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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Disciples and Divides

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: listening, sheep, shepherds, flock

May 8, 2022    The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Trinity Church, Wall Street

Text: John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice.”

have the great privilege of bringing you greetings from your sisters in brothers of the Episcopal churches in Europe. We have a long and historic connection to the churches of this diocese and this city, and indeed many of the founding members of our parishes in the nineteenth century divided their time between here and some place in Europe; so we feel somehow connected to you, even if you didn’t even know we were there.

For those of us who grew up in this tradition, it doesn’t take much time today to recognize this as Good Shepherd Sunday. The lessons, the familiar words of the twenty-third psalm, the hymns—I mean it sort of hits you over the head that today is about metaphor, and the metaphor is distinctly more ovine than divine.

Now I am new here, and pretty much all of you are unknown to me, but I would guess just from looking at you that most of you have not spent a great deal of time in the company of sheep. And while the advertising you got for the preacher today talks about Europe, and our cathedral in Paris, the fact is that when I’m home I’m on a farm in Massachusetts, a place where, when I first saw it, sheep were on the land.

So maybe you have been taken in by the Hallmark-card notion of shepherds and sheep, the gentle, pastoral images and the pictures of fluffly lambs, and a flock of meek animals following a shepherd around who leads them into verdant pastures.

Anyone who has spent any time around sheep will quickly tell you that that’s all a bunch of nonsense. Sheep are not meek, and mild, and willing followers, and docile disciples. Sheep are dumb. Not just that; sheep are dumb and stubborn. They have tiny minds, but those minds get made up in the worst ways about the wrong things. And dear friends, in this story, they are the stand-ins for us.

Anyone who might have been in the audience hearing Jesus say these words, instead of hearing them read from John’s gospel on a Sunday morning on Wall Street, they would have known that. So those people around Jesus heard this idea about sheep and shepherds in a very different way than we do. And that’s what I want to ask you to think about this morning.

It’s always this Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, that we get this theme. Good Shepherd Sunday always comes on this liturgical day. But we don’t always hear the same lessons on this day. Last year, we heard the nice version—the first part of this tenth chapter of John’s gospel. It’s where Jesus says of himself, “I am the good shepherd”—and he goes on to say, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 

Now, that we can relate to. It’s about what’s in it for us sheep. It’s about the cost of being a shepherd, on our behalf. If we have to be cast as the sheep in the metaphor, well, then, we want a shepherd who will protect us.

But this year—this year we hear he other end of this same chapter. This time, it’s not about the cost to the shepherd; it’s about the cost for the sheep. 

If you have ever tried to gather a group of sheep together out in a field by means of your voice to get them moving in one direction toward a common purpose, you know—some of them will hear you, and some of them won’t. Some of them will pick up their heads and look at you—and some of them will just keep on grazing.

It’s the same grass for all of them, under the same sky. It’s the same sunshine, and the same flock—and the same wolves. And it’s the same voice.

Some of them hear, and some of them...don’t.

What we learn in this year’s version of the Good Shepherd story is that what it means to be in that flock, what it means to be one of those sheep, is to pay the cost of making a choice. Some of them, maybe they’re not convinced by that voice. Maybe they have questions. But they hear enough to want to hear more, to want to follow along wherever that shepherd leads to see more, learn more, ask more.

And some would rather just graze.

My first job in ordained ministry was in a university church. Undergraduates are a lot like sheep. I met students who couldn’t have cared less about religion or faith, and I met students who had been brought up in a faith tradition and were eager to be in conversation with people in their own tradition and others; and I met people at just about all points in between.

But far and away the hardest experience I walked alongside was that of young people who for whatever reason during their college years suddenly heard that voice—suddenly heard a voice that called them into that conversation with what they experienced as the presence of God in their lives, the possibility of making meaning on the basis of belief. And then when they looked around the rest of their flock, what they saw was there weren’t a lot of other sheep like them. And they wondered whether they were crazy, or wrong. It felt lonely. And discouraging. And the job of the community of faith in that moment, our job, is not to do the thing we usually do—get them to sign up for a committee, offer them more coffee—but to listen.

Now, we are the church. We are not just the sheep in this story. We are the body of Christ, alive and at work in the world, and doing the work of transforming this broken world with love, because we are taught that is the only force on earth that has the power to change anything, even despair, even grief, for good. 

So that means, in this story we are also the shepherd. And when you are the shepherd, and you raise your voice to that flock and still see heads down on the ground focused on the grass, you don’t think—well, some of them get it, and some of them don’t. Some of them are right, and some of them are wrong.

No, what you think is—What am I doing wrong? Why can’t they hear me? It’s not just that we want them to agree with us; it’s that we have come to know in our bones something that is not just true, but desperately true, urgently true, and that we feel compelled to find some way to get heard in this world. 

And that truth is this: We have been put on this earth to help each other, and heal each other, and respect each other, and honor one another, and we are making the wrong choices in going about it. We are not making choices that align with God’s hope for us, with what that voice among us is calling is to do.

I venture onto dangerous ground when I speak a truth you all know, but because of that I will not politely avoid saying it—that this past week has brought into harsh focus a fundamental question of life choices. Not just over who chooses, but what is at stake in the choice to have a child.

But here is a truth that stands high and apart from our divided society: If every child that came into the world came as the product of a longed for, hoped for, prayed for choice, we would not be having this argument. 

If we talked with our children about how sacred they are to us, about how the experience of parenthood has transformed our own lives by the power of love; if we made sure that we, given this gift of free will because we are made in the image and likeness of God, if we made sure that every child was the treasured result of a free choice of will, we would not be having this argument.

The shepherds among us who know this most aren’t the ones standing out in the meadow with a funny stick. No, the shepherds among us who know this most of all are mothers. And they know, better than anyone, that some of us listen, and some of us do not.

Of course, to do all of that, to teach this to our children, we would have to be listening to and following that voice that says our lives are meant to have meaning—that our lives, all lives, are sacred, equally sacred, equally worthy. And there is a whole culture around us, with the power of money and influencers, desperate to knock that idea down. Because if it were true, all of its claims would collapse.

We, who gather here on a Sunday morning—whether in New York, or Paris, or Munich, or Geneva, or Rome, or even Tbilisi—we started out as sheep, and now we have become the shepherds. We are the voices out there, trying to call, trying to nurture and feed, trying to warn, as the whole world around us seems to be shaking at the foundations.

If we’re honest, we often feel unequal to the task. We’re no longer an institution influencers are interested in. Our failures, and they have been real failures, seem to have gotten us deplatformed in the culture around us. We sense deeply these truths we want to share, and the world we’re in seems to treat us as though we are offering answers to questions no one is asking anymore. 

What do we do? How can we disciples be the shepherds of this divided world?

Well, I started at the farm, so I will end there. When we first came to that place, now more than thirty years ago, it was owned by my friend Paul. He kept sheep, and he kept friends, and so one beautiful summer Saturday we found ourselves at the table for lunch with another couple who’d come out from the city, like us.

Paul is a writer, and his friends tended to be writers, and I worked in publishing in those days, so our conversation was not really much attached to the ground, and in the middle of it all the telephone rang. It was a neighbor calling from about a half a mile down the road. “Paul, one of your sheep is out, and she’s down here.”

Now this had been a luncheon well supplied with wine, so of course the six of us very highly educated young professionals, decided that the best thing to do was to pile into the minivan and go down to collect the sheep. And so that is what we did.

And when we got there, sure enough, there was that sheep, calmly grazing on what I guess was greener grass, under the watchful eye of the neighbor’s twelve-year-old boy.

I’m going to spare myself a lot of embarrassment by skipping over the details of what happened next. Basically, the six of us ended up lunging at this animal and utterly failing to catch it, and at the end of about twenty minutes we were all spread out grass-stained and panting on the ground, the sheep was still grazing, and the boy was still watching.

And of course, that was when he helpfully piped up and said: “Would you guys like some help?”

We were too worn out to put up much resistance to that idea, and so we all said yes, and got to our feet. And instead of moving toward the sheep, that boy just said to us— “Everyone spread out around her.”

So, we made a circle around the sheep with the boy at one end. The sheep didn’t seem to mind.

Then he said, “Take a couple of steps toward me.”

We did. The circle got a little smaller. The spaces between us got a little smaller. The sheep kept on grazing.

“Do it again.”

We did. This time the sheep looked up, looked around at us, thought about it for a minute, and kept grazing.

“Okay, very slowly, keep walking toward me.”

We did. Pretty soon, the sheep looked up. We were moving closer. The spaces between us were getting smaller. It looked around at all of us, one, and another, and another, and then—

Then it bolted right toward that boy, and right into his arms. The one thing in the world of that lamb that wasn’t moving. 

How shall we be the shepherds of this divided world? What do we do if in the clamor and noise of all the arguing, no one hears our voice?

Maybe what we’re being called to do is to stand still in the midst of the upheaval around us, not certain of ourselves, but certain of the truths we have learned here; not joining in the arguments, but simply and calmly insisting on what we ourselves have found here, that this life still holds within it the possibility of the sacred, that every human being shares in that possibility in equal measure, and that here, in this place, we see it, and treasure it, and nurture it in all people. 

And—who knows?—maybe some of those sheep will make straight for us, too. Amen.