The Parable of the Lost Sheep

July 01, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I was driving along on Thursday, ears glued to the radio for the Supreme Court’s announcement about health care. I was also talking on the phone. Yes, I was using a hands free device. I was talking with Medco about the one prescription that I take. They advised me that the cost for this medicine had gone up from 20 dollars a quarter to 120 dollars a quarter. Why? I had neglected to notify them of changes in my provider. Well, then how did they know about these changes? It seemed that my new primary provider’s computer – don’t you love that language, nothing about health or care in it – had notified my subscription service’s computer of the change. All that is perfectly modern living, right? Triple tasking. 800 Numbers. Them telling you what they already know. While charging four times as much. But the kicker for me was hearing that, under the terms of my new provider, I could get the cost of the medication down if I could get my primary (my doctor) to double the dose. I could have double the dose for the old price but not the smaller dose. That’s when the Supreme Court decision was announced. To say that I felt like a sheep being herded is to minimize my experience. Like many people, I think I am happy about the Supreme Court’s decision. Like even more people, I am worried about what has happened to Health and to care, that is to say Health care.

Our text today is a classic parable. The people who control the systems are trying to trick Jesus into being on their side – or at least to make it very dangerous for him not to be on their side. Jesus refuses and takes them a step further. He doesn’t agree that sinners should be shunned or forced out of the herd. In a way, that is the chief victory of the court. It has agreed that nobody can be outside the system. Jesus would concur. We go after the last and the lost. But Jesus does something that even sheepherders don’t do. He takes the animal on his back and returns it to the flock. Or at least suggests that such would be the behavior of a good sheepherder. I know much more about sheep than I do about Jesus. But you didn’t come hear to hear about sheep today so I will tell you what I know about Jesus. To Jesus, no one is outside. Not even sinners, whatever that is. I mean seriously, is a straying sheep a sinner? But more than that Jesus is an active include. Instead of trying to find reasons to get you out, he is looking for ways to bring you in.

The applications are many and the first one applies to those of us who liked the Supreme Court’s decision and those who didn’t. In most human instances, fear of the other guy or gal is what we have to sell. We are often trying to make sure we are understood as better than or over than or different than. We define ourselves by what we are not – and nowhere is that more true that in Progressive Protestantism. Judsonites tell their friends that they do go to church but not one of those churches. That statement is true, as far as it goes. It becomes more true when we put something or someone on our back and carry them along. Instead of saying we are not like them, we could say we are the people who limpingly, carefully follow Jesus.

A second application. Many of you know that I have just been in Australia for two weeks. There the Uniting Churches of South Australia are in a deep learning about what it means to have an origin in mission and money, one that was seriously oppressive to original peoples. Hardly a conversation happens which doesn’t bring up who was thrown out as the white people arrived. Nobody has answers but many have questions. Given how deeply people have heard the moral injury of their arrival on the continent, many reach for what would be moral repair. At least it is a start – more than we have in the U.S. where consciousness of first peoples remains immature when it is not downright blocked or dismissed. Still such knowledge – of who was here first and who was herded out and who was herded in – remains a yearning for those of us who know what it means to be lost, even if we are still wandering around inside the herd. My best learning from Australia – see the web site for a full report – was the way the churches had taken their history on their backs.

A third application. We are in conversations with NYU about their plans to grow in such a way as to block more precious sunlight from this Village. We can have those conversations in a Jesus way, where we go outside the conventional thinking and challenge the deeper development authorities which now run the island of Manhattan, itself born of a commerce with the first peoples. We can understand that population is an issue – and that more development on top of more development on top of more development joins the insidious matter of money in politics and on land – and that we don’t need to demonize each other to name these matters. We can take the deeper conversation – which is about land and sun – on our backs – and leave the demonizing to others.

A final application of Jesus’ way of being a shepherd. We are in conversations with some significant artists in New York City who would like to showcase Occupy related arts and artists at Judson, in the fall, before the election. They are exciting conversations. The only problem with them is their narrative. “This could be really big.” Or as Jerry Saltz says in a recent New York Magazine story, “this could be really huge.” Artists, say Saltz, may have lost their way, the way shepherds sometimes lose their sheep. Saltz all but declares artists sinners but stops short by just naming them lost. The artists who are talking to us say we may not have the wall space to be big enough for the show. Or as Saltz says in his piece, “if good art get made and nobody notices, it didn’t happen.”

In the great issues of our day – health care, punishing exceptionalist myths of American origin, NYU’s growing too big not to fail, or a fall art exhibit at Judson – the 99% have lost our way. When we look at who is outside the flock and go and put them on our back, we too will find our way.

Let me conclude by telling you what I know about sheep, which is a lot more than I know about Jesus. Shepherds usually use sheep dogs to herd their sheep today. I don’t know about Jesus’ time. If they were there, Jesus would have had such great parabolic material that he probably couldn’t not use it. There are three kinds of sheep dogs, at least. One is a header and herds the sheep by staring them down in such a way that they return to the fold. Another is a heeler and works from behind, nudging. A third is a tender and acts like a living fence to keep the herd together. All three have a goal, which is to move the sheep when the shepherd says move. They have several different ways of moving the sheep but motion is their objective, not herding. Moving is their objective, not safety or circling or cycling in. Why? Because if they stay put they will run out of food. “Be Safe,” is not something you say to a sheep or a shepherd or a lost sheep or one of the safe 99. What we say to all of them, instead, is move or you will starve. Eucharistic starvation is as serious as famine.

How will we find our way as a nation to health? And then to care? And then to something like health care? We will learn to move together. At least one way of moving together is to look outside the herd, beyond the origin, surely beyond the questions of size and growth and so called development, straight at the land. To be headers and stare down the lost status of many more sheep than just one. To not be afraid of what we need to see and say. And then to move back to the land of the Lenape, beyond toxic energy binding smugness, into something different, something that looks like a shepherd carrying a lamb on his or her shoulders.

There is a story on the web about an English sheep dog who was herded by the sheep. It was titled, “Britain’s worst dog.” The dog developed a severe case of avinophobia, an irrational fear of sheep. I don’t know how far any of us can follow Jesus. I do know that there are roles for headers, heelers and tenders. We need not be afraid of each other. Sometimes all we can do is acknowledge that we have become afraid, that we are lost little lambs.

Why did we open the service today by acknowledging the first peoples of this place on which we stand, if ever so high up? Because acknowledgment of what is lost is the first step to finding. And being found. Amen.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844