Loving All the Sheep: Sermon for November 12, 2023

In the days immediately following the crucifixion and the subsequent resurrection, Jesus went around reconnecting with his immediate close-knit group of followers. They had blown like the wind as they watched their leader arrested, tortured by the Roman soldiers, and crucified. They were scattered sheep and he was the shepherd that went around to gather them again. They needed his reassurance and they welcomed his warmth and love.

It was Jesus who called us shepherds (which must by necessity imply there are sheep that need tending). Most of us have played the role of sheep (and done so quite nicely I might add); some of you have done so for significant periods of your lives and have the scars to show for it! Let’s look at the relationship between sheep and shepherds from the story we hear in John’s gospel about the exchange between Jesus and Thomas and the others fearfully sequestered behind the locked doors.

As a child German New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias described growing up as the child of Christian missionaries in Israel. After the end of World War II, Jeremias returned to Israel. He was curious to know whether his friendships with the Israeli Jews had been severed by the fact that it was the Germans, his own native people, who had executed six million Jews in the death camps of Eastern Europe. When Jeremias knocked on the door of a lifelong friend, he was pleasantly surprised to be warmly greeted with a heart-felt affectionate embrace. His friend led him through the house to the backyard where a rustic tent had been erected.

It was Succoth, the gracious Jewish season more commonly known as the Feast of Booths. Even today everyday observant Jews put up a crude tent or arbor as a sign of their remembrance of Israel’s wandering in the desert. Succoth is a season of hospitality that’s gladly shared with friends no matter what their faith might be. There is food on the table as if friends are expected and the booth is decorated with flowers and the artful drawings of children. It’s a form of hospitality similar to how God greets us all, prepared and welcoming to us, no matter where we come from. Fastened to the sides of the entrance of this tent were sheets of paper each with a message. The paper on the left said, “From God.” The paper on the right said, “To God.”

Immediately Jeremias recognized “the whole of life” as he called it. “We come from God and we go to God and in between we live in tents.”[1] That truth is a way of doing what Fred Craddock called, “marking sacred time.” Everything in life is a part of the fabric of how our lives are lived. We live and we love. We struggle mightily and on occasion we face terrible circumstances that leave indelible marks on our souls. But we do all this in relation to the great love of God and thus we make and mark such experiences as sacred. We come to believe all time is sacred time and all experiences are sacred experiences because God is with us helping us redeem it all as a part of “a life lived with God.”

To illustrate, let me begin with a true story that occurred a few years ago … On New Year’s Eve a few years back, in the church where I was the pastor, one of our Small Groups met at a couple’s home for a class party. This was a group of mostly 30-somethings and they comprised a good number of our young leadership that was just beginning to take their place in leading the church. They were bright, energetic and had learned something from the older couple who taught and modeled for them what it meant to do church with one another.

During the evening of a shared meal and games, one of the women went into premature labor. She was mid-term in her pregnancy so this was not something anyone expected. Once the breaking of her water became known, the class mobilized to action. Several of our younger members were newly ordained deacons because the church had already recognized that committed church members out of this class were living out the ideals of deacon service.

One of our young deacons present that night was a registered nurse and knew what to do in the crisis of this moment. She also knew how to mobilize the actions of the others to offer help to the woman and her husband in ways that were helpful. Knowing the seriousness of the moment and that medical attention was required, she oversaw the arrangements for getting her to the hospital. The nurse was in contact with the Emergency Room in advance of their arrival and saw that the appropriate doctor was ready when they arrived.

During the night, this young woman lost her child. But she and her husband were not alone, because their classmates stayed with them throughout the ordeal. The husband was comforted by some of the young men in their group as he waited anxiously in the waiting room. Both husband and wife were supported and cared for by their friends through the events of the night.

This deacon-nurse stayed by the side of the woman throughout her ordeal. They were sisters at the deepest level as one woman lost her child through miscarriage while the other sat by her side and held her hand. She was with her through the medical procedures and the surgery that followed. She was also with her throughout the night until the next day.

As pastor, I was not called until the next afternoon. Honestly, my presence was not needed in the heat of the crisis because the needs were being cared for by the class members and particularly by the young deacons present.

Did I feel left out? Sure, at first. I do have enough ego as a pastor to think I’m essential to the care of the church. But it dawned on me that being neglected in the moment of crisis was the fruit of blessing that the youngest of our deacons could respond as ministers offering Christ’s love to those in their care. This is what we talk about. This is what we believe. This was an example of those beliefs being tested and proved.

My pastoral care training and ministerial experience could have been useful … but it was not required. In the midst of a group of vibrant 30-somethings, the gift of caring for the soul was already present. I was this couple’s pastor at a different level in integrating their loss but those closest to them provided the first wave of pastoral care. Those caring young adults did the work of triage and served the crisis needs of their dear companions in the moment with their presence and the ways in which both the husband and wife were cared for.

I tell you that story for its obvious implications … we serve the church at its greatest point of need offering up our gifts in the moment they are needed. On top of that, we do what’s needed and make ourselves available to God. This young couple in crisis didn’t need a Bible verse or a sermonette. They didn’t need words. They needed the Word made flesh in the form of God’s willing servants caring for them in a moment of dire crisis.

Countryside is exploring a path to re-energize our Stephen Ministry and evaluating how best to serve our congregation. This was one of the casualties of the Covid crisis. We’ve recognized this as a vital need to pursue in our congregational strengthening of our ability of caring for our community. A meeting of those who were previously trained as Stephen Ministers was held at the end of August, and monthly meetings resumed in October. Training will be held in the spring to train those who’ve never had any pastoral care training as well as the opportunity for previously trained Stephen Ministers to refresh their skills. Maybe you’d like to explore this kind of ministry.

Jesus saw the need for shepherds to be active in caring for the sheep of the community. May the loving, caring pastoral care of the Great Shepherd be offered as we follow the teaching of Jesus in our congregation.

© Keith D. Herron 2023

[1] Fred Craddock, “From God, to God,” The Christian Century, 3/22/03, 18