Transcribed from the audio.
Please pray with me. Lord, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In many Christian churches, this Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Not surprisingly, if you look at the Scriptures appointed for today, the music that has been chosen for today, the theme of sheep and shepherds runs through the whole thing. And as we look at our life as a Cathedral community, that metaphor, that image of shepherd seems to be particularly apt on this day as we bid farewell and Godspeed to our friend and my clergy colleague Gina Campbell, a shepherd in our midst. And as we prepare as a community of faith to welcome a new shepherd in our new dean who will, hopefully, be announced next month and come later this summer. So shepherd is a good grounding image for us today.
I will confess to you that this is not a carefully crafted sermon today. I consider this more of a meditation because something happened yesterday that made me change course a bit. So bear with me.
But keeping with sheep and shepherds, it’s worth noting a few things about sheep that we know from ancient times and modern day. First, unlike cattle—such as in Texas where I grew up—cattle are driven from the rear, from behind. Sheep follow a shepherd. A shepherd leads the sheep. The sheep and the shepherd have a very close personal relationship. The shepherd knows his sheep; the sheep know their Shepherd. In ancient times, at the end of the day after grazing in some of those green pastures you hear about in the 23rd Psalm, the shepherd leads the sheep back to a sheepfold which is a circular stone corral that has a very narrow opening at the front through which the shepherd leads the sheep in the evening. And then the Shepherd literally lays down across the threshold to protect the sheep from anything that might enter the sheepfold to snatch them away or hurt or harm them. So when Jesus talks about being the good shepherd and the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that’s part of the imagery that is in effect.
And if you think about one of the primary tools of a shepherd, what comes to mind is the shepherd’s crook. It’s got the hook at the top end and then a long staff. That’s not for decoration. In practice, the crook is used to help pull the sheep out of the dangerous places they’ve managed to get themselves into and to draw them closer back in tight with the shepherd. The other end of the crook is meant to poke and prod and sometimes move the sheep where they would otherwise not care to go.
Now, one of the challenges of this imagery is we, of course, are the sheep and we don’t always like to think of ourselves as falling into dangerous places or needing to be poked and prodded. But, in fact, that is the reality of life. Looking at the 23rd Psalm, there a few things to note. First, most of the psalm is in the present and personal tense. The Lord is my shepherd. All of the verbs are present tense: leads, restores, anoints. Except for the final verse which is in the future tense: “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” It’s meant to be personal. It’s meant to be present, reminding us that our God is not some ancient memory, but present, alive, available to us now and always.
If you are like me, when I first think of the Good Shepherd, I go to all those bucolic scenes of the green pastures and the still waters that we hear in the 23rd Psalm. Or if you are members of this Cathedral community, that image may take you to our Good Shepherd Chapel downstairs: the image of Jesus above the altar holding a sheep, pulling the sheep close in tight to the heart of our Lord. And that is true for much of the 23rd Psalm. But remember that the 23rd Psalm also takes us to those dark and dangerous places: the valley of the shadow of death. So we have in tension the Shepherd who provides us comfort and assurance, but also helps lead us through those dark and dangerous times of our lives.
As I was reflecting on the different roles of a shepherd who leads his sheep, it powerfully came home to me in the present by the trip that Pope Francis made yesterday. Pope Francis is, in my humble opinion, one of the leading spiritual shepherds of our day and you know that from the beginning of his papacy he has lifted up the concerns and the issues around those on the margins: immigrants, refugees, migrants. His ministry took him to the Greek island of Lesbos yesterday where thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and other countries have fled hoping to get resettled in Europe, to a place of safety. Traveling and going with the Pope were the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew the First, and the Greek Archbishop. They went specifically to Moria which is a holding place for over 3000 refugees. They crossed the threshold, if you will, of a barbed wire corral of hurting and suffering sheep who are fearful and know not what their future will be.
Pope Francis told them that he was there to tell them that they are not alone. He went further, not just to do a photo op, not just to say comforting words, not just to break bread with them—which he did. But he mirrored his words with his actions: 12 refugees left with him to go to the Vatican. Three families, six children, all Muslim. He is a classic Jesuit, a contemplative in action, who doesn’t just say things and say important things as worthy and important as they are, but he follows it up with action, taking a shepherd’s crook to not only pull the sheep who are in danger and hurting closer to the Lord, but to flip that crook, to poke and prod and lead the rest of us to take a hard look at where the Lord may lead us where we might not want to go.
The Shepherd has an interesting and important role for all of us. Yes, to comfort us, but also to lift up for us what it means to follow, what it means truly to follow the lead of our Lord. The question for us always is, will we follow? Francis follows well the saint whose name he took, St. Francis, who said, “Preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.” Amen.