For several years I traveled fifteen miles to a church each Wednesday for a Lectionary Study group. We pastors sat in their multi-purpose room which was set up for an after-school program that meets each Wednesday afternoon. While the program offered academic help to young children, its primary function was to provide safe and free after-school care for at-risk kids. A highlight to this group of children was the snack that was provided. Hungrily they devoured whatever was served. They grew to trust the adults who were there each week, offering kind words and homework help.
The host pastor said that several of these children started coming to worship on Sundays. Some were by themselves, without any parents who cared to join them. Not having been raised in the church and absent any parental guidance, they were often talkative and inattentive. Established church members started complaining about these rogue children who weren’t polite. They wanted to mandate the presence of parents for any children in attendance. So the pastor addressed these murmurings. She dismissed all the children to a Sunday School class one week. She preached about Jesus welcoming the children and blessing them, even after His disciples had tried to shoo them away. She pointed to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who taught about leaving the 99 secure sheep whose needs were fully satisfied so as to search out the one lost lamb. Was not any neighborhood child who cared enough to join them for worship worthy of their compassion and grace? I want to say that she scolded her parish for their expectations that all children must behave “properly” in worship. But she would say that she exhorted them to model kindness to these young guests. The pastor reminded her congregants that Jesus, the model Shepherd, expected them to nurture the very fledgling faith of these vulnerable members of their community.
The most challenging part of this passage is the assertion that there can only be one flock and one shepherd. Our image of Jesus as Shepherd engenders warm fuzzy feelings of a well-kept man calmly standing amidst grazing sheep in a lovely meadow. But the life of a shepherd was not serene or clean! There was always danger lurking as sheep have many predators. The job requires the herdsmen to be away from home for long stretches of time as they search for green pastures. It was viewed as a menial job that guaranteed compromised hygiene! And yet, for the sheep, the shepherd was crucial to their survival! The relationship between the two is based on what the shepherd does. The sheep are just pawns who have to be led. Sheep follow the shepherd because they know and trust him. The shepherd knows the sheep well enough to recognize when one is missing, to know which one is crippled and needs help, and which one is regularly pushed away from the feeding trough. If the flock scatters when a wolf appears, the shepherd knows where to look for them and they follow him back to the fold.
On April 1 a ten-year old boy from Central America was found walking alone just north of the Mexico border in Texas. The group he had been traveling with left when he was sleeping and he awakened to discover that he was without adult protection or care. The video by a Border Patrol officer shows the young boy hurriedly approaching the patrol car, asking for help. Through tears he told the officer his story and said he was afraid. He was taken to a child detention center in Donna, Texas where he joined thousands of other unaccompanied minors in that part of our country. Some families are separating from each other in Mexico so that their children have a chance of making it into our country solo. The situation is complex, fraught with ethical dilemmas no matter which policies we embrace as a nation. These young ones are caught in the vortex of their elders’ politics and posturing. They are literally crying out for protection. In the relationship between shepherd and sheep, there is an intimacy and security even as danger looms. Shepherds hear the cry of the young and immediately set out to rescue them.
In the first chapter of James we read this from The Message translation: 26-27 Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.
You mean, reach out to those ill-behaved kids who talk in worship and devour the cookies in coffee hour before the adults can even get there? Are you saying we should help out with the local residents whose homes will be repaired during our summer work camp in Cedar Springs? Surely you’re not suggesting that United Church Outreach Ministry workers deliver food to the homes of some of their Hispanic clients when they dare not get their name entered into any data base for fear of deportation? If they can’t make it to the food distribution center, that’s their problem, right? Who are these “others” that Jesus named who are also part of the one flock He loves?
Stephen Cooper writes, “The ‘other sheep’ of today must be determined by the setting in which the word is preached and heard. Who are ‘other’ for us? This line of questioning brings the affluent churches of the developed world into discomforting reflections on the ‘other’ in our midst—in our own societies—and the ‘others’ elsewhere in the world. Both ‘others’ are on the margins of our horizons, the horizons established through circumstance, habit, and counsels of prudence. The key point is that these ‘others’ are Christ’s sheep, just as we are, and they too recognize his voice.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 2, page 450)
The notion that there is one flock and one shepherd is the most challenging directive from this passage! Christ’s teaching confronts denominationalism that splinters the Church into competing segments who spend more time proving their moral superiority than doing Christ-like outreach in their communities! The motto of our denomination (the United Church of Christ) comes from John 17 and it echoes Jesus’ words in our passage for today: “…that they may all be one…” It sounds good. We may even heartily agree with it. But living toward that vision of unity will occupy our lifetime.
Yesterday was Compassion Sunday for our congregation and hundreds of churches across our country. We spent time looking in on the plight of disadvantaged children across the globe. The theme for this year is “A Call to Hope.” “Hope” is a hard-sell item lately. Our nation seems in as much turmoil as we’ve witnessed in half a century. There’s no way we can look at our country and affirm that we are one flock under the guidance of one shepherd. Even those who claim to be followers of Jesus are angrily divided against each other. We argue theological points while these Compassion children smile for the camera, hoping that someone will choose to sponsor them.
Our congregation was given 31 children’s names from all over the world who look to us as members of the same loving shepherd’s family. In the impoverished communities of these Compassion International children, COVID has ravaged countless families. Mim is an 8-year-old girl from Bangladesh. Last year her father suffered a back injury that kept him bedridden for months. Shortly after his accident, their world was shut down due to the pandemic and her mother couldn’t find work. Their food supply quickly dwindled. By God’s grace, Mim’s family learned about the Compassion outreach in their church and she was accepted into the program. Though the congregation didn’t meet in person for months, they nonetheless distributed food packs to Mim’s home. Because Compassion works through local churches, they are able to provide families with food, medical care, emotional support and many other essentials. However, what they deliver primarily is hope!
I learned from my brother-in-law’s sheep farm in Morley that orphaned lambs are not adopted by other ewes. They know the scent of their own babies and those are the only ones for whom they accept responsibility. Each Spring Scott’s parents have baby lambs housed in their main floor bathroom, crying out to be bottle fed again and again! Those sweet, vulnerable, abandoned lambs would not survive without the provision of a human family.
A name I remember from my childhood is Chang Yueh Mei. My father spent one year stationed in Taiwan. He met a young girl that must have reminded him of the five daughters he had to leave behind for a year. He learned that she was enrolled in the Christian Children’s Fund and hoped for a sponsor. Our family, far across the globe from our dad, sponsored her and grew to know her through him. When I lived in an apartment complex in the Congo as a teacher, there was an African family with eight children who lived below me. The youngest, whose name was Banywesize, became me little friend. Five years old and small for his age, he would knock at my door and I would let him in for a visit. I didn’t know much Swahili but spoken words didn’t matter much. We connected on a human level and I was able to help him and his family at certain times of need. Garrett and I have sponsored two different boys while raising our own kids. Our children wrote letters to Brandon, a Native American in South Dakota until he aged out of the program. We continue to support a young man named Luis who lives in the Rio Grande area with his mother and older sisters. Being connected to these children at different stages in my own life and in the lives of my children has shaped us to model our own lives on that of the Good Shepherd, Jesus.
Cooper writes, “The world surely will perish if its inhabitants continue to pursue narrow forms of self-definition, identities based on nation, class, race, and gender. The voice of Christ calls out to all the others just as it calls out to us; thus now is the time to examine our attitudes, practices, and behaviors that keep us safe from the concerns and needs of Christ’s other sheep. To the extent that we decline to enter into the world of these other sheep due to discomfort or limited perceptions of our advantage, it is we who are refusing the voice that insists ‘one flock’ is a correlate of the principle ‘one shepherd.’”
On Compassion Sunday for our congregation, the Good Shepherd issued a call to hope. We have the opportunity to take under our wing one child from another part of the world and to offer them a level of security that is life-changing. And the gratitude with which they receive our meager financial gift and friendship will transform our lives as well!
One flock, one shepherd. May it be so.