Christ Episcopal Church
April 17, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
There was a time in our ancient story when shepherds were viewed in a positive light as models of what a good leader should be: a person who cares for the flock by leading them to green pastures and still waters; a person who protects the flock from dangerous predators. Thus, the shepherd’s crook would not only pull a sheep in to safety but also serve as a weapon to ward off or pummel the wild animal hungry for the taste of lamb. That is, the leader is the one who protects the people and cares for them. Little wonder that the Bible speaks of God as the shepherd of God’s people.
But then, in the time of Jesus, the Israelite economy became more urbanized and commercialized, and herding sheep was viewed quite differently. Indeed, many people considered shepherds no better than prostitutes, tax collectors, and gentiles with whom one would never share a meal for all these persons were considered morally unclean and disreputable. After all, shepherds were a dirty lot who stank of sheep smell; they never seemed to be clean enough; they worked with their hands, not their minds; they led their flocks while others worshipped and allowed their sheep to cross into privately held green pastures and drink from still waters not their own. “That at Christ’s birth the angels appeared to shepherds [ – rather than comfortable city dwellers – ] indicates Luke’s identification of shepherds with the migrant farm workers of his society” (Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New). In this political season in which we hear voices demonizing migrant workers and promising the expulsion of immigrants, that is, the expulsion of impoverished persons seeking labor in order to feed their families, it is ironic that the lectionary presents us with this astonishing image: the gospel, the good news, is first announced, first communicated to those who need it the most: to poor and marginalized laborers.
From John’s gospel we hear these words: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me … No one will snatch them out of my hand.” You and I live in the most individualistic culture in human history, a culture made all the more individualistic by the technological developments that foster increasingly privatized lives. As Americans, we know much about individual rights; we experience marketing to our individual tastes with an array of options unthinkable in much of the world; we are quick to claim personal prerogative over any group or institution that might ask us to cooperate with others. And yet – and yet – this individualism only intensifies feelings of loneliness, of feeling disconnected from others, or perhaps even more perniciously, imagining that we have no need of others – as if you and I were created as self-contained monads who just happen to work and worship with other individuals. Set next to this cultural emphasis on the self-focused individual are these words of Jesus: My sheep, my flock, hear my voice; I know them and they follow me. That is, the image of the shepherd offers us an alternative way of seeing and living in this world. For the image of the shepherd stresses the social nature with which you and I have been created: our absolute dependence upon the earth, on pasture and stream, for life and health, and our being united to each other in relationship, in mutual interdependence. Thus, the good news of the shepherd and the flock is that you are not alone; whether you walk through the darkest valley or find yourself in the presence of those who may be enemies, you need fear no evil. You and I are not alone for you and I have been washed into the community of the Holy Trinity and this community, this little flock, and together – together – we are fed from the table he has prepared for you and for me. No, we are not alone for each one of us can be shepherd to the other.
It is of great interest to me that the image of the shepherd seems to appear whenever society is experiencing trauma, experiencing incredible tension, and dislocation. Thus, in the 19th century, when industrialism – starting in England – was beginning its steadfast control over much of the western world, when the captains of industry were gaining astonishing personal wealth from the labor of children, of pregnant mothers, of fathers who worked 10-12 hours each day, six days a week, in factories filled with toxic chemicals dumped into the drinking water of many English cities, the image of the shepherd appeared in startling profusion. It did so because the priests and lay leaders who joined the Anglo-Catholic reform movement in the Church of England publicly criticized not only the terrible working conditions of their parishioners but also an economy that seemed to benefit only the few while the many suffered. In these Anglo-Catholic parishes, noted for solemn liturgies, the fragrant smell of incense, and beautiful artwork, the image of the shepherd was preached, sung, and portrayed in the visual arts as the sign of Christ’s presence among those who had little voice and little power in their lives. In contrast to the sentimentalism that frequently accompanied the image of a shepherd surrounded by fluffy white lambs, this shepherd was no babysitter for comfortable Christians but a potent sign of cultural, economic, religious criticism. The ancient image of the One who cares for the most vulnerable and protects them from predators animal or human could speak with amazing power in a new situation. The impoverished and the working poor knew they were not alone; they knew that a power greater than their heartless and demanding bosses, greater than their flaccid bishops and politicians was with them.
I wonder: is it any different for us? While the temptation is always present to simply discard this ancient agricultural image or surround it with excessive sentimentalism – you know, a beautifully tanned and smiling shepherd, clothed in a clean white robe, walking barefoot down a country path, with Lite Jazz or Bach playing in the background – I wonder if we might consider this: that you and I, in this little flock gathered in Tacoma, have been called by our Great Shepherd, in this time of growing loneliness and cultural conflict, to be a center of restoration and refreshment for anyone – anyone – who walks through the darkest valley? Is that not a marvelous work of grace, that the people in our neighborhood and in this city would find goodness and mercy palpably alive in this little flock we call Christ Church?
But, then, is that our only purpose? After all, the shepherd holds a staff, a crook, in order to protect the vulnerable and, in recognizing threats to the life of the flock, call out in warning and engage the predatory forces that harm the innocent and the not-so-innocent. While we live in a culture that teaches us we have little need for others, especially the most vulnerable in our society, does not the shepherd of our souls invite us, push us, cajole us, prod us to speak and act in the presence of injustice, in the presence of evil?
Dear friends, we need no fluffy lambs this day. We need only open our ears to the voice of this shepherd and then act.