Because my church isn’t quite technologically with the times yet and because God has been clear that this message is important, here is my manuscript of the sermon I wrote about a few days ago. I hope you pray on it and wrestle with it as much as I have.
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ephesians 2:11-22
You have lost your way. You are no longer pursuing your vision. You are so far off from where you want to be, the work you’re doing is actually working against you. This is what we’re being told through Jeremiah this morning, church. This message was written for the community way back then and I believe it still applies to us today. In our families, in our businesses, in our politics, in our communities. We are called to be shepherds. And in the midst of all of our wandering and beckoning and leading, we completely lost where it is we are trying to go. Like an overzealous driver too pompous or too ignorant to ask for directions, we are speeding down the highway for hours and hours going the wrong direction. I would like to make a hypothesis this morning that we are lost because we have lost our why.
When Pastor Matt and I went to our training back in June at the conference office, Bishop Schol gave an inspirational sermon as we began our work about finding our why. Of course, he had many great sentiments I won’t try and butcher here this morning, but the take away was that we have to remember and honor why it is that we are called here, to this work. We need resilience and perseverance and grit, but without a why, without a purpose, without heart, none of our work means anything. Sure, some good can come out of the things we feel we have to do or the work we crank out to try to prove ourselves or the effort we exert to redeem ourselves or put ourselves up on pedestals… But the real work, the kind of work that gets you up in the morning, the work that sets your heart on fire, the work that changes lives, that work has to have purpose. It has to be part of who we are and who God made us to be, not simply what we do for a living or how we fill our calendars.
The good news is that God is prepared for our shepherding shortfalls. God knows we get distracted and self-righteous and obsessed with earning more for ourselves. So, God promises us here in Jeremiah that there will be shepherds raised up with the right intentions. Shepherds who will keep the sheep from being scared or dismayed or lost. Because after all, that’s the real point of being a shepherd, isn’t it? We will be saved and we will be safe. There will be justice and there will be righteousness. With the right shepherds. And those shepherds will have purpose and drive and grace because God will be leading them. *Spoiler alert* – we are called to be these new shepherds, even if we have previously been the disastrous ones.
The even better news is that we know exactly where God is leading us. We know this because God tells us in Ephesians the true purpose of our work. See Ephesians has one main message. I remember studying for my New Testament survey exam last spring and I was making notes for the highlights of each book in the New Testament. I asked my friends what else they had in their notes about Ephesians because all of my notes from class just said ONE/UNITY in all caps. They agreed that was all they had in their notes as well. And that is because that’s what we’re supposed to get out of this letter from Paul to the church in Ephesus. The purpose of what we’re doing is to break down all divisions and dichotomies and separations because we are all one in Christ. It doesn’t matter if you’re circumcised or uncircumcised, citizens or aliens, near or far, Republican or Democrat, black or white, straight or queer – you belong to the body of Christ. We are not being called to oneness by some abstract logic. Rather, we are being called to oneness to bring peace and to be a dwelling place for God. This is not a weak appeal or an arbitrary request. We are being brought together by the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, so we might have fuller life closer to God and one another. If that’s not something to get you up in the morning and drive the work you do, I don’t know what is.
Like all good whys, this truth applies on a variety of spectrums. First and foremost, this kind of unity and oneness means we have to be welcoming. I’m not talking about casual, easy, “stay in my pew and don’t acknowledge those who are different from me” welcome. I’m talking about radical affirmation of every single human being’s contribution and importance in the body we’re called to build. That means patience. That means genuine listening. That means vulnerability. That means going out of our way. That means trying something new. That means putting ourselves aside so God can work to bring us all together in unity and in love.
This purpose and calling to oneness also means we have to be willing to evaluate and potentially change our structures to make sure we are acting out what we hope to accomplish. We don’t want to be shepherds misguiding sheep. We don’t want to be overzealous drivers wasting time going the wrong direction on the highway. So if our frameworks and our hiring processes and our governing bodies and our liturgies aren’t set up to promote unity, then we have to make a change. Like Edmund Burke so aptly said, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Keeping things the way they’ve always been, just for the sake of it, is no longer an excuse. God calls us to more. Laziness and naiveté make us the failed shepherds Jeremiah warned about. Our systems have to be working for our why or else we’re left without hope and without God like Ephesians tells us.
This kind of pursuit for oneness looks like standing up when our schools in the state of New Jersey are still segregated. It looks like standing up for the dignity and safety of immigrants in our country. It looks like standing up for the ordination and marriage rights of the LGBTQ community in our own denomination. It looks like standing up for healing and justice for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. It looks like standing up to reduce the systematic oppression of the poor, the sick, and the hungry. This kind of overhaul is a lot of work and a lot of patience and a lot of fighting. But to be a good shepherd, we have to leave the 99 to find the 1 so all of the flock can be brought together in unity and in love. That is our purpose. That is what God wants for us.
I understand this is a lot to soak in. It’s hard to feel inspired to change when our first scripture this morning started with “woe to you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.” But what I love about the Bible and the way God speaks to us is that these tough passages that, call us out on where we fall short, are meant to lead us to a fuller life. God doesn’t leave us hanging with Jeremiah’s first few verses of “you’re awful at what you’re doing so good luck.” God promises things will be made right. And God gives us insight into how we can be a meaningful part of that change. God leads us to our purpose so that we won’t get lost or lead God’s people to destruction. God wants us to be joined together, to do life together, to stand up for justice together, to create a peaceful and meaningful world together because God knows we are better together – when we’re all together. Let us go forth today and be encouraged to figure out what it looks like, for us to unify the body of Christ. Let us be filled with the Spirit of God as we do the really hard work in this life. And let us etch in our hearts that God has called us to be good shepherds of all of God’s people. Amen.