As our Lessons and hymns make clear, this is “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the church calendar – the day we read verses from John’s Gospel in which Jesus described himself as “a good shepherd” for his people. One who lays down his life for the sheep. The one who knows his sheep even as they know him…which is why they listen to his voice…and follow him.
I know a lot of people today who have trouble with this “good shepherd image.” First of all, it can be a little “schmaltzy.” The first parish I served inCentral Floridahad a so-called “Good Shepherd” window over the high altar. It was a poorly done, contemporary piece and members of my youth group used to say that it depicted sheep “with eyes like a man!” Now, there are some wonderful artistic representations of “the Good Shepherd” – but for every one of those there are hundreds of schmaltzy ones. And I’ll bet you’ve seen a few!
Secondly, most of us have little experience with real sheep or real shepherds in our day. We don’t know, firsthand, the difficulty of the job or the dangers they faced in Jesus’ time…and, in some places, still do. But, finally, most of us just don’t particularly like to see ourselves as sheep! They may look pretty cute and cuddly from a distance, but if you’ve ever been near a flock, you don’t want to inhale too deeply! And suffice it to say, if there were IQ tests for animals, the sheep would not be among the brightest bulbs in the batch!
So, how do we redeem this “Good Shepherd image?” Well, visiting here at St. Benedict’s this morning, I couldn’t help but think of your patron saint as another model of a “good shepherd” who is at least a little closer in time and space to us today, particularly through his legacy. I’m sure you’ve heard your share of sermons on the life of Benedict, belonging as you do to this parish, and you know that he lived in the sixth century and is sometimes called “the Father of Western Monasticism.” Benedict’s disciples founded monasteries all overEuropewhich became centers of learning, health care, justice, and the arts.
Benedict is also the patron saint ofEuropebecause some would argue that those monasteries helped preserve Western Civilization through the so-called Dark Ages. The “Rule of St Benedict” which he wrote to give gentle guidance to his monks and nuns established the foundation for modern human rights because in these communities, each person was to be treated with respect and honor and dignity. These monasteries valued learning, good manners, discipline and self respect.
As Christians in the Anglican tradition, we are almost unconscious heirs of this Benedictine tradition because so many of our cathedrals and parish churches in England are built quite literally upon the foundation of ancient Benedictine monasteries and the spirituality fostered there has crept into our generous, liturgical, common sense, “via media” way of living out the Christian life. Anglicans really are “Benedictine” in our core.
Trying to be a good shepherd to his flock as Jesus was, St. Benedict devised a fairly simple, eminently practical Rule for his monks and nuns to live by – at least by the standards of other religious orders of his time in history which were pretty strict. The modern day monks of the Episcopal Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge MA have actually written a contemporary commentary on that ancient Rule, explaining how Benedict’s principles can be a guide, really, for any Christian community today – from a family to a parish church to a diocese and beyond. It’s a beautifully written series of meditations on the Rule.
The three distinctive vows taken by Benedictine monastics are actually something I’d like to commend to our confirmands today…and really to all of us who are renewing our baptismal covenant on this occasion. In Latin these vows are “stabilitas”…”obedientia”…and “conversio morum.” And, in English – stability…obedience…and conversion of life.
Stability means being rooted and grounded. The Benedictine monk or nun promises to stay committed to his or her monastic community for life. We need that kind of commitment in this fast changing society and world today. We need that kind of commitment in our marriages…in our parishes….and in our denominations. It often seems these days that very few people are willing to persevere. When things get rough, people bail out. So many today seem to be on a constant search for the flawless partner or the ideal church or the perfect denomination – as if any of these things exist! Stability means that we find God and happiness right where we are, and that we don’t always have dash around after every trend or fashion or new idea.
Obedience is a word most of us aren’t very fond of either! But the root of the word “obey’ means simply “to listen.” True obedience means listening to others and responding to their needs. The obedient person is always alert to the spoken and unspoken needs of those around them. Obedience builds peace and understanding in communities. We need to listen to God, listen to the Scriptures, and listen deeply to the voice of the Holy Spirit within us and listen to each other. That’s really what it means to be obedient in the Benedictine sense.
And, finally, conversion of life. This is not the same thing as a dramatic religious conversion like Paul had on the way toDamascus. It’s a way of looking at life that is creative, hopeful, and positive. The person who seeks conversion of life is always looking for a new way to see life. It sees possibilities, not problems and is always seeking to convert the difficulties of life into opportunities for growth. (By the way, I found those definitions in a fine article by Dwight Longenecker entitled “Benedict the Balanced.” He provides a way to live a balanced, and holy, life.)
So, stability…obedience…conversion of life. Three ways through which St. Benedict sought to be a good shepherd to his people. (1)To be rooted and grounded and committed in our relationships. (2)To listen to God and to the needs of God’s people around us. (3) And always to look for possibilities, not problems.
I think that’s what a Good Shepherd looks like today. Surely Jesus of Nazareth exhibited all of these qualities in his life. Let me offer once again our Collect for today with special intention that we may begin to live these vows in our lives as well. Let us pray: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him, who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”