Speaking for the Lost, Shepherding the Lost
This sermon was prepared with anniversary of 9/11 in mind. Also this sermon was filmed by Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Seattle correspondent, Lee Hochberg.
Liturgical Verses for Sept 12, 2004
Exodus 32: 1, 7-14
1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Luke 15: 1-10
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
We always begin our sermons with prayer; May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable and today I need to repeat this for my own sake, one more time. I look to the Lord to give inspiration and strength to my words today.
Welcome. This is a somewhat unusual Sunday for us at St John's. We have a few more guests and visitors than usual. It is typical for us at St John's to welcome newcomers and I want to do that before I plunge into the sermon. A welcome to Lee Hochberg and the Newshour crew from Seattle. We thank you for being here today. (Intro to the other guests attending by name)
As a kind of explanation, our worship service is liturgical and we follow a liturgical calendar in the selection of the verses that are used each Sunday. There are 3 verses, called the Lesson, the Epistle, and the Gospel, as well as a reading of the Psalms. The sermon then attempts to pull meaning out of the assigned versus and hopefully tie them together to see how they connect.
Sometimes that is not an easy tasking. It always gives me an opportunity to reflect, ponder and deepen my own understanding, deepen my own personal relationship in a spiritual context. Having said all that, let me get started and a tiny warning; my sermons are just about the right length, today's will be a tad bit longer, so patience please...
Today is Sept 12, which means yesterday was Sept 11, the 3rd anniversary of 9/11. This week the fallen soldiers in Iraq exceeded the 1,000 mark and stands at 1,007, the wounded number 7,000 and the civilians - fathers, mothers, and children that are not being numbered - ranges between 10,000 and 30,000. Let's take a moment in silence in honor and rememberance for all who have made sacrifices with their very lives and bodies.
Let's look now at today's verses, and we have in Exodus Moses engaging God himself in direct dialogue advocating for the people and asking God to set aside his wrath, his anger, and his plan to destroy the people. We have in the parable as told by Jesus, a shepherd actively seeking out a lamb lost from the herd, finding the lost lamb and restoring it to the whole. There is also rejoicing at the restoration in this parable. We have a second parable that mimics the first with a woman who has a lost coin and actively seeks to find it, rejoicing also upon finding it at the restoration.
We have 3 instances of different people taking Responsibility, Accountability, and Actively taking action steps to advocate, recover, restore and rejoice that their actions brought about a change. I would say the 3 verses have in common these aspects:
-- an awareness of something lost or about to be lost.
-- and upon that awareness or awakened awareness, taking deliberate and immediate actions to intercede.
The shepherd acted to immediately go and seek out the lost lamb. The woman acted immediately to search for the lost coin. Moses acted immediately to attempt to sway God away from a decision of destruction on the people. Moses continued to lay out his arguments until God changed his mind.
The interesting aspect of the story with Moses, is that he had NO need to intercede on behalf of the people, as God had already said to Moses that he was found favorable in God's sight. It seems God was prepared then to make a new nation our of Moses. Yet Moses did take decisive action to Intercede and pleaded for restoration of the whole.
In the Shepherd parable, there are already a number of popular interpretations as to the meanings: the idea of the sacrificial lamb; the idea of compassion in seeking out the lost lamb; the concept of reconciliation and restoration which is a popular theme in our church; or as some see it one must leave the herd to find their own way -- to be found.
A little word play here; the shepherd must leave the herd to find The One. If that were the end of the story, that might be okay, but the story goes on to show the shepherd finding the one lost sheep and returning to restore it to the whole, then rejoicing in the restoration.
I had to think some on what sheep and herding and the role of the shepherd might have mant to this people of ancient times, the ancient tribes. So I asked my husband, Arthur, who spent some time sheep-herding with his grandfather when Arthur was a young boy. I asked him - what does this look like? - you are herding 100 sheep, take a head-count and find you're down one - what do you do?
He explains - you go out immediately and find out what happened to it, see if it is injured, hurt, damaged or caught up in a ravine or brambles and can't navigate. So I asked him - well why would a sheep stray anyway, what would it be looking for? He said - sheep graze and look for food and a sheep might be following a food trail, and not notice the herd has moved on. The sheep might get caught up, injured or have become prey for a predator.
I asked him - well, it's hard to see it in our modern times, you've got 99 left, why not cut your losses, consider it the cost of doing business, or collateral damage. Why did you leave the rest behind to go look for it? He told me - because his grandfather expected it of him and that he would be accountable to his grandfather, not only for it's where-abouts, but also for the amount of energy and the degree of earnestness young Arthur put into searching for the lost lamb.
If his grandfather ascertained that young Arthur had done all within his power to locate and restore the lost lamb, then grandfather would be satisfied it was a job well done. If young Arthur did a lazy or careless job, then grandfather would ascertain that as well.
So I next asked him - well then back there in ancient times, why was sheep-herding and the role of the shepherd important? So much so as to be used in a parable from Jesus. Arthur explains - it is commerce, the livlihood and well-being of the tribe depends on their wealth and prosperity.
I then conclude that a shepherd who does a poor or lazy job then is not likely very respected by the tribe. There is a relationship here in the tribe to the shepherd, the shepherd to the tribe, and the well-being of all depends on the dynamics of this relationship. An inadequate shepherd is quite likely not given charge of too many herds, likely released from his duties as incapable or unable, and quite likely receives some amount of ostracism from the tribe.
He has not failed just for himself, he has let down the tribe and fallen short of expectations. He has damaged the relationship and dynamics that are inter-dependent on each other.
I'm looking now at the parable and seeing that Sacrifice of the One is not the point, rather responsibility and restoration to the whole is the point. I would suggest to you that a good shepherd, let me say that differently, a person good at the job of shepherding does not sacrifice one lamb, does not accept easily the idea of collateral damage, and acts immediately with earnestness and conscientiously to find that which is lost and restore it to the whole.
Bring this forward now to our own century. Look at the different roles our verses show us today; Shepherd, lost ones, Intercessor, Manager of resources. Look at each story and be reminded that in each story the people took immediate action. They did not wait in prayer or meditation and hope God or someone else would take care of it. They acted and acted in accordance with their sense of accountability to the recovery, and restoration of the whole.
As you well know, in my family, we have 2 young men with families of their own deployed to Iraq, where they spent 15 months. You know this because my sermons make reference to it often and frequently. It is my daily experience, it is never out of my thoughts. They are, as of August 2004, now back to their bases in Germany. Two weeks ago we were finally able to deliver my daughter and her 3 children to the airport to, at last, after 18 long months, fly to Germany to be re-united as a family. You know because we have included these ones in our weekly prayers. But let me tell you now, a different side to that story.
Where was their shepherd in all this? Who shepherded the soldiers while they were in danger? And who shepherded their anquished families at home?
Where was their Moses? Moses willing to advocate and argue with God on their behalf ... even though Moses already had a secured position with God.
My daughter lived 18 months alone with 3 children, in a small-town, civilian community just 30 some miles down the road aways from us. She put up her yellow ribbons and the flags in her yard, on her house and it was pretty clear to see this was a family with a loved one deployed. In 18 months not one person in that town reached out to her. In 18 months not one church - and there are a a good number of churches in that community - not one church or church member reached out to her. Where were the shepherds?
In her own family, some of us did shepherd her, reach out to her and too large a number of her family did nothing; did not phone her, did not check in with her to offer up moral support; did not send cards of encouragement... Aunts, uncles, cousins and even some more direct family abandoned her during an incredibly difficult 18 months. Where were the shepherds?
I don't share this to point fingers of blame, or imply a sense of guilting. I am a military family. I speak out in support of the troops by bringing them home and ending this war that we know is a product of lies. I am a mother now who goes to bed each night with a prayer that our loved ones will live though the night and be alive in the morning. My reality is completely altered by the fact of this war, the fact of loved ones deployed, the fact of young mothers (fathers) with children left alone to fend as best they can while each moment they pray their husbands (partners) will live another day. My reality cannot return to a time before deployment, it is irrevocably altered.
I'm not unfamiliar with military life, military code that is to be followed. I am a military brat, raised in military life. I was young wife to Vietnam veteran who did not choose military enlistment but was drafted into it and sent promptly to war. We raised our 3 children in the shadow of Vietnam.
I know from years of exposure that military families are expected to suck it up and respect that soldiers will follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief and in public speak respectfully of their duty and their commanders. I know this and I choose to break with that code, question and challenge the value or need of this war, advocate for soldiers and their families who have little room for their own authentic voices.
I break with the long-held military tradtions to instead take action in calling out for recovery of the lost sheep, whom Jesus does not instruct us to sacrifice; in restoration of the lost to the whole. I take pride for just a moment today that not unlike Moses, I follow an example that teaches us to speak out, to advocate with God himself if need be, for the restoration of the whole.
We must act as the shepherd did, we must act as Moses did as we are shown in these verses that we are indeed charged with a responsibility to act once we become aware that something of value is lost, be that life, commerce and prosperity, cultural values, or whole communities of people about to suffer the destruction of wrath, anger .. unchecked.
God is not an angry, vengeful God, and as we interpret biblical scripture, we cheat ourselves if we view it in literal or even linear terms. We choose then the lazy way, we become a lazy shepherd. The bible taken as God's absolute word leads us to a lazy interpretation that quickly begins to sound like rhetoric; easily borrowed to further a personal agenda or even a popular campaign.
One can look at the example in Exodus today of Moses arguing with God. Was that Moses being persuasive, was that God willing to relent or is there a more subtle teaching to be taken? Did God then perhaps test Moses as a shepherd to his chosen people and discerned from Moses outspoken-ness in advocating for the people that, indeed, Moses was competent in his duties as a shepherd?
Remember God had thrown in there that no harm and, in fact, prosperity would come to Moses. Is this God being so disgruntled, so hot with rage as to reach out and destroy his people or is something else with more nuance going on in this story?
We cannot say on one hand, I am a Christian following a Christian path and say on the other hand war is justified. Jesus did not teach war. Rather much the opposite as when his followers and disciples who were seemingly eager and ready to take up arms, Jesus told them No - his and his Father's ways were not the ways of mankind. It begs us to think and consider our own actions with regard to this war.
A silent voice is implied consent.
St John's has reached out to Cambodian and Laotian refugees who came to our community. St John's has reached out to Hispanics who came to our community. As our President has said these are historic times, and perhaps it's time for St John's and all other churches to act historically and reach out to a new set of refugees - our own war-torn military families.
Families who live with the reality of deployment, the returning soldiers who survive the ordeal but will have ongoing new personal battles for themselves and their families. Perhaps it is a historical time to act not unlike Moses did and advocate for all God's people, and plead not for destruction, but for recovery, restoration of the whole.
Perhaps we can act competently as a good shepherd and seek out the lost ones. Perhaps if we do not see ourselves in the role of the shepherd, we can ask, as Moses did , that the shepherd then who Is tending the flock, act in accord as a good shepherd. Competently, and with regard for all the flock he is charged to attend and perhaps we too can ask that wrath, anger and destruction be laid aside that God's people might live and we are all God's people...
sermon prepared by Lietta Ruger
Sept 12, 2004