April 13, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Fourth Sunday of Easter
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
We can easily see in our imagination some picture of Jesus as the shepherd. For the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is one of the most powerful images in the Christian imagination. For me it is the famous painting of Jesus with the lamb over his shoulder. It was the stained glass at the front of my home church. So today, if I close my eyes, that sanctuary comes back in my imagination, so deep was the impression.
In the first century, however, when Jesus lived and John writes his story, shepherds are problematic. We have to clear a space in our idyllic images of strolling peacefully in the sunshine and fresh air and think of motorcycle gangs of this century or cowboys of the 19th century. Both are classes of people who are outsiders, mistrusted, suspect. That is who shepherds were in the first century. They were roamers of no fixed address. Because of their occupation, they were perpetually unclean and therefore, according to the laws of Torah, permanently outside of God’s grace. They grazed sheep during the rainy season, the growing season, and then when the grasslands dried up and the sheep were penned in valleys, shepherds were out of work, so some of them, like cowboys who found robbing trains a more lucrative occupation, took up banditry in the off season.
These are the people that the writer of John’s gospel is talking about. He first shocks his listeners by comparing Jesus to a shepherd and then by calling this very shepherd good. He challenges his hearers to look past their assumptions of where God is located and who God belongs to and who can belong to God. They are asked to see God in those who are outsiders, who exist on the fringe of the community, who are despised and even a little feared. The readers of John’s story are told to look for God among the despised.
We are distant from this time, and this distance can weaken our connection with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This distance can lead to two interpretative dangers. On the one hand it can make it easy to dismiss the image as not relevant to our lives and not important to our needs. And on the other it can make it easy to over-romanticize the image, to make the image too sweet and sentimental to do the work of breaking open hard hearts and exposing them to the shock of unmerited grace. It works well with babies but we lose the edge of the story - its toughness.
Here is another image of the shepherd - this time from astronomy. As you look up into the night sky the brightest celestial object after the moon is Saturn, that mysterious planet with its rings of light. We learned 20 years ago with the first Voyager probes that took the first pictures of the planet close up that Saturn has moons and that the ring around the planet is an organized ring-system caused by these moons. The gravitational field of force created by these moons lures and draws the ring-particles into forms of relationship that define them as rings. The astronomers who identified these moons and their function in the ring system dubbed them "shepherd moons."
By their presence the shepherd moons bring order into the chaos and harmony and beauty to disorder. They shepherd millions of particles - some as big as a bus and others as small as a speck - they lure them by their very presence into becoming the rings around Saturn. The shepherd moons are a metaphor for God. They bring together and hold in relation the different parts of experience. Shepherding in this sense creates us as persons and as communities. The shepherd illuminates the lure of God that unites in beautiful, symmetrical harmony things we often see as unrelated. The rings of Saturn are an image of our varied, complex pluralistic world, with many different perspectives on the real, which in the shepherding care of God form a complex unity.
The shepherd in this image is the one who brings together and holds together different parts of experience. Shepherding, in this sense is the creation of an identity, a person, and a community. It is to make clear that the lure of God brings together those things we often take apart. Think of the line in John "of different folds." We live in a pluralistic reality, with many different meaning frames or groups, but they are all cared for by God.
This is why I speak of God as a field of force - persuasion. God lures the different particles - which we are - together. We are created out of our past, others, our faith and our self reflection on the connection of the diverse experiences that make us who we are. Like an iron filing in the field of a magnet - or like a ring-particle of ice in the gravitational field of a shepherd moon - events arise in relational patterns conditioned by the fields of force. Out of past events we create a new reality by the interplay of those things we find around us. The significant past event creates a field that lures and draws subsequent new events toward the reenactment of key values and ideals. This is how God works in our world, luring the particles into one reality. In our liturgy and worship - our tradition - we carry the seeds of meaning that keep getting revised. Jesus sums up the past images and breaks open new ones.
Jesus can be a shepherd for our life in just that sort of way. Guiding us in the confusion by giving us shelter. In the road of life we are watched over. Think of the power of the image of feasting before our enemies - it is an early laugh in the face of danger - giving a finger to the dangers that surround us. All that is asked is for us to contribute our best. The images go on to show how we are royalty in God's economy. We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and the oil is the sign that we are healed.
This is unlimited love. Unlimited love is that despite all human waywardness, God's love is always here. It comes to us unmerited. We don't need to earn it. God's love is always there for the sincere asking. It is unlimited love. Unlimited love confronts evil. It is done in love not malice. This is the wise, effective, and efficient art of confronting destructive behaviors in ourselves and others. The good shepherd and his followers, like Martin Luther King, make a point in putting themselves in the path of malice when necessary, and are willing to pay the price. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, "the children of light must have the cunning of the children of darkness, but none of their malice." The bottom line of God walking with us and facing the real wolves of reality is that God's unlimited love is there for everyone.
The image of the Good Shepherd alerts us to look for God in unexpected places, in unanticipated events and unconventional faces. It tells us to look for the shalom of God where we least expect it. The good shepherd challenges us to discern the lure of God in the least and the most overlooked, to look for glimmers of paradise in the very places where convention tells us it is not to be found.
The question before us is how do we feel and see this unlimited love, so it grounds and directs us. It is in the church we learn the meaning of, Jesus is our shepherd. Living is the laboratory of God's grace. We learn this way of being only in the faith community. The metaphor is one of an intimacy of knowing each person's unique reality - the sheep know the voice of the shepherd and he knows the unique needs of those within his care. This unlimited love translates into facing the problems of life. There are real wolves and thieves out there - people who do not have the best interests of the common good at their center and the good shepherd will do everything needed to protect.
We are called to imitate this unlimited love. We are webs of relationships, we choose the best out of the gifts offered to us. In the end it is up to each of us to make sense of the faith. With the grounding of faith we can limit the influence of the uncontrollable realities. The job of church is to offer support and teach this as the most human way of existence.
As in all things, our faith is learned and practiced. Faith does not fall from the sky. We do have a sense of God and that sense needs nurturing. The grounds for passing on our faith are, prayer, thinking, and acting. Faith involves three interrelated aspects: It is an affair of the heart; It is a commitment of the mind; It results in good actions. The good shepherd is the one who lived this way and calls us to follow.