You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.
Short Term 12 is a new, independent film about the staff and residents of a group home for foster children. The movie opens with a scene in the yard outside the home and a conversation between Nate, a new volunteer who is visibly nervous, and Mason, a long- time staffer who is trying to reassure Nate by recounting a story about a particularly embarrassing experience he had during his first week at the home. The story hinges on the fact that residents of the home regularly try to escape, knowing that if they can get outside the gate, the staff literally can’t touch them. Inside the gate, the staff can physically restrain them; outside the gate, staff members can only follow them and try to talk them into coming back inside. As Mason tells his story, two other staff members gather around, already laughing at the punch line they know is coming. But just as Mason reaches the story’s climax, a high-pitched, ferocious scream comes from inside the house. Seconds later, a skinny, freckled, red-headed boy comes tearing out the front door, headed for the gate. Mason turns to Nate and says, “Here we go,” and he takes off. The boy is running as fast as he can, head back, arms pumping, but the adults catch up to him quickly. They flank him, grab hold of his arms, and pull him down into a seated position. Mason tells Nate to grab the boy’s legs and hold him still. The boy is wild, screaming, panting, kicking and squirming for all he’s worth. But the adults just sit there, holding him down, talking him down, telling him that it’s going to be alright, making jokes about how he was able to get a little further that time before being caught. They don’t ask him what’s wrong, they don’t tell him not to do it again. They don’t try to fix him; they just sit with him, squeezing him in from all sides, keeping him safe. Gradually the boy’s breathing slows, the screaming stops, and he settles down, head lowered, body slumped, exhausted and deflated. And when he’s settled, the adults simply help him up off the ground and walk him back into the house. Welcome to short term 12.
During the course of the movie, we never learn this boy’s full story. We learn that his name is Sammy; we learn that he seems to have a compulsion to play with any toy he can find. We see him getting his meds – four cups full of pills – and we see how he curls up into himself when his therapist orders that all of his toys must be taken away. But that’s all we know. We know that he is wounded; we know that he is broken. We know that he has suffered some kind of trauma that would likely shock and horrify us were it to be named. And we know that the staff and volunteers of the group home are committed to keeping a constant eye on him, to making sure that he is seen, that he is safe, this skinny little lost sheep.
The number of lost sheep in this country is astounding. On any given day there are 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. Most of these are placed in homes, but a full 15% of them have to live in group homes like short term 12. In the city of Philadelphia, approximately 3,000 children are added to the foster care system each year. Most of them are never adopted and remain in foster care for years. Many simply age out of the program, turn 18 and are sent into the world with precious little experience of how to live outside of an institution, on their own, alone.
And, of course, in the city of Philadelphia there are many more lost sheep than just those who are in the foster care system. Recent studies have revealed that 39% of Philadelphia’s children live below the poverty line and that almost 10% of Philadelphia’s high school students have at some point been homeless. And our public schools are in the direst of straits: A $304 million budget deficit. 24 fewer schools than last year. Class sizes as high as 48 students per class. 3700 teachers laid off at the end of last year, with only 1600 recalled this fall. 60% of Philadelphia’s schools without a full-time guidance counselor. Assistant principal positions slashed. I even read one article this week about a school principal who is now also serving as the school nurse. How in the world are those stalwart public educators who remain supposed to do their jobs? How can they possibly keep their eyes on all of these children, making sure they are safe, that they are fed, that Individual Education Programs are followed for those who have learning difficulties, that bullies are stopped in their tracks? How can all of these kids possibly be seen, kept safe and protected? How can they not be lost?
And yet, Jesus assures us that they are seen, that they are protected. In the strongest possible terms, Jesus assures us that all who are lost will be found, that those who are broken in body, mind, or spirit, those who come from broken homes, those who have lived a life of broken promises, those whose relationships with God or with others are broken because of sin, those who live with the constancy of a broken heart, will be found. The shepherd will “go after the one that is lost until he finds it.” No matter what stands in the way, no matter how much that lost sheep has hopelessly curled up into itself, God will search, God will look for the lost one until he is found. God keeps his eyes on each individual sheep and will not let even one be lost forever. As one biblical commentator puts it, this parable assures us that “God counts by ones.”* One sheep found, or one broken heart mended, or one sinner redeemed, or one child protected, or one beautiful new child baptized, all with one joyful celebration in heaven.
But here is my question for us this morning: what about those other 99 sheep? Commentators have always puzzled over the fact that the shepherd in this parable left his sheep behind. Did he just leave them alone in the wilderness? Or are we to assume that he left them in the care of another shepherd? The parable doesn’t really tell us. But what if, what if we imagined that the other 99 went with him? What if the other 99 somehow followed along, inspired by the shepherd’s bravery? What if they stretched out in a long line across the wilderness like a search party, baahing as loudly as they could to call their friend to safety? What if the other 99 helped as much as they could to find the one who was lost? Now if they did find him, of course, they couldn’t do much. They couldn’t pull him out of a crevasse or bind his wounds or pick him up on their little sheep shoulders to carry him home. But they certainly could sit with him, flank him with their wooly fluff, squeeze him tight, offer soft, reassuring sounds, and wait until more help, until a savior, comes.
You and I, most of us, are the other 99. And we can, we must, join in the search for the lost sheep of this city. So many of you are doing this already. Some of you tutor or mentor at local schools. Some of you work for arts organizations like Play On, Philly, that prove how music can transform the life of any child. Some of our rectory residents work every day with after-school programs, or with young adults who have aged out of foster care programs. Many of you give your time or your money to that great sheepfold known as the Saint James School. And, of course, other opportunities abound. We can volunteer with our new boys and girls choir, help to plan and staff the after-school programs that we hope will accompany that program. We can join in with the parents who are helping to safely walk Philadelphia students to their new, and newly far-away, schools. We can contribute to the mayor’s Philadelphia Education Supplies Fund. We can volunteer with Boys and Girls Clubs, with Philadelphia foster care, or at the very least, we can get to know the children in our own neighborhoods. We can say to the children of this city, with one voice, in the name of Christ, you will not be lost. We will search and search and search for you until we find you.
The final scene of Short Term 12 finds the staff again outside sharing stories. And once again, a piercing, fierce scream interrupts them as Sammy, now with an American flag draped around his shoulders like a Superman cape, sprints out the front door. Mason looks at his co-workers, smiles a wry smile, and says again, “Here we go.” And the movie ends with this beautiful, slow-motion chase scene. Sammy is in the lead, the adults are following, four across on the lawn. Sammy ducks and dodges, the adults follow him, turn to the left, get behind him, around him. And we know at some level that this chase will never end, that those 4 adults, those 4 of the 99, will never be able to totally fix Sammy or make him whole. But they will keep chasing him, keep searching for him, keep their eyes on him, helping him never be utterly lost. My friends, the race is on. Here we go.
* Stephen C. Barton, "Parables on God's Love and Forgiveness" from The Challenge of Jesus' Parables, Richard N. Longenecker, editor.
Preached by Mother Takacs
15 September 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia