Gone Astray

Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2022 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10

There’s a great moment in Handel’s Messiah where the composer musically paints a flock of sheep scattering. The text comes from Isaiah 53: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.” Handel begins with the whole flock together: 🎶 “And we like sheep.” 🎶 Then every voice runs off on its own line for the “going astray” part: 🎶 “Have gone astr-a-a-a-a-a-ay.” This musical painting of sheep dashing off and getting lost happens over and over again. It’s a brilliant musical illustration of the verse and a pretty apt description of what happens to us when we “turn to our own way” and lose ourselves.

It’s easy to lose ourselves, to let enough unconscious choices slip by that we look around and notice we’re no longer on the map. We allow idols and -isms, dogmas and demagogues to turn us away from God’s truth that shines within us – the truth that we are Beloved of God, that we are more than what we can produce, that we are enough. We tend to miss this truth in our chasing after stuff. We miss this truth in our addictions and obsessions. We miss this truth in our fear that we will lose the privileges that we believe are rightfully ours. We “turn to our own way” and sooner or later we wind up wandering around, alone and lonely, far from whatever path we were on, where only the Shepherd can find us.

I’ve talked before about my obsession with the video game World of Warcraft. For about two years between 2006 and 2008, I played this game every minute I could – thousands of hours in total. At first, it began as a healthy way to calm down after long, hard days in the hospital while learning to be a chaplain. Then I kept playing and kept playing and kept playing. I hacked the firewall at my school so I could keep playing. Once I visited an old friend and barely hung out with him because I holed up in the guest room to keep playing. I played this game a lot. And after a while, I got to the point where I was playing it because, well, that’s what I did, not because I enjoyed it. Over those two years, I cut myself off from friendships. I didn’t exercise. I didn’t play my guitar. I didn’t write. All I did was play the game. And I literally wore the silver paint off the two spots where my palms touched my laptop.

Looking back from my vantage point fourteen years later, I hardly recognize that guy who had fallen into the pit of this video game. And yet, I know it was me. I was there. I remember it well. I had lost myself, totally lost myself. And I had no interest or energy or drive to find myself again.

So it’s a good thing the Shepherd found me instead, a lost sheep wandering the pixelated landscape of Azeroth. The Shepherd dragged me, kicking and screaming, from the pit that I had dug for myself. And when I say kicking and screaming, I mean it. We tend to get so familiar with our lives the way they are, no matter how small and narrow, that we fight tooth and nail to keep them that way. 

For me, I don’t think I would have ever consciously quit the game. So it’s a good thing I got the flu. I was logged in one Thursday night when my stomach decided to evacuate its contents rather forcibly. I apologized for my sudden exit, got really sick in the bathroom, and then lay in bed for five days while the flu had its way with me.

When I finally felt better, it was like I had gone through detox by accident. And I found I didn’t need or want to play. I deleted the game from my computer and threw away the disks. Almost immediately, I started playing my guitar again. I started writing songs again. I started hanging out with friends again. The Shepherd had found me and brought me home.

I wonder when in your life you have felt the strong arms of the Shepherd lift you out of the pit you have dug for yourself? What pits are you in right now? What about your life has narrowed without your notice? And what would it look like to collapse into the arms of the Shepherd and be carried home?

I’d like to conclude this sermon with a song I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic that sprang from these very questions. As you listen, I invite you to pray for the desire to be found wherever you have lost yourself. And then pray for the willingness to allow God to send you back there so you can help the Shepherd find other sheep who have gone astray.

This is “Carry Me.”

You wonder where your faith has gone,
I’ll tell you where mine is:
I keep it in a jar on the shelf.
A mem’ry box, a keepsake chest,
A couple hundreds squirreled away,
‘Cause I know I can rely on myself.
I go about my day as planned,
And prayer is scheduled too
(Once a week’s enough for my soul).
The same routine, the same results,
And no surprises here.
Somehow I think that I am in control.

But I can’t see my house is built on the sand.
I’m the dry and rocky, barren land.
When did I become the sheep who’d gone astray?
Now I walk a dark and lonely way.

Christ, here I am in the thorns
A wayward soul with fleece all torn,
With a spirit, frayed and worn,
Too afraid to be reborn.
Christ, you know I’ll try to flee.
But will you pick me up and carry me?

The jar of faith is nice and safe,
It never makes demands
I pull it down in times I cannot bear
Today I go to look inside
I need a dose of faith
I crack the jar and find there’s nothing there.
I head outside to find my faith.
The scales fall from my eyes;
I see a world that’s broken, beautiful.
The grass is green, the water’s still,
The gate is open wide:
The Shepherd calls my name and fills my soul.

Now I can see my house is built on the sand.
Now I can feel this rocky, barren land.
When did I become the sheep who’d gone astray?
Can I walk a bright and loving way?

Christ, here I am in the thorns
A wayward soul with fleece all torn,
With a spirit, frayed and worn,
Too afraid to be reborn.
Christ, I know you hear my plea.
When will you pick me up and carry me?

Walk me through the deathly valley
Lead me to the ninety-nine
Set a banquet place before me
Touch my face and make it shine
Fill my cup to overflowing
Let your goodness follow me
Plant your kingdom in me growing
Let me live abundantly

Christ, here I am in the thorns
A wayward soul with fleece all torn,
With a spirit, frayed and worn,
Too afraid to be reborn.
Christ, I know you’ll set me free.
When you pick me up and carry me.

Season 5, Episode 8
“Beloved Community Assemble”

In this episode we’re talking about the concept of Beloved Community, and we’re using the Avengers, the Fellowship of the Ring, and the Stranger Things kids to do it. We’re also continuing our book club, reading Becky Chambers’s award-winning sci-fi novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

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