Let’s play with the numbers in this parable. What if not just one sad little lamb is lost and restored to the 99, but rather half the sheep are lost? What does the shepherd do if only 20 sheep are in view, or 10? How can you get the flock together again? Now that would be a parable for 2016. How will the flock hold together among the wolves, feeding on brown pastures, and worried about the Zika virus? And what about the bees? How do we stop all the Zika carrying mosquitoes without killing all the bees? No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, whether you are gay or straight, black, white or brown, male or female, you are probably worried about the loss of community, and wonder where you are going to feel welcome in the future.
Is there a center to hold together? It is scary even to go to the bookstore. Here are the popular titles on social issues.
- “The End of White Christian America” where Robert Jones looks at the first generation of American Protestants who are not a majority in power any more.
- “Hillbilly Eulogy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”
- “Between the World and Me” by Ta Nahisi Coates, who writes to his son and all of us, about being black in a country where it is considered controversial and inflammatory to say “Black Lives Matter.”
- This week Thomas Friedman wrote an article titled, “We Are All Noah Now” about living in a world of rising tides.
Feeling like a lost sheep is may be the paradigm for a cultural, communal and even planetary crisis. Almost any institution you can name-corporations, political parties, churches, ethnic groups, governments- experiences a sense of displacement, loss and potential threat to its existence. Here is one little detail in our parable that grabs my attention. The whole flock is in the wilderness. It does not say that the 99 sheep were safely in a barn, or grazing in a green field beside the still waters, while shepherd Jesus went to find the lost little sheep. The 99 are in the wilderness too, and the only real safety you have in the wilderness is sticking together. No one makes it alone.
I made connections to this story of the lost sheep while on a boating trip in August. This is the water version of being a lost sheep. Every summer we visit Jeanne’s parents on the Delmarva Peninsula, where they live on a marshy salt water creek. Life on Folly Creek revolves around the tides. Before you make any plans for the day you have to look at the tidal chart on the refrigerator because you can only kayak or take the motor boat out to the barrier island beaches near high tide. Since the timing high tide changes about an hour every day, you have to pay attention, or you can end up in trouble (more about that soon!) The change is quite dramatic. At high tide the view off the deck is of a beautiful river, 300 to 400 feet wide. But it is really a shallow creek and at low tide, it is about 40 feet wide, and the banks turn into a mudflat. If you journey out to the beach, you have to get back before low tide, or you will be stranded in the mud flats or hit a sand bar on the way. Been there, done that! Every day on a salt water creek is like the second day of creation, where the waters are separated from the dry land, but they don’t stay put. Life is always changing with the tides, and you literally have to go with the flow.
Global warming and rising sea levels makes this all the more complicated, altering the topography on an annual basis. Last Sunday the front page of the NY Times said Norfolk, VA is one of the most threatened coastal cities in America, which is just one hour south of Folly Creek. The rising tide is rising right into neighborhoods, flooding streets and threatening the docks of the largest naval base in the world. The tides are a national security issue, and it makes our trips to the beach more perilous.
We go anyway, because Jeanne’s mom is 86, and her great joy is being captain of the boat. She can’t go alone anymore. Its too risky with her unsteady balance and all the things that can go wrong, so we enjoy taking her out and being present so she can walk in the sand and go a little way out into the waves, and we help with the anchor, docking and so on. But Anne is the one with 25 years of knowledge of boating on these waterways, the expert at steering and avoiding unseen sand bars. We may be her hands and feet, but we depend on her skill and knowledge.
The toughest trick at the beach is getting anchored properly so you can leave the boat and walk the beautiful and empty mile long beach, where you can see Pelicans and collect sea shells. Remember you go out at high tide, so if you leave the boat for an hour or two, you can end up stranded if you miscalculate. Which is what we did.
We stayed too long because it was a lovely day and the water was just right. When we returned the boat had washed ashore, and was sitting on the beach with just the back end close to the water. Jeanne and I pushed at the bow, but there was no give. The next high tide was 9 hours away, at 2 AM, and thunderstorms were in the forecast for the evening. We looked at our cell phone reception wondering if we could reach the Coast Guard. Then we started to contemplate the physics of the situation (because we still believe in science.) What if we could nudge the front of the boat sideways, because there is less resistance from the sand? Maybe we could then get the front end into the water. Jeanne and I pushed and shoved and moved the bow about three inches. It was a start. We dug in our feet to the sand and gave it our best push and this time we went six inches. Only five or six more feet to go, but at that rate the tide would go out faster than we were pushing. Then I thought, what if I lift the front end of the boat, just a fraction off the sand and Jeanne pushed? Now we had a winning formula. I lifted and Jeanne pushed and in a few minutes we had floated our boat, and ready to motor off the island. All it took was a little physics and cooperation. But we could have easily been lost. If Jeanne was not strong, we wouldn’t have made it. If I had attended a school that had cut the sciences, we would have been on Gilligan’s Island for the night. If we had been out there alone we would have been lost at sea, just like that poor little sheep separated from the flock.
Here is my takeaway from nearly being stranded on the sand bar. The church is the boat in our story. The church is our vehicle that will carry to where we need to go in the future. If we could get to where we wanted to be alone, we wouldn’t need this boat. But to face the rising waters and changing tides we need this boat, and it needs a crew, an inter-generational, multi-cultural, diverse gender affirming, welcoming, spirit-filled, justice-seeking, praying congregation to keep it moving.
The tides are shifting dramatically around us, and sometimes we don’t even recognize where we are. We will need to stay awake, flexible, adapting the all the changing tides. Sometimes we will miscalculate, and find ourselves stuck on the beach. These are the times that it is all hands on deck, and we dig in together and push until we are floating again. We may get fearful, but doesn’t mean we are going to drop anchor. We may not know exactly where we are, but we aren’t lost, we are exploring. This is not a church content to sit in the safe harbor, and there are no safe harbors in today’s world of climate change.
This has been an adventurous church for 350 years. In the 18th century, we were part of the Great spiritual awakening in the days of Jonathan Edwards, in the 19th Century we were early abolitionists, in the 20th century forerunners in inclusion and GLBTQ welcome and affirmation. What will be in the 21st century? That’s our journey this Fall, to explore the future together and set a new course. And it will not merely be a journey to institutional survival, but to being the people God calls us to be. We will be the church, we will be bold, we will keep this boat off the sand and moving. All aboard!