First Congregational United Church of Christ
April 26, 2015
John 10:11-18 “Up Close and Personal”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
My first move to Oregon took place early in our marriage. Ken’s acceptance to Willamette University Law School initiated a search for low-income housing. Ken’s Aunt and Uncle invited us to live on their “goat farm” (never mind that it housed no goats) The site was located 25 miles east of Salem outside the small town of Scio, which I remember writing to a friend and saying it was …”like Knott’s Berry Farm, only for real.” It had a small grocery store, a gas pump and a tiny café, with a hitching post out front. However, we lived “in the country” beyond the town in a double wide. This was a major adjustment for me having spent all my life in various suburbs and cities of California.
One day, as we were “walking the land,” we left the acreage on which we were living and walked up to our neighbor’s property where we had been asked to keep an eye on their place while they were away for the weekend. We entered the sheep pasture, only to discover not one but three dead sheep. I panicked. My mind raced ahead thinking that perhaps they had been poisoned or killed by a coyote. As we approached one of them, I saw no sign of blood and then was deeply relived when I noticed a slight movement. We pushed it over off its back and off it ran. I was stunned. We then ran around the pasture pushing over the rest of the dead sheep. Now, as much as I enjoy the bucolic scene of springtime in Oregon with fields of sheep with newborn lambs, that memory keeps me from fully loving the shepherd and sheep image. However, just as I wrestle with this image, so did those of Jesus’ day. Those with positions of power found the image of sheep and shepherd to be an affront. Shepherds had no respect or power. They were the invisible. This was not comfortable imagery to those in Jesus day.
Through this familiar text we’re invited to understand that it is the relationship with the shepherd that is the most important. The text warns of thieves and bandits. Our safety and our wholeness depends on our connection with God.
Maybe it’s because I recently saw the movie “The Woman in Gold” that I am reminded of German Liberation theologian Dorothee Soelle one of the mothers of the church. Her faith was shaped growing up in the 1940’s as she witnessed tremendous acts of courageous resistance. She was part of a community that sheltered many Jewish families during World War II. Before she died, she wrote an article about her trip to see the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, whose writings had transformed her faith. In her article, she shared …”that the way we tell one another about God is conveyed not in words, but with our lives. Soelle confessed that she had been learning over her lifetime how to speak to God in the language of women, the language of the handicapped, and the language of the disenfranchised, “but” she revealed, “she still struggled with sharing her hope in God.” She posed the question, “Are we unable to testify that something comforts and supports us, that we are not alone in our longing for another kind of life where we no longer exploit and abuse one another?”
The imagery around shepherd and sheep is so old that it is hard to see it in new light. Do we fully embrace John’s Gospel lesson which is about conveying the meaning of hope? This text offers the hope that is being offered to us as we’re invited into an intimacy with God. It not only offers comfort but is also a path to another way of living…a living that demands risk taking. Perhaps, in our humanness, it’s safer to keep the shepherd and sheep as kind of a sentimentalized piece of pottery or picture that we take down from a shelf every now and then as a way of keeping our distance from what this invitation to us is really all about. I find that I’m quite adept at not looking for opportunities to put myself into risk-taking situations.
As I was wrestling with this text, I thought about a trip I took some years ago with a group of women clergy. One of my New Jersey colleagues had encouraged a group of us to see for ourselves what the people of New Orleans were still struggling with in the aftermath of Katrina. And, even though it has now been years since watching the initial horror within the superdome during the final days of August, 2005, those TV images are still firmly imprinted on my mind.
We began our tour driving through the lower Ninth Ward. There was a deep sense of desolation as we passed bare lots of either non-existent homes except for driveways or some remaining signs of foundations. And, along with the empty lots were the endless remains of houses with what is known as the Katrina tattoo on the side of each collapsed and barely standing home. The tattoo had been placed on the houses as officials had done a home by home search following Katrina. The black paint markings can be translated as to how many people were in the house, were they dead or alive, and were any pets found. I remember the contrast between the war-torn looking neighborhoods and the islands of new home construction being built by Brad Pitt. All of his homes were designed to be the ultimate in Green. Into this neighborhood we found the address we were seeking. It had a large sign in front of it that read: “built by Mennonite Disaster Relief”. There we met the home owners, Pastor Charles and his wife Therawer, who had managed to survive the years following Katrina. We listened to their tenacious battles with bureaucrats. Their living room had no furniture except for a row of folding chairs against one wall. Each Sunday morning they set up the chairs and held worship for those left in the community. Their church building had been destroyed. We sat on those folding chairs listening to their stories. We heard about the six adults and eighteen children who made their way to a conference ground with enough clothes packed for three days—three days that turned into three months. We heard about the three children that they were caring for because their mother, a member of the church, was in the hospital, and we felt for the children and mother who lived with the unknown knowledge of each other for weeks until they were finally able to be re-united. We listened to the stories of injustice, racism and the lament of a people who have been grieving the loss of their entire way of life.
The following day we divided up into groups to visit several sites. I chose to go to a former boy’s school that had been turned into a makeshift community center –a center where countless volunteers had spread out their air mattresses and helped to muck out buildings and provide paint. Those front line community workers had their own horror stories, and yet, like the metaphor of our text, they have been the shepherds in one of the poorest communities in New Orleans. They had been working to manage volunteer help, and simultaneously, they had been developing programs designed to meet some of the desperate needs of the children and youth of the community who for years had been stymied by the lack of justice for their educational and health concerns.
We had sent word ahead asking how we could help support the community workers. The word came back, “Can you offer pastoral care?” So, we sat with them in a circle and we listened to their frustrations, pain, layers of grief, and their hopes for the future. We listened to far too many tragic health stories that indicated that the stats that were counted under the title “deaths from Katrina” don’t include the deaths that have come from the continued stress and ill effects of Katrina. We listened to a 26 year old volunteer who told us she had been diagnosed with only 30 percent lung capacity, and she had never smoked. We listened to the stories of leaders who have laid down their lives for their communities. They were the ones bringing in the big-name basketball players to run Saturday programs for kids with the understanding that the student’s price of admission was a commitment to 30 minutes of study in a side room in preparation for an upcoming SAT Test. Those shepherds were the ones coordinating incoming volunteers who stayed for a week, but had to be fed and housed. They were the shepherds who held hope for the community as they negotiated with not only local politicians but with the Children’s Defense Fund. They shared their encouragement with us because they had recently been selected to become a school under the auspices of the Children’s Defense Fund Structure.
I went online on Friday and celebrated the pictures of Marian Wright Edelman visiting the new Freedom School in Louisana. Long after the media had left, long after the rest of the country had moved onto other stories and had forgotten the plight of Louisiana, there were the faithful shepherds who clung to their calling to protect and advocate for those in the neighborhood who had lost their whole way of life.
Somehow the stained glass image we have in many of our churches that pictures Jesus with a clean little LAMB tucked under his chin doesn’t fit the messiness of life. There needs to be a picture next to it that shows Jesus barely hanging on to the muddy sheep as a torrent of water explodes around them–or, perhaps a picture of Jesus shoving over a sheep that needs to be re-booted into life.
As I reflect back on the aftermath of Katrina I suspect that many folks in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans would view the bureaucrats as the hired hands…the ones who ran away from their roles in the crises, and would label the developers as the wolves…those who had the resources to buy up property from people who could no longer afford to live in New Orleans. This isn’t unfamiliar to us when many of us watched as people lost their homes to banks and to those who could take advantage of another’s plight during the tough years of the recession that so many experienced as a Depression.
As always, we are invited into the story. Isn’t this the church’s story? Our work is to discern what kinds of dangers threaten the community? We’re called to discern where we spend our time and resources to take action. And, like the leaders in Louisiana it so often demands a long-term commitment. There are seldom quick fixes. And, it is often messy work.
Every time we offer a blessing on Lucy Edwards, we send her off to Honduras knowing she is supporting folks who are in places of danger because of their stand against a disordered political structure. We cherish her stand for holding hope. Every time our Justice and Witness team take a stand for the earth, they are up against those who have very different views about climate change and about how we view stewardship of our earth. We are sustained by living into the hope that our faith offers. What I celebrate is the desire, the calling, within this community to take actions and to make a difference. This past week, Jim Martin spoke about the need for help with the Food Bank, and we had an amazing response. When Tonya Graham and her family announced the need for items to take with her family to Haiti, this church stepped forth. These are the ways in which we are choosing to be hope carriers. The work of gathering the flock belongs to Jesus and God. We are called to provide a space where all are welcome.
As our Church Council will assure you, sometimes our good intentions are misunderstood, and we have to pause and re-group. When we are our best selves, we are a faithful laboratory where we learn to live out our commitments with others. It’s in our work together that we deepen our relationships. We learn to give and to receive forgiveness along our journey and we cherish the gift of grace that takes place as we seek to be a faithful people. What a gift!
The parts of today’s story reside in each one of us. We each carry these roles within us. We know when we are operating out of our shepherd role and are in relationship with God and we know when we fall into the trap of becoming hired help, more focused on commercial values than God’s call upon us.
May we be intentional in how we create the sacred space to seek God’s shepherding invitation to us. What we know for sure is that the invitation is designed to call us to living out the values of the Divine both individually as well as in community and in the world. May we have the courage to stay awake and do our work? Amen.