On Speaking Truth to Power
April 30, 2023
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.”
Today’s sermon is titled On Speaking Truth to Power.
As far as I can see, I have three things in common with Jesus. I am a teacher and a preacher. And I was also arrested…just once. In early September of 1996, in the small hours of a Monday morning, I went under a steel pipe gate across a private road, intentionally trespassing on private property held by Pacific Lumber. I hiked along with 134 other people, through the dark for two miles, into the largest privately-owned redwood forest known as the Headwaters forest. Our plan was to sit down in the middle of the logging road so when the crews came to work that morning, they could not pass. Their plans that day were to extend the logging road into the heart of the forest but they would have to get past us first. We had sleeping bags and extra clothes in our backpacks, along with provisions for three days and plans for a resupply if need be. We had all been trained in non-violent resistance, but I was unprepared for the anger and insults hurled at us from the truck drivers who first found us as they rounded the bend in the road, still using their headlights as dawn was barely breaking. The drivers were in three separate trucks and each truck was hauling a trailer with a bulldozer. Behind the three trucks were two other Suburbans with crews of loggers who would be going in to fell trees ahead of the dozers.
I was working for the Forest Service at the time as a biology tech, researching the northern spotted owl, an endangered species whose survival depended 100% on the old-growth forests of the pacific northwest. I was only 29 years old, but I had gone head-to-head with foresters in meetings as they planned timber sales. I had written numerous reports, each time taking unpopular stands for protecting the forests. I had tolerated uncomfortable pressures in my field office from the guys in the timber office, across the compound. One morning I came out of the woods after working all night long and found two of the tires slashed on my Forest Service truck. I had never chosen to put my body on the line, however. I had never chosen to put myself in harm’s way. I had been in confrontations around many a table covered with maps, with a folder full of data in my hand that could back up my position in defense of the forests and the creatures that depend on them. But on that dirt road at the break of dawn, staring into blinding headlights and red faces twisted in rage, I was just one of many bodies making a physical wall of defense between the chainsaws and bulldozers in front of us and the virgin redwoods behind us.
It took 4 hours for the Eureka police to find school buses to haul us away and another 5 hours for us all to be finger-printed and released with a warning that if we were ever on any Pacific Lumber property in the future, we would be charged to the fullest extent of the law. All throughout the ordeal, I never felt like my life was in danger. They might hurt us but I was confident they would not kill us.
Jesus had no such confidence in the actions of his adversaries. When we meet him in the scriptures for today, he is in danger of being stoned to death. Twice in the tenth chapter of John, angry authorities have rocks in hand and once they tried to seize him but, the scriptures say, “he escaped out of their hand.”
Each year on the fourth Sunday of Eastertide, we are given part of this chapter of John, along with the familiar 23rd Psalm to consider. What I learned this year, for the very first time, is that this passage should be considered along with the event that preceded Jesus’s discourse about being a good shepherd. That event was the healing of the blind man that we studied during Lent. The book of John is built around seven signs that give us a glimpse into how Jesus was able to use the power of God for turning water to wine, for healing, and for bringing people back across the threshold of death, back to the land of the living. Each of the seven signs is followed by a discourse that explains the message Jesus is aiming to convey. This discourse we are given today about Jesus being the good shepherd comes directly following his healing of a man born blind. The temple authorities are outraged for multiple reasons. First, Jesus healed the blind man on the Sabbath; second, such a dramatic sign had never been seen before so it greatly upset the status quo and raised all kinds of questions about Jesus’s identity; third, the temple authorities were wondering how this unknown prophet from Galilee could possibly be capable of such things? Surely, if this power was from God, wouldn’t it be gifted to someone in the temple hierarchy?
After Jesus heals the blind man, he accuses the temple authorities of being blind because they do not recognize who he is and from where his power comes. Friends, I did not know, until this past week, that as Jesus begins to describe how thieves and robbers come for the sheep and the sheep do not recognize their voices, Jesus is talking about some of the temple authorities. This is not some feel-good passage about how Jesus is our shepherd. We find that reassurance in Psalm 23. These statements that Jesus makes about being the good shepherd are a direct challenge to those in positions of power that are caring for themselves and disregarding the people under their care.
What’s more, Jesus is using language directly from the ancient prophets, Zechariah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, all of whom warned the people, using the analogy of how a shepherd cares, or cares not for his sheep, to illustrate how leaders may rise among them that will care only for themselves. Listen to the following words from the prophets: Ezekiel (ch. 34) wrote: “Woe, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed
the sheep? You eat the fat; you clothe yourselves with the wool, but you do not feed the
sheep. You have not strengthened the weak; you have not healed the sick; you have not bound
up the injured; you have not sought the lost . . . .For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. I myself will be the Shepherd.” The temple authorities would have immediately recognized these references that occur over and over from the prophets in the Jewish Scriptures.
So, Friends, when we are looking for assurance and comfort, I hope we will remember to turn to the 23rd Psalm and the rich imagery it offers. When we are facing the injustices in our society and need a role model for how to speak truth to power, I hope we will remember how Jesus, in naming himself as the good shepherd, delivered a clear message to those in positions of power that were more concerned about themselves than those under their care. The same dynamic is on display most weeks in our legislative chambers; politicians determined to protect tax breaks for their major donors while the middle class shrinks under the resulting tax burden. I heard a speech from the floor of the House of Representatives this past week, delivered by the Minority Leader, that carried the same message as those ancient prophets and our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. There are those who speak truth to power. There are those who march, write letters and make phone calls. There are those who vote, no matter what. There are those who sit in front of bulldozers and occupy lunch counters. They all have one thing in common. They all dream of a better way for all, not just for some…a better way for all. They are good shepherds. Let’s be among them, Friends. Jesus is showing us the way.
Before I close, I want to tell you the end of the story of the redwoods. The same day we were all arrested, the construction of the road was begun. Also that same day, the mass arrest was brought to the attention of the music artists Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley. They agreed to attend another demonstration the following weekend, September 16th. Thousands of people showed up for that one (not me!) and over 400 were arrested (including Bonnie Raitt). That got the attention of President Clinton and the logging was temporarily halted. A land swap was negotiated and a year later the Headwaters Forest was purchased by state and federal agencies as the world’s largest redwood forest reserve, 7,400 acres.
Friends, we have an example, in Jesus, of using whatever means we have to advocate for justice…justice for humankind and justice all the species that live alongside us, including the ancient trees. So be it. Amen.
Dearest Beloved, we come again to this quiet place, where the concerns that press most heavily upon us can rise to the very surface of our awareness. With the illumination of Your Holy Light, help us to see more clearly what we need to hold onto, what we need to work through, and what we need to let go of. Remind us, when we question, that Your presence is alive within us, preceding before us, inspiring us in the moment, and supporting us when we falter. We ask blessings on those who are without, those who are in pain, and those who are frightened. May we be receptive to Your Holy Spirit working through us to nurture them and nurture ourselves, in ways unexpected and profound.
I leave you with these words from the book of Thessalonians, chapter 5:
“May the God of Peace sanctify you completely, and may your spirit and soul and body be sound.”