The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: A Shepherd Worth Following

Sermon at St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, Washington DC

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


Who calls us by name? Loved ones, friends, co-workers, and probably the receptionist at the doctor's office. Most of us guard our names from strangers, in the same way that we guard our passports or ID cards. There's an intimacy that comes with being known by name that even the raging extroverts among us don't grant to everyone. Notice how many online comments are made under pseudonyms - those who make attacks or less than kind observations prefer to do it anonymously.

Our culture still maintains some reluctance to address strangers by their first name. To know and use someone's name, particularly a first name, is to have some claim on that person, some expectation of intimacy and access. We call people by name at important points in their Christian lives - when they're baptized, married, buried, and when we pray for them in specific ways. Some congregations - usually smaller ones - make a point of naming people at communion. Jesus is named at his baptism, when the spirit calls him "my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." That language is also the way God addresses us: "you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased." And that's the kind of relationship Jesus as shepherd is claiming with his sheep: "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."

Any kind of leader-follower relationship depends on some degree of knowing and being known, almost always by name. The military formalizes address by title and last name - so do schools and our legislative bodies. Both political campaigns and community organizing depend on knowing the people of a community and their desires. When a leader can speak to the inner hurts, joys, sorrows, or hopes of others, that leader begins to become effective.

We look for different kinds of leaders at different points in our lives. When we're anxious, we seem to be more interested in an enforcer - a great big bulldog, nipping at heels, to make us or others get in line. That seems to be what's pushing a lot of the polarizing political rhetoric these days - life feels much more predictable with stronger immigration enforcement.

In times of despair we tend to look for an all-powerful leader who will magically provide food and drink and peaceful pasture. The many thousands of people stuck in airports in recent days yearned for that sort of help.

At other times, even in the face of significant challenges, we may look for a friend and companion who will walk alongside and share the work of leading - like two climbers who alternate the technical work of leading sections of a climb up an overhanging rock face - or the shared leadership of healthy long-term marriages.

What sort of leader we're willing to follow - or befriend - has something to do with our current situation in life. Jesus as a good shepherd is supposed to be able to feed, water, and protect his sheep, but that phrase, good shepherd, would have been an oxymoron in Jesus' day. The reality is that shepherds were scorned losers. They were unclean, both literally and figuratively, and unwelcome in any kind of upstanding citizen's home or neighborhood.

Think about the cattle ranchers of the old American West, who thought sheepherders were lower than rustlers. They claimed that sheep destroyed the grazing land, and sheepherders frequently turned up dead. A hundred years ago, many Basque immigrants went to the high deserts of the West to herd sheep. Today they come from Peru and other points south. You can see their carvings in the aspen trees of northern Nevada, including the boredom and loneliness they endured for months and years on end.

There's a 40 mile trail in one mountain range, where every time the sheep stopped to graze a shepherd had an opportunity to sharpen his knife and mark his passing - dozens of times, mile after mile, "Antonio Hidalgo, peruano, borreguero, con muchos cojones y poco dinero." [Antonio Hidalgo, Peruvian, shepherd, with plenty of guts but no cash.]

Shepherds in Jesus' day were also essentially homeless. They didn't have any permanent place to lay their head at night. They spent their days and nights in the open, rarely bathed, carried sick sheep to safety, and probably dispatched the sickest. One pastor recently shared his opinion that in Jesus' day, a shepherd's more likely response to the story of 99 sheep who stuck around and one who strayed would have been to break the neck of the wanderer - too much trouble to pastor that one!

Each morning shepherds had to sort out their sheep and goats from the others who shared the open grazing land, and they had to take on various predators, animal and human. The competing shepherds in common grazing lands had to be able to tell their sheep apart - each shepherd knew the sheep as individuals and had a distinctive call to gather his own; the sheep of that herd knew that call, and followed their own shepherd.

Many of the ancients thought of shepherds as thieves, probably because of confusion among the sheep on those common pastures. There's even a prohibition in Jewish law against buying wool and milk from shepherds, lest one unwittingly receive stolen goods. Shepherds weren't considered reliable as witnesses, and couldn't give testimony. Why would anyone want to follow somebody like that?

This good shepherd Jesus hangs out with anybody and everybody, and joins the outcasts and the forgotten. This isn't sanitary Jesus, robed in Mr. Kleen whites and looking saintly on an old stained glass window. This is Hell's Angel Jesus on a Harley - rounding up toys for poor kids. This is gang leader Jesus, pushing his homies to fill an old lady's grocery cart, and then haul it home for her and put the food away. This is a shepherd like Oscar Romero, challenging the state to remember those who are left out.

This is the kind of shepherd who will go into hell to find Judas, or go looking for sheep hanging on the next cross. This is the kind of friend you want in a hopeless mess, calling your name, "come on, beloved, this is the way home."

Shepherds come in surprising guises. The good ones may speak in unfamiliar tongues, but they lead us toward a society marked by welcome for all, where there's room at the table for people of every family, language, people, and nation - because it's God's table, not ours. What kind of shepherd pushes hungry sheep away from the grazing?

The shepherd we look to wipes away tears from every eye, finds shelter for all, out of the scorching sun, waters them in the desert at the springs of the water of life, and feeds us on the borderless pasture planted and grown for all of God's beloved creatures, not just a privileged few. That's a shepherd worth following.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]