There aren’t a whole lot of things in life that make me sad. I am generally quick to laugh, which is good, I can be a bit too quick to anger, which is bad, but something has to be really bad for me to be sad about it, for me to lack the hope or charity or generosity to let go of that sadness and trust that God will make things right. I get sad, like anyone else, when someone dies, more so I am sad for the people who lost someone they loved. But the resurrection brings hope even in death. I get sad when someone comes in and tells me they are sick, that they always will be, that life will not be for them what they thought it should be. But I know that the love and generosity of this parish and others will bring comfort and even joy into the lives of the sick. And I have an ongoing sadness, one I pray will be lifted or the cause rectified. I get sad when I look out into the Church and the world and see so many bad shepherds out there. Every priest, every pastor, everyone with ‘the Reverend’ in front of their name is called to be a shepherd, a leader of Christ’s flock, and though all of us fall, some bring down their flock with them.
At Easter dinner my brother told me he might join the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of bikers who ride to military funerals to shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by groups of protesters who of late have been disrupting military funerals to make a point about gays in the military. “Standing for Those Who Stood for Us” is their motto. I told my brother I would pay for his membership. The only reason the Patriot Guard exists, though, is that Westboro Baptist Church exists. The so called church is led by one Pastor Fred Phelps, and they spend more than a quarter-million dollars a year just on plane tickets to fly their members around the country for protests. My mother called Phelps a bad shepherd, and just look what bad shepherds do. General Joseph Kony is a bad shepherd. He is the main pastor and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan para-church movement which mixes fundamentalist Christianity with brutal violence. They are known locally as the tonga-tonga, which means, roughly, the men who cut off ears and tongues. Twelve-thousand Ugandans have been treated this way by the General and his LRA, and he’s on the move. This is what bad shepherds do, they malign and offend and maim and kill, but it doesn’t start out that way; as bad as all that stuff is, it might not even be the biggest sin committed by the bad shepherds. The biggest sin is the first lie, the first lie about who Jesus is, who He is and what He has commanded us to do.
Some bad shepherds, or at least incompetent shepherds, caught up with Jesus one day in the Temple. Stop messing with us, they said, if you are the Messiah, if you are the one sent by God to save us, just tell us, stop messing with our heads. These shepherds, these priests and theologians of Israel, should have known who was in front of them, but they missed it, and worse, they missed it willfully. “I have told you, and you do not believe,” Jesus said to them. I think it saddened Jesus, it must have made Him sad to see His people so off base, so lost. “My sheep hear my voice,” He said. And “No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
I told you about bad shepherds for a couple of reasons. The first reason is my hope that by telling you about some bad shepherds you might remember how easily the Faith can be twisted. People follow bad shepherds for a lot of reasons, but some are quite plain. No food. No water. No power. No hope. The bad shepherd seizes upon these things, puts a picture of Jesus on the wall and hands his people a picket sign or a gun. Lives always change for the worse after that. Do your best to bring hope to the hopeless, and remember to hold fast to the Faith, to trust that if you only ask Him, Jesus will tell you who He truly is. The second reason is to bring to mind that Good Shepherd, the Shepherd and lover of our souls, that same Jesus who holds nothing back from His sheep, not even His very life. The third reason is that last Sunday was Passion and Purpose Sunday, on which I was, by the encouragement of our Bishop, supposed to give a sermon on vocation in the Church; I was supposed to talk about being and maybe you becoming a priest, but I missed it. I was reminded of that fact, but I didn’t want to tell you my life story or try to encapsulate fifteen years of God poking me in the side into six minutes. I wanted instead to tell you that even though you always hear about the bad shepherds, the abusers and the thieves and the killers and the bigots, there are lots of good shepherds who hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. I wanted to tell you that my passion, the thing that keeps me up at night, is this church and her God. I think that should be any priest’s passion, and I hope it continues to be mine. I can tell you that my purpose, the purpose of a priest, is to give you Jesus, to give you Jesus at the altar rail, to give you Jesus in the pulpit, at dinner, in my office and in your home, to give you Jesus at the font and at the grave. I won’t always know how and I’ll fail; it’s only by the grace of God and your prayers that any of us succeed in our purpose at all. But it’s a worthy passion and the only purpose God gave me. So pray for me. Pray for the good and decent shepherds who give all they can to give us all Jesus. Pray especially for the bad shepherds and for those they have led astray. And pray that at the last, all of us will hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, that none of us will be snatched from His hand.