Archive for April 2021

Like Sheep Among Wolves

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 10:11-18. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Sheep are herd animals – so much so that, in English, we even use the same word for the singular and plural – one sheep, two sheep, a flock of sheep. When we think of sheep, we’re usually thinking about a group of them, not a single individual.

Just like there is really no such thing as a lone sheep, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. Jesus doesn’t just call us as individuals, he calls us to community. We are gathered into one flock, under one shepherd.

That’s why we’re gathered this morning. This is a flock meeting. Our shepherd Jesus has called us together. We are learning that we can trust him, because he lays down his life for us. He guides us in the way we need to go. He protects us from the wolves.

Sometimes we don’t take the wolves seriously enough. The wolves are real. The wolves do tear, and devour, and scatter. Selfishness, addiction, confusion, pride, racism, and greed. The wolves are the spiritual powers of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and despair.

We do not live in a neutral world without moral consequence. We are in a spiritual warfare between the forces of light and darkness, good and evil, sheep and wolves. In the words of the apostle Peter, in chapter five of his first epistle:

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brothers and sisters throughout the world.”

In Jesus, we stand triumphant over the power of sin, death, and the devil. The key words here are, in Jesus. As sheep, we aren’t capable of fighting the wolves ourselves. We survive their predation by hanging together as a flock. We escape the wolves by trusting our good shepherd to protect us. 

Sheep need shepherds. We need those who care for and protect the flock. We need those who help us determine which way the flock should move, and to warn us when wolves are threatening the community. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, God has raised up good shepherds among us. Men and women of spiritual depth and power, who thanks to God’s grace have been made trustworthy to care for the flock, as sub-shepherds to Jesus. These individuals should be honored and heeded and encouraged.

But a lot of discernment is in order. Not just any shepherd will do. There are so many hired hands, false shepherds who would gather us for the fleece. They would lead us out of self-interest and vanity rather than love. And when the wolves come, they will abandon us to our fate.

The church has a long history of discerning between false shepherds and true ones. From the first generation of Christians, the apostles and fathers of the early church warned against those who would turn human tradition into a new law – telling us, “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” There have always been those who would sell us easy, mechanistic spiritual laws rather than the challenging freedom that we find in Christ.

There were those who would tell us that God is so holy that Jesus could never have come in the flesh. Others said that Jesus is merely a human teacher, but not divine. All the ancient heresies of the early church period were the work of false shepherds. All of the paths that they offered tickled the mind and puffed up the ego, but led to spiritual death.

The early Quakers faced off against false shepherds of their own. In their day, it was the state church’s priests and bishops, who inherited their office as a title and made a living off of the mandatory tithes that all were required to pay them, under penalty of law. These were men who turned the gospel into a business. They used the mantle of Christ as a way to extract wealth from the flock of God – shearing the sheep with abandon, but having no interest in protecting them.

False shepherds aren’t just a thing of ancient church history. They’re a present-day reality that we must be on guard against. The false shepherds are on the loose in the form of prosperity gospel preachers and secular hustlers. People who want to sell us on the idea that if we just put the right “energy” out into the world, that we will get back whatever we desire. People who say that if you are poor, or sick, or unlucky, it’s because you haven’t got the right attitude, or that you don’t have enough faith.

The false shepherds are the political pundits and leaders who sow fear to boost their ratings and cement their power. They’re the social media influencers who use our outrage and horror to fuel engagement. The false shepherds step forward as leaders, only to lead us on paths of destruction.

They hand us over to the wolves. Wolves like militant nationalism, stock-market speculation, gambling, addictive video games and social media, pornography, and hard drugs. These false shepherds entice us into patterns of compulsive behavior that cheapen and destroy our lives.

But there is good news. There is a shepherd who is not false! We recognize his voice, because he lays down his life for the sheep. He won’t let any of us be lost. He is here to protect us. We can rely on him.

Jesus is the good shepherd – not just to us, but to the whole world. Jesus says that he has sheep who are “not of this fold.” In the context of John, Jesus is probably referring to the Gentiles – flocks beyond the people of Israel, who were traditionally thought to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Who are those outcast sheep today? Jesus is coming for them, too.

There will be one flock, one shepherd. As Jesus reconciles us to God, he gathers us together as one planetary community. No one is to be excluded. Every single one of us is invited to hear the voice of Jesus and become part of the one flock of God.

I’m tempted to say that Jesus calls us to be good shepherds, too. To imitate Jesus and lay down our lives for the flock. To go forth and preach the gospel, and bring those other sheep into the one flock – to gather all the peoples of the earth into the family of God in Jesus.

I’m especially tempted because it’s true. We are called to do all these things as friends of Jesus. That’s the Great Commandment: love God, and love neighbor. It’s the Great Commission: go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven. This is what it looks like in practice. We are called to imitate Jesus.

But I don’t think that this is what Jesus is saying here, in this passage in John. Jesus is not saying, “I am the good shepherd, come and be shepherds like me.” Jesus is saying, “I am the good shepherd; you are my sheep.”

We are his sheep. He gathers us into one flock. We hear his voice. He guides us to springs of living water. He feeds us on the bread of life. He restores our souls. He makes us one body in him.

We are the sheep, and Jesus is the shepherd. Our job is not to replace Jesus as the shepherd; our job is to be obedient, faithful sheep. Loving one another. Caring for one another. Listening to the voice of the shepherd as he leads us.

This sheepy-ness is the protection that we have from the false shepherds, from the hired hands that do not really care about the flock but seek leadership for their own reasons. This is our protection from the wolves: Reliance on Jesus, our one shepherd leading our one flock.

We humans are so wired to think we need more than that. The Jews wanted a king. The early church wanted archbishops and popes and ecumenical councils under the authority of emperors. The story of the people of God is one of continuous self-seduction with our sub-shepherds.

The Good news of Jesus is not the reign of sub-shepherds. God does not offer us a new temple, or a law, or sacrifices, or a political order. God offers us his son, Jesus, our good shepherd. God says, “this is my son, the beloved – listen to him!”

As the psalmist says, “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would hearken to his voice!”

Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are his flock. One shepherd, one flock, and Jesus will gather us together. We can participate. We can be the flock, but he is the shepherd. Know his voice. Listen to him. Hear him. Follow him.

We must stop looking for another answer, another leader, another ideology that will save us. Jesus is telling us, that’s a dead end. As long as we’re seeking something more than Jesus, all we’ll find is hired hands – gurus and preachers and politicians and TED Talkers and activists and CEOs – people whose interests are served by leading us for now, but who have no intention of laying down their lives for the flock.

Jesus lays down his life for the flock. Jesus is the voice we can trust. Jesus is the pillar of cloud and of fire that Israel followed in the desert. He is the water from the rock and the manna from heaven. He is the answer. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

So let’s not be distracted by arguments over Paul or Apollos or Cephas – human leaders through whom we have heard the word of God and come to believe. All of our true leaders point us to Jesus, the good shepherd. Listen to him!

Trust him. Follow him. We can walk without fear, because he is guiding us. The Lord will fight our battles. The good shepherd has already triumphed over the wolves of this world. We don’t have to accomplish anything on our own. Wait on the Lord, hearken to his voice, and watch as he accomplishes it.

Do You Feel Left Out At Church? So Did The Apostle Thomas

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/11/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 20:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

It was night time on the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Mary Magdalene had seen Jesus – at first she had thought he was a gardener, but it was Jesus. Mary had told the other disciples what she had seen. She told the Twelve, “I have seen the Lord!”

John doesn’t say whether the other disciples believed Mary, but there are some clues that they still had doubts. It says that they were gathered together in a locked house. They were afraid that the same people who arrested Jesus and turned him over to be killed might be coming for them next.

The disciples didn’t want to get in trouble. They didn’t want to suffer and die the way they had seen Jesus die just a few days before. The disciples knew that the priests and scribes and leaders of the people were out for blood. If they could do that to Jesus, imagine what they could do to Jesus’ disciples!

You can understand that, right? A couple of your friends – Peter and John – saw an empty tomb where Jesus’ body was supposed to be; that’s pretty strange. And then Mary says that she saw Jesus alive. It’s hard to believe. You’d want to believe, wouldn’t you? You’d want to believe that somehow, your friend and teacher wasn’t really dead. But you saw it happen. You saw him get nailed to a cross. They killed Jesus, and you might be next.

So, you might be cautious. You say, “Peter, John – tell us that story again. You say the tomb was empty? Did it look like there had been a robbery? How did the tomb robbers move that huge stone?”

You say, “Mary, I know you think you saw Jesus. We all see Jesus. On the cross! We can’t get that image out of our vision. It’s like we’re seeing him every hour, every moment. We understand, Mary. This is all just too much for you. You need to rest, Mary. Go lay down.”

The good news can be hard to believe, because bad news seems so much more plausible.

But Mary keeps insisting, “I have seen the Lord!” Behind the locked doors, despite all the fear, there’s a spark of hope. You aren’t sure what to believe. Could it be? Could Mary have really seen the Lord Jesus, raised from the dead?

And then, suddenly, everybody sees him. The doors are locked, but Jesus is there. He’s standing right there in the middle of the room, saying “peace be with you” and breathing on you. He’s breathing the Holy Spirit on you and giving you power to forgive others. He’s taking away your fear and filling you with hope. Jesus is alive! 

But poor Thomas, one of the disciples is out picking up pizza. He was gone while Jesus appeared to everybody else. And when he gets back, you’re all going crazy, saying, “Thomas! Thomas! You won’t believe it! We have seen the Lord!”

And here’s Thomas, holding a stack of pizzas in his arms. “You’re right. I won’t believe it. There’s no way Jesus is alive. There’s no way that he just showed up here while I was gone. Even if that were possible, there’s no way he left me out like that.” 

Thomas is angry. He says, “I won’t believe this crazy story of yours unless I see him for myself. I want to touch him. I want to touch the places where they nailed his hands to the cross. I want to put my hand into his side, where they pierced him. Then I’ll believe you.”

Have you ever felt like that? Has it ever felt like the church is a place full of people who believe crazy things that you just can’t? Have you ever felt left out, like Thomas did? Like everyone else has had this amazing experience of God and Jesus, but you just haven’t had that same experience?

The disciples loved Mary, but it doesn’t seem like they could quite bring themselves to fully trust the good news of the resurrection. Not just because she said so.

And even when all the others had seen the risen Jesus, Thomas still couldn’t believe. This was just too much to take on faith. He needed to see it for himself.

We know from John’s story that Jesus came back. He didn’t leave Thomas out. He didn’t make Thomas take the other disciples’ word for it. Jesus loved Thomas and wanted to see him. He wanted to be with Thomas. He wanted Thomas to know and believe that he had risen from the dead. Jesus was happy to make himself visible to Thomas, to give him the gift of his presence.

Jesus says, “Touch my wounds, Thomas. Put your hand in my side. I will give you what you need so that you can believe.”

Thomas is overwhelmed by emotion. He cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

And I know that Jesus is so happy to see Thomas, and to be seen by him. He’s so happy that Thomas can now feel on the inside of the story. He’s joyous that Thomas can believe. But he also reminds Thomas and the others: It would have been nice if you had trusted Mary from the beginning. Oh ye of little faith, why didn’t you believe her when she came bearing the good news? Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And this has been the line of most of the church for the last 2000 years: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Or, put another way, “Take our word for it. We have seen, and you can trust us.” The church, with its Bible and tradition and collective memory, proclaims the good news to us. Like Mary. Like the apostles. They testify to the good news, and ask us to accept it as a gift.

That’s hard for a lot of us. It’s hard for me. I am very much a Thomas-style Christian. I need to see. I need to touch. I need to hear. I need to experience the risen presence of Jesus for myself. It’s not enough to hear the stories, even from people who are trustworthy. I want to believe, but it’s so hard when he has appeared to others, but not to me.

The good news in our reading this morning is that both of these things can be true. We really are blessed when we believe without seeing. We are blessed when we trust Mary Magdalene who brings us the good news of the resurrection. We are blessed when we trust the great cloud of witnesses – the apostles, the saints, and the church through the ages. We are blessed when we trust them, even when we can’t see clearly.

But the good news is also that Jesus Christ is here to teach his people himself. That’s the emphasis of the Quaker movement. That’s the special value that we bring to the wider church – a church that often says “trust us, trust us, trust us”, but is sometimes skeptical that Jesus is really here for us like he was for his first disciples.

The good news that Quakerism lifts up is that God does not condemn us if we are like Thomas and the twelve apostles. If we need to see Jesus for ourselves, he will show up. Jesus will be present with us. This isn’t a burden for him; Jesus loves to do this for us. Jesus is available to guide us and teach us. We are blessed if we believe without seeing, but he will be present when we need him.

Have you seen the Lord yourself? Or are you a blessed person who has come to believe without seeing? 

Do you feel left out sometimes? Do you feel like you are missing something? Do you wonder if anyone else feels like you?

I have. I do. We have. We do. You are not alone.

Just like those first disciples, we are gathered together waiting on the Lord. Waiting to see what will happen next. To see how he will guide us. Learning how to trust one another as we trust him. Learning to say, “We are blessed, because we have come to believe without seeing.” And also learning to say, “We have seen the Lord!”