Bishop Teresa Snorton ~ Sisters & Brothers by Other Mothers – John 10:11-16

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Bishop Snorton preached this sermon at the opening worship of the September meeting of the World Methodist Council in London, England.

 

When I was working as chaplain at one of the Emory university hospitals in Atlanta, I did a lot of counseling of hospital staff members, particularly when they had personal crises or life events that affected their work. One woman I remember very well was a nurse on one of the surgical units. I met her when her father died, just a few minutes after she received the call giving her the news. I sat with her in a quiet office near her nurses station and listened as she shared her feelings and made decisions about what to do next.

One source of concern for her was what was going to happen at the funeral. She confided that she was worried because she knew her father had another family besides the one he had with her mother. She knew she had sisters and brothers by another mother and wondered how this gathering of two families would play out. The two women who fathered this man’s children knew of each other but choose to live in a state of denial of one another’s existence. The children, now all adults, had done the same – ignored the existence of one another. Most of them had not even met face to face.

So, in this moment of loss, the nurse with whom I sat, wondered who was going to come to the funeral and what in the world would happen when these two families of the same man found themselves under the same roof.

Needless to say, we prayed for a peaceful funeral!

A week later, I made contact with the nurse, who was now back at work, to see how this gathering of sisters and brothers by two mothers had gone. She shared how her anxiety had grown as the day of the funeral drew near and how difficult it was for her immediate sibling set to talk about the possible encounter with their other siblings. “But,” she said, “I was surprised. It was peaceful.”

She commented on how easy it was to recognize her other set of siblings, since they all resembled her father. She spoke of how easy it was to see that they shared in the pain of grief and the loss of a loved one. She commented, “I was so worried about how different they might be because they grew up in another part of town with a different mother, that I had forgotten what we would have in common – the loss of, not just MY father, but OUR father.” She shook her head as we ended the conversation, still in awe of how unreal the whole business was.

Today, we are much like the nurse in this story. Our culture has taught us to pay attention to difference. Usually, we notice our differences first. We look closely and observe the ways in which we are different. Different races, different ethnicities, different languages, and a myriad of other differences. We can’t help but notice these kinds of differences, especially in a multicultural city like London, but also in a gathering of the World Methodist Council, all those same differences, not to mention the different denominations we represent, AME, CME, UMC, British Methodist, and so on.

This valuing of difference is both subtle and blatant in a variety of ways…

For example, in the USA, we are used to most official forms asking us to identify our racial and ethnic identity, and often our age group and income group. These different demographics –  that we so innocently and cooperatively share – are used in a variety of ways to sort, measure, describe, proscribe and plan for social services, television and radio marketing and advertising!

Here is another example – I live in the state of Alabama in the USA, where college football is very important. The two major teams are serious rivals, the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn University Tigers. Crimson red and white are the colors of one and blue and orange are the colors of the other. Thoughout the state you will see flags, license plates, posters, magnets, stickers, hats, t-shirts and even fingernails painted, to show who you support.

A newcomer like me has quickly learned that there is little appreciation for being neutral or not caring which team wins … in Alabama you are expected to choose one or the other because they are two different teams and no one is supposed to support both. Further evidence of how our cultures encourage us to value difference.

But our text today does quite the opposite. It teaches that rather than focus on our difference, we ought to focus on our alikeness. Jesus has just elaborately described his role in the lives of his people. In John 11:11 Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. He goes on to describe how this role of shepherd is unlike that of a hireling who only has a temporary interest in the sheep. He describes the source of his care and concern – God – and the evidence of his care and concern – he will lay down his life for the sheep.

Then, as if he knew what our response would be – the tendency to take singular ownership of the shepherd as if he were ours alone, Jesus says, other sheep I have which are not of this fold. It is as if Jesus is saying to the church, each church and denomination represented here today, that while each of us can claim kinship to him as our shepherd, we must also remember that we are all sisters and brothers albeit by other mothers. Continents, culture, social movements, schisms, immigration, migration, discrimination and a myriad of other forces have given birth to each of the member churches, different birth origins, different mothers; yet we are sisters and brothers. Other sheep of the same Jesus who said, there will be one flock and one shepherd.

Today’s text is not the only one in the biblical record that draws of the image of shepherd. We are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name sake.

This image of shepherd is one of a good shepherd. One, who leads, guides, restores, the one who anticipates the needs of the sheep.

In Luke, the good shepherd is identified as one who knows the sheep by name, the good shepherd communicates with his sheep. In tumultuous times, the good shepherd hangs in there, making sure the sheep are safe, unlike the hireling who runs away, the good shepherd even risks his life for the sheep.

But before ending this description of the good shepherd, Jesus adds one more quality. The good shepherd, the true shepherd, realizes that there are other sheep besides the ones that are most visible. There are other sheep … for if we are of Jesus’ flock, we too have other sisters and brothers. That fact is the foundation of the World Methodist Council.

This text has often been used as a basis for evangelism. We can take it to mean that there are others out there who need to be saved, so we must preach to them. Bring them to Jesus, convert them.

But, I’m not so sure this is an evangelism passage, but more of an identity passage. One designed to help us remember that we are not the only ones. One that can remind us as Methodists that we are all sisters and brothers – not cousins, not half sisters and brothers, not step sisters and brothers, even though some of us came to be from mother Africa and others from the divorce between Britain and the United States, and others Methodist because of the consequences of slavery, and others from itinerant preachers and missionaries who left the comfort of their own culture and adopted another family of God’s people. Sisters and brothers albeit by other mothers.

Why is this identity issue and this affirmation of kinship so important? Because it is the key to becoming and being one flock with one shepherd – “One” – as our proposed theme for the 2016 quinnenium suggests.

Being one does not mean we loose our distinct identities, but it does mean we invest in discovering how we are alike, rather than get overwhelmed by our differences.

Being one does not mean we will all have the same priorities, but it does mean we respect the priorities and viewpoints of one another.

Being one does not mean we ignore our differences, but it does mean we commit to one another that our differences will be stepping stones and not stumbling blocks. After all, we are sisters and brothers, even if it’s by different mothers.

In the USA, we sing a song by Hezechiah Walker that goes like this:

I need you, you need me.
We’re all a part of God’s body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We’re all a part of God’s body.

It is his will, that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

I pray for you, You pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
I won’t harm you with words from my mouth.
I love you, I need you to survive.

But you know even beyond our kinship as Methodists, I believe Jesus is also calling us to recognize our kinship with all of humankind. And it is this fact that will keep us rooted and grounded in our purpose for being, a purpose that transcends our individual and denominational differences. A purpose that transcends our existence as a World Methodist Council. A purpose that endows us as the sheep of the good shepherd to never get so caught up in our own “stuff” that we forget about others.

Here’s a story that illustrates what I’m trying to say:

The story is told of three seminary graduates who were ready to go out and begin their ministries. But first, they went up to the top of the mountain to see the great, wise wish granter. The first minister said to the wish granter, “Sir, I have been poor all of my life and I believe that if I could just be rich and prosperous, I could be successful in my ministry.”

The second minister said to the wish granter, “Sir, I have been a nobody all my life and I believe that if I could just be famous and well known, I could be successful in my ministry.”

The third minister said to the wish granter, “Sir, I just want to serve the best I can wherever I am sent to work, whether it’s a big church or a small church, a hospital, prison or school.”

After a period of silence, the wish granter said to each of them, “Go, and come back in 30 years and tell me what happened.”

Thirty years later, the three ministers returned to the top of the mountain and faced the great, wise wish granter again!  The first minister stood before the wish granter, dressed in the finest designer suits and all the accessories. This minister looked prosperous, and said to the wish granter, “Thank you for granting my wish!” The wish granter hung his head and said “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and loose his soul?”

The second minister stood before the wish granter and began to boast, “Thank you, because my name is a household word, my face is on billboards and I have both TV and radio shows, I am finally somebody.” The wish granter hung his head and said to him “Fool, this night thy soul is required of thee.”

The third minister stood before the wish granter and said, “Well, I don’t have much to report. I was called to be a pastor, but I never actually made it to the church where I had been called to serve. You see when I got to the base of the mountain…

I heard about some hungry people in the Sudan and Ethiopia, so I gathered up the leftovers from the tables of the rich and even that to them was a banquet.

I heard about some homeless children in Haiti still suffering from the effects of the earthquake, and I knew I needed to stop and do something to help them.

Then, I heard about tornado victims in Alabama and Oklahoma, so I gathered up a team of volunteers and went to help them rebuild. After that…

I heard about racial profiling of Muslims, so I went to the mosque and got acquainted with their community and asked how could I help. A bit later…

I heard about the plight of the Palestinians and decided to get educated on the issues so I could speak the truth to power.

After that, I thought I would make it to the church house, but as I walked further…

I saw some people with HIV and AIDS so I stopped to sit with them for while.

I saw some victims of child abuse and sexual abuse, so I sat with them through the long days and nights of the healing of their souls. Then…

I saw the oppression of women, and blacks and gays and lesbians, so I marched for justice because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I saw the sick going without the health care they needed, so I demanded that a change be made.

I saw young black and Hispanic males, disproportionately represented in the prisons, and I knew I had to be an advocate for better education and not more jails.

I’m sorry, I never made it to the church house, but I did the best I could with the time I had…

Before he could go on apologizing for what he lacked, the wish granter said to him, “Truly I tell you, whatever you have done for the least of these my brothers and sisters – brothers and sisters by other mothers – you’ve done it for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

The good shepherd knows that our responsibilities in ministry extend far beyond those who are just like us in terms of race, ethnicity, politics, religion, social class, sexual orientation … Good shepherds know there are

other sheep, not of your fold at the local church,
other sheep not of your fold as Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists
other sheep not of the fold as Christians, be they Jewish, Muslim, Hindi, or Buddhist.

There are

other sheep not of our fold as whites, blacks, Hispanics or Asians,
other sheep not of our fold as heterosexuals or GLBTs,
other sheep not of our fold as middle class consumers and owners,
other sheep not of our fold as preachers and teachers of the gospel.

There are other sheep not of our fold, but they are our sisters and brothers by other mothers. Sisters and brothers of the same God who has called us to be Shepherds. And the good shepherd does not run away from them just because of difference, controversy, conflict, or sacrifice.

In the words of Raymond Rasberry, may we never forget, “Only What You Do For Christ Will Last:”

You may build great cathedrals large or small,
you can build skyscrapers grand and tall,
you may conquer all the failures of the past,
but only what you do for Christ will last.

Remember only what You do for Christ will last.
Remember only what you do for Christ will last,
only what you do for Him will be counted at the end;
only what you do for Christ will last.

You may seek earthly power and fame,
the world might be impressed by your great name,
soon the glories of this life will all be past,
but only what you do for Christ will last.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson put it this way

If I can help somebody
As I travel along
If I can help somebody
With a word or song
If I can help somebody
From doing wrong
My living shall not be in vain.

My living shall not be in vain
My living shall not be in vain
If I can help somebody
While I’m singing this song
My living shall not be in vain.

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