[Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs press release] Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on April 26 preached at Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, Maine, in celebration of its 125th anniversary.
St. Mary’s, Falmouth, ME
26 April 2015
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
There’s something profoundly tender and moving about celebrating your long presence and faithfulness on Good Shepherd Sunday. This congregation began with the death of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, and it’s named for another young woman whose vocation was to bear a child also destined to die young. Each has been a shepherd, for Mary gave us a Good Shepherd in the flesh, and Alida’s death began to gather this flock.
I don’t know how many sheep there are around here. This part of the world is far more famous for lobsters, seagulls, and bluefin tuna, none of them easily herded, in spite of local free-range lobster! Yet the lives of beloved children of God have shaped this community for a life of shepherding. We’re all sheep – and when we hear the Good Shepherd calling us to come and follow, we become shepherds. If we’re going to love God fully, and love our neighbors as ourselves, then we’ve got to go searching for the lost and sick and wandering, and help them find a place in the fold.
You are shepherding young people at Long Creek Youth Development Center, and here through RAY and Godly Play. Preble Street Kitchen and Souper Supper feed hungry sheep, and your ministry in Haiti guides the young toward right pathways, still waters, and green pastures.
St. Mary’s began with a fairly small fold of sheep and shepherds that primarily welcomed familiar and closely-related sheep. The Brown family and their friends and relatives made up most of the congregation for quite a long time. This was an enclave of sheep who “belonged.” It would likely still be filled with those 99 sheep Jesus says are already safely ensconced in the corral, if some here hadn’t begun to go searching. What helped you go searching for the lost ones?
Alida’s untimely death was part of the original DNA of this place, even if those genes weren’t robustly expressed for a while. Today the care and nurture of children characterizes a lot of your ministry, both within and beyond this congregation. Healthy and growing congregations almost always make that a priority.
Jesus notes that sometimes wolves get into the sheepfold, or hired hands fail to notice their presence, and the sheep suffer. The other sheep in the fold share a responsibility to keep the wolves at bay, and to care for those who are injured. If we ignore the wolves, or don’t tell the truth about their presence, there will never be real healing, growth, and wholeness. Jesus and the disciples had to deal with Judas and his legacy. So must we.
It takes discernment and wisdom to tell the difference between intruders with evil intentions and sheep who simply represent the diversity of God’s creation. Christians, and indeed most human beings, are usually surprised by the presence of sheep who seem to be other. Loving our neighbors as ourselves implies we see the image of God before anything else. There must be a place for every other kind of sheep in the fold, and Jesus is clear about it: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” That includes the ones who go astray – that’s what forgiveness and seeing the image of God are about. There’s a wonderful understanding in Orthodox Christianity that between the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus went down into hell and searched and searched until he found Judas and dragged him out. That’s part of our shepherding work, too.
The sheep in this fold have all been called to help shepherd others. We all have one Good Shepherd, who asks us to come and follow, to seek the lost and serve the least. There will always be more sheep of other folds to discover, meet, befriend, feed, and heal. Sometimes that lost sheep is you or me. When we’re feeling lost, who brings us home again? It’s usually a friend or a loved one, who knows our name and says, come on, come in, come home, you are well loved, treasured, God’s own beloved.
The Brown family might be surprised to learn about the diversity of this congregation today, and perhaps even more by the sheep you’re discovering in Haiti and Preble Street. Who has surprised you?
What about those who have no close friend to show them a loving God with skin on?
When I go out early for a run in the city, I almost always discover sleepers on the street, or park benches, or tucked in behind a bush. Sometimes I have to look a little harder in places where the camouflage is better. Is that a person wrapped in a blanket in that dark corner? I can’t see a face, but I’m fairly sure it is. Are those bags of treasured possessions or is it garbage? And I wonder – where will this one break his fast? Where will she sleep tonight?
Sheepfolds like Preble Street begin to gather and care for lost sheep. The bishop of Costa Rica tells of a small group of women who came to the city regularly for medical treatment, and had no place to wait or rest. They asked for shelter in church after church, who turned them away. Finally, one congregation opened its doors to those whom some see as pariahs. Today those first eight women have become 200, who go back into their communities to help others heal and find hope after learning they have AIDS.
A congregation in North Carolina was closing its doors for lack of members. Its shepherds found the courage to look outside those doors, and today that building houses a church of “holy chaos,” a truly catholic mix of homeless and housed, rich and poor, black, brown, and white, sober and not so much, and even a few dogs who bring their owners. They worship on Wednesdays; host AA groups; cultivate a vegetable garden and run a clothes closet; feed all comers a bounteous gourmet feast; and they offer eight respite beds so that those without homes may recover from hospitalization or medical treatment. Sheep of all sorts are finding a home.
There’s some powerful shepherding work going on in Maine that is seeking to heal relationships between the Abenaki, the first people of this land, and descendants of later immigrants. We have often treated one another as predators rather than fellow sheep, and we have miles to go before we all sleep in one fold.
The heart of the gospel is about the immensely abundant love of God for all his children and creatures. It’s summed up in that wonderful song, “All God’s creatures got a place in the choir.”
All God’s creatures got a place in the choir,
Some sing low and some sing higher,
Some sing out loud on a telephone wire,
Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they’ve got now…
There is a place for every child of God, and a fold for every sheep, where each is welcomed as Christ himself, fed and watered, safely housed, and encouraged to grow toward the abundant, loving way of life for which we were created. That’s why St. Mary’s exists, and why it has endured for more than a century, and why it will continue into the future, if it keeps answering the voice of one who says, “follow me.”
What kind of shepherd are you? What sheep are you tending or searching for? Where do you look for your own shepherding?
And perhaps most important, how will the flock of shepherds here keep searching for the lost and the least? Keep on looking until the very last one has found a home in the sheepfold.
 Haywood Street Congregation, Asheville, NC https://www.faithandleadership.com/welcome-church-holy-chaos