I lived in a majority-Roman Catholic city in the early ‘90’s when the “priest scandal” broke over all our heads. You may recall that, like an errant asteroid, accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other religious exploded on the church. Decades of pent-up anger and fear and confusion rained down on the church, providing a long-denied arena for those harmed by the church to be heard and believed. The guilty and their protectors are now punished; restitution is attempted; changes continue to be made. But the stain remains. There is no excusing or explaining away the abuse perpetrated by the church and some of its leaders.
You may also recall that the justifiable and overdue outrage was broad-brush and unnuanced, often painting all religious groups and all religious leaders as predators and posers. It can be difficult, in the heat of the moment, to distinguish between those organizations and individuals who act with callous and dangerous disregard, and those organizations and individuals who are faithful in their calling. And, to those who have been harmed, those distinctions are meaningless.
Do religious organizations and pastors cause harm? Absolutely. Do those corrupt organizations and pastors represent all religious organizations and pastors? Not by a country mile. But all of us are affected by the violence and depravity in our ranks. And all of us who lead in Christ’s church, even those who have not caused or covered harm, bear responsibility for the corruption among us. Though few may have committed a crime, many are complicit.
The results of the Chauvin murder trial in Minneapolis threw me back into those dark days of the sexual scandal that rocked the church, decades ago. Though only one person was on trial in that Minneapolis court room, it has been difficult to avoid painting all law enforcement officers and agencies with the same broad, unnuanced brush of corruption and violence. Do law enforcement agencies and officers cause harm? Absolutely. Do those corrupt agencies and officers represent all agencies and officers? Not by a country mile. Those of us who both support law enforcement officers AND decry the ways some misuse their authority bear responsibility for positive change and honest disclosure. Though few may have committed a crime, many are complicit.
On Sunday morning, we will read a familiar and often misunderstood gospel reading, in which Jesus names himself “The Good Shepherd.” (John 10.11-18) That he names himself “good” leads us to the immediate assumption that some shepherds are “bad.” In addition to the implied “bad shepherds,” Jesus names other potential perpetrators of harm against the sheep. He warns of “hired hands” who do not care for the sheep and who, predictably, run at the first sign of trouble. He warns of “wolves” whose only interest in the sheep is as lamb chops on the supper table. Jesus even indicts the “owner of the sheep,” whose interest is purely financial. The sheep are unaware of the mixed motives of those who circle around them, but Jesus knows the danger they face. And he knows that he is the only trustworthy shepherd among them.
With concerns about corruption in all human institutions—including church and law enforcement—I find myself wondering about those sketchy characters in Jesus’ story. Might he be speaking of us? Are we the sheep or the wolves? Are we the good shepherds or the bad? Are we weak-kneed hired hands or profit-driven owners? Though we know, with perfect biblical hindsight, that Jesus was speaking of corrupt religious organizations and leaders, Jesus’ hearers had no idea what or who he was talking about. John writes, “Again the Jews (i.e. religious leaders) were divided because of these words.”
Were some among Jerusalem’s religious elite Canis lupus in costume, licking their lips in anticipation of loin? Had some of them been sent by a temp agency, interested only in a pay check? Were some of them stock holders, who regarded those in their care a matter of mere profit and loss? Were some of them the “bad shepherds,” who shirked their duty with blithe disregard?
Certainly, not all the religious leaders to whom Jesus spoke were corrupt, nor was all Temple practice shameful and scandalous. But some of them were. Some of it was. And it was Jesus’ task, as the only “good shepherd” in the room to do what was best for the sheep.
At Ascension, we continue to study and explore ways to be more faithful to all the sheep in our care, and to confess that we are part of systems that fail to do so. Please join us for Worship on Good Shepherd Sunday, to hear more about the “Best Shepherd.” Please remain on the line for “All Ascension Watches,” as we screen and discuss a 27-minute documentary about the jobs/housing mismatch in Chicago. After all, not all the sheep have a place to sleep.
It is my prayer that corruption in every organization, in every heart is exposed and extricated. It is my prayer that those tasked with promoting the public good do so without regard for skin color or zip code. It is my prayer that the “shepherds” among us are protected and provided with all they need to do their work. That said, there is only one shepherd whom we name “Good.” It is our privilege to follow him.
“See” you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post