Fr. John Allison
May 8, 2022
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
These very familiar words from Psalm 23 are a favorite to many, perhaps some of you here today even. I'm going to say up front, however, that I've not always found the shepherd imagery so prevalent in today's readings on this fourth Sunday of Easter, what is often known as Good Shepherd Sunday, to be especially resonant with my own experience. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the suburbs of Ohio, far away from any sheep farms; or maybe it's the implication that if the Lord is my shepherd, I must be a sheep and the connotation of being a sheep in American culture is not exactly positive to say the least; It doesn't help that a little reading of Biblical history tells us that shepherds were a generally disreputable lot and even considered ritually unclean among the Jews because of their close association with the animals. Never mind the fact that the image of the shepherd was common in Biblical and even Greco-Roman literature, which is most obvious is today's psalm, but there was also David, celebrated as Israel's ideal shepherd king; In the book of Ezekiel also, in a passage likely to have been an influence in the writing of today's passage from the Gospel of John, God is portrayed as a shepherd sharply critical of the authorities who seek to harm the sheep, the people of Israel. There are numerous other examples but even with all that, it was only when I was serving as a chaplain at a hospital in the city, that I began to reconsider this metaphor. And, believe me, the irony is not lost on me that the focus of my ministry was pastoral care.
It was there in that hospital that I began to notice what resonance this image of the shepherd had for so many people. It started with the small cards printed with the 23rd Psalm that seemed to fly off the table in our chapel and that patients regularly requested. Sometimes it would come up in conversation with a patient that it was this Psalm to which they would turn again and again in time of trouble. Even here, at Christ Church, we have not one but two windows depicting Jesus as the good shepherd, leading me to believe that the image resonates strongly for many of you as well. Over the years, I’ve begun to see that it wasn't the green pastures and still water that eluded me but that the shepherd imagery spoke to a very deep need, a human need, to be cared for, to be watched over. And this is what had been so difficult to reach in myself. Indeed, in our culture of self-sufficiency vulnerability is not always something we are keen to admit to, even to ourselves. Certainly that was the case for me. But there's something about a crisis, whether it's a health crisis such as those I was witness to in the hospital, or something of a more interior nature, to bring to the surface the very basic need to be cared for, to be taken care of. To accept help, even. Sometimes, it takes a crisis, or a great hardship, for our defenses to crack, for an opening to be made that might allow us to be led to something new, to green pastures, to still waters--to abundant life, as Jesus says a bit earlier in the chapter from which Gospel reading was taken.
So, what is this abundant life of which Jesus speaks? Is it, like the green pastures and still waters of our psalm, an idyllic image that can soothe us in times of trouble. Perhaps, on some level, but, I think there is more. We are called to be more here on this earth; we are called to be God’s love in the world and it’s not always easy to discern how we are to do that.
In the ancient Middle East, even to this day I’ve read, shepherds have a very different relationship to their sheep than do the sheep herders that are more common to the west. Unlike the sheep herders that drive their sheep from behind, using dogs or horses to essentially frighten the sheep and corral them into a particular area, Jesus describes the shepherd leading the sheep, calling each by name. He goes into more detail about this earlier in the chapter but what he describes still holds; even today in the Middle East, just as in Jesus’ time, different flocks of sheep will intermingle at an oasis. Then, at the sound of their shepherd’s voice, a particular flock of sheep will immediately separate from the rest and follow where they are called. That’s what makes a good sheep; wherever they are and in whatever circumstance they will recognize the voice of their shepherd and follow where that voice calls them. Essentially, sheep are attuned to that one particular voice from birth and recognize and respond to that one voice. The difficulty for us is that we are not like the sheep in this regard.
There are many different voices that call to us and, the truth is, we don’t always do so well at staying attuned to the call of the good shepherd, Jesus. Indeed, their are many voices out there competing for our attention, from advertisers trying to sell us the latest must have product, to social media promoting the latest fads, to politicians seeking to assert their power and prestige at all costs. The din of voices calling to us can at times be both seductive and overwhelming and sometimes we follow when we shouldn’t.
But, if we listen closely and can filter out the noise, we can hear our name, each of us. We are called and we follow. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” What that means, how we follow may be something different to each of us, but it all begins by saying, yes. By responding. We are not driven to God in fear, with dogs nipping at our heels, and herded into some sheep pen. We are led and we follow because WE say yes. We follow in trust and love and are not driven in fear.
All week I've been playing with these images in my mind and trying to understand how they are lived out in my life. Certainly, I've said, yes. By virtue of our presence here today all of us have in our own way. But what does that look like, day-to-day? Am I aware of myself as a follower of Christ? Where do we hear Christ call our name and how do we respond? What are the practices that sustain you, that keep your ears open so that you might follow, so that you are led to green pastures and still waters? You see, so many of the people I know who follow other traditions and spiritual disciplines speak of their "practice," of what they do that sustains them, but seldom do I hear Christians speak of their practice, of how we engage our discipleship in our lives.
I bring this up because it is our practice, those disciplines that we follow, that allow us to cultivate the ability to hear the shepherd's call. One theologian of the early church spoke of this as developing our spiritual senses. For me, the daily office and time every morning and evening for contemplative prayer are practices that help me develop my spiritual senses. Those practices, along with the Eucharist, sustain me and help me share God’s love and I follow them not out of any fear of divine retribution or because I might fall out of favor with the holy one but because without them the shepherd's call grows ever fainter. I don’t hear so well. My spiritual senses diminish. These practices, then, are the embodiment of me saying yes, to Christ's call. What we do--our prayer, our scripture reading, our meditation, the Eucharist we share--these are, in part, our responses to God's call to us, and the more we practice the clearer the call becomes. We see with new eyes and hear with new ears. We love with new hearts. This is what it means to be resurrected with Christ. This is how we say yes to living in the Resurrection. This is what it means to have life, and have it abundantly.
I ask you to consider this week, what are the practices that sustain you, that allow you to hear the shepherd's call? And just as importantly, to what are you being called? Mercy? Hope? Justice? Reconciliation? Love? All of these create in us the abundant life we are promised in Christ.
The psalmist says, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil for you with me." My prayer for us all is that we hear God's call and we are led through those dark places, that we may find rest in God's peace. Amen.