Alice and I both love fantasy stories. Right now, we are reading The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. Alice’s favorite character is Gurgi, the loyal companion of the hero, Taran. Gurgi is covered in fur that is perpetually matted with sticks and leaves. He has extra-long arms. He’s always hungry. His speech is filled with rhymed pairs of words (“crunchings and munchings,” “smackings and whackings,” “sneakings and peekings”) Gurgi is a one-of-a-kind, not-quite-human creature who struggles to fit in. I thought of Gurgi today because he finally finds the place he belongs while tending sheep. Here’s the author’s description of Gurgi as a shepherd:
He gamboled happily with the lambs, clucked and fussed over the ewes, and even the ancient, bad-tempered ram turned gentle in his presence. As the days grew cooler, [he wore] a jacket of unshorn fleece, and as Gurgi moved among his charges, Taran could hardly distinguish the shaggy creature bundled in his woolly garb from the rest of the flock. Often Taran came upon him sitting on a boulder, the sheep in an admiring circle around their guardian. (Chapter Fourteen, Taran Wanderer, by Lloyd Alexander)
I am struck by the image of the shepherd who does his work in solidarity with the sheep. Gurgi guides, protects, and cares for the sheep as if he were one of them. And that is how I think we can best understand the shepherding metaphor in today’s scriptures. “The Lord is my shepherd” is an invitation to enter in a bountiful scene. Psalm 23 summons us into a relationship not only with God, but also with creation. We learn through this ancient poetry that God does not stand apart from the world. We recognize that God is earth’s partner, guide, and inspiration. God is the rest and renewal of green pastures and still waters. God is the rod and staff that guide us toward the pathways of justice. God is the reality that we are never, ever alone, even as we walk in the vale of death’s shadow. God is a table-setter—spreading a feast of abundance for the world to share, teaching diverse creatures to live together, and bringing understanding and peace even among enemies.
Above all, the Shepherd God brings us home, to dwell in creation, which is the divine household. To borrow the words of the shepherd James Rebank, Psalm 23 invites us to be “hefted.” The psalmist envisions that like the sheep and the shepherds of the Fells region of England, we will become accustomed to and attached to our place within the community of creation. We will find a deep sense of rootedness and belonging. We will be shaped by the earth’s wisdom and in turn, we will shape the earth, respectfully and wisely.
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” the religious leaders demanded of Jesus. And he replied, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in the name of God testify to me.” In other words, what is important is not Jesus’ title but his actions. Jesus did his shepherding work as if he were one of the sheep. His solidarity with the flock showed the world who God is. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Like the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23, Jesus embodied leadership that is intimate and trustworthy. He spoke in a voice that creation could hear and understand. He formed a community in which all were seen, known and honored. And when he said, “I am one with God,” it was an expansive rather than exclusive statement. His role was to show us through his own unity with God how we can be one with God, who is one with all creation.
In his introduction to Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, it also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p. 124)
Hahn makes this point in another way. He remembers:
I was having breakfast with my attendant, a lovely novice monk. I paused and said to him, “Dear one, do you see the cow on the hillside? She is eating grass in order to make my yogurt, and I am now eating the yogurt to make a Dharma talk. As I drank the cow’s milk, I was a child of the cow.” The Buddha recommends we live our daily life in this way, seeing everything in the light of interbeing. (p. 126)
The classic Christian view of a God who is all-powerful and separate from creation doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I’m not saying that Buddhist philosophy and practice endorses the idea of God, but I do think Buddhism provides a view of reality that fits better with the God we find in the scriptures and our own experiences. The Good Shepherd God shows us that we are not simply waves that rise and fall. We are all part of the water, part of each other and part of a greater reality. And our being is woven together with the being of all of creation. So we are only our full selves in community. However, our uniqueness is still important. The richness of our diversity is critical to the health of the whole. And it needs to be said, in this week when we received the news about Roe v. Wade, that it is all the more important, because we are interconnected, to respect each other’s boundaries and honor each other’s choices.
In the movie “Don’t Look Up” Doctoral student Kate Dibiasky and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, discover a huge comet speeding toward earth. If the comet is not diverted, it will collide with our planet in just six months’ time, destroying all life. A media war quickly ensues. The public begins to believe there’s no such thing as truth, only competing propaganda. Scientists give interviews, make speeches, and march in the streets demanding the government address the comet situation. The “Don’t Look Up” crowd, led by the White House itself, twists the truth in all sorts of ways, insisting the comet isn’t real, or isn’t a threat. As the pressure rises for the president to take action, she teams up with the richest man on earth, who sells her a greedy plan to mine the comet for its incredible wealth of minerals. When his plan fails miserably and the comet strikes earth, the elites escape in a cryogenic spaceship.
There is, however, another, parallel ending to the story. When Kate and Dr. Mindy announce their discovery, Kate is immediately labeled “crazy,” while Dr. Mindy is treated as a wise and beloved figure. He is lured to serve as a spokesperson for the “Don’t Look Up” campaign. He leaves his wife and family and has an affair with the host of a popular show. However, in the final hours of life on earth, as the fiery trail of the comet becomes visible in the sky above earth, Dr. Mindy comes to his senses. He calls his colleague Kate. The two of them pick up friends and drive to the grocery store. They buy flowers, wine, and ingredients for dinner. Then they drive to Dr. Mindy’s home and knock on the door. He reconciles with his wife and children. They turn off the news. They cook and eat and talk. They laugh and cry and pray.
“Don’t Look Up” is not a hopeful film. The strange thing is, though, it gave me hope. Maybe because that final meal gives us clarity about what will save us, what will make us whole—which is being hefted, accustomed to, and attached to our place within the community of creation; deeply rooted in earth; fiercely belonging to this planet and to each other. Shaped by earth’s wisdom so that we can shape earth with our wisdom. Friends, come to the table of abundance and peace set by our Good Shepherd God. Receive the gift of being at home and being together, in green pastures and beside still waters. Turn from the alluring highways of greed onto the humble pathways of justice and let us walk together in faithful solidarity that calms our fears. Let us trust that even though we must travel through death’s vale, our Shepherd is loving us and leading us, renewing us and restoring us. Amen.