Of Sheep and Shepherds
Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year A
April 13, 2008
Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year A
April 13, 2008
Let us pray: Guide these words, O God, that they may tell of you. Bless them and use them. Amen.
††† If you were to take a quick survey of recent practice, seminar topics and writing about congregational ministry, Iím pretty sure you would discover three themes. One of the themes would be a focus on leadership and how crucial it is in maintaining a vital and active community of faith. Another theme would be the importance of small group ministry, where small groups based on different activities and purposes are formed from a larger congregation. The third theme would be a focus on gifts, and methods to honour and develop the spiritual gifts of members of the congregation.
††† You might at first glance at these three themes think there is nothing new under the sun, and if you consider them against the scripture passages we just heard, you would no doubt feel confirmed in this notion. Our first reading from the book of Acts is a confirmation of small group ministry - although if all three thousand of the believers that were baptised on that day were part of one group - it could hardly be called small. Our final reading from the gospel of John is clearly one about leadership. Itís a bigger stretch to connect the passage from the first letter of Peter to the theme of honouring gifts, but I believe there is a connection, no matter how tenuous.
††† Generally, there is nothing new about any of the themes. In fact, Iím quite sure that these three foci for a community of faith have been ones that have guided the Christian church throughout its history. However, the current research into congregational ministry adds a freshness to each of them, perhaps even to the point of claiming rediscovery of these important aspects of Christian community.
††† Coincidentally, these three themes in congregational ministry have been part of my context these past days. On Wednesday, a few members of the Yellowknife Ministerial Association gathered out at the Trapperís Lake Centre for Spirituality for a day long retreat. In the past the April meeting of this association has been devoted to study of a book that was assigned earlier in the year. The practice met with limited success - often with several members of the association coming to the meeting having not read the book, even though they were quite willing to say how much they disliked it. However, I digress. This year, the idea was to spend the time in a combination of guided retreat and free time. When the original leader was unable to participate, the chair of the association invited us to come to talk about scripture passages that have spoken to us in our lives - either long term, or short term. Given my past experiences at this April meeting - much as I enjoyed the setting and the discussion, I wasnít completely enthused about this agenda - given that the approaches to scripture among the association members can represent quite a large wingspan from right to left. It turned out to be a surprisingly engaging conversation. When differences in theology can be set aside, even if only briefly, it can be inspiring and affirming to hear the experience of others who are involved in the practice of ministry.
††† Somewhat surprisingly, the discussion in part revolved around the actual practice of shepherding - not the metaphorical shepherding that is often used to describe pastoral ministry, but the actual vocation of herding sheep. I remember a lively online discussion several years ago when one of the scripture passages referred to sheep and shepherding. Itís not unusual. The shepherd image is one that occurs regularly and often in scripture, todayís readings being a case in point. However, I remember thinking at the time several years ago as I read of actual experiences with sheep and shepherds and as layer upon layer of meaning and information was revealed about this occupation, I remember thinking that surely there was nothing more to learn. I didnít think there was that much to learn in the first place, let alone all the extra stuff the discussion had raised for me. Well, guess what. I learned on Wednesday that there is even more. One of the members of the Yellowknife ministerial association used to be a shepherd. He spoke of the common ďGood ShepherdĒ image of Jesus with a young lamb across his shoulders like a yoke. Did you know that it is a common practice among shepherds when they have a lamb that keeps running away to break one of the lambs legs. This of course slows the lamb down. Thatís when the shepherd takes the peripatetic lamb, places it across the shoulders and carries it around that way. A bond develops between the lamb and the shepherd such that when the leg has healed the lamb will no longer run away. This harsh image certainly adds a disturbing layer of meaning for me to the phrase ďthe sheep know the shepherdís voiceĒ.
††† Iím sure Iíve mentioned before a meeting I attended many years ago at the home of a friend. The worship bulletin that morning had a photograph of a flock of sheep. My friend took the opportunity to express her dissatisfaction with the image of sheep and shepherding. She pointed out that sheep are stupid and will do whatever the shepherd tells them to do, even if it is harmful to their existence. She hated being referred to as sheep, feeling that she had enough freedom and independence to make her own decisions about where she should go and what she should do.
††† That leads to another discussion I had at the Ministerial retreat on Wednesday. It followed on a theme that Iíve been discussing in different ways and in different places over the past several weeks. A couple of people from this congregation mentioned an article in the Globe and Mail on Easter weekend about Gretta Vosper and the congregation at West Hill United Church. Gretta is a United Church minister and is the founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. If you read the United Church Observer you will no doubt know that a short article on Gretta Vosper many months ago has resulted in a series of letters to the editor. Her views on modern day faith and the practice of faith, biblical interpretation, and the nature of God and Jesus are intentionally controversial. She has just had a book released with the title ďWith or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We BelieveĒ and it is reviewed in the current issue of the Observer. The Rev. Ms. Vosper was interviewed on Monday by Gillian Findlay of the Current. While there is much that excites me about this courageous colleague and her attempt to say things publicly that Iíve been thinking privately for many years, there is also a part of me which is concerned. It has always been a tension for me to define just how much a particular ministerís point of view should define a distinctive characteristic of a congregation. I can look around at colleagues in ministry - knowing what their particular interest or focus is in ministry and see that focus being attached to the congregation in which they serve. I often wonder how well received and in particular how lasting that focus will be. This is probably a statement about my style of leadership than it is about anything else. It also says something about my perspective on the meaning of church.
††† It has been reinforced for me over the past few months in particular that my view of church is one of community - closely knit, exercising mutual pastoral care, defined by living and working together in community and that being part of the community by participation is more important than association. In other words, supporting the community by working with and in it is more important than sharing a common belief system. In a sense my view of church is defined by the subtitle of Gretta Vosperís book: How we live is more important than what we believe. That describes my approach to the Ministerial Association. I participate by doing. Iím the secretary and I try to be a diligent and prompt recorder and distributor of minutes. I often lead the associationís participation in community events. If I regarded my membership in the association as being contingent upon my agreement with the beliefs of the other members I likely would have left long ago. I say these things not to elicit praise, but merely to list them as a discovery about myself. This is the way I live out my participation in church. Itís not to say that belief is not important. Of course it is, and there are times when I canít participate because my beliefs wonít allow it.
††† It turns out that a colleague in the Ministerial Association also heard bits and pieces of the interview with Gretta Vosper last Monday. He didnít hear it all, so his questions of me were information gathering rather than a discussion. I think the discussion with this particular colleague would have been a good one, and Iím not sure I could say that about all of the members who were there.
††† I see by the page number that my time for reflection is up before my thoughts are finished, but I think thatís okay - just as I thought I had learned everything there was to know about shepherding several years ago but obviously hadnít, I know there is more to learn and say about congregational leadership and the current research into what makes for successful - however we define that - communities of faith.
††† Hopefully Iíve opened things up enough for your own reflection, your own discerning of what church means to you, your own perspective on leadership, and the direction that God is calling you and us together in ministry. May God give us wisdom, insight and courage... Amen.