A giant of the faith died last week. Rachel Held Evans grew up in a conservative Southern Christian home as the daughter of a Bible College administrator. As Rachel became an adult, she had questions about faith, about God, and about who decided who was in and who was out when it came to following Jesus. And so this millennial—she was born in 1981—stayed in her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee to write about her quest to faithfully follow Jesus and push against the conventions of conservative Christianity that she had been taught as a girl. Her four books tackle how faith evolves, the problem of biblical literalism, her search for a more authentic faith, and her deep love of the Bible. She died last Saturday after an unexpected and short illness that placed her in a coma on Good Friday, and she leaves behind a husband and two very young children.
She was beloved by a great number of people. Her social media presence was a balm to many who had felt shunned by Christianity yet who still wanted to follow Jesus. She worked hard for the full inclusion of the LGBT community in the church, she raised up voices of other women and people of color to share their own experiences and understanding of faith which often didn’t align with the supposed conventional understandings. She challenged the religious elite—often men who look like me—to heed Jesus’ call to love neighbors and to welcome in the outcasts. She made a huge difference to many many people. This past week the hashtag “#BecauseOfRHE” (her initials) trended on Twitter as people recounted her impact on their lives over the past decade. After leaving the denomination of her youth, she eventually found herself worshipping in an Episcopal church, a place where she felt she could raise questions and doubts and seek the Risen Christ more authentically. Her legacy of goodwill, faithful devotion to the Way of Jesus, and prophetic calls to the powerful will influence many more in the days ahead. Please pray for her family.
In our gospel lesson we learn that it’s winter, and that the Feast of the Dedication is being celebrated. We know it better as Hanukkah, and it commemorates the rededication of the Temple in the second century BC. The temple had been desecrated, and the city of Jerusalem occupied by an invading army. After a revolt, the Jewish people retook control of the city, and set about cleansing the temple, rebuilding the altar, and lighting the menorah—a seven branched candelabra—which remained lit at all times. However, the people soon learned they only had enough oil for one day. Miraculously, God provided for them, and the menorah was lit for eight full days until they could find a supply of oil. This festival continues to be one of great joy at the abundant grace and provision of God.
As Jesus is there at the temple, he gets confronted by the religious elite of his day, asking him point blank if he’s the Messiah. This festival of joy takes on this air of confrontation and judgment. “I’ve already told you,” Jesus tells them, “but you don’t want to believe me.” He goes on to tell them that they don’t believe because they are not members of his flock—“You don’t belong to my sheep,” he says. He then tells them, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
My sheep hear my voice. They know my call. They follow me.
In the movie, “Babe” we meet a sweet young pig who gives the film its title. Babe the pig is won in a lottery at the local fair by a generous and delightful farmer named Hoggett. Babe, since he’s alone, soon takes up with the sheepdogs on the farm, and he soon learns how to wrangle sheep from his adoptive dog mom named Fly. Fly teaches Babe to be fierce and domineering in order to get the sheep to do what he wants. But after he fails miserably at being mean, a friendly old ewe sheep he had met earlier at the farm tells him to be a nice pig and simply ask the sheep politely to follow him. Babe does this, and the sheep listen, and he becomes an unexpected champion at the national sheepdog festival.
So this week I’ve been thinking about Rachel Held Evans and Jesus and Babe and moms and miracles. My own background is religiously similar to Rachel’s, and I heard many times about who was a real follower of Jesus and who wasn’t or couldn’t be. These statements often came from elders who were sometimes like Fly, thinking that others were ignorant or incapable of responding to anything other than fierce barks and threats. My experience of Jesus was different, I always felt Jesus was loving, accepting, gentle, and kind like a good shepherd. That he would never intentionally hurt or shame someone. That his call was open and generous and wide-ranging. In my own life I began to see that when we show love and kindness more people hear that call of Jesus and follow him. That it wasn’t my job to determine if people fit in the right categories or had the right belief to follow Jesus, that the call was his. He got fishermen and tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, and many others following him. And he tells the hard hearted religious professionals that they’re not following him because they don’t hear this voice; they don’t know who he truly is.
In her book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding Church Rachel Held Evans writes, “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.” (148) These are the sheep who have heard Jesus’ call. They’ve recognized his voice, and they’ve followed him with all they’ve got. They didn’t stop to ask if they were the right gender or color or if they had the right beliefs or degrees. They just heard his voice and followed him.
And here’s the miracle similar to the one at Hanukkah: Jesus tells us that no one will ever be able to snatch them out of his hand. No person here on this earth can tell another who has heard Jesus’ voice and followed him that they aren’t good enough. That their life experiences have disqualified them from being a disciple. That the essence of who they are is simply a mistake or godforsaken. That they aren’t smart enough. No! They are beloved by God, and held in the palm of Jesus’ hand, and they are marked as his own forever.
I’ve spoken to many people over my years as a priest who have felt that they somehow didn’t measure up to what God wanted, or that they they had doubts about faith and so felt that God was upset with them. I’ve met with people asking if they could attend church because they had been through a divorce or because someone in their life had come out or because they weren’t sure God could ever forgive them. And every time I say, Of course! Come! God is calling you—Jesus is calling your name—follow him. See where he takes you. Become a disciple. No one can ever take that from you.
Because friends we have a good shepherd. We have one who knows us all the way to our core who call us and loves us. He’s holding us tightly in the palm of his hand. Trust that Jesus will never let you go. Trust that you have indeed heard his voice and follow him with all that you have and with all that you are. We only get one life in this world, and so many need to experience Jesus’ message of a wide and glorious love. Hear it. Revel in it. And then share it. Spread that love and joy that we’ve found in the miracle of his resurrection. For we are beloved of God—loved by the very creator of the universe—and nothing can ever take that away from us. Nothing can ever snatch us out of God’s hand.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!