The rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in the cathedral of St. Philip. The occasion was the ordination of a fresh batch of priests in God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. If you have not attended an ordination liturgy, you should. In addition to participating in the full scope of our sacramental life, you should attend an ordination because it is all of you, the Church, who call, discern, and affirm the vocation of our clergy. For those about to be ordained, it is a pinnacle day. After a long, grueling discernment process, years of preparation, and life changing sacrifices, the big moment has arrived. The Holy Spirit will do what the Holy Spirit does, and a new priest is born. If you are the one taking ordination vows, it is easy to imagine it is all about you and the life to which you have been called. Each new priest is eager to begin life with a parish ... the shepherd assumes the flock.
It is easy to imagine the priest as shepherd of the congregation. The word ‘pastor’ comes from the Latin for ‘shepherd.’ On this day at the cathedral, in order to temper the temptation to think the day is all about the newly ordained, Bishop Whitmore preached a sermon intended to broaden the focus to what God is doing in the whole Church. “There will be one flock, one shepherd.” And he offered a new image of working within the flock. The clergy were invited to imagine ourselves not as shepherds, but as sheepdogs. Like the sheep, sheepdogs know the sound of the shepherd’s voice. They work tirelessly at the service of the shepherd. Sheepdogs do their best to keep the sometimes wandering sheep moving together, in the direction the shepherd intends. They use whatever means necessary, frantically running and barking and nipping at the feet of the sheep to encourage, motivate, and guide. Sheepdogs attempt to continuously remind the sheep of the will of the shepherd. And if one sheep wanders, the sheepdog will temporarily divert attention from the others to encourage the stray back into the flock. When necessary, the sheepdog will face the inevitable wolves that threaten the flock, even if it means laying down its life. The sheepdog serves the shepherd, but not out of blind obedience. Because every sheep is important and valuable to the shepherd, every sheep is important to the sheepdog. Ideally, the shepherd and sheepdog are of one will. Yet, there is one shepherd.
Jesus reveals his identity through many “I am” statements. “I am” the gate. “I am” the vine. “I am the resurrection and the life”. “I am the way and the truth and the life”. In today’s gospel, he states, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus warns there are others who might pretend to be shepherds, and gives us clues to recognize the one, true shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Pretenders will run away at the first sight of trouble or danger. The Good Shepherd knows each and every one of the sheep, and the sheep know their shepherd. And the flock is greater than we can imagine. There are other sheep, and they are all welcome. Even more, the shepherd says, “I must bring them also.” This is more than a passing duty or obligation. The Good Shepherd is no hired hand whose focus is on a daily wage. The Good Shepherd deeply loves the sheep, and is fully dedicated to the flock. The Good Shepherd cares for each sheep more than himself. The Good Shepherd has a name, and this is the one name that connects heaven to earth. This one name expresses the way God relates to us, and assures us of God’s powerful and saving love for us all ... it is the Name of Jesus.
Allow me to run and bark and nip at your feet in this way. We are all sheep in the one flock. We are also all sheepdogs, serving the Good Shepherd. We are all called to imitate and serve the good shepherd, and work to realize God’s dream of one flock that loves the shepherd and loves one another. We are called to recognize and respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow. We are called to orient our lives in the direction and will of the Good Shepherd, and in service to the flock. We are to love and care for each and every sheep, understanding that the shepherd’s flock extends far beyond the people and family of this community. We are called to resist following false shepherds. These pretenders may be people, but they might also be power, money, self-promotion, or other worldly temptations. We are called to face the wolves of the world and proclaim God’s truth and love. We are called to lay down our lives as the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the flock. This does not necessarily mean facing bodily harm or death. We are called to lay down the life we might live only for ourselves and offer the gift of our life to God and each other.
There will be one flock, one shepherd. We are the sheep of the flock, but we are also called to serve. We are all sheepdogs. Because each sheep is important to the Good Shepherd, we are all important to each other. The flock is not whole if even one sheep wanders away. Because the Good Shepherd loves each and every sheep, we are also to care for, cling to, and love each and every sheep. We are all both sheep and sheep dogs. The Good Shepherd commanded us to love one another. It is the love of God that binds us. We are to care for one another in a direct and practical fashion, just as God’s love operates through Jesus Christ. By cultivating love in the community, the identity of the community, the flock, is strengthened. We can only express this love and this truth to the world by living out loud, stating God’s presence among us with faith and without fear, through words and actions, following and imitating Jesus.
So follow and serve the Good Shepherd. Lovingly bark and herd. Work to gather and keep God’s people together. Participate in the community of the flock, because presence is important. Invite and encourage those who wander. Care for those who are lost or confused. Protect those who cannot protect themselves. Fearlessly and faithfully face the wolves that threaten. And let us all do these things, not out of duty or obligation, but because of the love of the Good Shepherd. We are all sheep. We are also all sheepdogs. And there will be one flock, one shepherd. Amen.