The image of Jesus as our Shepherd is a familiar and comforting one. At the times when we feel lost, abandoned and alone, we need to know that God is not only looking out for us but is actively bringing us back, actively embracing us in God’s fold. We need to know it for our loved ones too. When we are feeling helpless, watching those we love go through times of pain and difficulty, it’s reassuring to know that God is out there keeping watch like a shepherd.
Sometimes we forget that that’s God’s job. We try to take it over ourselves and to make everything all right. It seems like it’s the loving thing to do. But when we protect someone from the consequences of their actions, when we try to smooth things over and pretend that there isn’t a problem when there is, we are probably getting in God’s way.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that everything that happens in life is a lesson and we are just here to learn. I think we are primarily here to serve and worship God. Sometimes things just happen because that’s the way life happens, not because the divine teacher set us up. But I do believe that the Holy Spirit uses the things that happen to draw us closer to God and to sanctify us, make us holy. If we keep trying to protect our loved ones from life then we may be getting in God’s way.
Worry has been described as a futile attempt at remote control. If Jesus eats with sinners and tells us that God is like a shepherd looking for the one missing sheep, then we can be sure that God is also looking after our loved ones. We do not need to worry.
Within Christian community we often get concerned if someone seems to be wandering away from the flock. When divisions and anger arise we want to try to keep everyone together, to make it all work out - after all, Jesus said, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. There may be times when we need to let go and allow someone to leave, trusting that the Great Shepherd is on top of the situation.
That seems to be the situation within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion at present. In American society there has been a separating of the ways over the past thirty or forty years. It’s not a clean break with people lined up neatly in two camps. The split has been different over different issues, but it is nonetheless there. During the 1970s there was a big increase in the number of Americans attending college, and with this came a big shift leftwards. People with right-wing political views and people with evangelical religious views both set to work to change this.
It would be naïve to suggest that the move towards the kind of right-wing Christian action we have seen in the last fifteen years was entirely due to political groups manipulating the Christian vote. It would be equally naïve to assume that no manipulation has taken place. We know, for example, that a right-wing group, the Institute for Democracy and Religion, targeted the Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal churches. Their intention was to cause sufficient internal strife to neutralize the churches’ ability to work for social justice.
The Episcopal Church is both uniquely vulnerable, and uniquely able to withstand such attacks. As a church which was created in the middle of just such a conflict, that between Puritans and Catholics, we have been there before and weathered the storm. However, the resolution of that crisis left us an unusual hybrid – a reformed Catholic church. We have held within our community both catholics with a focus on sacrament and imagery, and evangelicals with a focus on word and absolutes. In England, the fact that the Church of England is a state church has made this possible. It has been much harder for the American church to hold the opposites. We are uniquely vulnerable to be divided because of the wide range of theological positions which Episcopalians hold.
It may be that we are not able within the American context to contain both extremes. In the late nineteenth century most evangelical Episcopalians left the Episcopal Church to form the Reformed Episcopal Church. For the next seventy years there were no evangelicals to speak of within the church. Since the 1960s there has been a tremendous growth in the evangelical wing and many, though not all, evangelicals have come to see conservative political views as a necessary component of their faith. Thus the question of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the orders and rites of the church has become a key issue, although it is not itself the cause of the problem.
Starting on Thursday, our Bishops will be meeting in New Orleans. They will be considering, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the effect of the divisions on our church both here and overseas. As you know, several parishes around the country have decided to leave the Episcopal Church and instead join one of the African provinces. In turn the African archbishops have ordained bishops for these congregations. The province of Rwanda now has 16 bishops of which seven are Americans – formerly in the Episcopal Church. The Primates or archbishops from around the world have given the Episcopal Church until September 30 to make a statement which will indicate that it is changing its direction and bowing to pressure from the conservatives.
Whatever the outcome of the House of Bishops meeting the secular press is likely to report it in terms of continuing strife and schism. It is important to realize that in comparison with the number of Episcopal parishes like ours which are quietly going about God’s business, trying to serve God in their communities, the number leaving is quite small.
It is also important to remember that the Great Shepherd did not prevent the hundredth sheep from walking away. We cannot know why God is allowing these things to happen. We can know that our God is a God of resurrection and good will come from it.
Our conservative brethren are acting in good faith, doing what they believe God is calling them to do. We are also acting in good faith, doing what we believe God is calling us to do. Can we both be right? Yes we can. It is important for us as a church and as individual’s to follow God’s call even if it puts us in a difficult position, even if it is unpopular, even if it goes against our desire to make everyone happy and comfortable.
We follow a teacher who did unpopular things. “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? The Pharisees thought they were the good guys but it seems that Jesus thought the bad guys were the good guys. But maybe not. Maybe Jesus thought they were the bad guys but loved them anyway.
We do not know whether those who are leaving the Episcopal Church are the good guys and we are the bad guys or whether we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. It seems to me that the point of Jesus’ stories is that we are all precious whether we happen in the moment to be behaving like good guys or like bad guys.
And we need not worry. We need not worry that in our genuine attempt to follow God’s call we are doing the wrong thing, because the Great Shepherd is there to fetch us back. And we need not fret that someone is going to leave the fold, for the Great Shepherd will follow them too and make sure they’re safe – perhaps in a different fold.
I ask you to pray for the House of Bishops meeting this week. I ask you to pray that the may be given wisdom and that whatever the outcome, God will be glorified.
As Mother Julian of Norwich said, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.
And indeed, all IS well.