Easter 4 – Year C

Many of us have a list of writers who are, for us, our “favorite authors” – often because they give us a glimpse of something we think we know… but then allow us to see it in a whole new way. Maybe you go like to go “old school”, with authors like William Shakespeare, or Jules Verne, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Louisa May Alcott. Or maybe your tastes lean more toward a good mystery written by Agatha Christie, or Truman Capote, or Dan Brown, or Sue Grafton. Or perhaps you love those sweeping tales by James Michener. Or maybe you prefer to be transported to a different world by J.K. Rowling, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis. So… who are some of your favorite authors? ________ One of my favorite authors died just one year ago last week. He lived up in the Seattle area, but set most of his stories in Montana. Ivan Doig is his name, and he was the author of somewhere over a dozen novels, telling sweet, complex, and compelling tales of the people and the places I call home.

One of my favorite books is a novel he wrote over 25 years ago now entitled English Creek. The story revolves around the McCaskell family during the course of one summer in 1939 – there was Verig McCaskell, the forest ranger at the English Creek Ranger Station on the Two Medicine Forest just south of Glacier National Park; his wife, Beth; and their two sons, Alec and Jick.

Having lived most of my life in Montana and Idaho, I’ve spent a lot of time in or near the national forests. In fact, even now, our home up in Altadena is just four blocks from the edge of the Angeles National Forest, right out our back door. So, over the years, I’ve also known lots of people who have worked for the Forest Service. Being a forest ranger today is actually not a lot different than rangering was back in the 1930’s. If you ever look at a National Forest sign when you’re out driving in the woods, there will be a slogan on the bottom reading, “Land of Many Uses”. Then, as now, a forest ranger had to manage a whole slew of sometimes complimentary, and sometimes competing, interests simultaneously.

Such was the experience of Verig McCaskell, who, in addition to managing the timber on his section of the forest, was also responsible for managing the sheep and the cattle which grazed on forest land as well. At one point early in the summer, Verig and his younger son Jick made their annual trek up into the high country to count the various bands of sheep for the census which had to be submitted to the Forest Service Regional Headquarters in Missoula every year. Now, counting these huge bands of sheep was no easy task, so the rangers had constructed counting pens – two long fences shaped into large “V”, where the band of sheep would be driven into the wide end, and then counted as they exited through the narrow opening at the point of the “V.” Getting a bunch of unwieldy sheep into the large end of the “V” was difficult enough. But convincing them to squeeze through the narrow opening one by one at the other end was quite another. And there was none better at getting the sheep to move than Verig McCaskell. Unlike the other rangers who would ride their horses at breakneck speed, racing to and fro trying to startle the sheep forward, Verig would climb off his horse, fill his hat with cottonwood seeds, and walk into that mass of sheep. Then, as he approached the sheep nearest the opening in the “V”, he would start to shake his hat, and sprinkle a few of those seeds on the ground, and begin to gently cluck and coo. Then, gradually, the sheep closest to him would be drawn toward him and the opening. And as the first ones exited the gate, the great herd would slowly follow along, until all had been counted. Somehow, Verig McCaskell had the uncanny ability to think like a sheep, and then to convince them that the way out was through the narrow gate.

One of the most humbling experiences that comes to most preachers at some point in their preaching career is the realization that, no matter how great of a preacher one might fancy oneself to be, in the long run, most people won’t remember the main point of a sermon by the time they’ve reached the back door of the church at the conclusion of the service – let alone a week, or a month, or a year later. I mean… I’ve heard a lot of great sermons in my life… or at least I think I have. At least I remember thinking to myself at the time, “That was a really good sermon.” But I can’t tell you now what it was about the sermon that made it so great.

This is especially true at services which are special for some other reason… you know, like Christmas or Easter, or baptisms or weddings. And it is especially true, I think, about ordination sermons. Sylvia and I were talking about this recently, and despite the fact that both of us were ordained twice – once as a deacon and once as a priest – neither of us could remember a single thing about the sermon at any of those four ordinations. We couldn’t even remember the preachers, let alone anything they might have had to say. I’ve been to lots of ordinations in my life… which means that I’ve heard countless ordination sermons. And I must say that, almost without exception, I can’t tell you a single thing I can remember from any of them.

But one – and only one – does stand out. It was a sermon which I heard over 30 years ago now, at the ordination to the priesthood of a friend of mine while I was still in seminary back in Chicago. Catharine was being ordained on a Sunday afternoon in early May. It was, like today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, and the scriptures she had chosen for her ordination were the regular Sunday lessons appointed for the day. The 4th Sunday of Easter is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the lessons and opening prayer always revolve around the images of sheep and shepherds, as did ours today. And so, the gospel lesson for the ordination that afternoon was taken from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, the same chapter we heard just a few minutes ago… the passage which, just a couple of verses before the part we heard today, contains those familiar words, “I am the good shepherd.” I heard this sermon preached just a few weeks before I was to graduate, just a few weeks before the end of my three-year seminary sojourn where I thought I had prepared myself quite well (thank you very much) to go out and be a pastor – a shepherd (that’s what the word “pastor” means, after all) – to some flock of Christians somewhere just waiting for my arrival so that I might lead them.

The words of the sermon that afternoon were directed toward my friend, Catharine, but the impact of those words came straight to me. The preacher that day, so full of wisdom, began his sermon by looking at Catharine and quoting from the day’s gospel lesson, “Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’” And then he paused. Again he said, “Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’” And he paused again. A third time he said, “Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’ And therefore, Catharine,” the preacher continued, “you are not. You are not being ordained this afternoon to be a shepherd. We already have the only one we need. You are being ordained to be one of the sheep.”

I’ve got to tell you, those words changed my life. For years I’d thought I was being called to be a shepherd – sometimes prodding from the back, other times tugging from the front, trying to maintain some sense of order in an unruly herd, keeping the wolves at bay, going off after the strays that had wandered off into the night. But now, almost as though it had come in a flash, I saw the world differently. I still felt the call to lead. But now, instead of leading from the outside as a shepherd, I understood that the call to lead was from the inside – as a sheep among sheep – with another one – one more important than I – serving as the real shepherd.

One of the great seductions of the Church is when her clergy start believing that they’re the shepherds of the community, and everyone else is just one of the sheep. And I must admit it is probably a seduction to which each of us, as clergy, has fallen victim at some time or another… a seduction perpetuated by the Church itself by its use of language calling clergy “pastors”; and its decision to let bishops carry long staffs called crosiers with a curve at the end – just like a shepherd’s staff. But let there be no doubt – there is only one shepherd in this church… and it’s not me, and it’s not Bishop Bruno. When Jesus says in this morning’s gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” I know what shepherd the sheep are really supposed to be following.

Many of you know that I teach at Bloy House, the Episcopal seminary up in Claremont where I am the Professor of Church Leadership. The question which continues to arise in my classes, in one form or another is: “If we’re not meant to be shepherds, then what exactly is our role as a leader in the church?” It’s a fair question. And it is not a question which is limited just to the ordained leaders in a church community. It’s a question which is just as pertinent in terms of leadership on the Vestry, or the altar guild, or the music program, or the ECW, or with our outreach efforts, or in a bible study. If we’re not supposed to lead as shepherds, then how, exactly, are we supposed to lead?

And that same question carries us away from this place as well. What does it mean to provide leadership in your family or at your place of work? What form does leadership take in your home, or your neighborhood, or in your community? Those who try to lead as shepherds are, at least on one level, doomed to failure for one simple reason: A shepherd will never be one of sheep, and a sheep will never be a shepherd.

So, then, what is the alternative? I would suggest that if we’re not called to lead as shepherds, we are called, instead, to lead as sheep – sheep who are acutely aware of the presence and voice of the shepherd in our own lives, and who can, by our own witness and example, bring along the other sheep – just as did Verig McCaskell up on English Creek… with a calm and quiet presence… with a welcoming voice… and sometimes with a hat full of cottonwood seeds.

The message of today’s gospel is clear… be a sheep… be the best sheep you can be… for the Good Shepherd is calling us each by name to that place where there will be one flock, and one shepherd.