Thursday, April 23, 2015

From Sheepdog to Lead Dog to--Listening Dog?

There is an old saying that if Jesus is the Great Shepherd and human beings are the sheep, then the clergy must be--sheepdogs. We even have collars! And, sometimes we clergy can feel that way--just barking at the sheep, trying to get them to do what we believe the Shepherd is calling us to do. And, frankly, most pastors I know don't have the energy to keep up that frantic pace and most "sheep" are tired of being barked at. So what's the solution?

Shut up and let the Great Shepherd speak. Listen to Him yourself. Help others listen, too.

As we approach the upcoming General Convention in the Episcopal Church, the upcoming general election in the United States, and the constant bombardment of apocalyptic thinking continues, I find myself being sucked into the temptation to simply do things faster or do more things, or find SOMETHING that will save the institutional church (and, oh yes, my job) from what seems a constant and inevitable death spiral. Yes, I know that may be overstating things. Yes, I know that there are plenty of examples of vibrant, growing churches. But mine is not (yet!) one of them and I can only go with what I have.

As I consider all of the challenges in the church and in the world, one disturbing thing was made clear to me in our bible study of the Gospel for this coming Sunday, often called Good Shepherd Sunday:

Jesus does not care about the institutional church.

Jesus makes it clear in and around the gospel passage that the "sheep" (a.k.a. the People of God) are his responsibility. He also makes clear that the "hired hands" (pastors?) are apt to run off and abandon the sheep at the slightest sign of trouble--maybe even for the best of reasons, I'm thinking. Maybe to get help. Maybe to try something else. Maybe just out of fatigue. Whatever it is, Jesus draws a very sharp distinction between the hired shepherds and Jesus as the Great Shepherd.

But it gets worse for us institutionally-minded folks.

Jesus not only says he is THE Shepherd and that hired shepherds are not always to be trusted to stick around, but turns around and pretty much indicts the Pharisees and temple authorities for being more concerned about preserving the temple than they are about caring for their people. They have, in effect, struck a bargain with the occupying Roman (pagan) forces--we won't bother you and we'll make sure the people don't rise up in revolt if you promise not to come in and destroy the city, including the temple. This was way before Karl Marx wrote that religion was the "opiate of the masses."

In fact, it is precisely this alliance between the temple authorities and the Roman forces that ends up getting Jesus crucified! And, lo and behold, less than 40 years later the temple is destroyed along with the city, and the people are scattered. It is so tempting to get ourselves wrapped up in institutions, in survival, in preservation, and in busyness. If we do so, we are apt to miss the voice of the Great Shepherd and left standing in the middle of a parched, overgrazed patch of ground wondering where all of the other sheep went. A useful reminder.