Wanted: intentional, radical, revolutionary, law-breaking, badass shepherds
Protecting LGBTQ lambs from the wolves
My sermon on March 19, 2023 at Bluegrass United Church of Christ in Lexington, Kentucky.
The audio is available at kennybishop.com/podcast or on your favorite podcasting service.
John 9: 1-41 (NRSV)
As he walked along, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth… he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”… Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
… Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see."
Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath. He is a sinner"
[The beggar] answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."
… [The Pharisees] answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."
Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."
He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him.
Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."
This past Thursday morning started out pretty well. I was up extra early to get to Frankfort for the Governor’s Annual Prayer Breakfast. This was the 55th time that a governor of the Commonwealth has invited folks to come together for a time of prayer, spiritual reflection, and inspiration.
Even though it was early and I knew it was going to be a really long workday, I was feeling pretty good on the drive in. Earlier in the week, a particularly bad piece of legislation (in my opinion) that would force schools to remove questionably “objectionable” books from their libraries had stalled, and it looked like it may actually be dead. I was glad.
I agree that there are some materials, words, and images that young eyes and minds should be protected from. But best I could tell in this case, the people whose children would be protected weren’t making those judgment calls or those decisions, politicians were - the government was. And that is a dangerous, dangerous path to take - especially because nowadays it seems like the only “acceptable” content our state legislature feels is appropriate for our children downplays or even eliminates the sins of our nation’s past - the genocide and forced removals, the racism, sexism, bigotry, homophobia, and abuses that the ruling class was not only allowed to perpetrate on its victims but was both legal and encouraged. The danger of erasing that history and those horrific deeds and pretending they didn’t happen, and willfully neglecting to teach our children about it means it could happen again. So I was breathing easier Thursday morning knowing that that particular bill was not moving ahead.
I was also feeling good Thursday morning because another bill that would label drag performers as “adult entertainers” and make them criminals for appearing in public had just undergone a major rewrite that pretty much took most of the teeth out of it. But even watered down, it was still an unnecessary and vindictive piece of legislation intended to vilify the LGBTQ+ community - but at least it wasn’t as drastic and far-reaching as it started out to be.
And another bill that would forbid teachers from talking to their students about anything other than acceptable heterosexual behavior and prohibited schools from advising teachers on how to be sensitive with trans students who wish to be called by their preferred names and pronouns - that bill too had been shut down and not allowed to advance.
There was an incredible amount of legislation in Frankfort this year targeting the LGBTQ+ community. Adding it all up, it amounts to a government-endorsed perception that we who are part of that community are dirty and dangerous and should be ashamed of who we are - apparently dirty enough and dangerous enough and shameful enough that the public needs to be protected from us.
We’ve all seen the stories about other states passing those kinds of laws. Thursday morning I was feeling good that our legislature wasn’t allowing itself to follow in the footsteps of those other states that have happily tried to erase multicultural histories and experiences and put targets on the backs of the LGBTQ community.
At the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, rabbis, reverends, legislators (both progressive and conservative), and even a supreme court justice read scriptures and offered prayers. Governor Beshear told us how he relies on God’s strength and guidance when he has to make some of the incredibly hard decisions someone in his position has to make.
The special speaker at the breakfast was Darnell Ferguson. He shared his story about growing up in a community and an environment that didn’t encourage achievement or ambition. As a kid he loved to cook, so a few years after high school, he decided to attend culinary school. He graduated, but he couldn’t maintain his focus - he spent months in and out of jail and living out of his car. Then, mostly out of desperation, he ended up in a church one day and heard about hope. It changed his life. Today he’s known as SuperChef, and hosts the most popular show on the Food Network called Superchef Grudge Match.
I was feeling pretty good Thursday morning, and I was starting to feel relief knowing that the state legislature was about to wrap up its work and head home without passing all of that misguided and lopsidedly-informed anti-LGBTQ legislation.
I sat at the governor’s breakfast feeling encouraged and inspired. I listened to SuperChef talk about growing up wanting to be someone. He talked about the people who inspired him and believed in him. At one point he referred to one of his mentors as a shepherd which made me think about you and our church - and this day - and this sermon that I’d been praying about and meditating on.
“I always dreamed that I’d matter one day,” Darnell said.
And I thought, “To that Shepherd, you mattered.”
He said, “I always wanted to be someone.”
And I thought, “To that Shepherd, you are someone.”
He said, “I always longed for a place where I can belong.”
I thought, “To that Shepherd, you did and you do belong.”
Then Darnell said, “As an average black kid growing up in a typical black neighborhood I always wondered if I’d ever be anything but average; if I’d just be a number the government uses in their statistics - if I’d ever be worth anything.”
Have you ever wondered if you’d be worth anything?
As difficult as it seems things are nowadays, imagine living in a time when any kind of infirmity or difference, any kind of condition that would limit your ability to contribute to society deemed you completely unworthy.
That’s a big part of the story we just read from the book of John.
This man who had been blind from birth had long ago settled into knowing that he would never be anything more than a beggar, a drain on society. As a blind kid, he grew up with no expectation that he would ever be able to contribute to society. He had no reason now as a grown man to believe that tomorrow or a year from now would be any better than today or yesterday or a year ago. He’d been born into a category of people who were considered unuseful and unworthy of the resources they required. And worse, most people believed that he deserved it, either because of some deed, some sin that he had done, or maybe even some sinful thing his parents had done.
Jesus sets that record straight when he tells his followers that sin had no role in this man’s destiny, but what a wonderful opportunity to show the world the power of God and the power of good. And in this story, we get to see the very clear contrasts between what is lovely and what is legal.
What Jesus did for the blind man that day was against the law. I love that his heart is so present and his mission is so focused, that it doesn’t even occur to him that it’s the Sabbath, or if it does occur to him, it doesn’t matter that the law says you don’t do anything, even compassion, on the Sabbath.
This story reveals some stark contrasts. On one side is a person whose sole mission is to reveal God through acts of healing and compassion. On the other is a group of people whose purpose in life is making, enforcing, and protecting rules above everything else, even if it means people must suffer.
The contrasts in this story are this: to Jesus, the blind man and his needs are more important than anything else. To the lawmakers, the Pharisees, the law is more important.
How many times had these religious people walked past this blind beggar just sure that he was living the life that he deserved? Then Jesus comes along and notices something they never did - he sees someone who has been a victim of society and a victim of the law, let down by the law, discriminated against by the law, persecuted in the name of the law. He sees someone who deserves more than the law ever offered or would allow.
It’s telling that in this story, the Pharisees who felt threatened by Jesus immediately tried to discredit him and paint him as a “sinner.” It’s a tactic still used today when a powerful person is suddenly faced with their bad decisions - they try to convince everyone that their accuser is the bad person - that they can’t be trusted, they’re a liar, they’re a fraud.
That’s exactly what the Pharisees were trying to do when people started asking around if this healer was really from God. “He can’t be from God,” the Pharisees said, “He broke the law when he did this deed on the Sabbath, and that makes him a sinner. God does not use sinners.”
While Jesus is focused on doing good, they are consumed with destroying the notion that anyone can do anything, even a good thing, on the Sabbath. “You can’t break the law and be good!” they said. “The law says he cannot be a healer!”
Those damn laws!
As the day went along this past Thursday things got pretty bad for us. All of those bills that had sorta lost momentum in the state legislature suddenly reappeared - literally without notice and out of nowhere. A very small group of lawmakers had huddled and conspired a way to resurrect them and force them through to passage.
We were stunned as we watched legislators one-by-one cast their votes on bills that intentionally targeted the LGBTQ community, but especially those who are trans, having heard over and over but ignoring the great harm those laws would do.
As I watched it all from my place there at the Capitol, I thought about many of you. I worried about how you were holding up.
I saw on social media that Enid was struggling hard, so I reached out to let her know that I was thinking about her. I asked her if she’d be willing to comfort us with the words of the 23rd Psalm today.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right pathsfor his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Thank you, Enid. It was beautiful, my friend.
I wanted her to read them because they remind us that to the Shepherd, we matter. To the Shepherd we are someone. To the Shepherd, we belong.
As Marcia McFee who designed this wonderful worship series says,
“Psalm 23 gives us an image of God that would have been far more striking to those who lived thousands of years ago than it is to us today. Shepherds were far from being considered respectable or trustworthy in their communities. They were given a job no one else would have wanted. And yet in Psalm 23 it is the LORD who is our shepherd! Who leads us to the sweet grasses and whose rod comforts us! The LORD is a Shepherd who dares anoint our heads with oil--an act reserved for prophets and kingmakers!”
To all of us who are feeling targeted and accused by the people who we hoped would protect us, or at least respect us - to my friends who are trans who are feeling especially beaten down, I want you to know that you have a Shepherd who sees you as much more righteous and holy and lovely and wonderful than the misguided elected officials ever can. Because the Shepherd sees you through eyes that they can’t - or won’t. Just like the day when he said, “To hell with your Sabbath laws, my love will do its deed anyway!” your Shepherd is not concerned with what the Pharisees think. Your Shepherd dares anoint your head with oil and call you a beloved child of God!
You might be interested in knowing that in the chapter right after this healing story we talked about today, we read more about this compassionate homeless rabbi named Jesus who lives his life so that others are safe, fed, and loved. He calls himself the Good Shepherd because when that’s what we are in need of, that’s what he is to us.
And when we need more - to all of us who are feeling beat up and scared - I hope we can feel, even in the midst of the oppression, the assurance and comfort that comes with knowing we are seen, heard, valued, wanted, affirmed, respected, and loved by that intentional, radical, revolutionary law-breaking, badass Shepherd.