Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Our Collect of the Day began, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people...” and the Lectionary assigns readings from Scripture that hone in on this theme. So what better way to start our celebration than with a couple of jokes!
Q: What do you get when you cross an angry sheep and a moody cow?
A: A creature that is in a baaaad mooood.
Q: What do you call a sheep with no legs?A: A cloud.
Q: What happened to the sheep that went to church?A: It became a baaaaptist.
A few years ago, Charles Jaeckle and William Clebsch (two researchers) set out to write a book about the history of pastoral care. They concluded that pastoral care, which at its heart is a shepherding ministry, has four basic functions: healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling. The authors noted that while these four elements of pastoral care are always present throughout the history of the Church, at different times, when facing different needs, one form of care has been emphasized over the other three.
For example, during the first two centuries of the Church’s existence, when it proclaimed the Gospel to a hostile culture and endured numerous forms of persecution, the sustaining focus of pastoral care was especially important. Once Christianity became the sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire, reconciliation of lapsed souls seemed to be the greatest pastoral need. During the medieval period the focus shifted to healing and it was around this time the priest’s appointment to a parish first began to be referred to as a “cure.”
Throughout these periods the priest expressed pastoral care largely by administering sacramental rites. The Eucharist sustained. Holy Oil and prayers healed. Confession and penance brought reconciliation. As the medical profession developed and advanced it became the place people went for healing. The priest’s pastoral work shifted from administering the sacraments to the preaching of the Word. It moved toward guidance grounded in the moral and ethical authority of the Bible. This was a huge change, but one thing remained constant; both practices of care were done in a communal setting. The priest carried out his shepherding work largely in the context of public worship.
For some time now western culture has emphasized the importance of the individual’s religious experience over and against what happens in a community. This new focus on personal experience (where one’s thoughts and feelings about God and religion are more important than belonging to a community of faith) has had a profound affect on the nature of pastoral care. The pastoral functions of sustaining, guiding, reconciling, and healing have shifted from being acts and signs done by the priest for and with the community to thoughts, words, and feelings conveyed by the priest to individuals.
In our time the pastoral work of the priest is not so much to connect us to the Good Shepherd through the sacraments and holy mysteries as it is to embody caring. When the faithful look at their priest they want to know if he or she is a shepherd or a hireling. They know that God cares about them, but what about the priest? In Jesus Christ we have a Good Shepherd who heals us, sustains us, guides us, and forgives us. But in our time the focus has shifted from the care that God extends to the whole Church to how the priest makes us feel.
Several years ago when I was serving at another parish, a woman happened to pull in the church’s parking lot just as I was walking to my car to head home. She was interested in the church. I talked with her, showed her around, and told her a little bit about the church’s life. She told me that her health had not been good, that her parish priest had not shown interest in her, and that she was looking for a new parish. The pastoral care I was able to extend to her that afternoon convinced her to attend to the church I was serving.
For several weeks the parish fit her fine. Then we received a call from a relative. The woman had been in the hospital for a few days. Could I go by to visit? I managed to squeeze a short visit into what at the time was a very hectic schedule. She told me she would be going home in a few days. We prayed. I left and she did in fact go home. Within a week another call came to the office. The woman was back in the hospital. I visited. We talked. She thought she would be going home in a few days. I prayed and left. It was Holy Week and after Easter I took a vacation. By the time I got back I lost track of the woman.
A few weeks later I received a letter from her. She reminded me that she had spent a total of 22 days in the hospital and received just two short visits from me. Because her illness was life threatening, and because she received so little care from me, she wrote to tell me she would no longer be attending our church.
Now, over the years I have received stacks of cards and letters from people who have been gracious enough to thank me for a visit and who wanted to express how much my care and concern meant to them. I have even had my pastoral kindness mentioned in a book written by a parishioner whose husband suffered a traumatic brain injury. But I also have a handful of letters like the one from this lady where a person did not receive the kind of care or the level of care he or she needed.
My observation about pastoral care at St. Paul’s is that it is a ministry you and I share together. Our healing ministers who stand at the prayer station during communion are signs that God’s care comes to us not just through the priest, but also through one another. Our Lay Eucharistic Ministers, serving both here at the Altar Rail, but also in taking communion to people at home or in the hospital also drive home this point. God’s shepherd-like care of healing and sustaining in administered by all of us.
St. Paul’s is blessed to be able to offer several bible studies and gatherings that feature small group discussion. My sense is that God’s shepherding guidance is present in these conversations. Yes, people make appointments to talk with my in my office in order to think though a difficult situation, but the majority of these conversations happen in small groups or one-on-one encounters one parishioner seeking the input of others.
In pre-colonial times parish priests in Virginia were charged with settling arguments in the community. One priest went to visit to two neighbors who were embattled in a nasty property dispute. After much work, the priest went home and recorded in his journal that he was not able to affect much change. There have been occasions here where one parishioner says or does something that upsets or offends another. I have been impressed with the careful, loving way both parties have sought forgiveness and worked toward reconciliation. It is another sign of God’s shepherding care in our midst.
When I think back to that woman who was dissatisfied with the level of care she received from me I recognize that I can only do what I can do. For some that is more than enough, while for others it will never be good enough. In retrospect what I recognize now is how that parish, like this one, was a community that manifested God’s pastoral care to one another. Perhaps she was too new to the church to experience it in its fullness. Perhaps she was interested only in how the priest made her feel.
The Good News on this Good Shepherd Sunday is that God loves us and cares for us. Historically this care has been expressed as healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling. It has come to God’s people both through the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word in settings both public and private. God’s care has been incarnated through the diligent, faithful work of priests and lay people. Today we celebrate the way we have brought God’s care to one another in our parish family. My challenge is not somehow to rise above my limitations, but to encourage, equip, and mobilize each one of you so that you can do what God calls you to do… what in fact you want to do… to care for one another as Christ Jesus cares for you.