Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow
Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton
Easter IV, Year A, 15 May 2011
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit” (Saint John 10:1).
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is a special day for the Church of the Good Shepherd. For today is “Good Shepherd” Sunday, the Sunday every year that we recognize that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that we pray we shall follow where he leads. The case could be made that today is our Patronal Feast, the day when we recognize that our Patron is Jesus the Good Shepherd and that our identity (among many) is in following the Good Shepherd.
Rather than preach about sheep, and shepherds, and shepherds’ crooks, and pastures, and wolves, and gates, I want to move in another direction and speak about “functioning up.” I frequently ask groups to function up. And I remember a particular occasion here at the Church of the Good Shepherd when I asked everyone, including me, to function up. It was about twenty months ago. You may remember the time. We were in the midst of the controversy about the Garden. There were hurt feelings. There were people who wanted to use those hurt feelings to get their way, and I held firm and asked people to function up. What does functioning up mean, any way?
Someone asked me that the other day, and I confess I had no specially good answer. But one came my way. I was trying to say that functioning up means seeing the whole situation from the big perspective and not one’s own narrow point of view. It means transcending your personal myth about how you are right most of the time and how other people, consequently, and not right when the two of you don’t agree. And I couldn’t come up with a way of conveying the idea in a way that was compelling. But, as I said, one came my way.
Like some of you, perhaps, I have been fascinated recently with the Navy SEALs, those soldiers so thoroughly trained, so competent, and so courageous, who so successfully completed the mission they were given, a mission they did not choose, just two weeks ago. And I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal that spoke about functioning up though that term was not used. The writer was explaining how difficult SEAL training is, how few recruits actually complete the course, and how few of them have the opportunity to put to work in the field the things they have learned. About the recruits who made it through the rigorous training, the author wrote:
Almost all the men who survived possessed one common quality. Even in great pain, faced with the test of their lives, they had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the ‘fist’ of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose (Eric Greitens, “An Inside Look at the SEAL Sensibility,” 7 May 2011).
Putting aside our agenda, whatever that may be, for the good of the parish is functioning up, and functioning up in a powerfully impressive way. And, we are called to do it. We are called to pursue a mission and a ministry. We are called to pursue the mission of restoring “all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, page 855). And the Church pursues that mission “as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love” (BCP, page 855).
And to do these things we have to put ourselves aside. We have to put God and God’s mission first; we have to seek more than our vindication; we have to seek more than evidence that we are right, as usual. We have to put the good of us all beyond the pleasure and fuzzy feelings of each one of us.
It is not lost on me that we have a powerful example of setting aside ourselves for a greater good. For I believe that the Good Shepherd functions up on our behalf. Specifically, I believe the Good Shepherd functioned up on our behalf when he made the supreme sacrifice of himself on the cross for you and for me, and for everyone who was, who is, and who is to come. And by that sacrifice, he opened the gate to let any one of us in who puts her or his trust in him. If he gave his life for us (and he did), can we not do likewise following his example? Can we not lose our pride, our assurance that we are always right, our determination to have our way, our conviction that no one else gets it as clearly as we do? Can we not put ourselves aside for the good of us all?
The Christian life is not, of course, a military operation though expert military have something to teach us. They can certainly teach us how to follow a mission not our own; they can show us how to follow where the Good Shepherd leads. They can show us how big a difference there is in following him rather than doing what we want and calling it what he wants. They can give us an example of hearing our Leader’s voice, who calls each of us by name, and following where he leads (BCP, page 225). And if we persevere, if we succeed, the Good Shepherd will not have failed, either. He will have given us life, and we shall have it abundantly (Saint John 10:10).