Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep…

As shepherds seek out their flocks…so will I seek out my sheep…

I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will seek the lost…I will bring back the strayed…

I will bind up the injured…I will strengthen the weak…

Some years ago, indeed many years ago, I asked my dad, “How does it feel to be old?”

It’s sort of an impertinent, even rude question. He was taken aback for a moment, he thought a bit, and then he replied as I recall: “I don’t really think of myself as old, although I do have many more aches and pains…I think of myself of the person I have always been…I guess I really don’t know how to answer the question…”

He is gone now but I think maybe that now he has gotten his pay back for that impertinent question of mine. I am older now than he was the day I asked him that question.

Indeed, today is my birthday.

I remember my 21st birthday.

I was living in Dallas, working at a large bank downtown. In the evenings I would go to night classes at S.M.U. On this day, my birthday, a Friday, I planned to drive home to Texarkana to spend the weekend with my family.

As it happened the President would also be in town this day, to make a speech. The route of his motorcade would take him through downtown Dallas not far from where I worked. I suggested to a friend at work let’s go watch the motorcade. Afterwards let’s grab a quick lunch at a nearby Mexican café before going back to work. So we did. There was not much to see in the motorcade: the President in an open car, his wife in a bright pink outfit at his side. In a car following I caught a glimpse of the Vice President.

After a quick lunch we returned to the bank. I noticed the department receptionist sitting at her desk crying. “She must have lost someone she really loved,” I thought. Then we learned what had happened.

No work got done that afternoon. We just sat at our desks and talked about what had happened. It’s sort of hard to describe. You look out the window and the sky and the buildings are all there as they have been – nothing looks different – yet everything is different. It had become a day of clouds and thick darkness.

Since that day there have been other days of clouds and thick darkness.

Sitting at my desk at work when we first heard about the airplane flying into the Tower in New York City.

The day my brother called to tell me that our mother had passed away.

I suspect all of us have had such days.

Indeed, we all seem to be going through days of clouds and thick darkness.  

The virus has taken a turn for the worse.

We continue to live in a toxic, divisive political climate in our own country. Even with the seeming victory of one of the candidates there is a notable absence of graciousness. A bitter partisan air has even infected the efforts to fight the virus.

We could stand a little rescuing from the places in which we have been scattered and divided on these days of clouds and thick darkness…

What do you do if you are old and retired and you can’t go to the places you used to go to, you can’t get together with old friends, because of this virus?

One thing you can do is renew your friendship with old friends you met in books. You make new friends through books. Even though computers and internet can be a pain sometimes through then you can re-visit places you have enjoyed visiting in the past. You can even visit new places. You can learn about new places you might want to visit when all this virus stuff is behind us. You can meet new people. You can listen via the internet to some of the people you read about and now you take time to listen to what they have said. You can listen to their wisdom. Some I have gotten to know better during these enforced quiet days – to do a bit of name-dropping – include Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Or Robert Barron a bishop of the Roman Catholic church. A particularly interesting person I’ve heard speak is Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the U.K.

Indeed, as I have been mulling over our Scripture readings for today – and probably as I have been listening to some of the things I’ve read or heard thoughtful people say – I want to talk about two words:

Guilt and Shame

In the aftermath of our victory in WWII over Japan we felt there was a need to understand Japan in a much better and deeper way. We were the military victors over Japan and would occupy the country. And in so doing we felt a great need to understand as much as possible the people of Japan, their culture, what was important to them.

As it happened an American by the name of Ruth Benedict had written a book about Japan called the “Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It was quite influential in those days and described Japanese culture in contrast to our own. Two words can be used as sort of a “shorthand” to describe those cultures. And those two words are – surprise! – Guilt and Shame.

A “guilt” culture is probably a more Western idea. It is one where feelings of “guilt” arise for an individual when he violates absolute standards of morality. Where he violates his conscience. Control of violations is maintained by “punishment” now or in the afterlife. However, there is provision for release from guilt; there is forgiveness.

Implicit in this is the assumption that there are absolute standards of morality. I think that there are. See the Ten Commandments. There is also the assumption that there is such a thing as a conscience. I think I have a conscience. I think you do as well.

A shame society involves – not surprisingly – shame. And it also involves the threat of ostracism to the one who violates whatever and causes shame. Pride and honor are important concepts in such a society; appearances are what count.

In years past I was involved with a prison ministry. It is called Kairos and is based on what has been described as a “short course in Christian living.” It was initially developed by the Catholic church after World War II and called “Cursillo.” I think the Methodist version is called “Walk to Emmaus.” Sadly, such courses are no longer offered by the Episcopal Church in Arkansas. I recall with great pleasure the Cursillo experiences which I and many others enjoyed at Camp Mitchell – which also seems to be under a cloud as well.

In the prison Kairos course inmates are encouraged to live the Christian life behind bars. We do not ask what they have done to get where they are. We know some of them have done some pretty terrible things. They know they have done some pretty terrible things. And one of their challenges is how do they go on with their lives living with what they have done. And the answer is “forgiveness.” And who does the forgiving? We believe God forgives. And God asks – requires – of us that we also forgive. We forgive.

And today we will say together:

“…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…”

You may recall the story in our local papers from a year or so ago about a couple of cadets going through a police training program. As I recall as part of the character background check something was found in an examination of their social media in which they had expressed some strong opinions or maybe used some words that some find

What I do recall is that one of the two, a young woman, vehemently said that those words, this opinion, no longer represent how she feels, and she very much regrets having said those words, and expressing that opinion. Nevertheless, she was dropped from the program.

Of course, one can say, “Sure, that’s what someone would say if they want to keep their job.”

Here is a young woman beginning her life’s work. She is drawn to police work.

She has been shamed for her words and her opinions. Words and opinions, she says she no longer holds. I heard a talk on this subject and someone asked is there a remedy in situations if there is no forgiveness? Well, yes, someone said, “Forgetfulness.” How is there forgetfulness if one can never expunge or correct or revise anything one puts on the internet? One will go through life with words and opinions expressed at some point in one’s life that are silly, or wrong, or insensitive, or whatever hung around their necks like a great albatross, an albatross with which one can ever be free. One becomes a great stranger as no one will have anything to do with such a one who are so ostracized.

I began with the words of Ezekiel. He lived during the years of exile in Babylon. He lived some 800 years or so before the time of Christ. Yet he spoke of the coming of Christ: “ I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. “

We come to the end of our church year. It has been quite a year.

If ever there was a time our country needed peace and love and reconciliation and forgiveness – the peace and love and reconciliation and forgiveness – that he wants us to give – it is now.

I think that is what God is waiting to see. I think that is what God is wanting to see.

Will we be kind to the one who has become a stranger to us? Will we extend a hand of friendship to the one who has become a stranger to us?

He’s not asking to do an easy thing. He’s asking us to do a very difficult thing. He knows probably better than we do what ungracious, rude, unkind, boorish things some of those on the other side of whatever fence from us have done.

But He asks us anyway: Love, forgive. Love, forgive.

Those who have heard me speak before probably know that at this point, I would say “amen” and return to my seat. Thankfully, you would probably say to yourself.

As you have figured out it is my birthday. So today, only, I would ask your indulgence to be able to go on a little longer.

One of the old family photographs in my home is of my Uncle Richard. He’s sitting on top of tank with his buddy. It is from his days of service in World War II in Europe. The other day I read a review in the Wall Street Journal of a book written by a man who also served in WWII in Europe. [1. ] He is from Oklahoma. His experiences are probably much like those of my Uncle Richard or probably your Dad or grand-dad or whoever of your family served in WWII.

Maybe as we come to the end of our church year, maybe as we remember Veteran’s Day not too many days ago, maybe as we think of Thanksgiving not too many days off, maybe as we think just a little what it means to live as a follower of Christ, you might find this story told by this Oklahoma veteran of some interest.

Then the Oklahoma veteran was a young American soldier in the war is in Belgium not far from the front. He and a buddy meet an elderly couple in a village. The elderly couple offer to put he and his buddy up for the night. “Together they drink wine, break bread. The soldiers ask about the couple’s family. ‘We had a son,’ the husband says haltingly. ‘They lived across the street…Three days ago the Nazis forced their way into my son’s house. They killed him, his wife, and the two children.’ The couple broke down sobbing. ’Dobson and I immediately got up and hugged them like they were our own family. We held them tight as they moaned and wept. We couldn’t help it; both of us began crying with them. For a long time, we held them. Eventually we all sat down at the table together. No one could speak.’”


Richard Robertson

[1.] Book Review – Wall Street Journal – “From a Soldier’s Point of View” by Mark Yost of I Marched with Patton by Frank Sisson with Robert L. Wise (Morrow, 290 pages, $28.99)