Both Shepherd and Sheep: A Sermon

There is so much I could say and need to say about the experiences of the past few weeks, but I just don’t have the words at the moment. In the mean time, here is a sermon I offered yesterday, April 23rd, at my placement churches: St. Mary’s Mirfield and St. John’s Upper Hopton. The text is John 10:11-18, wherein Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. 

As many of you know, I have been given the privilege of living and studying in the UK for the past few months as part of an exchange program between my seminary in California and the College of the Resurrection here in Mirfield. Getting to know the people and the landscapes of West Yorkshire has been a joy, but when we were given a break after Easter, I was eager to go a bit further afield.  And so I boarded a train to Scotland, determined to see as much as I could in a week.  And sightsee I did—I saw medieval cityscapes, glorious cathedrals and museums, Highland lochs, the holy island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides….and sheep.  Lots and lots of sheep.

Scottish sheep really have it made, as far as I’m concerned.  They are free to roam across those dramatic Highland landscapes, munching on wild grasses and heather, disturbed only occasionally by the odd passing tourist gawking out of a train window.  And while I was gawking at them, I noticed something interesting, which perhaps you have seen, too: the sheep are all marked.  They have splashes of color painted onto their fleece, some green, some blue, some red. I looked this up later, and I learned that these colors all have a practical purpose—they are called “Smit Marks”, and they are used by the sheep farmers to keep track of which sheep belong to them.  Since the countryside is open, and the sheep can roam wherever they like, these markings are a quick means of identification when it’s time for them to be gathered back in for shearing, etc.

The Scottish sheep, with their vibrant Smit Marks, were lingering in my mind’s eye as I pondered this week’s Gospel passage from John, in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock. It’s such an evocative image, isn’t it? One that is deeply ingrained in our idea of relationship with God—through the recitation of the beloved 23rd Psalm, in church art and in hymnody. It is an image of protection and guidance and self-giving love: the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us.

And we are marked, too, are we not?  Not with a streak of color on our backs, of course, but we have our own Smit Marks, indicating to whom we belong—they were placed on us in the water of baptism and the oil of anointing.  As it says in my favorite line in the service for Holy Baptism that we use in the Episcopal Church, we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.” No matter where we wander, no matter how far we stray into shadowy valleys or foreboding wilderness, we bear the mark that tells us who we are, and by Whom we are guided—Christ, the Good Shepherd, who stands on the brow of the hill at dusk and calls us home. It can be hard to see and the path is often rocky, but His lantern is lit for us to follow—it burns in the sanctuary of every church where his Eucharistic presence is encountered, and it illuminates every place where we, the people of God, pray and minister in His name.

It’s remarkable what you can discern from looking at a field of sheep!

There’s a catch, of course. If we were to simply bask in the image of Christ as the loving Shepherd and ourselves as his beloved flock, we’d only be getting part of the picture. Because Jesus is more than a model of a capable guardian and overseer; in fact our faith depends on the fact that he is much more than this.  As Saint Augustine asked, “What sayest Thou, O Lord, Thou good Shepherd? For You are the good Shepherd, who art also the good Lamb; at once Pastor and Pasturage, at once Lamb and Lion.” In the mystery of his death and resurrection, which we continue to marvel at this Easter season, we cannot forget that Jesus the Shepherd is also, paradoxically, the paschal lamb who was slain, who was given, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor, his own Smit Mark by the Father to fulfill the plan of human salvation, and who was called home through the valley of the shadow of death in his glorious rising to new life.

This is the One whom we encounter in sacrament and prayer and service. The Shepherd who is the Lamb. The Lamb who is the Shepherd. Whose death was, in the light of the Resurrection, not a demonstration of God’s failure to care, but proof that God will do anything to gather us close into a merciful embrace.

If we follow this train of thought, though, there is one missing piece. Because if Christ is both the Good Shepherd AND the Lamb of God, then we, as people who share in his life, also share in this dual identity. We cannot merely see ourselves as sheep to be protected. As much as I envied those Scottish sheep in their pastoral idyll, I knew I had to continue on my journey, that I could not linger in the field. There was much to see, and much yet to be done. So it is for all of us. If we believe, as St. Paul claims, that it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us, then the Good Shepherd is the One who lives within us. The One Who must guide, and seek out, and yes, even lay down their life at the feet of those whom they serve. He is the one who animates our very beings. In the same moment that we are the beloved flock, you and I are also the brave, good shepherds of God’s mission. We were marked as such on the day of our baptism, when we were knit into Christ’s body, and it is an indelible mark. It cannot be undone. It is our vocation, each and every one of us.

So as we approach the table to take part in the banquet feast of the Lamb who was slain for us, let us remember the deep bond that has drawn us here, the bond of a Good Shepherd calling his flock back to him for rest and renewal. But let us remember, too, that by taking Him into ourselves, we have been transfigured by His abiding presence into shepherds. And so we, too, must seek the flock. We too must measure the worth of our lives by the amount of love we are willing to risk pouring out. We, too, must walk the landscape, lighting the way to guide others into safety.

The world is vast, more vast even than those Highland valleys, and there are many who are seeking home. Let us take up our staffs, light our lanterns, and call out. And may the Good Shepherd within each of us provide the words to pierce the silent gloom, to bring near those who wander towards the light.

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Pausing in the Ruins

Holy Week began tonight with the first evensong of Palm Sunday, and Mirfield is a buzz of activity as visitors arrive to participate in the Community’s extensive schedule of observances. Over the next seven days we will have upwards of 50(!) worship services, plus communal meals and public lectures. It is, according to everyone who has experienced it before, a singularly transformative experience.

I will admit, though, that the excitement of Easter’s impending arrival (and the two-week break that follows!) also feels bittersweet, like a valedictory. This time of Lent, now entering its final stretch, has been rich with challenge and insight, and I’ve taken much time and space throughout these 40 days for an unflinching look at my life. Some of it has been consoling, and some of it has been jarring. This penitential season has a way of stripping you down to the skin, revealing your fears and flaws, leaving you shivering and raw and somehow even more alive as a result.

That’s how it felt last week when I took a trip by myself to the seaside to visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey.  The site stands on a headland overlooking the North Sea, and on the day of my visit the weather was so inclement that there wasn’t a single other person around. The wind blew so forcefully that it almost knocked me over as I traversed the wide grassy field, and when I sought shelter beneath the crumbling Gothic arches, the rain whipped through the intricately carved stone window openings that once held stained glass, stinging my eyes with tears. It was miserable and beautiful all at the same time and I thought: this is Lent, in all its luminous, wondrous fury. We spend a season alone, praying and crying amid the majestic ruins of our regret, as the cold wind of God blasts through, shocking us back into reverence and life.

Now, though, back in the community at Mirfield, it’s time to come in from the cold and embark on a different type of journey: into Jerusalem with Christ for a final week of tribulation and revelation. On Palm Sunday we join the throng and enter the holy city, waving our palms as an assemblage of lost souls who still seek salvation on our own terms: power, success, admiration. And as we move through the days and the liturgies, there is still so much yet to be faced and relinquished—our false hopes, our jealousies and our idleness, our tendency to betray the love that is offered to us, bargained away for a few coins and an empty kiss.

But just like my rain-soaked excursion to Whitby, it’s a journey we can’t help but make, because it is often from the depths of pain and isolation that we begin to recognize the miracle of new life that comes on Easter day. I have been wrestling with so much these past few months, and I feel ready to step into the redemptive light of whatever lies ahead. For just a few days more, though, I will sit and be attentive to the yearning and the questioning that have been my gentle companions for this season.

Wherever you are this Holy Week, and whatever you might be going through, I pray that you will find courage in facing what you must face, and solace in knowing that everything good awaits us on the other side of the Cross.

Peace, my friends.