- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

The following are excerpts of a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors at Brown Memorial Church in Baltimore.

Sheep should not be left alone in the wilderness. If you are a shepherd and you lose one sheep, you count yourself lucky that the rest of the 99 have survived. Leaving the flock in the wilderness endangers the entire flock.

But that’s what Jesus says he would do. Jesus would leave all those defenseless sheep to fend for themselves while he runs off to find a sheep that might already be dead.

And he expects all 99 of us to be there when he gets back. Judging from the current state of the Church, I think he might have miscalculated. The Church in North America has been losing sheep every year for the past decade. Last year, our own Presbyterian Church experienced its largest membership decline since the reunion of the northern and southern churches in 1983. We lost 46,658 members. In the last decade we’ve had a net loss of between 40 and 60 churches each year. Young people are coming to church less and less often. And so are young clergy. We are literally dying off, picked off in the wilderness.

Just talk to an elder of a dying church that couldn’t adapt to the neighborhood changing around it. There is nothing left to do but gather 10 or 12 folks together every depressing Sunday to sing a few hymns on the out-of-tune piano, listen to a sermon about the comfort of the hereafter, until the church literally dies with its people.

Our flock is dying. I saw an ad for McCormick Seminary’s lectures in Chicago this year. The theme for the lectures is “Will There Be Christians in the Future?” I’m not so sure that the easy answer is a “yes” — not in this country.

It’s tempting to want to talk about all the ways to protect the remaining sheep. Or discuss strategies to recruit some more sheep to the fold.

It’s offensive, really, to be compared to sheep. But sheep are not the cute, cuddly animals that children’s books and Christian traditions make them out to be. Sheep are dirty. The sheep I’ve seen have mud caked to their wool. They’re timid little beasts. And worst of all, they are stupid. There’s no other way to say it. Sheep are not the brightest bulbs on the animal tree.

I don’t like being compared to a sheep. And it seems like every time Jesus turns around, he’s doing just that. “He saw the crowd, and they were like sheep without a shepherd.” “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves.” Well that’s comforting. We are the sheep. He is the shepherd — the shepherd who has left us to fend for ourselves with nothing, with nothing in a wilderness full of instability, full of predators much stronger than us — a wilderness empty of the things that we need to sustain ourselves. We are the sheep with no resources to do much of anything but wait for our shepherd and hope we don’t get picked off while he’s away.

But something caught my eye in [University of Tennessee] professor [Warren] Gill’s [research on sheep behavior] — a question-and-answer section at the end of his paper. “Are sheep dumb animals?” the report asks. There in the answer to this question and the one that followed, I found the one redeeming quality of sheep — “the flocking instinct.” While sheep are out ruminating, they instinctively flock together. They have no other defenses, so they flock close together to ward off predators and to promote the welfare of the group.

And we could say the same thing about this church. How many churches in Baltimore have closed their doors or left the urban wilderness in search of greener pastures? Have many churches have been picked off by commercial progress or urban blight? How many churches have been torn apart because their members couldn’t stand to graze flank to flank any longer? Brown Memorial has survived while others have disappeared.

Maybe the days of ruminating in the wilderness are over. The neighborhood is thriving again, the building is fantastically renovated, and new staff people are here with energy and enthusiasm for the future. It would be tempting to declare the days of merely surviving in the wilderness are over; the days of ease and plenty are ahead. I mean, there are 79 children on the rolls with twins on the way. It would be tempting to say that we do not have to worry about flocking so closely together anymore because the shepherd has returned to watch out for the flock.

But … this church has always measured its joy in how well it has participated in God’s work of redemption in the world. In how well it supports the work of the shepherd who risks the fate of the flock and crosses all boundaries for the sake of the lost — poor, the oppressed, the destitute and those who have no hope.

I’m not so sure the days of wilderness are over for this congregation, not with the goals you’ve set out for yourself.

If we really want to take on all these things, then we better hold onto our flocking instinct and stick together because there is plenty of danger in the wilderness. The wilderness is a dangerous place to be. But I don’t think we have much of a choice. Because I believe that Jesus left us here for a reason. Jesus has left us here, and he knows that we can do much better than just surviving. He left us here because he knows that we won’t weep for ourselves while he’s away. He knows that we, too, long to see the outcast included, the lost found, the poor lifted up. Jesus calls us to put ourselves at risk for their sake, and from what I’ve already seen in this flock, we are willing.

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