Living into the image of Christ the Good Shepherd

Living into the image of Christ the Good Shepherd

The Celebration of a New Church
Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
September 28th, 2019
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Suzi Robertson

A very good question to ask, although perhaps a bit late in the game for us, is this: why does the world need women and men of God to build churches?  We have spent a good deal of time working towards this night, and I don’t want to imply that we don’t need a new church in Granbury, but why does God need the Episcopal Community Trust of Granbury, Texas, to build a new church.

I think that the answer is found in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  And just so you’ll know early on, I don’t think that Jesus is just referring to people and churches, here.  I think that we all have the responsibility to become good shepherds.  And yet, there is that part of us that needs people and churches, to help us understand how to grow in this identity.  So we can begin to answer the question of the night by saying that the world needs churches so that we can all learn to live into the image of Christ the Good Shepherd.

But what in the world does that mean?  What in the world do shepherds – good or bad – have to do with anything at all that is happening at the violence in this twenty-first century?  Perhaps the Good Shepherd has something to say about that thing which the world needs most just now – forgiveness.

Most of you will remember the mass shooting in an Amish girl’s school, a number of years ago. Do you remember that the people of that community forgave the shooter, released that to the public, went to see his family and offered all kinds of support, and even showed up in mass, at his funeral, when few others came? They didn’t want him to be victimized, because they knew what it felt like.

The image of God 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, who reserved his harshest words for people like us: church-goers.  Too often we are just like the hirelings who care only for the institution that sustains us and not for the sheep, which are the only purpose of the church. Faced with any threat those trapped in this way of being always kick into institutional mode, and leave the sheep to the wolves, alleging that they’ve got to present the church to God in its purity or some such idolatrous nonsense.  We don’t do this at this church, nor can we ever.

This means that we can know Jesus not as “for us” over against others, but only in our midst as one who catches us off guard. Which means that all of us – the institutionally anointed protectors of Episcopalian purity as well as the edgy provocateurs who constantly redefine the church – are in the same sheepfold.  The comfortable world of “us and them” begins to collapse.

The people we use to identify as Ineffective shepherds are now just other potential sheep like us. They are in need of someone who will shepherd them.  Jesus comes to us shepherding us to that place where our identity collapses.  That place where a new “we” may be born, a “we” not over against any one at all, but a “we” that is community called into being by the One Good Shepherd.

As the Good Shepherd, Jesus came to constitute a community that expands beyond what our own self-identified religion usually defines. The Good Shepherd says he has other sheep, not of this flock, and he must bring them also, and they will heed his voice.

What kind of world is this in which the Good Shepherd welcomes not just some people but all people?  It is the kind of world that needs churches filled with women and men and teenagers and children who will clarify in their own being the icon of Christ the Good Shepherd.

So, in what kind of community will Good Shepherd find its sheepfold. The Good Shepherd welcomes absolutely everyone to join him at the table.  The Eucharistic Christ prepares us to welcome people who had seemed utterly foreign to us, completely unrecognizable to us. And THOSE are the ones for whom this church will be the home; the sheepfold   Not only people who have been properly prepared to come to the table, but those who have been absolutely unprepared.  And that can only happen as you and we lose our ability to recognize ourselves, for in receiving them, we too are changed.

So how should we understand the mention of sheep in John’s gospel? Too often, the preacher takes them as a reference to some form of bleating conformity. And that may be true, but it is not the truth. As people called to follow the Good Shepherd, we are not ones who lead a bunch of stupid conformists.  As Christians, John’s Gospel does not permit us to look at our flock and think, “Oh, they’re all sheep, they can’t help it.” No! The most important reference to sheep in John’s Gospel is sacrificial. Sheep are the sacrificial lambs, and that is who we are called to be.

Jesus identifies himself as the good (Greek: kalos) shepherd.  There are two Greek words for good.  The first is agathos, which simply describes the moral quality of a thing. The second is kalos, which means that a thing or a person is not only good; but in the goodness there is a quality of compassion, loveliness, attractiveness which makes it a lovely thing.  You could liken the phrase “the good shepherd” to the phrase “the good Doctor Charles Kennard, our Building Committee Chair.”  When people speak of the good doctor, they are not thinking only of his efficiency and skill as a Mohs surgeon; they are thinking of the sympathy and the kindness and the graciousness which the doctor brought with him, and which made him the healer and friend of many in this church.

And now we are ready to identify the heart of the matter when it comes to John’s understanding of sheep and shepherds, and why the world needs churches like this.

The healing miracles of Jesus are all closely associated with places. In John’s Gospel the healing of the lame man at the Pool of Bethsaida, precedes Jesus teaching about the Good Shepherd. This healing miracle takes place near the entrance through the city walls known as the “Sheep Gate.”  And that gate is so named because the sacrificial sheep would be taken through the Sheep Gate on their way to the altar of sacrifice in the temple.  There the life – the blood – of the sheep would be taken, and offered to God in an ill-conceived attempt at procuring God’s mercy.

Those who sat and watched this procession of sacrificial victims are the thieves and careless shepherds to which Jesus refers.  Only one shepherd might be called “good.” That is the shepherd who does NOT simply sit by and watch the sacrificial victims make their way to the altar.  The Good Shepherd is the one who goes with the sacrificial victims through the gate and up to the altar.  Jesus walks with all of the sacrificial victims, because Jesus makes himself a sacrificial victim.  All of those whom the religious world would gladly offer on the altar of its own violence are the ones whom Jesus accompanies.

And the same is true for you, Good Shepherd Church.   Sometimes we are good, sometimes bad, but always human.  We will become more and more like the one we call THE Good Shepherd as we choose to take our place beside the sacrificial victims of this world who are led to the sacrificial machinery of this world, including our own, and more to the point, including our beloved Episcopal Church.

Do not ever forget that.  This church has been built for all people, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.  But for God’s sake do not forget that we are not to be a passive observer, we are to be a friend and companion, a self-selecting victim along with all of the other victims of this world’s religions.

I have seen members of this church make that choice.  I was present with Norm Snyder and said the Last Rites over him in a cold hospital emergency room, filled with down feathers from the vest they had cut off him.  He had gone to the show barn, that morning to work to make sure the Christmas Gifts were distributed to the poorest children in this community, who still exist.  Norm could not have felt well, that morning. He was about to have a heart attack that would take his life.  But, his life ended, doing for somebody else’s children.  He was invisible to them. They likely never thanked him.

I know that Ian Moore took care of an elderly woman who had nobody, and when she died, he quietly drove to another town in a faraway place to say the last words over her, because, you see, he was her priest, and he was all she had.  She left a small fortune, but not to him He wasn’t even thanked, nor did he expect to be.

That is what the Good Shepherd receives.  And that is what good church people receive.  Not a sentimentally simplistic thank you for your companionship, but a rough and frankly thankless non-response.

The way of the good church is never lonely and always in the company of sacrificial victims.  And that is why the world needs more churches.  So that we can stand with all the sacrificial victims and say, “remember God loves you.”  Even when such a statement results in a thankless response.  Because the world is lost in darkness, and because none of us is strong enough to illuminate all of the darkness alone, we need more good people in good churches.

And so tonight we gather to celebrate a new place and we pray that we will continue to be a good people who inhabit it.  Under the pastoral staff of our good bishops, and with the blessing of this assembly we join our desire to God’s desire and call down blessing upon this place and these people and we become more of what we are already – a companion and friend and student and lover of the Good Shepherd.  So, people of Good Shepherd, receive this. There are four charges that you receive this night. You have received them before, but please receive them, again, in reverse order:

Fourth charge – the Church.  The world could probably exist without good churches, but it would diminish us all.  So, be the church.  Be the church for each of us. Find ways to continue putting love into action, ways of continuing to support the people of the world through the difficult ways.  laying down his life for the sheep. It is the love each of us is called to live.  Be the church, but remember that it is only the fourth charge.

Third charge – you are Episcopalians.  Our communion would have gone on if you had not joined us, but it would have diminished us all.  When many of you chose to leave your cradle denominations and come to be with us it involved both losses and gains.  But there is no such thing as a perfect church.  The signs remind us, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You, without Exception.”  But remember that it is only third charge.

Second prize – servant-hood.  We disciples of Jesus could have carried on without your servant ministry.  But we would be desperately diminished.  We need your service, good people.  We need you to teach, and to lead, and to break a sweat, both physically and intellectually.  And always remember that the service Jesus calls from us finds its meaning only in our imitation of the Good Shepherd, the namesake of this church.  The great servant has gone before us not to make our way easy, but to give us that freedom, and as great a thing as servant-hood is, there is yet one other charge.

First charge – The Cross.  Good people, you have been crucified with Christ.  This is the great and only charge which will make a difference to us.  Because Christ has gone before us, freely taking his place on the cross of love, so we may go courageously to our own crosses, and become a source of God’s love for all beings.  Release in yourselves the need to overlook any other human being, and if this church can continue to accomplish that, this church will realize the glory that our crucified savior, redeemer and friend gives us from his fractured and glorious sheepfold. To him be dominion, power and glory forever and ever. AMEN.


*A special thanks to the Rev’d Paul Fromberg, who gave me this inspiration on the day of my ordination to the priesthood.