A homily for Good Shepherd Sunday (Easter 4)
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
May 12, 2019
*Note: Homily preached on my first Sunday following ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests in the The Episcopal Church
I have to admit, even for someone who tends to keep her schedule quite full: this has been a very eventful week. On Friday, I was wearing academic regalia and applauding my graduating students as they marched to Pomp and Circumstance. On Saturday, I was wearing white and humbly kneeling surrounded by loving community chanting Veni Sancte Spiritus.
Commencement. Ordination. Celebratory moments on the journey of our lives.
I find it lovely on this Good Shepherd Sunday that our Gospel situates us on a journey beside Jesus, who is walking in the temple, specifically the Portico of Solomon. This was in the outer portion of the temple, on the eastern side in what would have been the women’s court. So, imagine Jesus walking in Jerusalem winter, not in a place of hierarchical authority but in a place where those least likely to be considered leaders in that cultural context would have been found. Yet, people noticed him, and attempted to coax him into sharing his “elevator speech” about what kind of leader he would be…specifically, if he could clearly and plainly convince them he was the Messiah. Instead, Jesus spoke to them about following: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
In one simple reply, Jesus conveys all they need to know about leaders and followers. Jesus leads as a shepherd, through relationship. Jesus invariably encounters people, comes to know them by name and then invites them to follow, enfolding them in community. The same invitation is offered to us in the name of Christ, through our Baptism and in our own lives and ministries as well. This Eastertide is filled with opportunities to listen to the Good Shepherd and to live into the depth of that call. Not just true for the new priest. It’s true for all of us.
When I think about the voice of the Good Shepherd, I realize in ways simple and extraordinary that the most important lessons that I have learned on this journey haven’t been about leading. They have been about listening, and following. In these recent weeks, while preparing for my ordination, I re-read my journals and the four-times per year Ember Day letters that I’ve written to the Bishop as we do when we are in formation for ordained ministry. I have realized through revisiting the stories of my own journey that the voice of the Good Shepherd has been strong, and clear, and guiding. It is, like our preachers Mark Biddle and Melissa Jackson have been preaching in our Easter series, a voice that had been, is, and will be. It’s made me appreciate our faithful 23rd Psalm in a whole new way. And so, I am going to ask you to revisit it with me, too. Turn to the readings in your bulletin. We will read the psalm one verse at a verse at a time together. In response to each verse, I want to share back with you a little excerpt from my journey. It seems like a fitting thing for us to share together on this day when I will have the humble honor of fully living into the call that has been placed upon me, and calling us all together to this table where Holy Eucharist makes us one with Christ, our Good Shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
Discernment Retreat at Richmond Hill, 2013: A prayer while walking the labyrinth:
“I want to give you these, Lord. They are gifts and skills I use to serve the world and I have taken that seriously, my whole career. These became my vocation when I stepped into the world, even when I struggled with the church. But you didn’t leave me. And I finally drew near enough again to experience that. But, now, I want to work for you. I want to identify as ministering, as sharing the Good News in Christ, not merely doing good things. Then my human, worried thoughts interrupted my meditation (“but what if the church doesn’t want me?” the voices in my head began to say). And without reproach, in full acknowledgement of my humanity, Jesus seemed to answer “Don’t worry. First of all, they probably will. But even if they don’t, does it really matter? If you want to work for me, then just follow me.”
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
August 2014: ShrineMont. After dinner, I thought about walking the labyrinth. I stepped on the entrance stone, but paused and turned around. I hiked to the cross instead, solo, this time actually stopping at each station of the cross to pray. It was an amazing, contemplative hike on a hot and humid evening which made me sweat and pant and simply long to reach the cross as a respite. When I had that thought, I paused to take in the irony. Not the cross of atonement. Respite. Rest. When I reach the top, the sun is starting to sink toward the horizon at mountain level. I rest…literally…against the cross, drink some water, and allow it all to sink in: my journey, my lessons, my relationships, my divine longing and yes…even my divine wanted-ness. I am sobbing again. I have only one thing to say: I am yours. The answer is already Yes.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
June 2015: My head is spinning with seminary details, and reading and scheduling cross-country visits in sync with my new four year life calendar. I am so overwhelmed. I think: Just stop, Sarah. Just stop, I wonder if it’s all just too much. And then, a calm comes over me and I feel myself stop. I stopped begging for a sign that this was the right path. I just noticed that the palpable presence of God was still unshakably with me, even with all my human worries of the unknown and uncertain parts of this new adventure. All shall be well.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Ember Letter, Lent 2017: As the weeks have passed since John Bishop’s death, there has been shock, sadness and anger: sometimes at him, more often at the addiction, or at the availability of street drugs powerful enough to kill a grown man in seconds; really, we are angry at our own human brokenness. I am reminded that this is why we are held in the enormity of divine love and grace, because we cannot make all of this right in our own limited power. I often think of Bryan Stevenson’s quote from Just Mercy, “we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I prayed those words as I moved closer toward those who were grieving, shocked, angry, convicted, terrified. John’s death has been transforming for many, many people in our congregations and to leaders of feeding and support programs in this city. I can only speak, as I reflect in this letter, how deeply it has transformed me and invited me even more deeply to seek and serve Christ in ways that can only be profoundly experienced by proximity.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,and my cup is running over.
Monday, November 19 2018: I began this chapter of my life as a deacon one week and two days ago. It has been such a hard semester for me at VCU and yet something shifted last week. Even the people and situations that have weighed so heavily on me seem somehow more bearable. Honestly, I have never felt such profound joy and peace as I did in the moments of time where I knelt between the candles, surrounded by the choir, feeling the depth of prayer and invocation of the Spirit around me. It was profoundly humbling, and utterly transformative. It was as if joy rushed in to fill the spaces left as the residual bits of the non-essential parts of my life fell away.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Sunday, May 12 2019: Here I stand today after one of the most grace-filled and moving experiences of my life surrounded and supported by community. And it is goodness and mercy which surround me on this first Sunday as a priest. I am grateful to be here with you; grateful for the places and contexts in which I will serve. There is grace in the coming together of vocation in my life as new opportunities are on the verge of unfolding and to know that the journey continues with community to accompany me, and prayer to enfold me.
Jesus, who is our Good Shepherd: the sheep of your fold hear your voice. You have been, are now, and will continue to lead us, guide us and call us by name. We know you. We follow you. We love you.