Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
April 30, 2017
“Here is How I Would Like to Change the World”
John 10: 1-10 – New Revised Standard Version
“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. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
My name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world.
About a dozen of us Park Hill UCC folks went to hear Bryan Stevenson speak on Monday night at the Paramount. Bryan is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama, and author of the book Just Mercy.
Rosa Parks once asked Bryan what he does. “Yes ma’am. We’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice.” She replied, “Oooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” We all laughed. Then a third woman put her finger in my face and said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.” We all nodded in silent agreement.
So on Monday night, after the lights in the theatre dimmed and the requisite introductions and recitation of his biography and degrees, Bryan stood alone on the stage and said, “My name is Bryan Stevenson and here is how I would like to change the world.” His whole speech was mesmerizing. Sixty minutes flew by like they were 10. I could have listened for hours more. But it was the very first thing he said that has stayed with me ever since. “Here is how I would like to change the world.”
I drove home thinking about how I would complete that simple statement, but remembered he said: “Here is how I would like to change the world!”
In our passage today, Jesus gives something of an equivalent – an objective, a purpose: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The second part of that statement is very important. To have it abundantly. As David Lose puts it, “not just life, but life in abundance. Not just survival, but flourishing. Not just getting by, but thriving. Not just existence, but joy.”
What gets in the way of human flourishing? According to the passage, we listen to the wrong voices – or rather, there are those who would trick us and deceive us – those who sneak into our lives, like bandits into a sheep pen. Therefore, Jesus describes himself in this passage as a gate. “I am the gate.”
My initial reaction to such a statement as “I am the gate” is a gut punch. I’ve heard lines like that too many times. Statements like that and others that have been used and abused to claim that he is a gate to keep certain elements like me out. United Methodists standing at the gate to keep Bishop Oliveto from serving in ministry to the church–despite how clearly God works through her.
According to John, Jesus said, “I am the gate.” It’s one of seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, along with
I’m not a big fan of these statements, again, for how they have been used and abused, not for what Jesus necessarily meant – or rather, what John meant by putting those words into the mouth of Jesus. Because the first question is whether Jesus actually said those things about himself?
We do know someone who has said things like that. “I am” statements, such as:
Jesus only had seven I am statements. This list just keeps going on and on, adding such things as:
What is the likelihood that Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” about himself, (let alone bragged about it)? Folks like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and other scholars with the Jesus Seminar would say the likelihood is very little. Why?
For one, these statements only appear in the Gospel of John, and that is important for understanding. John had a different purpose. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spoke of himself rarely – his works are to glorify God. The focus is on the Kingdom of God through miracles and good works – like helping the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and needy. In contrast, the theme of John is Jesus himself, Jesus as the definitive expression of God, salvation by way of belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and those seven I am statements.
Borg says the early Christian community represented in John’s gospel used the “I am” statements of Jesus as a description of how they experienced Jesus. They experienced the living post-resurrection dynamic of Jesus as the way, the gate, the bread of life, the truth, and so on. Did Jesus say that about himself? Jesus scholars would say probably not. But his early followers came to experience him as the way, the gate, the truth, etc.
And so, through the gospel of John, others are invited to do so too. It’s an invitation. It is to believe in Jesus whereas the other gospels encourage us to be disciples of Jesus, following the way of his teaching, which may be why liberal Christians will tend to preach more from the first three gospels than John.
And yet, despite my discomfort with the description of Jesus “I am the gate,” I also get it. And it might be more helpful than I would have thought just a week before engaging this text for today. Here’s how:
As I drove home from the Stevenson event, I thought, what would my statement be? My name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world.
On Easter I referenced an article in my sermon that sums up so well my anger and despair at what has been happening in our country. It’s called “The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America.” But we can’t blame just one man, whether or not he is the greatest human being God ever created, and we can’t claim it’s a brand new phenomenon.
In his book, Bryan Stevenson reported that between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. In the 1970s, fewer than 200,000 people were in prison. Today, it’s over 2.2 million. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.
And one reason? Unlike some countries that treat drug addiction as a disease, we lock people up. And we use prisons as the solution to people with mental illness. Incarceration became the answer to everything from health care to poverty.
“We’ve thrown away children,” he said, “discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak – not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. Walking away and hiding them from sight.”
And anyone who questions it is given the ultimate insult of being soft on crime. We want people who are tough. Law and order. Add to the mix that prison is big business and a lot of people are making a lot of money from it. Corporate stockholders who make money off prisoners lobby for longer sentences.
And it is all magnified by racial bias. One in three black men can expect to be put in jail in their life. Bryan says, imagine living with that over your head. Being constantly “suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared every day” by people who call the police to have you arrested because you’re walking past their house in a hoodie. Driving while Black.
It’s part of a larger narrative of cruelty. How else can we explain deporting a mother of four this week who cares for a disabled child and has done nothing criminal beyond, years ago, driving without a license?
Whether it’s refusing to bake a cake to waterboarding. Solitary confinement. Enthusiasm for the death penalty. Schell described this is as “a frightening reflection on a country that seems to know of no remedy for social problems but punishment.” In a country that claims to be the greatest in the world. Which claims to be a Christian nation. Well, there may be a lot of believers, but it doesn’t seem to me that there are a lot of disciples.
So, my name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world. I want to end the culture of cruelty. But that’s only stated in the negative. And doesn’t say how. So, I want to end the culture of cruelty by teaching about the mercy, compassion, and love of Jesus Christ. For Christians to become disciples.
That may sound a little too evangelical to some ears, but I do think following in the way of mercy, compassion, and love is what saves us. Believing that anyone can be redeemed. Bryan has a great saying. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Think of the worst thing you've ever done. You are more than that.
That is how he approaches people living on death row, believing that the “true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality [is] measured by how we treat the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” You know that “those who are rich and guilty are treated better than those who are poor and innocent.”
How is Jesus the gate then, or could be? By keeping out the thieves and bandits that would steal the soul of America with their enthusiasm about cruelty. As simplistic as it has come to seem, asking “What would Jesus do?”
Jesus served as the gate keeping at bay the men who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her, urging her to sin no more – though, unfortunately saying nothing about the man. Yet, today, self-righteous, fearful, and angry Christians not only throw stones at the accused, they throw stones at immigrants, refugees, Muslims, LGBT folks and others they accuse of ruining the country and destroying their Christian power and privilege.
So, let Jesus be the gate. And let the disciples of Christ be the fence around which we keep vulnerable and marginalized people safe from the fearful and the angry. Let us keep watch for bandits and thieves who want to climb over the fence to steal the soul of America with their passion for cruelty.
My name is David Bahr and here is how I would like to change the world. I want to end the culture of cruelty by teaching about the mercy, compassion, and love of Jesus Christ in order to save the soul of our country.
But not just to save it for the sake of survival, but rather for flourishing. Not just that we all get by, but so that we all thrive. Not just that we have existence, but that we have joy. Not just life, but life in abundance. For all of God’s people.
What is your name? And how would you like to change the world? Always remembering that when you are tired, tired, tired, to be brave, brave, brave.
 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2014
 David J Lose, WorkingPreacher.com, “Abundant Life Now,” 2014
 See more at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-best-most-only_us_56f0a08ee4b03a640a6b7380 and http://www.care2.com/causes/20-things-trump-says-hes-the-best-at-and-why-hes-wrong.html
 Read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Marcus Borg, Harper Collins, 1994