The Good Shepherd: Through Death's Dark Veil [Sermon]
The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine for ever.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit + Amen.
I have always loved to walk. Along the Connecticut River, where I grew up, no place was better for walking then through the fields and marshes, under thickets, and over stiles exploring the farms that spread out in every direction. Behind our house was a Sheep farm; prime location for a twelve-year-old boy to find a life supply of snakes, snails and puppy-dog tails.
It happened one day, around that age, when I was wading through a bog in the lower paddock that I found it: an old Ewe that, like me, had come to the water to escape the heat. Except, she had gotten stuck and drowned. I ran home. My father phoned the farm manager to report the dead Ewe. I walked back to watch the farmer half pull half dig the poor animal out of her muddy grave. As he worked the mid-summer flies swarmed around him. When he finally freed the sheep he hoisted the body up around his shoulders and carried her out of the muck and mire to dry land.
"Where streams of living water flow, my ransomed soul he leadeth, and where the verdant pastures grow, with food celestial feedeth."
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. His sheep hear his voice, he knows them, and we know him. But being a shepherd is dirty toilsome work. Like the farmer who shouldered the dead ewe, Jesus labors to tend his flock; he does not forsake his sheep even in their death.
"Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, but yet in love he sought me, and on his shoulder gently laid, and home, rejoicing, brought me."
After I graduated college, I felt I needed to prove to myself I could find full time work and support myself. My college rector found me my first job. She knew a funeral director who needed a secretary, and with the help of her recommendation I secured the position. It ended up being a difficult job with a difficult boss. But work was work: I proved to myself that I could support myself and I didn’t let the reality of what I was doing bother me. That was until the day my boss handed me the paperwork of a new client. I remember taking a sharp breath. The paperwork was for a young man who died of brain cancer; we shared a birthday.
Typing my own date of birth on a death certificate. Seeing his grieving mother come into our offices remembering the life of her son. This is what broke me out of the monotony of all the signs of death that had surrounded me for weeks. I turned to my rector. She talked to me in terms of her ministry, what death looks like from the perspective of a priest. She helped me to see that her work was that of a shepherd: guiding her congregation through the stages of life. Death being just one of those stages.
"In deaths dark vale I fear no ill with thee, dear Lord, beside me; thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me. "
The church is there to guide us through all the stages of life. After a long prayerful discernment, Christ Church has finally announced our new rector. We have called him to be our shepherd; he will guide us through death’s dark vale. With the Birth of our children, he will be there to baptize them. When we are sick, he will pray with us for healing. When we fall in love, he will wed us. When we loose our way, he will absolve us. And when we hunger and thirst, he will feed us the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
"Thou spread’st a table in my sight; thy unction grace bestowth; and oh, what transport of delight from thy pure chalice floweth!"
It is that cup which we receive at the altar that strengthens us in this world. And it is the same blood in that cup that gives us everlasting life.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. But he is also the Lamb of God. We, who are washed in blood of the Lamb, are made pearly white, like the robes of the saints in Heaven.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He guides the household of his church our lives. And at the last, when we die, he promises us life everlasting.
"And so through all the length of days thy goodness faileth never; Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise within thy house forever."