“The Odor of the Sheep”
A sermon taken from John 21. 15-19 and preached by Bishop Ken Carter on June 18, 2016, upon the occasion of the licensing, commissioning and ordination of women and men for the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ, at the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church meeting in Orlando, Florida.
Sisters and brothers, I want to share three thoughts out of the scripture. I will be more evocative than exhaustive, more direct than meandering!
If you stay close to these words, you will be a great blessing to the people to whom you are sent. And if you stay close to these words, you will find that you will never be alone. These words will be a refuge and a strength close beside you. The first word:
Our culture, our world, for better for worse, has a default way of labeling us, according to who we appear to be externally, or where our political sympathies lie, or accents that carry the words that we speak. We label each other; we form judgments; we imagine that we might have something in common with this person, or we assume that we do not.
In the set apart ministry of the church of Jesus Christ, we are called to welcome unconditionally. We see this pattern in the life of Jesus himself. He ate with sinners. He crossed ethnic boundaries. He touched the unclean. Jesus had the inner mark of holiness and the outer mark of compassion. In this set apart ministry we are called to represent Jesus. Many of the words you will affirm in a few minutes echo this.
Your life now is not your own. You represent Jesus, the good news of Jesus, the unconditional love of God. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, the apostle Paul wrote (Romans 5). While the prodigal was at a distance, the father runs and embraces (Luke 15).
For a season in ministry I served a church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, near the campus of Wake Forest University. There were three clergy on our team—it was a large church. I was blessed to serve with a very gifted clergywoman, Susan, and a local pastor, whose name was Derry.
Derry had gone into the ministry later in life, and had completed the course of study. Prior to joining our team, for nine years he served in Lexington, North Carolina, which is known for two things: barbecue and furniture.
Many of the members of Derry’s church in Lexington worked in the furniture mills of that town. When Derry arrived he learned that one of the members of one of the active families was actually serving time in the state’s central prison, for murder. He was on death row. And, so, Derry began to drive, every Saturday to Raleigh, about 100 miles each way, to visit with young man. He did this for two years. The church loved this—he was being a pastor, a shepherd—to the family.
And then, as it happened, events took a strange turn. Another inmate in the prison was overheard to say that he had in fact committed the murder. And, so, in a brief time the church member was released. He returned home. The congregation threw a great banquet, the son had returned! It was a celebration.
And you might think the story would end there, but it did not. The man who confessed the murder, Rickie Lee Sanderson, made contact with Derry, and asked if he would visit him.
And because Derry was a pastor, a shepherd, he began to do just that. Every Saturday he would drive to the central prison, 100 miles each way, to visit Rickie Lee Sanderson. He learned along the way that the church did not love this so much. But Derry had a higher calling. It was to welcome unconditionally.
He and Rickie Lee formed a bond. And in time Rickie Lee Sanderson asked him, “Would you be present at my execution?” And, then, “Would you officiate at my graveside service?” And Derry would, indeed, be present at his execution, and he would officiate at his burial.
There is a power in welcoming people unconditionally. It is a power that is embedded in every page of the gospels, in the rhythm of Jesus’ very life, death and resurrection.
In May, as the Council of Bishops gathered, we began with a memorial service, for those who had died, bishops and spouses, this year. Among those remembered this year were Julia Wilke, co-author of the Disciple Bible Study, and Eunice Mathews, daughter of E. Stanley Jones, and Reuben Job, former world editor of the Upper Room, author of A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Servants and the Three Simple Rules and retired bishop.
Bruce Ough, whom he had mentored, bishop now of the Dakotas, where Job grew up, and Minnesota, gave a remembrance. They were very close. And Bruce mentioned a question he had asked Reuben Job, near the end of his life. What are you learning, spiritually? What is the Lord teaching you?
And Job responded: “Everyone is God’s beloved child. God does not make the distinctions that we make”.
A second word: walk together. For a variety of reasons you may be tempted to do this work alone. This may be related to the myth of the heroic solo leader, or the philosophy or self-reliance, or sometimes it may just seem to be the path of least resistance. Other people are too complicated. I will do it myself!
But let me encourage you to walk together. I have mentioned the mural on the wall of the airport in Johannesburg, which I saw on the way to Zimbabwe and Africa University two years ago:
If you want to go fast, walk alone.
If you want to go far, walk together
In the set apart ministry of Jesus, you will want to walk together. You will want to walk together with the people you are sent to serve, the sheep of your flocks, the ones you will shepherd. You will want to get to know their paths, the coffee shops and diners and social clubs and athletic fields and school auditoriums.
You are “among them as one who serves,” Jesus said. And in the beautiful image of Pope Francis, in time you will take on the “odor of the sheep.” You will belong to them and they will belong to you.
“If you love me,” Jesus says to Peter, “feed my sheep.”
Now these are real people, and in walking together you will learn a great deal about them, and they you. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the shattering of our “wish dream” of community. People, ourselves included, are broken, imperfect, sinful. And yet in the mystery of providence Jesus has chosen us, chosen you, today, to constitute his body.
And a third word:
“My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me” (John 10). How do we hear the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd? We immerse ourselves in the scriptures and we pray them.
In school you perhaps learned to deconstruct the scriptures and dissect them, but in the ministry they will serve a very different function: they exist to make you whole, to heal you, to save you, to bring you into alignment with the One who creates you and calls you and claims you. And as they make you whole, they will have the capacity speak through you, as you let your life speak.
Worship Constantly. Pray without ceasing. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
Years ago I heard an ordination sermon; it was been given by Bishop Edward Tullis, and he made a rather bold and, one that seemed to me at the time to be, a fairly unscientific assertion!
“If you are not reading scripture and praying every day, you will not be in the ministry in seven years.”
Years later, I know he was onto something.
We build up capital early on, by being mentored, by professors, by sermon that inspire us, by laity who encourage us, it is like this capital builds up, and it is there to use. And then we draw it down and draw it down and spend it down, and we wake up one day and we are running on empty!
And in this moment we are in spiritual danger. It becomes about ego, or performance, or people pleasing. We can no longer hear the voice. It has become faint, drowned out by the noise of the culture and the marketplace and the media and the politicians.
To worship constantly is to be driven back to the admonition of the apostle Paul: “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12).
To worship constantly is to know that we do not do this in our own strength, none of us. To worship constantly is to return to the streams of renewal, to the holy book, to the holy places, to the holy people.
So, my brothers and sisters, you embark on an adventure:
And worship constantly.
The One who calls you will never leave you. God is faithful.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.