Scatter or Gather? (begins at 25:57)

November 24, 2019

Series: November 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Jeremiah 23:1-6

1Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

5The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."  THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Scatter or Gather”

          A former Presbyterian pastor once said to me, “When I was working, I always tried to keep it so that half the church loved me and half the church really wanted to get rid of me.”  Surprisingly, it’s not a technique they teach in seminary, but this man was very proud of this nugget of wisdom.  It gets better.  He continued, “Then about every year or two I try and get the two halves to switch sides.”  His career in ministry was brief.

          I think what we recognize in his approach is that while division is sometimes the byproduct of standing up for what’s right, it’s not a proper end goal.  Division comes with a cost so it should be worth the price.  If you are successful in creating division, but have no discernable higher purpose, you do not win, you, simply put, sin. 

          I contrast that experience with one I had at a recent Marin Interfaith Council fundraiser.   A woman who was there on behalf of the Green Gulch Zen Center and recognized me from a funeral I did for a prominent community member last year.  We were talking about some of the difficulties of our time, and in a way only a spiritually grounded person can, she got animated while remaining totally peaceful.  She spoke with conviction that our role as leaders is to help people stay grounded through spiritual practices so we can show up to difficult moments in ways resist the temptation to bifurcate, to demean the other, for doing so denies our fundamental interconnectedness.  We are the ones who need to sit in those contested spaces differently, with a different kind of presence.  This is not about being nice, but about moving us forward.

          It was not a strictly “spiritual” conversation.  The woman spoke of neuroscience and biology, how we relate to each other as organisms.  In fact, her imagery was of us all belonging to a larger living unified body.  Before you dismiss this as “out there,” recall how eerily similar this is to the language used by the Apostle Paul and his followers.  When we show up to a space seeking healing and growth, we foster health for the larger body.  When we show up toting hostility and violence, we don’t simply hurt the other; we poison the universal body we share.  

          Her plea was not for neutrality, the notion that we should have no convictions, that we should have no values, that we should stand for nothing, lest we offend or make one another uncomfortable.  That is immature or unevolved or unexamined spirituality, and it has found a prominent place in contemporary Christianity.  No, she was speaking, as I would put it, of nonduality.  Nonduality literally means, “there is no 2.”  You and I are not fundamentally separate, disconnected, different.  Neutrality is to sit on the sidelines.  Nonduality is a refusal to accept the construct that there are two teams, even as it acknowledges historical realities of privilege or power differential, past harms, identity, and substantive disagreement.  At the core there is only One.

          The prophet Jeremiah says, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jer. 23:1).  Jeremiah is critiquing the leaders of his day who have forgotten their charge is to tend the flock, not cut it up.  They have made full use of the stick side of the crook to keep members in line, but forgetful of the hook was used to pull back to safety the wandering sheep to keep the heard intact.  God promises to restore the severed fold and promises to raise up leaders who better recognize their vocation. 

Christians see Christ as the ultimate fulfilment of this prophetic vision.  The image in Jeremiah shifts to that of a king, which is where we get such titles for Christ, even though Christ is not your typical king.  Christ doesn’t conquer with violence, rule from a place of power, govern through fear of the suffering he can inflict.  He wins people over with radical love.  He empties himself of all privilege.  He governs through solidarity with the least by showing how much suffering he can endure.  His crook is well worn, gathering in the lost and catching up the left behind, and he is all to happy for the abuser of power to be pulled back in when they’re ready to change.  Today we call “Christ the King” or “The Reign of Christ” Sunday, since we’re not much fans of monarchy (or patriarchy).  It’s the final Sunday in the Christian year, as if to underline that the bottom line is Christ’s way is the ultimate way of being.

          Jesus wasn’t neutral; that reading guts his ministry of all its content.  He certainly stood for things.  What he was, was nondual.  He refused to discard the other as other.  He saw the imago dei, the image of God, in all, even those he opposes, and he opposed many.  The gospels are, among other things, a litany of all those he opposes, typically those who use power to gain advantage over and exploit others.  I’m not the first to point out that Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” in part because he recognized we were going to have some.  We used to have fun with that realization in seminary, everyone listing their enemies. 

What’s remarkable is what Jesus does with his enemies.  While he pulls no punches in warning them of the harm they will inherit for their actions (see Matthew 25), he leaves that judgment to God.  When facing his very own executioners he says, “they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).  In other words, they may not recognize me as part of them, but I still recognize them as part of me.  When Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 12:31) he’s not saying love your neighbor as much as yourself.  He says love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s not about quantity; it’s recognizing you and your neighbor are one. 

          This understanding is what leads the author of Colossians from which you heard earlier to proclaim, “in Christ all things hold together.”  All things.  The words are carefully chosen.  It’s not just that all people hold together; it’s the entire cosmos.  There were ancient maps that tried to depict this.  These were not flat earthers—historians will tell you the notion the earth was flat was never a widespread belief.  Let me show you.  This is called the Ebstorf map.  You can see the world is a circle, but at the top is Jesus’ head, the bottom Jesus’ feet, and at each side one of Jesus’ hands.  The whole creation is held together inside Christ.  It’s an entirely different way of understanding geography.  Within this world you cannot see anything as profane, anything as expendable, anything or anyone as anything but infused with the Christ, with God.  If you accept that claim, then even as you seek to correct an error, an injustice, you do it from the perspective of trying to bring the body back to wholeness.  There is only One.

            This is what the woman from Green Gulch was trying to convey to me.  Have we lost all ability to see each other in even the situations most ripe for healing?     

          A supervising doctor described their experience of an eager medical student:

The medical student shadowing me looks over my clinic schedule.  She sighs exaggeratedly.

 “Doctor T, your YOUNGEST patient today is 70.  Don’t you get tired of only seeing older patients?”

 I look down at my patient list, and smile.

 I don’t see what she sees...  

 (Carl) At first glance, you might find Carl a bit intimidating.

 Gruff and with a jaw that stubbornly juts out, as if DARING you to try him, he seems perpetually irritated.

 But Carl runs a dance studio, and still dances every day.

 At 70.

 And when he smiles, the sun shines for him.

 (Gladys) Gladys shows me a photograph.

 She seems proud, and I regard it carefully.  It’s a black-and-white shot of a concert.  A young singer has his back to the camera.  The rest is a sea of screaming fans.

 A young Gladys is in the front row, clearly visible.

 The singer?


(John and Lucy) John and Lucy always come to their appointments together.

 Sitting beside each other, they hold hands.  Every. Single. Appointment.

 I’m always moved by how quiet each one is when it’s the other one’s “turn” during the appointment.

 They’ve been married for sixty years. 

 (Anjali) Anjali brings me food, without fail.

 All sorts of delicious desserts that she cooks herself.  I once tried to refuse (I’m trying to lose weight), but she looked like she would cry.

 Her husband explains.  Their son died in a car accident years ago.

 She used to cook for him. 

 (Howard) Howard can barely hear me.

 Every single visit he apologizes for being almost deaf, and explains “I LOST MOST OF MY HEARING IN THE WAR!”

 He has a photo in his wallet, of him in military uniform.  I ask him how he won the medals he’s wearing.

 He grins.


 (Alma) Alma has an amazing knack for gardening.

 I look forward to her appointments so I can learn more about what’s in season in South Texas this time of year.

 We discuss how therapeutic it is to watch a plant sprout.

 Her secret?


 Every living thing needs love to grow. 

 (Steve) Steve plays tennis almost every day.

 He’s in his late 70s, and one day, finally, I have to suggest that he start toning it down.  I’m worried about dehydration.

 He says he understands. He’ll tone it down.  He promises.

 Then he starts walking his dogs for four miles a day.

 (Mike) Mike is one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met.

 He brings my entire office staff a bouquet of red and white roses every single visit.

His smile is gentle, his eyes are kind.

 He asks me how I’M doing at the start of every appointment, and really wants to know.

 One day Mike doesn’t show for his appointment.

 I know something’s wrong when his wife sends us a bouquet of red and white roses, and a note.

 “Mike passed away in his sleep.  It was peaceful.  He loved you and your office staff very much.  Thank you.”

My heart is broken. 

 “Don’t you wanna see young patients? Isn’t it rough seeing old people, on so many meds with so many medical problems, all the time?”

 I look up from my patient list, and my reverie, to respond.

 “This... is a privilege.”

 My student doesn’t seem to understand.

 Someday, she will.

 Someday she will.  How about us?