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Sunday, June 14, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
From the very beginning, Jesus irritated many of the religious folk. They didn’t like the way he preached. They didn’t like many of the things he did. And they certainly did not like those with whom Jesus kept company. “Tax collectors and sinners,” they would sneer, lips curled up. “Loose women without a husband at home,” they would frown, lines permanently creased on their foreheads. “Allowing children into the center of a crowd,” they would grumble, shaking their heads back and forth. No, many of the good, upright religious people were not enamored with Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus knew it. It was impossible for him not to know, because they began to express their disgruntlement with his very first sermon. Maybe you remember the story. In Luke 4, we read that in the very beginning of the public phase of his ministry, Jesus went back to his hometown, back to the congregation who had loved him since his birth. He went back to be with those who had taken turns feeding him and walking around the congregational building when he got fussy during worship; those who had changed his diapers and laughed at his silly childhood jokes. He went back to them because they were his people, many of them as close as family. How could he not start there?
Yet do you remember what happened after he preached? His sermon drew such an anger and fury that he barely made it out of there with his life. His hometown congregation disliked his sermon so much that they wanted to throw him off a cliff for having the nerve to preach it! But what exactly set them off? What was it he said that made them forget all the love they once had for him? What did he preach that caught their hair on fire? Well, Jesus used words from the prophet Isaiah, and then he interpreted them for his day and his time.
He told his home congregation that God had sent him to preach good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives; to bring about recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free; and to announce that it was a jubilee year when all debts were to be erased and everyone got a fresh start. That was the text he used in his controversial sermon. That text is part of what enraged them so much they wanted to kill him for it.
You might wonder, then, what it was about the way Jesus interpreted that text that ignited so much fury. As far as I can tell, they grew so infuriated with Jesus because the more he spoke, the more they felt left out. They wanted to be the primary recipients of his time and energy, and yet in that first sermon, they did not hear him speaking directly to them. They did not feel he was including them. And they were right. Jesus pretty much made that exact point: he told them that he wasn’t going to focus on them right away.
As Jesus interpreted the Isaiah passage in his sermon, he was forthright in letting his hometown congregation know that his first mission was going to be to go and find those who were always overlooked; to seek out those who were always forced to the margins because of the way the structures of that culture had been set up; to pay particular attention to those whose voices had been long silenced. Those were the folks God had sent Jesus to care for first.
Through a couple of well-known stories, Jesus told them that they, the people of his hometown congregation in Nazareth, did not fit into those categories, which was why he was going to start his work elsewhere. Now, we do need to notice, though, that Jesus never told them he did not care for them. Nowhere in that sermon did he say he would never ever come back to them in order to proclaim God’s reign coming near, or to heal those who were sick, or to make sure they, too, knew they were loved. Nowhere in his sermon did Jesus say that those gathered in that sanctuary did not matter to him or to God.
Rather, Jesus simply preached that God was sending him first to those who were in danger. God was sending him first to those who were consistently overlooked. God was sending him first to those whose voices and agency had been stolen by people in power or societal structures that had been in place for a very long time. Jesus needed his hometown congregation to understand that for the sake of the whole world, God was sending him first to those who could not breathe, for a whole variety of reasons, most of which were completely out of the control of the breathless. For Jesus knew part of the reason he had come into the world was to be the breath of God, the breath of life, the breath of salvation, of wholeness, and of healing for those growing desperate for it.
And it was Jesus’ articulation that his call was to go first to those his congregation considered to be outsiders rather than to those who had always enjoyed the comfort of being insiders that angered them so much. As his hometown congregation began to realize that they were not the immediate priority for his mission, that they were not immediately centered in his ministry, they grew so incensed they tried to kill him. As I said in the beginning, many of the religious people did not like Jesus very much. And that is putting it lightly.
Those antagonistic feelings that so many of the religious insiders, those with power and prestige, carried for Jesus only intensified throughout Jesus’ ministry. We see that in the Gospel reading for today. Before we even get to the parables that Jesus told, we learn that the Pharisees and the scribes—that is shorthand for religious leaders like me—were grumbling again about what Jesus was saying, what Jesus was doing, and the company Jesus was keeping. “Here come all those tax collectors and sinners,” they sneered with a frown on their face, indignant in their murmuring.
Yet in response to their growing anger with him, Jesus chose to tell three parables. Lukan scholar Dr. John Carroll claims Jesus told these three parables partially out of the hope that the stories could help his critics understand where he was coming from. He hoped that the stories might break through to their hearts, enabling his critics to embrace the way he did his ministry, to embrace the way he particularly reached out to those always left out and left behind (John Carroll, Luke Commentary).
Jesus told the three parables in part because he wanted to persuade his righteous, religious critics that they, too, could become a part of his gospel work of liberation and salvation. Through the story about a lost sheep, the story about a lost coin, and the story about a lost son, Jesus was inviting them into the work. It is similar to what Jesus is always doing with us. Today, though, let’s just focus on the first parable of the shepherd and the sheep as we listen for the holy invitation.
It is a simple story, only really two verses long. A shepherd has 100 sheep in a flock and realizes that he cannot find one of them, meaning that one of them is in danger, and to the shepherd, that one sheep matters dearly. He loves that sheep and wants to make sure it, too, is OK. Furthermore, it also matters to the shepherd that his flock is not whole, that someone is missing from the safety of the family, that not all of his sheep are able to lie down in green pastures together or to walk beside the still waters. It matters to the shepherd that the one sheep he cannot find might be living in the shadow of the valley of death, fearing real evil. And so, because of that extreme care for the sheep that is in danger, the shepherd chooses to leave the ninety-nine behind to go and find the one who is missing.
Now the shepherd makes that choice probably realizing it is a controversial move. Not all shepherds would do such a thing. Some might not think the reward is worth the risk. After all, leaving the ninety-nine behind in order to go after the one does not make shepherding sense or economic sense. But regardless, that is exactly what the shepherd does. But what we need to be clear about is that the shepherd makes that choice not because the other ninety-nine sheep do not matter to the shepherd. Not at all. No, the shepherd makes that choice because the shepherd knows that until all the sheep in his flock are safe, then his work is not yet done.
Until all the sheep of the flock know they are sought and valued, the flock is not whole or complete. Until all the sheep in the flock are free to fully enjoy the abundant life in the pasture, then the celebration the Shepherd deeply longs to have must be put on hold. Until all 100 sheep stand side by side and flourish, all has not yet been made well. So even though the lives of those other ninety-nine sheep do matter to the shepherd, the one life of the sheep who is most in danger must matter first. Jesus’ parable sounds an awful lot like his first sermon, doesn’t it?
Those of you who are on the email distribution list of Fourth Church know that last Sunday afternoon, the Session of this congregation voted unanimously to hang a large banner on the outside of this sanctuary that states Black Lives Matter to God and to Us. In the motion that came to the Session, endorsed by both the program staff and the Racial Equity Council of Fourth Church, we stated, “This action will clearly and publicly demonstrate in a tangible way Fourth Church’s commitment to anti-racism as it aligns itself with the message at the very heart of what is at stake in this moment: the dignity, value, and beauty of Black lives.”
“While raising this banner is a powerful gesture of our congregation’s affirmation of Black people and our denunciation of anti-Black violence,” the motion continues, “it is but one part of an ongoing commitment. Our banner serves as a pledge of faithfulness that does not stop with a public proclamation. For if Black lives truly matter, they must matter for Fourth Church’s ministries of worship, education, mission, pastoral care, and evangelism for all ages. As congregational leaders and staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church, this banner serves as a sign that we will redouble our efforts to seek the welfare of the whole city and ensure that all God’s people, including Black people, have life, health, and are able to flourish.”
I am sure it is obvious by now that I draw a direct line from Jesus’ primary concern of always, always seeking out first those members of our human family most impacted by oppression; most maligned by the power structures of the day; most at risk of not being able to flourish due to the powers and principalities of hate and marginalization, disenfranchisement and exclusion. I draw a direct line from what Jesus has always been about to the anti-racism work we are called to do today as church.
Furthermore I draw a direct line from Jesus’ inaugural sermon about those to whom he is called to liberate and to minister to first to this parable about seeking out the one sheep most in danger, because that sheep’s life matters to the shepherd and it better matter to the rest of the flock. And that direct line continues from those biblical proclamations to our Session’s decision to proclaim as loudly as we can that Black lives matter, the decision to put up on the outside of our sanctuary at Michigan Avenue and Delaware Place on the Gold Coast of Chicago that Black lives matter to God and Black lives matter to this community of faith.
Even though we are all in the same storm right now, many of us experience the tumult differently from each other, so let me say this next part specifically to those worshiping today who are white. It is critical that the church make this public commitment, because those of us in predominately white denominations have gotten this terribly wrong for centuries. We have lived and acted and voted in ways that have kept the violent system of white supremacy in place because, even though it also endangers our souls, it worked for us. And it is going to take a whole lot more than merely hanging a banner to repent of and repair that truth.
And to the people of color and Black folk worshiping today, I know many of us are late to this moment. Many of us are generations late in naming the reality you have lived with since forever in this country. By our silence, we have broken our baptismal vows in which we renounce all that is evil. And we have not fully honored the image of God in you. And speaking for myself, I grieve that truth. I am sorry. But I also know that my white guilt does not get us anywhere useful and only leaves me stuck. So I’m trying to keep moving forward.
For until we see action that embodies that Black lives matter as much as white lives and we see that affirmation written into legislation, and into public policy, and into decisions for public health, and into funding for public schools, and into reforms for public safety—until those things come to pass, we must keep at it, making this public commitment again and again, following it up with our own action within and outside of this congregation, while refusing the temptation to simply stop at what my daughter has taught me is performative activism.
For those who believe in freedom cannot rest. Those who believe in the freedom of the people of God cannot rest until the whole beautiful, diverse, eclectic flock of God’s people are all gathered together in safety and in health; are all able to lie down in green pastures and be led beside the still waters; are all able to breathe without fear of violence or hate coming their way simply because God created them to be dark and lovely. Until all the sheep of God’s flock are celebrated by each other and valued by each other and that value shows up in the ways in which we order our collective and political life—until that happens, the party the Shepherd longs to throw cannot begin, and we will still not be whole, still not be who God has created us to be together.
Siblings in Christ, let us not be like those upright religious folks always grumbling and sneering and angry at Jesus for his ministry of justice and compassion. Rather, let us all open ourselves up to what the Spirit is teaching us in these days and vow to not rest until freedom comes for all and God’s party of restoration can finally begin. Amen.