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Installation of the Rev. Alex Rodgers
I have done a little reading about sheep, and I have even witnessed firsthand modern day shepherds and their sheep walking among the rocky hills near Bethlehem. Sheep are nervous, anxious creatures. Being fully domesticated, sheep cannot provide for themselves. They need a shepherd in order to find food, and to lead them to water. They won’t drink from running water; that’s why that phrase “still waters” is so important in Psalm 23.
Sheep are not very smart, and they do not see very well. They will follow one another blindly, right off a cliff even. Sheep will wander off alone sometimes, head down, searching after greener grass. It is not uncommon for a sheep to discover themselves lost and alone in a dangerous wilderness. In a dark valley, sheep can be oblivious to the danger around them, to the prowling wolf or approaching storm. Sheep need a shepherd to guide them and protect them, to come find them when they are lost.
The most critical aspect in the life of any sheep is the quality of the shepherd. With a good shepherd, sheep will find the food and water they need; they will be protected and cared for. But with an inattentive or uncaring shepherd, sheep will “want”, sheep will lack the daily sustenance that they need.
One of the most comforting and well known images of the Christian Church across the centuries is the metaphor of the good shepherd. Join with me, if you will, in reciting Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
I have recited this psalm twice this weekend – at the hospital on Friday night with Ann and Larry Fossett, then again yesterday with Leah and Nick Humphries, less than an hour before her father tragically and unexpectedly died from a massive stroke. For centuries, these words about the shepherding care of our loving God have brought comfort both to caregivers and those facing the end of this earthly life.
But, in the ancient near East, “shepherd” was not merely a pastoral but also a political title – kings were spoken of as shepherds of their people. And kings were judged by how well their sheep fared. Good kings, like good shepherds, were protectors, guides, providers, healers, saviors even.
Last summer, during a tour of the old political prison of Johannesburg, South Africa, a group of us from the seminary walked through rooms where tremendous human indignities had been suffered. There, in that now hallowed ground, thousands upon thousands had been beaten, malnourished, and often unjustly imprisoned. There, in the heaviness of that prison turned museum, we walked under a sign which held this quote: “A nation (will) not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones.” (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom)
A nation will not be judged by how its highest citizens are treated, but by how the least of these are treated – words worth reflection during the rhetoric of this election year.
Our gospel reading for today, John 10, is closely aligned with Ezekiel 34. Jesus spoke the words of John 10 in the context of a conflict with the Pharisees about how the common people were faring. Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel had spoken a word against false shepherds, against selfish political and religious leaders of his day.
The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel who prophesied against the shepherds of Israel, saying to them, “Thus says the Lord God, all ye shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves. Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings but you do not feed the sheep! You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the stray, you have not sought the lost but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered because they had no shepherd. And scattered they became food for the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered all over the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered all over the face of the earth with no one to search or seek for them.”
Then Ezekiel 34 continues:
For thus said the Lord God, I, myself, search for my sheep and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among the scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on the day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and will bring them into their own land and feed them on the mountains of Israel by the watercourses and all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture of the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
Neglectful, selfish shepherds, whether in Ezekiel’s time or in first century Jerusalem or in the nations of the world today, will lead to lost and vulnerable sheep. Lost and vulnerable sheep will eventually be scattered, attacked and consumed. But a good shepherd, the shepherd described in Psalm 23, will provide well for the care and nurture of the sheep.
Hear the word of God from John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf seizes them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away for the hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I lay down my life for the sheep. 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 and one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Jesus knew that the people, left to their own devices, would discover themselves lost and afraid and alone. Common people, under the leadership of those who burdened them with rules and regulations, instead of blessing them with care, would fail to thrive. This is why Jesus came, to lay down his life for the sake of all, to show us a still, more excellent way. Jesus said, just prior to this passage, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Many years ago now, I called my father one afternoon and asked him, Dad, what did you do today? He replied, “Well, I led a Bible study this morning at the church, went to a board meeting of the local emergency assistance ministry over lunch, stopped by the hospital to visit a church member recovering from surgery, then met with others at the church to do some planning for next year’s adult faith curriculum. Why do you ask?”
Just wondering, I replied.
At the time I was a senior accountant, an auditor with a large international firm. That same day I had been sitting in an interior room of an office building all day long checking the accuracy of the numbers on a balance sheet. That is important work, and some are called to that work as a vocation. But, given my personality and passions in life, it wasn’t too long before I found myself at Columbia Theological Seminary for a prospective student weekend.
Alex, as you know, it is indeed a special privilege to be installed as a pastor of a congregation. As you know, this work is not easy, nor is it ever completed. There is always more than can be done for the sheep; there are always sheep in need of care.While extremely fulfilling at times, tending a flock can be difficult and draining work. Around 400 AD, Saint Augustine, a prominent Roman bishop from Alexandria, described a pastor’s job:
“Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.”
(Sermon CCIX, cited in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, John Wiley & Sons, Dec 27, 2011, p.271)
Alex, you are not a hired hand. A hired hand cannot do this work very long without burning out. A hired hand will become overwhelmed by the needs of the sheep. A hired hand will become overly fearful of the external threats to the flock. And a hired hand will run away when trouble comes, because they do not care for the sheep.
Alex, you and I are not hired hands. You and I and the elders of this church are shepherds, chosen by God and by the will of this congregation to shepherd this flock. In a very real sense, we have been called to “lay down our lives” for the sake of the people, and not to run away when trouble inevitably comes.
Now, I know that you learned in seminary all about self-care. In two years of Clinical Pastoral Education in hospitals, you learned about appropriate pastoral care boundaries, about self-differentiation, all of which is very important for survival as a shepherd. And yet, we dare not lose the sense that shepherding is a not a job; shepherding is not a career where you show up, punch a clock, do your work, then go home. Shepherding a flock is a lifestyle, a life shared in community, a life intimately bound together with other shepherds and other sheep.
This life is fully dependent upon the One Good Shepherd who provides for us direction and sustenance and strength beyond our own. The most critical aspect of this life of ministry is the quality of the lead Shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows us; he knows our needs. He knows when we need to feed in green pastures and rest beside still waters. He is aware when we are in need of the restoration of our souls. He will walk with us through every dark valley, his staff will protect us and save us from harm.
Alex, the Lord is your Shepherd; you shall not want. Or, as the Today’s English Version proclaims,
“The Lord is our shepherd, we have everything we need.”
Alex, as we heed his voice and follow in his paths, we will have everything you need to shepherd this flock. Because of who Jesus is, we will not be alone. We will not find ourselves lost or wandering, at least not for long. We will not find ourselves without sustenance. We will not long be afraid or insecure, nor walking in a pathway that leads to death. Rather, we will thrive as found and fed sheep, sheep who recognize Jesus’ voice amongst all the other voices vying for our attention, sheep whose heads will be anointed, whose table will be spread, and whose cups will overflow.
In your role as one of our shepherds, your primary task will be to heed the voice of the Good Shepherd, the One who will lead us all together in the pathways that lead to life. And, as the text proclaims, we are aware that there are other sheep that are not yet of this fold. We are charged to bring them also, so that they too can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Friends, the Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. Goodness and mercy shall pursue us all the days of our lives, and, by God’s grace, we shall dwell, together, in the house of the Lord, forever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 17, 2016
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
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