Last week, as you may know, I traveled to Pennsylvania to attend the annual conference of cathedral deans of North America in Erie, the seat of the diocese of North Western PA. On my way I stayed overnight with an old friend in Philadelphia. Clare is the priest who got me thinking, nearly 24 years ago, about ordained ministry, and we had a wonderful reunion. I also made the acquaintance of George, Clare’s sweet, elderly rescue dog.
In the course of the evening George, who looks like he’s mostly Lab, started talking to us rather insistently. Several times he took hold of my sleeve and tugged on it. Clare explained that she usually goes up to bed pretty early, and George was troubled because it was after 9 pm and we were still downstairs. He was trying to herd us into the usual routine. Evidently George has some sheepdog genes, and he cannot help but do what sheepdogs do.
At the deans’ conference there was conversation about shepherds and flocks, as the American deans, at least, were all anticipating Good Shepherd Sunday, and for the times when we were in the cathedral, the bishop’s crook, which remains in the chancel whether he is there or not, was a powerful reminder of the authority of the chief shepherd of the diocese.
One of the reflections which has stuck with me was someone’s comment that there is only one shepherd, the good shepherd, and we clergy are not so much shepherds as sheepdogs, nipping at the heels of the sheep, trying to keep the flock together and safe, while the shepherd shows the way we should go and leads the flock to the green pastures and still waters of refreshment.
I’m still chewing on that image and wondering how you would all take it if I started running in circles around you and grabbing at your sleeves like George. It makes me think about my role as dean, with the occasional tension between responsibilities within the congregation and outside in the wider community. I can see why some cathedral deans appoint a canon pastor to focus on the wellbeing of the flock. And of course, if you continue the metaphor, only the sheep can make new sheep, which rather lets us clergy off the hook for growing the congregation. Perhaps that’s as far as we want to go with that thought.
So let’s think about the good shepherd who reveals himself in John’s Gospel. The religious authorities confront Jesus. Tell us plainly who you are, they demand. They want something short and definite, something concrete and unambiguous. They want a soundbite. One of the lessons I have learned about talking to the media is to have soundbite-sized messages ready. I have to be able to convey my message in 8 seconds if I want it to run on the 5:00 news. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance, and that’s a challenge, especially for Episcopalians.
What does it mean to be the Messiah? What does it mean to be a member of his flock? How do you get that across in 8 seconds?
John the evangelist wrote his Gospel in a remarkable way. The Greek of this Gospel is on one level the easiest to understand of any of the Gospels. John uses short sentences, simple constructions, and he offers a list of common images as metaphors for Jesus. Water, Light, bread, shepherd: all of these were images his contemporary listeners could immediately get, simple statements that conjure up a familiar picture, a concrete concept.
But John also weaves uniquely subtle and deeply mystical dimensions into his Gospel. There is the famous Prologue: in the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God in the beginning, and without him not one thing came into being. And there’s the story within the story: the sense that, even as we are reading a chronological account of Jesus’s earthly ministry, even as we are walking with him through Galilee and on to Jerusalem, we are also reflecting on his significance from the other side of the resurrection, seeing how the saving power of God infuses the experience of being with Jesus, recognizing that Jesus is divine and that he is directing the action so that we who read will come to know and believe in his truth. It’s a very complex warp and weft. The concrete images only go so far. The mystery is deep.
There is only so much we can explain about who Jesus is for us. We proclaim that he is Lord, Shepherd, Savior, son of God, but these words are inadequate. Beyond them, we must look to our experience of Jesus in order to grasp the full extent of who he is for us and for the world, because it is in the personal encounter that we come to know him.
Like the mystery of the Eucharist – how does the bread and wine become flesh and blood? – there is no way to explain it in words. The part of our brains that experiences worship is not the part that generates explanations. So the idea of producing a soundbite to explain who Jesus is, is simply not reasonable. It demands context. It demands, above all, personal experience.
As Episcopalians I think we grasp this challenge better than most. We express our theology by practicing what is laid out in our Book of Common Prayer. The doing of it, the experience of worship, is what grows our faith and draws us closer to God. You cannot argue someone into faith, although some people do try to provide empirical evidence of the resurrection in order to persuade others to come to faith. I’m not sure that a conversion based on rational argument is even a valid conversion. You have to hear the Shepherd’s voice. You have to know him. You have to be someone he calls by name.
Jesus tells the religious leaders that if they want to know who he is they must look at what he is doing: his actions speak for themselves. Turning water into wine, healing the blind and the lame, feeding the multitudes, the inclusivity, the humble service: these are the arguments Jesus makes and these are the arguments we should be making too.
Our argument for faith lies in how we live our lives, opening our hearts to receive the love and compassion of God, to accept the gift of eternal life here and now, receiving a life of abundance and freedom, of green pastures and right pathways.
The shepherd leads his flock into places of rest, of refreshment and nurture. He does it through actions that guide and nudge the sheep in the right direction. He doesn’t give them detailed directions. The work of sheep-herding is much more about actions than words. So it is in the church. We demonstrate who Jesus is and who we are by our behavior, whether that means living simple lives, or working for reconciliation, or welcoming the stranger. The shepherd shows us the way we should go, and the way leads to a place of rest and refuge, even when we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Jesus the good shepherd holds us securely in his precious and wounded hands, he knows each of us by name; he has promised that nothing can snatch us away. Our response to that promise is to live the way he taught us to live, in generosity, in gratitude, and in fullness of life.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
April 17, 2016 Easter 4