The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday May 12, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 23 paints a beautiful picture of God’s abundance.

We lie down in green pastures, we walk beside quiet waters.   Our heads our anointed with oil, our souls are refreshed, our cup overflows and we feast at a table prepared for us.

We can walk through the darkest valley without fear, and proclaim confidently that “surely goodness and mercy will follow [us] all the days of our [lives.]

This is a beautiful picture of life with the Good Shepherd.

But what happens if we’re not sure who the shepherd is?  What happens if we’re not sure who the sheep are?

The psalmist confidently proclaims, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Cool. But is that an exclusionary claim?  Can Christ be my shepherd, your shepherd, too?”

The psalmist doesn’t answer that question, but Jesus does.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd and whenever he talks about sheep it’s pretty clear that it’s not a hard club to get into. Anyone who wants to be a sheep, can be a sheep.

In the section just before tonight’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the people he is speaking to that all it takes to be a sheep is the decision to follow. Anyone who wants to can be a sheep. And in fact, there are more sheep than they can even imagine, including some they haven’t met yet. Sheep that Jesus intends to collect and bring back to the sheepfold so that there will be one sheepfold under one shepherd. (10:16)

The idea of a more diverse, integrated sheepfold leads to a variety of responses from the crowd.   Some people believe. Some people speculate that Jesus might be mad or demon possessed. (19)

This is the context for tonight’s gospel reading which begins, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.”  The festival of the Dedication was established to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple and is still celebrated today, although you may know it as Hanukah.

People began to gather around Jesus and impatiently ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”

I hear an edge of frustration in Jesus’ voice.  Tell you plainly? Tell you plainly? I have told you plainly and you didn’t listen.  I have also done things in my Father’s name that make it clear who I am and you still don’t believe me. The debate you are having amongst yourselves about my identity will not end because of anything I say or do this day. Why should I try again?

But then, instead of walking off in disgust like I would, he tries again.

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

When my dog Oliver was a puppy, I used to take him 4 or 5 times a week to Little Mountain Dog Park.  We both loved it, he could run and play with other dogs and I could walk at a leisurely pace through the woods and then return home with a tired puppy.  It felt holy and miraculous every time.

The paths through the woods were often fairly solitary but at various points they would open up into larger fields where we’d sometimes come upon dozens of dogs and dog owners.

Oliver would race off to play and I’d stand on the edge of the field with the other humans.  It was a loud, boisterous environment, but I was always amazed how his ears would perk up when I whistled or shouted a command.

He knew my voice.

He didn’t always listened to it, if he was having fun playing my shout of “come” was taken as more of a suggestion than anything else, but I could always tell he heard me, even if he didn’t obey.

I love that in the passage, Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice” not “My sheep listen to my voice.”

Oliver also rarely, if ever, walked beside me at the dog park.

But even though he was not attached to me by a physical leash, I often marvelled that he seemed to have an innate sense of an invisible leash, of an acceptable distance to be from me.  He would trot happily ahead of me at that distance for as long as I would let him, but if he got a bit further ahead than that, he would look behind himself and stop until I came a bit closer.

And on more than one occasion on our walks, I thought about tonight’s gospel reading.

And I thought about how, just like my dog, I rarely walk lock step with Jesus, I like to run ahead and explore, and like my dog, I don’t always listen when I hear Christ’s voice.

Sometimes, I choose to trust that my sense of what is good and fair and right is better than Jesus’.

I do it, but I don’t recommend it.

It’s not always out of sheer defiance. Unlike my dog who seems to be very adept at distinguishing my whistle from other whistles, I’m often unsure of whether or not the voice I am hearing actually belongs to God.

Everyday I am bombarded by thousands of messages about how to live “my best life.”  There are so many voices that claim to speak for God.

They tell me that I will be worthy when I believe the right things and behave in the right ways.  And they tell me exactly what to believe and how to behave to earn their favour.

But as Elisabeth Johnson observes, that’s just not how Jesus works.

“… the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).

The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.””

You belong to God already. No one can snatch you out of God’s hand. No one.

I love imagining myself sitting in the palm of God’s hand. It’s beautiful and it’s comforting, but as far as I can tell, it’s also deeply threatening to some people.

I mean, it’s logical, isn’t it, to view the space in God’s hand as finite. There is only so much room to go around and so if there is going to be enough room for me, then someone else if going to have to be excluded.

And if not pushed right out of God’s hand, then at least we can push those folks as far away as possible. Right out to the margins. Right out to the tips of God’s fingers.

But that’s not how God’s economy works. We don’t have to fight for space. We all fit with room to spare.

We all fit in God’s hand, but folks who are locked into this scarcity mentality can do a tremendously good job of pushing other people out of earthly institutions, out of churches.

If you don’t look, think, act, or love in ways that make them comfortable, then you aren’t welcome.

Oliver and I don’t go to the dog park anymore.  After years of going and finding it to be a sacred space, we had some bad experiences.  One that required us to rush off to the vet for a surgery that left him with a long scar that’s still visible. My anxiety that it might happen again is just as real, if less visible.

We no longer view the dog park as a place to make friends. We view it as a place where we have been hurt, and may be hurt again. So we don’t go.

Now it’s not a perfect metaphor – a church is not a dog park – but think about what it must feel like to be a person who – for whatever reason – has been made to feel unwelcome in the church.    Some of you don’t have to imagine it, you know exactly what it feels like.

And hear this good news.  Hear it as encouragement if you feel excluded. Here is as a challenge to all the ways we exclude.

Human beings can push people to the margins, we can make them feel so unwelcome in our churches that they never come back, but we can never, ever snatch them out of Christ’s hand.

I lost two of my heroes in the past week or so. Well, I didn’t lose them, they died. Rachel Held Evans and Jean Vanier.

Two people who courageously and unequivocally declared that God’s love included everyone. Everyone.

In 1964, Jean Vanier, a Canadian professor of philosophy and a retired naval office, was searching for his calling. His spiritual director encouraged him to visit a series of institutions for men with intellectual disabilities in France.

Vanier was disturbed by the rejection and loneliness of the men he met in those institutions, yes he was also moved by their openness.  He began to feel a call to share his life in community with some of them.

With support from benefactors and professionals, Jean renovated a small home and invited a few of the men he had met to live with him. He call the home “the ark” which in French is “L’arche.”

This shared life was both challenging and full of joy. It was a place of growth for them and inspiration to others.

From these humble roots, L’Arche grew and today there are more than 149 L’Arche communities, in 37 countries around the world, including here in Winnipeg.

Jean Vanier dedicated his life to inviting people who didn’t think they could live together to do just that and he structured those communities in such a way that the people who would typically be at the margins became the heart of the community.  The folks with intellectual disabilities who call L’Arche communities home are referred as “core members.”

Jean Vanier has died, but his legacy lives on in his ideas, his books, and in the communities he helped to found.

Rachel Held Evans, who was a model evangelical Christian for most of her early life before leaving the church entirely only to discover that no matter how far away she ran, she was still in God’s hand.  When she eventually returned to her faith and to the church she insisted that the folks she had met on the margins – the people who doubted, the women who believed God has called them to lead, people of colour and folks in the LGBTQ+ community – she insisted they were welcome to come with her.

For the past five years, Rachel helped to curate a series of conferences and invited people who couldn’t shake Jesus’ voice but also had been made to feel unwelcome in the institutional church to come together and discover they were not alone and in doing so, they became a community.

I am one of those people and as a result, roughly one month ago I travelled to San Francisco to sit with a group of friends and listen to Rachel preach. I had no idea it would be for the last time.

Rachel’s legacy lives on in her writing, in the communities of faith she created, and in her family.

Today I am saddened by Vanier’s death, but I am gutted by the image of Rachel’s beloved husband Dan, and her two tiny, tiny children Harper and Henry trying to get through Mother’s Day without her.

But I know that while they will almost undoubtedly be lonely, they will not be alone, because the community of faith that she worked so tirelessly to create surrounds them.

There is a project to collect stories about Rachel’s life and influence for her kids.  If you want to contribute something, let me know and I’ll collect them and make sure they get to the right place.

I want to end with one of the most popular and most powerful things that Rachel ever said:

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”

There is always room for more. So come.