Gathering the Sheep

© Sheep photo by Mark-Fletcher Brown (Unsplash)
Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Sep 15, 2019 12:00 PM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C), September 15, 2019
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

A week ago Saturday, a number of us gathered here for a workshop called “How to Be a Good Shepherd, Part 1: Gather.” Our team from the College for Congregational Development designed the workshop to impart principles we learned at our week-long experience at the College in June. We wanted to give our members lenses through which to look at the Church of the Good Shepherd, plus some basic tools to help us gather people here each week as a community of faith. This was Part 1 of a series; Parts 2 and 3 will follow in January and May.

As we met over the summer to prepare, I found my heart going back to the basics: Why do we do all this? Why do we get up early on a Sunday morning when we could sleep in? Why do a few dedicated souls show up on Saturday to prepare the space, to set out bread and wine and flowers? Why do we throw this dinner party, week in and week out?

And why does it concern us to invite others to join us? Why do we strive not to be an exclusive club? Why do some of us even lose sleep as we worry anxiously or dream hopefully about what this minuscule pocket of Christianity that we call the Church of the Good Shepherd could be in times to come?

And what warrant do we have for our rather high opinion of all this work, that indeed we’re not just people hanging out together every Sunday, but that we’re actually doing the work of the God who created all that is and who continues to love it all into being? What gall we have!

Well, these questions form a good basis for an entire life of faith. But our workshop that morning applied one specific lens and then zoomed in tightly on it. The lens is called “Gather-Transform-Send.” We gather here each week. Hopefully, in many ways, we are transformed by what happens here. And we are sent out into the world to live a little differently than before. “Gather-Transform-Send.”

The first part is “Gather,” and that was the focus of the rest of our morning. When we gather people, that happens in four steps: Invite, Greet, Orient, Incorporate. All those of us who have ever been new to this congregation have walked through these stages. We were invited, or at least we felt invited, whether by God or by a fellow human being. We were greeted when we arrived, perhaps warmly and appropriately, perhaps awkwardly or imperfectly.

Those of us who stuck around were oriented to the world of Good Shepherd, to its buildings and facilities, to its grounds, to its classrooms and restrooms, but most especially to its liturgy and music. We learned a variety of ways that people pray within the time-honored worship structure in The Book of Common Prayer that marks our Episcopal identity.

Finally, we were incorporated. Maybe you don’t feel you can claim this one yet, but most of us here, at some point, looked back and realized, “Wow, I guess I belong at Good Shepherd.” For some of us that came with baptism—for others, we came before the bishop and confirmed the baptismal vows that were made on our behalf when we were young. For still others, we were received into the Episcopal Church from some other Christian tradition where we had previously belonged. The journey to incorporation looks different for all of us.

And so, this morning, we have a number of gathered sheep. In secular circles it’s not very polite to talk about people as sheep: it carries connotations of stupidity, or at least a lack of critical thinking skills. But within Christianity it doesn’t mean that at all. Being a sheep begins with an understanding that we do need shepherding—that we are indeed likely to wander off a cliff in the dark or get devoured by a wolf if nobody looks out for us. It’s just the human condition. We can be brilliant critical thinkers and still acknowledge that we just can’t get through this life without some help—help from each other and help from God as revealed through our fellow human being, Jesus of Nazareth, the Good Shepherd.

“Sheep” is a humble metaphor, to be sure. But today’s gospel reading shows us what happens to sheep: we get rescued. And you don’t even have to know you’re lost to get rescued. Most of us probably have a story about a time in childhood when we found ourselves momentarily separated from our parents and in full panic mode. But maybe you have a story, too, about a time when you were rescued before you even knew you were in trouble. For me that story took the form of sudden unemployment and, almost simultaneously, a clear call from the Holy Spirit—accompanied swiftly by the realization that I had been stagnating for a long time and needed a whack on the rump with a shepherd’s crook. Repeatedly. And that’s only one story among many.

I pray that this congregation can be a place of rescue, a place where we can all find a fresh start, even if it’s difficult. Indeed, I think we do tend to be that kind of place. When that’s authentically happening, we shouldn’t be surprised to find people in worship with us who are in tears, or who are angry and want to scream, or who are just plain gobsmacked by the depth of what’s happening to them. This is a place where we can bring all our tragedies and hopelessness and turn them in for a dose of solace and strength. This can be where the repentant find pardon and renewal, where the victimized find dignity, and where the all-too-comfortable find surprising challenges. It’s a place where we can let go of our need for tidiness and balance and just enjoy the wild ride of salvation. Annie Dillard wrote that when we go to church, “we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”[1]

But hey, that’s life when you’re in this sheepfold. If your perception of life at Good Shepherd is that it’s all about green meadows and warm sunshine and good grass and still waters, that’s only because you don’t know to what great pains the Good Shepherd has gone to secure this patch of land for us. You also may not be aware that the Good Shepherd has gone off in search of one of us, someone who’s not here, someone in dire need of rescue.

See, the Good Shepherd has entered the Valley of the Shadow of Death. In that place a hot wind is blowing without relief. The land there is waste and void and prone to earthquakes, and sunlight doesn’t penetrate the thick cloud cover. It’s such a horrifying place that even the birds don’t go there anymore. People don’t agree on how the place got that way. Some say God sent disaster there because the people deserved it. I find that interpretation problematic, so it’s a good thing the Bible is a conversation containing many points of view. At any rate, the disaster is real, and the Good Shepherd has gone into that valley in search of that one missing sheep.

When the Shepherd finally brings that sheep to us on his shoulders, how will we receive that one? Will we get angry at the Good Shepherd for wasting time on this stray? Or will we humbly acknowledge that no one of us is any more deserving of rescue than any other? Besides this, the workshop was called “How to Be a Good Shepherd”—not just to be a sheep, but to stretch beyond that metaphor, to actively pattern our lives after the one who put the troubled individual over the needs of the rest of the community.

Do you feel lost today? Do you feel endangered? Are you fed up with the uncertainty pressing in on you from every side? The God who created us does not stop us from hurting one another, and we never seem to stop doing that. But we Christians fall back on this Good News: No matter how bad it gets, not only is the story is not over, but the rescue is already underway.

Now, the rescue probably doesn’t look like what we thought it would look like. It may mean being scooped up into the Shepherd’s arms—and, by the way, that might frighten us more than the trouble we were already in! But that’s only the necessary first step. The rescue becomes effective when we are restored to the fold—when the other sheep receive us back with the same words that each one of them once heard themselves: “Welcome home, sinner.”

This is what it means to be like the Good Shepherd: not say to people, literally, “Welcome home, sinner,” because let’s be honest, that would freak most people out! Rather, it means the welcome itself—the welcome of the younger son slouching his way home … the welcome of the woman who was about to be stoned to death … the welcome of the fisherman who could never quite get things right … the welcome of the one who acted ignorantly in unbelief … the welcome of the one spat on and rejected just for daring to exist … the welcome of the betrayer who can now become the bringer of Good News to others. The welcome is the moment when the Church’s work matters most: the moment when we get to show people what the Church really is. Will those who come to us find their welcome in this sheepfold?

We’re learning how to be like the Good Shepherd, but don’t get stuck on the word “good.” Whatever goodness we show to others comes to us through our Shepherd. We’re not here to improve people—we just welcome them. We’re not even here to tell people how they need to improve—we just welcome them. Transformation will come to all of us in one way or another, both inside and outside these walls. But for those who are brought to us, no matter how they are brought to us, let’s gather the sheep into the fold with the kind of love the Good Shepherd shows to all of us. Amen.

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), 40.

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