"The Bible is a Story About Inclusion" - A Sermon on John 10:7-16

Austen HartkeComment

I’m grateful to have been asked to preach at Elk River Lutheran Church in Elk River, Minnesota this past February. They were in the midst of a sermon series about how to read the Bible, and they asked if I would pick a major theme that occurs and reoccurs throughout scripture, and so of course I chose inclusion!

John 10:7-16

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 lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Good morning, everyone!

I want to start off this morning by telling you a story about when I was a little kid. I don’t actually remember this happening, but this is the kind of story that your parents tell about you so many times that it sort of passes into family myth and legend. I must have been about three at the time, and apparently my mom came into the living room one day and saw me jumping up and down on the seat of this big blue armchair we used to have. She immediately gave me the full first-middle-and-last-name treatment, and said “Stop jumping up and down on that chair!” So I did, and my mom went back into her office. Ten minutes later, my mom hears this repeated squeaking noise coming from the living room, so she gets up and goes back in and finds me jumping up and down on the seat of our smaller green armchair. “What did I just tell you??” she says to me, half mad and half confused about why I wasn’t listening. And apparently I stopped jumping long enough to point across the room and say, “You said to stop jumping on THAT chair!” After that my mom always joked that my eye for loopholes meant I’d probably grow up to be a lawyer.

I didn’t end up going to law school, though—I went to seminary, which was a surprise to almost everyone, because I spent my teen and young adult years feeling hurt and frustrated by the version of Christianity that I had grown up with, which wasn’t LGBT affirming. Now, post-seminary and as an out bisexual and transgender person, I spend a lot of time talking with people about the Bible, and how we understand the rules and guidelines we find there. When I go to talk with churches and organizations that are new to LGBTQ+ issues, one of the first things they bring up are the verses that have historically been used against people of different sexualities and gender identities. We call those “the clobber passages,” because they’re often used to beat LGBTQ+ folks into silence, or submission. But as you’ve been learning in this recent sermon series with Pastor Nathan, the Bible isn’t just one big chunk of text that came about in the same time and the same place, and with one singular meaning for all of time! Because we Christians don’t follow every single rule and suggestion in the Bible, we’ve had to find ways to figure out which parts of the Bible might be the most important or the most relevant for us.

One of the ways we sort this out is by asking whether a subject in the Bible seems to be specific and only shows up once or twice, or whether it’s repeated throughout the larger scriptural canon. When we read the Bible, it can be helpful to look for repeated themes. For instance, when my mom came into the room once and told me not to jump “on that chair,” I could safely assume that that specific chair is off limits, but I might not be totally sure about other chairs. When mom comes in the SECOND time, though, and clarifies that she does indeed mean ALL chairs, then that creates a theme that gives us some clarity. 

So let’s get a sense of this kind of framework by looking at three different example rules, all from the 19th chapter of the book of Leviticus. Let’s start with Leviticus 19:23, which says that you’re not supposed to eat the fruit from a fruit tree for the first three years after you planted it. When we look through the rest of the Bible to find rules about trees, we never see this three-year thing mentioned again, so this is an example of a subject in the Bible that only occurs once.

Example number two comes from Leviticus 19:9, which says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.” The next verse continues on and applies the same rules to the grapes in vineyards, and explains that these edges and gleanings are to be left for immigrants and the poor. When we look through the rest of the Bible, this rule comes up just a couple of times, most memorably in the book of Ruth when Ruth meets her husband Boaz because she’s a foreigner gleaning in his field, and also in Matthew chapter 12 when Jesus and his disciples take some grain to eat from a field’s edge on the Sabbath. So there’s definitely a theme in the Bible about leaving food in the fields for those who need it, but it’s sort of a mid-level theme. It’s distinctive, but you probably wouldn’t put it in a top-10 list of essential Bible teachings.

Example number three comes from Leviticus 19:4, which says “Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves, for I am the Lord your God.” Now we know this is a big one, right? It’s one of the Ten Commandments, for petes sake! Worshipping idols and other gods is the thing that trips the Israelites up more than anything else throughout the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, and it continues to be relevant throughout the New Testament and even into today, though our idols have changed over time. You could definitely put “not worshipping other Gods” on the Bible’s top-ten theme list.

Now I took all of these examples from Leviticus for two reasons. First, because quite a few of the verses used against LGBTQ+ people come from this book and the next one, Deuteronomy, and so I wanted us to take a look at some subjects that were related in terms of placement. Second, I wanted to focus on Leviticus because, with the exception of those verses about sexuality and gender, we Christians tend to discount these law books as not relevant to us. We look at those verses about fruit trees and field edges and say “Jesus did away with all that stuff, so we don’t have to deal with rules about things like mixed fibers or eating shellfish.” But as we’ve seen, there are subjects in these early books that do carry all the way through scripture and ARE relevant to us, and so we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So here’s the thing, when it comes to those passages used against LGBTQ+ people—those passages exist. Those prohibitions about same-gender sexual behavior that we see in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, for example? They do exist, even if we understand that they were written in and for a completely different time and place with a vastly different understanding of sexuality. But the number of times that those negative comments about diverse sexualities show up pales in comparison to the number of times that God’s people are told to err on the side of inclusion. The half a dozen texts about diverse sexualities falls squarely into that middle category of “happens more than once, but definitely isn’t a major theme.” Inclusion of people who were previously excluded, on the other hand, is one of the strongest themes in the whole Bible.

Let’s take the example of Ruth, for instance, who we remembered before when we were thinking about gleaning. Deuteronomy 23:3 very clearly outlaws two tribes of people when it says, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” But in the beginning of the book of Ruth, we’re told that Ruth herself is a Moabite, and despite that she’s taken in by her mother-in-law Naomi and made part of the Israelite community. In fact, Ruth is given the honor of being one of the four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew! Without the inclusion of this woman who shouldn’t have been allowed in, we wouldn’t have had the same Jesus that we see in the Gospels.

And let’s think about eunuchs—the gender diverse people of the ancient world who lived outside the boundaries of sex and gender as it was understood at the time. Deuteronomy 23:1 says that no one whose external reproductive organs are changed should be allowed into the Israelite community. And yet, in one of our readings today you heard what God said through the prophet Isaiah—that decades after Deuteronomy was written God changed the rules and welcomed eunuchs, giving them a special place in God’s house. The story of the eunuchs goes on into Acts chapter 8, where we meet the Ethiopian eunuch, one of the first converts to Christianity, who is given full membership in the Christian community just as he is—without having to change anything about his gender or his sexuality.

Of course the gold medal for inviting in the most outsiders goes to Jesus himself, who constantly lifted up the people who, legitimately or not, were considered “against the rules.” For most Christians, Jesus’ words have more weight than any other part of the Bible, and you might even have a Bible that has his words printed in red just to make that point. When Jesus reaffirms a theme that you’ve seen repeated throughout the rest of the Bible, you can be sure it’s an important one.

And so in today’s Gospel reading from John, Jesus is, unsurprisingly, talking about inclusion again. Here he’s depicted as the Good Shepherd—the one who knows each sheep by name, and who just keeps adding to the flock! Our reading today starts at verse 7, but if you go back a few verses you find out that Jesus is actually addressing this little sermon about sheep to the religious leaders in the community—the people who were in charge of deciding who was in and who was out. In verse 16 he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

With those words Jesus reminds us that we’re not the ones who get to decide whether we want those other sheep in our flock. At the end of the day, he says, we will all be one flock with one shepherd. Jesus shows us the full range of this arc toward inclusion, with one end anchored at the beginning in Genesis and the other in God’s house of prayer for all people. And that’s why it’s so important that we’re here, on Reconciling in Christ Sunday, to affirm that movement toward inclusion for all people, including people of different gender identities and sexual orientations. Because even though we might not get a say about who’s in Jesus’ flock, we do, as communities, get to decide how other people are going to experience that flock in the here and now. Will LGBTQ+ youth growing up in Elk River, Minnesota see a church that focuses on a single verse, or will they experience the love of a community that lives out God’s wider welcome seen repeatedly throughout scripture? Will visitors see a group of people intent on drawing dividing lines, or will they see the Body of Christ working together to make sure everyone can experience abundant life?

Reminding ourselves of our commitment to love, and to how that love plays out in a full welcome to others, is what this day in the life of the church is all about. God grant that we may live that mission out every day of the rest of the year.