Sunday May 3, 2009
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: The Right Reverend Mark S. Sisk, Bishop of The Diocese of New York
A Sermon for Confirmation 2009
Alleluia Christ is Risen! It is wonderful to be with you this morning. It is always a special joy to be here. I am happy that Canon and Mrs. Dietsche, have been able to join me for this visit. However, I am sorry that my wife Karen can’t be here today – as she is doing what Grandmothers love to do – take care of our grandchildren.
It is as well a particular pleasure to have this opportunity to worship with your rector Fr. Meade and with his wonderful staff he has gathered.
The work and witness of this great parish is known far and wide. I want to take this public opportunity to thank you for all that you do to offer to the world an example of the great Anglican tradition of worship offered with meticulous care. It is an important work you do in this place; it is a gift offered to the world.
This parish is a vital part of the life of our larger diocesan family of roughly 200 congregations, each in their own way dedicated to the three fold ministry of worship, nurture and mission that characterize the life of this Diocese.
Further I want to thank you, the people of St. Thomas’, for your faithful even sacrificial participation in the Diocesan Assessment Budget. Your support is crucial to the work of the larger church all across this Diocese. You can be sure that this money is spent with the greatest care.
In addition to all this I want to offer a word of appreciation for those among you who support Episcopal Charities on this, our Episcopal Charities Sunday. This work does so much good in all our names. I want to take the opportunity to say a word of gratitude on behalf of those who cannot be here this morning to say it for themselves: Thank you for your generosity.
Finally I want to congratulate those who are being confirmed and received today, as they take this next step on their journey in Christ. I want as well to welcome friends and family who may have joined them for this wonderful occasion.
Given the Bible passages appointed for today, and the collect that introduces them, it is little wonder that this Sunday is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday.
Our Gospel reading from St. John is among the most familiar, and the most comforting, in the Bible. Almost any Sunday school child could retell the story of Jesus the Good Shepherd: the Good Shepherd who willingly lays down his life for the sheep.
As is always the case, Jesus’ stories have multiple levels, levels that stimulate the imagination to explore avenues and connections of meanings that may be hidden from casual view.
This morning I’d like to think with you, to imagine with you, about some of those levels of meaning in this very familiar passage. I want to move us slightly beyond the familiar, and quite profound, recognition that Jesus is indeed, the good shepherd, who did laid down His life for us, the sheep of His pastures.
This story, as you will recall, contains five players: there is Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, there is the Father who knows Jesus, and then we have the sheep that the Good Shepherd is protecting, the hireling who runs away, and finally, the wolf that threatens and scatters the sheep.
The identity of the first three of these actors is self-evident: Jesus, the Shepherd, is defined as Good, precisely because he does not run away, he lays down His life to protect the sheep, because they are his sheep. The Father who knows Him is God. The sheep are his responsibility because they are his own possession. What is less clear is who the hireling is, exactly, and what about the wolf.
These are the two players in this drama that I want to focus on this morning: the hireling and the wolf.
If we mentally project ourselves back into the first century we might speculate Jesus’ audience would have had many candidates spring to mind to fill these two roles. In the first place they would have had no difficulty identifying with the story at a literal level. They would have known of the unreliability of hired shepherds, and the very real danger of wolves and marauding packs of dogs.
However, there can be no doubt that Jesus intended, and his listeners understood this to be an allegory. And they would have had lots of candidates for those two roles: members of Jerusalem’s mercantile, civic, and religious elite who had had allied themselves with the detested Roman occupiers would have been high on everyone’s list. Or, of course, it is possible that members of the opposite extreme on the political spectrum may have sprung to mind: those false prophets, the rabble rousers, who were always trying to stir the crowds into rebellion, and then quickly disappearing from the scene when the proposed insurrection did not come off as hoped.
Then again it is entirely possible that these very same culprits would be imagined to be the wolves that scattered the sheep.
We, of course, can never truly enter the minds of those first century brothers and sisters, and nor do we need do so. What is clear is that these would have had ready candidates to suggest for each player in this little drama.
When we listen to this story, we need to ask ourselves how it might apply in our own time, in our own lives. For us, in our time, who are the hired hands that run away when danger threatens? And just exactly what is the modern urban equivalent of wolves that devour and scatter the flock?
Another way to pose the question is to ask, into whose, or into what’s hands, have we entrusted our safety only to discover that, at a time of danger, that trust was misplaced?
This is a question that we need to ask ourselves as a community, but it is also a question that each of us are bound to ask ourselves as individuals.
I do not want to suggest for a minute that there is some nice neat answer to this question. Life is too complicated for that. However, I can offer one statement that I believe to be generally true: our society in general, and a great many of us in particular, have come to rely far too heavily upon the gathering of power and the accumulation of possessions. We have deluded ourselves into imagining that it was by these measurements that we could gauge our society’s purpose and our life’s goal.
All too often we have relied upon things to give meaning, to shape and to express our lives; in a word, to save us. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the idea that things would protect us, as though they would insulate us from the dangers of this life. But in the end, we always discover that they are false shepherds. They are hirelings. As I heard it said recently, “No acquisition is transformational.”
The real question that each of us needs to contemplate is: what are the wolves and who are the hirelings that we have allowed to creep into our lives?
The lesson that life has to teach us time and again is that the only thing upon which we can rely is not a thing at all. It is instead a relationship: the relationship that we have with God the Father, through the Love of Jesus, made known to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is especially crucial that we remember accurately what has been promised. It is not that we, the sheep will never be endangered, will never scatter out of fear. The promise is that the Good Shepherd will never desert us. The Good Shepherd loves us without end, and will lay down His life for us. The promise is that we are never ever left alone without a companion on life’s way.
As life-giving, as wonderful and encouraging as this is as this is: there is yet one more level, one more theme that I must touch on.
The remarkable promise of God in Jesus is that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are not only part of God’s flock; we have been joined with the Life of the Good Shepherd Himself through our baptism. In Jesus we have become shepherds in our own right. How remarkable! You and I, Each of us, are in ourselves Good Shepherds. In Christ, we are good shepherds! We have become shepherd to one another and to those flocks that are not of “this fold.”
It is in that light that we find our ministry, that we find our life’s work as Christian people – members of the Body of Christ – Shepherds seeing to the needs of God’s flock.
It is living into this life, a life that shapes us individually, forms our community, and gives impetus and structure to the new life that is ours in God.
It is in answer to this call that those being confirmed and received today are recommitting themselves. Let us join them in that commitment that we shepherded and guided by Jesus the Good Shepherd, may live out our lives as Good Shepherds in Him, today, tomorrow and unto the ages of ages.