Our Curious and Compassionate Flock
Well, today is Mother’s Day. It is also a holiday in the church. This is the fourth Sunday of Easter, and every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter the church celebrates Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, you will hear the 23rd Psalm and a reading from John 10, but there are several parts so every year you get a little different one. I think we know a lot about the good shepherd; I know I certainly have heard the 23rd Psalm often. It’s one of the most popular psalms that we have, and we know about what it means to be led by Jesus; I think there’s lots of sermons about that. So, this year in particular, I wondered what does it mean that we are all sheep?
All of us held together—not just here in this congregation—but Christians around the world, especially in this time when everyone seems so divided. What does it mean for us to still be in the same flock? We were talking about it in AOB this last week. We’re learning about the Apostle’s creed, and we got to the end and confess that we believe in the holy Catholic church, the holy universal church. That someday—maybe in our lifetimes but most likely not—all of us will be gathered again together in unity.
I was thinking about that this week. I was invited to pray at the National Day of Prayer here in Auburn. Mayor Nancy Backus has proclaimed that day as the National Day of Prayer, and so REVIVE Church here in town was hosting it and invited lots of other pastors and congregations to be part of it. I was very anxious about it, which is why I did not invite any of you. Who was going to be there? What were they going to pray for? Was it going to be something that I would have to distance myself from later? I didn’t know if I could really vouch for this group of different denominations and different leaders. What if there was conflict? And so, I said, Well, I’ll just go and we’ll see what happens. It is hard to be a flock these days.
I think of my dad, who has this lovely lake place up in Madison, South Dakota, and they’re probably some of the most delightful neighbors. You know, I don’t know any of my neighbors right now, and back in Superior, the neighbors that I did know, I didn’t like very much. But up at my dad’s lake cabin, there is this great group of people who are so welcoming, who often hold events, who just seem to get along really well. And I figured out why.
Early in 2020, there was this bonfire with so many people, and there was another young person, another son of somebody else who was there. We were visiting, he and I, and we didn’t know the rules. So, he happened to bring up like, Oh, isn’t it a bummer that in Menards you have to wear a mask? And I jumped in with I think it’s great! And you could just feel the adults being like, Uh-oh, and then we didn’t immediately stop and say like, Well, how about the weather? We were about to like, have a discussion.
And immediately everyone was like, Well, it’s about that time. They packed up their coolers, and they just walked away. Because those were the rules up there; that is how that group of people gets along. They just avoid any discussion where there might be any sort of disagreement.
I think about my Facebook newsfeed, right? Where there’s one way of avoiding discussion, of being united. And there’s another way, which is me slowly unfollowing or unfriending people that I don’t agree with until I have this lovely bubble of people who get along, right? Because I’ve excluded others.
I think of the ways that churches can often foster harm by having some people hold onto the discomfort of feeling like they don’t belong in the hopes of Just stick around. Don’t make waves. YOU feel uncomfortable. The rest of us are going to be great. Those are ways that people typically have been united and been a flock, and I don’t think that’s what Jesus is calling us to. Do you think maybe we could get a little bit of a pass? It seems hard to be united when there’s so many different people and opinions and politics and different ways of being church. But in Jesus’ time, it was the same.
This conversation takes place during the Feast of Dedication, which is another word for Hanukkah. So, this is taking place about 170 years after the first Hanukkah, where you’ve got the fight between the healthiness and the Hebrews—those two different, separate factions—warring for power. And even though John here says the Jews—like they’re one group of people—there are so many different divisions about who gets power. The Hellenists invited Antiochus IV to come in and take over power, and he desecrated their entire temple. Hanukkah celebrates how the Hebrews took it back. So even in their recent history, there’s war and there is fighting. And in Jesus’ time who has power? You’ve got the Sadducees, you got the Pharisees, you’ve got the Zealots; they’re all fighting. So, Jesus says, who are my sheep?
They’re not the ones who are the loudest.
They’re not the ones who get along just to get along.
They’re not the ones who are best at arguing or best at convincing.
They’re not the ones who are going to win the culture wars.
The sheep are the ones who know his voice. The sheep are the ones who follow him.
And what does Jesus say? I can think of a few things.
Let the oppressed go free.
Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Feed the hungry.
This is what holds this flock together. More than denominations, more than political beliefs, more than different cultures, more than anything. In Revelation, we see this beautiful vision of this flock joined together once again. They’re not the winners. They’re not the ones who have convinced the most people to come over to their side. They are not the ones have argued the best. The ones gathered in white are the ones who have followed Jesus even to death.
It still makes me wonder: how do we do this without avoiding conversations that might be difficult, without avoiding each other who we may disagree with, without avoiding conflict? And I think that’s the answer. How are we a flock? Well, we face conversation. We face each other. We face conflict with curiosity and compassion, calling to the Jesus follower in each of us.
I think this was modeled very well recently when Pope Francis met with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church. He called him to repentance saying, we are shepherds of the same holy people who believe in God, the holy Trinity in the holy mother of God. That is why we must unite in the effort to aid peace, to help those who suffer to seek ways of peace and to stop the fire.
Pope Francis could have said, well, you know, Eastern Orthodox Catholics are different. We have been for thousands of years; we’ll just stay different. But he said, no, we are all followers of Jesus. And Jesus has not said ‘Make war on your neighbors.’ Jesus has not said, ‘Kill those disagree with you.’ Jesus has said to live in peace. And so, calling to one another to say, how do we follow Jesus? In times of war? It takes discomfort. It takes a vulnerability.
It is hard to have these conversations; it is so difficult. But I know for myself, I have never grown because someone has yelled at me, and I have never grown because I have avoided questions that make me uncomfortable. I have grown when I have been uncomfortable, when I have asked difficult questions, when I have found out what people are experiencing and how that might be difficult.
Together as a flock—here and around the world—we grow together to become even better at listening to the voice of Jesus. I hope you will be curious and compassionate. I hope the voice of Jesus resonates in you. I hope you feel so held by our good shepherd that you can be uncomfortable and vulnerable in the midst of your fellow sheep.
I hope that next year you will join me at the National Day of Prayer, because it turned out to be amazing and beautiful. With all of these different people, from different churches and denominations; people who would definitely not worship together. Well, we could pray together. We were all seeking to follow Jesus together. So this was part of my prayer. When I asked, what would you like for me, the person organizing it said, oh, well, try to keep your prayer under five minutes or so. I was like five minutes? That’s so long. This is an excerpt of my prayer.
God of all goodness, we pray for our city of Auburn. Gather all of us together to work for the welfare of our community. Bless this place with peace and prosperity, grace and goodwill, justice and joy. Open our hearts to one another so that we may delight in our different backgrounds, cultures, strengths, and gifts, Bless this city, that the flourishing of Auburn would be a sign of hope in our community. May it be so.
Thanks be to God.