Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year B
April 25, 2021 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 4:8-12 | Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29
I John 3:1-2 | John 10:11-18

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

What does it mean to be a leader? The world often thinks of a leader as an authority figure, like a boss in a place of business. In many instances, a leader is exactly that, someone who tells other people what to do.  However, I don’t like being told what to do, and most assuredly, Deacon Sharon doesn’t either. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve told each other, “Don’t tell me what to do!” Yet, we both try very hard to be good shepherds to one another, and that’s a big reason why we have stayed married for over twenty-five years.

To be a good leader, you must be a good shepherd. I learned that at my first attempt at leadership with the Young People’s Fellowship at Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut when I was elected president of the group. I was surprised to be put in that position, considering that I did not have many friends and was generally considered an outcast because I was so different than other people.

My leadership of that group did not go very well. My values, lifestyle, and priorities were not theirs. Church music was priority one for me. Their priorities were smoking, beer-drinking and immersion in loud noise that they thought was “music.” Their goal in life was marriage with children, with men as breadwinners and women as housewives, while I aspired to a childfree marriage to a woman who worked for a living as Deacon Sharon did for over forty years. To say I was different from other teenagers would have been a true understatement. Not surprisingly, I failed as the leader of that group precisely because I did not make the group’s concerns my concerns.

To make a long story short, the group ousted me by changing the constitution to eliminate the position of president in favor of leadership by a committee of which I was not chosen to be part. I left that group shortly thereafter as “the stone that the builders rejected,” to quote today’s psalm. I would late become a chief cornerstone elsewhere.

Although my experience with the youth group was very hurtful to me at the time, it was an important life lesson about leadership.  What I learned was that leadership was not about using your position to promote your own agenda, but that successful leaders serve the needs of others, not just themselves.

A leader who focuses on the leader’s self-interest and promotes the leader’s personal agenda does not remain a leader when the people being led have the option of choosing a different leader who puts them first. Such is life in a democracy. We saw that in the last Presidential election. We now no longer have a President who collects rent money from the government to house his bodyguards at his private club and who makes money when foreign diplomats doing business with the Federal Government stay at his hotel in Washington DC.

Caring for other people. That’s what leadership should look like when one human person leads others. To be a leader, you must be a good shepherd in the way Jesus was. Jesus tells us that a good shepherd must be willing to give up her or his own life for the sake of the sheep. In very simple, conventional theological terms, today’s Gospel tells us that the followers of Jesus are the sheepfold, and Jesus is its shepherd. Jesus willingly gave up his own life on a cross for the sake of his followers.

While the Synoptic Gospels, that is Mark, Matthew and Luke are about, respectively, what Jesus did, what Jesus said, and the relationships of Jesus with the people he encountered, the Gospel of John, from which today’s reading is taken, is addressed to the question of who Jesus is. Today’s reading from John is part of the known as the Farewell Discourses wherein Jesus shared his innermost thoughts with his disciples with the end of his life fast approaching. As he did that, Jesus gave them an ever-so-small glimpse of the essence of who he is at his core. Given the close relationship, we should all want to have with Jesus, we should be paying close attention to that. What is at the core of who Jesus animates our relationship to Jesus? We are sheep in the flock of which Jesus is the shepherd.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus contrasts the shepherd of the flock with a hired hand. The shepherd is deeply committed to the well-being of the sheep, who are his livelihood. But the hired hand does not, and therefore, cares nothing about the outcome. On several occasions, I have hired managers to run business enterprises that I have owned, but the results have always been disastrous. For a business to be successful, the manager must-have “skin in the game” so to speak. My businesses always did their best when I took an active role in their operation. Absentee ownership does not work.

A successful leader is a shepherd with a personal interest in her or his flock. After my disastrous experience with the church youth group, my next encounter with leadership was when I started my first major business, that of an insurance claim investigation company. At thirty-four years of age, I was the owner and president of Elite Investigations. I quickly learned if you are the owner of a business, your best interests are served when you care about what your employees want from their work situation, not just what you want. That’s what it takes to be a good shepherd of the kind described in today’s Gospel. You have to be willing to sacrifice your own comfort for the sake of your sheep.

Jesus, being Jewish, was no doubt aware of what the prophet Ezekiel said about selfish shepherds. Ezekiel said,

”  Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?  You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep.”

Many small business owners tend to be poor shepherds of their flocks of employees. Many pay dirt-cheap wages and refuse to provide health insurance for their employees. They do these bad acts so that they can make more money for themselves.  Those are examples of the kind of shepherding Jesus opposed in today’s Gospel, leaders who take for themselves but do not give back.

A business does not just serve itself. It serves customers and it serves the community in which it operates. In today’s Gospel, Jesus, the shepherd, speaks about those outside his flock:

”I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,…”

Similarly, the most successful business owners look beyond their immediate bottom line and take into account the interests of their employees, customers, vendors, and the community at large in which they are situated. A successful business needs relationships with all of those constituencies.  Raw materials for products and services come from vendors and must be produced and must be sold for a business to exist and make money.

The business world vindicates the leadership theories of Jesus. Look at the businesses which are successful and have been around forever and a day. Note how the largest and most successful businesses in Corporate America have departments for human resources, customer service, and community and governmental relations. In contrast, most small business owners don’t think beyond what’s in it for themselves in the short term.

The fact is, if you want your business to grow and to last for a long time, you have to think years, if not decades, ahead of today. You have to pay decent wages and provide generous benefits. You must provide a pleasant place to work. You have to want your employees to be happy. Your employees will not attain their highest productivity if they are not happy, and your business will not make as much money. The truth is, if you think small, you will stay small. Jesus, however, thought big. The result is that Christianity is the world’s largest religion.

The takeaway seems to be that following Jesus leads to success in whatever you do. Pope Francis got it right when he said that to be good shepherds, clergy must know the smell of their sheep. The same is true in business. As Deacon Sharon will tell you from her many years in sales in various parts of Corporate America, success in signing up customers is directly related to empathy with their situations. And in every aspect of business, seeing the image of God in others and treating them in the same way you’d like to be treated more often than not leads to better outcomes in business and in church.

Although churches reflect similarities to the business world, churches are different. While a secular business can pick and choose its customers, a church cannot, and should not, choose whom it serves.

We are Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. Many people, when they hear the word “Catholic” in the name of a church, they instantly think that church is part of the Roman Catholic Church. We are not part of them. We use the word Catholic in a much different sense. We call ourselves “Catholic” to describe who we are, not to give ourselves an institutional identity.

To be Catholic is to be inclusive. The opposite of “Catholic” is not “Protestant.” The opposite of a “Catholic” church is one is a church narrow, exclusive, and selective in its embrace.  “Catholic” means wallowing in the embrace of an abundantly merciful God whose sun shines on bad people as well as good people. Jesus once defined this idea by saying: “In my father’s house are many mansions.” That is what we aim for here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community.

Our church is vacant six and a half days a week. I invite everyone to think about how we might use our space to serve others when we’re not using it for worship. Think of other ways the church might become more a part of the musical world in the local area. We’re also open to attracting more clergy to develop additional congregations for weekday Mass and Mass on Saturday evenings. I’d love to hear your ideas. Don’t be scared to suggest something that is unusual.

The Message of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community to the world is that God’s heart is wide, abundant, and universally embracing. Our heart is one that takes care to pray for those “other sheep who are not of this fold.” Everything else, without a single exception, falls short.

The gospels reflect the passionate inclusivity of a Jesus whose passion for inclusivity triumphs over any concern for worthiness. Jesus dined with sinners without checking their moral qualifications to be worthy of his presence. His disciples, much like many of today’s church-people today, always tried to keep so-called “unworthy” people away from him, but Jesus always answered that he didn’t their protection and that he wanted everyone to come to him. Indeed, that is still Jesus’ call: Let them come to me, all of them! And it is our call, too.

What Jesus offers is an invitation to be part of his flock, a flock that is spiritually well-fed at the Altar in Holy Communion. Just as Jesus fed five thousand people without checking their belief systems, we here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community invite everyone, and I mean, everyone, to receive Holy Communion. Jesus feeds his flock like a shepherd, and so do we.

God’s people select the church. The church does not, and cannot,  select people. Those who come to us do so of their own free will. But that does not mean the church must change to satisfy their wants. We are not going to stop singing all of our Mass to put more people in chairs. Rather, the way the church relates to people must follow the way God relates to humanity.  God may not always give us everything we want. God doesn’t change the way God loves by satisfying us in the way we want to be satisfied. God will always love us in the way only God can love us.

The way God loves us is that God loves us as we are. As today’s Second reading tells us, we do not always know God’s plan for us, but we do know that God is full of mercy and compassion, long-suffering, and of great goodness. As Pope Francis tells us, “the name of God is mercy.” We remind ourselves of that every Sunday when we sing “Lord have mercy upon us,” and we mean it seriously here.

So when people come to us, we must extend every effort to serve them if they are willing to accept what we have to offer. And we must be merciful. We don’t excommunicate, disfellowship, or reject anyone in any manner. Instead, we work through those challenging situations that always arise in any group of people. To be a good shepherd often means enduring people who make you feel uncomfortable. Jesus certainly gave us an example of what we should do. On Palm Sunday when Jacob sang to us the words of one of the four Servant Songs in the Book of Deutro-Isaiah, we heard the prescient prediction that Jesus would be despised, rejected, and give his back to the smiters. The prophecy proved true. In all four gospels, we read that Jesus endured emotional and physical pain at the hands of both religious authorities who condemned him for his teachings and the secular authorities who whipped and crucified him. In putting up with all that, Jesus demonstrated that he, as our good shepherd, gave up himself for the sake of the sheep of his flock, who are all of humanity. That is the example Jesus gave us to follow for all ministers of the church, lay or ordained.

All ministers, both lay and ordained, are shepherds to the flock of those whom others rejected as illustrated in today’s First Reading. To give you some context, Peter the Apostle was on trial in front of the Temple authorities because he had healed a crippled man.  Peter made a chief cornerstone out of a stone that they had rejected. And that is precisely what we must do here.

A substantial part of the mission of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is, in the words of today’s psalm,  to make chief cornerstones out of stones rejected by builders elsewhere. By that, we mean people who’ve been rejected by other churches and by the world generally. We serve people whom other churches cannot serve or will not serve. I’m talking about women called to ordained ministry, same-sex couples who want to be married, and parents seeking to have their children baptized who at other churches face time-consuming, costly, and unreasonable obstacles. An inclusive church is a church that meets those needs.

Exclusivity and church do not mix and are not the way we do things here. In that Deacon Sharon and I are both fully vaccinated, we are resuming the pastoral ministry of our community. This past week, I administered the last rites to an elderly lady in Palm Desert, and we had a baptism this past Saturday with another scheduled for June.  We are available not only for baptisms, but marriages, quinceaneras, and funerals as well.  John Wesley famously said, “the entire world is my parish.” We agree. Accordingly, we are here for whoever needs us, not just those who write us a check or come to church here every Sunday. The flock that Deacon Sharon and I shepherd is not just the people who come to church here, but everyone who needs us.

God’s love is free and available to all. As our second reading tells us, God has shown us love so that we might become children of God. We are all God’s children, not just a chosen few. Being a good shepherd is treating those who we shepherd the way God relates to us. God loves us. If you want to be a good shepherd, you must love your flock, and every single sheep within it, without exception.  Shepherding is not always a fun job, but it is the job the Holy Spirit calls us to do.  AMEN.