There was a spring in Pastor Walter Mitty’s step as he walked the three blocks from his home to the Poplar Park Community Church. It was the kind of weather you expect in March–chilly enough to need a winter coat in the morning, but by noon a windbreaker would be enough. The sky was blue and the weather forecast predicted that the temperature would “soar” into the mid fifties by noon. Last week’s devastating storms were now in the rear view mirror and spring actually seemed to be just around the corner.
But most of Pastor Walt’s energy came from how he felt about his sermon. This was going to be one of his best. The gospel reading was from the tenth chapter of John, where Jesus talks about himself being the shepherd and believers being the sheep, and when they hear the shepherd’s voice, they follow where he leads.
He had struggled with the text until he watched the interfaith service in Boston Thursday morning. That’s when it came to him that if Jesus were standing at the finish line in Boston, he would be running toward those who were injured and calling his sheep to follow him. It all fit together so well. He would challenge his people to not hide from action in the world but to plunge right into it, finding comfort in the Shepherd’s care and not in the superficial safety of hiding behind locked doors. Folks would be talking about his sermon all week.
The congregation knew the first hymn well. O Master let me walk with thee in lowly paths of service free. So far so good. Everything was preparing his “sheep” to hear what he had to say.
So after Dominique had finished reading the gospel, Pastor Mitty climbed into the pulpit and cut immediately to the chase. “Which way would you have run,” he challenged these people he knew so well sitting in the pews before him, “if you had been at the finish line in Boston when the bombs exploded? Would you run away from the chaos or right into it?”
Five minutes into the sermon Pastor Walt still had a full head of steam, but as he was taking a jab at the Senate for their inability to move forward on the gun control issue, he noticed that hardly anyone was with him. When his people were resonating with what he was saying, they would be leaning forward and looking right at him. They’d be nodding their heads when one of his illustrations made an impact.
But half way through his message, he saw Troy Williams texting LaShaun Smith. He noticed Dorothy Aschenbrenner elbowing her husband in the ribs in the middle of a big yawn and Miss Rose staring at the overhead fans.
At the end of the sermon both Mitty and the congregation seemed happy to move on to an upbeat song by the children’s choir, one that had never heard before but liked.
One man’s hands can’t tear a building down,
Two man’s hands can’t tear a building down.
But if two and two and fifty make a million,
We’ll see that day come ’round.
After worship and feeling just a bit resentful that his sheep hadn’t heard his voice, Pastor Walt tried to figure out what was going on by listening in on conversations in the social hall as the members drank coffee and consumed slices of Hilda Hossenbrenner’s banana bread.
“Did you see that sinkhole on the news?!” Troy exclaimed.
“The one that swallowed three cars?!” LaShaun replied. “Awesome!”
“Couldn’t get to work on Thursday,” Mitty heard Sharissa telling Ash. “Everything near the Desplaines River was flooded.
He sat down next to Tracy Pfeffer. “Did you get any water in your basement, Pastor? I got six inches in mine.”
“Got a foot in mine,” said John Havlicek, the church custodian. “Was up till midnight with the guys from Service Master cleaning up the mess and then had to come over here and check the sump pumps.”
The walk home from church turned out to be a retreat to the safety of his own home instead of the victory lap he had been anticipating. When he arrived at the front stairs, he saw Michael planting marigolds along the border of the little garden in front of his house.
“How’d the service go this morning?”
Mitty considered trying to be upbeat. His disappointment, after all, was nothing compared with his neighbor’s dealing with the possibility of having cancer, but Pastor Walt decided that honesty is the best policy. “I gave a really good sermon, Michael” he complained, “but no one paid any attention.”
“What was going on?”
So, encouraged by his neighbor’s genuine interest, he gave a condensed version of his sermon, explained how everyone seemed to be distracted and then recounted how all they seemed to want to talk about during the coffee hour was the six inches of rain last week and the ensuing flooding. “At least Michael seemed to be listening!” thought Mitty. “A Jewish sheep is the only one who is paying attention!”
After listening for ten minutes, Mitty’s neighbor said, “I have a thought.”
“What’s that?” It’s amazing how someone listening to you emote for ten minutes can make you ready to hear what they have to say.
“It comes from something I heard on the radio the other day. It’s like when we hear a lot of information about a problem that’s so huge that we feel unable to do anything about it, we can feel helpless and wind up doing nothing. They called it something like well informed futility syndrome.”
Pastor Walt counted the marigolds in the border. Seven so far. “OK, so what does that have to do with what happened at church?”
“Well, maybe they feel like you’re asking them to move a mountain and all they have is a hand spade like this to work with.”
Mitty watched Michael plant the eighth orange and gold flower and remembered that when he moved into his home in 1983, Michael was the only one on the block who tried to make his front yard look attractive. “Really, a hand spade is all most of us do have,” thought the almost defeated pastor, “and the mountains blocking our path are certainly enormous. How do you motivate people to start digging anyway?” He sighed. “I guess I know what next week’s sermon is going to be about, but I’ll start on that task Tuesday morning. Right now I’m going to change clothes and start working on my front yard.”