Post-9/11 generations are hungry for faith; without it, they are defenceless – and without a church that offers it to them, so are we.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? ~ Luke 15:1-7

I delivered this sermon for First United Methodist Church Middletown on Sunday, September 11th, 2016. A printable version (PDF) is here.

Thank you for coming this morning, I hope that our worship fills your heart and your spirit abundantly, and that it inspires you to be transformed by the good things that God has intended for us all. Let us remember, though, that on this day fifteen years ago, the good things that God has provided in this world were obscured by evil acts. We were shaken as a people, startled to find that the safety and stability that modern society had assumed for decades, if not centuries, was challenged as never before.

Yet we arose as a people; we responded; we recovered. Or did we? Are we prepared to acknowledge that since that time, a generation has grown up which assumes for the most part that the institutions of our times have left them defenseless, unprotected, beyond the borders of what we may have once considered the safety of modern culture? And, perhaps more importantly, have we considered how we, as God’s church on earth, are prepared to address the needs of these people, many of whom are deeply hungry for something more than what our culture offers them, people who must lead others to faith for future generations? Would you pray with me, please: [PRAYER]

A defenceless calf

are we leaving ourselves as Christians defenceless?I realize that I just gave you a pretty heavy opening to my message, so let me back up to a lighter way of looking at what our scripture readings reveal today. As you may know, my family and I moved to Guilford a few years ago. It is the most countrified place that I have lived in since I was a little boy. Around our new home we have heard the sound of a rooster crowing down the hill, the diesel roar of a tractor going past our house, and we see flocks of sheep on the way to the grocery store. When I come up here through North Guilford every Sunday, I drive past long rows of corn, hay trucks, a maple sugar shack, a feed store with llamas, and pastures with horses and cows. It may not be Iowa, but it certainly is country with a “C.”

Well, a few weeks ago, it got even a little more country for me. I was driving down the road near the feed store, and who should be in the road right in front of me but a brown calf. Apparently the calf had slipped through the loose wires of the pasture fence that lines the road. Well, my inner cowboy got a hold of me; I stopped the car, got out, and tried to encourage the calf back into the field. The calf kept a wary eye on me, stepped backwards into the fence, stumbled, backed up some more, and finally made it through backwards to the other side of the fence.

Going where the grass is greener

img_20160817_143426Now, I was relieved that the calf was safe, but as I looked at the fence more carefully, I could see why this young animal was so interested in what was beyond it. You see, the pasture inside the fence was chewed down pretty much to the ground, and long grasses and flowers were all over the place on the other side of the fence. The calf was doing what any young animal wants to do – satisfying its natural hunger. The pasture just didn’t have enough to satisfy a growing body.

Before this happened I had been studying the scripture readings for today’s sermon, and it struck me immediately how this situation related to them. Luke’s gospel tells us about a shepherd who goes after a lost sheep, leaving ninety-nine other sheep behind. Well, why was the sheep wandering? Probably for the same reasons that the calf was – it was hungry for more. The pastures where the shepherd had led the flock just weren’t enough for this sheep. The sheep wanted more, and went to find it.

A reputation built on the defenceless

018-shepherds-sheepNow, obviously the shepherd of this flock didn’t see it the same way as the sheep. In Jesus’ time shepherds usually were taking care of other people’s sheep – sometimes for a whole village, and sometimes for wealthy people who owned even more sheep. If a shepherd lost a sheep, that was money out of his pocket, not to mention a blow to his reputation. So the shepherd in Jesus’ story had good reason to leave the ninety-nine sheep in safekeeping to make sure personally that the lost sheep was found.

There are, of course, important differences between today’s world and Jesus’ world, and one of the biggest differences was right alongside that road in North Guilford – a fence. Sheep would have been in one of two places in Jesus’ time: either safe in a sheepfold, or out in a field, usually without a fence. The sheep went wherever the eating was good, led there by the shepherd. The shepherd’s leadership in finding food for hungry sheep was critical – if a sheep wandered far enough, lions and other dangerous animals were still common – a lost sheep was a life or death matter for both the shepherd and the sheep.

Fences that didn’t define a place to satisfy hunger

farmhouse-home-decorCalves, sheep, people – we all go where our hunger gets satisfied, even when it leads us to great danger. As the preacher and philosopher Howard Thurman put it once, “There is a deep hunger that belongs to the very nature of personality, ‘Always roaming with a hungry heart.’” Hunger is not meant to be satisfied in well picked-over pastures. Hunger doesn’t get satisfied in places where there is no providing for the hunger of new members of a flock.

My dear friends in Christ, I fear at times that many churches are like that pasture that I pass in North Guilford, and that our post-9/11 generation of teens and adults are like the calf that wandered away. Churches die for any number of reasons, but one common reason is that they fail to satisfy the spiritual hunger of younger generations. The spiritual food in those churches may have been good enough for people who were satisfied with what it provided for them personally. But it seems that we lost track of how much our reputation before Christ would depend on new generations, hungry for spiritual meaning in their lives, who wound up going elsewhere.

The defenceless challenge our Christian reputation

shepherd-carrying-sheep1The fences that defined the limits of many of our churches were based on many traditional assumptions that no longer define a place of spiritual abundance where they can be satisfied. Here in the U.S., and around the world, these new generations are wandering, and, without the protection of faith in Jesus Christ, they are very vulnerable to a wide range of spiritual temptations. Truly, they are defenseless, and without them, so are we, for they are the sheep from whom Christ must choose new shepherds.

The time for a fenced-in church is coming to a close. Our future lies with the defenseless, the ones beyond our fences, who hunger for what many of them don’t yet dare to call faith, but who are not yet ready to accept the fences marking outdated boundaries for a church that must reach a world that screams out for a courageous witness to faith from us. Jesus calls us to his flock, but, more than that, Jesus calls us to raise up good shepherds for his church, shepherds who are willing to train new shepherds for generations to come, shepherds who will put their reputation and even their very lives on the line for the sake of Jesus Christ, wherever and whenever the gospel is needed.

The defenceless are our future church leaders

nadia09If we doubt this, then consider today’s reading from 1 Timothy. You see, this letter, written in the voice of the apostle Paul, appears actually to have been written by a church leader inspired by Paul many years after his death. This leader identifies with Paul because he, too, became a leader of the church after having been a sinner, a lost sheep, defenseless against sin’s deadly power without Christ. Because the church reached out courageously in Godly love to this person who became a church leader, like the risen Jesus reached out to Paul in love, the church lived on – and it is with us even today, two thousand years later.

The defenseless are the leaders of our future church. Without them, there will be no church. Without the church, they will not have the protection of Jesus Christ, the most powerful presence of God for healing, good, and right of all time. And without our willingness to move beyond our traditional fences of what defines the church to offer Christ to the world, our claim to our reputation as Christian people has no defense before Christ.

Shepherding the defenceless fearlessly

People of all walks of life who feel let down by a fenced-in church are waiting for us to lead them to lush pastures where their spirits can be satisfied. They are hungry to be led by shepherds who will lay down their reputations and their very lives for the sheep. They want us to be courageous as we lead them to the abundance of Christ, for their sake, just like Christ wants us to have courage and abundance, for our sake and for theirs.

The stakes are high, and they should be clear. We must allow Christ to rescue us to be a redeemed people, unlimited by the fences of the past, so that the Church, the good shepherds of Christ in this world, may rescue the defenseless, the ones who will become the church’s future. May it be so, for the joy, the love, and the glory of our God. Amen.

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