Whenever I’m reading a book and the topic of sheep comes up, I always get more interested. I have even read a mystery book where the sheep actually solve the crime. Fascinating!
This past winter one of my ferry books (those are the books I keep on hand for my ferry rides- you can always tell them by the coffee stains and their general dog-eared look by the time I finish them) has been The Sword of the Lord, by Andrew Himes. And the sheep part of the story came at the very end, so before I tell you about that, let me tell you about the rest of this wonderfully readable book. It is about the history of fundamentalism Christianity in the United States, written by the grandson of one of the most prominent 20th century shapers of that history, John R. Rice. If you haven’t heard of Rice or his weekly fundamentalist newspaper, “The Sword of the Lord” (hence the name of Himes’ book), well, you probably didn’t go to a Baptist seminary. I did. And John R. Rice thought my extremely conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville Kentucky was way too liberal.
We at Southern were always hearing about ourselves in the pages of Sword of the Lord, where our professors were regularly chastised for their “modernist ways.” One of my theology professors, who I thought was a bit harsh, was blasted regularly for being “too soft on sin.” In my Old Testament class we discussed a newly released commentary that suggested that perhaps (just perhaps, mind you) parts of Genesis should be understood as metaphor rather than actual history. The outcry from Sword of the Lord-types was so strong that the Baptist press that published the commentary withdrew it. Suddenly the only Genesis volume of the Broadman Commentary series we could get was marked “revised,” and made no mention of metaphor. So you get the picture.
Rice not only believed that the stories in the Bible were literally true, he also believed that true fundamentalists did not associate with Christians who believed otherwise, because if you did not take the Bible literally, you were not actually a Christian. So if you associated with such “Christians,” you yourself were also suspect. Rice thought Billy Graham was too liberal is his associations. I can hardly imagine what he would have done with Dale Turner.
So of course this ferry book of mine was not only a good read, it was also, for me, something of a journey through my own faith history. I went to seminary with Creationists, with people who were raised to believe that dancing was a sin, with folks who were taught that men and women should never be in the same swimming pool at the same time, and that women should never, ever be pastors. I wondered where I would fit in. And all that time I sensed that there was more to God’s love and to this faith journey I was on then I was being told. Eventually, I found my way to the United Church of Christ, where I continue to delight in a depth to God’s love beyond my wildest imaginings.
But that’s another story. Now let me get back to the sheep part.
At the end of his life, John R. Rice changed. Not completely, but he changed. His grandson tells about Rice’s last public sermon. He was too weak to walk far, so was wheeled up to the pulpit. He was too frail to preach long, so he only preached about twenty minutes (which for my congregation is actually very long!) And the text he chose was from John 10, the passage where Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd,” and then goes on to say, “Other sheep have I, who are not of this fold.” These “other sheep” are loved too, Rice said. These other sheep are precious. These other sheep matter. The crowd was shocked, and the organizer refused to sing the hymn Rice had chosen, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” for fear of alienating his conservative base.
John 10 is the same text my friend Art Domingue preached on when I was installed as a pastor here at University Congregational UCC. And although Rice was only moving a little toward inclusiveness when he preached his sermon (he was suggesting that maybe folks like Billy Graham who have been thought of as too liberal might actually be Christian after all), I am deeply moved by the direction he was facing at the end of his life. It was the direction of Love. And that gives me hope. So thank you, Andrew Himes, for this story. And thank you for reminding me too, as I sometimes wonder how to respond in love to those “crazy” people to the right of me, about God’s other sheep.