Deeply loved by the shepherd

Deeply loved by the shepherd

This is the sermon the Rev. Dr. Suzi Robertson preached at the ordination of the Rev. Leslie Guinn to the priesthood on June 18, 2020.


Suzi Robertson
The Ordination of the Rev. Leslie Guinn to the Sacred Order of Priests
June 18, 2020

In the name of the one God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity.  Amen.

So, Leslie, here we are in the middle of a global pandemic where hundreds of thousands are dying, where millions are unemployed, where race and hate is dividing us, our cities are burning, people are rioting and looting, and countries all over the world are protesting against institutional racism that has plagued our Brown and Black brothers and sisters for hundreds of years.  But, for right now, we are here, and I am so glad you have chosen the gospel text you have chosen.

Every once in a while, a ewe will give birth to a lamb and reject it. Once a ewe rejects one of her lambs, she will never change her mind. These little rejected lambs will hang their heads so low that it looks like something is wrong with their necks. Their spirit is broken.  If something or someone doesn’t rescue them, they will die in agony.

Leslie, you were that lamb, when your mother church did not recognize your calling. You have worked, spanning parts of three decades to listen to the spirit, and made the request to be able to exercise your full calling by being ordained to the priesthood.  It was your aspiration, it is your calling, and you were rejected.  So, I have an idea that you know what the lost, motherless sheep feels like, and I am so glad both that our good bishops has made the Godly decision to have you return to the church which is the namesake of this Gospel.

These rejected lambs are called “bummer lambs.” Unless the shepherd intervenes, that lamb will die, rejected and alone. Everyone present here, today, knows what the shepherd does.  He or she takes that rejected little lamb home, hand-feeds it and keeps it warm by the fire. The shepherd will wrap it up with blankets and hold it to her or his chest so the bummer lamb can hear a beating heart. Once the lamb is strong enough, the shepherd will place it back in the field with the rest of the flock.

But that sheep never forgets how the shepherd cared for it when the mother rejected it. When the shepherd calls for the flock, guess who runs to the shepherd first?

That is right, the bummer sheep. That bummer sheep knows that voice intimately. It is not that the bummer lamb is loved more, it just knows intimately the one who loves it.  It’s not that it is loved more, it just believes it is, because it has experienced that love one on one.  That’s what a Good Shepherd does.

Most of us, including you and me, Leslie, are bummer lambs, rejected and broken at some points in our lives. But Christ is the good Shepherd. He cares for our every need and holds us close to His heart so we can hear His heartbeat. We may be broken but we are deeply loved by the Shepherd.  And, guess what, Leslie.  You did not die! You were found!  It took more than ten years and a great deal of work and bleating from your household, and all the members of the flock, both inside and outside these church walls who believed in you and your calling, and stood by you and cheered you on and prayed for you….you did not die.  You were found.  But, the story does not end, here.  Not at all.

From the beginning of time, shepherds have been the proverbial lowest of the lowest, the down-trodden, the disrespected. Even the angels came to the shepherds, the lowliest of all, to try to save them from themselves by sharing the news of the birth of Christ, as the story is told. Over the centuries, nothing has changed much. From the shepherds of the hills of Scotland, to the shepherds of the new Western frontier, to the Basque shepherds who migrated and became the shepherds of the far west and the emancipated slaves who headed west with prolific breeding sheep as their source of livelihood, all have faced discrimination and been viewed as a lowly class over the ages.

Even today, many wish not to be referred to as “shepherds” but instead as ranchers, farmers, land owners, or flock owners. The work of shepherding is left to the “lowly” or “immigrant” shepherds. Shepherds have typically been the transient or migratory workforce since the early days of agriculture. Shepherds have never been romanticized like the western cowboy. In fact, the shepherd has often been cast as the villain, the migratory farmer who was ruining the cattle grazing land of the west, when the cowboy has been revered.  Michael Martin Murphy, the poet and song writer, with whom I have been friends for decades, says that I am royalty, since my grandfather was a foreman on Waggoner’s Ranch, the second largest ranch in Texas.  Do you see the difference?  There are Cowboy Christmas balls, every year.  There are not any Shepherd’s balls.

The famed cattle-sheep wars of the 1850’s saw some ranchers realizing there was more money to be made in sheep than cattle, but they still they never called themselves “shepherds.” Why is that?  Well, who wants to be the sacrificial lamb, the Shepherd who went to the cross?  The last days on Earth for the Good Shepherd are not a pretty picture.  Rejected.  Bleeding.  Mocked.  Derided.  Challenged.  Law breaker. Abused. Suffered. Dead.  But, that is the life of the Good Shepherd, and it is often the life of a priest.  As a matter of fact, if you do not have some of the people mad at you part of the time, you probably are not a very good shepherd.  Guess what, Leslie.  You did not die.  You have been found.  And, in a few short minutes, this great assembly in this church and out in this parking lot, and all those watching this as it is livestreamed, will call down the Holy Spirit, two presbyters and the bishop will lay hands on you, and our good and faithful bishop, shepherd of this diocese, will make you a priest, God willing.  You will become a shepherd, and we pray you will be a good one.

You are already doing this work of a shepherd. You find a great sense of duty to do the ancient work of caring for sheep, the humble work of caring for the sick, ensuring the health of each individual, providing food and shelter and protecting the safety and health of the flock. Shepherding requires more hands-on work than most livestock farming. Lambing (the birthing of lambs) most often occurs at night, in the dead if winter, and is a solitary task where the reward is saving a life of a ewe or bringing a lamb into the world that otherwise would not make it. Sometimes, it is saying the last words over one that doesn’t make it. Sometimes, it is being sent toward a crucifixion by your own flock or your own diocese.  Sometimes, it is the utter disappointment of division, power, and money over love and tolerance. On Sunday mornings, it is saying the words over the most sacred meal in the history of humankind.  It is a personal satisfaction with few equals.

A very good question to ask, although perhaps a bit late in the game at this time is this: why does the world need women and men to become priests?  Leslie has spent a good deal of time working towards this night, and I don’t want to imply that we don’t need her priesthood, because the opposite is true.  But I’m Leslie’s friend and she is my friend, and so saying this costs neither of us, very little.  So, why does the world need women and men to become priests, and why does the world need Leslie to become a priest? The one that we hear in today’s gospel reading: Jesus the Good Shepherd  is clearly on our side, the friend of sinners, dining with tax-collectors and prostitutes, and those who did not fit into our sterile institutional world. Jesus reserved his harshest words for people like us: church-goers, upwardly mobile lay persons, our bishops, priests and deacons and commissions on ministry and standing committees and all of us who know too often about binding and not about loosening, about shutting down the creativity within our own people…that creativity which might must bring one more person to Christ.  People like our political evangelists who care more about banging people over the head with a Bible than they do about providing state-funded health care for the sick and dying, or welcoming the immigrant, or bringing someone who is smelly or strange looking into the church, in other words, taking care of the bummer lambs so they can live. Too often we are just like the hirelings who care only for the institution that gives us our paycheck and not for the sheep, when sheep are really the only reason for the institution of the church. Faced with any threat, those trapped in this way of being always kick into institutional mode, and leave the sheep, alleging that they’ve got to present the church to God in its purity or some such idolatrous nonsense.

My dear people, we can know Jesus not as “for us” over against others, but only in our midst as one who catches us off guard. And, that means that all of us – the institutionally anointed protectors of Episcopalian purity, and those cousins of ours who can’t embrace the LGBTQ community or women clergy,  as well as the edgy provocateurs who constantly redefine the church – all are going to end up in the same sheepfold.  The comfortable world of “us and them” collapses.  And, won’t that be a surprise to most of us. And, that’s why we need you as a priest, Leslie, to help us round them all up.  Welcome to our world, Leslie.  May God bless you and keep you.  May God make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.  May God lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.  Amen!  Alleluia!