Monday, May 4, 2009

Sermon: The Fourth Sunday of Easter [Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, IL, May 3, 2009]

All the recent media talk about swine flu has put me in mind of pork in general, and that has made my thoughts turn to everyone’s favorite film about pigs, Babe. You’ll remember that Babe is a pig who wants to be a sheepdog, and the climax of the movie comes when Babe unexpectedly wins the sheepdog trials. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Babe is the way in which it puts in a good word for the dignity and intelligence of sheep, a claim you don’t hear made a lot in churches on Good Shepherd Sunday. You may remember that early on, when Babe tries, as the dogs do, to boss the sheep around, he fails. He asks his adoptive sheepdog mother why, and she replies: “You’re treating them like equals. They’re sheep, they’re inferior.” “Oh, no they’re not,” says Babe. “Of course they are,” she rejoins. “We are their masters, Babe. Let them doubt it for a second and they’ll walk all over you.” She must have had a prior career as a Middle School teacher.
Chanting “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe.” the sheep on Babe’s farm have an un-sheeplike sense of their own dignity, and they respond to Babe’s interspecies respect with cooperation. Like the duck who thinks he’s a rooster and the pig who thinks he’s a dog, the sheep in Babe refuse to accept the world’s definition of them. Our cultural stereotype of sheep, to the extent that we urban and suburban people still have one, is that they are dirty, smelly, stupid creatures who need guidance and direction from dogs and people. What that stereotype fails to acknowledge, however, is that even dogs and people need guidance and direction. Sheep may need a shepherd, but so does everyone else. And not because we’re stupid. We need guidance and direction because we are social beings, and it is one of Western culture’s most dangerous presumptions to think that we can navigate all the thickets of life without the aid and companionship of others. “I Did it My Way” is a song best sung by a sheep hurtling over a cliff, followed closely by a dog and a man.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a day commonly called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the phrase from today’s collect which calls Jesus “the good shepherd” of God’s people and prays that “when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” [John 10.14] To be a Christian one must come to terms with this metaphor in all of its implications. Jesus tells us that he is our shepherd and we his sheep. We need guidance; we need direction. But to need guidance and direction is not, contrary to what Babe’s sheepdog’s mother says, to be inferior. How do we hear this comparison of us to sheep in all its fullness without forgetting that we, like sheep, have both limitations and dignity, too?

That comparison which Jesus made was not new:
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned everyone to his own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53.6]

That’s the Servant Song from Isaiah; and our Psalm for today, the familiar 23rd Psalm, begins by proclaiming, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Israel turned to sheep as a human metaphor because they saw in sheep some observable aspects of human behavior. They saw that sheep do not always know or do what is in their best interest. They saw that sheep flourish more in an ordered community than they do in a wild free for all. When looking at shepherds and sheep, Israel’s prophets saw an image of the human condition. We think we’re individuals and that we know what is best for us. But the actual facts are otherwise. We achieve our fulfillment not alone but in community. We flourish as part of something bigger than we are. And we need guides, mentors, friends, companions to help us navigate away from life’s thickets and cliffs.
That is certainly the way the book of Genesis understands the human condition in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. And that is certainly how our Gospels understand the story of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. We human beings mistake our own interest. When we think only of our own personal needs, wants, and aspirations we can become easy prey for charlatans and demagogues. When we follow what we think is our own self-interest divorced from that of others, we see what happens: Adam and Eve get expelled from the Garden; Jesus gets crucified; Americans live in a world with failed financial institutions, bankrupt companies, collapsing infrastructure, massive unemployment, two wars, and a society where 45 million Americans have no health insurance, to say nothing of what we’ve done to the planet. “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way.” We like sheep get into trouble when we fail to realize that there is a larger, shared, common good. And that is why we need shepherds—prophets, mentors, guides, companions, friends—to help us remember that human life is impossible without the sustaining fabric of a community and culture and a commitment to mutual respect and obligation. As they say, “It Takes a Village.”
So we are like sheep in that we can get ourselves into personal and social trouble. And we need shepherds and sheepdogs to nip at us and guide us not just into safety but toward God’s vision of our real human destiny. Because the purpose of life is not just to be safe. The purpose of life is to live, as Jesus did, a fully realized joyous and compassionate existence. And that brings us back to the question of our sheeply and human dignity.
If we think again about what sheep represent in the ancient Near Eastern economy, we’ll see that sheep are, to their owners and shepherds, precious. The sheep are worth a good deal to those who own and maintain them. So when Jesus calls himself our “Good Shepherd”, or when Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord is our shepherd, what we should hear in that is not just a program of divine command and control. What we should hear in that is about human dignity and worth. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Lord as shepherd leads the sheep through the valley to green pastures and still waters. You don’t lay down your life for someone worthless. You don’t give your shepherdly attention to someone whom you don’t care about. God, as shepherd, sacrifices and leads us precisely because we have so much worth and value in God’s sight. God made you and me in God’s own image. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us as one of us. God loves us not out of sentimental pity but out of identification and worth. God in Jesus knows what it is to be us. God desires that we have life and have it abundantly.
Right before we saw the movie Babe¸ our family spent a summer in England where we became familiar with a BBC show called “One Man and His Dog”. Every week for a half an hour, viewers of “One Man and His Dog” used to watch a shepherd put a sheepdog through the complex trials of guiding sheep through a complicated set of gates into pens. Like many people, we found this show oddly soothing. There was little commentary, and the only sound you heard was of the calls the man would make to the dog. Watching it was like sitting outside on a farm at the end of the day watching the advance of evening. It was also like finding yourself in the vision of the loving, safe, and generous world which God holds out to us at Easter.
I think about those sheepdog trials whenever I hear the words from today’s Gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” You and I, like sheep, need the nipping of that heavenly sheepdog at our heels to keep us thinking about how what we want can more closely resemble what we need and can live in harmony with what the everyone else needs. And you and I, like sheep, are blessed to have each other and the continued presence of the One who cares enough about us to guide and lead us away from thickets and cliffs and towards pastures and still waters.
Easter is about many things, but most deeply it is about what God means to us and what we mean to God. What God means to us is that the Lord is our shepherd, and this is good and gracious news. And what we mean to God is that we are precious to the One who lays down his life for the sheep. You mean everything to God. The fullness of both these meanings is what Easter represents. And Easter’s gracious surprise--for that One and for all of us-- is that we now have a resurrected, risen life with Jesus and God and each other and the world in which to live out the joyous implications of what being precious in God’s sight can mean. May our love and gratitude toward God and our compassion and solidarity with each other be the most contagious things we experience this spring. Amen.

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