Fr. Bill Carroll – The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, July 18, 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
“No Child Left Behind.” That’s the name of a federal law passed in 2001. It was quite controversial at the time. Maybe some of you remember. In the end, it proved unpopular with many, though not all, parents and teachers. But, at first, it was a bipartisan effort at reform. The bill was championed both by George W. Bush and by Ted Kennedy. And it sought to make our schools more accountable, so our kids didn’t get left behind.
Most of the concerns about the law center on its relentless focus on standardized testing—as well as some of the harsh tools it authorizes to intervene in schools designated as “failing.” Critics assert that this led to widespread cheating and teaching for the test. In the end, many of the law’s strongest supporters had to admit that it had “mixed results.” The conversation has moved on, but the framework remains the same: testing, testing, testing.
I mention this law today not to endorse it, nor to condemn it, but because I love the name: “No child left behind.” It is a great name. I’m sure someone would have come up with it eventually. When it comes to educational reform bills, it’s just too good a name to pass up. The phrase “no child left behind” appeals to our fundamental values, and it sets the bar very high for our children. It is consistent with our basic Christian convictions: No child should ever be left behind.
We, brothers and sisters, are followers of the world’s true king. And God shows no partiality in doing justice or sharing his gifts. Today, we see Jesus having mercy on the crowds who are “like sheep without a shepherd.” As is clear elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus is the kind of shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine sheep who never strayed, in order to look for even one of us who’s been left behind. He is the kind of shepherd (the kind of king) who won’t ever leave anyone behind.
Even our best secular values point us in this same direction. The words “no child left behind” appeal to our basic sense of fairness and decency. Although we may disagree about how to get there, most of us really do believe that no child—no matter who their parents are, where they come from, what they look like, or how poor they are—should be left behind.
For some reason, though, we find it easier to think that way when it comes to children—don’t we? Most of us can muster sympathy for a child. The charities on late night television know this. They bombard us with pictures of starving children sometimes to try to elicit our support.
And I think they do that because they know that we believe that children are innocent. When it comes to adults, by contrast, we often see suffering as a sign of weakness or failure. Sure, we’ll help victims of natural disasters. (Perhaps because we think they’re innocent too.) But we have more trouble when it comes to showing compassion to adults who are struggling with backbreaking, generational poverty and other life challenges. Many of us seem to worry that charity will enable vice, as indeed sometimes it does. And yet, as the first Christians taught with one voice, helping the poor is justice, not charity.
Today, I’d like to remind us that we are all God’s children. And, in God’s Kingdom, no child is left behind. God makes no distinction between the worthy and the unworthy. God chooses poor people and other people in need because they need help, not because they deserve it. God’s grace always works like that, regardless of who we are. No matter what it is we’ve done or failed to do, God chooses us because God is good, and not because we are worthy.
In the Kingdom of God, there is room for all of us to live. There is room for all of us to be fed, clothed, housed, and educated. And there is enough good work for shared prosperity, so we can provide for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. For the world is God’s household, God’s family. And, in God’s family (in God’s family), we all have a place at his table.
In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” We also promise “to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”
I’ve said it to you before, and I’ll probably say it again: Every means every, and all means all. God is the God of all. God’s love is all in all. God won’t ever let us to settle for just some. The difference between all and some is the difference between the one true God and an idol. The real God—the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ—loves the whole world and everyone in it.
Jesus stresses this in his preaching. For example, he consistently appeals to the prophet Hosea, who says that God wants “mercy, not sacrifice.” You can count on Jesus to bring out that verse whenever he sees God’s People treating one another like they don’t belong, because they are unworthy or unclean somehow. Jesus will say that. He’ll say that God wants mercy, not sacrifice.
Jesus also claims to fulfill the words of Isaiah, who says that the Messiah will bring freedom to those in prison and Good News to the poor. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lives out this message. In powerful, visible ways, he lives it out among us. He breaks bread with the lost sheep of the House of Israel. He touches and heals people deemed unclean or unworthy. He brings God’s forgiveness to all of us. He brings it to the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the sinners. He shows them God’s mercy and justice. He also shows it to Samaritans and Gentiles—even to the hated Romans, whose armies had conquered and occupied his country. Jesus shows God’s mercy and God’s justice to us all.
The promises of God aren’t for us alone. They are for every tribe, every race, every nation—especially those who lack their daily bread or are otherwise “left behind.” According to the Apostle Paul, God’s People are like a new creation out of nothing—chosen from among people who “are no people” to be the first-fruits of a universal harvest.
At our worst, we forget this. We focus on some small, household god, whose only purpose is to bless us and our families—to bless people like us. Too easily we forget that God wants to bless the whole world and everyone in it—especially the “least of these.” And so, the early Church struggled with whether to remain primarily a Jewish body, or to include us Gentile sinners—who were dirty because of what we ate and how we lived our lives. Much of the New Testament was written to wrestle with this very question.
And today’s Epistle, taken from the second chapter of Ephesians, provides one of God’s most powerful answers to that question. Here, the Apostle is teaching that all are welcome because, in Jesus Christ, God has lavished his love on the whole world. Here, Paul is preaching about the power of Christ Crucified to break down our divisions.
“Christ,” he says. “Christ is our peace. In his flesh, Jesus has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Paul then goes on to proclaim the Church as God’s New Creation, in which both groups are “made into one new humanity…reconciled to God in one Body through the Cross.”
That means all colors, all races, all cultural traditions. It means all backgrounds, experiences, and creeds. It means every difference (every single difference) we might exploit to oppress or control our neighbors. Because God wants to take the human race, divided and enslaved by sin, and make us into a single human family.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the world’s true king. He sees the mess we’ve made of things, and he chooses to have compassion on us. He looks out into the crowd and sees who we really are. He sees who we are when we think no one is looking. Jesus is not like the shepherds who came before him—or many, many since. For he is the Messiah, the King. He is the giver of mercy and justice. He gathers where others scatter. And he loves us sinners, even when we’re most defensive and afraid.
Jesus enters into our places of brokenness, poverty, and shame. He joins us here in the valley of the shadow of death. He leads us by the hand. He shows us the Way of love, and he leads us by the hand, so that we may come into his Kingdom. He spreads God’s Table wide open before us. He shows us God’s goodness and mercy. For he (the LORD) is “our shepherd,” and we are the “sheep of his hand.”
And he leaves no child of God—no, not one of us. He never leaves a child of God behind.