Presiding Bishop's Sermon at St. John’s Cathedral in Albuquerque, New Mexico

June 15, 2008

It is a great joy to be with you.

I was in Taiwan last week for a meeting of the Asiamerican Ministry. I spent Tuesday night in Taipei, visiting Bishop David Lai. In one of our conversations I asked him how things were going in the diocese. He pointed to a picture in his office, one that he had taken, of a flock of sheep. One of them appeared to be smiling, and he said, “If I want to know how things are in the diocese, I ask my priests if their sheep are smiling.”

That’s one definition of what good shepherding is, and it is very much in line with what prompts Jesus’ comment about the harassed and helpless crowds being like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus has been running all over Galilee, reminding people that the kingdom is arriving all around them, and healing people. Jesus has seen crowds of landless tenant farmers, barely able to eke out a living. He’s seen hungry people, whose poverty and hunger contribute to their frequent illness. And he’s seen discouraged, depressed folk, who have little hope for anything better.

I saw something very similar in the Philippines, a few days before I was in Taiwan. Rural people there are being forced off the land they used to own because they can no longer support themselves by farming. Many of them end up in shantytowns and slums in the big cities. We saw them begging as we stopped at traffic lights. The wealthy get wealthier and the poor get poorer. The church there sends its seminarians out to live in the barrios for a few weeks so that they can really begin to understand what life is like for the poorest. The churches of the Philippines also work to equip the poorest with skills and resources to begin to deliver themselves from poverty, and leaders of those churches ask challenging questions about who is benefiting from government policies. In the last few years, a number of those church leaders have been murdered for their trouble – more than 800 of them, including a former Supreme Bishop of the Philippine Independent Church, one of our communion partners. When I met with representatives of the Philippine National Council of Churches, they told me that a Lutheran deaconess had been killed just the week before, and that church workers and clergy were still being abducted, and harassed, and detained without charge by the police.

The amazing thing to me was that these shepherds, these pastors, were able to bring some grim humor to their situation. They joked about being listed as enemies of the state, and they joked about which denomination’s body count was higher that week. They are still preaching good news of the kingdom in that place, the good news that God is king, and not any human ruler or government, and they are doing what they can to feed and heal people.

The people of the Philippines are crying out, and some here have begun to notice. A year ago we sent a letter, on behalf of the Episcopal Church, to a military leader in the Philippines, challenging him to hear the cries of his people. We publicized that letter, and it has made a significant difference. Several times while I was in Manila I was thanked for our willingness to give public voice to their situation. That is work that all of us can share – by challenging our own government to listen to the pain of the people of a nation who is our ally. The American ambassador to the Philippines has been part of the solution. Your own voices make a difference.

When the church is doing its work, the sheep and the shepherds begin to smile.

Jesus sends the disciples out to be shepherds for those helpless and harassed sheep, those crowds of weak and beaten down and depressed human beings. And he sends them out, traveling light, so they can remember that they are sheep as well. Those disciples are supposed to depend on the generosity of the people they meet, and accept that hospitality wherever it’s offered. If they’re not greeted with dignity, they’re supposed to keep going until they do find a gracious welcome.

So, what about right here? Are there any depressed and beaten down sheep in Albuquerque? What have the downturn in housing prices, foreclosures, and the banking scandals or changes in employment done to members of this congregation and this community? What about the children of New Mexico? I’ve seen a couple of stories in your local news about childhood mortality rates being among the highest in the nation, largely because so many people live in poverty. What would shepherds do about that?

I know that your food pantry lightens the anxieties of the people it serves, and brings at least tentative smiles both to those who receive food and to those who assemble and share the bags of food. The shepherds of the food pantry are feeding the flock, but the hungry sheep are also feeding the feeders, with spiritual fruit.

We can all share that kind of shepherding, not just in feeding others, but even in the care we bring to how we feed ourselves. The growing interest in eating locally, or what’s sometimes called “slow food,” is about stewarding the resources of this sheepfold we call planet earth. The people in those crowds around Jesus did not have the luxury to eat imported food, so they depended on whatever was available locally. Indeed, that’s a good part of what’s going on in the story of feeding the 5000 – the disciples are told to feed the people with what food is already there. When the Hebrew prophets rail about the wealthy who loll about on ivory couches and ignore the hungry outside their doors, they’re also talking about those who eat rich, like a steady diet of imported food, food that’s often grown for export on land that used to feed the local populace. How we eat affects how others eat, and if they eat. Part of the shepherd’s job is to ensure adequate pasture for all the sheep, and that’s actually why the shepherd keeps the flock moving. Sheep kept too long in one place destroy the grazing. Are we any smarter?

We’re remembering a particular kind of shepherd today – fathers. Male parents, and those who act like fathers, have remarkable opportunities to feed and heal and bring good news to the children in their lives. Much of that work begins in showing children that they are well-loved, just for who they are. When a child grows up with a strong sense of being valued for him or herself, that child grows into an ability to shepherd others in ways that can change the world. Our fathers or father-substitutes have a big role in teaching us that we are God’s treasured possession. That is a big part of the good news of the kingdom, and we learn it early from the adults around us who show us God with skin on.

Where and how are you going to shepherd this week? Who needs to hear good news, or be fed, or healed? Who’s feeling hopeless? If it’s you, your job is to start baaing loud enough for the shepherds to hear and take notice. If it’s someone near you, your job is to pay attention and start acting like the shepherd God has called you to be. Hope, food, and healing – that’s our job as shepherds. Where are you going to start?

I leave you with a challenge: come back here next week and tell the person in the pew next to you where you’ve helped the sheep to smile.