Sheepish Lostness

Many times in my life, i have been like the crowds Jesus encounters in today’s gospel.  Like a sheep without a shepherd.  I have gone my own way, seeking excitement or acceptance or control, not knowing I had turned from the right path.  I have been lonely and sought comfort in food, or things, or shallow affection.  I have been lost, looking around for someone to follow.  Or I have gone off in the lead, confident I knew my way, other sheep bleating behind me, later to find that my chosen destination held none of its early promise.  On and off again, I have lived like a sheep without a shepherd – confused, ignorant, lost, in danger.  I was lost, but at least right now, I consider myself gratefully found.  The Lord is my Shepherd.

I mean no insult when I say that we human beings can be a lot like sheep.  Like us, their greatest danger often results from following their natural inclinations.  Sheepish lostness expresses itself in several ways.  Here are three.  First, sheep are consummate consumers.  They don’t know when to stop.  Given the chance, a professor of animal behavior at Colorado State University writes, sheep will over consume. They’ll keep eating after their nutritional needs are met.  Left to stand grazing in a green pasture, they will eat and eat and eat.

Now, I have been known to say to the parish high school youth that we need to speak transparently and avoid confusing innuendo.  Seems like a good rule in preaching, as in conversations about expectations on a youth trip!  When I say that we people are a lot like sheep, I am relying on personal knowledge – using myself as a test case.  But what I know in myself, I have seen in others. 

Take the consummate consumer angle, for instance.  Somewhere deep inside me is a belief that there is no anxiety or need that can’t be fixed by eating, drinking, having, or buying something.  As I was preparing to go to England earlier this summer, I saw it more clearly than ever before.  I worried about the trip.  When I worried, I would think of some purchase that could take care of a need – the right pants for travel, small bags of m&ms (they might not have them there!), Bibles of just such a size.  I could see that I was trying to erase my anxiety through the habit of acquisition.  Letting such desire and habit have its way is destructive.  To wallet and waistline and spirit and planet.  We need a shepherd to protect and correct us.

Second, sheep are picky and particular and care little about their real needs.  Left to their own tastes, they will leave food that is best for them in favor of tasty morsels.  Sheep will eat what tastes good, even when a more healthy or nutritious option is available. 

Like the sheep, we human beings don’t stop at over-consumption.  We also pursue the indiscriminate indulgence of our preferences.  Don’t tell me what is healthy or good; I know what I like, I know what I want, seems to be the motto of our day.  We fill our stomachs with Big Macs, feast our eyes on violence, fill our carts at Total Wine Warehouse and schedule our lives around movie premiers.  Of the current top 10 video games, according to Nielson, 7 are first-person shooters in which you score points by killing people.  But we should not be too quick to judge those who buy, learn and enjoy video games, unless we are ready to acknowledge our own indulgences of desires for what we want over what is good.  My sin may not be that sin, but it is still sin.  We need a good shepherd to correct and admonish us, to lead us on right pathways.

Finally, sheep will follow the other sheep, even when they lead toward danger.  The herd instinct provides the sheep’s best natural defense against predators. The safest place for an individual herd animal is in the middle of the herd.  But when those in the lead head in the wrong direction, all the others follow!

I would be embarrassed to acknowledge the number of times I have followed a crowd to do things that hurt or diminished others, or prioritized activities or named as valuable things which left me and others hungry, unfulfilled, or exposed to harm. 

Sheep need shepherds.  To lead them to the right food, in the right amounts.  To use greater knowledge and wisdom to lead to safety.  Good shepherds feed and lead.  They protect and correct.  They comfort and admonish the sheep.  Shepherds, you see, provide the discipline and direction sheep naturally lack.  Under the care of a good shepherd, the sheep thrive.

Jesus looked out at the crowds.  He had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.  He began to teach them.  To tell them what was good and what would destroy and kill them.  To open for them a vision of God’s kingdom.  And when he was done teaching, he healed the sick, comforted the lonely, and set the lost on the right path. 

Many times, I have been in that lost crowd.  Perhaps you have, too.  The compassionate one still looks with compassion.  He came so that we, the sheep, might pass through the valley of death and enter the land of light and life.  He is with us, rod and staff in hand.  Ready to feed and lead, protect and correct, comfort and admonish. There’s no need to be lost anymore.

Text: Psalm 23 and Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

Sermon proper 11B
The Rev. Kathryn M. Ryan
July 22, 2012


Sermon for Proper 10B – Losing our heads for sake of the Kingdom

“Losing our heads for the sake of the Kingdom”

A Sermon Preached July 14-15, 2012 at Episcopal Church of the Ascension,Dallas,TX

The Rev. Kathryn McCrossen Ryan

Proper 10B – Mark 6:14-29

John the Baptist lost his head when he went from preaching to meddling.

John’s basic message drew crowds when he baptized in theJordan:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”  Any spiritually inclined person could be open to such a call.  All of us have some bad habits and character flaws, don’t we?  Some minor and private need for repentance?  But few prophets can stop at generalities and privacies when gross injustice or notorious sin shows up on the doorstep.  John began getting personal with the minimally privileged – “share what you have – your second cloak or an extra plateful”, he told them.  Then he cast his gaze upon tax collectors and soldiers – “end your extortion!”  Such guidance would lead the repentant to bear fruits for the kingdom he proclaimed.  By the time he addressed the leaders, however, he saw and named the truth before him – hypocrites who had no intention of scaling back privilege and power for “just a closer walk with Thee”.  “You brood of vipers!”, he accused the Pharisees and Sadducees, seeing their approach as a thinly disguised pretense at piety.  Still John kept his head.

But there was one whose path was so crooked, his position so great, that John’s preaching meddled with the very seat of power – Herod Antipas – tetrarch of Galilee under theRoman Empire.  Herod, the gospels tell us, married his brother’s wife, but that was not the extent of his evil.  His actions in relation to John the Baptist himself tell us just how he was inclined to use his power.  He had John arrested and jailed for pointing out his sin.  Then one night, he capriciously promised the world to his dancing step-daughter.  When she asked not for a pony …., but for her enemy’s head, Herod considered it in bad taste to deny her.  Herod sent away at once, that this rare delicacy could be added to the feast – John’s lost head on a silver platter.

As tetrarch, Herod had the power to do good or to do evil.  To use power and wealth to protect and to destroy.  Every decision Herod made impacted the lives of those around and below him.  He could decide selfishly, increasing his own pleasure and security on the necks of the Galileans, or judiciously, limiting the show of his own raw power in order to give life.  Herod Antipas chose selfishness, destruction and evil.  Because he had power, he could.  Of course, the Roman rulers judged his worth on his ability to keep the peace – and the taxes – flowing.

God, on the other hand, expected justice.  Rulers, like shepherds, are to protect and enhance the life of the sheep, not slaughter and eat them.  Those with power are held to a high standard.  It was to Herod’s power that John spoke the truth.  A personalized rendition of his core message “Repent, for thekingdomofGodhas come near.”  And with that, John lost his head.

The word that John spoke as a messenger and forerunner became the Incarnate Word of God in Jesus.  Of course, Jesus was not John raised from the dead, despite Herod’s confidence and fear to the contrary.  But God’s announcement through John, the proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sin to make people ready to dwell in God’s kingdom – that was the message with which Jesus launched his ministry.  It revealed a God who called his people to holiness and truth, to righteous lives in the service of God and others.  God cared especially, Jesus’ ministry and teaching, and John’s preaching before him, announced – God cared especially for those with little power – children, widows, the poor, the hungry, the suffering and oppressed.  And God held to account those who caused their marginal state, or who could relieve it, but did not.  The message of repentance was for all, to be heeded by all, but even more by those with privilege, possessions, and the attendant power.  Under the rule of the God of Abraham, the God of John the Baptist, and the God and Father of Jesus, the souls of the powerful are at risk.  For privilege, possessions and power magnify (ies) both the opportunity and the propensity for a particularly egregious type of sin,  Not just the personal moral lapses which dirty the soul a bit here and there, but the habits and actions that keep the powerful in power while increasing the suffering of the struggling.  Herod Antipas may have seemed to have won the battle against John’s meddling voice, but in the rise of God’s kingdom, Herod certainly lost the war.

Our God being who God is, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that is, God’s demands for the just use of privilege and power remain.  Though few of our leaders inAmericadeliver prophets’ heads on platters to punish their preaching, there are plenty of signs that souls are at risk.  It is a little more complicated than in Herod’s day, though.  After all, power and privilege are a bit more diffuse.  Lots of men, and even some women, exercise significant control or influence over the lives of others.  The signs of wealth line streets and fill parking lots and shopping centers and offices all through our city.  Just blocks away, the hungry line up at soup kitchens, the uninsured line up in emergency rooms, and the unemployed give up the search for a job. And the economic signs don’t capture the reality.  The evidence of influence peeks out from church councils, and judges’ chambers, from newspaper editorials and talk shows.  The marginalized become more marginalized.  The divide grows.  With possessions and privilege and their attendant influence come the intense efforts to hold on to access and opportunity.  The powerful hold fast to power.  They have missed the message of Jesus.  Jesus came that all might have life.  And the way to life is the cross, on which the powerful Son of God emptied himself of power, and calls the powerful to follow.

But where are we in the story?  Shall we become the preacher gone to meddling – pointing out the sins of the rich and famous?  Or shall we invite John to do some meddling in our own lives?  To know where we are in the story, we have to become clear where we are in the story of possessions and privilege and power.   Lots of things determine power in our world – gender, age, ethnicity, citizenship, education, language, wealth, position or skill.  For each category, there is a preferred identity when it comes to the ability to influence control over our own and other’s lives.  The more preferred characteristics a person has, the greater his or her power or influence in our democratic society.  The powerful have lots of choices – where to live, what career to pursue, with whom to associate, what to wear and eat, what causes to support, how to use their influence.  All people are equal inAmerica, of course, but Bill Gates is more equal than Kai Ryan.  And by education, wealth, health, citizenship, language and position – all mine through fortunate accident of birth and opportunity – Kai Ryan possesses power many others never enjoy.  And I am loath to sacrifice anything that is mine, for I value what those things offer! Thus, I am deceived. What about you?  We cling to power selfishly at our own peril.  We claim our rights and thus deny blessings to those whom God loves at the risk of our souls.  Wealth, possessions and security cannot deliver the life they promise.  John lost his head, but gained the kingdom.  Letting go of some of my money or comfort or power to empower the marginalized seems, in comparison, a small price.  Some might accuse me of losing my head.  May it be said of us that we lost our heads, but gained our souls.