Last week I wrote a story about the shared joy of Eid. That story was an excerpt from a sermon by my guest blogger today, Rev. Ellie Barrington. This is the rest of that sermon. She writes about a new way to be comfortable with the age-old imagery of religious followers being like sheep, a new way to be comfortable with the word “sinners,” and about how our religious rituals and teachings help us through the challenging times.
Caring Is Not a Numbers Game
© Rev. Ellie Barrington, M.Div.
Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 (The parable of the lost sheep. ” Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”)
Last week, visiting one of our spiritually rich elders, I heard his moving story of an experience of God’s presence as shepherd. (This person had no idea I’d be preaching on this passage, when he shared this story!) Our friend was lying in his hospital bed recently, understandably anxious as his medical condition threatened. Being adept at prayer, he turned to God for comfort. And in an awakened dream-like visitation, God was there for him.
“I felt myself as a poor little sheep, far away from the flock. And then I saw a shepherd. He tethered the flock and came over to me. He picked me up in his arms and he held me.”
Tears came to our friend’s eyes and his voice faltered as he showed me his experience of being held by God. God as shepherd. God who left the flock to come and cradle him safe, in his hospital bed. The poor little sheep rejoiced to be so held, no longer separated from God by fear. I rejoiced, in this one’s evidence of God’s presence.
The image of the shepherd and his sheep is profoundly comforting for many Christians—especially our older generations who memorized the 23rd Psalm in childhood. God as shepherd still leads many, by this imagery, to lie down in green pastures and feel their soul restored.
Jesus was part of the Hebrew prophetic tradition and like other prophets, he illustrated his teachings with familiar practical metaphors, like shepherding sheep for instance. Do you know what that’s like? Probably not. Well everybody did, back then, so the illustration really worked.
Not so for us today. Sheep are not the brightest animals, and many a younger Christian today is offended to be likened to a sheep. For us this image may suggest “unthinking followers,” which we are not. But here’s something new I learned about sheep this summer, considerably increasing my respect for these creatures. In an inspiring book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his Anglican priest daughter Mpho called Made for Goodness, and Why This Makes a Difference they informed me that:
“In Jesus’ time the sheep that belonged to the members of a village or community would be penned together overnight. In the morning each shepherd would come to the gate of the enclosure. He would call his sheep and lead them out to pasture. The sheep could distinguish among the voices, and they would follow the sound of their shepherd’s voice.”
The Tutus’ point is that we all have an innate spiritual capacity to discern which of the many competing voices in our lives is the voice of God calling us, offering us the comfort of the flock and challenging us to bring everyone to eat in green pastures.
Let’s get past any resistance we may have to being called sheep and listen for God’s voice in today’s scripture, as timeless comfort and a challenge—to include and care for every one, no matter the cost. The sheep who is imprinted early in life with God’s voice, who has daily practised talking with God and listening for God in prayer, has this awakened spiritual ability to receive comfort in times of need. This is perhaps the most powerful argument for religious practice. You get closer to comfort.
This particular sheep story is clearly available comfort sometimes, but it is also a challenge for those who are already feeling safe, within the fold. At the beginning of the scripture, Jesus’ fellow Pharisees—learned observant Jews who kept the purity laws—criticized Jesus again for his choice of eating companions, for welcoming “sinners.”
“Sinners” to the ear of the first Century Hebrew people were either Jews who were not observing the Laws, or people who were not Jews. Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of this story present “sinners” as these two different kinds of outsiders, outcasts from the socially acceptable norms—not criminals or bad guys. Just people who didn’t or couldn’t conform. We might think of that lost sheep in today’s story as a person on the margins of our suburban safety, for any number of reasons: race, poverty, another religion, ill health, mental health, or homelessness. Any of us in a time when we don’t fit in qualify. “Sinners” looses its sting when we understand it is any one excluded from full community.
The term “pastoral care,” comes from the shepherding imagery, and is tethered to the challenge of this particular passage: for us to follow Jesus’ modelling—to take up his shepherd role.
Once we have been found, gathered back into the fold and accepted, pastured in rich green fields of communion and community, we are to look beyond our fold for the sheep who is lost, strayed, the black sheep, the lone sheep, the left-behind one—the “sinner.” We are called by God’s voice in this passage to value each and every individual, to risk all to save that one. In Jesus’ parable, the 99 sheep are not tethered. But hopefully they have the safety and comfort of numbers.
By any practical standards, it seems too much to risk, 99 for 1! What if the wolf is nearby? What if we have only limited resources? What if we don’t have time for that person who is “over the hill”—so old—or the one who is “far away”—around the globe? We are called to risk. To ignore the odds. Compassion, caring work is not a numbers game. It is the one by one of saving through inclusion.
I think each one of us has an innate spiritual capacity to hear a calling to some kind of “pastoral” caring. In the complex physics of love, the numbers game of saving work can actually work out, when every one of us practises one-by-one caring. After all, we are all of us, at times, the one who does not belong, unable to conform and be comfortably fed in the fold.
One by one by one, we can include and we are included, by pastoral caring.
(Read more sermons by Ellie at http://www.trinityunitedottawa.ca/elliessermons.htm)