Good Shepherd Sunday, and the Vicar of Dibley – an introductory sermon

A sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green, New Haven, CT, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A – Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10.

‘Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…’”

In this chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus uses two figures of speech to describe himself: Jesus is both the shepherd, and the gate. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I think we can all get behind that? Our appointed psalm for today is the much loved 23rd Psalm. I’m sure many of us have certain associations with it and with this bucolic image.  

There are many wonderful musical settings of the 23rd Psalm, but my favorite, for both musical and sentimental reasons, is the choral arrangement by Howard Goodall – better known to some as the opening theme of the BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley. I watched the Vicar of Dibley with great fervor many Friday nights as a young teenager on PBS’ weekly BritCom Night. I’ll confess that I may have occasionally lied about my Friday night plans to my friends, so that they wouldn’t think I was an overly churchy nerd. Alas, I was – and I made sure to be in front of my television set every Friday at eight o’clock, to hear the clear voice of a young choir boy sing, “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want,” beginning that week’s episode.

For anyone unfamiliar with The Vicar of Dibley – it is a British sitcom that premiered in the early 1990s, shortly after the Church of England began allowing women’s ordination. The show is set in a conservative yet eccentric English country village. When the long-time vicar dies, he is replaced with some controversy by a woman priest, named Geraldine. Not only is she a woman, but she is outgoing and funny, and at times off-color, defying everyone’s expectations of a vicar. Over the course of time, she eventually endears herself to her parishioners, while staying true to herself, and to her call to God’s people in Dibley.

I watched and loved the Vicar of Dibley, because I wanted to be like her – I felt called to be a priest – I wanted to be a sort of shepherd, a pastor to God’s people. While many other young people my age likely looked up far more glamorous TV characters, I found an unlikely example in this fictional woman vicar. I had wanted to be a priest since I was a very young child. I played mass with my dolls and stuffed animals, using grape juice boxes and flattened bits of Wonder Bread for Communion. I had memorized the Eucharistic Prayers – I knew many of the hymns by heart, WITH harmony!  I loved going to church.

There was just one issue: I was raised Roman Catholic, and I lived in a community that was very much a Catholic bubble. I had little to no idea of other ways to be. I had no idea that I, as a woman, could be called to be a pastor or priest. If I wanted a religious life, I had the one option of becoming a nun, as my own mother had briefly been. But there seemed to be no way, short of extreme and unlikely changes at the Vatican, that I could be a priest. The Vicar of Dibley was therefore a bit of fantastical and outrageous hope to me – reminding me each week amidst the humor of the show, that the Lord IS my shepherd, and that somehow, someway, he’d lead me to do and be what I was supposed to be.

Indeed, the Lord has led me, even when I’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming. Fast forward twenty some years, and I feel as if my own journey towards the priesthood could been conceived and scripted by a team of BBC Comedy Writers: God has a sense of humor! Like many things in life, my journey to ordained ministry wasn’t a straight path – there were many curves, off ramps, wrong turns, and rest stops along the way.  We call the “official” process to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church the “Discernment Process,” with a capital “D.” Lest we be fooled: all our life processes require discernment. Discernment requires careful listening. I was constantly reminded especially this past year that I always have to keep listening carefully for the Good Shepherd’s voice: for the voice of Jesus, calling me by name, leading me along to where I need to be.

There are a lot of competing voices out there. The voice of the stranger can often be lurking in what sounds or seems spiritual. It takes time and practice, as well as learning from our mistakes and from those older and wiser, to recognize and hear God’s voice within us, guiding us. The process of becoming our true selves in Christ is not easy, no matter how spiritual or religious we may be. It usually happens in God’s time, not our sense of time. It is best done with the help of our fellow sheep: with the help and support of our community. And it can only be done with God’s help.

Jesus also says, “I am the gate.”

We may initially think of a gate as something that closes off and separates, as a barrier. A gate may be used for confinement, or for controlling passage. We can close the gate to be exclusive, to protect those “on the inside,” from “those on the outside.”

Jesus is the open gate: Jesus is our way of liberation.

The gate by which the sheep can go through to find pasture expresses how Jesus brings God’s saving love and grace to all. As both shepherd and gate, Jesus provides for us. Jesus does not confine us, Jesus frees us. Jesus as the gate is the gate that opens for us, even when we are that sheep who totally wandered off and got lost from the flock and the shepherd; the sheep who has almost been stolen and killed by the thief and just barely made it back, banged up, exhausted and crying. Jesus, as the open gate, will welcome us back to the fold.

Jesus as shepherd and gate provides what we need: abundant life. Life not only as the force of God that gives us breath and being, but life in which we can have meaningful vocation and purpose, participation in a supportive community, like this one, sustaining and loving relationships, and finally – eternal life in God through Jesus. We will still face struggles in life, but we can find care and nourishment in being a part of Jesus’ flock. And Jesus, as the gate, is open to all.

I am so glad to be with you here at Trinity, and I look forward to being the church together. The Book of Acts gives us a good reminder of what that entails, and we still carry on these traditions so many centuries later. While the state of the overall church today can seem discouraging compared the church we hear about in the Book of Acts – wonders and signs, everyone being provided for, and numbers growing daily – we will continue to be the church by devoting ourselves to these four practices.

We will continue in the Apostles’ teaching: through our sermons, our educational programs, through reading together and Bible study; we will devote ourselves to fellowship – to nurturing the quality of our relationships, living out a sense of responsibility for each other, encouraging and increasing our hospitality to newcomers, and also while just having fun – at our concerts, our fairs and other events…

We will devote ourselves to the Breaking of the Bread – not only our celebration of the Eucharist, but the common meals we share together,

And finally, we will devote ourselves to the prayers – not only our prayer together in worship, but our own lives of prayer that we live out the other 6 days of the week, praying for this parish, and for each other, our families and friends, as well as our enemies.

As a community and as individuals, may we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, to  know and trust his voice over the voice of the stranger. The way of the shepherd and the gate is the way of love and mercy. Life is not easy, but we can endure if we put our trust in Jesus, who is our help and our strength, and our companion and guide for the journey. May we know his voice, calling each of us by name, so we can follow where he leads – through the gate to freedom and to abundant life.  Amen.

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