The headline on Facebook stopped me cold:
“Jerry Falwell Jr.: Trump is Evangelicals’ ‘Dream President.’”
I hesitated for a moment and then shared this story on my Facebook feed with a post that went something like this:
“He may be the dream president of evangelicals. But he is a nightmare for all real Christians.”
And then I went on about my business. A west coast Episcopal priest was first to comment: after allowing as how she shared some of my frustration she went on to say she didn’t like to ‘label’ people. And I understand where she’s coming from. After all, Jesus told us to “Judge not lest ye be judged.” But I’m still concerned by this “no label/no judgment” idea.
When Jesus told us not to judge one another he meant just that: we are not to judge other individual people. So all those folks you know who are sure they know the individuals who are going to hell are doing exactly what Christians are supposed to do.
And I think there is a big difference between saying that a specific person is going to hell and making a group of people who claim to be Christians. That’s especially true on a week when the House of Representatives passed a bill which will – as currently written – push millions of Americans off health insurance. And it is especially important because this week our scripture presents Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Based on today’s Gospel story, Jesus as the Good Shepherd has been depicted in a wide array of poses and with many different visions of our Saviour. The cover art on today’s pew bulletin is just one of a wide array of different depictions of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I call it the ‘hunky Jesus’ version. It is also a good reflection of the romantic vision presented by artists who have never met a shepherd nor perhaps even a live sheep.
One of the guys I worked with back east grew up on his family’s ranch out west where they raised sheep. “The most amazing thing about sheep is the variety of new ways they can find to try and kill themselves,” he’d tell us. I think he was right. You see, sheep aren’t what we would call smart. They often make decisions which seem to ignore the real world: the reality they face. They allow a small yappy dog is to easily herd a large number sheep despite the fact each of the sheep are much larger than the dog. And they constantly, repeatedly, make the mistake of believing that reality doesn’t apply to them. This is what makes the life and work of shepherds so difficult and unpleasant. Being a shepherd is not a romantic job. It is dirty, hard, frustrating, and comes with low pay. And Jesus knew all that: in his world shepherds were close to the bottom of social life. They were poor, dirty, and they smelled of sheep.
But Jesus also knew that, in some ways, people are a lot like sheep. He knew that we are a lonely race, a people who often find community hard to find. He realized we often need a steadying hand, someone to lean on, if we are to make it through the day or night. And he knew that sometimes we, like sheep, constantly, repeatedly, make the mistake of believing that reality doesn’t apply to us. If you think this was only a first-century phenomena, consider this: if passed by the Senate this week’s healthcare plan will do the most damage to the people who elected – and still support – the current administration.
Jesus knew that sometimes a shepherd has to go out of their way to rescue a lost sheep and return it to the fold. He also knew that sometimes a shepherd has to warn the flock of danger. Jesus knew sometimes the Good Shepherd has to stand up to the wolves and protect the sheep. And is it is today.
For far too long, mainline Christians have been reluctant to criticize other people who claim to be Christian but do and say a thing that distorts – and at times destroy – the teachings of Jesus. Instead of warning of danger, we have tried to get along with those who loudly proclaim they – and only they – are the real Christians. During the past few decades, some who call themselves conservative Christians have become the face of Christianity for much of America. That’s why an unchristian quote from the tele-preacher Pat Robertson gains more attention than a statement from an Episcopal bishop. By becoming the face of Christianity, who call themselves conservative Christians have also driven millions of people away from any ‘religion.’ Those who are now the NONES were driven away from Jesus by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, et al.
For decades the far right’s has been obsessed with stopping women’s control of their own bodies, preventing marriage equality, and imposing their pseudo-Christian values on the rest of through the force of civil law.
Ask yourself: would a Christian church encourage people to kill physicians who provide health care to women? No!
Ask yourself: would a Christian church whip their members into a frenzy so they can stand outside a Planned Parenthood and yell hate-filled words at women who are trying to get essential health care inside? No!
Ask yourself: would a Christian church endorse the out of control, mean-spirited, thug-like actions of today’s ICE-police? No!
And ask yourself if you are willing to live in a new America: one fashioned by and for a minority of Americans who believe they have the God-given right to nothing less than a theocracy: a government based on their view of “Judeo-Christian” values which is imposed on all America by civil law. This is a real danger which we simply cannot allow to go unchallenged even if it means declaring that some who call themselves conservative Christians are in fact not Christian at all.
I’m sorry if this judgment upsets those in our and other churches who don’t believe in being direct and pointed when dealing with others. But I am not here to make everyone happy. God calls us to make no peace with oppression, and that inevitably requires preaching truth to power and upsetting those who just want to get along.
Sure it would be easier for us to get along, to pass and hope for change in 2018 or 2020 or 2022 or 2024. But not all of us have enough privilege to pull that off. Why don’t we have that much privilege? Maybe we are people of color or LGBTQ people or just don’t have enough money. Or maybe we are undocumented immigrant workers or have mocked a politician on TV or Facebook.
And that’s a big problem: a lot of people want to just get along. They want to get through these difficult times without facing the difficult and perhaps dangerous task of opposing – I mean really opposing – those who claim to be Christian but don’t act or speak like followers of Jesus the Christ. We cannot continue to hide from a kind of tribal religion that eats away at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, living like cancer on the Body of Christ.
Like any good doctor, we need to find ways to shrink this cancer. I’m not sure we can find ways to make it less toxic for the Christian faith or our country. It is hard to reason with a religion that values their traditions over science or sees higher education as a threat that challenges their literal interpretation of scripture. I suggest we try combining Pete Seeger’s mantra (surround hate with love and force it to surrender) with standing up and living out our kid of Christianity. Along the way some of us will have to oppose as unchristian those churches who profit and grow by stoking hatred of others – be the target of their hate a Planned Parenthood doctor or a same sex couple or a transgender teen or an undocumented worker.
This is what we are called to do if we are to be Good Shepherds here in today’s San Francisco. This is part of what it means for us to become “the shepherd of the sheep” who inhabit the Bay Area.
Let us pray:
you know your sheep by name
and lead us to safety through the valleys of death.
Guide us by your voice,
that we may walk in certainty and security
making no peace with oppression
and bringing along those who need our help
until we reach the joyous feast prepared in your house,
where we celebrate with you forever. Amen.