Overcoming Bad Theology: The Good Shepherd

There’s a certain hazard to being a person of faith today. Being a person of faith is difficult today because bad theology abounds, bad purportedly “Christian” theology. Last week I talked a bit about an idea of the cross we that abounds in our so-called Christian culture. This morning I want to spend some time with the idea of exceptionalism. The Gospel today asks questions about insiders and outsiders. Who is welcome at the table?

American Exceptionalism comes with a theological framework The idea goes back before our founding as a country, to the puritans. John Winthrop and his gang wanted to escape the Catholic trappings in the Church of England, to come to America and build a “city on a hill.” They saw themselves as the exception, the shining example for the world.

When I speak of exceptionalism, I mean it in a few ways. First there is that sense in which America thinks of itself as both the world’s police, and above the law. America sends people to the international criminal court in the Hague. We helped write the international accords that establish the International Criminal court. But we ourselves never became subject to its jurisdiction. America often thinks of itself as the exception to the rule, and the exceptionalism extends beyond the corridors of Washington.

We helped to author the Paris Climate Agreement. We helped to establish the benchmarks for curbing climate change, yet, yet, it was simple for the current president to quickly undo the promises of the previous administration. Quitting the climate change agreement was not political suicide. Thank God for the young people, the young activists, the youth who keep bringing this issue to the front of the table, but there is a certain exceptionalism in America when the general voting public thinks we ought to be free from the constraints agreed upon by world leaders. There is an exceptionalism that says, yes, you need to do something about climate change, but we’re going to ignore that consensus. There is a certain exceptionalism in America when a political leader can get away with such a decision and not be held accountable. That America is the exception to the international rule is the first sense of exceptionalism.

The first understanding relies on an understand of the second meaning of exceptionalism in America. This second aspect runs deep. It is important to remember that who counts in America has always been a sense of an exception within the wider populace. The framers of the constitution only gave the vote to white, property owning, man. They ignored the fact that much of that property was stolen from Native Americans. Never mind that some of the property that counted when the constitution was framed were enslaved African human beings. Never mind that women’s labor kept families together, hearths burning, flags flying. Only a certain few, an exception in the wider populace, counted, voted, had a voice.

The taking of land from Indigenous Americans was justified with this theology. The theft of life, liberty, and labor from enslaved Africans was justified with an American theology. In the background in some of the worst abuses in American history was a church teaching that European, white, male, land-owning Americans had a special role in God’s drama. The rights, even the lives, of others were secondary, at best. A certain class of person was deemed “exceptional,” the worthy few.

Finally there is a third new kind of exceptionalism that pays lip service for the value of diversity. The understanding of American exceptionalism has subtly shifted, but only subtly. We still look for exceptions in America. I can’t count the number of times I have heard, as an openly gay man, “well, but you’re not one of THOSE gays.” At first pass, I understand that the speaker means to pay me a compliment. You’re part of the exception. You’re like us. You’re not other. You’re not so different. I wonder how many others in the congregation have heard a version. Well, you’re black, but you’re not one of THOSE folks out on the streets protesting the police. Well, she’s a woman, but she’s not a crazy feminist. American exceptionalism has been expanded, subtly, to allow exceptions to the rule. But the rule is still there. A few folks are allowed into the office, diversity hires. A few folks are invited around the table, to prove a point.

As long as we treat people as the “exception” to the rule, as long as we privilege certain cultural sets of behaviors, particular way of being, we continue to play out the background theology that God blesses some over others. There is a theology, a dangerous theology in our exceptionalism.

Jesus offers a theology that is more challenging, more daring, and frankly far more beautiful. 

Jesus tells two well-known stories today. The story of the woman who searches her home for the silver coin, but more iconically the story of the lost sheep. I’m using the work “iconically” literally. Often Jesus has been depicted as the shepherd carrying home the lost sheep.

Let’s re-read how Jesus started telling these stories. Luke writes, “The legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Pause. Jesus tells the story because the religious lawyers didn’t like the folks gathered around his table. Jesus was invited outsiders into the party, into the house, in to break bread. Jesus brought in all the wrong people.

In response to those who are offended by Jesus’ gathering, by the sinners and tax collectors and outcasts he keeps as company Jesus says:

Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it?

Now hold on, let’s question Jesus’ built in assumption: These men of power and wealth disputing with Jesus, are they the kind who would risk the ninety nine for the sake of the one? Would these folks leave the pasture, risk other sheep escaping, would they risk the 99 for the sake of the one? I am not sure they would.

I find myself asking if Jesus is preaching a very different kind of exceptionalism here. To Jesus no sheep, no citizen, no country, no class is exceptional. To Jesus every one matters. Every single one. No one is left behind.

God cares so much that God will risk the safety and comfort of the many to save the few. Jesus points to a vision of grace, a vision of caring, a vision of love that is truly exceptional. Unless all God’s flock is accounted for, the work is not done.

Friends, we live in a world with a strong background theology. That theology points out the exceptional people. The theology lifts up a few folks and says: see how successful they are, see how wealthy, see their wonderful houses, their kids who somehow got into the best schools. See them? They are those who are blessed by God. This is a theology that for the sake of lifting up a few insiders has relied on creating and using outsiders.

This theology plays out in our views about race, about gender. This theology is in the background of our discussions about immigration, about who is entitled to a chance at making a better life in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

For centuries now this theology has been in the background, the dominant understanding of Christianity in our country. But the God Jesus preaches about is so much more loving, so much less petty. The God Jesus knows, the God Jesus wants us to embrace, that God seems to require a different theology, a different understanding.

The story of the lost sheep is a story about equity, a story about a God who embraces those who have been called sinners. It is the story of a God who chases down the ones who are left behind, and brings them to the table. This is a God who does not respect human boundaries. This is a God who loves those who have been told they don’t count. This is a God who pursues you, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been, whoever you love, whatever your back story. This God chases you down. This God lifts you up. Jesus’ God is a God who doesn’t leave a soul alone, who can’t stand for one, not even one person to be left out, to feel lost. This beautiful vision of God brings all people, lifts up all people, carries them home.

Doubtless you will ask about that final line. “That’s great Mike,” you’ll say, but then why does Jesus say the sinner has to “change heart and mind” or in a more traditional translation, what does Scripture say the sinner need to “repent?” I think our Common English Translation does us a favor here. Jesus says, “Joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and mind.” Again, I point you back to the beginning of the story to ask, whose hearts and minds is Jesus most interested in changing: The folks at his table? Or the self-righteous religious authorities? Does Jesus turn the table here? Are the “sinners” in the eyes of Jesus those who would be denied a place at the table, or are the sinners, those who miss the point, those who would deny someone a place? Are the religious authorities the ones who need to change their hearts and minds?

We live in a world with a lot of bogus religious authority. I would argue our best hope, our only hope, is a better theology. To build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ table-turning vision. This is the question today’s Gospel leaves us, in a world full of bad theology, theology that hurts, theology that costs lives. In a world full of bad theology does your theology tell a better story?

In a world where many believe, many preach, that God blesses the few at the expense of the many, what is your story? What good news do you have to share. The answer to bad theology isn’t no theology. The answer isn’t silence. The answer is better theology. How do we reflect a better theology? How do we help people to know that God doesn’t choose an exceptional few? How do we show folks that is so exceptional, what is truly exceptional is that our God chooses each and every person, all of us. God goes after the least. God lifts up the left out. God won’t let even one person get lost. How do we help people to know that what is truly exceptional in our world is the love, the grace, the mercy of God? How do we show God’s exceptional love in our world?

Friends, I have to say, I think we have a start here at Holy Communion. This is a table, this is a religious movement that gathers together a scandalously strange assortment of folk. As we grow as a congregation, how do we keep making room? How do we keep holding space? How do we keep opening our table wide? And how do we show the wide loving fellowship of God not just at church, but in the workplace, at school, in our own homes? Do our parties look like Jesus’? Who does your table offend? Whose heart and mind will your table invite to change?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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