Following Jesus Without Being a Sheep (Part 1)

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This post is based on a sermon I preached on Sunday, May 7, at Nevada City United Methodist Church.  You can watch the whole service here or move the curser 21 minutes into the service for just the sermon.

The Gospel of John includes many metaphors.  Just in this short passage (John 10:1-10), there are two:  1) Jesus as the good shepherd, who leads and cares for the sheep, and 2) Jesus as the gate, the point of access, so the sheep can come in and go out and find pasture.  Here Jesus describes his mission and goal:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  When I read this passage, it reminds me of the wonderful section of Handel’s Messiah, where it says, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”  A poignant and comforting song.  It also reminds me of the 23rd Psalm, which my grandmother taught me, and which I’ve taught my children and at times, my grandchildren.  Passages like this stick with us, and come back at just the times we need them.  For instance, when we feel like we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, what does that mean?  A shepherd’s goals are to make sure the sheep have a place to roam, pasture, food, water, protection from predators, and if one strays off, according to Jesus, the good shepherd will leave the 99 there in the wilderness and go out to seek the one that was lost.  That’s an image of God.  And that’s a great image of abundant life.

But awhile back, one of my granddaughters said to me, “I don’t want to be sheep.”  So when I started preparing this sermon, I decided to look up the definition of “sheep.”  1)  Any of the various hollow-horned typically gregarious ruminant mammals (genus Ovis) related to the goats but stockier and lacking a beard in the male–specifically one long domesticated especially for its flesh and wool.  2) a timid defenseless creature; 3) a timid docile person, especially one easily influenced or led.  Of course, none of us want to be that kind of a person, and that’s certainly not what Jesus meant.

Jesus didn’t mean for people to follow him without thinking for themselves.  He engaged people.  He used figures of speech, he asked them questions, he challenged them, he sent them out in ministry.  He said, “Follow me, do what I do, teach what I teach, love how I love, serve as I serve.”  He engaged with people in the fullness of their humanity, even though sometimes (like us) they didn’t have a clue what he was talking about).

Nevertheless, with these very limited and flawed human beings, Jesus was able create a community that welcomed the poor, the outcast, the stranger, even women and children.  A community that embodied God’s love and what it means to live an abundant life.  A community that embodied the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.  Today some call it the reign of God or the kin-dom of God.  A kin-dom of abundant life.

This community that Jesus drew together became very popular, so much so that the religious leaders began plotting against him.  They collaborated with Rome to keep the military occupation in place, and they benefited from this collaboration.  Jesus challenged their authority.  He broke their laws, including laws against healing on the Sabbath.  He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple.  He and his followers occupied the Temple.  Slept outside, but each day the people all came back to occupy the Temple.  The authorities couldn’t arrest him there.  Why?  Because “all the people hung on his words.”

Finally, the authorities succeeded.  They waited until he was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane with just a few followers.   Then they came out with swords and clubs and Roman guards to arrest him.  They tried him in a mock trial, beat him, and crucified him.  His followers fled, except for a few—mostly women.  They killed the shepherd, and the sheep scattered

Then something amazing happened.  People started saying, “I have seen the Lord.”  According to the gospels, this started with the women—the first preachers, the first witnesses to the resurrection.  The community that had formed around Jesus reconstituted itself, based on the lived experience of the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We read about that early community today in Acts, about how the people pooled their possessions and shared with whoever was in need.

These early Christians continued in the faith of Jesus.  They lived according to his teaching and example, identifying with the poor and outcast.  For the first three centuries, Christians refused to bow to the Emperor and refused to serve in the Roman Army.  Many were martyred for their faith.   They stood on conscience.  Not at all like sheep.

When Constantine made Christianity the State Religion, the church became identified with the power of the state.  Some have called this the downfall of the church, because the Church became aligned with the dominant culture, wherever it was situated.  But throughout history, there have been people and communities who have kept alive the vision that motivated the early church.

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow, May 17.

God Bless the Grass


I’ve been singing two songs lately that use images of the earth to carry a message of hope in the face of despair.  The first song is “Now the Green Blade Rises,” a traditional Easter hymn.  The second song, “God Bless the Grass,” is by singer-songwriter and social justice activist Malvina Reynolds.  Both songs present the key message of Easter:  love overcomes violence, life overcomes death.

Listen to this version of “Now the Green Blade Rises” by the Smoke Fairies.  

Now the Green Blade Rises

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

(John M.C. Crum, 1928, 15th Century French Melody)

I also hear the message of life conquering death in this wonderful song by Malvina Reynolds.  You can hear her sing it here:  God Bless the Grass .

 God Bless the Grass

God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that’s gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at the poor man’s door,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass, which demonstrates the power of life to overcome death, and to bring about both personal and social transformation.  May we all have renewed confidence, courage, and hope during this Easter season.

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This post is re-posted from April, 2013.

Holy Saturday: Following Jesus

On this Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent, we continue to reflect on the death of Jesus and on what it means to follow him, as we wait for the dawn of resurrection. What does it mean to follow Jesus in this time of ascending evil, destruction, scapegoating, and death?  First, what it does not mean:  Following Jesus does not mean submitting to oppression or choosing to suffer.  Jesus raised up women, children, outcasts, and others who were despised and oppressed, and showed that they were worthy children of God.  Surely we are called to do the same.

Nor did Jesus seek suffering for himself—nothing in the gospel accounts point to that.  Rather, he was true to his mission as he had declared it: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  By his preaching, teaching, healing, community building, and actions that challenged the ruling Powers, he incurred their wrath.  As a result, they plotted against him and had him executed.  Jesus’ death was the result of the way he lived his life.

The story of Jesus and his “passion” was not something he had wanted for himself, nor was it the plan of an angry God.  Rather, in full integrity and freedom of choice, he refused to back down and betray himself, his mission, the people he loved, or his God.  Further, in the agony of Jesus, the suffering God endured the full impact of human sin and evil, and continues to suffer at our hands as God’s beloved children and creation itself are crucified today.

The question arises:  Why would we want to follow Jesus, who experienced such a horrendous death, or a God who undergoes suffering?  Why not instead focus on something positive, or find a faith that enables us to transcend the world’s suffering, or point to a God who looks on from a distance and sees only harmony?  Or, why not interpret the message of Christianity as being based on the God-ordained sacrifice of a beloved son who came to die to set things right?  Then all we have to do is say “yes” to this story, accept this (ahistorical) Jesus into our hearts, and worship him.  This at least allows us to accept the supposedly predetermined status quo.

But Jesus did not call on his friends to worship him, but to follow him:  to reject the cultural values of wealth and worldly power and to practice and promote the values of tolerance, justice, peace, and love.  This requires an “ethic of risk,” because it places us at odds with the dominant institutions of our day, just as it placed Jesus at odds with those of his day.  And we see clearly not only what human-constructed systems did to Jesus, but what they do to those “surplus populations” that threaten the order of global corporate-dominated capitalism today.

Still, even on Holy Saturday, as we remember the death of Jesus and so many unjust deaths throughout history until today, we anticipate and live into the reality of Easter.  The light of the Risen Christ is with us, making it possible to face the evil, pain, and darkness of our time and to celebrate compassion, beauty, and love.  His Living Spirit is with us, making it possible to set out on the path of following Jesus into the heart of the struggle for a better world.

Previous blog post:  Good Friday:  Contemplation and Resistance

This is the final post in Sharon’s series, A Lenten Call to Resist.

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Good Friday: Contemplation and Resistance

Good Friday 2014 at Beale Air Force Base

Today is Good Friday, the darkest of days, when Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus and stand by him in his suffering.  It is also a dark season in the world, with the Trump Administration dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, threatening North Korea, bombing Syria and Yemen, targeting immigrants, abandoning climate legislation, dismantling the social safety net, eviscerating education, and unleashing corporations to wreak unregulated havoc on the earth.

I grieve.  I enter and face the darkness.  I resolve “to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as Paul did when he visited the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2). This has been my ongoing spiritual practice during this season of Lent.

Contemplating the death of Jesus in prayer and holding space for that story throughout the day grounds me in the painful reality of Jesus’ time and of ours.  It helps me to face and bear what seems unbearable—that the evil powers of this world, the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8), seem to have the upper hand, and are crucifying what is precious, destroying our hopes and dreams and everything that we hold dear.  But the ability to bear this apparent reality—that the dominant institutions and systems of our world are moving us toward global death—depends on my determination to resist.  Otherwise, how could I simply “accept” this cruel, unjust, and unspeakable state of affairs? That would be consent and complicity.  Instead, I choose to stand in solidarity with the crucified Jesus and all other victims of Empire, to follow him in nonviolent resistance to the Powers, and to risk the same fate.

For me, contemplation and resistance go together.  In contemplation, we assimilate actions that we have taken in the world and receive clarity and inspiration for further actions of mercy, justice, and nonviolent resistance to the Powers.  In our actions in the world, we express the love and insight that we have received in contemplation. Contemplation and resistance go together.

Reflecting on the cross, the death of Jesus, and all the other deaths throughout history can bring us face to face with our complicity and our rock-bottom poverty of spirit.  We may even experience what seems to be the absence of God, as Jesus did as he hung on the cross, crying out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” As we reflect on our own personal failings and our participation in unjust systems, we discover our moral bankruptcy, emptiness, and inability to control the outcome of events.  We recognize that our wisdom and strength are inadequate to the task of personal and social transformation, and so we surrender ourselves, our very being, to God, whose wisdom and power are hidden in mystery.  Our ego stops trying to justify and defend itself.  We die to ourselves.  We enter the darkness, the depths, the journey of emptiness and loss and letting go, the dark night of the soul, trusting beyond trust, where trust has been betrayed, hoping beyond hope, where all hope is gone.  Paradoxically, it is by entering this very darkness that light dawns and hope is reborn.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The mystics call this the Via Negativa, the way of nothingness.  It is the Way of the Cross.

Previous blog post:  God’s Restorative Justice

Next Post:  Holy Saturday:  Following Jesus 

This post is part of Sharon’s series, A Lenten Call to Resist.

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Creation Crucified:  The Passion of the Earth

One of the last Golden toads of Costa Rica, now extinct.

During Lent, Christians remember and grieve Jesus’ death at the hands of a murderous system that included official representatives, religious collaborators, a public that could be manipulated, and friends who betrayed, denied, or abandoned him.  We remember and grieve the countless others who have been executed over the years by similar systems of worldly power.  Meanwhile, creation is being crucified as surely as Jesus was crucified on the cross.

This understanding has profound implications when we consider the harm being done to creation.  Even though many of us as individuals try to treat the earth with the respect it deserves, the institutions and systems in which we participate are plundering the earth and leaving it despoiled and desecrated.  This does not bode well for humans or the other life forms with whom we are interrelated and interconnected on this earth.  The institutions and operating systems that support industrial civilization are destroying the ecosystems upon which all life depends!  The insatiable appetite of the global system of wealth-driven corporate capitalism continues to devour the gifts of the earth, destroying the goodness of creation, destroying our non-human companions, destroying prospects for future generations, destroying our humanity.

Now the Trump Administration’s federal budget proposal includes cuts of 31% to the Environmental Protection Agency, which was formed in 1970 as the result of grassroots activism and widespread public concern.   The very agency charged with protecting the environment is being cut more deeply than any other program.

The destruction continues and accelerates.  Several climate change feedback loops have kicked in, making runaway climate change more likely each day.  The Sixth Great Extinction is well underway, as the atmosphere and oceans heat up, as toxins become ubiquitous, and as diverse ecosystems are paved over, “developed,” or converted into monoculture crops.  Humans suffer as air, land, and water are overused or contaminated, and as food prices rise.  Fukishima continues spewing radioactive waste into the oceans as more nuclear power plants are built.  Powerful nations wage resource wars and attempt to dominate the earth in an endless cycle of violence, employing drones and other high-tech weapons that kill civilians, obliterate communities, and create toxic wastelands.

No one on earth will be left untouched by the current system of death, for it is destroying life itself.  The web of life is being unraveled.  The air, water, land, and stable climate necessary for sustaining life are being destroyed by the institutional imperatives of today’s global corporate empire.  The earth is dying—signs of death are all around.  Creation itself is being crucified.

In this dying of Earth’s life systems, her children, both human and non-human, suffer.  Songs of praise become cries of pain and lament, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”  “God help us!  Has God forsaken us?  Where is God?”

But it is not God who has forsaken us, it is we who have forsaken God.  God is right here in the midst of the persecuted and tortured earth, suffering in and with Earth’s creatures, including but not limited to humanity, experiencing forsakenness.  God weeps for the harm done, because God experiences it all from the inside—the terror of the Polar Bear who discovers she cannot swim the distance to the next ice floe, the confusion of the Monarch butterfly whose migratory home has been destroyed, the loneliness of the last Golden Toad who croaks unceasingly for a mate.  God experiences the alarm of people in island nations that are being subsumed by rising seas and the panic and grief of families whose crops fail and children die because of increasing drought.  God experiences the “great loneliness of spirit” of the child who realizes that species are dying, and who wants a future of abundant life.

Where is there hope for new life?  I see signs of resurrection in the rising up of people who are no longer willing to consent to the current global system of death and are rising up in nonviolent resistance and creative action.  Surely God is on the side of those who love life and are willing to give themselves fully to the struggle out of love, as Jesus did. The compassion and passion that motivated Jesus may save us yet, as his risen Spirit lives and loves through us.  If we are willing, God will breathe new life into us, inspire us, empower us, and work through us to bring about healing and new life for all creation.

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