Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing–at Church?!? (fourth sermon in series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths”)

I.
Being able to trust someone or someones completely–knowing you’ll be heard and that your privacy will be preserved–is a treasured connection for most any of us who are willing to risk trust.   In contrast, trusting someone or someones whom you believed with all your heart you could trust, only to find yourself disappointed and hurt will knock the wind out of almost all of us.
Developmental psychologists have been showing us for years that the foundation of our ability to trust rests primarily on how much we were able to count on our parents to see that our needs were met when we had no way of meeting them ourselves.  The number of abusive parents out there is mind-boggling, but most folks still manage to come up in homes where a parent or two show them parental love them and prove in good times and bad that they, the parents, can be trusted to be there for their kids, especially when the kids are facing some kind of dilemma that they simply can’t solve with their own resources.  If you’re one of the lucky ones when it comes to parents, you know that you can never get too old to feel warmth and encouragement from the sound of a parent’s voice or the touch of her or his hand.
I’m not thinking today about the confusion many of us have in regard to precisely who can be trusted.  There was certainly a day when various kinds of confidential information and confessions of need could be communicated to someone wearing the appropriate uniform or name tag.  Parents trusted teachers to care for their children, and because of their parents’ trust of teachers, a fair number of school kids were willing to trust their teachers to take care of them in the absence of their parents.  Most teachers in our country do a highly commendable job both of taking care of their charges by keeping them safe and of teaching them about academics as well as about how life works in the real world.
Several of us count on or have counted on pastoral counselors or secular therapists to be the ones who could hear about our deepest confusion and pain completely, without judgementalism, and help us find our way to or back to a healthy, productive pathway.  The good that is done by counselors and therapists of all stripes is incalculable so how did I end up a few years ago with a counselor who went to sleep while I was trying to tell him what was bugging me and getting in the way of my happiness and contentment.  I tried him three times and was all conflicted about if I were really THAT boring or if he had sleep issues, was working too many night hours, etc.  At the end of the 50-minute hour, shall we say, we have to be able to count on the counselor at least to have heard us.  If we’re not being heard by a listening professional we have reason to be disappointed and, perhaps, hurt.
So, one level of trust that is of vital importance to us is being able to trust the people we believe we ought to be able to trust.  A security guard who’s supposed to be protecting people doesn’t shoot an unarmed teenager who’s just walking in the area where the armed guard is patrolling.  In our typical US pattern of blaming the victim, I read this week that some criminal justice big wig–no wait, a top journalist it was, Geraldo Rivera–has said that the whole problem for Trayvon Martin was that he was wearing a hoodie.  Now I get it!  Don’t you?
The other part of trust is being able to take these people we’ve been taught we can trust to be who they say they are, through and through.  Some people who ought to be trustworthy aren’t because they’re inept–from parents to policeperson-wannabes.  Others are not trustworthy because they use the cover of a respectable position or profession to get them into places where they can abuse, in various ways, those whom they’re supposed to care for or protect.  I hardly have to mention the now most famous pediatrician in Delaware history.
We can start here with actual sexual abuse of children to clarify our point, not a pleasant place to go but a real one.  What are we supposed to teach our children to help them not get added to this trauma list?  Whom should they trust and of whom should they be suspicious?  First thing is, it’s not the people out there too far from home about whom parents should be most worried–pedophile priests and other clergy types, for example.  Children are most often sexually abused by someone they know and trust.  Approximately three-fourths of all reported cases of child sexual abuse (and remember that tons go unreported because a child or her or his parents won’t tell) are committed by family members or other people with whom the child is comfortable and are considered by the child to be safe because the person is in the child’s circle of trust.  Family members, though, are at the top of the list of child abusers–uncle, aunt, older cousin, grandparent; most tragically, parent.
It’s not just children who get hurt, though; many times, certainly not all the time, adults can fight back in some kind of way.  For adults, the most stinging hurt comes from finding out that someone pretending to have a relationship of care and concern with you hurts you by the pretense that eventually unravels.  Not everyone who says, “I’m your friend,” or, “I want to be your friend,” means it.
Folks who are well-placed financially may have to wonder more than the rest of us who their real friends are, if any.  Who in a wealthy person’s circle of acquaintances isn’t just waiting for the prime moment to bring up a request for some cash, a loan, or money to invest in that person’s latest moneymaking scheme?
I said in a sermon several months ago that the President of the United States might well be the loneliest person in the country.  Research has shown that the president, whoever he or she may be, finds out all too quickly after the oath of office that everybody seems to want a favor, which can only be granted by the president because she or he is the president.  Even a spouse, a first lady or a first gentleman, may press for special attention to her or his favored projects.  In painful emptiness the president finds himself or herself in search of someone who loves him for who he is apart from his powerful elected position, someone who loves her for who she is apart from her powerful elected position.

II.
The “Wolves of Kromer” is a film; it’s storyline is an allegory. The film, which was released in the year 2000, is set in England, and the wolves in the story are in reality werewolves. They are not like the werewolves that you may have seen in any other movies.  Yes, they do appear much more wolflike if there is a full moon, but they do not necessarily become violent. When there is no full moon all the wolflike qualities of the werewolves disappear except for their very prominent wolf tales.
Some people are afraid of them when they see them whether they have just their wolf tails showing or when they appear more like fully formed wolves. Other people are not fearful of them at all even when they are fully formed wolves.
In the modern allegorical wonder story, it is only men who have wolves’s tails. There are no female wolves, and that will be explained in a moment.
In the small town where these werewolves live, there are those who believe that the wolves are wolves because they choose to be. There are others who believe that the werewolves are wolves because that’s how they were born.
The local church and its priest, an Anglican we assume, hate the wolves. They shoot at the wolves hoping to kill them, and they incite others to join in with them in their shoot-to-kill frenzies. Many do.  Some don’t.
Given the antagonism between the community church and the wolves it is remarkable that the wolves decide that they must come face-to-face with the priest and ask why they are hated so much. A couple of representatives from the wolves sneak into the church at a time they think the pastor is there alone, and indeed he is.
They attempt conversation with him; he is not altogether unfriendly or verbally abusive to them even though he spent a great deal of his ministry time shooting at them. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of them. He explains to them rather matter-of-factly that the issue is very simple. The church believes that wolves are dangerous to the town and to the church and therefore the church is left with no choice but to try to rid the community of the wolves–nothing personal you know.
The two young adult wolves challenge him and say, in essence, “If we can sit and have an intelligent conversation like we’re having right now why is it that we can’t get along in other contexts and in other ways?” And the priest says essentially, “Well, that’s just not the way things ever have been done and not the way things ever will be done. Wolves will always be werewolves, and churches will always have to be on lookout for wolves who inevitably bring evil and thus fear into the community and the church.”
The priest has said with his body language that the conversation is over. He turns abruptly to walk away from the two wolves who had tried to reason with him, and as he walks away from them his own wolf tail falls out of his priestly robes. Gasp!  He, the priest, was one of them, but in order to protect himself, he was willing to pretend to be someone whom he was not. He was willing even to try to hurt, to kill those who were what he was.
The apostle Paul said that you’d better be very careful who you trust even within a church community.  We’re all frustrated that this is a potential reality about which we have to be concerned, but it is.  Smaller family oriented churches, meaning we see ourselves as members of this family of spirituality and seeking, have fewer problems with church wolves than do larger congregations.  The kind of problem I’m talking about is much more likely to happen in a larger faith community.
When someone with malevolence in mind gets involved in a church and starts her or his dirty work, the dirty work can take root because what this person is doing can so easily go unnoticed in the crowd. The pastor may be the very one whose efforts move a congregant or the congregants toward evil.  I’m very, very sad to say that clergy are not always trusted friends and confidants. Clergy are not always the people from whom you can get the compassion that you thought was rather automatic when reaching out to women and men of the cloth. Clergy have places to go and people to impress. If you can’t help them move up the ladder of clergy success, you may find that they have no time for you. Let me be quick to say that, of course, there are many exceptions to this rule. There are many clergy who give, give, give all they have to give until nothing is left in their efforts to try to be good, caring, and compassionate ministers to people who struggle with life’s very weighty problems.  Some clergy are rascals, though, no doubt about it.
Anne Hutchinson and her huge family were faithful members of an Anglican church in England where John Cotton was their beloved pastor.  Cotton was one of those clergypersons who believed that there was more freedom for people seeking freedom of worship in what they were calling the New World than where they were in their home country.  So, Cotton set sail for the so called New World and came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and became pastor of a church there.
Now I want to tell you a brief story about powerful pastoral support. Anne Hutchinson and her husband Will and their eleven children, four other children of theirs had died in infancy or early childhood, all followed John Cotton from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and joined his church.  That level of support you’d think would create a special bond or perhaps a stronger than average closeness between the thirteen Hutchinsons and their pastor, John Cotton.
Maybe in some respects that was the case. At the very least, surely he had to be thrilled that suddenly thirteen new people were sitting in his pews every Sunday. The closer they became the more freedom Anne felt in trusting him with some of her private thoughts.
Anne had a personal conversation with her pastor one day in which she happened to mention that she thought she might be somewhat clairvoyant. She told Cotton that she had had a premonition about the exact date that their ship would land in the New World, and it did.  TMI.  Too much information.
Well, the good Rev. Cotton hardly kept Mrs. Hutchinson’s confession under his hat. In fact, not only did he scold her for claiming clairvoyant capabilities, but also he spread the word at least to the all male leadership of his church.  Very soon thereafter Cotton told Hutchinson that if she wished to remain a member of the church she had crossed the seas literally to be a part of she would have to come before the whole congregation to apologize and repent of the demonic flirtations that allowed her to be clairvoyant.
Mrs. Hutchinson did so; however, we need to be sure we understand that she did so in order to stay in good standing so to speak with the church for herself, her husband, and her children. In her heart she felt no need to repent and did not in her heart.  This clearly was one of the major issues that began the emotional breach of Hutchison from organized religion at least as it was organized in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Taking its place was individual spirituality, her own reliance on God to lead and direct her in her ministry, which would become the ministry of preaching much to the resentment of the male preachers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As you probably know, ultimately she and her family were kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony that was supposed to have been a freedom of religion oasis and were put out of the Colony and left to fend for themselves in what was largely wilderness. Her life came to a tragic, tragic ending.  Not all church wolves are pastors–not by a long shot, but all the ones in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Cotton especially, were.
From all we can tell the wolves in Kromer were not violent, as I’ve said.  They may steal to have money to buy food, or they may steal change to have money to go into the local arcade and play a few games. They’re not out to kill or otherwise harm human beings who are free from the curse of the wolf for some reason, and, yes, there are those in the story who refuse to see wolfdom as a curse.

III.
The church exists to serve others, doesn’t it?  The primary function of a church and any of its ministers is to care and nurture, isn’t it?  Therefore when we run into a church or a clergyperson who have no compassion, who have no interest in correcting injustice, who have no longing to alleviate suffering, we know that something is terribly wrong.  A church that it is supposed to exist to help anybody in need if possible but who instead establishes and underscores its identity and reason for being by focusing on the hatred of a group or groups on which it can rally everyone’s collective hatred is a truly immoral institution that has lost its right to exist as a church.
The allegory, “The Wolves of Kromer,” was obviously written to confront the Church’s historic hypocrisy regarding the treatment of homosexuals. That’s so odd in many ways since there’s more than a handful of gays and lesbians closeted in ministry, but their way of keeping the heat off of themselves is often by publicly condemning those who are exactly who and what they are.
The life lesson and the message of the allegory is hardly limited to the way churches have handled and are handling the issue of how gay people are supposed to fit into church and society. Way, way back when the church was in its infancy the apostle Paul who helped to birth a number of churches wrote about wolves in sheep’s clothing lurking in churches with the express purpose of doing harm to the innocent; sometimes the wolves in sheep’s clothing are the clergy, but by no means are all the wolves in sheep’s clothing clergypersons.
Paul spoke of ravenous wolves trying to hurt the innocent; he was thinking of hurting them doctrinally speaking. He was thinking of teaching people cold doctrinal truths that were supposed to get them in good with God and get them to the right place for eternity and that sort of thing. We could brush that off as some confusion in the early church while it was trying to establish its identity, but we’d be seriously mistaken if we believed that that kind of thing stopped after the church supposedly matured. It hasn’t stopped up through this very day.
If people have the right to expect genuine nurture from the church and from its clergy then that clarifies our responsibility to teach theological concepts that’ll allow people to find wholeness and hope every time they gather here with us.  I often say when I stand at the communion table that it is not a place of exclusion, but rather the place of inclusion. Being welcome here doesn’t mean that you hold to a certain set of theological ideas. What we hope here is that there’s enough fresh air so that you feel free to follow your pathway toward finding truth.  As you are on that journey and as I am on the journey we will all join together to support one another as we find out the meaning of unconditional divine love for individuals and communities and churches and a world.
We will not be in the business of condemning others; we will not be in the business of diminishing others who are trying to find their way; we will not be in the business of causing others to think poorly of themselves and making them believe that they are unworthy because they are continually falling short of a standard we have accepted based on a dusty old doctrine or some obscure scripture passage. When I say we at Silverside I mean we in the Christian Church as a whole, which includes us although I’m happy to say we look beyond all religious institutions.  There are things to improve around here and things to critique legitimately around here, but we will not exclude people of good will based on some theological notion or any issue related to ethnicity or sexual identity or economic status.  So when people come here, provided their motives are good and pure and they’re not wearing wool that looks much bulkier than it should, they will receive nurture, encouragement, and uplift from Silverside Church.
We will not pretend to be progressives while being conservatives in disguise.  We will not proclaim one thing only to be caught being someone else or something else.  We will not pretend that this is who we are only to have our church clothes get crumpled in such a way that someone can see that who we have claimed to be is absolutely not who we are.
What would Aesop say?

A wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so the wo put the sheep’s skin on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep. The lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the wolf was wearing, began to follow the wolf in the sheep’s clothing; so, leading the lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep and enjoying hearty meals.  Appearances are deceptive.

 

The wolf in sheep’s clothing isn’t immediately found out.  He or she can do great damage pretending to be one of the majority while secretly fighting for the polar opposite cause.  Wolves in sheep’s clothing can hurt, maim, and kill, and that’s exactly what they’re going to do as long as they can–unlike the peaceful wolves of Kromer.  There’s a sadness in Aesop’s tale because the wolf begins wearing the skin of one of the sheep that had been slaughtered, and when the wolf shows up wearing that sheep’s skin, one of the now roasted mother’s lambs thinks the wolf is her mother.  She, thus, follows the wolf into isolation where the wolf eats the little lamb whole.
No wolves in sheep’s clothing around here.  No wolves in pastor’s closing around here.  No wolves in faithful members’ clothing around here.  We are a community of compassion, understanding, wholeness, nurture.  Know that if you are hurting or struggling or if you feel ostracized for any reason in this world when you come here you will be embraced.
Amen.

 

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