[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs press release] “This is my story, this is who I am,” the Rev. Cathlena A. Plummer of Navajoland shared in her sermon to the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church on June 27.
Bishop Michael Smith of North Dakota presided at the Eucharist.
The following is the text of the sermon:
A Very Good Shepherd
The Rev. Cathlena A. Plummer
Let Us Pray…God, today, we ask you to give us clear minds, open spirits and loving hearts. Amen.
Can I just say what a relief it is for me to finally sit down to reflect on our gospel today? How appropriate for a former shepherd from the Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, Arizona to reflect on our very own Good Shepherd, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As a young Navajo girl in the southeastern part of Utah, I grew up helping my mother and father with a herd of sheep that have been our sustenance as well as our extended family members.
Sheep do not have a complicated life but they are creatures of habit. Within their own flock they have leaders who they follow as they feed and there is a hierarchy that they follow and one of their number cannot usurp that position.
Likewise the sheep know who their master is, their shepherd. They will in fact come at their master’s voice and anyone else who tries is just wasting their time.
If a stranger attempted to enter their pen the nervousness they would feel would be evident but when the shepherd appeared he could move through their midst as if he were one of them.
I think that this comparison of us to sheep and Christ as the great shepherd is an apt one. Those who are His spend time in His word and recognize His voice. His flock wants to follow where He leads them, He can impart comfort and confidence. Just as a ewe in difficult labor must rely on her shepherd, so must we rely upon Him for help through our travails. Just as the master over a flock knows what is best for a flock because of the mind that God has given man, so is God’s knowledge of what is best for us. And just as a predator stalks a flock so are we stalked “as our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
Those are just some of the parallels that can be drawn but there are also places that they cannot. Unlike the sheep in a flock we have a complicated life. We have other leaders that we follow. Unlike the sheep we have people who have gone against the natural leadership that should be followed.
In the case of the Jews that is what happened with the Pharisees and the high priests. Those leaders had become thieves and robbers who destroyed by their lack of godly leadership and like the hired hand who doesn’t own the sheep. No one cared for the people as a true shepherd would his flock.
Fortunately for us Christ is the shepherd. Though we were sheep that were not of the original sheep pen we have heard and listened to His voice. But…the Bible tells us that there will be another.
I want to share with you my sheep story.
As a Native American growing up in the Episcopal tradition it has always been a challenge to connect two very opposite views of spirituality, that of Navajo and of Christianity.
In the summer of the year 2008 I believe I was called upon, by the Great Holy Spirit to do the work of an Episcopal priest. My father, the late Rt. Rev. Steven T. Plummer, Sr., had already been gone from our world for three years.
On a particular warm and sunny summer afternoon I was asked by my mother to fetch the herd of sheep that we have been raising for many years. This day they had retreated to the high cliffs thanks to the neighbor’s dogs that have always enjoyed chasing them. Two lambs, only days old, were my deepest worry for retrieving the herd before nightfall.
In the middle of my search I came across a steep bend on the edge of a steep 400 foot drop at the mouth of a canyon ridge. A concave space in the cliff wall I was pressing up against was the only net of safety to keep me from falling over the edge. I drew up my strength to press on so I continued climbing. Just as I was about to turn the corner, a loud voice spoke to me in the air, I could not tell if it was inside my head, or if I was actually hearing it out in the open. This voice sounded a lot like my father’s voice but it could not have been because my father was gone. The voice continued to speak. This time it was calling me in my Navajo name. This drew my attention. I did not know if I was hallucinating or imagining the whole incident, but I very quietly whispered, “yes?”
Then the voice continued to speak to me in Navajo telling me, “as my child I am very pleased with you and I need your help with my people for they are in trouble.” Without really analyzing the situation, I pictured in my head a meeting that had happened the week before where everyone was bickering at each other about whether or not they should have more meetings because the Bishop was to visit the following month to go over financial documents in the parish. In my memory it was clear that there were voices that were not being heard, which at this meeting, included the presence of the Navajo laity. As soon as the thought disappeared from my mind the voice spoke again and said in Navajo, “you know what I speak of.”
I immediately knelt down and wept. I had not heard my father’s voice in so long, so I wondered whether or not I was going insane or not. I finally stood up to continue on. Just as I stepped forward a rush of little hooves ran passed me very quickly, and the rest of the herd followed. I was grateful I did not have to go any further up the canyon, and I waited ten paces back from the herd to make sure everyone had been accounted for.
Navajo spirituality, as known to a medicine man in our tribe, is described as a soft gentle breeze. This is exactly what I felt when I was hearing the voice. Later on, when I would tell this story to my Commission On Ministry members, everyone agreed that the voice was probably my father and that it was God’s disguise to get me to listen to him in a way that I could.
I remember that day vividly, almost as vividly as I remember the day my father died, so it was truly a better memory to have. From that day forward whenever I am in doubt of the presence of my father or of God, a gentle voice saying my Navajo name will come and appear and I realize then that I am right where I am supposed to be.
I desire to help my people understand that Christianity and Navajo traditions are hand in hand and connect in so many ways than one. Our church has an understanding of this harmony and we call it “Hooghan Learning Circle.”
Hooghan Learning Circle first of all represents the shared walk along the Sacred Way, in which we as a people are to learn to relate to the wisdom and traditions of our own Holy People and Jesus in harmony and beauty. It is an on-going development of ministry formation process that encourages and supports the emergence and carrying of the wisdom of the two spiritual traditions, Diné and Christianity for all who seek this common faith. My father implemented this ministry development process and I intend to honor his work with Hooghan Learning Circle with the help of my own theological education formation.
This is my story, this is who I am, I believe in both faith traditions. AMEN
The 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church is meeting through July 3 in Salt Lake City, UT (Diocese of Utah). The Episcopal Church’s General Convention is held every three years, and is the bicameral governing body of the Church. It comprises the House of Bishops, with upwards of 200 active and retired bishops, and the House of Deputies, with clergy and lay deputies elected from the 108 dioceses and three regional areas of the Church, at more than 800 members.
The video services of the daily Eucharist during General Convention 2015 have been produced by the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.
Watch the Eucharist on the Media Hub here. https://livestream.com/accounts/12656718/events/3897940/videos/91209128