Collect: O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
Yesterday I was watching some of the footage of the funeral for Barbara Bush, and I was struck by one or two of the readers as they read the passages from Scripture which had been chosen for the service. It often happens at funerals that I notice this same phenomenon: the readers aren’t necessarily professionals; they aren’t trained to within an inch of their lives (as ours are here at St. Mark’s!). And yet in most cases, at funerals, they seem to get the point across — no matter how nervous they are, no matter if they happen to stumble over a word or two. Something about the task at hand causes me to be able to hear something in their words that in other circumstances I can miss.
Noticing this again in the funeral footage yesterday reminded me of a story I treasure; though I admit, in advance of telling it, that it’s probably apocryphal, and undoubtedly too warm and fuzzy for words. But I love it, so I’ll tell it anyway.
There was once a funeral for a grandmother who was much loved by her family and had many friends in the community. Her ten-year-old grandson was asked to read the Psalm, the 23rd Psalm, the one we’ve just heard ourselves. He was so nervous about the task that he’d decide to memorize it. He began trembling, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But he gained steam as he went on, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters,” and so on. When he finished reading, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole congregation; everyone had fallen to pieces quietly weeping, while a gentle, holy quiet had settled over the church.
It just so happens there was an actor in the congregation, a friend of Grandma’s from a long time ago. He was amazed at the congregation’s response to this little boy’s reading. After the service at the reception he went up to him to offer a “Job Well Done.” But he couldn’t help himself, and went on about how dumbfounded he was: the actor said, “I must have read that Psalm a hundred different times over the years, and people never cried; they’d clap often enough, and once I got a standing ovation, but never tears, and never the silence I just experienced. How did that happen? What’s your secret?”
The little boy didn’t miss a beat and replied, “I don’t know, it sounds like you know the Psalm way better than I do, but I love my grandma, and I know the Shepherd.” The actor was duly humbled, and left him alone.
It’s a sweet story, but it makes a very good point. There is something about genuine love, both of God and of human persons, that manages to shine through despite whatever skill or professionalism we might possess or lack.
This same point was made at my own ordination to the priesthood. The Gospel reading was this same passage, Jesus the Good Shepherd. The preacher went to great lengths to communicate just how far Jesus was willing to pursue his people, and commended to us the same love as the chief task of any who were called to follow in his steps: Love the people of God, and whatever confidence or talent feels missing will be more than supplied by the Holy Spirit and the gift of grace.
But it’s an overwhelming task, both for clergy specifically and for all Christians. Love the People of God, love them to such a degree and with such a spirit that each can feel recognized and known as being of supreme worth to God and to one another, and that the life to which we are all called is one of peace and tranquility in the house of God forever.
It’s simple enough to express in the quiet of an office, obvious enough to say in the anxiety of a hospital room, and easy enough to claim in the anonymity of a newspaper or a facebook post, though such contexts have their challenges too. Much harder in the chance encounters of everyday life, and much harder still in the long, fraught relationships of family, friends, and colleagues in which our life consists: where betrayal often goes hand in hand with devotion, where we aren’t always clear about our own motivations let alone anyone else’s, and where we wind up wounding most the people we love best.
It seems that forgiveness has to go hand in hand with love, otherwise we’re all lost, stuck with high aspirations but no capacity to fulfill them, while we undermine ourselves at every turn.
This is where the Church as a whole starts to be aware of Jesus the Good Shepherd as fulfilling some basic need we all have: of clearing the way for us to return, of speaking the word of forgiveness which enables us to restore our relationships and continue moving forward. We say in the creeds, “He suffered death, he descended into hell” to seek and save the members of his flock even there. There is no place now on earth or in all creation where Jesus the Good Shepherd has not gone to find us, and that means there is no place now where we are alone, where either our own foolishness or the wickedness of others finally puts us beyond the reach of healing and restoration.
That sort of thing is fairly straightforward to say in a creed, or note down in a class; easy to affirm publicly and to celebrate: Jesus is the Church’s Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep and leads them all by name just as they hear and know his voice. What’s harder is to remember, the work of a Shepherd is personal, they go out to each lost sheep wherever it is; they can put only one lamb on their shoulders at a time, to bring them back to the fold.
What do I mean by that? Jesus the Good Shepherd comes for you and for me, and not just for sheep as a category of particularly wayward livestock. Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks your name, and mine finding us wherever it is we’ve managed to wander, whether or not we even realize we’ve wandered.
How do we recognize his voice when we hear it calling? It’s the voice of one who knows us better than we know ourselves, who leads us out of darkness into light and refreshment and peace.
But it’s never easy, and it’s always humbling. Being taken out of the brambles means having to notice the brambles in the first place, and more often than not admitting to the Shepherd that somehow I managed to get myself caught there. It means having to acknowledge, I was not on the right path after all, and despite how sure I was it only led me further away from everyone and everything I loved.
This is a vulnerable moment, and despite what we say and affirm publicly in the creeds or otherwise, it’s a scary one. What if I am punished or received harshly? What if I have to give up what I have dearly bought?
These kinds of fears, more than anything else, keep us from hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice, or if we do hear, keep us from responding. Because, too often, we simply do not place enough confidence in the mercy of God. We find it difficult to trust that being made vulnerable will be met with kindness and compassion. But while there may be consequences — the brambles may tear as we are lifted out of them — we will be free, and more than that we will be touched by a mercy that does not keep score or hold grudges, that meets us with knowing, and with love, reliably, every time.
Don’t get too distracted focusing on the brambles, and what they are or how to avoid them; there are enough of them to drive us mad if we let them. Instead just listen for the voice of Shepherd, listen for the voice who knows you better than you know yourself. Trust the kindly leading that wends through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures and quiet waters, to the table of God set with the overflowing chalice of his mercy.
The Good Shepherd is your shepherd as much as mine, yours individually as much as that of the church as a whole. Listen for his voice, and let him lead you into life.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.