(This sermon was delivered at the installation of the Post Chaplain at Fort Myer, Virginia. However, it can easily be adapted for use in a variety of settings.)
Shepherds appear frequently in the Bible. God used shepherds to describe his relationship to us. He also used shepherds to describe our relationship to each other. The image of the shepherd was very useful to God for several reasons:
• Shepherds were common in Biblical times, and people could easily relate to stories about shepherds.
• Shepherds were very ordinary people. In fact, shepherds were at the bottom of the ladder. They didn’t make much money; their work was hard and dirty; and being a shepherd was a lonely life. People didn’t grow up saying, “I am going to work hard and get a good education so that I can be a shepherd.” Instead, they said, “I am going to work hard and get a good education so I don’t have to be a shepherd.” But that was useful to God, because it gave him an opportunity to demonstrate how he can take even the lowliest person to do his work. In fact, God often prefers to do his work through lowly people. That way, nobody gets confused about who deserves the credit.
• Shepherds were servants. Their role in life was to serve the helpless. God has a special place in his heart for the helpless. And so, he also has a special place in his heart for those who help the helpless.
• Sheep do some really stupid things. If one sheep jumps over a cliff, the whole flock might follow. The work of the shepherd was absolutely crucial to their survival, just as God’s leadership is crucial to ours.
• Everyone knew that the difference between a good and bad shepherd was literally the difference between life and death.
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Jesus said to Peter, “Do you love me? …Feed my sheep.” It was a powerful image.
The image of shepherd might not seem as appropriate today:
• Shepherds are no longer common. I don’t know any shepherds; you probably don’t either.
• It might be difficult for some of the people in this congregation to think of themselves as sheep. After all, this congregation is just full of crusty old Colonels—and even crusty old Generals. You think of yourselves as lions, perhaps—not sheep.
But the image of the shepherd is still appropriate today—even in a place where the sheep think of themselves as lions:
• The fact is that all of us—no matter how tough or self-reliant—are completely dependent upon God for every breath we take. If God were to withdraw his hand from us, we wouldn’t live five minutes. No one—not our soldiers, not our generals, and not our nation—can survive without his grace.
• In a world where NCOs and officers hear every day that everything depends on them, it is crucial that someone reminds them that everything really depends on God. You understand that at some level, or you wouldn’t be here today. You recognize that you need strength beyond your strength, and so you have come to a place where you can spend a few moments in the presence of God—calling upon his strength.
Tom Taylor, this is a special day for you. Today, we install you as the shepherd of this flock—the pastor of this congregation. You aren’t the only shepherd here. Each of us is a shepherd. But your role as shepherd is special. God called you to be a clergyman. He called you to go to seminary and to devote your life to ministry.
Furthermore, he called you to join the Army and to devote your life to taking care of soldiers and their families. That is a very special ministry, because soldiers and their families are very special people—with a critical mission—and people with stresses and strains that most civilians cannot imagine. They need special care, and being called especially to serve them is a high honor.
Furthermore, God called you to the Fort Myer Garrison, and that includes being the pastor of this congregation. That is an especially high honor, because you will work here with the leadership of the Army—and of the other services too. One Sunday, Bruce Burslie learned at the last minute that President Bush would be worshipping in this congregation that day. He didn’t have time to prepare a special sermon. He couldn’t say, “Come back next week, Mr. President. I didn’t know that you would be here, and I would like to have a good sermon for you.” Bruce had a good sermon, of course. He was well prepared. But he would have missed an important opportunity for ministry if he had not been.
But always remember that, in this place, we all stand as equals before God. That doesn’t mean that we stand equally tall. It means that we stand equally short. In God’s presence, we all come as beggars. Generals or janitors, we stand as beggars in his presence. And God loves us equally, whether generals or janitors. Generals or janitors, we stand on level ground when we face the issues of illness, death, wayward children, and the rest.
You will preach every Sunday to men, women and children who are struggling with problems that threaten to undo them. They are here to find the grace of God, and it is your job, Tom, to insure that they hear the Gospel—the Good News that Jesus Christ loves them and that Jesus Christ has saved them. Make sure that they hear the Gospel every Sunday, Tom—every Sunday.
Take time to maintain your own spiritual health, Tom. You can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t fill the cups of your people if your own cup is dry. The story is told of a Methodist District Superintendent who was working with a local congregation which was searching for a minister. The District Superintendent said, “How big a man do you want?” Most of the search committee looked confused by the odd question, but then one of the men spoke. “Well,” he said, “we’re not overly particular—but when he’s on his knees, we’d like to have him reach heaven.” Spend some time on your knees, Tom. Keep in touch with Heaven.
Be careful, also, to preserve your physical health. St. Vincent de Paul said:
“It is a trick of the devil,
which he employs to deceive good souls,
to incite them to do more than they are able,
in order that they may no longer be able to do anything.”
In the Army, we emphasize physical health. You will get regular checkups, and you will run. But good health also has a spiritual dimension. You need to do the good work that you can—and then you need to remember that it is God who determines the increase. If you can maintain that perspective—that it is really God who is in charge—you can manage this truly challenging ministry to which you have been called.
I must add a word to the congregation. For the most part, you are not ordained; you didn’t go to seminary; but God calls you to share the work of ministry here. Elton Trueblood put it this way:
“If you are a Christian,
then you are a minister.
A non-ministering Christian
is a contradiction in terms.”
Many of you do share in this ministry. You help with the worship services; you teach classes; you sing in the choir; you answer phones. Keep up the good work—and keep your eyes open for opportunities for ministry.
Jowett, a great preacher from another generation, told of a young woman, a poorly-educated servant-girl, who was a member of his congregation. They were talking about ways that she might turn her faith into action. Her problem was that she didn’t have much time off, but she said, “I always take the daily paper to bed with me at night.” Jowett was puzzled, and asked why she did that. She answered:
“Well, sir, I look at the first page
and I read the birth notices
and I pray for the babies that have been born;
and I read the marriages
and I pray that they may be happy and true;
and I read the deaths
and I pray that God’s comfort
may come to the sorrowing homes.”
Quite a vision from a young servant-girl! I have two questions for you:
(1) Who among us can do less than that? Who among us cannot at least pray each day for people in special need?
(2) Who among us can do more than that—inviting Heaven’s power to meet earth’s needs?
I remind you of the Gospel text today. Jesus said to Peter—and he says to Tom Taylor—and he says to all of us assembled today:
“Do you love me?
…Feed my sheep.”
And so my question for you, Tom—and for each person here today, is, “Do you love Jesus?”
If you do—and I believe that you do—feed his sheep.
Gracious Father, thank you today for this great congregation and the work that it does for your kingdom. Thank you for bringing Tom Taylor to be its pastor. Bless him and bless them as they work together with you to proclaim your great Good News. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.