Sunday, July 17, 2016 (Pride Jazz Service)
Biblical Text: Ezekiel 34
Facing my writing desk is a sign that simply reads: “Lord, let me do no harm.” It is a reminder of the importance and significance of the sacred work to which I have been called by Christ and ordained by the church to extend in the world.
“Lord, let me do no harm” becomes my prayer as I write because I recognize that so much harm has been done in the name of God to all kinds of people; justifying racism, sexism, classism, slavery, gender discrimination xenophobia, Islamaphobia, homophobia and police brutality—pushing all kinds of wonderfully gifted people of God—who carry the divine spark of God within—from the green pastures of life in the church.
“Lord, let me do no harm” becomes my writing mantra because I recognize that while the church may be quiet as a mouse during the sermon, which especially challenging for a black preacher steeped in a call-and-response tradition, words matter—every word matters.
“Lord, let me—your called out shepherd, do no harm.”
Pastors are often named as shepherds, coming from the agrigarian culture from which this text emerges. It speaks of both risk and the reward. Within the ancient world sheep were considered to be very valuable possessions—for within their life was a source of nourishment (milk and meat), wool for clothing, tents and trade—this was the reward for the shepherd, but the shepherd’s life sometimes dangerous and difficult was also risky. The shepherd’s primary job was to provide safety to a defenseless flock, to ensure ample food and water, and most importantly to protect them from predators—both human and animal.
The idea of shepherding trickles down from antiquity—to modern times where the shepherd, the pastor, the leader—a theologian in residence, is called by God to the same work: to protect, to care, to feed and love the flock—a people belonging to God.
So when we hear and read in the book of Ezekiel this challenging word spoken to the shepherds, those who carry the responsibility of tending sheep;
–it challenges all who anchor their hopes and truth claims in this Holy Book to find themselves at work bringing about the kin-dom of God.
–it challenges all who hold to these truth claims to spend less time eating the fat, clothing oneself with the wool, slaughtering the fatling
and ruling over the sheep with force and harshness.
No, the sheep are to be fed and protect.
They are to strengthened and guarded.
They are to found and nursed to healing.
They are to be loved…
But Ezekiel call them out in the text!
The shepherds have not been feeding the sheep,
they have not been strengthening the weak,
they have not been healing the sick,
they have not been binding up the injured,
they have not been bringing back the strays,
they have not been seeking the lost….
The prosperity gospel and the religious right—who recently has vision of Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God—taking Jesus’ very own spot according to my bible—they signify the force and harshness against life that Ezekiel is calling out.
It is the very heavy handed oppression and enslavement of ones freedom, ones creativity, ones diversity, one uniqueness that scatters the sheep from the care of the shepherd in the first place. The shepherds have failed to do their job, to not only protect and care for the fold—but to seek out the lost and bring them back into community.
The church has done a pretty poor job of caring for the LGBT community—there are still way too few communities of faith where people of faith who happen to be same-gender loving, trans or queer—can gather, worship and know the protective loving and care of a good shepherd—pastor.
Even while our denomination has been radically open, being the first of any mainline denomination to welcome, celebrate and affirm LGBT clergy and denominational leaders—there are still communities within the United Church of Christ where it is not safe be queer.
There are for too many shepherds and communities of faith who celebrate the by-products of the queer community—as the text says “the fat, the wool, the meat and the milk” but when it comes to extending the gifts of the church—allows all people equal access to the full life—sacraments, rites and rituals of the church—they are denied.
Bring your musical gift to the church.
Bring your administrative gift to the church.
Bring your poetic gift to the church.
Bring your liveliness to the church.
Bring your vivaciousness to the church.
–but don’t bring your full self…. WE DON’T WANT ANY OF THAT.
Several months ago I listened intently to a conversation between a mega church pastor and Professor Kelly Brown Douglass an Episcopal priest and author of “Black Bodies and the Black Church”; a sweeping book in which she develops a strong theology for blues bodies and preaches that “as long as the black church cannot be a home for certain bodies, such as LGBT bodies, then it has forsaken its very black faith identity.”
The conversation between the two shepherds was about the role of sexuality in the Black Church. On the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, where budding shepherds, religious scholar, public theologians and theological educators come to terms with their callings for ministry I tuned into the conversation via Social Media: a shaky Periscope video streaming on my cell phone with random ‘Amen’s and “did she just say that?” and my eyes glued to Twitter on my laptop as shepherds and religious thinkers from around the nation chimed in with 140 word sound bites:
Black boys need to know that their bodies and emotions matter!
We don’t need purity circles we need responsibility circles!
I am a recovering sexist. I am a recovering heterosexist
Some gay folk have been so abused by the church that they still don’t trust even a church like ours…
We must be on the side of the crucified of our time…
And my own 140-word sound bite:
The Black Church must examine and re-examine its theology, history and tradition in the light of liberation and Freedom for all.
Upon the Ivy League campus of Princeton where budding shepherds of various denominational traditions are being shaped and formed by some of the nations best and brightest academics and pastoral leaders, the nation engaged in a serious theological debate about what it means for the church—the body of Christ, a flock belonging to God–to really love its neighbor, and what does it mean for shepherds to seek to the lost, the bring back the stray, to bind up the injured, to heal the sick and strengthen the weak….
The truth of the matter is that Love and Justice are as intertwined as one’s own body and soul. God’s call for the shepherd—for the flock at large which is constituted as the priesthood of all believers, is always be found moving toward acts of justice, care, restoration, reconciliation and unconditional love. The kind of love that Martin King writes of as inclusive and expansive love—Inclusive in that all are welcomes all people, expansive in that is grows each days to include more and more in the kin-dom of God.
The work of shepherding, is a responsibility that God has given to us. It is not God’s job to do—but as the text is so very clear, God can and will do it when we become unwilling: Shepherding the flock; strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bring back those who stray, finding the lost—that all our job.
Shepherding is not just for the pastor:
Shepherding is the work of the moderator.
Shepherding is the work of the diaconate.
Shepherding is the work of the trustees
Shepherding is the work of the Sunday school teacher
Shepherding is just for the church.
Shepherding is the work of the bank manager
Shepherding is the work of the professor
Shepherding is the work of the school teacher
Shepherding is the work of the politician
Shepherding is the work of the doctor and lawyer
Shepherding is the work of the entrepreneur and activist
Shepherding is the work of the solider and sailor
Shepherding is the work of the father and mother
God steps in only when we failed to function in our prescribed role of love and care— make not mistake, God refuses to see any of children, rainbow children and all others, without the care of loving shepherd…
And so God steps in and says,
I will be their shepherd.
I will be their leader.
I will be their caregiver.
I will be their protector.
I will be their covering.
I will show them love.
I will show teach them.
They will be my people, and I will be there God.