Making Sense of the Good Shepherd in a Violent and Chaotic World: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2015

The news from across the world continues to horrify us. Just this week, ISIS executed thirty more Coptic Christians, for no reason other than that they were Christian, and probably because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was travelling to Egypt, where he would meet with the Coptic pope and participate in memorial services for the 21 Coptic Christians executed by ISIS in January. Last month, Islamic extremists attacked a university in Kenya and killed hundreds of Christians. The death toll rises and as it does, extremist rhetoric in the US is reaching a fever pitch as well.
This unimaginable violence against Christians is occurring as a backdrop to our own culture wars, where debates and conflicts over religious freedom and human rights erupt as politicians, pundits, and media celebrities seek to gain influence, power, and wealth by fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance. The juxtaposition of those images—Coptic martyrs kneeling with ISIS fighters holding swords at their throats over against interviews with conservative Christians in America crying fear of persecution for refusing to bake wedding cakes are so extreme that many of us feel we’ve come unmoored; we don’t know where we’re headed as individual Christians or as Christian communities. We’re not sure what we’re supposed to believe, or how we are supposed to behave.

All this comes at a time when the world, or most of it, commemorates the centennial of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the twentieth century, a horror that cast its long shadows even here at Grace, where we welcomed refugee families of Armenian Christians in the 1910s and 1920s, a legacy that is commemorated in one of the stained glass windows to my right.

I’m also deeply concerned about the violence taking place here in Madison. Earlier this week, I listened as the captain of the central district of Madison’s PD talked about incidents that took place in bars and student residences downtown, as altercations that began with words quickly escalated to stabbings and shootings thanks to the prevalence of weapons in our society. Our world, our society, our city seem to be spiraling out of control into violent chaos.

All this may want us to appeal to the image of the Good Shepherd, to rest in the certainty that God cares for us, cradles us in the arms of God’s love and mercy, protecting us from all evil, leading us beside the still waters and green pastures, and keeping all of the concerns and fears of the world far away.

 The image of the Good Shepherd appeals deeply to us, tugs at our heartstrings, tying into notions of God’s loving care for us. It is also very nostalgic, evoking for us ideas of a simpler, less complicated world and time, either individually, when a loving parent protected us from harm, or an earlier era in human history, when life was simpler and less dangerous.

But the emotional appeal of the Good Shepherd conceals the violence and conflict in the gospel reading itself. The discourse on the Good Shepherd occurs at a time in the gospel when conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities is ratcheting up. In chapter 9, Jesus healed a man born blind, and that entire chapter is given over to conflict over Jesus’ authority to do such miracles, and Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. In the next chapter, Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead, which seems to precipitate the plot to kill Jesus.

So Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd come in the context of intensifying conflict and danger. And as even a cursory reading of today’s text reveals, conflict, violence, and danger permeate Jesus’ words. We may overlook that in the powerful emotional appeal of the good shepherd, but after identifying himself as the good shepherd, Jesus immediately states that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

The strangeness of that statement probably doesn’t occur to us, but reflect on it for a moment. What shepherd would do such a thing? What shepherd would sacrifice his life for the life of the flock under his care? Would you? Oh sure, you might put your life on the line to save your family, we might put our lives on the line to protect our deepest held beliefs, or our country. But would you really sacrifice your life to protect a flock of sheep?

Jesus is drawing a sharp distinction between himself and his opponents. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who knows his sheep by name, and whose sheep know him. His relationship with the sheep is intense, personal, connected. In contrast, the hired hand works only for pay, does what he does for personal gain. I wouldn’t go further than that and suggest that Jesus is saying something about his opponents in the religious establishment here. 

Instead, I think what’s important here is the quality of the relationship between sheep and shepherd that Jesus is describing. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. In a few chapters, at the Last Supper, Jesus will say something similar—No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

At the Last Supper, in several different ways, Jesus emphasizes his love for his disciples, his friends, and the importance of their love for one another. Here, he’s saying much the same thing, using slightly different imagery. The love the good shepherd has for his sheep, the depth of the relationship between good shepherd and sheep is comparable to the relationship between Jesus and his Father—I know my Father and my Father knows me just as I know my sheep and my sheep know my name. His willingness to lay down his life for them, for us, grows out of his love for us, which grows out of his love for God and God’s love for him.

Jesus’ voice and words call us into relationship of that quality, draws us into deep relationship with him and with God, relationship that is modeled on the relationship between Jesus and his Father. It’s almost incomprehensible, the depth and expanse of that relationship—a relationship that is symbolized by the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep. In the laying down of that life, we experience and know God’s love, a love we are called to model for others.

But I wouldn’t take that too far, either. I was reminded this week of the pernicious effects of misdirected attempts to force the laying down of one’s life. I came down for breakfast one morning and found Corrie fighting back tears. I asked her what was wrong. She explained that she had just read the Pulitzer Prize winning series from the Charleston SC Post and Courier on domestic violence in that state. It’s a chilling examination of the ways culture, politics, misogyny, and Christianity combine to put women in danger from their husbands and partners. Pastors admitted openly to telling abused women to submit to their husbands, or holding joint counseling sessions with couples in abusive relationships that led only to more abuse. More than ten years ago, Corrie had organized a symposium on domestic violence and Christianity at the college where she taught. It’s outrageous that all these years later, nothing seems to have changed. Lest we congratulate ourselves in Wisconsin on our superiority, I need hardly remind you of the news stories here of horrific domestic violence.

I’ll just point out what ought to be obvious. Jesus’ words about laying down one’s life for one’s friends, or one’s sheep are an expression of a deep, intimate relationship of love and knowledge. They are not telling us what to do or how to behave. They are not telling us what to do if we are abused or attacked. Get help! Seek protection.

The violence and chaos of our world cannot be avoided by appeals to the saccharine piety of an image of blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. We can’t fathom the faith or experience of someone who has been killed for their faith in Jesus Christ; most of us, thank God, can’t fathom what it must be like to beaten by someone who claims to love us.

But we can bear witness. We can bear witness to a Christ who invites us into and models life-giving, loving relationship. We can, in our relationships at home, at work, and especially in our congregation, seek to embody life-giving, loving relationships. And we can call for justice in our community and in our world, justice that embodies such love.


Lose your life, save your life, follow Jesus: A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2015

I have been profoundly affected by the image I saw a couple of weeks ago of ISIS fighters about to execute 21 Coptic Christians. The scene was horrific in its staging; the victims on their knees, behind each one of them his executioner, with a sword at the throat. I have struggled to make sense of this and other horrific acts of religious violence over the last weeks and months, struggled to understand the interplay of religion and politics, the effects of twelve years of the global war on terror, struggled to make sense of the inhumanity of human beings. Continue reading

On Scott Walker and Demonization in American Politics

I do not know Governor Walker. I have never met him; I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen him in person although Grace Episcopal Church, of which I am Rector, stands opposite the State Capitol of Wisconsin, and over the last four years I have been an eyewitness of the effects of his slash and burn politics.

With re-election in hand and a successful debut on the Iowa Republican stage, Governor Walker now seems to be a legitimate candidate for the Republican nomination for president. He has made some mis-steps, including fumbling responses to questions about evolution and President Obama’s faith on the national and international stage. But today he took it one step further.

In a speech at CPAC, he compared his success at pushing his agenda past 100,000 protestors to his ability to fight ISIS and other terrorists. His campaign quickly tried to make the best of his remark, but it reveals a sad truth in American politics, and in Governor Walker’s worldview. For Walker, and too many American politicians (and their supporters), one’s opponents are not people of good will who look on the world differently and come to different conclusions about what is best for a city, state, or nation. One’s opponents are inveterate evil, savages, barbarians, incapable of rational thought. While these views are present on both left and right, and too often I have heard educated Wisconsinites dismiss Walker as ignorant and evil, such ideas seem to be more prevalent on the right than on the left. One need only to cite Rudy Giuliani’s recent remarks concerning President Obama’s patriotism as evidence.

Still, for Governor Walker to compare, even in passing, Wisconsin’s protestors with ISIS fighters is revealing. To my knowledge, he never attempted to engage protestors, or even Democratic members of the Assembly or Senate in conversation about what might be best for Wisconsin. This weeks developments concerning Right-to-Work legislation is a perfect example. He said while campaigning that such legislation wasn’t a priority, but now, once introduced, he’s ready to sign it. He picks his targets, fires, and worries not about who is directly affected by it nor by what collateral damage might be inflicted. And for him, in some way, the image of ISIS fighters executing Coptic Christians is comparable to Wisconsin teachers protesting budget cuts, and presumably, the same teachers are as evil as ISIS fighters.

Throughout the last four years, I have consistently tried to make a case that Wisconsin, and our nation, needs to create ways of coming together to work toward the greater good of the community. We face significant issues. The racial disparities in our state and county are mind-boggling; the economy continues to create deeper inequalities. These are issues that can only be solved when the whole community, the state, the nation, comes together to develop solutions, and recognizes that individual sacrifices may be necessary to advance the common good. But from what I can tell, Governor Walker, and too many other politicians, are only interested in consolidating their power. They want to divide and conquer.

But when our governor, now a leading Presidential candidate, reveals that his worldview sees his opponents as somehow equivalent to terrorists and ISIS executioners, I despair. I think of all those who came into Grace Church four years ago seeking warmth and solace during the protests–black and white, mothers and fathers from across the state, children, teens, college students, worried about their jobs, worried about their communities, worried about their futures. I wonder whether Governor Walker ever talked to any of them, ever tried to see the face of Jesus Christ in them. I wonder whether he has spoken with UW faculty, administrators, or students, who wonder whether their livelihoods or futures are secure, wonder whether Wisconsin will be a place where they can make a home and a life for themselves. I wonder whether he thinks they are equivalent to terrorists.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the Democrats in Wisconsin have consistently misplayed their hand. They have underestimated Walker’s political skills; they have underestimated the depth of the disaffection among many voters; and they have been unable to articulate a compelling alternate vision of our state’s future. The protests this week were pathetic–not because their goal was wrong, but because they were a faint echo of the protests four years ago; protests that for all their power and energy, failed to prevent Walker’s agenda. 

I fear for our nation. We have seen the relentless attacks on President Obama’s patriotism, his faith, his character. We seem to be more deeply divided than ever. While members of Congress have not taken to pistol-whipping each other on the floor of the house as they did in the years running up to the Civil War, we are in a very dark place. And although we are a year away from the presidential election, I despair about the potential candidates in both parties. I doubt any of them have the ability to unite the people of our nation around common goals and purpose. Instead, I expect the demonization will only continue, the hatred among us only intensify.