"Following the Leader?”
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 3, 2014
University Baptist Church
Kathleen Tice selected this note from the grab bag last Sunday. It said, “I want to hear a sermon about the sheep/cliff picture in Doug’s office.” It’s a print by Francois Kresz. I picked it up at a conference several years ago. It seemed to speak to me. It has hundreds of sheep walking together and eventually blindly falling over a cliff. But if you look closely, there is one sheep walking the other way politely saying, “Excuse me, Excuse me.”
When trying to find what to preach about, I asked my facebook community for their comments on the poster. Jim Ketcham mentioned that the poster hung in the hallway at UBC in the 1980’s. I guess it was a favorite of former pastor Lee Freeman. No wonder we were such a good fit.
Of course, there were bad puns:
“If you know the whole flock is going in the wrong direction don't be sheepish about setting your own path”
“Making choices based on something you herd is sometimes a baaaaaad decision.”
“O we like sheep!”
“this brings to mind the effect the mass media has upon society.”
“ Oh, for an Anatolian Shepherd! (Our daughter and her husband own one, and she's marvelous, great with children, and oh so territorial.)”
“The 'Road Less Traveled' is not an easy path.”
“Why is it when we all get together to follow something it is always over a cliff?”
“I think that following blindly should be added to the list of Great Sins...”
“As the shepherd be very careful how you word following...”
Sheep are mentioned the in Bible over 500 times. I guess they had a lot of sheep back then. Everyone could relate. When I was at Iona, the sheep roamed freely around certain parts of the island, but if we wanted to keep the yard somewhat clean around the abbey, we needed to make sure the fences were closed.
Sheep are pack animals and need each other. They will follow each other, just trusting the one in front of them to lead them in the right path. But if the sheep have no shepherd, or a lazy one at that, then they might go toward harm’s way. Maybe even over a cliff. Jesus had compassion on the crowds at the sermon on the mount because they seemed like sheep without a shepherd, blindly plugging along and hoping that everything will be all right. As long as we keep in the pack.
When I was living in New York, survival meant in part to keep at the same pace of the others in that sea of people. Once you start going against the current, you are likely to get run over. I thought about this as I was in a sea of sheep running a marathon a month and a half ago. I was following few feet behind someone at a water stop. He decided to stop right in front of me. Know brake lights on runner’s jerseys. I danced around him and declared my disgust at his behavior in colorful language that I’m not too proud of.
So much of life and ministry seems to be following the leader. We sing in tune. We tithe just like we’re supposed to. We obediently pay our taxes, follow the laws, consume what the commercials tell us to, buy homes, go into debt, fund wars, use fossil fuels at an astonishing rate, eat food with little regard for where it came from or on whose back it was grown. We do this because it’s expected.
It’s convenient. It doesn’t rock the boat. It ensures survival—or so we think. And by the time we get to the cliff it’s too late. The momentum is pushing us over. We dig in our heals at the last minute, but it’s too late. We’re hoping our environmental activism isn’t too little, too late.
Jesus came so that we would not follow blindly off the cliff. Jesus came so that we could save ourselves and maybe some others along the way.
Shepherds are preachers, priests, leaders. Moses appointed Joshua by saying, “Let YHWH, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of YHWH may not be like a sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-17).
But some of them are not worth following. I think of so many televangelists who hock their wares while they try to save souls. Saving and buying souls are a bit too conflated for me.
There does not seem to be a shepherd in the picture, unless he or she is at the bottom of a pile of sheep.
One of the themes of the Bible is the great reversal. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It’s mentioned in today’s scripture and it’s a call for courage, faithfulness and audacity amongst the people.
The key to the poster, of course, is the sheep that is going the other way. The one who is reversing course. It might be too late for her, but she is trying anyway. Maybe the one out of step is the shepherd-or the shepherd to be. The question is, will she have a flock?
I can imagine what the other sheep might be thinking of the one going the other way. There she goes again. Get with the program. You’re messing with our sacred path. You’re a sinner. I love you, but I hate your sin. What must her family think? For shame.
Of course, she sees clearly, as do we.
I think God looks at us like this, too. God sees us following in lock step right off the cliff. We are a hopeless flock of sheep, if it weren’t for the one going the other way. That is the hope of the world. In fact, that is what the church is to be. We are the ones who are to remind people of the cliff ahead. We are the ones who tell people to change their course. Embrace what is good for the crowd. Embrace that which will save people. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Imagine a better way.
The crowd believes what it is told by talk radio.
It believes that wealth will save us.
It believes that might makes right.
It believes that we have infinite fossil fuels.
It believes that arming everyone makes everyone safer.
It believes that if everyone else works for themselves, then we will all be saved. We seldom want to see the big picture. We seldom want to go out of step with everyone else.
It would be hopeless, except that every once in a while someone stops and says, wait a minute. I think I have a better idea. Maybe it’s one of those hymns sung week after week that stuck in my mind. Maybe there’s a better way.
So, let’s celebrate those who have changed direction and are like the sheep going in a different direction.
We think of the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts who refused to ride the busses as long as they were segregated. It started with one woman, one sheep going in the opposite direction. It soon turned into a movement that brought down the segregated south.
I think of people like Spencer Parsons. Many of us know him as Tai Shigaki’s late husband which is enough of a title. But we also ought to know him as a founder of the clergy consultation on abortion rights. Way back before Roe v. Wade, Spence joined with Howard Moody and several other male clergy to help women find health care when they were faced with unwanted pregnancies. This was back in the day when back alley abortions were killing women at an alarming rate. They organized an underground network of health providers and medical personnel to get women the health care they needed. They did this in defiance of church politics because they believed in a higher calling of justice for all of God’s people. They believed that women could make the best decisions about when and whether to have children.
During the 1980’s, when the US was supporting dictatorships across Central America, people fled to the US where they were met with contempt and suspicion. They were however welcomed into certain churches, like University Baptist Church in Seattle. The church decided to offer sanctuary to these political refugees. They snubbed INS agents and called their offering of sanctuary a part of their religious obedience.
I think of the people who are questioning the futility and utility of war. I think of people who engage in tax activism. Withholding the portion of their taxes that go to the war machine.
I think of the people who are questioning Israel’s dominance over their Palestinian neighbors. No one wants to insult Israel with the holocaust still fresh in our memories, but we can call for a just two-state solution and an end to encroaching on Palestinian land and rights which can’t help but fuel hostility.
I think of the people who are calling for a more just prison system. A more just immigration policy.
I think of the tireless activists that worked to overturn the voter-approved constitutional persecution of the LGBT community in Uganda.
I think of our sister church in Nicaragua giving education and meals to the needy.
Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville has been ably led by the Rev. April Baker for many years. April’s call to be pastor there was the church being a sheep going the other way. Aside from being a great pastor, April has been together with her spouse Deborah for over 20 years. Their legal wedding was celebrated at Peace Camp last year in Washington state. Of course, it put them on the outside in heavily Baptist Nashville.
Well, she has been selected as recipient of Furman University's prestigious Richard Furman Baptist Heritage Award for 2014.
The Award is given each year to an alumna/alumnus who exemplifies the principles on which Baptist believers ground their faith system and their lives: religious freedom, church freedom, soul freedom and Bible freedom. The following is an excerpt of the letter containing her nomination for the award:
When Glendale was "excused" from inclusion in some Baptist bodies because of our decision "to define ourselves outside the parameter of the group's understanding," April was the first to remind us that the dissenting voice is one of the strongholds of Baptist understanding. Her insistence on the freedoms that are ours as Baptists, and her grace in the face of picketers and protestors and hate-mailers and meanness helped us--continues to help us--claim our heritage and live into it boldly, peacefully, lovingly. Following her explicit words and example, Glendale's practice is still one that she calls "the ministry of relentless presence," in places that want to learn how to be inclusive but can't quite bring themselves to welcome us to the table.
But doing this work comes at a high price. Matthew’s Jesus says that following the gospel will cost us family, friends, respect and stature. That’s where the rubber hits the road and most of us would not choose to be the lonely defiant sheep.
The reality is that I’m like those sheep following the crowd off the cliff. I wish I was the polite defiant one, but I like my friendships, my family, my relative security. Being a lonely prophet is not what I aspire to. But here’s the assurance of Jesus: “Everyone who has left houses, or brothers or sisters or fathers or mother or children or fields for my name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold and will inherit eternal life. And many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:29-30)
So where is your courageous opportunity?
Where is your opportunity to break with the crowd and live into the good news?
When and will you be like the one who goes the other way?
Here’s the rub, you can’t do it alone. The sheep in this picture cannot keep it up by herself. She needs prayerful devotion to a higher purpose. The Bible is a codebook that holds within it the keys to real life. The defiant sheep knows the reality. The courageous sheep sees the world as it is and makes her choice.
When Jesus was being led to the cliff after his first fiery sermon offended the entire community, some subversive people gathered to bring him to safety. We follow the one who inspires the people to defy safety, acceptableness and popularity because something is more important. And when you have found that one thing, then you will receive a life really worth living. And you will be a part of God’s plan. Let’s find those opportunities to save ourselves and other communities from the cliff.
So, I keep this poster hanging in my office to remind myself of the high calling of the Gospel to be the shepherd who persistently, consistently and courageously offers a different path: the one that leads to life; the one that leads to hope; the one that leads to salvation; the one worth risking it all. And I believe when I set out on this course, I’ll be in good company. And so will you.