Sermon Title “Out to Pasture” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is the fourth Sunday after Easter, and this Sunday is one of those rare times when all of the lectionary readings line up with a single theme: You’ve already heard Psalm 23, the text which Stephen just read for us from the gospel of John, and the music which Betty and Cary Kelsey have chosen, which should be enough information to clue you in to this being Good Shepherd Sunday. There are also a couple sheep, knitted by Lynne Foland, here on the chancel table. She made a bunch, but apparently we’ve given many of them away, so I gathered this ad hoc flock for the morning to enjoy the green pastures and still waters today.
You are doubtless aware that shepherds and sheep have a complex place in Hebrew culture and religion. For nomadic herdsman, sheep are both work and currency — they are food and economic security. In the Jewish sacrificial system, sheep — especially lambs — are an offering, a way to atone for sin and be forgiven for sin. The Bible portrays Jesus not only as the Good Shepherd, but also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. All of that complex and multi-layered theology is wrapped up in sheep and shepherd imagery. And just so you know, I’m not going to talk about any of that this morning. I ain’t scared of theology, and I hope you aren’t either, but I want to talk about a different aspect of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
I don’t know from personal experience, but I have read my Bible and I can imagine some of the things which go into being a Good Shepherd — I’m sure you can think of some, too: faithfulness to the flock, courage to defend the sheep against thieves or animal predators, a willingness to seek out the lost, compassion for the weak. John 10 verse 11 says that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Being a good shepherd can literally cost you your life. Not all shepherds are good shepherds — some are there only to kill and destroy — but good or bad, there is one thing which all shepherds have in common. Do you know what that is? Sheep! To be a shepherd, you gotta have sheep. You might be a shepherd who is outstanding in your field, but without sheep, you’re just somebody who’s out — standing in your field.
If you had the opportunity to read the Pastor’s Page of our May Connection newsletter, or if you were here last week to hear District Moderator Don Anderson share about the Northern Indiana District, or if you just pay attention on Sunday mornings, what I am about to tell you will not be a surprise. The flock of Christians in the United States is getting smaller. This does NOT mean, in my opinion, that we no longer need the faithfulness, courage, compassion and salvation of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, but it does mean that people are increasingly opting out of the flock. There are a lot of factors which have contributed to this decline — it can’t be blamed on one age group or one social issue. One significant reason is that we live in a country which guarantees every person the right to practice whatever religion they want, or no religion at all. Along with the men and women who founded the Church of the Brethren, I would strongly support no coercion in religion. I have no desire to be a sheep who is forced to be part of a flock, even if I don’t want to be there.
I have shared some with the Church Board, and will be talking more about a book by religion reporter Bob Smietana. His book is called “Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why it Matters”. Bob was the guest of the Mission and Ministry Board of the Church of the Brethren at our March meeting in Elgin, IL. He’s spent his career as a journalist and received a Pulitzer Prize for covering stories and trends in American religion. He is a Christian and he has seen the good work that Christians and churches do, as well as the harm they have sometimes caused. The book Reorganized Religion was published in 2020, but he had some updated figures for us in March 2023. Here is one which has stuck with me: In 2018, average attendance in American churches — mega churches, tiny churches, put all the people together and divide by the number of congregations — that average was 139 people. In 2022, that average was 67 people. That is a significant difference. That’s the difference between hiring a full-time pastor and finding a part-time pastor; that’s the difference between being able to run a variety of programs or burning out 67 people trying to run all the same programs you had in 2018. That’s the difference between being able to fix the water heater when it goes out and . . . getting by with cold water, I guess.
In the meantime, while in-person attendance was not even possible for a while for most churches, and fewer people returned when it was. There were earthquakes and tornadoes and floods; there were people lining up at food pantries; there were kids who needed additional tutoring. All of these areas of need are places where churches have stepped in to fill the gaps: helping with childcare and rebuilding in the wake of natural disasters; collecting food or growing produce or providing space for food assistance; staffing after-school childcare or serving as tutors. These are things which churches have done because Christians have felt called to love and serve others — we have heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and tried to follow his example. Churches have acted in love and in self-sacrifice to help our neighbors. A crucial part of the ability to do these acts of service is that Christians have the ability to organize. We gather regularly — at least weekly in most cases — and many Christian denominations have developed long-standing coalitions and partnerships to plan and support our service efforts. Don Anderson shared last week about how much more effective we are as churches when we work together. The Church of the Brethren has a national Brethren Disaster Ministry and a Children’s Disaster Ministry — funds are already in place, childcare resources and building equipment is ready to go, and people are trained to respond when disaster happens. The folks who are staying home or going to brunch or going to their kids’ soccer games on Sunday mornings may be fine people who would want to help out if there’s a hurricane or a flood — but they are probably not connected to an organization who can assemble the supplies and the supervision they would need to get to where the need is in a timely way in order to make a difference.
Smietana shared an illustration that helped me to understand this. He and his wife own a 1950’s ranch-style house in the Chicago area. They like the house and it generally has enough space for them, except for the kitchen, which is too small. There’s a wall which separates the kitchen from the living room, and if they knocked down that wall, there would be plenty of space for the kitchen. They aren’t going to knock down that wall — you know why? It’s load-bearing. That wall is part of what is holding up the house. The church is a load-bearing wall in our society. There are people who count on the support of the church, and it’s support they aren’t going to get anywhere else. That wall is being knocked down, and there is no plan to put anything up in its place. No one really knows what that’s going to mean in 15, 25, or 50 years, and even if I’m not here 25 years from now, I’d like to be part of holding the structure together.
There may be people — an increasing number of people — who don’t see the need for the church, at least for them personally. Christianity isn’t relevant to 21st Century concerns — maybe we can put those Christians out to pasture and let them finish their days quietly. We can observe “Christian” holidays and maybe even show up at church on Christmas Eve — but they’d better have the heat on and an entertaining program and some good cookies afterward. We may not be able to keep people who are not active in church from feeling that way — at least we haven’t been very successful so far at stopping that attitude from spreading. But what I believe would truly make the church irrelevant is if we adopt that attitude about ourselves. If we are content to just stand out in the pasture and chew our cud — or whatever it is sheep do — and just keep ourselves fed and comfortable, we have truly succumbed to the voice of someone who is not Christ, our Good Shepherd. Of course, a shepherd’s job is to take care of the sheep; it is also the shepherd’s job to move the sheep from one place to another — even if the sheep are comfortable right where they are. The Good Shepherd walks beside us and suffers with us and shows us the way which we must go.
I want to end by asking you two questions which Bob Smietana posed to Mission and Ministry Board members. I shared these questions at the last Creekside Board meeting. These are legitimate questions, and I’m going to give you a whole week to think about them, and when you come back next week we’ll talk about them some more, OK? I don’t believe there is a single, definitive correct answer to either of these questions, but some answers would be better than others. Ready?
Why would someone come to Creekside Church?
Why would they stay?
Don’t be sheepish; we have more to talk about next week. God bless you. Amen