7-19-2009 Season of Pentecost Proper 11 - A sermon by Deacon Mark Sluss at Christ Church Cathedral
I have always lived with the assumption that sheep were pretty dumb animals. And that is probably more due to legend than any actual experience I have with sheep. Growing up in Arnold, Missouri we did not have any Sheep ranches around. My first interaction with sheep was in Nebraska. I was working for a large company in Omaha, and my boss, this crazy Norwegian guy, lived in a small town west of Omaha, called Elkhorn, and on my first trip out to see him for a department teambuilding barbecue, I got turned around and ended up on some different country road. This was before GPS Systems so I had no idea where I was. In the course of getting out of my car with a folding Map of the entire state of Nebraska, I noticed a most offensive acrid smell. It was then that I heard the bleating. And I realized that here on the edge of Nebraska Corn and Cattle country was a sheep ranch. And the smell was terrible. Wet dirty sheep whose matted wool looked more like ropes than fine fluffy wool, most foul of all the pile of sheep manure the rancher had piled close to the road. That was my experience, so my perception of all sheep was not the some fluffy white cute sheep, but of smelly and stupid animals. When I read the readings from this week, with the abundant images of sheep and shepherds and the vivid pasture themes, it was difficult not to have my vivid memory come back to that smell. You see my memory is triggered by smell. Cherry pipe tobacco always reminds me of my grandfather, Cool Water cologne reminds me of my dad. Sugar cookies baking remind me of many Christmases as a child with my brothers and I decorating those familiar cookie cutter shapes, in colored frostings and multicolored jimmies. When I read the scriptures for this week, I really did not want my mind to be drawn constantly to the memory of sheep droppings. So I did a little reading up on sheep and their behaviors and attributes. Richard Cobb of the University of Illinois wrote in 1999 a brief “Introduction to Sheep Behavior” for the Illinois Farm Bureau, in order to encourage youth agricultural projects utilizing herds of sheep. In his brief paper Cobb, makes sure to expel the myth that sheep are stupid. He says that sheep are very intelligent, somewhere between the pig and cow, in the barnyard hierarchy of intelligence. Aside from their intelligence, sheep see in color, they have poor depth perception and an almost unlimited peripheral vision, they also have excellent hearing.
In Jeremiah, we see that God, is comparing Israel to a sheep fold with God as owner rancher and the shepherds as the authorities raised up to protect and guide the sheep. God warns that there are false shepherds those who lead the sheep astray, scatter them, drive them away and kill them. God has plans to return god’s sheep to his fold. You see sheep while very intelligent also have some rather instinctive behavior; sheep will run from what frightens them, loud noises will cause sheep to flee. This natural flight response to danger is one way that sheep protect themselves. They run away. Sheep are gregarious, meaning that they group together, a sheep will always move towards another sheep. This is another defense mechanism, sheep will group together to increase their numbers for greater protection. Sheep will follow each other. This is because of their desire for protection and their gregarious nature. Sheep will always move towards another sheep or friend, and a friend is usually the shepherd who feeds them. It sort of gives a new perspective then to Jesus’ request for Peter to “Feed my sheep”. Jeremiah’s writing is a warning to those in authority, those who would scatter those whom god has chosen for his sheep fold. The problem is that this scripture from the prophet can be used by persons in various opinions (orthodox and inclusive, liberal and conservative), for it is subjective by how you define who is one of the bad shepherds? How do we identify those who would be leading the flock astray? Into exile, scattered? It’s all a frame of reference, for GLBT persons in this church for long we have associated ourselves, with the sheep who have been driven into exile, those who have been excluded from the church and church leadership. We cannot help but associate the recent actions of General Convention to be the work of God as referenced in the second part of the Jeremiah reading that which restores those sheep scattered into the fold. Yet I think we must always be aware that there are those who would see those actions to be that our current shepherds our bishops are the ones referenced in the first part, that they are those who scatter the flock into exile out of our Anglican Communion. How do we discern the true interpretation of this?
We have to look at the behavior of the shepherd and the sheep; does the shepherd just drive the sheep out and scatter them, with no care for them? Or are they good shepherds, who feed them, and care for them, and provide for them as Psalm 23 references? Does the leader point the flock towards Christ? Or is the shepherd leading the flock towards their own gratification and promotion? Christ had such compassion for his followers. It’s evident; Christ fed his people, healed them, and wept at their deaths. Christ was the good shepherd, gathering to him the fringe of society, those who were cast out of the community, the tax collectors, and the unclean of Israel. In the gospel reading we see Christ acting as a shepherd, as the apostles return from being sent out, and rejoicing in their accomplishments, the come back and Jesus says “lets go on retreat” and they get in the boat and travel across the lake to Genassaret, where the people were like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus had compassion for them, the people recognized him and rushed to him. Remember sheep will move towards a friend a shepherd who cares for them. Jesus recognized the tragedy of that community, they had no good shepherd. For too long many in the LGBT community have been like the people in this gospel, like scattered sheep. We have been driven out either by explicit or implied comments of unwelcome. And we like sheep have gathered together in groups, like Integrity or Oasis for protection. We have found places of rest with good caring shepherds, like our Oasis congregations. Sadly those places of rest, and renewal with caring shepherds are few and far between. Our Episcopal church changed that this week. During our General Convention, if you have been following the online blogs and twitters like I have, you would have heard that we have explicitly stated that the discernment and ordination processes within our church are open to ALL the baptized, and by reading the conversations and debates at the time of the voting, I believe it really means ALL the baptized. We also made a statement regarding blessings of same sex unions, especially for those bishops in geographic areas where civil unions and marriage for same sex persons are now legal. Our church has made some very bold statements about who we are, and what type of church we are at this time. Some look at this as a rejection of the Windsor report and of the Anglican Communion, and I imagine we won’t hear the end of the rhetoric on the part of those who disagree with us. But I have to continue to look at what good is coming from this. We are gathering together those whom the world has scattered, those who have been told they are not worthy, that they are dirty. We have now told them that their baptisms are not second rate, because of who they love. But their baptisms are just as valid and empowering for whatever ministry they partake, in whatever order they are called, either Lay, Bishop, priest or deacon. I am excited about what this will mean for us. As a congregation in renewal I am excited, of what these statements will do for us. We have to now even more be explicit in our welcome and language towards the GLBT community. In our gospel today Jesus urges his disciples to come away to a supportive community and rest awhile. We need to create in our walls that place of rest to claim the gifts of spiritual disciplines of retreat and prayer, by doing so, we can empower us to be about the work of healing. Healing our own wounds and those of the community around us, for the Gay person who has been so wounded by ostracism, to the homeless who has been wounded by the callousness of systems that perpetuate their status, to the lonely student, reaching out for any connection, we live in a broken and battered world. Our Cathedral should be a hospital for those broken people in our community. We should in cooperation with Centenary Cares, and our own Saturday Breakfast feed Jesus’ sheep in our community.
Then we will be the good shepherds, we will be the ones, who the scattered and injured sheep of our community rush to.
And we will know that we are about doing the work of God.