Cling to Jesus – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester,

Ordination to the Priesthood of Brother Keith Nelson SSJE

John 10:11-18

I don’t know much about sheep, but I do know a thing or two about geese. Some of you will remember that for several years we had a small flock of geese at Emery House. I was the one behind that particular acquisition, and while they gave me enormous amounts of joy, not all the Brothers were equally enraptured with them. More than one guest needed to be rescued from their cars, when the geese, thinking these strangers were interlopers, hissed every time they tried to get out. A few Brothers reported they had literally been goosed when they got too close to them.

But their behaviour was completely different around me. Hatched in Oklahoma, they were immediately boxed up and shipped to West Newbury the same day. Forty-eight hours later a call from the West Newbury post office came announcing their arrival. Within half an hour of the call, I had them in the back of the car. We chatted, or at least I did, on the drive home. Every time I went up to the coop, I talked to them, until the day came when they were large enough to be let out to free range. That’s when the fun really began. It didn’t matter where I was, or what I was doing, if they heard my voice, or if I called to them from another part of the property, they raced to greet me, with great flapping of wings and loud honks. They’d even wander down to the house looking for me, and one day interrupted the Eucharist with their honking, when they recognized my voice through the open window. If I was working in the garden, I’d have to put them in the coop, because they would snuggle up to me, preventing me from doing whatever I was doing.

Over time I began to recognize their different voices. It’s not that I could tell one goose from another by their honk, but I could tell the difference between their exited honks when they greeted me, and the angry honks directed at a stranger or some perceived danger.

Science has a word for this. It’s called imprinting, which is when a young animal comes to recognize in another animal or person the object of habitual trust.

With my experience as a gooseherd (which is the goose equivalent of a shepherd), this passage from John has taken on new meaning for me. I have come to understand better the challenges of a shepherd’s life. On one occasion a dog attacked the geese, who fled into the deepest part of the bramble near the coop. Scratched, bleeding, and frightened, it took ages for me to find them and bring them safely home. On another occasion, in my absence, a fox attacked and killed three of them. Being a gooseherd is not all feather pillows! And being a shepherd is not all warm woolen sweaters.

For most of us, 2000 years later, various industrial and technological revolutions, and hundreds of stained-glass windows and icons, the image of the good shepherd has lost much of its power. Today when we encounter the image, we see Jesus, with perfectly coifed hair; clothed in gleaming, pure white; holding a fluffy, white lamb in his arms. Gone is any sign that the life of a shepherd was difficult, dangerous, and dirty. In the winter, exposed to the elements, the life of the shepherd was cold, wet, and miserable. In the summer it was hot, dry, and miserable. Summer and winter, the days were long, lonely, dangerous, and always dirty. If it wasn’t the weather, it was boredom and loneliness, on the one hand, and the dangers of predators on the other. Always there was dirt, muck, flies, and the smell. And then, there were the sleepless nights and endless days during lambing season.

Yet Jesus says, I am the good shepherd.[1] Two thousand years ago, the audience listening to Jesus, nodding their heads, would not have had the romantic picture of shepherds in their minds that we do. Instead, they would be nodding, knowing the harsh, sometimes dangerous, reality of the shepherd’s life. All of them would have known the story of King David, who before going into battle with the giant Goliath, declared to King Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’[2]

For the early disciples of Jesus, it did not take a great leap of the imagination to connect Jesus, who laid down his life for us, with either King David, or with those shepherds whose tragic deaths at the hands of thieves, wild animals, or accidents, were probably not that uncommon.

For that reason, using this gospel today, we are saying something profound about the Christian priest. Indeed, we are saying something profound about all Christian ministry.

If we who are ordained to the ministry of the church, or you who exercise your baptismal ministry in the lay order, are looking for a life that allows our hair to be perfectly coifed; our clothes gleaming white; and our arms holding fluffy, white lambs; if we are looking for days that are not long, lonely, dangerous, and dirty; if we don’t want to contend with lions, bears, and mortal danger; if we don’t care to be out in all kinds of weather, all of us have come to the wrong place, and we are all doing the wrong thing, for the life of a shepherd is not all feather pillows, and warm woolen sweaters.

Keith, in a few moments you will be ordained to the work of a pastor, priest, and teacher. You are being invited to share in the work of shepherding, not only with your fellow members in the body of Christ, but also in a particular and sacramental way with your fellow presbyters, and with your bishops. In particular you are being asked, and empowered by the Spirit, to model your life and ministry after Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

As a shepherd and a priest, many things will not simply be asked of you, they will be demanded of you.

Like all good shepherds, you will be required to allow those whom you serve, to imprint themselves on you by habitual acts of trust. Just as a shepherd needs sheep, a priest needs trust, and trust is inconvenient. At times to be trustable will be dangerous, because it requires you to go out into all sorts of weather, and walk along dangerous paths. Trust is earned after days that are long, lonely, dangerous, and always dirty. Trust grows amidst the dirt, muck, flies, and smell of life. You will be sent into the brambles of life to find those who are scratched, bleeding and frightened. There in the rain and wind, along cliff paths, and in the brambles and muck, you will build trust.

As a priest and shepherd, you will need courage to face the bears, lions, and Philistines of life, and you will be totally unprepared, with no armor, shield, or sword, having only your staff, five smooth stones, and your slingshot.[3]

As a shepherd and a priest, you will need to have a deadly aim. Life, and not simply the spiritual life, is full of bears and lions and all kinds of danger. You will need a deadly aim to slay the forces of evil, and all that defies and separates us from the living God.[4]

As a priest and shepherd, you will need to know the landscape, not only the green pastures, still waters, and right pathways, but also the valley of the shadow of death.[5] You will need to know the landscape, not by hearsay, but by experience, having been there before. You will need to know the sources of refreshment, and the places of danger along the way in order to guide others through one, to the other. You yourself will need to be constantly refreshed by Word and Sacrament, and renewed by the power of prayer, so that you will have strength for the journey.

As shepherd and priest, you will need to die, as did the Good Shepherd, and others like him, that others may live. As our Rule reminds us, hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks[6] are all ways in which your death will be demanded day by day. Do not flinch when death comes, else the sheep will be scattered.

But above all Keith, in the words of Father Benson, you will need to cling to Jesus. Cling only to Jesus. For in him alone is your model of a shepherd – priest. In Jesus alone we have the One whom we trust, who is the source of our courage, and the steadier of our aim. In him alone is the One who has gone before, and whose death has given us life. Keith, cling to Jesus, cling only to Jesus, so that you can stand before us as a shepherd – priest, and live and serve in his name.

Keith, you are about to be empowered for the ministry of a priest and shepherd of the flock of God. This is a lonely, dangerous, and dirty vocation, but through it you will come to know more fully the one who is the Shepherd of your soul, so that he may become the Shepherd of our souls, and that is good news for all of us.

[1] John 10: 11

[2] 1 Samuel 17: 34 – 37a

[3] 1 Samuel 17: 40

[4] 1 Samuel 17: 36

[5] Psalm 23: 2 – 4

[6] SSJE, Rule of Life, Holy Death, chapter 48, page 97

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