Sermon at Moravian Seminary - Jesus Christ as Chief Elder

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
November 11, 2009

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 4:14-16; John 10:1-10

Greetings from around TEC, and from our covenant partners – Mexico, Brazil, Central America, Philippines, and Liberia. We work with many partners around the world, and we look forward to the opportunities of partnership with the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Unitas Fratrum.

One of the great gifts of ecumenical work is discovering new facets on the old jewels of our faith. I am grateful for and intrigued by your festival celebration of Jesus Christ as Chief Elder, and the essential recognition that only he can be the chief shepherd of this Body of Christ. I’m grateful personally, as the first line of my job description says “chief pastor” to The Episcopal Church – a completely impossible task, and an aspiration that tends toward hubris.

A significant portion of the responsibility of any pastor has to do with protecting the flock. As Jesus notes, the shepherd must guard against those who try to get in by ways other than the gate. Any human shepherd needs others to help with that work, because the shepherd is just one person, with a limited capacity and view. A growing number of shepherds and goatherds in this country use llamas as flock guardians. That exotic creature is so big that dogs and coyotes and rustlers all take a second look before they try to sneak in to harass the sheep.

Sometimes the local protector is even a member of the flock. My husband and I kept goats in Oregon for more than 20 years, and I still have vivid memories of an early summer morning when a wandering dog got into the pasture. The dog was kept at bay by a big wether who outweighed the other goats by a good 50 pounds. He protected the rest of the herd until the human goatherd got there, but he was mortally wounded in the process. That happens to more human shepherds as well.

We can do a lot of constructive work to equip congregations to protect themselves – particularly by modeling pastoral ministry on the character of the chief shepherd: one who lays his life down for others, one who exists to serve, one who knows all by name, and loves each member of the flock equally. We all have the ability to look out for each other – it’s part of the pastoral task that all God’s people share, for we are shepherd as well as sheep. Episcopalians talk about baptismal ministry as including the need to respect the dignity of every human being, and working for justice, freedom, and peace. When every member of the body of Christ is met with justice and dignity, it’s going to be a lot harder for predators to get into the pasture. When the sheep are working at finding the mind of Christ, the herd might even begin to turn the predators into vegetarians.

What do we do when we discover predators or crummy shepherds in the sheepfold? This seminary exists to train up good and faithful shepherds, well equipped to discern and forestall those threats. The reality is that we can’t protect everybody all the time. Life is dangerous, and that includes life in the church. We exercise prudence, do what we can, and we remember that ultimate salvation is not up to us. Our Elder Brother is looking over our shoulder, probably in the direction we’re missing right now, and he will walk with those who are injured through our lack of awareness or error. We live in hope that God redeems even the worst damage of predators.

The Franciscans have a wonderful understanding of the finite nature of pastoral ministry. They describe it in four acts: show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and leave the results to God. Be present and alert in your pastoral ministry, be faithful in sharing the results of your discernment, and let God be God.

Yet keeping the sheep safe doesn’t mean restraining them forever in one pasture. Sheep need exercise and varied grazing if they’re going to stay healthy. A good shepherd keeps the sheep moving, from one foraging spot to another. A herd that remains too long in one pasture becomes far more liable to infection with parasites and disease. It is the risk of journeying beyond the familiar and known that contributes to health – and a varied diet provides far better nutrition. The dangers do not only come from outside. Abundant life requires venturing beyond the corral.

Life outside the familiar pasture can be challenging – and our conversation about full communion is a wonderful example. We are only beginning to discover the abundance of other pastures, and we have little sense of the blessings they will bring to both our communities. The good shepherd himself acknowledged the reality of many flocks, but only one shepherd. He pointed out that there were herds his hearers didn’t know about, but he was meant to tend them as well. Our own adventure is a small step toward that reality. Blair Couch joined the Episcopal bishops last spring, and greatly enriched our gathering – one tiny and yet very significant step outside the familiar.

Yesterday I got to visit Grace Montessori school in Allentown. Aside from being located in a parking garage (what an unlikely pasture for lambs!), this learning community brings together children from a broad variety of cultural backgrounds. A couple of adults got to overhear the gospel, as Fred Craddock puts it, watching a teacher work with the children in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

The encounter began with a booklet these young children had made for me, with a picture of their class and their names, one page for each class. On the cover was a picture of Jesus with a lamb. I asked them who he was, and why he had a sheep. “He’s found the lost one.” As we looked through the pictures the children pointed out their names, written in the beginning printing of 3-6 year olds. There was some pathos as one little girl couldn’t find her own name. But no one is lost – we found it on the edge of a page, tucked into the fold. Each one of those kids knows s/he has a place, and is known by name. The teacher’s hauntingly beautiful recounting of the story of the good shepherd reminded them once again: this shepherd will find you when you’re feeling lost, this shepherd will call your name and lead you home.

We share that task, all of us, whatever pasture we call home. Our chief and elder brother names each one of us, always leading us toward a broader meadow, filled with rich grazing and encounter with more of his varied sheep – spotted, piebald, different colors and breeds.

Keep us moving, brother. Heal us when we hurt, show us paths that heal and make holy. Make us better shepherds of all we meet. Give us the timbre of your own voice, and eyes to discover the blessed image of the beloved in each brother and sister. Your pasture is filled with peace and abundance. Lead us home.