On Sunday, May 7, I was invited to Preach at Stanford University’s Memorial Church in their regular Sunday service, University Public Worship. That sermon is what follows. Before you read it, I want to just make an observation about it. The invitation to preach at Stanford came with an invitation to preach something challenging. And I think this sermon takes that invitation seriously. I am aware that, read through a certain lens, some of what I say in this sermon could be interpreted to suggest that people who voted for the current administration are somehow bad people. That is not what I believe. This sermon explores how the Christian movement is seen, particularly by young people — which seemed appropriate in a university setting. It also explores the way in which voting patterns among the majority of white evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians in the last election contribute to that perception. It also asks whether the priorities of the current administration are consistent with what we see Jesus doing and teaching in the gospels. I would suggest that this is always an important question for religious people to be asking, Christian or otherwise, regardless of the party or administration in power. I do not advocate, in any way, that any religion should dictate national policy. But people who take their religion seriously cannot, it seems to me, keep that commitment completely separate from the public policy choices they would advocate.
Scriptural Texts: Acts 2:42-47 & John 10:1-10
Over the years, I’ve been on the Stanford campus many times, and, as far as I can tell, there are no sheep at Stanford. And there is no degree offered in the art of shepherding. That, of course, is just a sign of what is true in our society generally: namely, that very few of us know much about sheep or shepherds, and that the vast majority of us live at quite a distance from the kind of life that sheep and shepherding represent. The people of Jesus’ time lived much closer to the land. Agricultural life was more of an immediate reality to them. And so the metaphors of sheep and shepherds used in this morning’s Gospel would have been much more familiar. But, for us, these metaphors are far less accessible.
About 30 years ago, I knew a priest who attempted to make these metaphors more alive for his congregation. His name was Ted Rice, a now-retired Episcopal priest, and he actually had a brother who was a shepherd in New England. Ted described what he witnessed of the relationship between his shepherd brother and his flock. It so happened while Ted was visiting his brother, that there was a particular ewe who was having a great deal of difficulty giving birth. Ted described how his brother had stayed with the ewe throughout the night, tending to her, keeping her calm, even singing to her. His brother knew exactly what to do, how to reach in and gently turn the lamb and, ultimately, make it possible for the young sheep to be born, without endangering its mother’s life. Ted was deeply moved by the tender relationship between his brother and the sheep, by the obvious love that bound them to each other, by the degree to which his brother placed the needs of his flock before his own. As I listened to Ted describe this, what came to mind for me was the image of the shepherd as midwife, one who attends another in order to help bring to birth new life.
So when I hear Jesus being cast in the role of the shepherd, I always find myself returning to this story of Ted’s brother, and the connection it suggests between the image of the shepherd and the image of the midwife. Jesus, it seems to me, is trying to bring forth new life in and among those who are his followers. He comes to us as shepherd and midwife to bring a new way of living and being to birth, and he entrusts this same mission to the community his followers founded, to that community that we call “church”. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, in the 21st chapter, the Risen Christ walks with the disciple Peter on the beach and says to Peter, who represents the church as a whole, that a consequence of loving Jesus is that Peter – and the community he and the others are about to create – is to take on the mission of feeding and tending the sheep. In other words, to do for others what Jesus has done for them.
And so, centuries later, it seems legitimate to ask the question, is the church living up to this calling? Are we, in our various Christian communities, helping to bring to birth new ways of living and being as Jesus did in his own life and work?
As I survey the state of Christianity today, I have to say that I think the short answer to that question is, much of the time, “No.” One sign of this is the image that Christianity currently enjoys in the public square, particularly among younger people. Studies have shown that among people 16 to 29 who do not go to church, Christianity is frequently described as “judgmental”, “hypocritical”, and “old fashioned.” When you combine the low impression of Christianity among increasing numbers of young people with the degree to which that same demographic tended to favor candidates like Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson in the last election, what emerges, I think, is a view of the church as an institution which does not challenge the status quo of our world but is seen to reinforce it, often at the expense of those among us who, in some way or other, would be considered vulnerable. In other words, the church is often seen as supporting the world’s ways of living and being, rather than helping to bring to birth something new.
This view of the church stands as quite a contrast to the image of the Christian community that we catch a glimpse of in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts. Let’s listen again to the way that early community is described: “All who believed were together and had all things in common: they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
This description is of a church that has not yet become an institution, a community of Jesus’ followers who enjoy no privileged position in society, who have no power at all, who are a small minority with respect to both the Jewish community around them and the larger Roman Empire of which Judea had become a part. What shapes the life of that community is set forth in the first line of the passage: they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And the results of that devotion are made clear when it says, “Awe came upon everyone…they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.” This certainly sounds to me like a community in which something new is being born, a community that is adopting a new way of living and being that is based not on status or wealth, but on the notion that baptism is the great leveler, that being in Christ places everyone on the same footing. It is a community that provides an alternative to the social structures of the time, in which status and wealth matter very much, and in which the poor and the vulnerable are often marginalized and left to fend for themselves. And it seems to have been deeply attractive.
This early form of Christian community, and others that sprang up in the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were alternative communities whose values, in fact, undermined those of the prevailing culture. And it was not so much an alternative to Jewish culture out of which, after all, Christianity was born, but an alternative to Roman culture, particularly as increasing numbers of new Christians were not drawn from Judaism but from the Roman, Gentile world. We see this very much in the writings of St. Paul, who – though he was very concerned about figuring out how to get his fellow Jews to become followers of Jesus – was principally focused for most of his life on planting churches among the Gentiles. Remember that Paul’s writings are the earliest to be found in the New Testament, and in them we find the language used by the early church to talk about Jesus.
The Roman Catholic priest and scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has argued that this language – the terms “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Kingdom of God”, “Savior” – is all drawn from the language that Romans used to talk about their emperor and his empire. Indeed, while we are accustomed to speaking of the “Roman Empire”, Romans of the time were more accustomed to thinking of it as the “Kingdom of Rome.” Caesar was Lord and Savior, and the term “son of god” was part of his title. In his letters, Paul takes all of this language and applies it to Jesus – clearly establishing Jesus as a rival to Caesar, and the Christian community as an alternative to Roman society. For Paul and for early Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the world, which pointed to a way of living and being that challenged the values of the kingdom of Rome. Caesar’s titles were emptied of the power that they were meant to convey, and their meaning redefined in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which revealed that real power lay in sacrificial self-giving, in radical love, in embracing the inherent beloved-ness of every person as a child of God. Far from supporting the status quo, far from being allied with wealth and power, the early church was truly a countercultural presence beneath Roman society, a “new thing” coming into the world that was most attractive to those who benefited the least from the prevailing social norms and structures, as well as to those who may have benefited from them, but who could see the injustices inherent within them.
All of this, of course, changed in the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine had his mysterious conversion experience, part of which was a belief that the Christian Christ was the one to whom he owed thanks for his decisive victory over his brother, which allowed him to consolidate his power. In what was really a remarkably short span of time, the Christian community moved from being this alternative, even subversive presence beneath Roman society to being an institution that was on its way to enjoying great privilege and power at the heart of Roman society. The church, over time, certainly changed Rome, but Rome also changed the church. Gone, for example, was the early church’s deep commitment to pacifism, which could not be maintained once Christianity became the official religion of the greatest military power in the ancient world. The conversion of Rome to Christianity was a decisive historical turning point, and it set Christianity on a path that transformed it from being an alternative form of community that nurtured new forms of relationship to being a cultural institution that blessed the powerful, reinforced prevailing social, cultural, and economic norms, and helped keep women and the poor in their places.
Today, we are part of a Christian movement that has traveled a very long way from what is described in the book of Acts. We are not seen as the shepherd-midwife who nurtures new forms of relationship and works to help bring to birth new life, but rather as that ancient relative at the family gathering who laments the loss of the way things used to be and occasionally yells at the neighbors to get off the lawn. Increasingly, we no longer enjoy the “goodwill of the people” because they sense that we have somehow lost the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching.
And that perception has only been reinforced in the last election cycle. Last November, 81% of white evangelicals and 50% of white mainline Protestants voted for the administration that is now in power. And setting aside the polarizing personalities that are a part of that administration and its congressional majority, let’s just consider a list of some of the policy positions that they are advocating: a radical reduction in the numbers of immigrants and refugees admitted to the country; a construction of a physical wall along our border with Mexico; a reform of the health care system that most analysts agree would serve to favor the healthy and wealthy and disadvantage the poor, the old, and the sick; reducing or eliminating funding for the arts and other public cultural entities while dramatically increasing military spending; rolling back environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Treaty; fundamentally changing current trade agreements or withdrawing from them all together.
None of these policy positions point to the birth of anything new, nor do they suggest new forms of being and relationship. Instead, they involve a reassertion of the past and a denial of new realities that are emerging in our culture and in our world. It is exactly this that the majority of white Christians voted for, and exactly this that a majority of young people voted against. And those who are the principal protagonists of these policies mostly promote them under a mantel of faith in Jesus and adherence to Christianity. And so Jesus and the church are put forth as the allies of the politically powerful and as blessing the policies that they choose to promote.
But none of this is really found in the gospels, in what we see Jesus doing and saying. The community that Jesus comes to shepherd and to midwife is made up mostly of people who lived at the margins of their society, of people who had been cast out by the majority for one reason or another. If you look at the healing ministry of Jesus, which was such a big part of what he was doing, notice that the illnesses he heals are of a very particular sort. In almost every case, Jesus’ heals people of illnesses that had caused them to be cast out of their communities, because of fear and stigma that was attached to them in the ancient world. He heals them, thereby nullifying the thing that caused them to be cast out, and then he returns them to their communities. And when they return, they return as agents of transformation for those communities, because the people who had cast them out have to receive them back, and to do so requires them to change their point of view, to see these formerly cast out people in a new way. Jesus does not build walls between people, but breaks them down. Jesus does not seek to reinforce systems that protect the wealthy and the healthy, but seeks to change those systems, to force them to include the poor and the sick, the disadvantaged and the outcast. Jesus does not encourage us to be preoccupied with our own desire for security, but invites us to step out of our need for security to discover that beyond the borders of our fear lie other human beings, just like ourselves, who are simply trying to live their lives in peace, and who simply want others to see their humanity.
Here’s what it comes down to, I think: the default mode of an unredeemed and untransformed humanity is to live with a sense of fear and scarcity, and on the basis of these, to draw lines and create systems that keep everyone in their place. Those who have the means to protect themselves and prosper do so; those who do not suffer the consequences. What we often fail to realize is that living this way disfigures the humanity of all of us, planting seeds of war and violence everywhere. The advantaged struggle to keep their advantage, and the disadvantaged struggle to gain some advantage. The church has too often been a partner in this way of living, blessing prosperity as some kind of sign of the divine favor and assuring the disadvantaged that their reward is in heaven.
But as Christians, we are not supposed to be content with humanity’s default mode. We are supposed to be interested in humanity’s redemption and transformation. And as more and more people question the veracity and efficacy of the Gospel, as it is made known through our preaching and practice, we are challenged to recover the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching, to rediscover our role as shepherds and midwives who are called to bring to birth new patterns of relationship like those that existed in the earliest Christian communities. We are called to re-imagine the kingdom of God, God’s dream for humanity, through that key line in the reading from Acts: “And they had all things in common.” As human beings, we do, indeed, have all things in common, from this planet that we share to the societies of which we are a part. It is only when we are able to see the common ways in which we are tied together, the lines of connection that bind us to one another, that we are truly able to realize God’s dream for God’s people. We must nurture what Jesus seeks to nurture in us: sacrificial self-giving, radical love, and the recognition of the beloved-ness of every human being.
If we fail to live up to that challenge, then we become the thieves and robbers who protect some of the sheep while leaving others vulnerable. But if we can live into that challenge, then we become like Jesus himself: a gateway through which we can re-imagine our own humanity, and the human community of the world.