This is Good Shepherd Sunday, when we focus on how lovingly and faithfully Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He cares for us, guides us, leads us to places of refreshment, rest, and restoration. We are forever grateful for how Jesus does this, aren’t we?
In many ways, the calling to the priesthood is one that instructs priests to serve in the same manner as the Good Shepherd. We are to care for our parishioners, teach them, preach to them, offer comfort when they are afflicted, encourage them to see their mission as extending beyond the four walls of the church, speak out for those in need…well, the list of things we’re supposed to do is lengthy and daunting. And here’s the challenge for any priest: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is a hard act to follow.
And it goes without saying that if we priests think that we can be the clone of that Good Shepherd, it is inevitable that we will fail. There is only one, the one who died on the cross for us as the ultimate gift in shepherding the flock. We cannot be THE Good Shepherd, but we can aspire to be A good shepherd.
Sara-Scott, that’s good news – nobody around here expects you to give up your life literally, although on some days, you may feel like you’re giving up your life metaphorically.
The nature of the work of shepherding the flock hasn’t really changed much since the time of Christ, at least in a metaphorical sense. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she is often on a hillside or hospital in the middle of the night. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she occasionally has to herd the sheep with a little more force than that sheep might like. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she may need to go round up lambs that have gone astray. And in today’s culture, a priest knows that, like a shepherd, she may not always be respected, despite the sophistication of her education, the intensity and necessity of her work, and the personal cost it exacts.
So why would anyone want to be a priest, to shepherd a flock of souls?
Simply put, when God calls, no matter how much one may resist, eventually, one answers that call.
And similarly, when a parish calls a priest to shepherd a particular flock, one cannot help but answer that call.
And so we come to the reason why I am here today. Sara-Scott Wingo accepted your call three years ago to be your Priest-in-Charge. That title is an odd one – you’re a shepherd on a timetable, you’ve got a letter of agreement that is time-limited. Hard to think of a shepherd who signs on knowing that the time of tending the sheep will end on x date. But in our tradition, there is a possibility that the relationship may morph from one where there is a defined end-date – the Priest in Charge model – to one where you enter into a covenantal relationship which does not have a defined end-date – the Rector model.
When the relationship morphs in this way, it’s like a long engagement that results in marriage. Today is the wedding feast! Sara-Scott is now your rector. Thanks be to God!
Now I’m going to stick with the marriage metaphor here rather than the one about shepherds because marriage is familiar to many of us and I doubt we have many real-life shepherds in the crowd. So on to marriage.
Those of you who have been married a long time know that after the wedding feast ends, the hard work of sustaining the relationship begins.
Therefore my challenge to you sitting in the pews today is this: the work of relationship with your rector is just like the work of relationship with a spouse. Sara-Scott has a particular role, defined by her ordination vows. She is to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel, to fashion her life in accordance with its precepts, to love and serve the people among whom she works, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. She is to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to preside at the sacraments and other ministrations.
But as in a marital relationship, both parties have a role and responsibilities. So let’s reflect on your particular role. Here’s your part of the relationship:
1. Listen. She has much to teach you. She has much wisdom and learning.
2. Respect her, even if and when you disagree with her. No mumbling out in the parking lot or grumbling on facebook. Just as such actions are harmful in a marital relationship, they are poisonous in church, and will cause pain to the whole Body of Christ. If you’ve got an issue with your rector, go to her and talk to her about it. She is a great and generous listener, and it is a sign of your respect for her that you bring concerns directly to her.
3. Show her grace. She will have some rough days every now and again – everyone does. Be as willing to forgive her when she fails – and we all of us priests fail on occasion – as you want her to forgive you when you fail.
4. Don’t expect your rector to have ESP. It’s like when your husband forgets your anniversary and you give him the cold shoulder, and he says “what’s wrong honey?” and you say “Well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.” The number of times I’ve talked to parishioners who say almost exactly the same thing about their rector is uncountable. And when I say, “Your rector can’t read your mind,” disgruntled parishioners tell me that of course the rector should know. Here’s the truth: rectors are not mind-readers. Tell your rector when you’ve got an issue with her, and give her the space and the grace to work with you. Tell her when you’re sick and in the hospital. Tell her if you’re having problems. Tell her your joys as well. She will not know unless you open your mouth and your heart.
5. It’s not your church. It’s not Sara-Scott’s church. It’s God’s church. Everything she does with you is to serve God. Her gifts are at your service, not only for your edification, but for God’s greater glory. So if she challenges you to stretch out of your comfort zone, consider it the work of the Holy Spirit, and take a risk. We are called to take risks – Bishop Michael Curry says we are challenged by God to be “crazy Christians” who actually believe we can make a real difference in the world. If Sara-Scott speaks of this challenge from God, don’t immediately dismiss it because you may not have done this sort of thing before. She is teaching you as well as challenging you. Take the risk.
Five things. That’s your job description. Now back to Sara-Scott.
Shepherds have all sorts of jobs in their care of a flock of sheep. Priests, too, are required to be generalists – who else has the job description of preacher, teacher, prophet, counselor, liturgist, administrator, occasional maker of coffee, and rarely (we hope) plunger of toilets?
Jesus was able to do it all because he was, well, Jesus. Being divine is a helpful attribute. Sorry, Sara-Scott, you’re not quite divine, although we will admit that you’re fabulous.
But know that the one thing we all can do in this complicated, beautiful, difficult, joyful work of being the Body of Christ, whether we are priest or parishioner, Senior Warden or junior acolyte, soloist in the choir or hummer of hymns in the pews…the one thing that we can do that honors this covenantal relationship between Sara-Scott and Emmanuel Brook Hill is to love and care for each other, as the Good Shepherd always loves and cares for each of us and desires our love.
We can do no less, in thanksgiving for the Good Shepherd and in thanksgiving for Sara-Scott’s ministry in this wonderful place.
Let all of God’s people say “Amen.”