On my walk this morning, I stop at the fence. My congregation, the sheep, are reclining contentedly in the grass. “Well,” their look asked me. “Do you have a story this week or not?”
“It’s an old story,” I tell them. “It’s about a lost sheep.” And that seemed to perk them up. (But then, we preachers always see what we want to see.)
“This shepherd had one hundred sheep. And one of them was lost.” I stood silent a little while, wondering if the story would make them uncomfortable. “And the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go out and find the lost one. He brings him home.”
This was another hard week for me. The news, yes. And many conversations (phone and email) about our world (and our place in it), and how it is easy to feel, or to be, quite literally, lost. And lost is not just a GPS malfunction. Too many know what it means to be disconnected, discounted, diminished, demeaned. Lost.
In the story, the shepherd doesn’t blame the lost one. Or give advice. Or admonish. Because to the shepherd, that sheep is not just a number, but a face, a name and a story.
The shepherd knew that some stories are too heavy to carry alone. That every one of us at some time in our life will need the loving arms of justice, mercy and unmerited grace.
And here’s the deal: some days we are the one lost. And some days, we are the hands and feet of the shepherd.
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help. (The baptismal covenant in the Episcopal Church.)
Because some stories are too heavy to carry alone.
My good friend Ed Kilbourne wrote a song called Promised Land. I can’t carry a tune, so I read it to the sheep. They didn’t seem to mind.
“There’s a place they call the promised land where people live by grace
The leaders are their servants, the last ones win the race
And those who love are wealthy and those who hate are poor
And honor’s won by making peace, not by making war
And everyone’s invited when the kingdom feast is spread
They remember how they got there in the breaking of the bread
They pass a cup around the room to every tear stained face
And drink a toast to Jesus as they sing Amazing Grace”
Some days we are the one lost. And some days, we are the hands and feet of the shepherd.
Last night I watched the movie Just Mercy, the story of young lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley. One of his first, and most incendiary, cases is that of Walter McMillian, who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds-and the system-stacked against them.
There’s a great scene where Bryan says to his worried Mother, “You taught me to fight for the people that need help the most.”
Because some stories are too heavy to carry alone.
As a young pastor, I would ask people to be involved with certain ministries—many having to do with real life trauma, supporting people and finding a place for healing and community and redemption. It’s messy work. And many, who found healing in these gatherings themselves, would answer, “I’d love to be involved, but I’m sorry I can’t. I’m not even remotely qualified.”
And my answer, “Good, then you’re perfect for the job.”
Skill sets are one thing. We can teach them. And procedures and protocols can be learned (and in too many cases in church, they can be happily unlearned).
But a whole heart, an honest awareness and admission of what it means to be a lost sheep, to know sorrow in your heart, and a willingness to set down the moniker of expert and to say, “Please let me carry you” is enough.
It’s easy to be unnerved by it all. For starters, this story would make more sense if it had a wolf. Find an enemy and channel the energy of domination and the tactics of war. No wonder the tsunami of information distracts and overwhelms. And I react (taking sides before I try to listen and understand). The tsunami wins. It drowns my voice; which means I can’t hear the good news, the truth that I still have a role to play.
“To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.” (Thank you Rosa Parks) We’re afraid to let “try” be our first step. And we’re afraid to let “fail” be our second step. And because of that, we never see the joy of finding lost sheep, and carrying them home.
The Talmud reminds us, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
On a Saturday morning in 2013, I stood in the kitchen of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage, the home to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family from 1954 to 1960. By the time the Montgomery bus strike was achieving both success and national attention, Dr. King began receiving telephone death threats (as many as 40 a day).
“One night very late around midnight–and you can have some strange experiences at midnight–the telephone rang.” Dr. King relates the story in a later sermon. “On the other end was an ugly voice.”
“For some reason, it got to me. I was weak. Sometimes, I feel discouraged… You can’t call on Daddy anymore. You could only call on the Something your Daddy told you about, that Power that can make a way out of no way.”
And at that kitchen table, he prayed. “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right… But I must confess… I’m losing my courage.”
King explained what happened next: “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.'”
Maybe that’s what clicked for me. When I see acts of courage I see heroism, and I don’t see myself. Instead, I see how far I have to go. Or I see how far short I have fallen.
I do understand tired. And I do understand discouraged. And I do understand the end of my resources. And thank you Dr. King for the reminder… I do understand that some stories are too heavy to carry alone. That some days we are the one lost. And some days, we are the hands and feet of the shepherd.
Did you see the full moon this week? The strawberry moon. A wonder to behold.
In the garden, Peonies with Louisiana Iris, dazzling and ephemeral. A garden lesson; we wait for it, pray for it, and then, it’s gone. Let us savor the gifts of wonder.
At the feeder, Bohemian wax wings, infrequent and regal visitors. What a treat.
Quote for your week… “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus
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In the mailbag… because your letters affirm us all…
–Hello Terry, Hope this Sabbath finds you laughing with the sheep, listening to your garden and enjoying the ongoing act of creation. All spirit healing. Peace to your day, Linda
–I love your column. Would love to join his congregation of sheep. Earleen
–Thank you for this. Most especially at this tender time. You make me proud! Yvonne
–Hi Terry, Your Sabbath Moment about we belong to one another really touched my heart. The thoughts about compassion–that it is the thread of life woven through each day -and the light of compassion being the light of Grace was so inspiring-and that there is nothing small about compassion. We need to be reminded about these things, and we need to re-think our notion of scarcity of compassion. and your message does it so wonderfully. I feel so blessed to receive your Sabbath Moment each week, and look forward to your inspiring message. Thank you Terry, for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us. Blessings to you, Arla
–Dear Terry, Your beautiful Shastas are ahead of mine, but now I look forward even more to their blooming. Thank you for your reminder that even when the world is on fire, by showing up we can tamp down the flames. And yes, we must pray for each other and ourselves on this journey home. Judy
–Thanks Terry for sharing your heavy heart and hanging head with me. As a nation supposedly founded on the principles of Christianity, we have long ago lost our way. When we as a nation install someone such as our current leadership, we, unfortunately, get what we deserve. What did we expect? Small things with great love. Peace brother, Greg
— Terry, I believe that this is one of the best columns that you have ever written. I place myself, my soul, beside yours!! We do belong to one another and it is truly what it means to be our neighbors’ keeper. We do not stand alone; Jesus is always with us, whether or not we feel that connection. Now is a time for great compassion. Your article truly “hit” my heart!! Thank you!! Beth
–I’m going to bed earlier and arising earlier. Opening my laptop I read about the violence… then I look out the window at the bird feeder and see a yellow Goldfinch. Hope. Pat
–Thank you Terry, I needed this message. I’ll wear love. Maria
–Dear Terry, I’ve been a long-time SM reader and truly appreciate your wisdom. This week’s SM especially touched my heart and reminded me about not needing to have all the answers but to instead to be available emotionally and spiritually to others. I’m a continuation high school principal winding up a very different school year ending. I don’t have all the answers for our staff about next year. I’m worried for my students who already struggle with their education. But at the end of the day I need to just be present to my school community. Thanks for all you do and for your messages of encouragement! Deanna
–Your words about connection resonated while the photo from your garden brought the pulpit closer. It must be hard to be a faith leader at present when for so many of us it feels as though our reserves of faith are evaporating at an accelerated rate and then we turn to people like yourself to tells us how we can slow that evaporation down, forgetting that you might be experiencing the same… Well, I guess finding beauty in the here and now (the garden), on a walk to the sheep fold, in the fact that the leaves dance when it rains and I’m that much less anxious to break quarantine in the wet weather is kind of what I’ve been learning from you for a few years now. Thanks, Joanne
POEMS AND PRAYERS
What if 2020 isn’t cancelled?
What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for?
A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw
— that it finally forces us to grow.
A year that screams so loud, finally awakening us
from our ignorant slumber.
A year we finally accept the need for change.
Declare change. Work for change. Become the change. A year we finally band together, instead of pushing each other further apart.
2020 isn’t cancelled, but rather
the most important year of them all.
You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You say the love is foolish to believe
‘Cause they’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your daydream
Put the fear back in your life
If someone wrote a play
To just to glorify what’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?
He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will when
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins
It is love who mixed the mortar
And it’s love who stacked these stones
And it’s love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone
In this scene, set in shadows,
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s love that wrote the play
For in this darkness love can show the way
Now the stage is set
You can feel your own heart beating in your chest
This life’s not over yet
So we get up on our feet and do our best
We play against the fear
We play against the reasons not to try
We’re playing for the tears
Burning in the happy angel’s eyes
Show the Way, David Wilcox
Let us pray:
Jesus, we ask for the grace to find you in the Land of Unlikeness.
Free us from the “tyranny of personal preference,” especially when love or duty calls us to greater selflessness and freedom.
May we welcome people into the sphere of our lives
who are unlike us in significant ways.
May we face adversity and hardships with your courage and trust in God.
May we do the never-ending work of securing justice for all.
During this time of unlikeness, may we be open to personal growth, change, and the broadening of our perspective on life.
We ask for these graces through the power of your Boundless, Persistent, and Daring Holy Spirit.
Melannie Svoboda SND