I am not really into that sort of thing, so I just sat there. But I knew right away what I thought the volunteers should do. Think for second about what you would do. How might you and eleven friends represent a close community?
My guess is, every single one of you almost instantly thought of a big group hug, a kind of huddle. That is what I thought of, that is what they did, that is what our leader says virtually every group does. We all know intuitively what close community looks like and feels like, so it’s easy.
And we all want that kind of community. We want our Church to be that kind of community. We want our Church to be a place where we can feel safe with each other, supported and loved by each other. My sense is, we here at Saint David’s do a pretty good job of being that kind of community, and I thank God for it.
So far, so good. But our leader was just getting started. To my horror, he called me forward. He led me to the little scrum of clergy, and he asked me what I saw. I said backs. He said backsides. We were both right.
He asked me if the huddle looked inviting. It was attractive. I would have liked to be part of the group hug. But, and this was his point, there wasn’t much way in. It wasn’t very accessible. There was no room for a new person.
Then he made me squeeze into the middle of the group. It wasn’t easy, but I got there. So now I was standing in the middle of twelve people whose arms were around each other’s shoulders. And again, he asked me how it looked and how I felt. For the record, I like everyone who was part of that huddle. But it didn’t feel great standing in the middle, with all of them a little too close and looking at me.
Our leader explained that what I was experiencing is how visitors often experience Church. Everybody else seems to know each other, and the visitor is either stuck on the outside, or else gets trapped in the middle. Neither one feels very comfortable. That is the danger of a close community. It keeps people out.
Now I was stuck up front. Our leader told us to form a new sculpture, this time one that was more inviting and accessible to outsiders. Again, think for a second about what you would do. What inviting pose would you strike with a dozen other people?
My guess is, a lot of you didn’t come up with much. I know I didn’t, and our group was terrible. We basically formed a line with one hand outstretched. From the comfort of the audience, somebody commented that we looked like a really bad version of a chorus line. That was probably too generous.
Our leader noted that most people do not have a clear image of what invitation really looks like, which makes it hard to come up with an appropriate pose. We are mostly better at bonding with people like us than we are at inviting new people into our intimate circle.
But even if our invitation had been really inviting, which in our case it was not, we were no longer connected to each other in the same way. At least in theory, we were inviting other people to join us, but there was no clear “us” for them to join. Our “community” had dissolved. That is worse than a big huddle.
So our leader asked us to do one more sculpture. This time we were supposed to be both connected to each other and open to other people. We totally collapsed at that point. And at last, my misery was over. We sat down.
The lesson of the whole exercise was that it is hard to be a truly connected community and also a genuinely accessible and inviting community. And yet, that combination is what every Church wants to be and needs to be.
And that brings me to our readings. In our gospel reading, Jesus offers us a picture of the Church that is both connected and accessible. The key is movement.
First, Jesus says, we are like a flock of sheep.
That is not really a compliment. I gather that sheep are both destructive and stupid. Without a shepherd, they will totally ruin a field, and then stay there and starve to death. That is us, without Jesus.
But sheep are good at one thing. They tend to stick together as a flock. They stay connected to each other. They are good at the big group hug. That is a good foundation. Jesus can work with that.
Thank God, we are our own little flock. We work well together. We help each other. And even when we don’t get along or get on each other’s nerves, we know we are in it together. That sense of community is a great gift, and we never want to lose it.
But we can’t just huddle together. To survive, a flock has to keep moving.
In our gospel reading, Jesus describes the good shepherd calling the sheep by name and leading them through the gate and out of the sheepfold. The shepherd goes ahead, and the sheep follow. This is community on the move.
That is the dominant image in our Psalm as well. The Lord is our shepherd. He leads us to green pastures, and he leads us to still water, and sometimes he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. Always he leads us forward.
And even in the valley of the shadow of death, we do not need to panic because our shepherd is with us, rod and staff in hand ready to guide and protect us as necessary.
In this Easter season, we specially emphasize that our good shepherd leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. Things get hard. People die. But our shepherd has himself gone all the way through death. Our shepherd leads us all the way through death. And that really does mean we really don’t have to be afraid.
And, as we follow our Lord out of the sheepfold, as we follow our Lord on the way, as we follow our Lord even through the valley of the shadow of death, we invite others to join us, to experience life and truth and joy with the good shepherd.
That is the point our leader at clergy conference was trying to make. That is the rhythm of the Christian life. We come together in the sheepfold where we get a big group hug. And then we go out into the world. And that can be scary. But we are fine as long as we stick together and stick close to our shepherd, who leads us along the way and who is the way.
God calls us together as one flock. And God calls us out into the world as a flock on the move. If we heed God’s call, we will be the kind of community that is united around Christ and radically open to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
May we hear God’s call, and may we follow God’s lead.
Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia!