St George’s, Belleville—John 10:1-10
When I was being taught to preach, I was told that, in an era of shrinking attention spans, a good sermon should be, if not itself a story, at least story-like. In order to hold people’s attention, a sermon should have a plot, with all the features we learned about in high school English: situation—complication—crisis—resolution. Most of the time, I try to follow this advice, because, if given a choice, I would prefer to keep the attention of my listeners than to lose it!
This becomes difficult, however, when the biblical material I’m given to work with is itself already kind of story-like. It seems kind of unhelpful to illustrate an illustration, to interpret a story by telling another one. So I’m left with the job of playing straight man to Jesus, and just explaining as best I can what he means with these images that are almost stories—about sheep and shepherds and gates and thieves and robbers and whatnot.
Let’s start with the cast of characters and the territory they inhabit. First, we’ve got sheep. To city slickers, like most of us here today, sheep are cute. They score very high on the warm-and-fuzzy-meter. But, as cute as they are, sheep are equally simple, not noted for their intelligence or initiative or capacity for creative action. They need to be led to food and water, and watched constantly so they don’t wander off and get eaten by a predator. As for what the sheep themselves eat, I suppose there may be such a thing as Purina Sheep Chow, but sheep generally obtain their nourishment by grazing in a pasture, where grasses and various other plants grow. And a good pasture has a stream running through it, from which the sheep obtain the water they need to stay alive.
At night, however, in order to be protected from various creatures that view them not as cute but as fast food, the sheep are herded into a fenced area known as a fold. A fold might enclose quite a large area, but it only has one gate. No one is allowed into the fold, or out of the fold, except through that gate. Anyone, man or animal, who tries to get into the fold by climbing over the fence, is presumed to be up to no good.
Human beings who take care of sheep are called shepherds. Their job is to watch over the gate and make sure nothing gets into the fold that isn’t supposed to be in it, and that all the sheep who are supposed to be in it at night indeed make it in. It’s also the job of shepherds to lead the sheep out of the fold in the morning and take them to pasture, where they’ll find the food and water they need, and to keep an eye on them while they graze.
So these are the characters and the setting of Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd as recorded in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. Now, what does it all mean, and how does it apply to us gathered in St George’s church in 2014? One way of understanding it, obviously, is that Jesus is the shepherd and we all are the sheep. In the one-hundredth Psalm we sing that “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Jesus is our good shepherd, who leads us into green pastures and beside still waters and refreshes our souls. He calls us each by name and we recognize his voice and follow him. When we wander off, he comes after us and brings us back to the fold. Our good shepherd stands watch at the gate of the sheepfold, making sure no thieves or robbers get in to carry us away. “The king of love my shepherd is, his goodness faileth never …” —so goes our hymnal version of the twenty-third Psalm. It’s a comforting and reassuring statement, and, as far as it goes, eminently true.
But I believe we are called to a deeper level of understanding of our Lord’s shepherd-like care of us. How does Jesus exercise such care? What does it look like and feel like in concrete human experience? If we were to actually talk to a real live shepherd, we would find out that shepherds are not usually Lone Rangers. On the night of Jesus’s birth, St Luke tells us, “there were in the same country shepherds (plural) abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock (singular) by night.” Presumably one of them was the boss, who delegated responsibility for certain portions of the one flock to various shepherd-associates. Indeed, Jesus, the “master shepherd,” created in and for his church an order of shepherds. He told Peter, in the company of the other apostles, to “feed my sheep.” The successors of the apostles in this order of shepherds are those whom, since the time of the New Testament itself, we have called bishops. And bishops, at their discretion, invite into the order of shepherds, as their assistants, those whom we refer to as “presbyters”, or “priests”.
In this way, the pastoral care of the Good Shepherd is multiplied and made concretely available to all the sheep. Bishops and priests lead the flock of Christ to pasture by ministering the sacraments, by preaching and teaching the word, and in giving spiritual counsel and direction. What happens within these walls, and Fr Dale’s office and over the phone, day by day and week by week, is the concrete means through which Christ the Good Shepherd cares for us, his sheep.
But there is yet one more level of depth in understanding that I believe we are called to explore and experience. Bishops and presbyters bear the sign of Christ the shepherd in a focused and publicly visible way, but we have no monopoly on the ministry of pastoral care! Deacons, for instance, bear the sign of servanthood in a focused and publicly visible way, not so the rest of us can leave all the servanthood to the Deacon, but in order to call and empower all of us to greater servanthood. In the same way, bishops and priests tend the flock in order to empower members of the flock to be shepherds to one another and to those outside the flock! In a well-ordered flock of Christian sheep, everyone is both on the receiving end and the giving end of pastoral care. My job, and Fr Dale’s job, as members of the institutional order of shepherds is to represent the master shepherd by knowing where the greenest pasture and the coolest water is and to lead the flock there. Your job, if I may be so bold, the job of all the baptized, all the sheep of the flock, is to represent the master shepherd in loving and caring and trusting relationships with one another and with those sheep who have gone astray or who have no flock to which they belong. It is in these relationships, between sheep who are also shepherds to one another, that concrete, day-to-day, gut-level pastoral care takes place. When a sheep is in need or crisis, or is in danger of drifting or being carried away from the flock, this is where pastoral first-aid is delivered, pastoral care that might not happen at all if everyone waited for the “professional” shepherd to arrive on the scene.
I realize that what I’ve been describing may seem much more like an ideal than a living reality, in this or in 99 out of 100 other parish churches. I would tend to agree with this assessment. But it’s an ideal that is very much part of the vision the “master shepherd” has given us for one church of the Diocese of Springfield, and for St George’s. It’s a vision of the church truly and tangibly “living into” its identity as the body of Christ. If we indeed are the body of Christ, and Christ is the Good Shepherd, then we are called to share in and to give substance to his shepherding ministry.
Today, I rededicate myself to the promises I have made to be a faithful shepherd, under the authority of the Good Shepherd, to lead this portion of Christ’s flock in central and southern Illinois into green pastures through the sacraments, through the ministry of the Word, and through spiritual leadership. I also rededicate myself to supporting the ministries of all the members of the order of shepherds who have been called to assist me, including your Rector, whom I challenge in turn to not hoard all the shepherding that needs to be done here, but rather, to join me in challenging each of you to rededicate yourselves to the vows of your baptism, to the exciting ministry of being sheep who are also shepherds, so that each of us may be so nourished and formed that we recognize without fail the voice of him who calls us each by name. Alleluia and Amen.