As many of you are aware, I recently celebrated my fiftieth birthday—I believe I saw quite a few of you here at my surprise party! Now that I’m fifty, one of the benefits, I figure, is that I can repeat myself with impunity. So, to that end, some of you have heard this story. Many of you have not.
The year was 1989. My son Larry was not quite two years old, and I was in graduate school , studying for a Master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry. I was planning to go on to study Jungian psychotherapy, or maybe—maybe—try to be a hospital or college chaplain. One warm late summer day I was driving down Route 128, on my way to an interview for a Field Placement position at a Hospital in Quincy, MA. And, even though I didn’t understanding it completely, there was something momentous about this interview for me.
It was going to be the first time that I, born and raised Roman Catholic, had ever laid eyes on an ordained woman minister.
As I was driving I was listening to Amy Grant, singing:
Lead me on, lead me on
To the place where the river runs into your keeping.
Oh, Lead me on, lead me on.
The awaited deliverance comforts the seeking… lead on.
As I drove something converged in me. In an instant everything clicked, and I had what I have since called my “road to Damascus” moment, as if I were the apostle Paul and I had been knocked down by a bright flash of light. I suddenly understood with great clarity that I wanted to be an ordained minister—or, that God wanted me to be an ordained minister—or, that the ordained ministry somehow wanted me. It was piercing and powerful, so powerful that I threw my hands up into the air in utter elation… and then, because I was driving down Route 128 outside of Boston, I quickly put them back on the steering wheel where they belonged. And at that same moment, my elation was sucked right into a vortex of despair, because I knew I could never, ever answer that call. My church, the church that had given me my faith and introduced me to Jesus, wouldn’t allow it.
Sometimes, it seems as if God is trying to lead us places where we simply cannot follow. And then… we have to figure out if it really is God trying to lead us there, or if it’s something else. Like ego, or greed, or a false idol of what we think we’re trying to attain. But in the end, if we think, if we believe, in the core of our being, that it is God who is leading us, what else can we do but follow?
Lead me on, lead me on.
Aside from the image of “Father,” there is almost no image that has captured the Christian imagination so powerfully as the image of the Lord as our Shepherd. To speak of God, or, specifically, Jesus, as Shepherd, is to recognize the ways in which Jesus leads us on. He leads us on a good path, where he gives us food, water, everything we need. He leads us to resting place. He leads us through times of trouble and danger. He leads us through times of indecision and confusion. He leads us on.
And this image comes to us, not only from the beloved Psalm 23, but also from today’s passage in the gospel of John. John’s gospel stands out from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as being different—its timeline is different, its stories are different, and, most noticeably, its Jesus is different. In the other three gospels, Jesus points away from himself and towards God. But in John, Jesus is constantly talking about himself. He is constantly making these “I am” statements.
I am the living water.
I am the vine.
I am the bread of life.
I am the good shepherd.
I am the gate for the sheep.
Jesus, in identifying himself as both shepherd and gate in the same soliloquy, may, in a sense, be setting us up for some confusion, but somehow it all holds together. The passage we’re reading is from chapter 10. We read most of chapter 9 about a month and a half ago—do you remember the story about the man who had been born blind? And how Jesus healed him, and then the religious authorities were exceedingly distressed, because someone who wasn’t in the union was doing union work? The story ended, or so it seemed, with the formerly blind man being kicked out of the faith community by the religious authorities because of his steadfast insistence on crediting Jesus with his healing. But, in fact, the story doesn’t end there—because this is part of the same story. This is another feature of John’s gospel—the explanations. The theology. John’s Jesus tells us what he’s going to tell us, then he tells us, then he tells us what he told us. And here, Jesus is explaining what just happened in terms of these “I Am” statements. Jesus is speaking to the religious authorities.
And he’s saying, “I know you folks like to think of yourselves as the gatekeepers. But, in fact, you are not the gatekeepers, because I am the gate.”
You know, I used to think of that image, of Jesus as the gate, as being one of protection… and of course, that is part of it. In the ancient near and middle east, it was common for shepherds to sleep across the opening of the fold, so as to literally put their lives on the line for the sheep—any predator who was seeking to snatch a lamb had to get through the shepherd first. So, of course, for Jesus to say he is the gate is for him to give us that powerful image of the good shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. In that sense, the gate and the shepherd are one and the same.
But there is something else as well. The shepherd leads the sheep out through the gate, we are told. Why? Well, because that is how the sheep get to the water, and the grass, and the good fresh air—in other words, that’s where abundant life is. And so the gate/shepherd, in addition to being an image of protection, is also an image of freedom. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. There is a time to be protected in the enclosure of the sheepfold by the shepherd who is the gate. And there is a time to leave the fold and seek abundant life—while still, at the same time, following the shepherd. And… I can testify personally that leaving the fold can cause anxiety and fear, at the same time it offers the tantalizing promise of abundant life.
This week, as many of you know, a majority of the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to change a passage of our Book of Order. This change expands the understanding of who may respond to God’s call to be deacons, elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament—who, when the shepherd calls them, can say “lead me on,” and then follow. There is a lot of misinformation floating around about what this change will do to the church, so, first, I’d like to share with you the new wording:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
This is the new standard for all who hope to serve in one of our three ordained offices. Joyful submission to the good shepherd—following that shepherd, wherever we are led—in all aspects of life. A careful examination of each candidate’s calling and gifts and preparation and suitability. Guidance given by Scripture and the Confessions.
What is left out of these newly ratified standards, is this: there is no litmus test for exclusion. People cannot be ruled out simply on the basis of their sexuality. There is an acknowledgement that the shepherd calls whom the shepherd will call—that the shepherd is, in fact, the gate, and the gatekeeper, too, and it is up to churches and presbyteries to use all their wisdom and discernment to try to recognize that call where they may. No church or presbytery will ever be forced to ordain someone it does not believe to be a good candidate. Presbyteries and churches will seek to discern God’s will in community—as we always have.
It was a little over fourteen years from the day I had my “road to Damascus” moment until the day I was ordained a minister of Word and Sacrament. Our denomination has been struggling with this question of sexuality much longer than that… thirty-three years, by one estimate. And just as I had to leave the church of my childhood in order to follow as God led me, many have left our church, seeking to follow that shepherd who promises abundant life. Sometimes, it seems as if God is trying to lead us places where we simply cannot follow. This is as true for the church as it is for individuals. And then… we have to figure out if it really is God trying to lead us there, or if it’s something else. But in the end, if we think, if we believe, in the core of our being, that it is God who is leading us, what else can we do but follow?
I ask you to join me in prayer:
Almighty God, we give thanks for a rich heritage of faithful witnesses to the gospel throughout the ages. We offer gratitude not only for those who have gone before us, but for all who have sought diligently to discern the mind of Christ for the church in every time and place, and especially in this present time.
May your Spirit of peace be present with us in difficult decisions, especially where relationships are strained and the future is unclear. Open our ears and our hearts to listen to and hear those with whom we differ. Most of all, we give thanks for Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord, who called the Church into being and who continues to call us to follow his example of loving our neighbor and working for the reconciliation of the world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.