Last Sunday we celebrated Earth Day in our services. Our scripture readings, our prayers, our hymns were all chosen with that theme in mind. You won’t find Earth Day on the liturgical calendar, but since April 22 was on a Sunday this year it seemed appropriate to celebrate God’s gift of creation, and to remind ourselves of our obligations to be stewards of that gift, to carry out God’s first instructions to humans.
What the church calendar said about last Sunday is that it was the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season, which is always known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year, the scripture readings for that Sunday talk about Jesus as the good shepherd, who knows his sheep by name and lays down his life for his flock.
I have to confess that it was a bit of a relief to take a year off from preaching on those readings, from trying to find something fresh to say about that ancient metaphor which appears so frequently in the Bible.
But this week I read a reflection on that scripture that was so moving to me that I want to share it with you. It was written by Andy Doyle, the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Texas, after he helped preside at the funeral of Barbara Bush, an Episcopalian. It’s occasioned by the death of the beloved former First Lady, but it’s really about our church and our faith.
Here is what he said:
The scripture passage from John’s gospel has that one sentence that has been with me all week long, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”
Yesterday I had the privilege of serving and giving the blessing at the funeral for Barbara Bush. The procession of presidents, first ladies, dignitaries, and national leaders was grand, to be sure. The music was transcendent. The eulogies were all touching in their own way.
There were many moments to be remembered. There was a lot of laughter and there were tears. There were moments that were funny and odd and there were some mistakes. There were some moments that were sad and there were some moments that were joyous.
And then there were tender moments. The body was received into the church, as it always is when a body is present, and I stood there with my pastoral shepherd’s crook, and watched as the ladies of the church gathered around the coffin – some were Barbara’s friends; some were members of her church needlepoint group; some were Altar Guild members – and they draped the funeral pall over the casket.
And then I watched, as I have watched at many funerals before, as those Altar Guild ladies fussed over that funeral pall to get it just right, just as they always do.
Like Altar Guilds all over the Episcopal Church, they did what we do for First Ladies and for the least of our members, those who will go unknown. We do what we do for Barbara Bush, just as we have done for all who have gone before her. It is what we do because we know our sheep and our sheep know us.
I thought about the stories in the newspapers that followed Barbara Bush’s death, and reflected on the moment when her priest said he knelt at her bedside in the last moments of her life and prayed the prayers with the family, and then again privately with the president. Just as countless priests in our Episcopal Church have done for all those who have invited us into their lives at one of the most sacred times.
Why? Because the clergy of this church know their sheep, they say prayers for them, and they call them by name.
The service itself certainly was spectacular. It was for one of our nation’s most beloved First Ladies, so there were cameras and dignitaries there, and Secret Service. My wife commented that, “The truth is it was unique only because of those who sat in the pews in that moment.”
As I watched and bore witness, I saw the acolytes carry the cross, the torches, and banners before a simple member of our church who had died. Before me, when I looked and saw with my clergy eyes, I saw friends who had lost one of their own.
And at the end of the day, regardless of the offices each one had held, I saw a husband, children, and grandchildren mourn the loss of their grandmother, their mother, and their wife.
I saw a church gather around one of our own, to love on them, and to care for them, and to support them. And to speak a word of hope to everyone who had gathered there no matter who they were, or what their background was.
Why? Because Jesus said, “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.”
Regardless of who she had been, regardless of who they were, death is the great equalizer for us all. For while Barbara Bush was a good Episcopalian who took advantage of her situation to help children learn to read, and find homeless people find places to live, she was first a faithful church attendee.
What I know is that she entered the Heavenly Gates just like everybody else, the least and the lost. Completely dependent not upon what she had accomplished in her life, but upon the fact that the Good Shepherd, who knows us and who loves us, knew her and did not flee from her at the hour of her death, but called her by name.
Barbara Bush had faith, and believed Jesus was her shepherd and her gate into eternal life. And he was. All the eulogies spoke of the importance of her family, of her friends, of her work, and of her faith. She knew her shepherd and she knew her shepherd’s name, as he knows hers.
I am grateful as a bishop to be invited into their lives and to bear witness to the hope that is in me. I am grateful because there are Altar Guild women and men, there are acolytes of every age, there are ushers and greeters, and there are priests and deacons who do the Good Shepherd’s work every day and every week.
It is true that the nation witnessed yesterday the beauty that is our church. What they saw is what I see as your bishop and what I see throughout my ministry – from the smallest of churches to the largest, for the most important members and for the least known.
Serving, shepherding, knowing, loving, naming, and caring for the Great Shepherd’s sheep who find their way into our communities.
This is the Episcopal Church at its best. The body of Christ. One that acts out the Shepherd’s words, “Come unto me all you that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” A church that treats each the same: presidents, first ladies, and the homeless.
And at the end of life, we are willing to do the sacred, and profound, and hopeful work of guiding one another to the gate of God’s sheepfold.
Led by the cross, led by a quiet Episcopal procession, but yet making our Easter psalm to the very end.
Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Our Shepherd knows our name.