In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd,” a metaphor we inherit as our patron promise: we are The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd; Good Shepherd Episcopal School; Good Shepherd on the Hill; and Hillside Early-Childhood Center, an outreach of our two worshipping congregations. Jesus distinguishes his care from that of the “hired hand,” who sets his own welfare before that of his flock. When the wolf threatens the sheep of the hired hand’s watch, the “hired hand runs away,” abandoning his charge when the charge becomes too difficult. By leaving the sheep, the hired hand reveals that “he does not [truly] care for [them],” and he leaves the lambs vulnerable.
As the good shepherd, Jesus promises, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” When trouble approaches, the good shepherd does not flee. No, the good shepherd will lay down his very life for those he guards, protects, and serves. While there may be a fence perimetering the field of his flock, there is no fence line for the good shepherd’s commitment and devotion to those he loves.
At the 2012 Annual Parish Meeting – as we imagined the possibility of this campaign to Build the Beloved Community – I shared a parable, and I want to tell you that story again. Whether you hear it now for the first time, or whether you have heard it once before, I invite you to listen with new ears for our new situation, for in this complicated Austin and American pasture, we are sheep and shepherd, alike…all of us: sheep and shepherd:
…for you see, it came to pass in those days that several shepherds and a small flock of hungry sheep found a thicket on the side of a lovely mountain. The flock said to the shepherds, “We see potential here. If you will keep the wolves away and care for us, we will clear this land. We will graze there, beyond that brushy tree, and we will open this thicket into a pasture where other sheep will want to come and to live, to be fed and to share their wool, to grow old and to leave their lambs to raise their lambs’ lambs, here. All around this mountain, flocks will hear of our pasture, even to the mountains beyond those that we can see.”
The shepherds looked at one another and nodded, and they agreed to keep away the wolves and to care for the sheep.
The sheep and the shepherds kept their promises. Within only a few seasons, the thicket had indeed become a pasture, and their small flock grew. The growing flock took pride in their fields. When rocks would fall from the surrounding hillside, these good sheep would nudge the stones with their noses, kick even the pebbles with their hooves, and, with the help of the shepherds and their crooks, they kept clear the good pasture they had inherited and that they loved.
Time passed. Sheep and shepherds came, and sheep and shepherds went.
After a long day of tending the flock of one hundred, a shepherd counted the sheep: ninety-nine. Setting down his cocktail, a second shepherd stood: “Let me count,”…but again: ninety-nine. Wiping his supper from his chin, a third shepherd said to all those at the table, “Look, we’ve still got ninety-nine, and we barely knew that one, loner sheep: hardly ever saw her around. Let her go, and you: come back to the table and finish your supper.” And the shepherds did as the third shepherd counseled.
Scarcely a week later, a shepherd counted the flock as he began his morning chores: eighty-six. Setting down his coffee, a second shepherd stood: “Let me count,”…but again: eighty-six. Wiping his breakfast from his chin, a third shepherd said to his friends, “Look, we’ve still got eighty-six, and those thirteen? They were trouble-makers. We never liked them anyway, but that pitiful shepherd – the one down in the valley – she will be thrilled to have them. She’ll take care of them as though they were her own. Let them go, and you: come down off that high horse and finish your breakfast.” And the shepherds did as the third shepherd counseled.
Now, while the shepherds ate their breakfast, two hungry sheep at the back of the pasture noticed that a weed had sprung up along the side of their mountain. They remembered their grandfather had spoken of such weeds. He would tell stories about how his generation would eat those weeds – eat them by the wagon load – until, finally, their teeth had been sharpened, their throats had grown tough, and they had eaten all of those weeds right out of the pasture. The two hungry sheep took a bite of the thick stalk…but the weed was rough, and it tasted bad, so they decided they would encourage some other sheep to graze in that corner of the field.
Before long, that one weed had become a bush, and the next two sheep who happened upon it decided that they, too, would leave the growing mess for some other sheep to clear.
What was once a bush had grown into a thicket, and the thicket grew to cover more than a quarter of their field. Of the thirty-six sheep who still grazed there – and, hey, in those days thirty-six wasn’t so bad, and, besides, most sheep were grateful just to have a field at all! – well, some of the sheep began to feel crowded and embarrassed by their shrinking pasture. Finally, one of the lambs of the flock looked at the wide, wild thicket, and reported to a group his friends, “You know, I hear that flock up-mountain has cleared a beautiful pasture: no rocks, no weeds, no wolves – there’s even a crisp, blue creek that runs right through the place. I say we go check it out. It’ll take ‘em a week before they even notice we’re gone, and once they do, they’ll understand: what we need isn’t even here for them to offer. How could they blame us?”
And while the shepherds and the small flock slept, the lambs left.
Six years ago, we found ourselves in this moment of the parable. We celebrated our good sheep who had given away full coats of wool for our flock. We celebrated our good shepherds, too, who, for generations, had partnered with neighboring rams to keep our field safe, steering the sheep from the bramble, lifting the frail into their arms, and caring for those who could no longer keep up with the flock.
When confronting our deteriorating buildings and the diminishing ministries of which they were the symbol – that’s worth hearing again: our deteriorating buildings and the diminishing ministries of which they were the symbol – we recognized that we had never been overrun with bad sheep or bad shepherds. No, worse than apostasy, we had allowed apathy; worse than malevolence, we tended to mediocrity; and worse than deliberate squalor, we simply had given ourselves to sloth, taking for granted this community and its welfare.
Thanks be to God, we challenged our own complacency, and the story continued:
…one curious sheep said to the shepherds, “Did we lose some of the flock?” The few shepherds who were left counted the remaining sheep, nodded their heads, and suggested, “You know, I believe we did.”
For some time, a few sheep had been grazing a corner of the thicket. While they had not yet developed a taste for the weeds, their throats were already tough and their teeth, sharp. Upon hearing the news of the lambs’ loss, one of these sheep stepped away from the weed, cleared his throat, and said in a rough voice, “This flock has lost its last sheep. This was my mother’s pasture – my grandfather’s field – and I will not leave it unattended.”
Another of the flock said to the shepherds, “I and mine are new to this mountainside, but we see potential here. If you will keep the wolves away and care for us, we will clear this land. We will again graze there, beyond that brushy tree, and we will open this thicket into a pasture where other sheep will want to come and to live, to be fed and to share their wool, to grow old and to leave their lambs to raise their lambs’ lambs, here. Yes: all around this mountain, flocks will hear of our pasture, even to the mountains beyond those that we can see. And never again – never again – will a thicket fill this field.”
Time passed. More and more sheep came, and more and more shepherds came, and the flock and the pasture grew, the pasture green and lush and full and good.
This is the moment of the story in which we find ourselves now: to incredible effect, the Good Shepherd pasture has been cleared, and the field – from Windsor to Woodland – is green, lush, full, and good. And so I remind you for the third time this morning: the success of our effort to build a more Beloved Community will not be measured by what we have done, but by what we will do now…not by what we have done, but by what we will do now.
What will we do with what receive now? Whether have sunk ourselves – heart and soul, teeth and bones – into this project, or whether we now receive it entirely as a gift, all of us now share equal ownership, equal responsibility, and equal opportunity for what happens next, for, be sure, this endeavor has not been and will never be about bricks and mortar: it’s about brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers, and strangers and neighbors…this endeavor is about the mission of Jesus Christ, a mission that has this community of the Good Shepherd as its instrument, and that mission has love, mercy, peace, and justice as its aims.
What will we do now?
I invite you to hear Jesus’ words with new ears, according to our new situation:
You are the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away, too, because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
You are the good shepherd. You know your own and your own know you, just as the Father knows you and you know the Father. And you, you give your all for the sheep. Surely, God has other sheep that do not belong to this fold. We must bring them also, for they will listen to our voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
We who are now four communities – The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd; Good Shepherd Episcopal School; Good Shepherd on the Hill; and Hillside Early-Childhood Center – we remain one flock. And the successes of this season now passed should give us confidence that God’s vision can be our vision, and that we can dream as God dreams, dreams of love, mercy, peace, and justice for us and for the world God calls us to serve.
In the name of God,