April 22, 2018 Sermon – “A Place at the Table”

Easter Sermon Series, Week 3

A Place at the Table

Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder, April 22, 2018

Are sheep stupid?

That’s their reputation, isn’t it?

But is that true? I wanted to know.

So I asked Google.

The very first result was an article from the BBC that claimed sheep are grossly misunderstood and unfairly stereotyped [link here].

The reality, this article said, is this:

Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter. They are also one of the most destructive creatures on the planet.

From this description, sheep don’t sound too different from humans, do they?

I learned more about sheep from a Barbara Brown Taylor sermon[2] on the passage from John, in which she talked with someone who had raised sheep. She learned that sheep develop strong bonds with their shepherds. The shepherd can walk through the flock with no problem, but a stranger doing the same thing would cause pandemonium. The sheep and their shepherd also develop their own communication system. “A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that a cluck of the tongue means food, or a two-note song means that it is time to go home.”

She also learned that sheep aren’t like cows—they can’t be driven from behind, like cowboys on horseback do with shouts and sometimes the crack of a whip. If the shepherd makes noises behind the sheep, the sheep will just circle around behind the shepherd. Cows can be pushed; but sheep? Sheep must be led. Sheep aren’t going anywhere their shepherd hasn’t been.

Sheep trust their shepherd because the shepherd has proven him- or herself to be trustworthy. The shepherd doesn’t run away at the first sign of trouble. The shepherd stays with sheep, even when, especially when the going gets tough, because the shepherd loves the sheep, and the sheep love the shepherd in return.

So, the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is good and appropriate.

After my research this week I feel quite a bit better about Christians as sheep—not mindless followers, but companions who trust with good reason.

Of course, the metaphor of disciples as sheep has some limitations.

One enormous difference between us and sheep is that we aren’t invited to simply follow the shepherd; we are invited to become like the shepherd.

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One of my spiritual practices is to pray Psalm 23. It’s one of the prayers I use with my prayer beads, or repeat to myself as I walk our dog in the early morning.

For the last several months my brain has gotten stuck—stuck on the first part of verse 5:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…

I get stuck because I want to know what that looks like, exactly.

Are the enemies standing off at a distance, looking on but not invited to the feast, unwelcome at the table?

Is it a show of favoritism, of blessing to one and not the others?

Or, are my enemies at the table, too?

In the original telling of the psalm, I suspect it was intended that the enemies were excluded from the table.

But when I interpret this psalm through Jesus the Good Shepherd, the one who loves and cares for us and who leads us—sometimes into dangerous and uncomfortable places?

Well, I just don’t think there is any getting around Jesus as a table host for ALL, even the ones we consider our enemies. (Especially the ones we consider our enemies.)

Who is your enemy? Your rival? Who gets under your skin? And how does the Good Shepherd challenge your thinking about and relating to these enemies?

This last week I’ve been reading Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the world, located in Los Angeles. Father Greg, or G or G-Dog as the Homies call him, is full of wisdom, grace, joy and the kind of faith I wish that I had more of. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

In the introduction, Father Greg writes about the kinship of God. What does that kinship look like? Boyle writes, “…survival of the fittest is displaced by the survival of the ‘unfittest.’ Cherry-picking makes way for ‘reverse cherry-picking.’ What if we ceased to pledge our allegiance to the bottom line and stood, instead, with those who line the bottom? Us versus Them…or just Us? Good people/bad people…or just God’s people?” (p. 7)

Father Greg tells this beautiful story about one of the homies, a young man who like so very many others had turned to gangs because he was an orphan, abandoned and abused by his parents. But at Homeboy Industries, this young man found acceptance, love, a new family, new kinship.

Shortly after Christmas, Father Greg saw this young man and asked him where he was for the holiday.

“Oh, just right here.”

I said, “Alone?”

And he said, “No, I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn’t have no place to go,” he said. He named them, and they were enemies, from different gangs, rivals.

I said, “What’d you do?”

He goes, “You’re not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey.”

I said, “Well, how’d you prepare the turkey?”

He says, “Well, you know, ghetto-style…,You rub it with a gang of butter, and you squeeze two limones on it, and you put salt and pepper, put it in the oven. Tasted proper,” he said….

“Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done…”

And Father Greg observes, what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen, waiting for a turkey to be done?[3]

In the kinship of God, enemies don’t exist anymore.

If former gang bangers, young people who have grown up in a violent neighborhood in which the only security seemed to be aligning yourself with a gang and becoming part of the violence—if they can discover their kinship and eat a Christmas turkey together? Well…

On Friday morning around 100 students from Mount Vernon High School participated in a National Student Walkout, remembering the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine. I went over to stand witness with them. It was a peaceful assembly. There was a small group of students who disagreed with the protest, but they came out, too, to observe. Well done.

The only disruption was when a truck with a Confederate flag on the license plate and two young men inside drove by—and yelled insults and obscenities at the crowd.

They raised my hackles. I thought unkind, judgmental thoughts. And then I remembered the Good Shepherd, and I imagined myself sitting at a table with these yahoos who are being deliberately obtuse by choosing to ignore the meaning of the Confederate flag!!!!

Pray for them, my better angels told me.

One last thought on sheep: Sheep are fairly defenseless, so they have learned that their survival depends on sticking together. They don’t really have the option of going it alone. They need each other.

The same is true for us. We need each other. Stay together. Make a place for everybody. Keep our eyes on the Good Shepherd.

That’s how we’ll make it in this world. That’s how we’ll make this world…into the kinship of God. Amen.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (1993, Crowley Publishing), “The Voice of the Shepherd,” pp. 140-141.

[3] Krista Tippett and Greg Boyle, On Being Podcast, “The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship,” November 22, 2017.