The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We are treated to the 23rd Psalm where we declare that the Lord is our shepherd and cares for us, God’s sheep, and to the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel where Jesus declares himself the Good Shepherd and us his sheep.
Commentator Nancy Blakely advises, “…consider the tricky issue of being called a sheep. Some parishioners bristle at the idea of being thought of as dumb and mindless.” Another commentator described these fluffy creatures as, “at turns affectionate, stubborn, stupid, aimless, passive, easily startled, and always hungry [I resemble that remark!]. Sheep are prone to wander off and become easily vulnerable” (Kent French).
But more seriously, the 23rd Psalm with this image of God or Jesus as the shepherd who cares for and protects us resonates deeply with many of us as individuals and with the Church at large. Psalm 23 is one of those pieces of scripture that even the most unchurched person probably recognizes and might even be able to recite a few words.
The power of this psalm lies in it naming the darkness of our lives—“I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and promising comfort and care in the midst of this reality.
I shall not be in want
my soul revived
fear no evil
you are with me
your rod and your staff, they comfort me
a table spread before me
my head anointed with oil
my cup running over
goodness and mercy following me
dwelling in the house of the Lord for ever.
Gary Simpson writes, “This psalm sits up with the believer in the challenges of sleepless nights and uncertain days.” We have prayed it at an untold number of funerals, at hospital bedsides, in a myriad of valleys shadowed by death and darkness.
The future of the Church is a valley of shadow through which I walk. It is a valley shadowed by uncertainty, change, decline, and death. AND I believe that this valley, the future of the Church, the life of the Church, is one in which God guides us as a shepherd along right pathways, where we will find green pastures, and still waters, where our souls will be revived and an abundant table set before us.
This is why I am inviting you to join me in reading and discussing Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Most of us are well aware that the Church is changing. We are painfully aware that many of our children and grandchildren do not attend church and that those of us who do attend are becoming an increasingly smaller minority in this country. We are aware that churches are closing, that finances are much tighter, that younger generations do not give the way older generations have.
These are not blimps. They are not temporary challenges that will soon self-correct. They are facts. They are long-term trends. They are a new reality. We cannot change this trajectory by trying harder, providing better Christian education for children and adults, teaching more about giving, improving our marketing, or offering the most fabulous events with the best food. All of these things are good, and positive, and should be done… but they will not reverse or undo the massive change we are living through.
My seminary professor, the late Bishop Mark Dyer, observed that, “about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” This is the premise of Tickle’s book.
We are in the midst of one of these times of shattering and new growth. The empowered structures of institutional Christianity have become intolerable. They are breaking down. And they are being shattered, broken open. The promise in all this, the light in the valley of shadow, is that growth, new life, comes out of this shattering, this breaking open. Just as the seed is destroyed in order that the plant grow, so will many of the structures of Christianity be shattered and out of them will come new growth, new life.
This is scary business. Most of us here love the Church. Our worship is meaningful and feeds us. We value our community. And we have committed ourselves to the work of the church—we have given of our time and gifts. Talk of upheaval and shattering seems to threaten what we hold dear.
The 23rd Psalm speaks to us in the midst of this shadow. “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Gary Simpson responds to this sixth verse of the psalm, writing, “The goodness of God is in every place before we ever arrive at any particular place. The good things that happen to us along life’s journey do not happen because we have arrived. God’s goodness has already been where we are planning to go. The goodness of God is so present that every direction that we turn to look, wherever we are, we bump into goodness again. It is perhaps egocentric and arrogant to think that goodness follows us. The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility, opening doors that no one can shut” (Gary Simpson).
God’s goodness precedes us. The Spirit calls us into this goodness. In our prayer, in our discernment, we are led beside still waters, into green pastures, and fed from abundant tables. We need not fear, because God promises to be with us. This is the promise of the 23rd Psalm and it is shown forth by history. Tickle examines the past upheavals that have occurred at these 500-year intervals and observes that history shows us that there are always at least three consistent results:
- A new, more vital form of Christianity emerges.
- The organized expression of Christianity which has been dominant is reconstituted into a more pure and less rigid expression of its former self.
- The faith has spread dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas.
God is bigger than our institutions—even the institution of the Church—and every 500 years or so God makes sure to remind us. The shattering of the institutional structures of the Church does not mean the end of Christianity or necessarily even of the institution of the Church. It means new forms emerge, old forms are renewed and made less rigid, and Christianity is spread to new places and peoples!
In our reading from John’s Gospel today, Jesus declares, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The shepherd not only cares for his flock but also gathers the flock.
Barbara Essex writes, “Jesus’ call for one flock and one shepherd does not imply sameness. Too much of our evangelism has been exclusionary…John makes it clear that the work of gathering the flock belongs to Jesus and God—we are to provide a space where all are welcome. The community that John envisions is open and celebrates its diversity as a gift from God. He envisions multiple churches united in their loyalty to Jesus Christ—gathering at God’s table, bringing all of who they are, and sharing in the grace and mercy available through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”
Jesus gathers. We are to provide a space where all are welcome, where diversity is celebrated. This is our role as new forms of Christianity emerge. To provide a space where all are welcome, where the diversity of God’s one flock can be held together at God’s table.
St. Stephen’s has already begun to engage this commission. Our taize service speaks to those across faith traditions and practices drawing us closer to God and each other through silence, poetry, prayer and chant. Not all who attend that service consider themselves Christian or understand Christianity in the same way and yet we are able to come together and experience God together. The plans for our land—the labyrinth, our outdoor sacred space, the orchard, the pathways— are being created with the explicit purpose that people from all faith traditions, practices and beliefs be invited onto our land that we might journey together, that faith journeys might intertwine, overlap, connect, and shape one another.
I get really excited when I start to dream and think about these possibilities. My mind runs down multiple paths all at once. And many questions start to arise. What does it mean to be in a community of faith with folks who do not identify as Christian? What would we hold in common? How would we retain and strengthen our individual spiritual identities in such diversity? How do we even understand what it means to be Christian? So much of our understanding is shaped by these last 500 years or even the 500 before that…what did it look like right after Jesus lived for his first followers? How would we figure out what is acceptable and what is too divergent, too far afield from tradition and scripture?
As I pondered these questions the other day, I was hit like a slap in the face with the reminder that we are not the gate. It is not our job to determine who is in and who is out. What is Christian what is not. What is too different, too foreign, too far afield from tradition and traditional ways of understanding scripture.
We are the sheep. The flock. The work of gathering the flock belongs to God. We are to provide a space where all are welcome—a space that is open and where our diversity is celebrated as a gift from God. A space where all may gather at God’s table, bringing all of who they are and sharing in the grace and mercy of God made available through Jesus.
“The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility, opening doors that no one can shut.”