Very Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen is director of St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Program and assistant professor of homiletics and rhetoric. He delivered this sermon at the Seminary’s Three Hierarchs Chapel on July 15, 2019, the Feast of Holy & Great Prince Vladimir.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every single one of us is called to ministry—to build up the Body of Christ; to serve and love and care for our neighbor; to obey God’s commandments.
We are all called to ministry.
But Christian ministry is hard, isn’t it? Yes, there are moments of radiant glory, like this morning’s celebration. But glory is such a tiny part of ministry. Most of ministry is hard, unglamorous work, just like the hard, unglamorous work of shepherds in Jesus’ day.
Today, Jesus reminds us that ministry is like being a shepherd.
Being a shepherd is common, hard, unglamorous work. Being a shepherd is not the kind of work that one does from the safety of a great city, surrounded by walls and soldiers. It is dangerous work that takes you out into wild places, where the flocks can find pasture.
Christian Ministry is hard.
So today, as we remember the heavenly patron of our seminary, St. Prince Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles—whose personal conversion led not only to the baptism of Kievan Rus, but to the birth of the Russian Orthodox Church and her many spiritual children throughout the world—as we remember our holy prince Vladimir, it’s only natural to be awestruck by his ministry.
According to legend, on the night before the people of Kiev were to be baptized, St. Vladimir declared throughout the city, “If anyone does not go into the river tomorrow, be they rich or poor, beggar or slave, that one shall be my enemy.”
And the sacred wish of the holy prince was fulfilled without a murmur: and “all the land glorified Christ with the Father and the Holy Spirit at the same time.”
Imagine a ministry where your wish is fulfilled without a murmur. Wouldn’t THAT be something?
Of course, this is a holy legend, but even if there were actually a few murmurs among the people, I’m still awestruck by the glory and power of St. Vladimir’s ministry.
And then I think about my own ministry…
What has my ministry accomplished? How am I making a difference? How many people are coming to faith in Jesus Christ through my witness?
Then I start to think, “Maybe I’d be more successful if I was more like St. Vladimir. If I was wealthier, then I could fund great works to glorify God. If I had more power I could accomplish so much more. If I were more famous, if more people listened to me, then my ministry could be great.”
But this kind of thinking is actually the work of the devil, because even if I manage to increase my wealth, or power, or fame, there’s always someone wealthier, or more powerful, or more famous. And before long, wealth and power and fame become more important than Jesus Christ.
Then, trapped in the chains of envy and despair, fantasizing about the ministry that I want, the ministry I think I deserve, I’m not doing God’s ministry right now, here, today.
God warned us of this temptation in the commandment He gave to Moses: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, nor your neighbor’s spouse…”
And we could add, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s ministry.”
Because Christian ministry is ultimately not about being great, or wealthy or powerful, or famous. Christian ministry is about being faithful to Jesus Christ, and serving Christ through serving my neighbor; using whatever God has given me, no matter how great or how small, to serve the flock—to serve the people that have been entrusted to me today.
In Jesus’ time, being a shepherd was a family business. Your flock was entrusted to you by your father, and your job was to be faithful to those placed in your care. The shepherd lives with the sheep, cares for them, leads them beside still waters and into green pastures. And in times of danger, the shepherd protects the sheep with his life. At night, when the sheep had been led into their enclosure, the shepherd would literally lie down at the entrance, so if a wild beast came for the sheep the shepherd was the first one to be attacked.
This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “I am the door of the sheep…If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” Jesus places himself in harm’s way, so that we may know God’s love and God’s faithfulness.
As Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Through His death on the Cross, when the Son of Man is lifted up in glory, we see just how much the Good Shepherd loves every one of us.
Once, when I was in the Holy Land, near the river Jordan, I saw a young boy, barely older than fifteen, leading sheep down to the river to drink. The flock was small, but for this family it must have been tremendously valuable.
This boy’s father had entrusted him with a great responsibility.
His job was to care for those sheep, and ensure their wellbeing. That young shepherd was using everything God had given him to do the will of his father.
Today, our Heavenly Father has entrusted us with a great responsibility: to use everything God has given us, to care for the people in our lives.
So, if you are the shepherd of a very large flock, like St. Vladimir; or if you are somewhere out in the wilderness with a ragtag flock of disciples, inquirers, and penitents like St. John the Baptist; or if your flock is as small, say just one tiny infant, like Mary the Theotokos caring for the infant Jesus, be faithful in ministry, be faithful in service. Care for those who are hard to care for. Serve those who are hard to serve. And love those who are hard to love.
For this is Christ’s work.
Now, if you are thinking to yourself, “Lord, I’m not sure about this.
I don’t think I’m good enough. I have doubts and temptations. I’m not sure I can do this on my own”—if you’re thinking this, don’t be afraid. Because Christian ministry is not our work, it is Christ working through us.
So, today, acknowledging our weakness, falling down in humility before Christ the Good Shepherd, God cares for us, just like he cared for his people in the wilderness. Like them, we are a tribe of broken, sinful shepherds on our way to God’s Promised Land. And just like the manna in the wilderness, God gives us this day our daily bread, providing us strength and courage and compassion to care for the flock entrusted to us today.
Glory to Jesus Christ!