A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2009
Few images have lasted longer in Christian experience than the image of the shepherd. One of the most common terms among Christians everywhere is the term “pastor,” which, of course, is from our Latin past the word that means shepherd. This is altogether very interesting, if you don’t happen to live in sheep country. I have told you before that I grew up on a hog farm and really never met a sheep till I was grown. Others here grew up in cattle country. If we were looking for metaphors that connected more immediately with daily life, shepherd would not cut it for many of us. Yet, though our images of shepherds and sheep be somewhat romantic and precious, still it is hard to see Our Blessed Lord pictured in stained glass as a cattle drover the way he often is depicted as a shepherd. And it would be thoroughly ahistorical to picture him doing anything with pigs besides driving a herd of them down a bank and into the Sea of Galilee.
Yes, our proto-shepherd is Jesus, connected by many of us to everybody’s favorite psalm (which people used to know by heart), the 23rd, “The Lord is my shepherd.” I don’t know that the “Shepherd’s Psalm” is the best place to learn about pastoral ministry, but it is certainly a starting place. You might notice, to begin with, that the voice of the psalmist (let’s call the psalmist “sheep,” for clarity’s sake) focuses on the relationship of shepherd and sheep. The shepherd is the only thing necessary for the sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is perhaps not the best translation, but it is arguably the most fortunate. In this world where our wants are continually stirred up by incessant advertising, it is radical to say that God is absolutely everything that we need. The Lord makes us lie down in green pastures, leads us beside still waters, restores our souls, leads us in the paths of righteousness and through the valley of the shadow of death. The shepherd comforts, feeds, and protects, and heals the sheep. What could the sheep possibly want or need beyond that? So the key to the pastoral relationship is a great defusing of want.
To come quickly to the point: is there any way that we can reasonably see that pastoral ministry as something that we all do? Or is it something that fundamentally only God does—or in Christian terms, only Jesus does? Is this the place where we run into a special need to designate some people in the community as “pastors” or shepherds, people that we then ordain and begin following? By now you know my own answer to this question. There is a sense in which God alone is the Shepherd of our souls, and the human embodiment of that shepherd is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as he calls himself. And there is definitely a need for “some to be pastors and teachers,” St. Paul says in discussing the organization of the Christian community. But the pastoral ministry of the Body of Christ is something that all baptized Christians share in the care the we exercise for each other, and ultimately for our world.
If pastoral ministry is something that we all share, then that must mean that we need to see ourselves every bit as much as shepherd as sheep. Some would argue that the shepherd/sheep language is really archaic and not helpful at all in this regard, but I want to contend that it is neither outdated nor inappropriate. One of the great problems we have in this society is that we too readily identify as sheep. That is not always the case, but it certainly is a continuing theme. And little wonder. It is much easier to be led, to be dependent, to be uncritical, to let out an occasional bleat here and there but to accept nothing of responsibility for the journey, the meal, the healing, or the accountability for the pasture. When people are too sheepish, they ignore the bad judgment of their shepherds, and become complicit in things like torture, for example, and other behavior not uncommon among bad shepherds. Or they bleat and carry on a little, but let a bunch of banker-shepherds play games around who really owns the flock. You get my point—and yes, I know that not all bankers or elected officials are to be lumped together and labeled bad shepherds. The point is not to judge the shepherds but to try to knock some sense into the sheep. Take ownership of the pasture! Conduct, do not just follow! Be a pastor, not simply an agreeable follower.
Ha! That is not what we expect of “pastoral” ministry, is it? “Pastoral,” especially in the Church, has come to mean compliant, lenient, easy-going, non-demanding, non-confrontational, even wishy-washy. The situation is not helped much by the current fashion of seeing God as all or most of those things. But the pastor, the shepherd, is capable of being quite assertive, and indeed must know how to be. Shepherds have to do battle with coyotes and wolves, if they are to have much of a flock. Shepherds, it is true, carry a crook, the bent end of which is for pulling straying sheep out of trouble spots. But that crook has a sharp point at the other end so that sheep can be confronted and, if necessary, jabbed. The best pastors have a wide repertoire of skills to do those kinds of encouraging, challenging, reproving things. And the very best pastors have brains strong and nimble enough to know what to do when. And all good shepherds know how to discern what the sheep and their situation call for.
To exercise a pastoral ministry means that you be willing to see yourself as having some responsibility, a good deal of responsibility. But something is wrong with this picture if we think of leadership merely as being in charge. Quite obviously, not everyone can shepherd every flock every day under every circumstance. We have to have a kind of “shepherd cooperative,” if you will, each taking turns at doing pastoral things, but doing them in such a way that the flock holds together. This is the great challenge for the human species at this point in time. We went through a century (or a millennium or two or three) in which totalitarianism held sway over long periods of time over vast swaths of geography and peoples. Are we capable of sharing leadership in a way that avoids just a lot of chaotic competition between pastors?
What might help us to be better pastors, not just to each other in the Body of Christ, but in situations where we are dispersed throughout a larger and frequently indifferent society, is to recall three things that are at the heart of the art of shepherding. Those things are comforting, clarifying, and confronting. We need all three. And, if we are to be effective shepherds, we need to be able to supply all three, or at least know the one or two that we are best at supplying.
Some of you are great comforters in the best sense of the word. You are like Joan, an old friend of mine, whom Joe and I recently visited. Joan is a person on whose doorstep I know I could show up admitting that I had done the most heinous thing, and she would say, “Come in, dear, and have a cup of tea.” You are the pastors I would want to have near me when I am in trouble. You are the pastors I hope are there when I lay dying.
Others of you are smart clarifiers. You ask good questions. You think well and clearly. You probe. You test. You analyze and scrutinize. Those are great pastoral skills. Jim is a friend of mine whom I call up when I get into a situation that is often swamped by a morass of emotions which cries out for a dispassionate, thoughtful, non-reactive response. He can sometimes ask just the thing that I have not thought to ask myself. You are the pastors that help us figure out what to do. And you do it best when you keep pushing us to ask the hard questions ourselves, rather than dispensing advice or trying to fix things for others who need to fix things themselves.
Confronters have a special pastoral ministry. If you are a confronter, you are a person of courage. I hope you are also a person of courtesy, because confronting shepherds who disdain sheep can be awful. The prophet Nathan in the court of King David comes to mind as an effective confronter. He is able to speak the hard truth to David (“Thou art the man!”) without fearing the consequences. Confronters sometimes demonstrate, sometimes remonstrate, and often debate. The Church could use more of them, precisely because they are willing to say things that are unpopular. No matter what you think of him, Bishop John Shelby Spong is a confronter. He has confronted people, institutions, behavior, positions, and issues from racism to sexism to homophobia to anti-Semitism. Many people do not like confrontation, and not only shy away from confronting or being confronted, but from confronters themselves. No society is deeply invested in changing its shibboleths and taboos. All the more reason that we need pastors in our lives who are willing to speak the truth to us, come what may, cost what it will. The best confronters never let us forget that the ones they confront are the ones they love.
It is fine to be a sheep. In fact you will always be one, in some fashion or other. “We are the sheep of your pasture,” reads the 100th Psalm. But we are all called to be shepherds as well. Look at your gifts, your personality. Are you comforter, clarifier, confronter, or some combination of them? When we are lucky enough to have pastors that find their voices, the sheep will know and follow their leading, very likely becoming shepherds themselves (something only human sheep can do, by the way). And goodness and mercy might likely follow us all the days of our lives until we live in the house of a Great and Good Shepherd forever.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2009