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Sermon for the General Convention 7/1/15

"The Lost Sheep"

Becca Stevens

Most of us have been lost sheep, wandering in wild places as lonely as the pastoral fields near Galilee where scrub brush is scattered with wild geranium and thistles on sandy soil. Into such fields Jesus calls the disciples to leave the grassy hillsides and go search.  This call makes the work here in Salt Lake critical to help us look bettered equipped.  It’s a parable that preaches we should have a dogged determination to go out in love so we don't get stuck in dogma.  The parable of the Lost Sheep also teaches the church that searching helps the institution find its way home as well.  Lost sheep are grateful disciples and leaders that never forget in parables like the Good Samaritan the gratitude felt by the guy in the ditch, or the freedom of forgiveness experienced by a woman caught in adultery as judgment is wiped away, or the wonder of love’s healing power with mud on blind eyes.  We go into the wild fields to learn again that lost sheep are critical to the ongoing life of the fold.

My father was Episcopal priest who in 1968 moved to the south to plant a new church.  My mom thought that the wild field of the south sounded awful.  That same year a drunk driver killed my father leaving behind a 35 year-old widow with 5 kids.  On the heels of that death, the Senior Warden of the church began my 2 years wandering in the lonely fields of sexual abuse. I was lost by the time I started school. I learned in those hallowed moments of grief and trauma that most sheep don’t wonder off, but are pushed out of the fold by silence kept in dysfunctional communities, by devastating poverty, and by overwhelming universal injustices that render communities numb.

It was this Episcopal Church that found me-- through welcoming youth events, generous women’s groups, and wise priests.  In 1997, in gratitude for all the mercy I had known, I founded a community called Magdalene for sister lost sheep that had endured more than I can ever imagine as survivors of trafficking and addiction. Shortly after that we started a social enterprise called Thistle Farms named after the last flower growing where lost sheep graze.  The women who come into the two-year, rent-free homes on average are first raped between the ages of 7 and 11 and hit the streets between the ages of 14 and 16.  The women of Thistle Farms over the past twenty years have demonstrated that it is not that hard to find lost sheep.  It can be as simple as a bag of chips offered to someone hungry, a visit to the prison, or saying, “welcome home”.  I have learned the truth of this Gospel is that without one another we are all lost. Together we become a powerful and healing fold.  We have grown into the largest social enterprise run by survivors in the US.  We have been welcomed into many of your dioceses, as the Episcopal Church is taking the lead in housing for survivors.  We have partnered with 18 global organizations where the universal story of sexual violence is endured on the individual backs of women who have been lost too long.

Eight years ago Thistle Farms began a partnership with women in Rwanda struggling to become economically independent after the genocide. They were farmers before they were raped and their families slaughtered and together they wondered back into the fields where they dug up the bones of their beloved and planted healing geranium; the same native plant found in the deserted fields where Jesus calls us to go. The same oils used in the first century on lost sheep as they enter the gate to return to the fold.  Together Ikirezi and Thistle Farms now manufacture and distribute more than 10,000 bottles of the best all natural geranium bug spray on the planet. These simple bottles have built homes, restored communities, and reminded all of us how love heals when we find each other. We keep finding more lost sheep all over the world that want to join a movement of women’s freedom that dreams of sheep folds where love is the most powerful force and that never turn their backs on the one that has been left behind.

Dorris is one of the great survivor leaders of Thistle Farms.  She has traveled to sister communities for survivors in Dioceses such as Arkansas, Chicago, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, West Texas, and West Tennessee.  Dorris’ message of hope inspires communities who too often feel overwhelmed or cynical.  Like many of the women who experienced the underside of bridges, the short side of justice, and the inside of prison walls, she says she wandered around and around a ten block radius for decades, trapped by childhood trauma, poverty, and addiction.  But a community went in search for her and in turn she has helped lead us all home. When we visited the diocese of Florida a few years ago she told me she had never seen the ocean.  It was a privilege to witness the first time her feet touched the sugar sands and the amazing grace of feeling found.  As she felt the pull of the tide for the first time, she raised her hands in wonder and asked with a lilting voice, “Has this been doing this my whole life?” The whole time she had been wandering the streets the tide was going in and out.  My God, as long as the moon has been spinning around the sun, the tide has been going in and out.  Older and more powerful than that tide is love.  But sometimes it takes a community to come find us and bring us to the shore to feel its strength.  This gospel is a call to remember the lonely fields of the streets, the geranium fields of Rwanda and Galilee, and the still life images of altars in churches that forget a community without lost sheep is just a museum. We need each other.  Prophets like Isaiah and Paul call out to us today that it is together we sing with joy from our ruins.  Please buy Thistle Farms bug spray today and share your story and our story of healing in your diocese.  Come find us and carry healing oils back into your churches and preach the word that when we leave no one behind, we will finally be found.