to see how the Nationals are faring so far this season. As I read about losing streaks, injuries, and unfortunate series sweeps, I was eager for any excuse to take my mind off these early season struggles. So, down the Internet rabbit hole I went until I found myself watching a video of the “Best MLB Brawls.”

Looking on as punches were thrown, opponents wrestled to the ground, and seas of blue and red converged on the field, I couldn’t help but think of our current political climate. It’s no secret that we live in deeply polarizing times. Partisan politics carves up our country, our community, and even our dinner tables into teams of “us” and “them.” Policy debates, once characterized by respectful dialogue and ideological disagreements, devolve into shouting matches, stereotyping, and name-calling. We are constantly at odds with one another, and just as the dugout always clears whenever a fight breaks out, we can’t help but get swept up into the melee.

It’s surprising to think that the world of the early church wasn’t all that different than the world we inhabit. First century Christians lived in a pluralistic society, with many different groups and ideologies in constant conflict with one another. Our Gospel reading this morning was written within the context of a community forged in the fire of religious conflict.

New Testament scholar M. Eugene Boring (Isn’t that a great name for a professor?) explains that the Johannine community began as Jews within the synagogue who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They continued to be observant Jews, and there’s no suggestion that there were any sorts of disputes with the synagogue leaders. Everything was great . . . at first.

But as the Christian understanding of Jesus developed further, the Jewish leaders grew more and more concerned that Jesus was being exalted to a level that challenged the Oneness of God, a belief that set them apart from the various other religions in the Greco-Roman world, giving them a distinct identify. Not only was this blasphemy, but it was a serious threat to their self-understanding.

These disputes between the Johannine Christians and the Jewish leaders intensified until the Johannine Christians were excluded from the synagogue. It would have been simple if this were just a matter of building use, but unfortunately, this was a much larger problem for these early Christians.

While the Christians were still within the synagogue, the Romans regarded them with toleration, as they did the other Jews. Once they became a separate community, the Christians no longer enjoyed the protection of belonging to a legal religion” (Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament, 636). This put them at risk for harassment, persecution, and even death.

Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder that our Gospel reading depicts a flock surrounded by threats. From thieves and bandits to wandering strangers and careless hirelings to ravenous wolves, the sheep are constantly under attack. Of course, these early Christians were hypervigilant about who comes inside the gates! Like the psalmist before them, who spoke of dark valleys and enemy threats, these early Christians knew what it meant to live amidst danger and conflict.

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Even in this day and age, it can sometimes feel like we’re surrounded by threats. We needn’t look past our news headlines to see the carnage of our own political and religious conflicts. Last weekend, we looked on as the US launched air strikes against Syria as a deterrent against the use of chemical weapons in their ongoing civil war. As tensions escalate and innocent lives are lost in the midst of bitter conflict, we fear for our war-torn world, and we wonder if a lasting peace will ever be possible.

Yet, this violence isn’t just something that happens halfway around the world. Our nation barely has time to grieve from one mass shooting to the next, with their predictable news cycles of shock, grief, outrage, debate, calls for change, and the inevitable inaction of our legislators. Whether home or abroad, there seems to be ample cause for despair. The big bad wolf growls indiscriminately at all of our doors, and the thief threatens to steal, kill, and destroy.

Nevertheless, it’s into just this context that the Good Shepherd speaks. He doesn’t say, “let’s kill the wolf with our semi-automatic weapons and bump stocks” or “let’s enforce international law through the use of our high-powered missiles.” Instead, the Good Shepherd lays down his own life for the sheep. Our shepherding God doesn’t give us a sword to intimidate and threaten our enemies. Instead, God sets us a table in their presence and invites us into dialogue and fellowship with them as we seek mutual understanding.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty risky strategy. In the real world, if a shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, the sheep would be even more vulnerable than they were before. After killing the shepherd, who’s to stop the wolf from hunting down and gobbling up the flock? Surely, it’s not a good game plan!

Yet, there’s something uniquely transformative about God’s self-sacrificial love. It’s a love that looks beyond the lines of us and them, a love that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility between us, a love that transcends conflict and invites us into the work of reconciliation. It’s a love that risks everything.

We know this love when we see it, Jesus tells us. It’s a love that is abundantly life-giving, a love that calls to us in the familiar voice of grace, a love that knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, a love that offers goodness and mercy and follows us all the days of our lives.

It’s a love that’s both deeply personal and unapologetically political, a love that doesn’t shy away from the conflicts of our time. As I prayed for the people of Syria this week, I couldn’t help but think about the way the Confessions of this church describe this power of self-sacrificing love in times of political conflict. Though our Confession of 1967 was written in the heat of the Cold War, in a context of widespread fear and escalating geopolitical tension, its authors still had the audacity to challenge people of faith to practice a shepherding, self-sacrificing love.

It prophetically states that, “The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting their [energy] and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of [humankind]” (The Confession of 1967, 9.45, adapted for inclusive language).

 

Even in the midst of the Cold War, the Church recognized that Christ calls us out beyond our fear, out beyond our immediate self-interest, out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, and into mutual healing and reconciliation. It was a time in our history where it’d seem easy to pick out the thieves and bandits and wolves, easy to label some people as bad guys, deserving of disdain. But there’s very little interpretive humility in that approach, and very little room for grace. Instead, the Good Shepherd sees beyond the artificial categories we create for ourselves and reminds us that “there are other sheep, not of this fold” and that no one, not even those other sheep will be excluded from God’s loving gaze.

That sort of all-encompassing love is alive and active in our world despite all the wolves that continue to prowl. Though the bombings continue to decimate Syria, we can’t help but think of people like the White Helmets, volunteers from the Syria Civil Defense who serve as first responders and search for signs of life amidst the rubble. These unarmed, ordinary citizens risk their lives to render aid to others. Bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, carpenters, students, these are regular folks, just like you and me, who reach out a hand to help their neighbors despite grave danger. Like our Good Shepherd, they don’t declare anyone outside the fold, they offer their support regardless of religion or politics, because they know that everyone is worthy of help and care. In fact, many of them have laid down their lives for their neighbors, over 200 have been killed while trying to save others. That’s a risky, life-giving, shepherding kind of love.

And the good news is that we don’t have to go all the way to Syria to do our part. The work of being a good neighbor starts right here, in this congregation. We participate in God’s self-sacrificing love when we spend time with our friends in the Radcliff Room or when we play BINGO with our guests at 7-2-9 or when we mentor a student in our Community Club. We’ve also been listening for the voice of our Shepherd this weekend as our church hosted the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s 2018 Compassion, Peace, and Justice Training Day. This years’ theme focused on responding to migrants, refugees, and displaced people as we heed our Shepherd’s call to self-sacrificial love in service to the most vulnerable among us. As our churches join together to offer comfort and hospitality to people walking through the darkest valleys, each one of us has an opportunity to consider our role in creating greener pastures and more peaceful waters here in our community.

Where do you hear the Shepherd’s voice? What prowling wolves keep you up at night worrying for the safety of the flock? Where might we be called to offer life in abundance? May our Shepherding God guide us to the cruciform place where our fears meet God’s invitation, and may we know that goodness and mercy will meet us there. Amen.

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Beyond Our Fear

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[A sermon preached on John 20:19-31 for Presbyterian Women’s Sunday on the Second Sunday of Easter at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.]

We were up bright and early on Easter morning. The cinnamon rolls were ready to go, our Easter baskets were waiting to be opened, and I even had hopes of snagging a chocolate bunny before making my way to worship. Easter is the most joyous day of our Christian calendar; it’s a celebratory season following the introspection and repentance of Lent. Triumphant hymns, jubilant alleluias, and traditional Easter lilies set the stage for a vibrant worship service. Families, all decked out in their Sunday best, fill our pews with faces old and new, and the congregation becomes a lively sea of seersucker and soft pastels. Sure, folks may have satisfied their sweet tooths by the time the prelude begins, but somehow, we know that the energy descending upon us is more than just a sugar buzz. Jesus is risen! Hope casts out despair, and love claims victory over death itself! Easter is grace upon grace.

So, imagine my dismay, when I walk out to my car early that Sunday morning, to find my tire flat as a pancake. “Today of all days,” I thought to myself as a I sighed and looked up the number for AAA. The outer rim had been pierced by a nail, appropriately enough, and I found myself stranded on the busiest liturgical holiday of the year. Things weren’t off to a great start, and as the worry and dread began to build in the pit of my stomach, I realized those feelings were uncomfortably familiar to me.

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Lately, my tires weren’t the only ones feeling a little deflated. As I watched news coverage of the latest school shootings, I worried for the safety of my community even as familiar feelings of shock and numbness quickly took hold. Remembering back to Columbine and Newtown and Virginia Tech, I lamented that not enough has changed in the wake of such tragedies, and my sadness quickly gave way to cynicism that we might ever find a way forward. And yet, even in the midst of great despair, hope seemed to rise from the rubble. Students raised their voices. Our youth created a movement. Hundreds of thousands of people in DC as well as other cities came together to March for Our Lives, looking on as traumatized children turned their pain into action, into change.

It reminded me of other student-led protests during the Vietnam War era and the Civil Rights Movement. These were dark periods of our history, moments when hope seemed far off and justice looked like a lost cause. As we remembered the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination this past week, I found it hard to stomach the juxtaposition of his dream-filled legacy and the unrelenting pattern of police shootings of unarmed black men in our communities. The violence we inflict on people of color remains the same even as it grows more subtle and nebulous, hiding behind plausible deniability, the myth of colorblindness, and thinly-veiled law and order rhetoric. Even as we celebrated how far we’ve come, we still realized how far this country still has to go to achieve true racial justice and reconciliation.

And on this Presbyterian women’s Sunday, as I survey the landscape of the challenges we face as justice-seeking disciples in this day and age, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the #metoo movement and the pervasive culture of sexualized violence in this country. As news reports rolled in with stunning regularity – Harvey Winestein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Larry Nassar, and so many others – it seemed like none of our most powerful cultural icons could claim a clean conscience. By exposing these abuses of power and knocking these men off the pedestals our culture erected in their honor, a small group of courageous women inspired a movement. In the wake of this reckoning, we logged in to our social media platforms only to see a flood of women disclosing their own experiences of harassment and abuse. Many of us couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was untouched by the effects of this type of violence. Even as I despaired over the prevalence of such experiences, I also found hope at the growing awareness of these issues. There seemed to be little glimmers of light breaking through the darkness. Yes, the tire may be flat, but at least AAA is on their way.

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Maybe like me, you’ve watched some of these developments unfold, and you’ve felt similarly deflated lately. Opening a newspaper or turning on the television often feels like an exercise in re-traumatization. Whether it’s gun violence, racialized violence, or sexual violence, we live in the midst of traumatized communities. These are all different iterations of the same violence that cost Dr. King his life, the same violence that crucified our God. How could we not feel like the air is continually being let out of us?

I imagine that’s probably how the disciples felt as they gathered together in the immediate aftermath of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Our Gospel reading this morning tells us that they were shut up tight behind closed, locked doors, because they were fearful for their lives. We see this same sort of reaction in Mark’s Gospel when he tells us that the first witnesses to the resurrection “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). In both of these accounts, the trauma to which Jesus’ followers had born witness threatened to overwhelm their capacity to cope, let alone their ability to fulfill the Great Commission.

Theologian Serene Jones paints us a detailed picture of the disciples’ fearful gathering, suggesting we might “imagine that [the disciples] are talking rather frantically, talking fast and at times confusedly. A barely suppressed hysteria registers in their voices: their leader has just been tortured and executed, and they are trying to make sense of it . . . In the process they are probably replaying the scene of the crucifixion again and again. As they recall – [perhaps fuzzily] – the violent events that happened just days before, they seem to be stuck in a playback loop, having lost both their hope and their future” (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 38). “These disciples,” Jones writes, “these disoriented witnesses to a devastating event, are trauma survivors” just like survivors of school shootings or sexual violence or police brutality. “Even though [the disciples] were not themselves tortured and nailed to a cross, they bear in their speech and in their bodies the reality of the horror that unfolded before them and forever pulled their lives into its drama. (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 39).

It’s no wonder that their fear is palpable as they gather together. Sure, there had been resurrection sightings, a stone rolled away to reveal an empty tomb, but could they really trust their own eyes in the midst of such grief? What if it had just been wishful thinking? Their minds playing tricks on them? And what if Rome came after them next? Yet, it’s into their shocked disbelief that Jesus speaks the words “Peace be with you.” As Serene Jones points out, “Notice that it is Jesus who comes to them. The disciples in their pain and fear, do not have to figure out how to reach him. He simply appears, full-bodied and present. Here, then, is God coming to us, even in this moment of violence as we babble in fear. This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us; as [disciples], could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the diving coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s [risen, wounded] presence” (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 39).

Now, I say God’s risen, wounded presence, in particular, because that’s exactly what it took for these disciples to move beyond their fear. I’ve always felt particularly bad for Thomas in this narrative because we’re quick to dub him “Doubting Thomas.” It seems like he gets an unfair appraisal compared to the others. I wonder if it might be more appropriate to think of him as “Traumatized Thomas.” I mean, how could we reasonably expect him to believe after the horrors he’d witnessed? All the other disciples had gotten to see the risen Christ, noting wounds in his hands and side, before they could recognize him and rejoice. They found healing and hope through restored connection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called our Helper, Comforter, and Advocate. Jesus had given them the tools they needed to re-integrate their experience of trauma and embrace the gift of the resurrection. Thomas just happened to be out of the room, and so unlike the rest, he remained stuck in the narrative of fear and violence. Of course, he stood in need of healing, of course he found himself experiencing a crisis of faith, of course he must have felt like all the air had been let out of him!

It isn’t until he examines the wounds caused by this trauma, until he draws in closer and reaches out his hands to place his fingers in the brokenness, that he can start to heal. The God that he recognizes in the risen Christ is a wounded healer, one who uses his own deepest brokenness as a source of healing for others. In these appearances, Christ demonstrates for Thomas, and for all of us who seek to be disciples, that the work of ministry requires all of who we are, even the broken, tender places in us.

That’s what I saw when I looked on as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took the microphone and women all cross the country tweeted out #me too and churches and other groups began hosting conversations focused on dismantling institutional racism. I saw students leading from their wounds when they spoke out despite tears streaming down their faces. I saw women leading from their wounds when they were vulnerable enough to speak hard truths in service to change. I saw my presbytery leading from its wounds when we decided to read Growing Up White together in our churches, as we sought to become more aware of our own complicity in injustice.

I also see us leading from our wounds here, at BPC, in so many different ways, but particularly on this Presbyterian Women’s Sunday through our 2018 Birthday Offering. One of the causes that Mary tells me our PW feel especially passionate about is our support of The Dwelling Place, a shelter that provides for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of women and their children following their escape from a violent partner.

As we celebrate our risen Lord this Easter season, we give thanks that resurrection doesn’t mean ignoring the wounded places in ourselves and our communities. It doesn’t mean sweeping those things under our shiny, white paraments or drowning out our songs of lament with half-hearted alleluias. Resurrection means looking a little deeper at the brokenness that tugs at our heart strings and finding a way to offer the peace of Christ into those situations. It means showing up with a lug wrench and some elbow grease and getting to work on that flat, lifeless tire.

Resurrection isn’t just a one-time event; it’s the daily spiritual practice of bringing healing to our hurting world. Only then can our Hosannas hold meaning. Only then can our alleluias resound through our communities. Only then is Christ alive in and through us. Only then do we experience the miracle that is Easter. Alleluia, Amen.