Gatekeeping and the Good Shepherd

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2012 Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

Do you remember when you joined the church? Different churches call that experience different things. For some, it is called commissioning class, what we call it. That suggests that the young people joining are being sent on a mission in the church and the world, and, in a sense, they are, and, in a sense, all of us are co-missioners with them. Other churches call it communicants’ class, because there was a time when that moment of joining was also the time when a young person first participated in the sacrament of communion. Others call it confirmation class, indicating that at the point of joining, the baptismal vows made long before by parents at infancy are confirmed.

The confirmation class at our church met every Thursday after school, from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m., exactly when every eighth-grader wanted to be at church. We met for most of the year, and then concluded things with an overnight retreat at the church. We joined the church on Mother’s Day, May 8.

I remember several things about that experience, many of them not particularly positive. I remember that we had to write a long affirmation of faith and then memorize it and recite it before the congregation. I remember having to write a five-page paper on some long-forgotten theological topic. I remember that overnight retreat – because I had a few years of piano lessons under my belt I was designated the class accompanist. Our class hymn was “Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord.” By the time I was done muddling through all the verses, I was actually praying that the Lord would take my mind, and perhaps the rest of me.

But here’s what I also remember. I remember my friends in that class, some of whom I still see from time to time when I am home, or I’ve reconnected with on Facebook. I remember the teachers – a pastor in this case – working hard to help us explore faith. I remember adult advisors and sponsors, who while they didn’t know exactly what they were getting into, liked us kids and wanted to support us.

And I remember that congregation on that Sunday morning, beaming with pride and gratitude and joy, not so much because a new crop of little Presbyterians had been hatched, but because the young people they had known and loved and cared for – had welcomed and accepted and shepherded -- had taken this step, this next big step, and they were simply grateful.

That feeling returned recently, as the Session met with and then formally welcomed six young people into this community of faith – Abby, Ian, Jobin, Lilly, Gabrielle, Anna. They had been welcomed long before, of course, some at baptism, some the minute they showed up.

We do things a bit differently now than my era, or perhaps yours. There is still a class, and still a creative project, a faith statement. And there are still supportive adults and faith partners. But the older model resembled something like opening up the top of your head and dispensing content, knowledge, what we believe about this and what we believe about that. Now you know that I believe that those beliefs are important. But our approach now is more organic, and, really, relates more broadly to how all of us are thinking about the faith, a journey, a process, a series of questions that leads to more questions, answers that are less about facts and more about relationships, with Jesus, with one another.

But the result is the same: gratitude and joy, a deep sense of acceptance and welcome, as community is widened and deepened and strengthened.

Compare that long-ago experience or this more recent one with another, as 65 or so of us – young people and adults from Third Church -- saw the fine documentary called “Bully.” I am still wrestling with understanding and even describing the experience of watching the film. Profoundly troubling. Heart wrenching. Highly sobering.

The film focuses on five youth – two of whom have taken their lives – and the ways that their universes, particularly their schools, have bullied them – though “bullying” is almost too civil of a term. Victimized. Brutalized. Kids can be cruel, to be sure. That’s one lesson. Another lesson is that adults can be complicit, actively or passively.

The film brought my own high school years immediately to the fore – times when I fit in, times when I was left out, times when I said something hurtful, in the locker room, on the bus, in the halls of the school, times when someone else did and I said nothing, the few times I might have stood up for someone else.

The film portrayed every which way that teens work to sort people out, to say who’s in and who’s out, by the way they look, or behave. And the sorting out is very, very cruel – sometimes physical, sometimes verbal, sometimes electronic -- the pain of watching only multiplied many times over by the pain of experiencing.

You should see “Bully,” whether you have children or grandchildren or not, both because it reflects a cultural reality and because we in this place have made baptismal promises for the children of this church.

In fact, the church doesn’t fare so well in the film “Bully.”

Three living teens are profiled. One, Kelby, is a sixteen-year old from Tuttle, Oklahoma. Once she comes out, she becomes a pariah in her small town and in her school. She is a good athlete but can’t play on any of the teams. Her parents turn to their church, where they are told that their daughter is a sinner, that her life is a sin. The parents go through a learning process in all of this. They come to poignant acceptance and offer the opportunity to move, for her sake. Kelty says no. She doesn’t want the bulliers to win, so with the support of her parents and a small group of friends, she stands her ground. Good for her, I thought.

Still, the experience of welcome that I received when I joined the church, the experience that these six young people have experienced and are experiencing and will experience, was not hers.

It is easy to criticize that church, that dynamic. And some criticism is certainly warranted. It’s harder to look inside and see where we – each of us – all of us – have contributed to separating, distinguishing, overtly or subtly, if not outright bullying. Can we correct those realities? And can we stand for those and with those who cannot? And can we do so in the name of the Good Shepherd, who is at the very crossroads of this intersection between the welcoming spirit of a commissioning class and the brutalizing menace of “Bully,” and who says, who insists, that all are welcome, all are included, and that those on the outskirts, the outliers, are pursued by this shepherd and brought back into the fold.

“The Lord is my shepherd.” Perhaps the most iconic words in all of the Bible. We often read them at the time of death, and rightly so. But consider them as words for all seasons, and particularly as words for when we are feeling lost, outcast, unwelcome, unsure – whether on the outside, for how we look or who we love or what we believe – or on the inside, for how we feel, how we sense the value and worth of our own lives.

The Lord is my shepherd. There is no evil to be feared. We live in God’s house always. God is my shepherd. No other shepherd needed. That shepherd who will lead, protect, restore, make right. That shepherd who will – when the threats of the world are swirling around us and cascading upon us – care for us and welcome us in. Always.

Walter Brueggemann writes: “The term shepherd is political in the Bible. It means sovereign,… authority, the one who directs, to whom I am answerable, whom I trust and serve. (Psalm 23) is clear,” Brueggemann says, “about the goal and focus, the center and purpose of life: (God) and no other.”

In another place, Jesus talks about the risk this shepherd is willing to take – to seek out and track down and bring back the one lost sheep out of 100, the outlier. No other shepherd will do that. So that not only are we welcomed when we show up, we are welcomed when we are lost and wandering.

Jesus then moves from talking of the good shepherd to becoming the good shepherd. The one who will lay down his life for the sheep. Think about that. In a world – then and now – a world when politics and religion and culture sort people out, identifying some as special and valued and blessed and the rest as outcasts, this shepherd will pursue us passionately to welcome us in. Think about that.

And he does it not because we are lesser, unworthy, spiritual charity cases. He does it because we are his friends.

Sandra Schneiders writes that “There are…no second-generation Christians. All are, as were the original disciples, in direct relationship with Jesus, who is present and active in the community. (Jesus) knows his own and they know him, and he calls them each by name. (Written That You May Believe, page 77)

This morning he calls Lilly, Ian, Anna, Gabrielle, Jobin, Abby by name. But he calls each of us by name. That is good news. It is perhaps the best news. That in a world of gate-keeping, of who’s in and who’s out, we move to an entirely different conversation about living out the promise and vision of community.

That’s why we are spending so much time on what we are calling inreach – not to launch clever programs that concoct community from nothing, but to further reveal the relationships that already exist – between sheep and shepherd and within the shepherd’s own community – all of us sheep – and enhance that community so that we can live in joy and hope and not dwell in the valley of shadows, of fear and anxiety.

That should make us feel grateful. But it should also make us feel challenged. Because not only does the promise of the good shepherd welcome and accept us; it welcomes and accepts all of God’s creatures, all of God’s children. As the shepherd gathers us in, so we become shepherds for those who may be lost, lost without food or shelter, lost without access to education, lost without hope, lost without voice, lost without love. Because the shepherd stands up for us, even if no one else does, we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, even at risk, even at great risk. At school. At work. In families. Wherever.

That is true if we are 12 or 32 or 62 or 92; living in this broken and bullying world is an exercise in seeking acceptance and navigating rejection. And we are accepted. By God. By the church, even when the church does not live fully into that vision. I believe that as much as I believe anything. We are accepted.

So our task is twofold – to accept that we are accepted, to accept that the good shepherd welcomes us in and cares for us, and, then, by extension, to work toward that for all.

That is why I am grateful for a church that so long ago welcomed an awkward, below-average piano-playing, questioning, unsure 14 year old, as it still does for me, as it does today for six extraordinary young women and men, as it has done for all of us. We are welcomed in love and sent out in hope. We are known and called by name. God is our shepherd. Amen.


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