Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless
Thy chosen pilgrim flock
With manna from the wilderness,
With water from the rock.
-James Montgomery, Hymnal 1982, #343
People are getting spiritually hungry again. You find the evidence in feature stories about the rising demand for retreats and for books on all sorts of spirituality. Women and men are seeking to be fed. They are aware that modern life does not feed as much as it takes from one's soul. Enlightened business leaders know that employees work better when their lives are in balance. The church has known this for its entire existence. It knows Jesus is the shepherd of our souls, and that he feeds us. How he does that is the subject of this sermon.
Lance and Jerri were active members of a small church, and it seemed that lately they were always angry about something. Everybody felt like they were walking on eggshells whenever there was a meeting with Lance or Jerri present. One year, during Lent, the church did a series of Bible studies during the week based on the Sunday lectionary. Jerri and Lance attended each week. The group decided to continue through Easter, ending with Easter 4, "Good Shepherd Sunday." At the last session the group decided to close with the Eucharist. That was on Thursday. On Sunday Lance and Jerri were in church as usual. After the service they told the vicar, "Since the Bible study and the Eucharist last week we're not so angry anymore." And they weren't.
People who knew them understood Lance and Jerri's anger because they had all attended the funeral of their oldest son who had come home to die from AIDS. Shortly after that their daughter went through a bitter divorce. The retirement world they had envisioned seemed crumbling around them.
But the Shepherd fed their hungry souls. The Word of God fed Lance and Jerri. It was through the study of Scripture, particularly the resurrection stories, that Jerri and Lance began to hear the voice of Jesus speaking to them, healing their wounds. The Sacrament also fed them. The Body and Blood of the Risen Lord nourished them in ways that are well known to faithful Christians. Countless times when they are troubled people have asked for Communion as a way of restoring them, healing their pain, nourishing them in their sorrow. The Body of Christ, the church, also fed Lance and Jerri. Their vicar and the church members continued to be their friends through this dark period in their lives. These are the ways the Shepherd ministers to us.
But, let us take a closer look at the elements of the Shepherd's ministry to Jerri and Lance and see how our churches might benefit from their experience. The church they attend has an average attendance of 25 people. The vicar doesn't live in the community since she serves a regional ministry of four churches. In fact, this congregation hasn't had a resident priest for ten years. But the congregation is vital in the town of 5,800 people, and known for its ecumenical involvement. Recently most of the members participated ina period of reflection and developed a ministry support team of six persons, one of whom is studying to be ordained a deacon. In other words, ministry in this church comes from the baptized community of members who are learning about their gifts to feed one another's souls. Their vicar celebrates Eucharist with them regularly and works with the ministry support team to train and support them. But the Bible study Jerri and Lance attended during Lent and Eastertide was led by a layperson.
In the New Testament lesson for today we see the emergence of others chosen as deacons to provide the needs of the community. The fundamental principal of ministry that is shared by the community is what underlies the church Jerri and Lance attend. Their vicar would be the first to say she was no more involved in their healing than the rest of the community. The ministry of the Word, Sacrament and Community in this church is woven among its membership, not focused on one ordained individual. The ministry of the Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is expressed through all the baptized.
It is the risen Lord who is the Good Shepherd. We remember the things he said to Martha shortly before his death: "I am the resurrection and I am the life." We recall his empowering of the disciples in the Upper Room when he breathed the Holy Spirit into their despair and sorrow, telling them they had the authority to forgive sins in the Father's name. When we are baptized, we become associate shepherds with Jesus. The Baptismal Covenant is a full statement of what that means as we promise to "Continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers." We also to "Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves." Whenever we do these things we are shepherds of one another's souls.
But we are also sheep, sometimes scattered and separated by sin. That is why part of the Baptismal Covenant includes the promise that whenever we fall into sin we will repent and return to the Lord. It is the memory of our own sinfulness coupled with the powerful event of the resurrection that enables us to become shepherds in Jesus' Name. We could never do it on our own. Our souls are in need of care as well as able to care for others.
Our Native American Community has recently given the church a wonderful gift in a model called Gospel Based Discipleship. Briefly, it is the use of the shortened forms of daily morning, noon, and evening prayer and compline, which include a study of the Gospel appointed for each day. The Gospel passage is read three times and there is a response to a question after each successive reading. The questions are:
What words, ideas, or sentences stand out for you in the Gospel of the Day?
What is Jesus (the Gospel) saying to you?
What is Jesus (the Gospel) calling you to do?
This simple method of studying the Word does not require a trained theologian. In fact, leadership is shared among the participants. There are no "correct" answers. The focus of the study is what God is calling you to do as a member of a community that is being saved. People are finding this method a refreshing way to build their sense of being shepherds to each other and to the world into which all baptized people are sent.
In smaller churches it is possible to have a gathering time before the liturgy where people get in touch with each other. This is also a time when the concerns of the community, individually and corporately, can be collected to be offered as part of the prayers during the Eucharist. In this way, Jesus becomes the shepherd who addresses our needs and concerns with his body and blood, the Sacrament of redemption which takes all of our concerns and offers them to God for healing and renewal.
The focus of our shepherding, however, has to be the community in which we live. What makes us distinct is not how we care for each other, but how we move into the world as people who care for those who are not part of this fellowship of love and prayer.
One church in a small community began to seek ways in which it could provide service. It discovered there was no tutoring offered for children who were having trouble in school. Before long the lay leadership of this church with less than 30 active members organized an after school tutoring program for the local elementary school and an evening program for middle school students. Volunteer tutors soon discovered they were working with children who came from dysfunctional families, broken homes, and had little sense of their own self worth. Imagine the joy of a tutor in hearing from a middle school counselor that one student, Mary, had become a different person in one year of participating in the tutoring program. Her grades had improved and so had her self-image. This is what shepherds do in the name of the Shepherd.
"Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless," goes the beloved hymn. Give thanks for Jesus who is the shepherd of each of our souls, and rededicate yourself to living out your baptismal call to be a shepherd to others among whom the Creator has placed you.