The Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2017
Bishops carry croziers, the name for that fancy long crook, a sign of their symbolic role as shepherd of the people. Last Saturday in Indianapolis, John and I and about 1500 other joyous people got to witness, for the first time, a woman: the retiring tenth bishop, Cate Waynick, hand her crozier to another woman: our friend, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, now the eleventh bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis.
Today we celebrate what churchy folks refer to as Good Shepherd Sunday. Our lessons revolve around Jesus as the good shepherd – the one who promises to leave the 99 in order to go find one lost sheep, and then to carry it home over his shoulder; the one who must go to care for his sheep who are not of this fold, and who promises to return.
We just prayed and sang the 23rd psalm, those most-familiar words: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” We will sing, “Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless,” and “The king of love my shepherd is.” Language of the good shepherd will weave its way throughout our prayer and worship.
The tricky part of all this is the parallel. I don’t find it all that difficult to imagine Jesus as the good shepherd – tending, leading, and caring for his flock. The hard part is that those who follow him are the sheep. And sheep are most often – and mistakenly, I believe – described in unlovely ways…as smelly, messy, and dumb. So who wants to be compared with that?
I come from cattle and sheep country, a place where wars actually raged between cattle ranchers and sheepmen (as they were called) in the 1890s. They all grazed their livestock on the same open lands back then. And cattle ranchers didn’t like sheep, because sheep eat everything – so the ranchers saw the sheep as stripping the land where they hoped to have their animals roam and be fed. And many of the ranchers held the sheepmen in a certain amount of contempt, not just because they couldn’t stand sheep, but because the shepherds did things differently. Cattle are driven from behind, back then always by men on horseback, with whips and shouts. You can’t do that with sheep; they’ll get scared and try to run around behind you. Sheep have to be led by someone who is in their midst. So instead of riding horseback, shepherds have to walk with their animals. Sheep don’t follow strangers, and they won’t go anywhere without being led there by someone they trust, who goes ahead and shows them that it will be okay.
Today’s gospel testifies to the wisdom of those who follow. “The sheep hear his voice,” Jesus says as he tells people the parable of the good shepherd. “They follow, because they know his voice. Those who came before were thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.”
No, this gospel does not hold up that “smelly, messy, and dumb” trope for the sheep who follow Jesus. Those who follow in this gospel passage have their own wisdom, their own discernment. They know how to listen, and whom to trust.
And that’s important, because there are thieves. There are bandits. There are those who push and jostle and shout.
It matters, the wisdom and discernment and trust of those who follow.
In 1915, the Indiana Ku Klux Klan organized itself with a focus on prohibition, education, political corruption, and mortality. Klansmen opposed immigration, wrote and supported laws to limit the number of people moving to this country; it was hostile to Catholics and Jews, was avowedly white supremacist.
By 1922, Indiana's KKK was the largest organization of any in the country, averaging 2,000 new members a week between 1922 and 1923. Membership would grow to 250,000, with nearly one third of all white men born in the United States and living in Indiana joining the ranks as Klansmen. By 1925, Klan membership counted the governor of Indiana, more than half the elected members of the state legislature, and a majority of ranking state and local government officials. People who wanted to run for any office at any level learned that they had to get KKK endorsement if they hoped to get elected.
Thieves and bandits.
So what does it say, just fewer than 100 years later, that the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis would call a black woman to take hold of that crozier?
Last Sunday in Godly Play, the children heard the story of The Good Shepherd and the World Communion. The good shepherd leads the sheep from their fold out into the pasture, and then to the table of the good shepherd, where the good shepherd is in the bread and the wine. The telling of the story has the priest eventually stand in the place of the shepherd, the sheep exchanged with the people – children and adults.
Teddy LaRosa has heard the story of the good shepherd in Godly Play every year since he was 2 ½ years old. And Teddy knows that the first kid to get to the parable box during response time gets to re-create the story for himself. So by Teddy’s re-creation, the shepherd doesn’t go anywhere. You can see it on your bulletin cover: closest to the table is this angelic, faceless god-like figure. And the priest is there with the children and the people and the sheep. All creation gathers for the feast, that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
There’s wisdom and discernment in those who follow, a reciprocity of trust with the one who leads. We listen for each others’ voices. We know each others’ names.
I can tell you that there was a claiming of Jennifer as bishop last Saturday in Indianapolis. Members of the black community from all over the country, and beyond – lay people and bishops and priests and deacons – gathered to mark the moment of Jennifer’s consecration, standing with joy to sing together the gospel music of “Total praise.” I can tell you that women came from everywhere to mark that day as well, and the image of the retiring bishop giving her crozier to the new bishop, all under the watchful gaze of the very first woman made a bishop of the church, who happens also to be black, is one I will cherish for the rest of my life. I can tell you that the people of Indianapolis chose Jennifer and called her; they trust her, and they know her to be their leader.
Teddy’s re-creation resonated there, again. God was at that table. The good shepherd hadn’t gone anywhere. There were adults and children, together for the feast. And Jennifer was right there in their midst.
There’s wisdom and discernment among those who follow, trusting that Christ comes to us, that we may have life, and have it abundantly.
 a great deal of information about Indiana’s Klan history can be found here: http://www.theindychannel.com/longform/the-ku-klux-klan-ran-indiana-once-could-it-happen-again