Just before our family moved to Newport in 2013, we were given the gift of this colorful silkscreen of the Good Shepherd on display here this morning. (My daughter particularly likes the pink sheep at Jesus’ right hand, while my son prefers an orange one at his left, by the way.) At my last parish, I had commissioned a much larger version of it from a parishioner, the noted Syrian-American artist, Helen Zughaib, to hang prominently above the stairwell leading down to the basement of the parish house, where the Sunday School rooms were. Prior to this, there was a modest sign pointing to the Sunday School, but since the stairwell was around the corner of the main flow of traffic and the Sunday School rooms themselves were hidden in the basement of the building complex, they were hard to find if you were a visitor. Even more importantly, their location gave the (up until then largely accurate) impression that children were not a priority for that Anglo-catholic congregation. Since my main job at St. Paul’s was to raise the profile of families and children, I thought a lot about how to raise the profile of our Sunday School rooms. In the previous building renovation, my predecessor had argued unsuccessfully that the rooms on the main level should be reserved for Sunday School and the adult meeting rooms should be in the basement, but the rooms upstairs, with their cherry wood paneling and marble mantelpieces, were deemed too nice to waste on children.
Thankfully, we had a dedicated corps of volunteers who brightened the basement walls with colorful paint and made it as sunny and welcoming to children as possible—once you found your way there, that is. And that’s where this painting came in, as a way of inviting children and their families into a special space set aside just for them. Since our Sunday School program curriculum was called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I commissioned Helen Zughaib to decorate the wall above that stairwell with this image, as a way of inviting children and their parents into the space dedicated to the Good Shepherd.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or CGS, as it’s commonly known, was developed by a student of the famous Italian educator Maria Montessori. Another version called Godly Play is also well known in the Episcopal Church. Both of these programs require dedicated, trained storytellers who work with children following the Montessori Method. Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that a Montessori-based Sunday School is necessarily the direction we should head in the future, but my first church had Godly Play and my second had CGS, so this is the basic model I’m familiar with. I do want us to begin to realize, however that, believe it or not, there are enough children and grandchildren in this neighborhood and amongst our parish family to make Sunday School a possibility in the not-too-distant future. For now, at least, whether you have children or grandchildren or not, and whether you know how to spell “catechesis” or not, I invite you sometime to Google “About Catechesis of the Good Shepherd” and read the page entitled “The Characteristics of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: 32 Points of Reflection.” But don’t do it on your iPhone during this sermon—do it later today.
Among those 32 points of reflection, the one that struck me most was number 27, which reads in part:
- The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd does not seek success.
- It does not set about to be important or to impress others.
- It stands in solidarity with the least in the church.*
Reflecting on these words in relationship to this morning’s Gospel, it occurred to me that these characteristics are also true of the Good Shepherd himself, who does not seek success, at least not in the way the world defines success. After all, the Good Shepherd is the one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” A guy who dies for a bunch of livestock would not generally be regarded as a big winner in life. But Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, does not seek “to be important or to impress others.” Jesus the Good Shepherd stands in solidarity with his sheep, among whom are the least in the church and in the world.
In stark contrast to the Good Shepherd in this morning’s Gospel, we are also given the image of “the hired hand.” The hired hand, Jesus says, “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,” and the “hired hand does not care for the sheep.” Who are these “hired hands” of whom Jesus speaks so disparagingly? For my part, I think Jesus must have in mind religious leaders whose priorities are elsewhere than with the wellbeing of the people they have been called to serve. I’d like to think that as your shepherd, I have my pastoral priorities in order. But our gospel lesson this morning compels all pastors to question the assumption that they are, in fact, diligently imitating the true Good Shepherd. In fact, any Christian leader, lay or ordained, who doesn’t wonder at least from time to time whether he or she acts more like the hired hand than the Good Shepherd is probably guilty of complacency, or worse, outright negligence.
Of course, in today’s Gospel lesson, the only discernable measure of whether or not one is a good shepherd is the willingness like Jesus to lay down one’s own life for one another. Now, I don’t know about you, but in my book that’s a pretty tall order. Now, you’re all lovely people, but is the willingness to die for you all it means to imitate the Good Shepherd?
Our Epistle lesson this morning is actually more helpful here than the Gospel lesson about what it means to imitate the Good Shepherd in ordinary, quotidian, and less dramatically life-and-death ways, though the Johannine author does begin in a similar vein: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” But perhaps more importantly, he goes on to apply this standard of self-sacrificial love not simply to how we die, but to how we live, writing, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Truth and action. Well, there you have it. We have to learn to “speak the truth in love,” as John writes elsewhere, not in clichéd or self-justifying ways, but in ways that make it clear that the truth we speak is always, always in service of the relationship God wants us to enjoy with each other through a reconciled life in Jesus Christ the Risen Lord. As we find in First John, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another…” We must look to Jesus the Good Shepherd if we would love each other not simply “in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Which brings me back, inexorably, to those reflections published on the CGS website, and the questions they lead me to ask myself: Do I seek first to love others in truth and action, following the Good Shepherd, or am I more concerned about fulfilling my own dreams of “success”? Do I seek to serve others in self-sacrificial ways, following the example of the Good Shepherd, or do I care more about being important and impressing others? Do I stand with the Good Shepherd in solidarity with the least among us, or do I seek my own comfort and security, running away like a hired hand when the going gets tough?
Well, if I’m honest, I do seek success. I do want to be important and to impress others. I do want to be comfortable and secure. Who doesn’t? So perhaps the better question for me and for all of us is: In the face of the daily temptations to behave like hired hands, what spiritual disciplines can we practice to learn how better to follow the Good Shepherd in our lives?
For my part, I’ve attempted to address this by being in relationship with people who I know will hold me accountable and for whom I am responsible to keep accountable, always pointing to the Good Shepherd. These people include my wife and my spiritual director and confessor; Deacon Close, Peter Berton, and key lay leaders here; and many, many friends, both within the church and outside it. Through these relationships of mutual accountability, I find that I am better able to tap into the grace I need in order to follow the Good Shepherd on the path that leads to eternal life, and I hope others are able to find that grace through relationship with me, as well.
Ultimately, following and imitating the Good Shepherd in truth and action is about life, not death—about following the one who has not simply the “power to lay [his own life] down” but also the one who has the “power to take it up again.” It is about listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name in our daily lives. We listen for his voice as we seek to serve one another and the world around us. We listen for his voice as we seek unity and reconciliation with each other in his name. We listen for his voice as we seek to love in truth and action, no matter the cost.
And then, as we hear in the familiar Eastertide blessing, we trust in God’s good grace that “our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep,” might “make [us] perfect in every good work to do his will, working in [us] that which is well pleasing in his sight.”
This morning on your way out of church, take a good look at this painting of the Good Shepherd. Like Margaret and Andrew, pick a pink or orange sheep to represent you, and as you place yourself in the painting, remember that our Good Shepherd calls us each by name, and will never lead us astray.
* From “The Characteristics of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: 32 Points of Reflection,” found at: http://www.cgsusa.org/about/default.aspx.