Maybe you´ve already figured out that, as well as being Earth Day, today is Good Shepherd Sunday. It comes around every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, and the image of the community of faith as a flock of sheep is a well-worn metaphor. If you´d like to know more, I refer you to the series of books by Episcopal priest Dennis Maynard, When Sheep Attack (the set in my office was an anonymous gift a few years ago). This week I got curious about the psychology or perhaps the sociology of sheep, and I learned some interesting facts:
- Sheep have a strong instinct to stick together and to follow the sheep right in front of them, even if it’s a bad decision, even if it´s leading right over the edge of a cliff.
- Sheep flee danger, they do not stay and fight.
- Sheep depend on the solidarity of the flock to protect them from danger. It´s the outliers that predators target.
- Sheep tracks always twist and turn. A flock never follows a straight line.
- Sheep are not stupid; they possess the means to medicate themselves and heal from sickness.
I´ve watched sheep being driven through a sheepdip. They don’t want to go, they push back and resist. Who can blame them? It looks dangerous, it smells nasty, they can’t stay in the middle of the flock but have to go through one at a time, exposed to danger, not knowing where they will end up after being immersed.
There´s a strain of Icelandic sheep known as Leadersheep. These leadersheep have a special gift for sensing danger ahead and leading their flock to safety.
Interesting facts about sheep. And of course we are not sheep. However, it´s worth remembering, as the Gospel says, that for us there is only one true shepherd, the good shepherd, and we are all part of the one flock. Not staff and volunteers, not clergy and lay, not leaders and followers, not insiders and outsiders, but all one flock, trying to go in the same direction, and learning how to live together as a community under that shepherd.
Being clear that we are not sheep, we can still learn from the wisdom of the 23rd Psalm. We have a great advantage over the sheep because we have Jesus. We have good news. We have the ability to understand the benefits of the sheepdip, to see the cliff in the distance and to change direction. We have Scripture, tradition, and reason. And above all we have faith.
Let´s take the psalm, verse by verse. We will read each verse together and then I will offer a brief comment on the verse. 8:00 please turn to page 11. 10:30 please turn to page 8.
Verse 1: The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want. Faith tells us not to worry about apparent scarcity.
Verse 2: He makes me lie down in green pastures. Faith tells us that God blesses us with abundance.
Verse 3: He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name´s sake. Faith tells us that God supports us and will never abandon us.
Verse 4: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Faith promises that we have nothing to fear, even when the way leads through dark and seemingly lifeless places.
Verse 5: you spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Faith gives us the comfort and healing of the sacraments, even in anxious times.
Verse 6: Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Faith reassures us that our ultimate home is in the heart of God.
Every flock walks at some point through the valley of the shadow. This flock, the St. Paul’s flock, has been through times when it was threatened by wolves, when trust was betrayed and power was misused. That time is past, and we are traveling together into a new pasture. But the memory of the betrayal persists and we have to learn to trust each other again; we still have healing to do, while the Good Shepherd continues to guide us forward.
Last week Jeff spoke of, on the one hand, a significant budget deficit that is creating anxiety and forcing us to consider unpleasant short-term measures; and on the other hand, of our wealth of people: the amazing number of people – over 300 – who are already actively engaged in ministry at St. Paul´s, as well as the abundance of people outside our walls who are hungry for good news of new life. We are rich. There is nothing to fear. This flock is not teetering on the edge of a cliff. We are walking in green pastures and the table is set abundantly before us. The plan of action is simple: listen for the voice of the good shepherd: follow where he leads us, moving forward to new pastures and bringing others with us; and love, as the evangelist John puts it, not only in word or speech but also in truth and action.
At last week’s Deans’ Conference, Walter Brueggemann spoke with passion about developing the economics of neighborliness, a way of living in community that seeks to care for the other, rather than the predominant economics of this culture, the economics of predation that aims to win, to accumulate profit, to protect personal interests at the expense of the other. What might an economics of neighborliness look like for this congregation? What are we hoarding that we might share? Where do we hold doors closed that we might open?
The Church (that´s Church with a capital C, not us in particular) has a regrettable history of closing doors, of enforcing rules to keep outsiders outside. We are living in a time when those rules are starting to break down and the boundaries of membership are becoming porous. In the book of Acts we see the disciples breaking rules to follow Jesus. In the great tradition of ¨No good deed goes unpunished”, Peter and John have been hauled before the authorities to defend the crime of doing good without the proper credentials. The change that the apostles represent, the change that Jesus initiated, is anathema to those who are held captive by the old rules.
Over and over again Christians have broken through boundaries in order to bring the good news of the risen Christ to a reluctant world. The first people to bring that good news from the tomb were women, who had no voice before the law. Paul invited people to become Christians without first undergoing the initiation rites of Judaism. Philip baptized a eunuch, someone who was rejected by the religious community. Jesus broke out of the sealed tomb and showed himself, alive and triumphant, to the disciples, ¨who in their joy were still disbelieving.¨¨
Today we continue to push back the boundaries, in order to reinvigorate and renew the church for this century. That might mean offering Communion to everyone, not just to those who seem qualified. It might mean holding events in here that wouldn´t have been allowed a generation ago. It might mean using tablets instead of paper. It might mean building relationships and sharing ministry with people we don´t know or understand.
These changes are driven by the promise we made in baptism to proclaim the good news, and by Scripture, which commands us to make disciples. At present we are not doing very well at making new disciples. People are leaving faster than they are coming in. The world has changed: new people are unlikely to come into the church unless we first go out to them, just as the disciples went out, two by two, into their world. New initiatives, new directions require resources, resources that we currently don´t have. Our commitment to maintaining the glorious setting of our worship and to continuing the great programs we offer demand that we find new ways to build community and to strengthen our financial foundation for the future of St. Paul´s.
Jeff caused a stir last week by suggesting that we might need to give up something that we cherish in order to make space for the kind of church the next generation will engage in. That doesn´t mean throwing out our tradition, but it might mean making some adjustments here and there to make room, and even adjustments can feel like a loss and need to be properly grieved before they can be embraced.
So, my friends, we will move forward as one flock under the good shepherd, celebrating and grieving together, exploring new ways to share the good news, and always striving to love one another as he has loved us.
April 22, 2018 Good Shepherd Sunday
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges