Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Here we are, y’all. Our final Monday evening together in the Ranstrom Chapel. We’ve come together to these creaky chairs dozens of times over the last 11 months. Our first weeks together feel like simultaneously yesterday and years ago. Some of you have remarked throughout the year that it has gone faster than you thought and slower than you thought at any given time.
When you came to Davis for your year of service—whether you’d never been to California, or had lived just a few hours from here all your life—you knew this was going to be different. You shared a house with complete strangers, and formed relationships you’d never have expected. Whether you’re a Lutheran, or an Episcopalian, something else entirely, you’ve thought about and talked about it more than you ever have before. You’ve prayed new prayers and sung new songs. You’ve eaten foods you hadn’t encountered before, and even cooked for your vegetarian program staff. You served the people of your placement sites faithfully, meeting new people and going new places and acquiring new skills.
You have seen and been part of how non-profit organizations and churches and the capital-c Church work diligently together to change people’s lives. You have also noticed how non-profit organizations and churches and the capital-c Church perpetuate human systems and concentrate power at the top. You have lamented this, and you have considered how you will be part of changing this.
One of my favorite things about being your LEVN program director is learning. You are learning, and I am watching that and sometimes facilitating that, but also I am learning, and you are sometimes facilitating that. We are learning together, as we work to follow Jesus out into the world.
As you probably learned when you picked up your bulletin, the commemoration for today in the Episcopal calendar is Bishop William White, a bishop from Pennsylvania in the 1800s. I had not encountered Bishop White until I was putting together tonight’s liturgy; like I said, we’re always learning. Other than Jocelynn and perhaps other astute Episcopalians among us, you are about to know as much as I do about him:
“As a clergyman in Philadelphia, White had exhibited an unusual sensitivity for the poor, the unfortunate, and those who were in trouble. He was president of the Philadelphia Dispensary, which supplied medical aid to the poor; of the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf; and of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. He was concerned about religious education and was instrumental in the founding of the first Episcopal Sunday school in America.”
Do you know about the origins of Sunday school? In the time that Bishop White was serving, child labor was legal, and so children worked in factories or on farms and didn’t go to school. Sunday schools were formed so that children could learn—probably by reading the Bible. This was an incredible service that the Church began to provide—and all sorts of churches provided it, in cities around the country. Eventually, child labor laws were enacted and many children were able to attend traditional schools, but Sunday schools remained for those who couldn’t, and eventually became places for supplementary religious education, like we know them today.
Like any person, but particularly any white religious leader in the 18th and 19th centuries, we can be assured that Bishop White acted in some ways that we would critique; for example, he opened a separate school for black and Native American children. Two steps forward, one step back. But as we read the gospel text assigned for tonight, we can see how we and Bishop White do our individual parts of the collective work begun by Jesus and his disciples.
The words of Jesus we heard tonight are words you’ve probably heard many times before, and will hear many times again. “Feed my sheep,” the Good Shepherd says. This year, we’ve talked about all sorts of different sheep who are part of God’s flock. You’ve learned, day in and day out at your placement sites, that there are plenty of hungry people out there—literally and figuratively. And you, too, have hungered. You, too, have learned what it is like to receive hospitality from strangers. You, too, have struggled.
This gospel text is interesting, because, though we only get a little sliver of it, it connects us to so many other stories. Jesus is asking Peter three times, “do you love me?” and Peter is replying, with increasing exasperation, that yes, of course he does! This parallels Peter’s increasingly vehement denials of Jesus just a few chapters before. And, in the verses that precede this portion, Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time after his resurrection. They’re out fishing, and Jesus cooks them breakfast.
I sense Jesus’ disappointment with this scene. Before his arrest and crucifixion, they were working hard, traveling the countryside spreading the good news that the reign of God has come near. And now that he is risen, and they have seen him, they have returned to their former lives of fishing. Yes, they probably needed the income, because their itinerant gaggle of teachers and healers had basically disbanded. Nobody was hosting them, or feeding them, or washing their feet anymore. Seeing that Peter is the one who has led them back to their boats, I see Jesus shaking his head softly, with a knowing sigh.
Rather than strike out on their own, taking a risk to continue preaching the gospel, they have returned their old lives. And because “Jesus has shown that there is no need for Peter to be preoccupied with his own needs, Jesus now demands that Peter, the leader, train his attention on the needs of others—the followers, the ‘sheep’ of Jesus’ flock.” Do not simply get into your boat and go fishing to feed yourself and to make a buck. Get off of this beach and get to work feeding the whole body of Christ.
Peter is one man, and Peter is a stand-in for the whole capital-C Church. María Teresa Dávila, a lay Catholic woman liberation theologian, calls the Church to task. “Like Peter, our religious leadership needs the direct confrontation with the resurrected Christ, calling our duplicity and hypocrisy to task, in a dialogue that is both incriminating and transforming, recommitting us to the sacrificial love required to tend the flock.”
As you look out on the transition from your little yellow house to the rest of the world, how will you take what you’ve learned this year and use it to feed the sheep? How will your life of love and service be challenging and transforming to your communities, to your workplaces, to your churches, to your nation? This is the duty and the joy of the Christian life. As members of the body of Christ, you are voices in the chorus and you are thorns in the side.
We have learned this year that loving your neighbor—your housemate, perhaps?—is not simple or easy or trivial. Love is hard work. “Love is, indeed, the prescription to heal our denial of the reign of God, to accept the task of leadership that is handed to us, to guide and teach the faithful in the ways of God’s realm. For many, leadership grounded on a witness of love has meant true martyrdom in the name of justice, restoration, reconciliation, and love.”
It is my hope that when you hear a familiar gospel story like this one, in your future, you will not gloss over it as one you’ve heard a million times times before, but will hear it anew each time. That you’ll take stock of your circumstances, of how the world has changed since you heard it last, of how you have changed since you heard it last, and that you’ll develop new ways to feed the lambs and tend the sheep, as Jesus has asked. It will not be simple, or easy, or trivial. It will be hard work.
We do not expect you all to leave this place and go on to become quote-unquote Religious Leaders in the traditionally recognized sense. Becoming a pastor or priest or deacon or theology professor is an excellent vocation, and if any of you find yourselves called to those things, we will rejoice with you and keep you in our prayers.
But more importantly, to me, is that you will go out into the world of education, and art, and the non-profit sector, and the law, and medicine, and politics, and wherever the Spirit moves you, and find that in all of those arenas, there are sheep to feed. Placement site supervisors and members of the Belfry board are prime examples; being part of the ministry of LEVN is above and beyond their job descriptions. With LEVN and through LEVN and post-LEVN, you, dear ones, are equipped to feed the lambs and tend the sheep.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Allen Dwight Callahan, “John”, in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, 210.
 María Teresa Dávila, “Third Sunday of Easter”, in Preaching God’s Transformative Justice: Year C, 201-202.