Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Good Shepherd

One thing I’m quite happy to admit I know nothing about whatsoever is farming.  I’m not a practical, knock it together with a scrap of bind-a-twine and a piece of four-by-two kind of bloke.  I’m not really into flies and dirt and sweat and all that outdoorsy sort of stuff.  Funnily enough, up until I was about twelve I desperately wanted to be a farmer – not quite sure why.

I think the sort of farm I imagined was the sort where there’d be a barn and some chooks and some cotton-wool sheep and a couple of placid cows.  A few fruit trees and a pond and lots of green grass.  I think, even at that tender age, I probably read too many books.  We don’t have farms like that in Australia, do we?  Alison, who comes from New Zealand where they do have cotton-wool sheep, thinks the skinny grey animals that roam around on outback stations don’t deserve to be called sheep at all.  It’s a different sort of farming, isn’t it, where you round them up at shearing time with a helicopter?  One fact that intrigued me when I first heard it, is that they don’t have fences on these stations that are as big as small countries.  Fences just get broken down, and anyhow, you don’t need them.  All you have to do to get the sheep to stay in one place is to put in a well.  The sheep stay where the water is.  It’s pretty simple, really, if you’re a sheep, and you’re out in the red dirt country where the rainfall’s less than 10 inches a year.  You stay close to what keeps you alive.

Today is a rather special Sunday in the church calendar, Good Shepherd Sunday, and we’ve just heard these wonderful passages of scripture that talk in powerful but really simple language about God’s care and God’s faithfulness.  I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve heard Psalm 23, how many times I’ve read the passage about Jesus as the Good Shepherd who is prepared even to lay down his life for his sheep.  And the number of times I’ve heard preachers explain that they didn’t herd them with helicopters or sheep-dogs, they led them and knew each of them individually.  Flocks were smaller, but water just as scarce in 1st century Palestine, each animal was precious and known.  It’s a reassuring, a calming image – the problem is it’s an image that’s too familiar.  We can just let these passages of scripture flow through us and over us, accepting their reassurance but not really hearing them with fresh ears, not really hearing the note of challenge that comes with them.

The image of God as a shepherd to God’s people reaches right back into the ancient tradition of Israel - then as now, sheep led a hard and dangerous life and this reflection in the psalm on God as the one who is with us in the hard and waterless places, the one who can be depended on to share our journey and to lead us to water is, I guess, about the journey of life in which the fear of loss is always with us.  Our lives are always in transition, things change around us, what was once reliable melts away and the future appears uncertain.  The shadow of the valley of death is our daily experience, not just the end of our physical lives.  How do we live with hope?  How do we keep walking with confidence when we don’t know where we’re going?  I think this psalm is about countering fear with trust – trust that the One who set our feet on the pathway in the first place is with us on the journey, and can be relied upon to complete in us his good purposes for our lives.

It’s no wonder that Jesus, whose experience of God is first and foremost the companionship and the faithfulness of God – it’s no wonder that Jesus picks up on this marvellous image, but then he takes it a step further.  ‘I am the good shepherd who is prepared even to lay down his life for the sheep’, Jesus claims.  It’s a way for us to think about Jesus death, and it deepens our understanding of the God of mystery, the unfathomable and unknowable God who is always and utterly Christ-like.  Think about Jesus in Gethsemene, raddled with fear and praying that he won’t have to undergo this ordeal.  But trusting God’s will for him even as he struggles with his terror.  Not only do we finally come to understand that God is in fact with Jesus right through the valley of the shadow, but Jesus demonstrates for us the strength of his love and commitment to us – in our own fear of change and uncertainty we know that the Good Shepherd who is willing to die for his sheep is with us, and leads us into the future that is already his.

And then the writer of the letter takes the theme even further.  Probably around the end of the first century, this letter is written to a Christian community that sees itself as following in the tradition of the beloved disciple.  It’s a community that’s going through some painful changes, some believers have fallen away, the future looks uncertain, and the writer of the letter picks up on the familiar theme of the Good Shepherd not just to reassure, but to challenge and inspire.  What does it mean to be a Christian community?  How do we know we’re heading in the right direction?  What’s important and what’s not?

A book I read recently picked up on this notion of wells and fences, and applied it to the church.  What keeps us here?  Why do we keep coming and how do we know we’re going in the right direction?  What’s important in our church life?  And this writer pointed out that in the history of the church we’ve built a lot of fences.  ‘This is the right belief to have about God, you’re not a real Christian of you subscribe to that doctrine.  That’s wrong.’  We set up rules about the right way to worship, the right sort of decorations to have in church, is it too Catholic to have candles, would it be too Protestant if the priest doesn’t wear vestments?  Can women be bishops?  These things are fences, and we set them up to try to keep things where we want them.  But the writer of this book said, fences aren’t much good in the desert anyway.  The fences just tell you what you already know – that the journey into the future is fearful.  But they don’t work.  Don’t be concerned with things that don’t matter.  Look for the wells.  Look for what gives you life.  That’s what keeps you here, and that’s what keeps you on the right track with God.

And that’s what the writer of our letter is telling his community, too.  Claiming the gospel and applying it to a new situation.  Don’t be afraid.  Listen, little children, we know what love is, because Jesus defined it for us by laying down his life for us.  That’s the standard Jesus sets for us, that’s where we get life from.  So now, let’s do it.  Not by some once in a lifetime mad heroic act of self-sacrifice, but just by loving one another.  Not – as the writer of the Cottonpatch Gospel puts it – by talking about love – not even by singing about love but by doing it – the way we’re going to know whether or not we’re truth-people is by how we live together and how we put ourselves out for one another.  See, we’ve moved from being sheep in need of a shepherd to being challenged to be the source of that companionship and that self-giving love for one another.  That’s the well.  That’s what gives you life, it’s what gives me life, and it’s how we know that we’re God’s people.  That’s what actually matters about being Church.  The connection between loving God, and real human care for one another.  We do it by being involved, by being, not just a collection of individuals, but a community.

And the letter-writer says, where does the power come from to do that?  We haven’t got it in us!  It’s not a new thing for Christians to feel inadequate, that it’s all too much.  Don’t be afraid.  It’s the most natural thing in the world, that if you’re living from the centre of God’s love, there’s going to be opposition.  But it’s not the world that judges you, and God’s judgement is infinitely more generous than the judgement you pass on yourself.  Very gently, the letter-writer reminds us that we’re going to find the answers to our fears and the power to live as God’s people by praying about it.

Don’t be afraid.  Just recognise what gives you life, and stay there.