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The Good Shepherd and the Sheep

Updated: Apr 21

How many of you have adult children who do not go to church?

How many of you have grandchildren who you do not know when/if they will baptized? Or grandchildren that you do not know if their parents who were raised in the church, will raise them in the church?

I'm sorry to get right down to brass tacks but this is the elephant in the room when we talk about young adult ministry. Maybe it feels awkward to name, maybe it feels like a confession, maybe it just feels like grief. If that's where you find yourself, let me just say,,, I'm there with you. I see you. I get it. Your feelings are real and also look how much company you have.


When I was in seminary, I was required to take an interfaith elective course and I bargained for it to be a class on Atheism, specifically sociology course in American Atheism with the Jesuits across the street, a sort of top to bottom survey of this growing category of the religious unaffiliated, asking do we think and talk about and understand people who don't go to church. We read the early sociologists, Sigmund Freud and Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx, and we read the mean Atheists guys, Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris, and then we read a bunch of the new academics on atheism: works that framed the whole thing in reality as much more gentle and nuanced than the sharp-toothed 'atheism' or 'anti-theism'. Through this course, we drew out the spectrum of religious nonidentification, colloquially and broadly termed: the 'Nones'

One of the books we read was written by the professor called The Varieties of Non-religious Experience wherein he interviewed -- with the help of some grad students -- 300 religiously unaffiliated individuals, folks who identified across the spectrum as atheists, agnostics, humanists. And over chapters and chapters of his sharing and narrating these people's lives-- demographic data, ethnographic profiles, quotations and survey data, and suffused through it their hopes and passions, how they see the world, what they want for the world-- I remember thinking,,, [huh! These people sound quite a lot like Episcopalians!].

I say that not to take a jab at Episcopalians--a jab we often are made to take from other Christians. But rather I say it because it can feel tempting to think that the difference between the people who go to church and the people who don't is night and day!

But what he described in this book was a couple hundred individuals who care about many of the same things we do--

they love their friends, their families, their communities;

they wanted to help the less fortunate,

they wanted to protect the environment,

they felt passionately about the political causes that they fought for,

these religious unaffiliated struggled with how to be kind in a cruel world, they had days where they felt hopeful about the future of our country and other days where they were not so sure.

-- And they also did not go to church.

I realized that the difference between me and most of these nonreligious was not night and day, it was more,, evening and dusk. It was not that our lives were polarized in opposite directions, it's that we had nine things in common and a tenth thing not in common. The tenth thing to be sure is a very important thing but it is not a domino that always knocks down the other things.

We want to show love to the world, both locally and globally and so do they. We do it through God and church, and they do it without.

The first letter of John, which we read this morning, draws out the complicated dynamic between love and belief, between these two strands of the Gospel DNA. In our passage this morning, John tells us that Jesus's commandments to us are two-fold and quite simple-- believe in Jesus as the son of God, and love one another, these are of course the words of the Greatest Commandment found in and among the Gospels. And he draws out these two halves of the commandment as maybe two sides of the same coin.

He says that you cannot just claim a belief God-- and the rewards of belief-- if you do not do what the belief in God evokes from us which is love of neighbor. He says whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. He says that to believe without love is really not to believe at all. He also says that to love is to know God.

He says that love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

I don't want to get lost in lining up the Sudoku puzzle of John's many many claims, but perhaps it would be as if to ask, what is the distance between a Christian who loves and an agnostic who loves, how does it compare to the distance between a Christian who loves and a Christian who hates. What is the distance between someone who believes but does not love and someone who loves but does not believe.

Perhaps the first important difference between the religious and the non-religious is not the ifs and hows of our belief, but ifs and hows of our love: the hopes we have for the world, the generosity we believe we owe one another, the ways we reconcile. The ifs and hows of our beliefs are made complete-- they are made vital, they are made true-- in the ifs and hows of our love. If the first question is how do you love? then the second might be, well how did you come to that love?

This is not to say, of course that the differences in beliefs between the religious and the nonreligious are inconsequential, but maybe,, maybe, if John says that God abides in us and we in Him because of our love, that God's got us because of our love, then maybe if they've got love,, then God's got them, too.

At the end of that atheism course and in the years since, I've continued to wonder: for all the things that make us as Episcopalians similar to our non-church-going friends and family and neighbors, how do name what it is that makes us distinct from one another? And how is that distinction important. And all I can think is that at the end of the day, we've got Church, which means we belong to a flock and we belong to a Shepherd.

I don't think that anybody will disagree that at the end of the day, it is really hard work to love in this world -- Love that can feel thankless at times, in a world so parched of Love giving love away can feel like pouring out of ourselves into a storm drain.

It is hard work to Love in this world, and yet we claim a shepherd who leads us in that work of Love. We have a flock that keeps us moving in the direction of that love,

if we give ourselves over to the shepherd and to the flock.

As the religiously affiliated, we have chosen to be accountable to a religion, to God and to one another in the shape of Church, accountable to that work of love that we call The Gospel. And if we do it right, our relationship with God is always pointing us toward love, our reading of scripture points sharpens us in care and generosity, any time at all spent in community means conflict and conflict begs of us the skills of apology and forgiveness and reconciliation. As the Church, we love because a little thing called the Resurrection means that there is love lost in the fullness of time.

We have a shepherd and a flock and it is understandable to wonder what it is in atheism or humanism or non-religiosity that keeps them loving when the loving gets tough. And that is simply not the first question I would seek to ask or answer, though perhaps it is as easy as The well having no need of a physician.

Rather I might dare to name that sometimes the Christian church acts as a flock without need of a Shepherd, sometimes the Christian church acts as a collection of sheep and not a flock.

It is incumbent upon us in our witness to the world in our witness to the nonreligious, not first to say they should be more like Christians, but to first make sure that Christians are who we say we are.

It is vital to our witness that when the flock would otherwise want to scatter, we gather back up, that when you or I lose our direction that the flock keeps us moving in the right direction, that when the Shepherd calls us to care, to give, to confess, to reconcile, to forgive, that we heed the voice of the Shepherd -- Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit. It is vital to our witness to show that you can get farther in the work of love with this flock than without it.

Our witness to the world is

not that we are better at loving than other people,

not that we are more right than other people,

not that our meaning making makes more meaning than your meaning making,,

our witness to the world -- our invitation to our neighbors -- is to say that, you know what, if you're out there in the world trying hard to do the work of love, God has probably got you whether you like it or not, and because God's got us, we've got you too. It's rough out there trying to Love in a cold world, but if we work really hard to let the Shepherd keep us on track, we can keep you on track too.


1 John 3:16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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