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I have never really spent much time around sheep, so it is hard for me to really “get into” the Gospel texts about sheep and shepherding. We had plenty of livestock around us as children back in Arkansas, but no sheep. We even had one family take on raising emus, and we would drive over just to look at them from the highway.
My ears pick up and my heart stirs when I hear about Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem’s festival crowds, the rooster crowing in time with Peter’s denials, and Saul being blown off his horse by Christ’s radiant presence. I know these creatures. Every year at Palm Sunday when we hear the Gospel story, I imagine Jesus riding on my Great Uncle Gip’s donkey Buford, and I smile knowing that Jesus was never in any danger of falling off, because Buford was as slow as molasses. But when I hear stories about sheep, the story stays in my head. I can think my way into understanding sheep, but my heart doesn’t sing. It’s baaaaaad.
That being said I am drawn to this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, because I know there is a deep truth here around how Jesus guides us, about how our ears seek to be tuned to the sound of Jesus’s voice, and about how other voices try to lure us away from the Gospel’s path. There is wisdom here, and that is why some of the earliest images of Jesus was that of a shepherd–or as a lamb. Interesting.
I love the layers of images in this Gospel story, how it starts with Jesus entering through the gate instead of trying to find a short cut and then ends with Jesus somehow identifying as being the gate. When I meditate on this image of a gate, I think Jesus is describing the fullness of human existence. God entered into the fullness of human existence rather than trying to find a short cut around salvation, and in so doing Jesus claims to be the fullness of human existence to those who are seeking a transformed life. “God loves things by becoming them,” Fr. Richard Rohr once said.
Friends, the deep truth in that transition from entering through the gate to becoming gate, I think, holds the key to our entire hope of salvation. This way, St. Paul can truly say that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” because God has bound God’s own Self to us through Jesus in an unbelievably intimate way.
I think of it this way: God joined the flock rather than staying on the other side of the fence, merely watching the clueless sheep from afar.
Perhaps–if we were to spend just a bit more time on this image–it is we who prefer God to stay on the other side of the fence, keeping watch from afar, because something in our soul recognizes that the closeness of God is going to prompt us to reorient our lives. God’s proximity can have a pronounced effect on us! The intimacy that God desires to share with us threatens our egos, who prefer to keep grasping for power and control within our flocks. We want to be the ones to lay out the rules for what it means to be a flock.
And here is where my heart is hooked this year as this Good Shepherd Sunday comes around in the middle of this global pandemic experience: Jesus is inviting us to a deeper reflection on what it looks like to live together in community. Think about it this way: Jesus values community so much that He entered into it, shaping it around his own compassionate embodiment. As we are reminded in the Letter to the Philippians, Jesus emptied himself of his claim to or identity with God (the perception of a removed God) and entered into creation itself, humbling himself even unto death.
The wisdom of the Christian tradition reminds us that Jesus’s personal Body has now become the communal Body of the gathered Christian community.
I think this is a powerful meditation for us to focus on during these days, because we are experiencing the tensions and dynamics of community on so many levels. How do we see ourselves as a Christian community physically distant yet mystically joined on the level of our hearts? While I deeply grieve not being able to be present with you all, I honestly feel closer to you in a remarkable way. I feel the grief even as I rest in this deepened sense of communion that we are sharing. There is a deep wisdom that is being embodied in our flock.
We also see the tensions within the larger communities in our lives, don’t we? We see so many who have lost their jobs, so many families struggling. We see parents suddenly becoming homeschool teachers while balancing working from home and managing things with technology that is often frustrating–while wearing only pajamas. (But thank God we have the ability to see one another’s faces!)
And now we have this shift to “opening up” an image I want to explore more, because what are we “opening up” to on a deeper, spiritual level, as a community? In the coming weeks and months, there will be a distinct pressure with how we will understand our communal life with large numbers of our flock being vulnerable and being asked to shelter in place well into June. How can we hold these tensions we feel together as a Christian community? How do we hold our desire to be together–or just our desire to have our worship back to the way it was prior, as many have shared–with our grief over the reality that some of us will continue to be physically separate?
When it comes to these deeper dynamics, here is where I am sitting today: if we think we can solve these problems based on our own cleverness, or by finding some easy solution to these complex problems, our level of anger and frustration will thwart our potential for spiritual growth. I think we can only hold these dynamics if we rest in the truth that God has entered our flock and is living among us. This incarnational truth is where I am finding hope these days, as I hold what I hold, as we all hold what we are holding together: that God is among us, dwelling within our hearts and uniting us as a community. And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.
Let me leave you with this image, a powerful one that Lisa found in an article about sheep dogs. I wonder if you see what I did with some of the insights researchers found about the dynamic of flock life.
In an article in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, researchers noted that sheep dogs are able to discern incredible insights into the struggles of a flock of sheep. If the shepherd wants the flock to move forward, toward a certain place, it is impossible to do so if there are too many gaps in the flock, if the spaces between the sheep are too large.
“If the dog sees gaps between the sheep, or the gaps are getting bigger, the dog needs to bring them together.” As the researchers described, if the herd is not cohesive enough, it cannot move toward a space of refuge or toward greener pastures to feed. There’s a lot to reflect on here in terms of what gaps we see that are preventing us as a society from moving forward.
What gaps do we see?
As Christians, we remind ourselves that we are made more cohesive not by our own agendas or by asserting power or deflecting blame or manipulating the situation. Such things are the tactics of our egoic grasping mind. As Christians, we are made more cohesive by attuning our hearts to the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ. We become closer, more united, when we rest more in the presence of God who chose not to assert power from the other side of the fence but rather chose to enter through the gate and join the flock itself.
When we rest in this place, we can truly say together:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Good Shepherd Sunday
May 3, 2020