“Shepherding Community”

My shepherd is the living God; I therefore nothing need. I love the hymn-writer’s elegant take on the first line of Psalm 23.

            My shepherd is the living God; I therefore nothing need.

            I’m still thinking about a few sharp words someone spoke years ago in a study group. “I don’t need a shepherd!” Was this a statement about independence and authority? I can take care of myself. God, and the church, should not be telling me what to do. “I don’t need a shepherd!” Maybe there’s some skepticism in there about the whole idea of a personal God, a God who knows me, cares for me in such an intimate way. “I don’t need a shepherd!” This could be a defensive cry, a guarding against grief and disillusionment. I do not have all that I need. I see suffering all around me in the world. I don’t have confidence that God will provide. I am tired of false promises.

Last summer, traveling in Ireland and Scotland, we saw a lot of sheep. They inhabited every green field, every grassy, rocky, hillside. And they roamed freely. Often, we’d have to stop and wait on the winding country lanes because the sheep were calmly ambling down the road, several abreast. During our weeklong stay on the island of Iona, I grew fascinated, observing the grazing of the sheep. In this thin place of pilgrimage and prayer, the sheep, too, seemed to be participating in the act of contemplation. They would choose a small patch of grass, and stay there, noses buried, jaws chewing rhythmically. After a time they would move, just a little, a few inches, to find more grass. They didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything else except this methodical eating.

My shepherd is the living God; I therefore nothing need.

            Reading Psalm 23, it appears that sheep are really focused and clear about what they need, and that their needs are basic. Good grass, clean water, rest and restoration, protection from predators . . . I wonder if in order to really hear today’s texts, and receive their promise of a shepherd God, we first we have to ask, what is it that we need, truly need? And how does God provide for that need?

Jesus takes the shepherd metaphor on himself in today’s text from John. “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the gate for the sheep.” “I lay down my life for the sheep.” These are statements about Jesus’ way of showing leadership, and about how that leadership shapes the character of the community that follows Jesus. Poet (and Anglican Priest) Malcolm Guite writes about the poem that Ann read this morning:

I remember reading in a commentary once that in this saying [about being the gate, or the door for the sheep] Jesus is alluding to the round stone sheepfolds in the high pastures, built with an open gap so the sheep could pass through in safety and the shepherd himself would then lie down across the gap becoming himself the door that kept them safe.[1]

The shepherd lays her body across the door for the sheepfold. This is an image of radical solidarity—of love that shares fully in the risks of life in community. This is the “abundant life” that Jesus promises in John’s Gospel, a life that surrenders to a greater life, the life of the whole. Perhaps this is what we truly need and this is what God alone can provide. In his dying and rising, his laying down and taking up of his life, Jesus leads us. The self-giving posture he models for us, both strong and vulnerable, breaks the endless cycles of fear and violence and unleashes instead a chain reaction of generous mutuality. We are a shepherding community. We embody Jesus, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the flock. This laying down of our lives could look like what James Shaw, Jr., did, when he tackled the Waffle House shooter and took away his gun. Or the police officer in Toronto who walked calmly toward the man who had just killed countless people, refusing to fire on him. But as inspiring as these examples are, I think that for most of us, the choice is rarely so dramatic. Laying down our lives is a much more everyday gesture of generosity. It might be a toddler sharing a toy. A big sister including a little sister, or a little sister being kind to a big sister. A parent choosing patience. It could be simply setting aside the million things we have to do, and really listening to someone else. Or showing up to serve at the food shelf or to observe immigration court. We practice laying down our lives, too, when we wrestle with our privilege around race or gender or ability, when we become willing to see what we haven’t seen before, and question what we think we know about ourselves and the world.

Laying down our lives is ultimately about vocation, about our calling to offer ourselves in partnership with God, in service of God’s purposes. James Rebanks is a shepherd—a famous one. A reporter for the Guardian writes about Rebanks:

In 2012 he opened a Twitter account with the handle @herdyshepherd1—he specialises in Herdwick sheep, the tough mountain breed synonymous with the Lake District [in England]. He now has more than 40,000 followers. The success of his Twitter feed led to a commission in 2013 to write an article for the Atlantic Monthly. That, in turn, led to interest from half a dozen publishers in a book. . . . and the book—The Shepherd’s Lifeis already winning critical plaudits.

Rebanks, reflecting on why he writes about his family’s rootedness in farming, in the same place and with the same methods, for 600 years, says:

I like the idea that people lead lives devoted to something bigger than themselves—the landscape, the flocks and their continuation. Somebody like my father wouldn’t have thought his life was particularly meaningful or significant in its own right, but he saw himself as part of a community and way of life and tradition. I deeply admire that in an age when most things are about the individual and about instant gratification and consumption.[2]

We are a shepherding community. Let’s keep that in mind as we focus on the ministries of First Church during our fair today. The goal is not to fill out the check-list, or sign up for a ministry so that the church, as an institution, can get its needs met. The invitation is for each of us to make a space for the church in our lives, so that our belonging to this body can shape us. The point is to offer ourselves to God’s abundant life. So let’s take just a moment to reflect: How are you called to lay down your life so that you might join a greater life? And how might your participation in this body we call the church inspire you, challenge you, equip you to live in this sense of calling? Laying down our lives is a loss, but a loss mostly of illusions, things like certainty and security, control, and independence. What we gain, on the other hand, is everything. Real comfort, peace, and power comes with recognizing that we need nothing else except to participate in God’s abundant life. The Psalmist and the hymn writers say it best: “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others come and go. No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”

Amen.

[1] https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/i-am-the-door-of-the-sheepfold/

[2] www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/27/james-rebanks-twitters-favourite-shepherd