Church of the Good Shepherd

SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias S Haller BSG

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The fourth Sunday of Easter, as is the case with a number of other Sundays, has a nickname. It is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” — for on this Sunday the collect and the readings remind us that we have a good shepherd: one who knows us as we know him, a good shepherd whose voice we recognize, a caring shepherd who calls us each by name, a shepherd who places us ahead of himself, and who has laid down his life for us. We are the sheep of his pasture, and he has called us together into a flock, a community, a church.

Just what kind of a community is this Church of the Good Shepherd? What kind of sheep make up the fold we call the Church? If you’ve ever driven through the country you can tell just by looking which herds of cattle or flocks of sheep are well-cared for and which are neglected. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly judge a shepherd by his sheep! If you see a group of scraggly sheep huddled near a broken-down fence shivering in muddy squalor, you know what their shepherd is like. And when you see fat and fluffy sheep munching on lush green grass, you also know something about the one who looks after them.

So it is that when you look at a church you can discern marks or signs that let you know what kind of relationship that church has with its lord and master — or who their master really is. For not all churches follow the Good Shepherd. Some have had the misfortune to follow wolves dressed as sheep! Who can look at pictures from the Jonestown massacre, the bodies piled on each other after the perverse communion of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, and think these people were well cared for. Who can look at the pictures of the dead bodies of the leader and members of the Heaven’s Gate cult neatly tucked up in their bunk-beds, dead in their hope to be raptured to the tail of a comet, but rather simply dead in their tennis shoes, and think this was the kind of shepherding anyone with half a brain would want for herself or others. Who can listen to the reports from the riots and massacres in Rwanda, where Christians took to hacking each other to pieces with machetes and hatchets — who can hear such things and say, This is the work of a Good Shepherd? This is not the work of a good shepherd, but of a thief who came in to rob and steal, a wolf who snatches and scatters.

It is easy to see such marks of a bad shepherd. So what does the flock of the Good Shepherd look like? Well, the first thing to note about the Church of the Good Shepherd is that, as the reading from Acts tells us, “there was not a needy person among them.” In the flock of the good shepherd you don’t have three or four fat and happy sheep and twenty or thirty skinny forlorn sheep. The flock of the good shepherd is marked with the brand of Generosity. Everyone helps out together, pitching in and working together for the benefit of the whole community, not just the profit of one or two at the expense of all. No, in the Church of the Good Shepherd “there is not a needy person among them.” The sheep of the good shepherd look out for each other, acting almost as much as assistant shepherds as sheep. They bear each other’s burdens. They keep an eye on each other’s needs, and give of their own goods to benefit each other.

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There is an old saying, one which Jesus himself repeated, “If the blind lead the blind both fall in the ditch.” Now, there are many kinds of blindness, and as I learned when I worked at the Lighthouse for the Blind some years ago, not all blindness is total. Many people suffer from limited capacity to see, as a result of some specific form of injury or illness. While the Lighthouse served many people who suffered from total blindness, it also offered support to those suffering from what is called Low Vision — some impairment that limits vision but doesn’t render one totally unable to see.

One of the wonderful stories the folks at the Lighthouse tell is about two elderly gentlemen who acted as shepherds to each other. One of them suffered from macular degeneration, which meant he only had residual peripheral vision: he could see nothing directly in front of him. If you want to have an idea what this is like, make two fists and hold them in front of your eyes — all you can see is what is at the edges of your field of vision. Close to home, this is the kind of visual disability our dear sister in Christ Marilyn Cotton suffered in the last years of her life. It means you cannot read, or see where you are going, but it preserves the peripheral vision that is good at spotting movement at the edges, and enables you still to walk down stairs. The other gentleman had severe glaucoma, and the effect of this disease had left him with what is called “tunnel vision” — he could only see a narrow area directly ahead of him. Again, if you want to get an idea what this is like, form your hands into imaginary binoculars and hold them up to your eyes. This kind of low vision is adequate for reading or looking straight ahead, but makes moving around a real challenge. Well, these two old gentlemen met each other through the Lighthouse, and formed a quick partnership. They discovered that, arm in arm, they could travel the streets of the city, shop and carry out the business of everyday life: one of them able to read the street signs and the labels on packages, the other able to help them navigate the busy sidewalks of Manhattan. They were quite a sight — but they didn’t mind. Their partnership was a wonderful example of cooperation and mutual generosity.

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In the same way, the church of the Good Shepherd is generous, generous with the kind of generosity that comes from making use of what is to bring about the best that can be, no one person saying either, I need this more than you do, or What can I possibly offer. Remember, God doesn’t ask for what we don’t have. God takes what we have to give when we give it, when we offer it in this spirit of generosity, the sign and hallmark of the Church of the Good Shepherd. And as we learned with the loaves and the fishes — God makes more of it.

Out of this generosity there grows another mark or sign that a church belongs to the Good Shepherd. John the beloved disciple writes, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness? No one who abides in him sins.” Now, the root of sin is self-interest. That’s why selfish self-interest is the opposite of generosity, and it leads to the disorder of lawlessness that is the opposite of simple purity. I’ve always said that ifyou need any evidence of the existence of sin, you need only drive over to the exit from the Cross Bronx Expressway on to the Major Deegan, to see the incredible traffic jams that result when drivers disregard the lane markings, pull ahead of a line of waiting cars by driving on the shoulder, and then try to nose their way back into the line up at the exit. Lawlessness, disorder and the sin born of selfishness stand in opposition to the purity of self-giving generosity. The purity of the Good Shepherd is that he gives himself up for his sheep, he sacrifices his own life for the sake of the flock. And the community of the Good Shepherd similarly shows forth that purity and the good order that comes from placing others first, stepping aside in the graceful dance of charity and love. In the community of the Good Shepherd people place the needs of others ahead of their own.

This is what the community of the Good Shepherd looks like: generous, self-giving, pure and orderly. Now, it might not look perfect at first sight. You might wonder about that odd pair of old men walking arm in arm, both of them dealing with limited vision, yet somehow making their way through the busy streets. But you will sense at once as you see how together they can accomplish what neither could do on his own, in the willingness to share in the work, to be generous and cooperate and bear each others burdens, that they understand what it means to be part of a good shepherd’s flock.

That’s what the Church of the Good Shepherd looks like. Is that what we at Saint James look like? Look around you. Do you see people you are glad to see? Do you see people you would help when you could, people you can count on to help you? I know what I see, and I know what I’ve seen. I’ve seen great generosity, and the courage to pitch in. I’ve seen some spats and disagreements over the years, yes, but I’ve also seen commitment and fortitude. And over the last six years since I returned to this fold, I’ve seen the telltale marks of the Good Shepherd’s hand on this place. I’ve heard him calling each of us by name, and I’ve heard the responding voices of a whole flock of people willing to follow where he leads. May it ever be thus, may it ever be thus, to the glory of God alone.+