Wednesday, June 7, 2023

To Be A Good Shepherd: A Homily for Linda Heffron

 Today, I returned to my sending parish to preach and co-lead a memorial service for one of the nicest members of the parish who passed away right before I left for France. Linda Heffron had called me almost two years ago to discuss death and her desire to have me involved in her funeral service. At the time I was still a couple months away from my ordination to the priesthood.

"OK, Linda, but...ummm...could you hold off on dying for a couple months so I can become a priest?"

She laughed and agreed to that covenant.

As we prepared for the service at St. Thomas, Thomasville, her brothers were spreading her ashes at a family log cabin by a lake in Ohio. The Spirit of God was definitely upon all of us.

Texts: Psalm 23 and John 10:11-16


Our scriptures for this service say a lot about God as a shepherd.

God is the shepherd who leads us by still waters… has us lie down in green pastures.

God is the shepherd accompanying us through the darkest valleys.

God is a good shepherd… a shepherd who lays down his life to live among and protect the sheep.

It’s fitting for God to be seen as a shepherd.

Shepherds take great care in seeing that their flock makes it from pasture to pasture and up into the mountains.

They use their rod and staff to gently nudge the slow pokes along… never beating them.

In rural parts of Europe…the shepherds lead the sheep through a town… letting the animals stop to get a drink at a large fountain in the main public square.

The good shepherd has deep affection for the sheep in their care.

Most of the time in churches… the common thought is that it’s the clergy… the priest or the deacon… who takes on the role of shepherd in the congregation.

But really… I think we forget that the first shepherds anyone encounters in a church isn’t the person in the collar.

It’s the usher… standing at the door… distributing the bulletins for the service.

That’s the first person a newcomer to an Episcopal church will see.

And how the usher greets people coming in can make a world of difference about how they feel when they go back out.

Imagine encountering a grumpy, scowling usher… their face full of judgment?

Or one who mindlessly puts the paper bulletin in front of you, barely noticing or making eye contact with you?

What type of a welcome would that be?

Ushers need to be attentive…without prying. Helpful without hovering.  

I think that’s one of the reasons Linda was drawn to serve as an usher here at St. Thomas.

Her natural curiosity…sharp intellect… and kind smile were the perfect combination of gifts that made her a great usher. She could read people.

She was as attentive to the regular attendees as she was to the new person trying out this church for the first time.

And she loved getting to know people… and appreciating them for who they were. It’s what piqued her interest in books and genealogy. And isn’t perfect that she found community not only here at St. Thomas…but in service at the Church of the Good Shepherd?

The end of our Gospel reading Jesus mentions the “other sheep” who don’t belong to the fold… and yet also must be found and brought in by the shepherd.

This is one of those verses in Scripture that resonates with anyone who has ever felt like an “other” or an outsider. Not one of the “in” crowd.

And perhaps because Linda had known pain in her life… it helped make her even more conscious and compassionate toward those who are “othered” in society.

In speaking with a member of Linda’s chosen family… I learned that Linda had served in the AmeriCorps program in Rochester NY before she made her move down here to Thomasville. It was in Linda’s nature to give back to her local community…and AmeriCorps gave her the chance to work with convicts recently released from prison.

Still in the shepherding role… Linda gave her all in helping those who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks learn some new skills… and gain a sense of self-worth. And in that giving… she received the reward of trust and appreciation for having cared enough to make the world a better place for somebody leaving the confining nature of prison.

Shepherds care.

Linda cared…whether it was for a homeless house cat or unlocking the mysteries of fossils. She had a passion to preserve… protect and discover the stories of all the “others.” Because those stories also matter.

The life of a shepherd has long stretches of being alone. And in the time of Jesus… it was not a noble profession. The shepherds were outcasts. They were looked down upon. It wasn’t and isn’t an easy life.

The fact that Jesus uses the analogy of a good shepherd should clue us in on God’s affection for those who are doing the work of God’s mission of inclusion and redemption without a lot of fanfare.

Jesus is encouraging us to hear these words and know that we… no matter who we are … all have the potential to be shepherds.

We all can serve in that role of helping and guiding each other through valleys of life…and being the living, breathing, example of a good shepherd to another.

This is the life that we celebrate when we remember Linda.

A life of fascination in learning and discovering… and showing kindness to strangers.

A life grounded in the confidence that in the end… there is no separation from God…the God of love who shepherds us home.

In the name of God…F/S/HS.


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