The Fount of Every Blessing
Robert Robinson was born in 1735. While young, his father died. He became uncontrollable as a young man and finally his mother sent him to London to learn barbering. He quickly became an excellent student of drinking and gang life instead. A chance encounter with the great preacher, George Whitfield sowed the seeds that three years later changed Robinson’s life.
At age twenty, he entered the ministry and wrote “Come, Thou fount of every blessing” as a hymn to go with his sermon for the Day of Pentecost, 1758. Having discovered God’s purpose for his life, he worked faithfully at it until his death at age 54 in 1790.
I begin here where our last All Parish Gathering ended, with the singing of Robinson’s beloved hymn. It was a moving and powerful conclusion to the night with included a bible study on the parable of the sower.
Now there is a nice Holy Spirit coincidence, singing Robinson’s hymn, with his life’s trajectory redemptively altered by Whitfield’s sermon and the seeds sowed therein, and studying the parable of the sower to focus our evening reflection on God in our lives, individually and collectively at Good Shepherd.
We want very much to make a difference in the lives of others in the name of Jesus Christ and this parable certainly informs missional ministry in the new apostolic age of the 21st century where each of us, rather than the institution of the church, may be called upon to sow the seeds of God’s good news in Christ in more intentional ways each day.
I’ve written of how the evening ended, now let’s turn to how it began as Ginny Inman offered these words of challenge at the start of our meeting.
Agents for God
A few weeks ago, I brought my two year old into church for communion. Upon reaching the pew, he looked around and pronounced in a whisper so loud that the choir could hear, “I don’t see Jesus anywhere.” “Look,” I said, pointing to the beautiful stained glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd that hangs above the altar. “Ohhh,” he said, with wide eyes, before launching into a robust version of “Jesus had a little lamb (to the tune of Mary had a little lamb).” Of course, you know the powerful ending of that revised song. “And everywhere that Jesus went, the lamb was sure to go.”
Where will we go now? Where is Jesus leading us? This church is founded on the powerful promise made by Christ to the beloved community recounted in John’s Gospel: “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. I am not like the hired hand who scatters at the first sign of danger, but have come so that the sheep may have life and have it abundantly.” (paraphrase of John 10)
The Good Shepherd stands at the center of our common life. This powerful and precious image of our Lord stretches back to the God of Israel who cared for his people with compassion, steadfastness and gentleness. Recall the words of Psalm 100, “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” We belong to the Good Shepherd. The shepherd not only leads his sheep, he sustains them. In the familiar words of Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, ironically becoming the sacrificial Paschal Lamb so that we might be saved.
The Good Shepherd asks only that we, his sheep, follow his voice. In a world where it is hard to find still waters, when the demands of each day drown out goodness and mercy, we are listening together for the voice of the Shepherd. As the daughter of a cattle farmer, this in itself is remarkable. Sheep actually respond to the voice of their shepherd, coming when they are called. For the last year, this church has committed to exploring where Christ is calling us and how we might answer that call. There is no question that Church of the Good Shepherd is a community of continued worship and service, strength and refuge. In fact, the first stage of this parish-wide process began last spring when 350 people gathered in one another’s homes to share their thin places at Church of the Good Shepherd, places where heaven and earth met, where they encountered Christ in this community. These stories, filled with hope and light and laughter, witnessed to how Christ lives among us. But the challenging thing about shepherds is that they never set up shop; they are always on the move. In a church that is stable and healthy, but not growing, the real task at hand is to challenge our complacency. To that end, we have engaged in several exercises this fall – each designed to awaken our senses, our sight and hearing, our awareness of what it means to follow the Good Shepherd here in 2010 at the Church of the Good Shepherd.
Now a word about process. It is astounding that Jesus changed the whole world with twelve disciples (eleven when it was said and done). Even more remarkable is the fact that he chose ordinary fishermen to proclaim the Good News of God to the ends of the earth without so much as a phone interview. He doesn’t solicit resumes, run a background check or require a proficiency exam. Face it. These were not members of MENSA or the Harvard brain trust, these were ordinary people who said yes to a rabble-rousing rabbi. He empowered and charged these disciples to heal and teach and proclaim, as the Holy Spirit does us even now. Discipleship is not the job of clergy or church professionals, it is the call of all baptized Christians. At baptism, we pledge to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ and are marked as Christ’s own forever, the sheep of his pasture. It is up to you to discern and respond to the Good Shepherd’s call.
I was talking with the adult confirmation class last week about how Jesus is a man of strong verbs. Do. Love. Repent. Heal. Give. Pray. Sow. Feed. Clothe. Forgive. Trust. Welcome. And perhaps the most difficult of all, follow. Follow me, Jesus says. Following Jesus means going where he goes, touching who he touched. In August, we gathered to explore “Who is our neighbor?” Presented with data about the 30904 zip code where we are located, we learned, among other things, that the poverty level here is higher than the national average and that there is a high number of single mothers and non-traditional families. Even more interesting than the data may have been our resistance to it. We protested and qualified that such a snapshot did not represent the members of the parish who live in at least ten various zip codes, the largest percentage of parishioners coming from outside our immediate geographic area. But that misses the point or perhaps reinforces it. Are we a vital faith community right here where we sit? How are we proclaiming the good news of God’s grace to our own neighbors? Are they finding God here? Is this lovely Victorian church on the hill a sign of God’s presence in the world? That exercise illustrated that there are a number of lost sheep right here in our own pasture.
Next, we named our gifts, recognizing that God is the good giver who endows us with resources, talents, skills. Those gifts become blessings when they are shared. We will discuss the parable of the sower in a few minutes, the one who chooses generosity over efficiency. God does not meticulously till the earth and line up the seeds, but instead God flings them forth with excessive abundance. Our shepherd is a God of staggering grace. Look at our walls – those post-its are not inexpensive wall art, they are manifestations of the abundance of God, God’s gifts to the people of this parish. It is time to do something with them. Last month, we shifted the looking glass and were stretched to see in new and creative ways how God is at work in the world. Like detectives of divinity, we used our collective vision to challenge old perceptions and see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Follow me, Jesus says, and we are commanded to do the gutsy, fabulous work of serving the Shepherd, of caring for the flock, of seeking the lost sheep. You see, it is not enough to display a sign that says “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” or create catchy literature that describes the Church of the Good Shepherd as a place of purpose. We must mean it. We must live it. We are not just a pretty place to sing in Summerville each Sunday. We are more than a well-dressed group of polite people with good taste in liturgy. We are the Body of Christ. Our call is not just to welcome those who cross our threshold, but to walk outside these walls to meet the needs of those who are hungry and thirsty, lonely, sad or sick. The Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to retrieve the one who has strayed. When the lost one returns to the fold, he doesn’t say, “where have you been”, but instead, “welcome home.” Finding a single stray is a reason for rejoicing.
I am tired of all the books and blogs and seminars about why mainline Protestant churches are declining. When Church becomes a consumer driven encounter where clergy market their Christ to shoppers seeking the best deal, we have failed to embody the truth that the Gospel of salvation is alive. Jesus Christ walked among us, was crucified and rose again so that we might have life. That is good news worth sharing.
There is an old story of two men who recounted the 23 Psalm before a large audience. The first, a polished orator delivered the Psalm with eloquence and was met with great applause. The second man, older and less polished, then spoke the same words. He was met with complete silence. The great speaker rose to his feet and said, “Friends, I wish to offer an explanation of what happened here tonight. You gave me your applause, but when my friend had finished, you remained reverently silent. The difference is, I know the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd.”
We know the Shepherd. We were created to participate in Jesus’ saving mission for all the earth. If we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world, as Theresa of Avila writes, what is our witness? What are we teaching others about the Good Shepherd who leads us? Are there lost sheep in our own parish? When we encounter people at work or school, at the soccer field or golf course, will they know we are Christians by our love, by the way we care for one another, for the least of these, for the lost? At the end of the day, we fail to follow if we do not live the incarnate love we proclaim.
You already know that you can live the love of Christ. The cottage meetings last spring revealed that you have seen the face of Christ in one another. You have bound up one another’s wounds, made casseroles and knitted prayer shawls, you have prayed for those in trouble, spent the night with those who have no place to lie their heads and stocked food pantry shelves. You live in a place endowed with assets and opportunities – an army base, medical school, an internationally known golf tournament. You are a people blessed with bountiful resources and tremendous faith, intellect, skill and compassion. You already have everything you need to answer Christ’s call now. We have discovered our neighbors, named our gifts, seen our community of faith with new eyes. What Jesus asks of each of you is the courage to commit. He asks that you follow the Good Shepherd.
At the close of John’s Gospel, the resurrected Christ appears to the disciples on the seashore and shares a bread fish breakfast with them on the beach. Jesus asks Simon Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter replies “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him: “Feed my lambs.” A second time Jesus said, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” Again Simon Peter responds, this time sounding like a hen pecked husband, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to Simon Peter a third time, “do you love me?” Peter felt hurt at this question, but replied “Lord, you know everything: you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
The shepherd is calling.
What will you do?
A Sower Went Out to Sow
Following Ginny’s remarks, we read Luke’s account of the parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-15). Nearly 140 parishioners engaged several questions about the parable. Groups were asked to give particular attention to and report back on their responses to the question: What deeply matters to the Church of the Good Shepherd?
We have now completed the All Parish exercises in this process of renewal and discernment that began early this year. In December, a small group of parishioners and Vestry will begin the process of reviewing and sorting all the information that the exercises have provided us about our life and ministry, reporting back to the congregation in late January or early February.
Tune Our Hearts to Sing Thy Grace!
While we await the report of this group, one thing we know for sure – Good Shepherd is filled with people who know of God’s amazing grace and are deeply grateful for it. As a parish we know that God is the fount of every blessing that we have received and we are determined that our hearts shall sing of his marvelous grace.