Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Challenge of Shepherding

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation

This fourth Sunday in Easter season is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We sang a paraphrase of Psalm 23, which may have been written 1000 years before Jesus: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” It’s hard for Christians to approach Psalm 23 and not think of Jesus, since he applied the role to himself. Jesus is the Good Shepherd—as opposed to the bad shepherd who ignores the sheep when the wolves come around. We recognize our shepherd’s voice and follow.

A shepherd (source: Wikimedia)
How do we follow our shepherd? We hear today from the Acts of the Apostles, the only narrative chronicle we have of the earliest years of the Church. We hear that “those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We quote this phrase verbatim in our baptismal covenant as central to Christian practice. In short, it means that we get together as a church every week to share the story of Jesus, to share a meal, and to pray. There are no solo Christians; we’re all in this together.

The ancient example shows us that those in Christian community took care of each other. They may have had their own homes where they broke bread and prayed, but they also brought their possessions and goods and shared them for the good of all. Now, it would be anachronistic to call this socialism, especially since it occurred on such a small scale and so long ago. But the intent was indeed that there were no self-made people: as any had need, their needs were met by the Church. The Lord was their shepherd, and they did not find themselves in want. After all, Jesus had told his disciples, who had sacrificed everything they called their own, that they would get everything back a hundredfold in this life, not in the next. They found everything they needed in Christian community. “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

From this we can understand that salvation means something very different from its popular definition. Salvation in the Bible doesn’t refer to “heaven after you die.” It doesn’t preclude it, either, but salvation definitely begins in this life, and it has to do with the freedom we find in taking care of each other instead of hoarding things for ourselves. It comes with a lessening of anxiety and a clarity of purpose. Salvation is often revealed in “signs and wonders”—that is, when we dedicate our lives to love, we can expect surprisingly joyful outcomes. Salvation means having life, and life abundantly—the reason Jesus stated for coming to be among us in the first place.

Follow the Good Shepherd does mean making good moral decisions. But it also means relying on God’s mercy and forgiveness for ourselves and others. Following the Good Shepherd means living in love and then letting God surprise us, not relying on our own understandings of the way things must turn out. The Good Shepherd calls us each by name, so by no means do we lose our individuality in community. But we are also responsible for far more than just ourselves and our immediate circle.

All of this follows from the metaphor of Jesus being the Good Shepherd, yes. But did you notice? Nowhere in today’s gospel reading does Jesus say he is the Good Shepherd! He says it a little later, actually, but it’s not the first metaphor he turns to. No, Jesus says today, “I am the gate for the sheep.”

Metaphors are a kind of poetic game, and games have rules. We choose the game we’re going to play today, and then we follow it to see where it will lead. Jesus is the Good Shepherd as well, and on other days he’s even the sacrificial lamb. But in this passage, Jesus has chosen the metaphor of the gate, so let’s play by the rules of this game Jesus has chosen for us.

If Jesus is the gate, then the sheep enter and exit the sheepfold through Jesus. Jesus has just said that those who enter by climbing the fence are thieves and bandits, so let’s be sure to use the gate. But if Jesus is the gate, then who is the Good Shepherd here? I want to suggest that some of us are shepherds, and some of us are sheep.

What makes one person a shepherd, and another a sheep? Let’s try this: shepherds are those in a given situation who have more knowledge and power than others. Sheep are those who are more vulnerable and less able to control their circumstances. Now, right away I want to caution against any attempt to decide once and for all which role you fill. The world is not cleanly bisected into leaders and followers, into powerful and powerless. Some days you’re the shepherd, and some days you’re the sheep. Let’s establish that as a given before we go on.

Are you being a good shepherd? Are you showing others to the lush grass and the still waters? Are you meeting the sheep wherever they are and inviting them to a place of nourishment? This can be as simple a task as inviting a friend to church. It can be even simpler than that: Wear a nametag today, even if you don’t like nametags. Whenever you see a new face in our midst, introduce yourself. If the person looks lost—in the building or in the liturgy—offer to help. Sit with people you don’t know. Scoot to the middle of the pew so newcomers feel understand that there is a place for them next to you.

I heard a story recently about two parishioners—strangers to each other—striking up a conversation. One commented, “I’ve been coming to church for a long time, but I’ve never gone over to the Great Hall for coffee.” The other said, “Well, would you like to come with me?” “Sure,” said the first person, “I’d like that.” It really can be that simple. Good shepherds are always learning how they can be not just welcomers, but inviters.

At the next level, good shepherds are teachers of the Christian faith, either formally or informally. Some are called to be instructors, but others are called simply to teach by example. For instance, Christian parents are always their children’s main Sunday school teachers. And all of us are unofficial godparents to the children of St. Paul’s and sponsors to those of any age who aren’t as far along in their Christian life.

The job doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, either. Good shepherds are exemplars of the Christian faith in the whole world, every day—at work, at play, in formal and casual circumstances, with friends and with strangers. Ideally, people should be able to identify Christians by how we love.

But there’s more to the job than that. Are you defending the sheep from wolves? The wolves, I think, are people who wield power that is self-interested or even vicious. Good shepherds willingly place themselves in danger to protect the sheep. This can be high-level danger such as police, soldiers, and missionaries undertake. Or you can scale it to what stretches your level of comfort. Do you stand up to bullies? Do you go out of your way to meet and befriend people who are stuck in situations they can’t control? As a citizen, do work for solutions in society that will protect those with less power throughout our nation and the entire world?

Remember that while we are all called by name, the Good Shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to find the one that is lost and carries it back home on his shoulders. Sometimes we can protect the sheep from wolves. But when we can’t, we can still love and honor the sheep who suffer and die, simply by being present with those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

How are we doing at shepherding each other at St. Paul’s? Do we know what people within our community need? Are we giving them space to ask for it? Are we giving them the dignity to ask on their own terms? How far are you willing to stretch yourself for people with whom the only thing you share in common is your faith in Jesus Christ? And what boundaries do you need to clarify to ensure that you can do this work without losing yourself in the process?

So this is the pattern for Christians who aspire to be Good Shepherds: Use the power you have to share power with others. Protect and serve those who are vulnerable, whether it means sharing a hymnal, standing in solidarity, or simply being with them. When we do these things, we are not the thieves and bandits who try to enter the sheepfold for their own selfish purposes. The pattern of Christian community is to come through the gate ready to give, not just to receive.

Now, you may be saying, “I have nothing in me to give. I just need to receive for a while.” You know what? Maybe this is your time to be a sheep. That doesn’t mean you’re stupid or “merely a follower” or incapable of independent thought. It just means that you’re in a vulnerable place right now, as all of us are from time to time. It’s OK: you are welcome here just as you are.

But I will say this to those who feel like sheep today: keep listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls you to deepen and to grow. Your time to go from sheep to shepherd will probably come more quickly than you think. You may already be acting as the Good Shepherd in ways you don’t fully understand.

In your times of being a sheep, who have been the shepherds in your life? Maybe you can identify some of your shepherds in this very room. This is my challenge: Make time today to thank your shepherds. Hold up a mirror to reflect their gifts back to them. It doesn’t matter how small the gift; be sure to thank them. Now, if nobody thanks you today, don’t feel like you’re only a sheep and never a shepherd. Instead, take it as an opportunity to do some shepherding. Every day provides new ways to share God’s love with others.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” To enter through Jesus’ gate is to enter into salvation—to the safety of the sheepfold, but then to the challenge of shepherding.