Bishop Lee's Convention Sermon

November 17, 2012

Fierce Shepherd

In the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu in Jerusalem there is a remarkable icon depicting the scene in the gospel we have heard this morning. Here it is:

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photo courtesy of Canon Matthew Jones, Cardiff, Wales

St. Peter in Gallicantu is built over what many scholars believe to be the site of the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where Jesus was taken after his arrest across the valley in the Garden of Gethsemane. The church commemorates Peter’s denial of Jesus, that likely took place on this spot in the courtyard as the soldiers warmed themselves by the fire. In the lower level chapel of this beautiful church there is a series of wall sized icons of the scenes of St. Peter’s life. The one that has captured my attention for years is the one for today. Peter and the other disciples recognize the Risen Jesus as he has appeared to them on the lake shore. Peter (being Peter) leaps out of the fishing boat and swims or wades to shore. Jesus has a breakfast of fish grilling away on the beach, and he has this poignant conversation with the one who betrayed him. “Do you love me Peter? Then feed my sheep.”

In this icon Jesus and Peter are facing one another and Jesus is handing to Peter the shepherd’s crook, that pastoral staff. Jesus is holding it out to Peter who, you will notice, hasn’t quite reached out to take it yet. The pastoral staff itself is silhouetted in front of the fire for the cooking of those breakfast fish. You'll see it's a pretty big fire, not just some smoldering coals. Behind the pastoral staff is a blazing, flaming fire. A burning bush? The conflagration of the Holy Spirit? I think it may be the passionate flame burning in the Sacred Heart of Christ himself. It is, in any case, not too much to suggest that it represents a kind of warning. That fire engulfing the pastoral staff Jesus wants to hand Peter looks a little dangerous to me. This is not an easy conversation and Peter looks like he knows the stakes are high. How could he not? Peter has to be all too aware of his own craven conversation a couple of nights earlier around the fire at Caiaphas' house. He knows the link between that false speech of his and the marks of crucifixion the Risen Jesus still bears.

But in the light of the overwhelming love of Christ, Peter's awareness of his failed speech, his traitorous denials -- that's not all there is. Like the prophet's confrontation with David (how was that for fierce?!), the kind of conversation Jesus has with Peter leads way beyond weakness and sin. This shepherd's staff Jesus wants to hand him is a sign that even Peter's cowardice, even his betrayal can be caught up into a very new conversation, a new conversation of redemptive love. It is what the resurrection is. Jesus took his good shepherding all the way to the cross for us. He died so that we might be reunited with the Father, restored to a right relationship with God and each other. Despite our betrayals, in spite of our sins, in the face of our hatreds and cowardice, our fears and failures. In the Eucharist the Good Shepherd tells us of his love and then shows us that it can overcome anything -- even death -- by feeding us with his own life, his body and blood. At the table of that feast, the Good Shepherd wants us to teach us a whole new way of speaking and acting, a way that will cost us, just as it eventually cost Peter everything. It will cost us, but it will also lead us to life. To accept that staff, to take up the holy conversation of the cross is is a fierce conversation if ever there were one.

That staff is a talking stick. The pastoral staff is an invitation to speak, to become ourselves, holy speech. It is nothing less than an invitation to join the divine conversation, the prayer of Christ to the Father in the power of the Spirit. Jesus’ command to Peter to put his love into action by feeding Christ’s beloved people is not just for Peter, not just for the ordained. That's why the bishop carries one -- to remind us that it is for all of us. All of us who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of the One who laid down his life for the world. We are all on that beach at breakfast. The pastoral staff is held out to each one of us. The care and feeding of the lost and the least is a task in which we are all called to share. It’s what we’re baptized for. At every celebration of baptism, as the Letter to the Colossians reminds us, we are asked to clothe ourselves with the fierce love of Christ. At the font we make some very practice-able promises about making that love real in this world, promises about recognizing and serving the presence of the living Christ in the hungry and hurting, the brokenhearted and the marginalized. “Will you seek and serve Christ?” the rite asks us. Will you feed his sheep? And every time we renew those vows we pledge to begin again to put that faith, put those words into practice, to make the life of Christ our own.

So at this convention, dear friends, in this diocese, in every one of our churches, let us listen with fierce attention to the one who loves us more than we can know. Let us give voice to his love. Let us become that voice, speaking peace to a society bewitched by the glamor of violence, generous love to a church torn by disagreements, wholeness to a world using up this planet in suicidal disregard for generations to come, hope to people who have come to believe that for them there is none. Let us make Christ's song our own.

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