May 11, 2014
+ This past week many of us remembered the 10th anniversary of the consecration of our own Bishop, Michael Smith. I remember that day very well in my memory.
For us, as Episcopalians, Bishops ARE important. I mean, we are after all, Episcopalians. Our very name tells us we are “governed by bishops.” We place a lot of hope and ideals in our bishops. We long and pray for good and strong Bishops to lead us and guide us. And we know, as Episcopalians, that we NEED Bishops, just as we need priests and deacons and lay leaders in our Church.
I think it’s appropriate that, in the midst of all this activity regarding Bishops, we celebrate then, today, Good Shepherd Sunday. On this Sunday, we pray this wonderful collect in which we recognize Jesus as our Good Shepherd. And, on this Sunday, we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the gate for the sheep. Jesus describes himself as the Gate through which the sheep enter the pastures.
This is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used for the people listening to him. Although they don’t get what he’s saying at first, they certainly would have understood what a good shepherd was and what a bad shepherd was.
The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock. He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock. He guided and led the flock to a place to eat. This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock. Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves. In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd. He is not the co-dependent shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed the sheep.
Rather, he guides and prods and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them feed themselves. The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there.
If we follow the Good Shepherd, if we allow ourselves to be led by him to the Gate, we find that incredible reward of green pastures awaiting us. And even if we don’t follow, if we stray, we will find him prodding us.
But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us. We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will be there for us.
More importantly the Good Shepherd knows his flock. He knows each of the sheep. If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold. He will go after that lost sheep.
In our wonderful collect for today, there is this wonderful petition,
“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name…’
This is the kind of relationship we have with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We know him because he knows us. He knows us and calls us each by our name.
In Jesus, we don’t have some vague, distant God. We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves. We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock and goes after us, chasing us down.
Last week I shared with you that wonderful bit from the Rule of St. Benedict about welcoming all people as Christ. Well, the Rule of St. Benedict—that endless source of great practical advice—also has an incredible chapter on the role of an Abbot. An Abbot, of course, is the leader—the parent—of a monastery. But more than that, the way St. Benedict lays it out, the Abbot becomes the embodiment of the Good Shepherd.
Let [the Abbot] recognize that his goal must be to profit the monks, not to be preeminent over them.
And later in that same chapter, we hear this:
Let [the Abbot] not be excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous, or overly suspicious, since such a man is never at rest. Instead, he must show forethought and consideration in his orders, and whether the task he assigns concerns God or the world, he should be discerning and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all die in a single day (Gen 33:13). Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to flee.
Probably the best summation of this chapter—and role of the Good Shepherd—is this:
Let him strive to be loved rather than feared.
Imagine what the Church would be like all our leaders—not just our Bishops, but all our priests, all our deacons, all of our lay leaders—strived to do just this in the Church? Our Church would be a glorious place!
As Christians, as followers of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we are also called to be good shepherds to those around us. All of us.
All of us who are called to ministry—and we all, as Christians, are ministers and we have each been called, in our own ways—we know that to be truly effective ministers we have to be good shepherds. We should be helping others toward the Gate, and through the Gate into that green pasture. We should be nudging and prodding each other along, in love. And we should be concerned about those who have fallen away, who have been led astray. This is what it means to do ministry.
So, on this day in which we celebrate the Shepherd who leads and guides, let us allow ourselves to be led. And let us lead. On this day that we look to the Shepherd who guides, let us be guided. And let us guide. Let us allow ourselves to be led by that Great Good Shepherd, who brings us to himself, to the very Gate. And there, either led or prodded, leading and prodding others, let us go through the Gate, that goal of our spiritual lives, into that glorious place we have longed for all our existence. And when we are there, in that glorious place, let us rejoice together in our God and in each other. It will be a great day on that day, for there, we will be with the One who not only is aware of us, but knows us and calls us by our very name. Amen.