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"What Surprised Sheep Tell Us about Mission" by Andrew Warner, Nov. 23, 2014

posted Nov 24, 2014, 10:17 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Nov 24, 2014, 10:17 AM by Andrew Warner ]

This fall the Board of Outreach and Mission launched a new initiative, “Every household a Mission.”  We want every household in our congregation - empty-nesters, families with young children, retirees, singles, widows, newlyweds, every household - to have a mission.  The projects may be global like Doug Stahl’s leadership of MSOE students to build bridges in Guatemala or it may be as local as tutoring students at a nearby elementary school.  The mission might be connected to church, such as Chris Jameson’ meals at the Cathedral Center, or your own project like Michele Gurn’s open door ministry to young adults.  It can be a project within the church community - teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, or visiting shut-ins.  We want to celebrate the breadth and depth of what we do as a congregation.  We want to be a community where every household makes a difference.

The household mission for my family changes over time.  Years ago, when we first moved to Milwaukee, Bill Douglas and his wife Fran recruited us to work with Habitat for Humanity.  We joined Bill and Fran’s crew, working every Wednesday night, building new homes or renovating old ones.  Over the course of a few years we could see the growth of a neighborhood.  As Habitat homeowners moved in, everyone on the block seemed to step-up the care of their own houses.  Jay and I treasure those years we spent pounding nails and hanging drywall with Habitat - the work made a difference in the lives of poor people in our city and it made a difference to us too, bringing us closer as a couple and adding a sense of purpose and meaning to our life.  And frankly I loved that Jay could get his handy-man fix without turning our house into a dusty construction site.

But two preschoolers made it hard to continue.  So for a few years we didn’t do much.  I think our household mission was to get the kids to sleep through the night.  But as they grew up, we had more time to devote to mission again.  Our family got involved with Pathfinders, the homeless and at-risk youth agency our church works with.  This was a mission project the kids could help on.  We made food, served meals, took part in programs, made Pathfinders and the youth there an important part of our understanding of the city.  

Our work with Habitat and Pathfinders defined long periods in our family.  In the Every Household a Mission Initiative, the Board of Outreach and Mission hopes each household in our congregation will have a project which shapes how you engage the world, how you serve, how you make a difference.

As you think of your own mission, I want us to see the connection between the work we do in the world and what we believe.  Jay and I have a favorite passage of scripture, our reading from today, the story of the sheep and the goats.  We believe this to be the Gospel at its most true: when we serve the least in the world, we serve God.  We volunteered with Habitat and Pathfinders because we believe this parable.

It’s a tradition in Judaism to put a bit of the Torah in a special box hanging by the doorposts.  The boxes are called Mezuzot; they remind Jews of Biblical traditions as they come in and leave their houses.  If Jay and I had a Mezuzah, we’d place verses from this parable on our doorposts.

Living with a text like that of the sheep and goats not only shapes the mission we engage, it brings us to a point of confession.  It’s a daunting parable.  It calls us to action, certainly, but it also overwhelms us with the scope of its vision.  It lays out great need: hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison.  

The scripture not only gives a sense of direction to our household mission, it continues to stretch my family towards greater service.  We build housing, what about the sick?  We feed the hungry, what about those in jail?  

Is there a Gospel story or other moment of scripture which shapes your household commitment to mission?  Is there a verse which both motivates you and stretches you?  One which you seek to live out in life?

I notice different aspects of the parable of the sheep and the goats as I live with it over time.  Usually I focus on the comment of Jesus, “When you served the least in the kingdom, you served me.”  But recently the surprise of the sheep and the goats caught my attention.  No one expected Jesus’ pronouncement; it surprised everyone.  The sheep asked in disbelief, “When did we see you hungry and feed you?”  And the goats are equally bewildered, “When did we see you in prison and not visit you?”  The surprise of the sheep and goats tells us something important about the nature of God and our work as disciples.

No one expected God to be hidden among the vulnerable.  No one expected God to be hungry.  Or for God to be naked.  Or for God to be in solitary confinement.  

All of this was shocking, because we don’t associate vulnerability and weakness with God.  So often we think of God as perfect.  God as strong; there’s nothing God can’t do.  God as everywhere; God lives an independent life.  God as both available to hear our prayers and willing to help us.  Honestly, when was the last time you saw a picture of Jesus in which he didn’t have perfect hair?  Not here in our Tiffany windows.  Even on the crucifixes I saw growing up Catholic, Jesus looked as if he’d at least washed and gelled his hair.

But now Jesus reveals: I’m the most unkempt person you know.  I’m the person who smells.  I’m the person living in prison, forgotten when they threw away the key.  And here we might notice: Jesus didn’t say he was with the deserving poor, not with the innocent downtrodden, nor the falsely accused prisoner.  He was not with those who could pass a urine test before getting their food stamps.  No, Jesus was just with those society rejected.

At a basic level, this new information reminds us that Jesus is with us in the messiness of life, present in the most vulnerable moments, the times when bad hair is the least of the worries.  

Finding Jesus amid the most vulnerable affects how we understand God’s power.  Too often we think of God as the one who can change things in an instant - God the cosmic wish-granter.  But instead, we find God vulnerable, find God searching for water in the Sonoran desert, find God attacked for being transgender, find God powerless in a world of privilege.  God as an undocumented person running from Immigration Control and Enforcement; this is not a Jesus who can force change.  Instead, it’s a God who lures us into action.  God doesn’t control us, but by living amongst the most vulnerable, God lures us into changing the world.  As theologian Burton Cooper explains: Our vulnerable God draws us into compassionate, creative, redemptive work.

Isn’t that what happens with our household mission projects?  We’re drawn in by the compelling spirit of God.  It’s certainly how I got involved in Pathfinders.  Jay and I got to know a transgender foster care teenager.  She longed for the stability of family, but resented the rules of living in a house.  She ran away from foster care homes for the freedom of the street; then sought help again.  I lost touch with her shortly after she was expelled for bringing a knife to school.  

God was with her in her vulnerability and personal chaos.  And while I couldn’t help her, and her foster care family couldn’t help her, knowing her drew me into helping other youth through Pathfinders.  Jay, Tomas, David, and I continue to get drawn in as we get to know more and more people, as we get glimpses of Jesus hidden in the least of our community.  To me it’s an experience of how God acts in the world - not by splitting the heavens to create change, but by opening our hearts to do the work.

The surprise of the sheep and the goats not only teaches me about God, it helps me imagine the nature of the work God wants us to do.  The sheep were surprised, “When did we help you?”  They didn’t think they did anything unusual.  They didn’t think they did anything out of the ordinary.  The sheep just thought of feeding their friend Joe, visiting their friend Sally, caring for their friend Tom, making room for their friend Sue.  It wasn’t usual work to the sheep; instead they did the work of friendship.  

And this work is what the church as a community can uniquely do well.  Some institutions do the work of service very well; the church is an amateur in comparison.  Some institutions do the work of advocacy very well; again, we’re amateurs.  But friendship: that’s our wheelhouse.

The least, the last, and the lost in our city and world need more than service and advocacy; they need friendship.  I thought about this as I read the sad story of John Abbot, the homeless man found dead in an abandoned home.  Abbot, homeless for decades, cycled through many institutions, including shelters and the county mental health center.  But after release from the mental health center he would stop taking his anti-psychotic medication.  He explained his reasoning to a therapist, “I’m so lonely, and sometimes the voices make me feel not as alone.”

I know many factors contributed to Abbot’s homelessness, but that one note made me sad.  “I’m so lonely, and sometimes the voices make me feel not as alone.”  The least, the last, and the lost in our community need more than just material help and better laws.  They need friendship.

We are amateurs in our household mission work when it comes to service and advocacy; but we offer something crucial - friendship, the affirmation of the worth and dignity of the other person.  

We could make a distinction between functional work and relational work.  Social service and advocacy programs are very gifted at the functional work of helping people in poverty.  But our gift is relational.  

When we go out into the city and world on our household missions, we break down the dividing lines of race, class, and opportunity which so divide Milwaukee and the world.  Often our volunteer efforts involve the simple acts of daily life - a shared meal, a common project, learning together, creating something.  But through those simple acts, we affirm our equality, offer our friendship, and say without words, “You’re not the least, you’re my brother and sister.”   We may work at alleviating poverty or changing economic policy, but the big project of all these efforts is creating social solidarity across all our divides.

I think of this with my family’s work with Pathfinders.  Pathfinders as an institution could stretch the money I use to buy and make dinner further than I do.  And yet, it matters, I think, that I make the food.  We often make dinner for the same group of teens.  One month I heard Dawnesha say how much she wanted vegetarian quesadillas.  I brought her dish the next time I cooked; and I saw on her face how much it meant to be heard and remembered.  The staff at Pathfinders work to honor and validate the youth they work with; they do a phenomenal job.  But sometimes it just feels different when the person who knows your name doesn’t have the letters MSW after theirs.  Sometimes it just matters that a North Shore family believes in you.  And I know it matters to my family to break bread amid all the brokenness racism creates in our city.

The surprised sheep of Jesus’ parable teach me that the work they did was more than the functional delivery of food and clothes and shelter.  Jesus praised their relational work, the fact that they did it because they saw and honored the humanity and dignity of the person in need.

Do you have a household mission?  And does a sacred story stretch and shape what you do?

My family works on a ‘surprised sheep’ mission - looking for Jesus amid the least, the last, and the lost of our community.  Our efforts pale in the face of the needs Jesus lays out.  It’s a mission we can start, but will never complete.  But along the way, the relationships we build change our lives and those we serve.

This is why it matters for each household to have a mission.  Through our many and varied missions we live out our faith, our hearts break open, and transformative relationships grow.  For that I say Alleluia and Amen.


  • Cooper, Burton, “The Disabled God,” Theology Today

  • Kruschwitz, Robert, editor, Hospitality, part of “Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics,” Baylor University

  • Stingl, Jim, “Home Tour Turns into Startling Discovery,” Journal Sentinel, Nov. 21, 2014, p. A1, A5.