Good morning on this Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
Last year, in what we thought was the thick of the pandemic, but sadly matters turned much more deadly, I was here by myself on Good Shepherd Sunday. You were at home. I remember feeling odd standing here with the beautiful stained-glass Good Shepherd window behind me as my only cheering section, and yet grateful that technology allowed this flock some togetherness.
Still, It is wonderful that we are slowly getting back to gathering together. I am glad we are coming back to this place where we gather to worship and we ground ourselves as Christians, particularly on this Sunday, when hear Jesus’ powerful words in John’s gospel where he claims the role God gave him, as Shepherd. The Good Shepherd.—also translated as “well suited for the job”, and “comforting” shepherd. Today we remember that we are sheep cared for by a Good Shepherd. It is a noble metaphor, despite what you may think it says about us as sheep. Not being familiar with sheep, we may have some notions about this that seem unsettling; perhaps we think that sheep are dumb or merely good for mutton and wool. I assure you, this is not the idea Jesus’ was going for. My friend Kellan wrote a reflection this week I want to share with you, entitled thinking of ourselves as sheep:
Being a sheep means being a part of a community, a herd. Sheep are safest and happiest as part of a big community. When one does wander off, it knows it is alone, scared, and in a precarious position. It knows that – out here on this hillside all by itself – it will be an easy and quick dinner for that wolf or other roaming predator. Sometimes, a sheep gets lost, it’s true. But most sheep know to stick together, that their body depends on other bodies forming into one large protective pile. Sheep do not think they should live all alone, independent, and never – ever – reliant upon any other sheep. A life alone would be a sad and crazy life for a sheep. Sheep know that they need other sheep, desperately – because their very lives depend on it. Sheep are followers.”
And I’ll add from what I’ve learned, that sheep know their shepherd’s voice; they hear it distinct from other noises and voices and they come when called. They get to know their shepherd and the shepherd knows them so well, that they are safer, happier, when they work as one.
We know this about ourselves, too. We come together as the followers of Christ because we are stronger together, we can do more good when we work together. We are called by our Good Shepherd to follow where he leads. …even if sometimes, on somedays, we are led to unexpected places.
My daughter Jenny, was the first member of our family to work at Special Session at Camp McDowell—a week dedicated to offering summer camp fun to persons of varying levels of intellectual and physical abilities. Our family had little to no experience working with people with special needs so as a mom, I wasn’t quite sure how someone so young –Jenny was in the 10th grade, would be able care for campers, adult campers who had some significant needs. But I was excited for Jenny all the same. That summer session she was assigned to be a counselor for Jurdy, a 35-year-old woman who needed the help of a wheelchair to get from place to place, including the shower and pool. Jurdy needed help dressing and reading the schedule for the day, but Jenny and Jurdy hit it off smashingly. Jurdy had been a camper for a few years, so she showed Jenny the ropes, and together they tackled all the camp activities and loved their time together. The next year Jenny signed up for a second summer at special session. That summer she was responsible for an older woman named Wanda. Dear sweet Wanda’s favorite thing to do was string beads each day during activity time. Other than that she loved to sit in the rocking chairs on the porch—she would do this all day if she had the choice. Jenny admitted she had to readjust to the much slower pace. Wanda must have watched a lot of TV at home, because she lived in the worlds of Lassie and Andy Griffith, and Jenny learned a great deal about the old TV shows sitting there in the rocking chairs. On field day, Wanda agreed to go up the big hill to participate in the fun…Yet, to Jenny’s dismay this mostly meant sitting on the stone benches watching the kickball game and blowing bubbles for Wanda to enjoy. As I was working that summer camp too, I came over to join them for a bit and that is when Wanda asked Jenny a serious question. I hadn’t been privy to all their previous conversations so this came out the of blue for me, “Jenny,” Wanda asked, “do you think Aunt Bee will be in heaven?” Jenny didn’t miss a beat, “What do you think Wanda?” Jenny replied. “Yes, I think Aunt Bee’s gonna be in heaven.” It mattered not a bit that we were talking about fictional characters, they were Wanda’s friends, and she could not imagine heaven being any good without Andy or Opie and especially without, Aunt Bee. “I think so too, Wanda,” Jenny said.
On one level, Special Session is about getting some folks to camp who we think would not normally be able to enjoy or appreciate the normal summer camp experience. On a second level, it is about giving their caregivers a respite. But on a wholly other level, this camp is so much more. From the counselors, to their parents, the camper’s caregivers, and all the volunteers—and through them to all of us in this diocese, special session gives us a glimpse into God’s beautiful flock of sheep—big and little sheep, those shy and those who wander, black and white, young and old, able and differently abled.
While we “intellectually abled” folks tend to separate ourselves into factions or divide ourselves by race or political leanings, or find reasons to explain why some don’t belong or surely don’t deserve God’s mercy, Special Session says, what are you talking about? We all are part of God’s beautiful diverse flock! Even Aunt Bee; for heaven’s sake—especially Aunt Bee.
The image of God as Shepherd lives throughout the Hebrew scripture, the scripture of Jesus’ life. Psalm 23, which we love so much, is rich with shepherd imagery: green pastures, still waters, plentiful and bounteous tables…this psalm was a prayer and song of Jesus own life. When we say it, we are praying the words Jesus family taught him. It is no wonder we find comfort in it. It is no wonder too, that through his calling Jesus is led to proclaim, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own and my own know me. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Jesus knew God’s love and care so intimately in his life, and Jesus offers that back to us.
“I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly,” Jesus prefaces his teaching on shepherding… showing us his intention as shepherd is all out of love.
Each night after the special session campers go to bed, the counselors gather to debrief the day—to talk about the challenges they faced and to share the joys they experienced. Jenny shared her story of Wanda and Aunt Bee that night after field day. Then Kee added a Wanda story of his own from the year before. Kee told the counselors when he was rocking next to Wanda on the porch one afternoon, out of nowhere she said to him, “I was a pretty baby.” Kee’s eyes filled up with tears, knowing God’s eyes were smiling too, and he replied, “Yes, Wanda, I believe you are right.”
The Good Shepherd gathers the community into one fold, one fold, loving all of them, concerned for the individual welfare and growth of each sheep, with all their needs, and for the destiny of the whole flock, with all their potential for good.
Thanks be to God.