John 6:35-38, Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
St Matthew’s, Bloomington
Virtually from the moment I first shook hands with Bruce DeGooyer, in a Decatur banquet room when the three candidates for Bishop of Springfield were being introduced to the diocese more than two years ago, I have thought that he has the charism of a priest, the persona of a priest. So it came as no shock to me at all when Bruce told me he was discerning a vocation to the priesthood. My outward response was something like, “Well, let’s pray on that.” My inward response was more like, “Duh. Of course!”
So here were are, and what a joy this is. Tonight Bruce is accepting a vocation, responding to a call, to be an icon of Christ the Good Shepherd. Jesus, of course, is the only true shepherd in the deepest, truest sense. But he calls some from among his people to be particular signs of his own pastoral ministry, and he shares that ministry with them, such that he acts concretely and reliably through them. When a priest pronounces absolution, forgiveness of sins, the voice of the priest is the very voice of Jesus. When a priest bestows a blessing, it is the very Son of God himself bestowing that blessing. A priest standing at the altar offering the Eucharist does so in persona Christi—in the person of Christ. So what we’re doing here tonight is highly significant—and I want you to see the word “sign” hidden in the larger word “significant”—because we’re asking God to send his Holy Spirit so powerfully into Bruce that Bruce will, in his own person, become a sign, a walking icon, of Jesus our Good Shepherd, helping lead the flock of Christ to green pastures and still waters, and protecting them from predators.
But we’re doing what we’re doing on October 4, on the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. Whether it’s actually fair to St Francis or not—and I suspect that it is indeed not fair—for good or for ill, St Francis is mostly known among Christians in our society as Animal Lover-in-Chief. So, in terms that we might identify with St Francis, perhaps we could say—since only Jesus himself is the actual true Good Shepherd—that what we’re doing to Bruce tonight is turning him into a … border collie. A border collie is … kind of a shepherd, a shepherd’s assistant, at any rate. Now, I happen to share a roof with a border collie, so I know a thing or two about how they operate. A border collie likes to have a job to do, and, once that job is identified, is very devoted, obsessively devoted, to that job. From the perspective of a shepherd, those are actually pretty valuable attributes for an assistant to have.
So it’s a compelling scene that we can paint in our mind’s eye: A beautiful day out in the country, a shepherd leaning back on a tree, staff in hand, keeping his eye on the contentedly grazing flock of sheep, while the border collies circle the flock vigilantly, occasionally nipping at the heels of a sheep that starts to stray. It’s the sort of thing an artist would want to capture with water colors or pastels, and then we could have it framed and hang it on the wall of the den, and be reminded of how it’s just like life in the church, with the bishop representing Christ the Good Shepherd, staff in hand, and the border collies, also known as priests, working hard to help keep the flock in green pastures and beside still waters, and the sheep themselves happy and serene, just grateful for the care they receive.
Well … a bishop can fantasize, right? Real life for sheep and those who care for sheep is not very much like that painting that hangs in the den, and real life in the community of the church is not very much like what that painting symbolizes. Bruce, we are setting you apart in this place to help tend the flock of Christ, to help me tend that portion of the flock of Christ known as the Diocese of Springfield. But what you’re going to find—truth to tell, you’ve probably discovered this already—what you’re going to find is that the sheep in your flock will usually behave not so much like sheep as like … cats. Sheep are usually dull-witted and compliant. Cats are generally much more intelligent and a great deal more independent. They do have minds of their own, and those feline qualities will affect how you minister to them as a shepherd … or, catheard.
Down in Springfield, in the home of the Bishop of Springfield, there lives an eleven-year old border collie named Lucy. Lucy has two cats committed to her pastoral care—a twelve-year old orange tabby named Bixby, and a four-year old little Bengal called Kippy. Lucy understands it to be part of her job description to “herd” Bixby and Kippy. In actuality, she’s pretty lenient about this, and cuts them a generous amount of slack. She doesn’t pester them. The only thing Lucy has a short fuse about is any degree of conflict or altercation between the cats. She has declared the house to be a No Hissing Zone. If the cats even think about mixing it up with one another, Lucy is there with the “paw of death.”
So the cats have learned what sets Lucy off, and they behave accordingly. But, other than that, they don’t pay her any attention, and just keep the border in the background as they go about their lives. So, Bruce, I don’t even know how to begin to tell you what using the “paw of death” would look like in your ministry, so it’s probably best not to even let your mind go there. What you’re going to have to do is discover that the “cats” for whom you care as a priest need to be dealt with rather more patiently and artfully than do typical sheep.
For example, in our house, the “domestic shepherd,” whose name is Brenda, knows what Bixby needs even though he can’t spell it out for her, and as he ages, his needs have multiplied. So Brenda makes sure there’s always food in his bowl, because he doesn’t like it when even a little bit of the bottom of the bowl is exposed, and when he’s being indecisive about staying outside or coming in, Brenda knows how to read his mind and helps him come to the right decision. A good shepherd, ever a good shepherd of cats, knows the flock and can speak not only to them, but for them. Bruce, as a pastor, it will be your joy to say what those among whom you minister cannot find the words for. This is, in fact, the very essence of good preaching. The best sermons don’t so much tell people something new, as tell them what they already know, but don’t have the words for.
And whether you’re in the pulpit, or teaching a class, or leading a group, or doing counseling or spiritual direction, or participating in the larger ministry of the diocese, it will always be your vocation to speak the truth in love, as Paul exhorts the Ephesians in our epistle reading tonight. Speaking the truth in love is much more easily said than done. It demands that one strive for clarity without sacrificing charity, and strive for charity without sacrificing clarity. That’s why we’re going to expend so much energy in a few moments invoking the Holy Spirit, because, without being constantly filled by the Holy Spirit, you will not be able to do this job.
In addition to the grace of the Holy Spirit, the one thing that will sustain your ministry among the various flocks of cats that you will be called to serve is the knowledge that “if you feed them, they will come.” Bixby and Kippy pretty much come and go as they please—we had a pet door installed—but when it’s time to eat, particularly in the morning, they’re around. And it is cause for rejoicing tonight that Bruce is being equipped with an ample supply of the food that does not perish, the food that gives life. Both in word and sacrament, Bruce will feed the flock of Christ with Jesus who is the very Bread of Life, he whose flesh is food indeed and whose blood is drink indeed.
I am so excited about what this ordination means—to Bruce, to St Matthew’s, but, I must confess, most of all, to the Diocese of Springfield—because it is in that wider role that I expect him to be one of the most valuable border collies at my disposal as we pursue our mission, God’s mission, together. Now let’s get this done! Amen.