Monday, April 27, 2015

Good Shepherding

Scripture for the 4th Sunday of Easter includes Ezekiel 34:1-10; I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

I’ll bet you won’t be surprised to hear that this Sunday is nicknamed Good Shepherd Sunday. While there are plenty more scriptural references to sheep and shepherds than those we’ve heard today, we don’t need more to highlight the importance of shepherding as a real winner—at least in the ancient world-- in conveying the nature of care. Real, genuine, authentic care.

That care is fearless, keeps the wolf at bay, seeks out the straying and lost, values the individual. The good shepherd risks life and limb to deliver this care. It’s no wonder that this metaphor holds strong in both the Hebrew Bible and in Christian scriptures. It trains us to dare believe that it describes accurately and indelibly the nature and passionate purpose of God.

Equally clear, especially in the hands of old Ezekiel, is how the metaphor calls us to practice this very same care. It pleases us, to recognize God in the shepherd’s caring. It pleases God, to recognize the shepherd’s caring in and through us.

And what delights me about this metaphor is its cross-species reach. This will be a good moment in our Easter focus on climate change and creation care to remind ourselves that the vows of Christian baptism embrace not only care for the human species, but for the whole of the created order.

The baptismal covenant expects of us agreement to enter and extend God’s ever-fresh reconciling, restoring, renewing of all creation, the whole shimmering web of life. We do this work by showing in our lives what we profess by our faith. We heard St. John nail it in his letter: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Listen to these expressions of our baptismal profession:

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.”

We pray for those about to be baptized: “Send them into the world in witness to your love.”

Immediately upon a person’s being baptized, we pray, “Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

And wherever the contemporary creed from Iona is said, Christians are called to the front lines of creation care: “…though we are sometimes fearful and full of doubt, in God we trust; and, in the name of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves, in the service of others, to seek justice and live in peace, to care for the earth and to share the commonwealth of God’s goodness…”

So let’s get back to those sheep. I have lived a sheltered life, when it comes to sheep. I know little first-hand about them. I do know that they have a reputation for not being the brightest bulbs on the Ark. I know that in the quest for using the Internet to enhance communication between human beings and other sentient beings, a touchscreen network is being designed for intelligent animal species to communicate directly with humans and each other. Pioneers on this frontier used a TED talk to introduce this idea that the Internet can be used to communicate with the many remarkable beings with which (with whom?) we share the planet. (Imagine getting an e-mail from your cat.) Cockatoos, dolphins, octopuses, great apes, parrots, elephants have all been identified as likely communicators. But I haven’t heard sheep mentioned in this regard.

I know that on one memorable Easter Sunday we invited a lovely family of shepherds from Pownal to bring their lambs to church, where, as you’d expect, they fascinated everyone. From that day I have declined every opportunity to eat lamb. If I ever do relax that discipline, there’s no one I’d rather buy lamb from than the Barsottis of Longview Farm. They run their business as a CSA, the wider community supporting a farm, enjoying its accomplishments, sharing its risks. They insist on feeding grass to their sheep, not grains. When one of their ewes died giving birth, the Barsottis raised the twin lambs, bottle-feeding, diapering, and giving them free range of the first floor of their house, until they were strong enough to join the flock. (And we keep searching for effective models of Christian formation? Here’s the prototype.)

From here out, I only think I know that while the default mode for goats is to scatter when they graze, the instinct of sheep is to cluster, more often than not. They just need occasional help doing that centering (and who among us does not?), hence the roles of shepherds and of sheep dogs—and if we had more of a cross-species version of Jesus’s sheep and shepherds parables, who knows what images of God (and of our own mission) those dogs might give us?

I think I know that shepherds in the Middle East liked to give names to their sheep. Perhaps that endearing practice works better with small flocks than with large industrial sheep farms. If Danielle and Adam Busby in Houston were challenged to find five excellent names for their recently born quintuplets—Olivia, Ava, Hazel, Parker, Riley, five girls, two of them identical twins—well, you get my point.

And yet is there anything more personal than one’s own name? The quintessential story about this truth is St. John’s Easter Day narrative. First at the tomb that morning, while it was still dark, courageous Mary Magdalene comes to anoint Jesus’s body, and finds the great stone rolled away from the grave. She runs back to where the not-yet-apostolic band of men are huddled in fear and blurts out what she has seen.

Two of them run to see for themselves, and apparently Mary runs that route one more time, for she is there in the story, at the grave, after the men leave. She is weeping, and through her tears she sees two figures in white, sitting on the ledge where Jesus’s body had briefly lain. They ask her why she is crying. Through her sobbing, she expresses her bewilderment: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Suddenly, something draws her to turn around. He is present to her. She doesn’t recognize him, as he asks her the question of the angels: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” He appears to be calling her to her senses—not away from her emotions, but into them and through them, asking her, inviting her, expecting her to look deeply into the reality of the present. To see him as he is, to recognize the encounter they’re having for what it is, to occupy the precious present.

It takes time. Through the scrim of her tears, she still cannot see clearly who this is. And perhaps there is so much changed about him, given the (literally) hell of a week he has just had. Then he utters this one word that wipes the fog from the glass: “Mary!” Hear the exclamation mark. Instinctively, naturally, like a seedling turning toward the light of the sun, she responds, “Rabbouni (Teacher)!” Again, hear the light punctuate the darkness. And recognize the pattern: the risen Christ encounters the individual person in his or her bewilderment, and in that meeting of Spirit conveys the knowing (You will never have to explain to me, he says, the impact of the kind of week you’re having—I know!) and does this conveying simply calling you by name. It’s all you need to hear.

Faith is not so much about seeing as it is about hearing, says Mary’s story. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” but heard in the Word made flesh, heard best by name, and by a known voice. No accident, that there is a common Latin root for two verbs, to hear and to obey.

We are blessed today to hear two known voices. One belongs to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, accomplished poet, and widely read blogger under the name The Velveteen Rabbi. She wears well. And anyone with such respect for the importance of worn spots in life is no stranger to the Easter story. In fact, Rabbi Rachel and her husband Ethan have sat in these pews on more than one Easter, and I will never forget the experience of reading her posted reflections on worshiping with us, a beautiful piece of appreciative inquiry. I hope to always remember also the richly engaging Passover Seder when Diana and I were guests at Rachel’s and Ethan’s table.

A second known and treasured voice belongs to The Rev. Dr. Richard Spalding, Chaplain to all at Williams College. I’ve known Rick for just a bit more than the fifteen years he has served at Williams. Diana served on the search committee that brought him to Williamstown, and I’ll confess I took an early opportunity to meet Rick on his then home turf in Cambridge. It took so little time to discover in him a trusted, open, and steady colleague and friend.

These two speakers have much in common. They are highly and deeply respected. They are adept at climbing over walls that could separate, and, like good shepherds, they know how to center communities of people. They do not come to us today as experts on the subjects of climate change and creation care. They are not here to present information that we don’t already have, but to name and probe the lived experience for ordinary people who are discovering themselves called, more and more, to be good shepherds in daily life.

Diane Ackerman's book "The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us" was helpful in preparing this sermon.