Sometimes shepherd, sometimes lost sheep

It is a blessing and privilege to be with you this day!  For the past several months, meeting first with the search committee and then with the vestry, finally arriving in Little Rock and knowing more deeply your wardens and parish staff, Jill and I have readied ourselves for this very day.  As many will know, the return to Arkansas is a homecoming for us.  I am from Paragould.  My mother is from Jonesboro, my dad is from McGehee, and all of my siblings still live in the Natural State.  Jill was raised at Trinity here in Little Rock, and we met and fell in love up the road at Hendrix College in Conway.  I became an Episcopalian in this Diocese more than a quarter century ago.  Beyond all that, St. Mark’s has long been a parish that I have observed from afar and admired, as you have lived your faith so vividly and in so many ways.  The first time I walked onto this campus was in 1994, when Jill and I were newly engaged.  Jill brought me here because her father, John Benson, is interred in St. Mark’s columbarium.  If I was going to marry her, she wanted me to meet her dad.  Then and several other times in the intervening twenty-eight years I have sat in that holy garden and talked to my father-in-law.  Each time, I have imagined what it would be like to serve in this inspiring place.  My heart is glad to be your rector.

Today we read the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we’ve heard this one so many times, and it has become so familiar, that as soon as we hear its first words, we superimpose assumptions on the story.  It’s like visiting your grandmother’s house:  Turning into her driveway, you already feel the warmth of the quilt on the bed, the smell of the cookies baking in the oven.  You know the experience even before it happens.  Similarly, we think we know what these parables will tell us even before the reading is complete. 

But Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Lost Sheep is not so straightforward.  We usually imagine that the shepherd is God, and we are the sinful lost sheep.  Our sin has led us astray, and God loves us so much that God will leave all else behind to find us and bring us home.  The words with which Luke concludes this parable support that interpretation: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” 

And yet, Luke’ introduction to the parable suggests not that we are the lost sheep, but that we are the shepherd.  Jesus begins, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Jesus asks his audience to imagine themselves as the one tending the flock.

So which is it? Are we the sheep, or are we the shepherd?  Are we the lost, or are we the seeker?

In 2003, I was ordained and assigned by my bishop to be the vicar of a restart congregation of forty parishioners in Memphis.  Holy Apostles had declined in membership and sold its church building several years before; had been worshiping for some months in a Presbyterian Church fellowship hall; and was searching for yet a new temporary home.  In all that moving of church records and materiel, everything had become topsy-turvy at best.  I spent those early days trying to sort things out and make sense of it all, when one afternoon Holy Apostles’ Cricket pay-by-the-minute cell phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line asked, “Is this Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles?  We’ve been trying to find you for days.  Marie Daniels is here.  She listed Holy Apostles on her intake history.  We’ve been trying to find you.”

Startled, and furtively rifling through what church records I could find, I responded, “Yes, yes, Holy Apostles…Marie Daniels, you say?”

The nurse exhaled.  “Yes.  Ms. Daniels is unconscious now, but she wanted someone from her church to visit her.”

I could find no written record of Marie Daniels, but within an hour I was in an ICU room at St. Francis Hospital.  Marie was tiny in her hospital bed.  She was clearly in the final hours of her mortal life.  Though she was unconscious, I leaned over and spoke into her ear, “Ms. Daniels, I am so sorry you were lost, but your church has found you.  You are not alone.” 

It was my first pastoral visit as a cleric, and I found myself cast in the role of the shepherd, seeking out one lost sheep in the darkness.

A week later, Marie Daniels’ became my very first funeral.  Graveside on a windy day, as I walked over the berm to the gravesite—with its blue tent and three rows of velvet-covered chairs—I saw that the only attendees were Marie’s out-of-town nephew, who was also her executor, and his wife.  As if to telegraph that they were present only by duty, they—the lone worshipers—sat stony-faced in the back row corner seats.  They looked at me, and the funeral home attendant looked at me.  I couldn’t hold my place in the Prayer Book due to the wind.  I felt entirely lost.  I feared I was not up to the task, and I couldn’t see the way forward.  As I barely suppressed the urge to cut and run like a dullard sheep, my senior warden, Diane Reddoch, walked over the berm and took a seat in the front row.  She smiled up at me in encouragement.  Diane knew that I would be lost, and she would not allow me to wander alone.  I found myself in the role of the sheep, and Diane rescued me from the darkness.

Sometimes we are the shepherd.  Sometimes we are the lost sheep.  Sometimes we know the way, but other times we wander to the very precipice and find ourselves teetering on the edge.  Sometimes we shine the light, and sometimes we look in desperation for a beacon.  And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells his parable in this way.  That is why the Church—the Beloved Community—is so vitally, essentially important.  It is here that in our strength we rescue one another.  It is here that in our weakness we can trust to be found. 

It’s been a strange few years.  In our splintered society and through the long coronavirus pandemic, we have each surely found ourselves sometimes lost.  Our patterns of practice, relationship, gathering, and engagement—all those things that make us whole and bring us joy—have been upended.  So many of the old and trusted roadmaps and guideposts are obscured or gone.  We sometimes feel like the lost sheep, trying to find our way back to what is known. Do you know that feeling?

Beyond our own lives, there are so many, within our orbits and throughout our broader community, who are lost and whose needs are both spiritual and tangible.  There are the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  There are those just beyond our sight who find themselves teetering on the precipice, who need someone to reach out with the shepherd’s crook and pull them to safety.

This is, then, the perfect Gospel reading for today.  Here we are, gathered in this sacred space.  So much of what we have collectively lost can be found right here, anew and renewed, at St. Mark’s: Our relationships with people we have not seen in a long while, our community of caring—of shouldering one another’s burdens and doubling one another’s blessing—our joy in singing, and praying, and eating potluck dishes, and seeing the Christ in one another’s eyes…Here we can find and be found!  Today is the invitation for us to restore our patterns of engagement, our embrace of the Gospel, and our care of our neighbors on the precipice.  So many of our programs and ministries are rebuilding post-pandemic, and each needs shepherds to tend the flock.  It is a new year at St. Mark’s.  Whatever we may have lost, here, together in the heart of God’s love, we will find.  I’m so excited to be here with you, in this place, at this moment.  Like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, I am glad to be found here.  Like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable, I call you my new friends and neighbors, and I say on this Kick-off Sunday, “Rejoice with me!” 

One thought on “Sometimes shepherd, sometimes lost sheep

  1. Barkley, sending good wishes your way as you begin your new ministry back in Arkansas. I often seek out your sermons on line, and they are a source of new insights, challenges, and inspiration. Today’s post was especially meaningful, with its reference to Holy Apostles, and to Diane Reddoch. Last night, family and friends met to celebrate that dear lady’s 85th birthday. She is still going strong, offering kindness, love and compassion to us all!

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