Trust in the Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.

Today is the day that we gather in our annual meeting to talk about our plans. We have been planning, studying, estimating and evaluating for well over a year, now. We have hired professionals to inspect the fabric of our buildings, and the Vestry and I have guided discussions and prayer about the workings of the ministries that are housed in and around these buildings. We have been responsible, because you have to be responsible about these things.

We are not done, mind you. We will have to endure feasibility studies and more detailed plans, more meetings, more discussion, more prayer and discernment. No, we are not done. We are being careful.

And when we are (rightly) being so careful, it can be hard, very hard, to trust. But the message of the gospel today is a message of trust. Trust in Christ who cares for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep.

It is hard for us to trust God. If we try to think of people who trusted in God, we feel a little sorry for them. Think of those early Christians who trusted God even in the face of persecution. Think of the pilgrims whose trust in God landed them on the shores of New England where they found a harsher life than they left behind and nearly starved. Think of the Baptists – any Baptist will do – by which I mean those Christians who we imagine as less sophisticated and less toothsome than we are who seem to place their trust in God for the most mundane things – like winning a football game.

It’s hard for us to put our trust in God, because we have come to believe that we should really trust ourselves, our instincts, our knowledge, our sublime ability at anything we choose to do. We can analyze a situation, size up the obstacles, assess our resources, concoct a plan, and accomplish any goal. Man on the moon? You got it! Heart transplant? Every-day procedure! A tiny communications device in every pocket? Please, turn your cell phones to vibrate mode while I’m preaching. What is there that we humans cannot do when we put our minds to it, if only we will trust in our ingenuity and the power of the marketplace? (OK, our confidence in the market is shaken, but do you seriously doubt that it will return?) But trust in God?!? This is a tall order.

There is a reason that the 23rd Psalm is usually heard at funerals: that is, perhaps, the only time that we, knocked off balance by our grief, are open to the idea that we might have to trust in God. The Lord is my shepherd… yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. The Lord is my shepherd, and I am his sheep. Trust, trust, trust in God during this dark hour of death and grief. But eventually the clouds of death disperse, and we must get on with it, and put our trust back where it belongs again: in ourselves.

Churches are not immune to this struggle to trust in God (even Baptist churches). But Episcopalians may be the worst. This is in part because for a long time we Episcopalians were the best at everything else. Exhibit A: The Lady Chapel of this church. Rodman Wanamaker, who built it (or, I should say, who extravagantly paid for it) wasn’t even an Episcopalian. But when he decided to bury his Episcopalian wife in style, nothing was spared, only the best would do. And didn’t that seem perfectly appropriate to the congregation here at the time? They’d done everything else marvelously well.

But, oh, how hard it is to trust in God. (The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.) I once heard a famous, wonderful Baptist preacher in the pulpit of a small Episcopal church filled with a very well-to-do congregation say to us: “Your problem is that you have such low expectations of God. I know you have low expectations of God because you are Episcopalians!”

How can we trust God when we have such low expectations of him?

Do we stop to consider that the account of what happened among those first followers of Jesus after his death and resurrection is not a theological treatise on the topic but a chronicle of the Acts of the Apostles – what they did in Jesus’ name!? They healed the sick, raised the dead and spread the word against unreasonable odds! The Lord was their shepherd; the Lord is your shepherd; the Lord is my shepherd.

There is a lie being told these days about religion that is told so often you may have begun to believe it: that religion is personal. This lie is told in order to shut down conversation in a country that has become increasingly uncomfortable with religious diversity. Religion may have its personal aspects, but at its heart religion is most definitely not personal: it is communal, social, a group enterprise. The Good Shepherd is shepherd of a flock, not a collection of individuals. And most often when he calls his sheep together it is not so he can help them develop healthy, contemplative inner lives, it is so he can get the sheep to move together in a single direction and do something, go somewhere. (And in that process he allows for the development of good, healthy, contemplative inner lives.) Have you ever been stopped, in your travels, by a flock of sheep crossing a road? What a thing to see all these stupid sheep, baa-ing nose-to-tail as they are cajoled across the road. But get enough of them in one place and they can stop traffic!

We have given you today sheaves of paper, as background for the Master Plan and the Strategic Goals for ministry of this parish. These pages discuss many different areas of our life but they have one subliminal, underlying message: trust us; trust me. And, oh, how I hope you will absorb that message, like good little sheep! (Trust us; trust me.) We have outlined many things but two outcomes will clearly result from them all: some things are going to change, and we are going to have to raise money! (Trust us; trust me.) And no one likes to see things change, or to raise money – well, at least no Episcopalian!

And so I have been telling you this secret that, really, you already know, but which is seldom said out loud in church. It is hard to trust in God – hard for you, and hard for me to trust that God is actually going to help us do the things he has planted in our imaginations as possible and reasonable and good for the life of this parish. It is hard to trust in the Good Shepherd, especially when we have convinced ourselves that we have to trust in ourselves, since, after all, religion is so personal.

Our architects have delivered to me and to the Buildings & Property Committee today a thick book of plans, with lots or words, lots or pictures, and lots of zeros!

The Vestry and I have presented to you two pages of Strategic Goals for ministry, and the news that the Sunday morning schedule is going to change this Fall.

All of this will be deeply disruptive to your personal religion (and mine) and undermine your already faltering ability (and mine) to trust in God, and in his Son Jesus. Easier to leave things alone, leave one another in peace, for God’s sake!

And if the message of all these pages, and of all this talk was to say that we should not worry because we can do it (trust us; trust me), then you would be wise to consider carefully whether or not all this talk has been for naught. And tempting as I find that message, quite frankly, much as I want to reassure you about what we can do as a community of faith and of strength, I know that it is not the message of the Gospel. The Gospel tells us where to place our trust: in that Good Shepherd who is so trustworthy that he laid down his life for us.

I am glad we have been careful in the way we have gone about all the planning, all the conversations that led us to this point in our lives. I am glad we have spent the time in discussion and prayer and evaluation. I’m glad we hired expert professionals to help us. I am glad we have exercised due diligence, and I know we have more due diligence to do.

But I am more profoundly glad that what brings us all to this church, and to this discussion, is not just the musings of our own personal religion and our confidence in ourselves, but a conviction, I pray, that as a community of faith we can do nothing whatsoever unless we put our trust in Christ, the Good Shepherd, and anything at all that we can imagine – and so much more – when we do.

The Lord is my shepherd; the Lord is your shepherd; the Lord is our shepherd. If we put our trust in him – together – I believe we may even stop traffic as people stop to see where God is leading this marvelous flock on Locust Street.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
3 May 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 3, 2009 .