A sermon given on 4/26/15 at Christ Trinity Church, Sheffield, MA
In the 1980s, when I was groping my way back toward God, I had gotten as far as saying the Lord’s Prayer in the early morning when I was walking my dog Greta. For variety’s sake one morning, I also started to say Psalm 23. What I heard come out of my mouth, though, was “The Lord is my German shepherd. . .”
My first reaction was terror that I had committed blasphemy. Then, watching my beloved companion run into the dirt lane to greet her possum friend, I realized that it was not blasphemy at all, but in fact a truth that I had just discovered. For I realized that God had used the very things I most loved to get through to me: my pets. Having grown up in a buttoned-up, Yankee-Irish household, I realized that Greta was the only living creature I regularly told “I love you.”
When I saw a National Geographic special a few years ago on the subject of how dogs bond with their owners, I learned that not only does hugging a pet release the hormone oxytocin in the human, researchers found that it also releases oxytocin in the pet. So this act of love is mutually beneficial and creates a special bond.
“I am the Shepherd. I know my flock and they know me,” Jesus says in one of John’s “I am” stories. This is a different Jesus from the other gospels, a more metaphysical Jesus who yet uses images that people of His time could understand. There are countless references to sheep and lambs in both the Old and the New Testament, and Jesus Himself is called the Lamb of God, denoting the sacrificial offering of Himself on the Cross.
You don’t have to have any real experience with sheep to know that they are known for their, well, dimness is the polite word. They don’t seem to have any radar for danger and will wander away from the flock where they are vulnerable to predators. You can’t lead them because who knows what they’re getting up to behind you? Sheep have to be driven, the shepherd behind them and directing the dogs who may be helping to keep the flock together.
Can we see ourselves in this scenario at all? From the time of the Exodus, when the Israelites kept wandering off the path that Moses was leading them on, to right here, right now when we, with the best intentions, get distracted by the world and forget who we are and whose we are, human beings have been easily led astray. We need to be driven, just as Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert.
Now, you know I love show and tell, so I’m going to pass out a picture that was the source of another revelation that strengthened my faith. My brother had a print of this picture in his house, and it drew my attention every time I visited. He must have noticed, because a few years after the Twenty-Third Psalm incident, I opened my Christmas present from Alan to find this print. By now I had been received into the Episcopal Church and had become active in the healing ministry. But I was still holding back parts of myself from God, parts that feared I would lose my “edginess” and reveal me as the wounded healer I was.
I put this picture up in my bedroom so that it would be the last thing I saw at night. For months I contemplated the bliss on that lamb’s face and yearned to feel the same bliss. One night, as I reached to turn out the light, I felt a roaring in my head and looked up at the picture again and suddenly I saw how much Jesus was enjoying holding that lamb. I saw that Jesus needed to be holding that lamb. Jesus needed to be loving that lamb. Jesus was yearning to love that lamb as much I was yearning to be that lamb. And if that is so, then Jesus yearns to love me; Jesus needs to love me. And if me, then you also.
“I am the Shepherd who cares for his flock,” Jesus says. But he is saying a world of other things and creating a whole theology in that statement. You can’t be a shepherd without sheep. A shepherd needs a flock, and a flock needs a shepherd. That mutuality is a must.
Now, I do realize that this picture can be seen as somewhat sentimental, and I don’t mean to sentimentalize Divine Love in a world where there is so notoriously a lack of love in the news. Just in this week we learned of more Christians being beheaded by ISIS, of 800 African refugees drowning and the efforts of European Union countries to get Italy to stop trying to save African refugees so the refugees will stop trying to escape their horrific situations. We learned about a massive buildup of US and other warships heading to Yemen to stop Iranian involvement in the unrest there. We read every day about the ongoing effort to execute a terrorist here in Massachusetts; we read the gut-wrenching stories of the victims and weigh them against the notion of judicial homicide. Two more young African-American men died this week at the hands of the police, and protests in Baltimore have taken a violent turn. And a politician posited that affordable health care for all is so heinous that it is going to cause the Rapture.
This isn’t a sentimental world we live in. And we might be tempted to ask the question, “If the Shepherd cares for his flock, why isn’t he caring for those beheaded Christians, those refugees, those bombing victims and yes, that young man who became a terrorist and the policemen who were responsible for other young men’s deaths?”
Could it be that until we acknowledge and embrace the mutuality of God’s love and need for us, we cannot overcome the powers that want to destroy it? John’s letter says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Truth and action – God’s truth leading to our action. Further, John refers again to Jesus’ commandment that we love one another even as He loves us.
Anglican Bishop NT Wright wrote a book called Surprised by Hope, a riff on C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. In his book, Bishop Wright suggests that our time here on earth is meant to be used building the kingdom. Can God not build the kingdom on His own? Of course He can, Bishop Wright says, but He needs us to invest ourselves in it, the way we would invest ourselves in a job that we love.
In the last chapter of John’s Gospel, during Jesus’ last earthly encounter with His apostles, He asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter insists each time, “Lord, you know I love you,” Jesus admonishes him to feed and tend His sheep. One of our collects says, “Give us life until our work shall end, and work until our life shall end.” It doesn’t say, “Give us work until we think we’ve done enough,” but until our very lives shall end. Our work? Not just to say, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven,” but to be a part of making that happen. The kingdom of God, where all people are equal, where there is no more war, where we seek justice rather than revenge, where every tear shall be wiped away, where the lion shall lie down with the lamb and yes, where the German shepherd shall play with the possum.”
Jesus was talking to us when he told Peter: “Tend my lambs, feed my sheep.” May we be driven by the knowledge of Jesus’ love for us and His need for us to work daily to feed His sheep until we meet the Good Shepherd face to face.