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