Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sheep and Shepherds

St. George’s Episcopal Church, Maplewood NJ
April 29, 2007

Year C: The Fourth Sunday of Easter (RCL)
Acts 9: 36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10: 22-30

Sheep and Shepherds

It’s hard to believe that it’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter already. It was a wonderful Easter celebration here at St. George’s. I missed Maundy Thursday, but Good Friday was a powerful service and it was an amazing experience to enter the darkened church for the Easter Vigil. On Easter Sunday morning, I think the family service was my favorite with a very convincing, yet familiar-looking, Roman centurion outside telling all of us there was nothing to see here – and then letting us in on some surprising information – the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty. And don’t get me started on the release of the “Alleluia Bugs”! It was a wonderful, joyous time.

But then, sure enough, the weeks roll by and pretty quickly things get back to normal - the usual challenges, messes and small joys of life. And even in church, although it’s still the Easter season, we can easily shift into cruise control and not pay much attention to what’s happening week after week. And so it could be very easy for us to roll past Good Shepherd Sunday and not give it a second thought.

What we celebrate today is profound, beautiful and challenging. Jesus is both sheep and shepherd. And so are we. We are both sheep and shepherd.

I have to admit that much of the shepherd/sheep imagery in the Bible is a real problem for me. First of all, I find it difficult to relate. Having lived in the city my whole life, my encounters with sheep have been few and far between - maybe just a couple of trips to the Turtle Back Zoo when I was a kid. Cats, squirrels, and pigeons I know – sheep not so much. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a shepherd in person.

Second, from the little I do know, sheep are inoffensive but not the brightest bulbs in God’s creation. Somehow, it seems a little insulting to be compared to a sheep. Just the other night I was flipping through the channels and came across a documentary about dogs. Now there’s a smart animal! Anyway, part of the show focused on sheepdogs in England who have learned dozens of commands whistled by the shepherd. These clever dogs are able to move and corral the seemingly mindless sheep without a bit of trouble. The sheep never complain; the sheep never resist. Day after day.

But, sheep/shepherd imagery pops up throughout the Bible and is found all over Christianity. Obviously, it lives on in bishops’ staffs and the title “pastor.” Over at General Seminary for the past three years I have sat in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and looked at the statue of Jesus the Good Shepherd which stands just behind the altar. In the statue, Jesus looks down lovingly at the little lamb that he holds in his arms. I’ve tried to warm up to the image, but even after three years it still seems too sentimental for my tastes. I don’t like to think of myself as a little lamb or a dumb sheep.

So what’s a seminarian to do? What’s a Christian to do? Well, if like me, you struggle with the sheep image today’s lessons powerfully show us that there’s nothing sentimental about it. The author of Revelation writes “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” If we’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss what’s being said here. Jesus is both sheep and shepherd. Jesus gives his life on the cross and Jesus leads us into eternal life. Jesus is both sheep and shepherd. And the truth is, whether we like it or not, we’re sheep all right – but we are also called to be shepherds.

In last Sunday’s gospel lesson we heard Jesus say to Simon Peter to take care of his sheep. “Feed my lambs” “Tend my sheep” “Feed my sheep.”

And now today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is sort of a sequel to last week’s gospel lesson. Acts records a very powerful, miraculous, Jesus-like way that Peter took up the work of feeding Jesus’ sheep – the raising of the disciple Tabitha from the dead. Peter has been a sheep, all right. We’ve seen Peter have trouble understanding Jesus’ message. Most painfully, we’ve seen Peter abandon the Lord and deny him three times. And yet, Jesus the Good Shepherd never gives up on Peter, despite his stumbling and despite his failures. Finally, although Peter will indeed remain a sheep all his life, yet he is also called to be a shepherd. And the same is true for us – you and I are both sheep and shepherds.

It is our arrogance that leads us to deny our sheep-like quality. Too often we like to think we’re smarter than we are. We like to think that we’ve pretty much got everything figured out. Some of that fades as we mature – but not all of it. Especially in our own time when science continues to push the boundaries of our knowledge, it’s all too easy to fall into the arrogant trap of thinking we’ve pretty much got everything figured out – that we’re in charge. I would guess that sheep don’t much consider that there is a big world beyond their own pasture – to them they know all that’s really worth knowing. They’ve got it all figured out – what else could there be? I suspect we’re not so different- although we should be. As you probably know, this arrogance and sinfulness usually leads to at least embarrassment and at worst disaster.

I’m reminded of how in the 19th Century supposedly there was a proposal to close up the US Patent Office because, well, pretty much everything had been invented. That kind of arrogance and short-sightedness is just funny now, but as we think about our own lives how many times has our own arrogance led us to embarrassment or led us to hurt others and ultimately hurt ourselves? The ancient Greek philosophers and writers understood this very well when they described how hubris – excessive pride – led to the downfall of so many.

But it’s not just the idea that we’ve figured everything out - many of us also suffer under the illusion of control. If you’ve been around a while you’ve probably learned that actually we have very little control, but still we seem to forget. Quite a few times I’ve visited people in the hospital who express great anger and shock that they have lost so much control of their lives. But really they’ve just been forced to recognize what’s been true all along.

For me the road to ordination has been a vivid example of a lack of control. Step by step Chris Carroll, myself, all of us in the ordination process, have been at the mercy of others who say yes or no about our futures. No control, not always fun, often stressful, but a good lesson to remember. We sheep are not in control.

But, fellow sheep, the good news this morning is that the Lord is our shepherd. The 23rd Psalm - which has comforted so many - affirms that God is with us in our distress. God is with in the times that our stupidity and arrogance get us into trouble. God’s rod and staff comfort us. The Good Shepherd’s goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives. You know what, maybe it’s not so bad to be a sheep after all!

But, we are not just sheep. We are also called to be shepherds. Peter was commanded by Jesus to feed and tend the sheep, and so too we are expected to feed and look after one another. In the Episcopal Church this is actually fairly easy to remember because we have become so centered in baptism and the Baptismal Covenant. During a baptism everyone assembled promises to support the newly baptized in their life in Christ. We promise to be shepherds.

In the Baptismal Covenant we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We promise to seek and serve God in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. We promise to strive for justice sand peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to be shepherds.

In our baptism we – lowly sheep that we are – are called to be shepherds. All of us – not just bishops, not just pastors - all of us sheep are also called to be shepherds. We are all called to take part in the work of Jesus Christ in the world. We are called to tend our fellow sheep. It is a daunting task, but we know that the Good Shepherd, the One Shepherd of All, is guiding our work and walking with us all the days of our life.

As this sheep gets ready to move on to a new, yet-to-be-known pasture, I’ve been reflecting on my too brief time here at St. George’s. I’ve been in an interesting position of being part of the community – you’ve been wonderfully welcoming - but also still something of an outsider. And so maybe I can see you a little more clearly than you can see yourselves.

I have seen wonderful sheep-shepherds all over this church. One of the reasons I came here was to get a sense of suburban life. I could go on about all the things I’ve observed and learned in these past few months but most of all I’ve been impressed by your diversity – in all sorts of ways. But, considering the disagreements that are causing so much pain in the Episcopal Church, I have been deeply moved and comforted by the bonds of care between straight and gay people here. Sexual orientation seems to make little difference – the people of St. George’s are all sheep-shepherds trying to serve God and take care of one another. The genuine care for one another in this place has been a joy and inspiration to experience. I am very grateful.

So, no cruise control today. On this joyous Fourth Sunday of Easter let us all pray that we open ourselves to the saving truth that we are all sheep cared for and loved by the Good Shepherd. And let us pray that we will open ourselves to the truth that we are all shepherds called to care for and love one another.