One of the best things about spring is the return of baseball season! I have to admit, I don’t follow baseball all that closely – I’m more of a football and basketball fan, personally – but the other day, I clicked into a sports article to see how the Nationals are faring so far this season. As I read about losing streaks, rosters limited by positive COVID tests, and unfortunate series sweeps, I was eager for any excuse to take my mind off these early season struggles. So, down the Internet rabbit hole I went until I found myself watching a video of the “Best MLB Brawls.”
Looking on as punches were thrown, opponents wrestled to the ground, and seas of blue and red converged on the field, I couldn’t help but think of our current political climate. It’s no secret that we live in deeply polarizing times. Partisan politics carves up our country, our communities, and even our dinner tables into teams of “us” and “them.” Policy debates, once characterized by respectful dialogue and ideological disagreements, devolve into shouting matches, stereotyping, and name-calling. We are constantly at odds with one another, and just as the dugout always clears whenever a fight breaks out, we can’t help but get swept up into the melee.
It’s surprising to think that the early church wasn’t all that different than the world we inhabit. First century Christians lived in a pluralistic society, with many different groups and ideologies in constant conflict with one another. Our Gospel reading this morning was written within the context of a community forged in the fire of religious conflict.
New Testament scholar M. Eugene Boring (Isn’t that a great name for a professor?) explains that the Johannine community began as Jews within the synagogue who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They continued to be observant Jews, and there’s no suggestion that there were any sorts of disputes with the synagogue leaders. Everything was great . . . at first.
But as the Christian understanding of Jesus developed further, the Jewish leaders grew more and more concerned that Jesus was being exalted to a level that challenged the Oneness of God, a belief that set them apart from the various other religions in the Greco-Roman world, giving them a distinct identify. Not only was this blasphemy, but it was a serious threat to their self-understanding.
These disputes between the Johannine Christians and the Jewish leaders intensified until the Johannine Christians were excluded from the synagogue. It would have been simple if this were just a matter of building use, but unfortunately, this was a much larger problem for these early Christians.
While the Christians were still within the synagogue, the Romans regarded them with toleration, as they did the other Jews. Once they became a separate community, the Christians no longer enjoyed the protection of belonging to a legal religion” (Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament, 636). This put them at risk for harassment, persecution, and even death.
Given this backdrop, it’s no wonder that our Gospel reading depicts a flock surrounded by threats. From thieves and bandits to wandering strangers and careless hirelings to ravenous wolves, the sheep are constantly under attack. Of course, these early Christians were hypervigilant about who comes inside the gates! Like the psalmist before them, who spoke of dark valleys and enemy threats, these early Christians knew what it meant to live amidst danger and conflict.
Even in this day and age, it can sometimes seem like we’re surrounded by threats. As the COVID-19 crisis rages on, experts tell us that anytime we leave our homes or gather together with others, tiny particulates, invisible to the naked eye, threaten to infect us. We are constantly besieged by an invisible enemy, a deadly virus that can spread silently. In a global pandemic, every breath is a risk, every public outing could be our downfall, every cough or sniffle might spell doom. We’re weary of weighing the risks and benefits of every single activity, yet we cannot afford to let our guard down.
And when everyday choices have life and death consequences, of course, there’ll be trouble when we encounter people whose decisions or viewpoints don’t line up with our own. We needn’t look past our news headlines to see the carnage of our own conflicts.
We’ve all seen video clips of customers berating store clerks who politely asked patrons to wear a mask. We’ve heard stories of people becoming irate when someone asks them to give them a little more space in the checkout line or the grocery aisle. We’ve noticed an uptick in racist comments and derogatory language casting blame on entire communities. We’ve bumped up against relatives whose expectations and boundaries and safety practices differ from our own.
When we’re surrounded by threats, plagued by life and death choices, our nervous systems are wired for fight or flight. And ooh boy, this pandemic has brought on some knockdown, drag out battles. After more than a year of life in lockdown, there seems to be ample cause for despair. The big bad wolf growls indiscriminately at all of our doors, and the thief threatens to steal, kill, and destroy.
Nevertheless, it’s into just this context that the Good Shepherd speaks. He doesn’t say, “let’s neutralize the threat by killing the wolf” or “let’s lock the wolf up and throw away the key.” Instead, the Good Shepherd lays down his own life for the sheep. Our shepherding God doesn’t give us a sword to intimidate and threaten our enemies. Instead, God sets us a table in their presence and invites us into dialogue and fellowship with them as we seek mutual understanding.
Admittedly, it’s a pretty risky strategy. In the real world, if a shepherd lays down her life for her sheep, the sheep would be even more vulnerable than they were before. After killing the shepherd, who’s to stop the wolf from hunting down and gobbling up the flock? Surely, it’s not a good game plan!
Yet, there’s something uniquely transformative about God’s self-sacrificial love. It’s a love that looks beyond the lines of us and them, a love that breaks down the dividing walls of hostility between us, a love that transcends conflict and invites us into the work of reconciliation. It’s a love that risks everything.
We know this love when we see it, Jesus tells us. It’s a love that is abundantly life-giving, a love that calls to us in the familiar voice of grace, a love that knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, a love that offers goodness and mercy and follows us all the days of our lives.
Even in the midst of so much turmoil, so much bitterness and polarization and distrust, the Church recognizes that Christ calls us out beyond our fear, out beyond our immediate self-interest, out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, and into mutual healing and reconciliation.
Sure, it’s easy to pick out the thieves and bandits and wolves, easy to label some people as bad guys, deserving of disdain. But there’s very little interpretive humility in that approach, and very little room for grace. The Good Shepherd sees beyond the artificial categories we create for ourselves and reminds us that “there are other sheep, not of this fold” and that no one, not even those other sheep will be excluded from God’s loving gaze.
That sort of all-encompassing love is alive and active in our world despite all the wolves that continue to prowl. Across the country, people are reaching out to their neighbors and helping one another make it through this incredibly challenging time. Landlords have shown grace when people have struggled to make ends meet. Teachers have gone the extra mile to make sure their students succeed. Volunteers helped folks sign up for vaccine appointments. Church groups sewed homemade face masks for their communities. Companies offered free internet hotspots so that people could stay safe and connected. Businesses made accommodations for parents home with their children. In countless, unexpected ways, a life-giving, shepherding kind of love is breaking through.
As we join together to offer comfort and support to people walking through the darkest valleys, each one of us has an opportunity to consider our role in creating greener pastures and more peaceful waters here in our community.
Where do you hear the Shepherd’s voice? What prowling wolves keep you up at night worrying for the safety of the flock? Where might we be called to offer life in abundance? May our Shepherding God guide us to the cruciform place where our fears meet God’s invitation, and may we know that goodness and mercy will always, always meet us there. Amen.