Benediction Online

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I’ve been wracking my brains for a contemporary image for the shepherd and his flock, and I can’t find one. I thought coach and sports team but the coaches I’ve seen on TV seem more aggressive and in-your-face than the archetypal shepherd. Perhaps teacher with class of kindergarten children might be a better image. Sheep are wayward creatures, just like small children can be – liable to run off in different directions at any moment. Kindergartners are as dependent upon their teacher to provide a safe environment as sheep are on their shepherd. Little kids also learn their teachers’ voices and habits very quickly, used as they are to watching adults.

But, perhaps fortunately, kindergarten teachers don’t spend 24 hours a day with their charges in the way that Mediterranean shepherds did. And I think that most of us would rather think of ourselves as Jesus’ sheep than his kindergarteners!!

I am quite sure that when Jesus used this imagery he had the 23rd psalm in his mind. The good shepherd was already an archetypal image for his followers – a mixture of the reality of local agriculture and the words of the psalmist. So implicit in his description are the familiar and beloved words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leads me beside green pastures…” There is also an important passage in the prophet Ezekiel concerning the good shepherd. Ezekiel was writing at the time when the people of Israel were being exiled from their homeland – many taken to Babylon but others scattered across the world. Ezekiel likens them to sheep being scattered and lost on the hillsides and then God says, “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” (Ezek. 34:1-16)

So Jesus is also claiming the well-known prophecy. The Jews of his time were still expecting God to make good on his promise expressed through Ezekiel, so here Jesus is not only calling on well-known imagery but also claiming that he is the fulfillment of an important prophecy.

The image of the good shepherd is also very familiar to us. It is a story that can be shared meaningfully with children and which has inspired many a stained glass window. There’s even a San Luis Obispo dog training business called “the Good Shepherd”!

In ancient times a sheepfold was an enclosure made of stones or brambles or some combination of the two. After a day grazing on the hillsides, the shepherd would call each sheep by name into the fold and then lie down across the entrance, using his body as a gate. So Jesus is also using this imagery to talk about laying down his life, dying for the sake of his sheep, of those of us who have responded to the call to follow him and for those who have not yet come into the flock.

As we read it from our twenty-first century American perspective, his focus is on the sheep as individuals. Because he calls them by name we think of this as the ultimate picture of Jesus as our friend and protector. And it is a wonderful image of that. It is amazing to realize that in the billions of people who have lived, are alive today and will be born tomorrow and the next day, we are individually known and beloved by God. You are special. You are special not just to yourself and your friends and relatives, you are special to God. No-one else will ever be like you and no-one else will ever have the unique relationship you have with God. At the same time, you are no more special than anyone else because we are all members of Jesus flock and there is no hierarchy of specialness within the flock.

His listeners, who lived in a society where family and tribe were considered more important than individuals, would have imagined the Good Shepherd relating primarily to the flock but also knowing and caring for individuals. As Episcopalians one of our special gifts is our particular understanding of being part of the flock, not just individualists. Yes we may wander off and Jesus may have to come and find us from time to time, but we know that we do not and cannot come to God alone.

Anthony the Great, one of the earliest and most influential teachers among the Desert Fathers taught, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.” Let me repeat that: “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”

We come to God as people-in-community. We do not come to Jesus in isolation because we are social people, we are embedded in relationship. Take us out of relationship, put us in solitary confinement and we gradually wither and die. We are flock animals, whether we like it or not. So when we approach God we come together and we come together not just with those who we can see around us, but with people who are not physically present. Those we are connected with through ties of love or hatred, family and friendship, and of community of all sorts.

When we come to God we come as people embedded in a flock. I think that is what Anthony the Great meant. I don’t imagine that when he said, “If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ,” he was suggesting the desert fathers went door to door attempting to convert their neighbors – I think he was talking about how we can help or hinder each other’s relationships with the flock and with the Shepherd, whether we do that knowingly or unknowingly.

When we hold things against one another we are hindering each other from coming to God. When we hold judgments against another person because of their size or their small intellect or their lack of common sense or whatever it is we think that they lack, or because of something they said or didn’t say, or did or didn’t do – we are getting in the way of our own relationship with God. When we look around the communion circle and think, “I do wish Pauline wouldn’t wear that dress, it really doesn’t suit her” we may not be causing Pauline to stumble but we are preventing ourselves from coming to God with a humble and thankful heart.

Yet even subtle criticism can communicate. We are sensitive to each other. And none of us is any better or any worse than any other one. When we imagine that somehow we are more special, more evolved, more intelligent, more creative, more gifted, and that somehow that makes us stand out, we are completely missing the point. In fact, we are sinning.

Sheep all look pretty much alike. You can tell one sheep from another but they are much more like one another than they are individual. Jesus will go off and find the missing sheep but his relationship is with the flock for whom he lays down his body. His relationship is with the church and it is as the church that we come together to worship because together we can experience God in a much deeper and richer way than when we worship alone. Together we can hear the shepherd’s voice speaking much more clearly and more frequently than in those precious moments alone. Together we can be the Body of Christ in the world far more effectively than we can as individuals.

So I want to end by reading you once again the description of the ideal life of the very early church. This is an ideal but it is one which we may consider as an archetype of how Christians can live together and come together to God. Perhaps it is the kind of communal life that Anthony the Great was envisioning when he said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”

So, from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2:

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


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