Ezekiel 34:11-18; Psalm 23; Luke 15:1-7
125th Commencement of Wesley Theological Seminary
There’s a low place in the state of Ohio where I spent a number of years serving sixty some churches as a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church. That low place is called Funk’s Bottom. And there are many good saints who live in Funk’s Bottom. And there were a number of churches that were all built about the same time in Funk’s Bottom, and one of the things you would quickly notice as you went to these churches is that they all bought their stained glass windows from the same place. They weren’t exactly identical, but they all had the two same stained glass windows. One of them was of Jesus kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, the big bedrock. And I used to think about how comforting it must have been for persons who sat in these churches year after year, generation after generation, at least 150 years by that time, and as they came and sat in front of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, how they, too, would pour out their hearts—all the things that had troubled them, had given them cause to weep throughout the years—themselves.
It reminds me of a song by one of my favorite newest vocalists, Susan Warner. She has a song called “Sunday Morning,” and part of it goes, “Daddy prays because the money’s tight. Mama prays that her children will grow up right. And my brother prays that he will change, and so he won’t feel so strangely out of tune.” And then the music goes all dissonant. And you realize her brother will pray a very long time. Because it’s who he is. And so you just think about all the people who have prayed in front of this incredible stained glass window over the generations, and all the tears and all the prayers, and all the comfort that that window must have given them.
And then there’s another window. There’s the window of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And Jesus as the Good Shepherd is dressed in a long, white, flowing robe. There is no mark of dirt or blood or sweat or anything on this robe. It’s clean and white. And the flock of sheep are all neatly gathered around his feet. And he has the little lost lamb around his shoulders, and all is well with the world. And not only does he have this big “Hello World” smile but you almost believe, as you look at it, that the sheep are smiling too!
Now many times when I would go to these churches in Funk’s Bottom we weren’t smiling. You know there was trouble. And I used to think what a dissonance that window was to the life of many of the people in these congregations. Because their little lost lambs were still lost. Many of their children and their grandchildren were not in these churches after generations and generations. And the flock was definitely not smiling, nor were they gathered neatly around anybody’s feet. In fact, they were biting each other, although I think sheep don’t bite each other. But they were definitely butting heads, and that, I know, sheep do.
And so I would think about what it was like to pray in front of this window. In a world that had changed so much from the bucolic years that I would imagine that window had seen. And how life, how the world, how culture, how everything had changed so much. And so I began to carry with me a different image of the Good Shepherd. It’s not a modern image. It’s nearly a hundred years old, and I’m hoping that maybe some of you have seen this picture. It’s by Alfred Seward. And it’s called “The Lost Lamb.” And this is a different kind of Shepherd. This Shepherd is hanging on the edge of a cliff. He’s actually over the cliff. He’s hanging onto a scrub brush that looks very precarious, and the lamb has somehow managed to find a place in the cleft of this cliff below him, and he is doing all that he can to get to that lost lamb. But the clouds are coming in, it’s starting to get dark, and the eagles are circling about, and you don’t know exactly what is going to happen here, whether the eagles will come and get that lamb before the Good Shepherd does or not. And definitely the Good Shepherd is not clean and neat, and you know when he gets back to the top of that cliff that his gown is going to be dirty and blood stained and filled with thistles. And that, my friends, is what the Shepherd is called to do in the world today.
We do not have an even playing field in this world. There are not green pastures everywhere. There are not still waters just sitting out there for folks to come to. And the flocks, my friend, the flocks are not all smiling!
Some people in my Annual Conference want to give up on the word “pastor” altogether because they have this image of the Shepherd all triumphant and clean and neat with soft hands who never gets dirty and a lamb across the shoulder. And all the battle has already been fought. And they know that that’s not right! They know that we need a different kind of Shepherd today. We need a different kind of image of “pastor.” And no, laity, I’m letting you off the hook for one second. We need a different kind of ministry in the name of Jesus Christ altogether because we follow that Good Shepherd.
And in order to be in the following of that Good Shepherd we gotta go to the edge. We gotta go to the edge. And when you talk about going to the edge you know full well that when people are on the edge, things aren’t right. Right? I’ve got some family members who live on the edge. What about you? As a Church of Jesus Christ, and any one of us who would serve in it, who would seek to follow after that great Shepherd, we need to go to the edge because that is where people are living. They’re living on the edge financially. Now parenthetically, I’m sure that some of you who are graduating here today are going to be living on the edge financially for a few years yourselves. Amen?
But there are people, as you well know, who are living on the edge even if they can keep it all financially together with what’s now called “the minimum wage.” Even if they can do that, they know full well that just one doctor’s appointment or trip to the emergency room, or some breakdown of their rattley tatty car is going to put them over the edge. People in our suburbs are living on the edge. They have the “McMansions,” but they, too, are living on the edge as they stretch themselves financially to have more and more to fill up that emptiness within them. They, too, live on the edge.
And of course people live on the edge spiritually. They live on the edge spiritually. People are living on the edge trying to figure out just what it means, what it means to follow after God. You know where you find the searchers and the seekers? They’re down at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstore. They’re hoping that the next Gnostic Gospel is going to show them the way. They’re living on the edge trying to understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and wondering, wondering just what the Church has to say about that.
You know, there’s a wonderful little commentary on the story of Moses from the Jewish tradition. And you know, Moses, after he killed the Egyptian, he went out into the wilderness for 40 years, and there he was the shepherd of the sheep. And one day one of his little lambs got away from him. And you can just kind of sense the irritation that Moses felt about having to go and find this little lamb. It’s inconvenient to go looking for the lost little lambs. So you get the sense that he’s pressing to go find this lost little lamb. And then he finds the lamb! And the lamb has gone to a pool of water to drink. And Moses says to the little lamb, “I didn’t know that you ran away because you were thirsty. You must be weary.” And he picks up the lamb and puts him on his shoulders. And sometimes it’s the Church and any one of us who seek to be in service to Jesus Christ. We need to remember as Henri Nouwen once said that the interruptions, those who are lost, those who are living out on the edge, they’re not an inconvenience, they’re not something else that we do. They are what we do. They are our ministry.
“I didn’t know you were thirsty.” And we have made some of those people thirsty. They have become disappointed, disabled, disconnected, disgusted, disoriented, disengaged, disenfranchised, disoriented, dissatisfied and distraught. And the Church has sometimes stood around and was discombobulated.
So we gotta go to the edge. Even in the Bible Belt of America, at least thirty-three percent of all our communities are “un-Churched,” recovering from Church, or something about not going to Church. Now just imagine if Jesus said we were going to rejoice over one percent? What would happen if we went to the edge where those thirty-three percent, at least… Our little lambs are crying.
No matter what you’re going to do when you walk out of here, you are called to go to the edge where the people live. But you know, in that picture of Alfred Seward, he didn’t just go to the edge and look over. He went over the edge. He went to the edge and he went over the edge. Now when someone is over the edge, we know they are way out of control. Right? I’ve got family members who are over the edge too! As the Church, as leaders in the Church—laity and clergy alike—it’s time for us to go over the edge. Because that is where God is calling us to go.
I had a pastor friend in the inner city of Cleveland for many years. And she had this group of 13 and 14 year-old boys who loved to come to the church. Actually, I think they found out that on Sunday morning—and then at just about any other time that the doors were open—there was food in there. I mean cookies, donuts. You know they didn’t care about the nutritional value of these foods. They knew there was food there and so they would start to come. And they would stay for worship, and they were very disruptive in worship. They didn’t know how to worship. Their parents weren’t with them.
And so of course this pastor had to call a meeting because this little gang of boys was just being so disruptive. They were throwing things and talking in the middle of the worship service. So she had to get her Board together to talk about it. Now most of the Board wanted to just keep them out of the church altogether. But on sheer influence—I don’t think it had anything to do with the Gospel, unfortunately, but on sheer influence—she talked them into each adopting one of these kids to sit with them during the worship service. You know, to love them. To know them by name, to care about them. Maybe slip them some extra food. And even to show them what it means to worship and why you would worship. And so they agreed to do this.
And it was going along pretty well until one spring night this gang of boys stole a car. And in a high speed chase away from the police, the car smashed into a telephone pole, and one of the boys was killed—Josh. One of the boys suffered a severe head injury that will affect him the rest of his life—Danny. And one of the boys wasn’t there. Because for the first time in that boy’s family they had set a curfew, and he had met it. And they set this curfew because they had gone to some parenting classes at that church. Well, Josh died. And so the church immediately got to work into putting together a funeral for Josh. They went downstairs, and just the Sunday before in one of the Sunday School rooms, they found this paper that Josh had written, and it said, “Jesus loves Josh.” If only for that moment, he believed. Isn’t there a Scripture, “Whosoever believeth in me?”
Well, then she went to the intensive care unit at the hospital to see Danny. And she walked up and she was met by the nurse in the intensive care unit, and the nurse wanted to know, “Who are you?” And she said that she was the pastor of the church where Danny went. And the nurse said something like, “Hurrumph! Obviously, he didn’t go to church very often,” meaning that he wouldn’t be in this kind of trouble if he had gone to church and some of it had rubbed off on him. And the pastor simply and quietly said he was there just about every time the doors were open.
And then there was that other family whose son was not there because they had learned some new ways of being a parent. That church followed that pastor to the edge. And she took them over the edge, way beyond their comfort level. She took them over the edge. And I’ll tell you why we don’t like to go over the edge. It breaks our heart!
But you know what? Jesus Christ’s heart is broken all the time for us. Jesus’ heart was broken so that we would have this opportunity to give thanks and to return our lives to God. And so you know they celebrate that one boy who’s still alive. But you see how it’s not quite with a big “Hello World” smile? It’s more with tears in their eyes as they continue to live over the edge in ministry.
And let me take you back to that picture, Alfred Seward’s picture. The Good Shepherd’s hanging. He’s gone to the edge. He’s gone over the edge. But he doesn’t stop there. He reaches out from there so that he can touch that lost lamb before the circling eagles can get to it, pick it up, and drop it on the rocks to eat it later. He’s reaching out from there at risk of his own life.
Ministry is not for the faint hearted. Ministry is an extreme undertaking. And there are whole saints who have gone before us. Engelmar Unzeitig, he was born in 1911 in a German district in Czechoslovakia. He was Catholic, and ever since he was little he wanted to be a missionary. Well, he went to school, and in 1939 he was ordained. But they didn’t think he was quite ready for the mission field yet, so they put him in a church. And he began to preach some great social justice sermons, which we like from newly minted graduates from seminary. But unfortunately, these sermons didn’t just upset the church board. They upset the Hitler regime. And he was put in Dachau.
There he was amid squalor and starvation and filth and hunger and disease. He had forced labor like everyone else. But very quickly on, he realized, yes, he realized that he had been sent to a mission field. There he was able to reach out to people that the Church had never been able to reach out to. Beyond the Jews there were Communists, there were homosexuals, there were gypsies, there were other kinds of dissidents that had never really been part of the Church at all. And in the midst of everything else, every adversity that he experienced, he began to reach out with the word of hope and grace and the Gospel itself to all those who were around him. He found his mission field.
Well, in the winter of 1945 after the first of the year, there was a typhoid epidemic that hit Dachau. And hundreds of people in the concentration camp came down with the disease. And the wardens there put them all into one area. They were even afraid to go and touch them and to take them out. And so they came and they asked for twenty volunteers to take care of these persons with typhoid. And Father Engelmar raised his hand and said, “Here am I. Send me.”
What makes somebody like that raise their hand and respond to that call? But he went down literally into the bowels of Dachau and there he administered to those who were sick and dying. He helped them physically, and often his was the last face that they saw. He administered last rites and prayers of the dead. And people said that he was an angel of mercy in the very depths of Dachau. He found his missi