Benediction Online

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Good Shepherd
preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on April 13, 2008

The dog story

Pastors are often thought of as shepherds (the word “pastor” means “shepherd”, and this week we learned that even the pope’s airplane is called “Shepherd One”) so it’s easy for parish pastors to think it’s their job to be the local representative of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

That was me, the first time I was a rector. It was a lively parish, with a wonderful liturgy, great music, and lots of creative people. But it also had a vestry that needed help, college students who needed programs, teenagers needing a youth group, and older people needing home and hospital visits. I was determined to do it all, and to do it right. The only trouble was that when I finally got into bed at night, I couldn’t sleep – because I felt that the youth group, the college students, the vestry and the sick and hospitalized were all in bed with me. Every night, I lay there thinking about all the mistakes I had made that day, and all the things I hadn’t done.

Then one weekend my son arrived with a gift – a beautiful yellow dog about nine months old. We named her Lady because she was so beautiful, but she wasn’t a lady at all. She had no manners, she had received no training at all, and she ran around the house, the yard and the town with abandon.

So I started trying to train Lady – on top of my real job, the job that was keeping me awake at night – and Lady tried (she really did try) but mostly she kept making mistakes and she kept excelling at running around the house (chewing everything in sight), running around the yard (digging holes under the fence), and then running around town (getting arrested by the doggie police).

One day, as I was fuming about Lady’s latest mistake, she came up to me, wagging her tail and putting her paws on me with great affection (something she wasn’t supposed to be doing, of course) – and I realized that this dog really thought she was doing a great job, being my dog and taking care of me.

So this hopeless, happy, loving dog taught me a lesson – about dogs and about myself, too. I was trying to love God, and I was trying to do a good job for God as his substitute shepherd in that parish, but I was making all kinds of mistakes. Maybe – like Lady – I was even making mistakes when I thought I was doing just fine. I was trying so hard to be a good shepherd but as a shepherd I was pretty mediocre, and on some days I was a real failure. What was I going to do?

And then I realized that I was trying to be something that I could never be – the perfect pastor, also known as the Good Shepherd. Actually, I wasn’t really supposed to be the shepherd of that parish, perfect or otherwise – Jesus was the real shepherd, not me. Rather than trying to be Jesus, maybe I was supposed to simply be his sheepdog, keeping the flock together, leading them to food and water, making sure they were safe.

If I were just a sheepdog, I wasn’t supposed to be doing everything on my own. My most important job was to listen - and follow – the voice of Christ, who is the only real Shepherd of the sheep.

The Good Shepherd

Today’s Gospel [John 10:1-10] is about Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. I am the gate for the sheep.... I am the gate; whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture ...I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

Because none of us has ever been a shepherd in the Holy Land, we might not know what Jesus means by telling us, “I am the gate.” We need to understand that in summer the sheep are pastured in the high hills of Judea and Galilee, far away from their home farms. There in the hills the shepherd and his sheepdogs keep watch over their sheep: the shepherd whistles, and the dog takes off after a wandering sheep; the shepherd speaks to the dog, and the dog starts herding the sheep in the right direction.

At night, the shepherd, the sheep and the dog all sleep right there in the hills. To keep the sheep together, corrals have been built – circular stone structures about waist high, with just one opening to let the sheep in and out. And at night, when it’s time for shepherd and sheep to sleep, the shepherd lies down in the opening of the corral. The only way in and out is to walk over the shepherd’s body – not something the sheep are willing to do, and something that makes wolves or thieves really hesitate.

So look what Jesus is saying here. He’s not saying that the disciples, or future clergy down through the centuries, need to become the Good Shepherd. He’s saying that it’s his voice that matters – it’s his voice that calls to both sheep and sheepdog. He’s saying that’s it his care that matters – it’s he who guards both the sheep and the sheepdog with his own body. He’s saying that it’s his desire to give abundant life – to sheep and sheepdog alike.

The first Christians

Today’s lesson from Acts [2:42-47] gives us a picture of the very early church, soon after the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. We need to understand how that very early church functioned.

Luke writes, Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles... Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Who was directing this community? The passage doesn’t mention anyone ... (Yes, the apostles were teaching and preaching, but there weren’t any bishops yet, there weren’t any priests yet. In fact, there wasn’t much organization at all. The organized church came later, as the community grew and the needs became more complex.) So who was leading this community?

If we could go back and ask those first Christians, they might have told us: “The Good Shepherd is leading us, working in us through the Spirit of the Risen Christ.” The Good Shepherd was a favorite image of Christ for the early Christians – we find it painted on the walls of the catacombs where they hid during times of persecution; we hear this beloved passage of Scripture again and again in ancient sermons. As the years went on, most of the Christians who saw those pictures and heard those sermons were urban people who’d never taken care of sheep, never known an actual shepherd – and yet the figure of the Good Shepherd inspired them, helped them to know they were cared for, helped them to believe that Jesus would lead them to abundant life.

Do we believe that the Spirit of the Risen Christ still speaks to us, still cares for us, still leads us? When I’m here in worship with St. Benedict’s, when I sit with St. Benedict’s Vestry, when I listen to people in the Bible study on Sunday mornings, I see – I feel – the Spirit here among you. And I see – I feel – you trying to listen, trying to follow, trying to move in the right direction. The Spirit is here, the Good Shepherd is here, whenever two or three of us gather together.

Over the past year our priest, Caroline Hall, has worked to help us listen to the Spirit, worked to keep us safely together, worked to guide us in the right direction. Now she’s gone on her study leave. If we think of Caro as the Good Shepherd, who has gone away and left us on our own for a while, we can feel bereft, worried, even scared. But if we think of Caro as Christ’s sheepdog (and she’s a great sheepdog, a very smart and well-trained sheepdog, a sheepdog who works hard to hear the master’s voice and proclaim that voice to the flock – but she’s not the Good Shepherd, who is Christ himself) then we will have confidence in the months that lie ahead. Then we will realize that with Caro here or gone, the Lord Christ, the Good Shepherd will still be speaking to us, taking care of us, and leading us to abundant life.

And yes, we do have some substitute sheepdogs around here – Mary-Elizabeth and Faye and me and now Brian – but the Good Shepherd is really the one who will be leading us – and each and every one of us, clergy and lay, need to be listening for his voice in the months ahead.



Post a Comment

<< Home