Sunday, April 25, 2010

Easter 4C

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

It has been almost two years since my trip to the tiny island of Iona, off the southwest coast of Scotland.  Iona is holy ground, in part because of its history as a home for a community of Christians, in part because the sea that surrounds it is impossibly clear and blue, in part because the rock along its shores and undergirding its hills is some of the oldest exposed stone on earth, and in part it is holy because of its many, many sheep.  There are more sheep than people on Iona.

I remember being amazed, as I watched sheep graze and wander and wag their tails, at how well Jesus had captured their true nature.  And ours.  And his.  My sheep hear my voice, he said.  I know them, and they follow me.  The sheep I saw on Iona indeed responded faithfully and even eagerly to one another and to the shepherds and sheepdogs who cared for them.

Faithfully and even eagerly... Perhaps it is more true to say, then, that Jesus captured the true nature of the sheep and his hope for our nature, his hope that we would so readily hear his voice and follow.  After all, he tells this to those gathered around him in the temple, looking for all the world like sheep around a shepherd...but they have not listened, even when he has told them his voice and God's voice are one.

I am the Good Shepherd, Jesus had said not very long before, and no one would have wondered what he meant.  Shepherds and sheep graced every hillside and green pasture, and while their work kept them spatially and socially marginalized, shepherds were known to be all at once tender, strong, playful, and protective.  Those faithful in the temple would have known well the scriptures in which God with rod and staff is tending a wayward flock.  The prophet Isaiah had spoken to the Hebrew people enduring exile in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem.  Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God, Isaiah wrote.  See, the Lord God comes with might... He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands, began the psalm we now know as the Jubilate.  In the time of Jesus it was poetry sung or recited in the temple by individuals or congregations.  Know this, that psalmist continued.  Know this: the Lord himself is God.  He himself has made us, and we are his.  We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

In all the scriptures, though, there has been no passage so familiar, so beloved, so fervently prayed as the psalm that begins, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  It surely brought special solace to worshippers who saw shepherds each day tending carefully and powerfully to the needs of their sheep, leading them, guiding them, protecting them, and providing for them.  But somehow even we, who only see sheep when we take a child to the petting zoo, find the words of the twenty-third psalm comforting and consoling.  Even we, who only know such shepherds as Little Bo Peep and Little Boy Blue, are drawn to the figure at the center of the psalm, the one who revives our souls.  We are just as able to recite the psalm by heart as those who gathered around Jesus in the temple that day, although the version we know best would have sounded strange to their ears.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.

Whether we read the twenty-third psalm in our private devotions, or at a graveside, or (as we do every Friday morning in "Big Chapel") with a child, it speaks to us of the tender, strong, playful and protective presence of God in our lives.  When I teach the psalm to three- and four-year-olds in chapel class, they watch with a mixture of delight and deep concern as I move the figures of a shepherd and his sheep from the fold to the pasture and back again, past pools of blue construction paper water and valleys made of rocks from the prayer garden just outside the classroom.  The Lord is my shepherd, I'll walk with him always.  He knows me and he loves me, I'll walk with him always, we sing, and there is no doubt in my mind about the faithfulness and eagerness to follow in those children's hearts.

It's one thing, though, to get lost behind a pile of prayer garden rocks and quite another to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  The twenty-third psalm is full of comfort and reassurance; it is also full of terror and threat.  The way forward, for the sheep in the psalm, contains peril.  Evil exists.  Enemies abound.  So it is that, even for sheep of a good shepherd, darkness is very real.  Just ask Tabitha, who suffered a terrible illness and died.  Ask Peter, who just before the rooster crowed chose not to walk with his shepherd into danger.  Ask Paul, who was plunged into darkness on the road to Damascus.  Ask the multitude surrounding the throne, who have come through so great an ordeal that they are scorched, hungry, thirsty, and weeping.  Ask the victims of yesterday's tornado, the families of deployed soldiers, ask anyone who is struggling with finances or relationships or illness or addition or grief or depression.  A life of faith and eagerness is not a life without suffering.

Many who followed Jesus found his voice comforting and empowering, but even they sometimes stumbled over his words.  Take up your cross.  Sell everything you have.  You must be last of all and servant of all.  I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves.  A life of faith and eagerness is not a life without challenges, obstacles, and difficult decisions.

But even when the fields are wide and the grazing carefree, a life of faith and eagerness is not always what we choose.  We aren't as good at listening as sheep are.  The world is full of competing voices, competing sounds, all clamoring for our attention, all claiming they are good shepherds.  And so we follow, wandering off in whatever direction we think will bring us the most security, the most happiness, the most satisfaction.

One afternoon on Iona, as we hiked across the island, we came upon a pasture surrounded by a crumbling wooden fence full of gaping holes.  It seems a lamb had wandered through one of the holes, and had found itself separated from its flock.  The mother sheep was just on the other side of the fence, bleating for her lamb, and walking toward the hole as she called out.  The lamb followed its mother's voice toward reunion, but then would become distracted and frantically wander in the other direction.

Perhaps, then we are very much like sheep.  What sounds distract us from listening for the one who leads, who protects, who revives, who anoints and pursues us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives?  What noises make it difficult for us to remain focused on green pastures and still waters?  What other voices call out to us, enticing us to follow them faithfully and eagerly, promising to overflow our cups with what they have to offer?

What does the Good Shepherd's call sound like in our lives?  How do we hear his voice, see his tender strength at work, feel his rod and staff prod us back toward the hole in the fence so that we might be reunited with him?  Again, the scriptures can serve as our guide.  The prophet Isaiah marvels, Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faith or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.  The poet of psalm 139 wonders, Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

And in those lovely words of the psalm we know so well, Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.  It is more true to the Hebrew text, however, to read the word "follow" instead as "pursue."  Surely your goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.  All these passages, and many more besides, point us toward a God who not only leads us as a shepherd, but who comes after us when we have wandered off, who seeks us even before we seek him, even we are seeking other sources of satisfaction for our many needs.

We will know God's voice in our lives when we hear what is at once tender and strong, like one who both gently cares for the sheep and powerfully protects them from harm, who tenderly carries the sheep in his bosom even as he stretches his arms out on the hard wood of the cross.  We know God's voice in the mother sheep bleating for us to come home, and in the voice of the paschal lamb upon the throne.  Those who gathered around Jesus in the temple, like so many in their time, were sheep searching for a shepherd who was more avenger than comforter, more driving force than gentle guide.  If you are the messiah, tell us plainly, they demanded.  I have told you, Jesus replied, but you have not believed.  They had not been listening to the voice that beckoned them to his flock, that called out time and time again to all who were on the other side of the fence, Come and see.  Follow me.  My power is not what you imagine power to be.  See how my generosity powerfully exposes selfishness.  See how my encompassing love powerfully reveals narrow-mindedness.  See how my light scatters the darkness before it.  See how my eternal truth shames the lies other shepherds tell.  See how my love shines into the places where you feel lost and afraid and bitter and alone and hostile and needy.  See how my goodness and mercy will pursue you all the days of your life.  Come and see.

One day, promises the book of Revelation, a great multitude will gather around the throne, dressed all in white.  Scholars tell us these are martyrs for their faith, those who risked following the shepherd even at the cost of their lives.  But dressed all in me, they seem the great flock, the people of God's pasture home at last, the sheep of God's hand.  I will give them eternal life, Jesus had said, and they will never perish.  No one will snatch them out of my hand.

Just as surely, though, as there will come a day when we will hunger no more and thirst no more, and suffer no more scorching heat, when we will weep no more and wander no more and will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever, so surely are we led and pursued by our good shepherd today and every day of our lives.  In the green pastures of our lives, beside the still waters, through the valleys of the shadow of death and in the midst of our enemies, our beloved psalm reminds us to say, You are with me...not you will be with me.  Listen to the words you know so well.  You are with me, you revive my soul, you prepare a table before me, you anoint my head with oil, and now, even now, my cup runs over.  All those words branded by repetition on our hearts are in the present-tense, not the future-tense.  One day God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, but even now we can say with confidence, You are with me.  Amen.

Artwork and other credits:  My picture of a sheep on Iona; "Four Sheep," by Kris Shanks; "Two Sheep," by Karen Fincannon; Patsy's picture of lambs on Iona; my picture of sheep on Iona; "Spring Lambs," artist unknown; "Caring for Sheep," by Nicola Slattery; my picture of sheep on Iona.  I am grateful to the lectionary reflections offered by faculty and students at Saint Louis University for illustrations of how tender and powerful is God's care.

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