The Fourth Sunday After Easter: Sheepishly Dependent

This week was a whirldwind of violence, accusations, accidents, fear and loss. In the midst of the confusion, I knew I needed to turn of the news, step away from my computer and do some healing work in my garden. As I trimmed, weeded and transplanted, I was serenaded by the wrens who are checking out the new bird house, and the keening of red shouldered hawk, lusting after the baby chicks next door. (Said baby chicks are against our Home-owners Association covenant, by the way… and will be relocated.)

But in the yard, as I began to tend the plants and count the budding flowers, there was a sense of peace. Yes, a strong storm could indeed topple a tree right on top of the new roses. The predicted cicadas could chomp our lilac buds right off. I could forget and leave the gate open and find deer munching on my tomatoes, or trimming off the tops of the hydrangeas and hostas. But as possible as those gardening frustrations could be, I would still be OK. My family and friends could still be safe and healthy.

As I worked and reflected on life in general, I thought about how far removed we are, as a society, from the agrarian lifestyle of the Bible. Farming, tending sheep, sowing seed — they just aren’t part of our normal routines. So taking a step back from commuting and thinking about composting has its spiritual benefits!

For this week’s readings, in particular, we need this land-based mindset. The readings from the Lectionary point us to our dependent and needy relationship with God. The Psalm reminds us to trust that The Shepherd will be with us in “the valley of the shadow of death” and that we will be well-fed.

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
        he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.

You set a table for me
right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house
as long as I live.

Sheep are silly things. They run away from danger without looking, without a clear plan of escape. Their lives can be expressed in a panicked flight from one fear to another. They will eat things which not only make them sick, it could kill them (think broken glass!) They balk from accepting things that are good from them. And when they ARE being cared for, particularly when they must be separated from the herd, they bleat their distress. Loudly. And often.

But sheep also have some instinctual behavior which helps protect them. They want to be in flocks. They keep their young on the inside of the flock’s perimeter whenever possible. They accept the protection of other animals (including other herding animals) and seem to keep a truce with their herding dogs. And they understand, even though they are raised in a domesticated setting, that the world is a dangerous place. And if they stick together and watch out for each other, life is a little sweeter.

By design, sheep are kept in a protected environment so that they can spend their days grazing, drinking, and resting. And growing wool. By preference, or perhaps centuries of domestication, they forget that their every need is met. They will test the boundaries, the fence-lines, and the herder. When I first learned this from a shepherd, I asked, “Wait! Sheep have sin natures, too?”

We had a good laugh.

Ah, I am so much like sheep. Eating, sleeping, reacting, engaging in ways that are not the best for me. Aren’t we all?

In a week of distress, real or implied, where our assumed safety is threatened and our previously “safe pastures” are invaded, it’s easy to react in a panic. To forget that there is a Good Shepherd who hears, who sees, who cares. To remember that there are real evils in this world and that the spiritual enemies we face invade hearts and lives and actions every day.

We can’t live in fear. Or panic. Or anger. Nor can we forget that the stronghold of evil in this world will come and do battle in our comfortable lives, whenever and wherever it chooses. We have to accept that this life is occasionally difficult, frustrating, and even full of evil. The difference is that as we band together, and watch over one another, we know Who eventually wins this battle. Consider these words from Ephesians 6:

11 Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. 12 We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. 13 Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. 14 So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, 15 and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace.16 Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.

18 Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers.

As members of One Flock, as comrades in times of pleasant pastures or dangerous valleys, the Church can’t become split or disintegrated when we are under stress. It is easier to scatter than to band together, to run in our own inclinations instead of moving across obstacles together. Being One Church means that we have to fight our instincts for self-preservation and  sheepishly depend on God.

Shepherds know this. And sometimes, pigs do too.

“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says in John 10. “I know them and they follow me.”

The problem is, we listen to our own voices, or only each other in times of stress. We set up our own “passwords” and put contingencies on whether or not we think God really cares about us.

Two weeks ago, the Scriptures focused on the doubts and fears we all face. Last week, we heard Christ’s instructive words to Peter to tend the lambs and feed the sheep. It’s a journey we take together, with our questions, our anger, our cries for justice and for peace.

The words of Psalm 23 are so familiar that we can gloss over them. Yet they invite us to stop and lean in…

Listen. Stop and breathe in the rhythms and heart of Grace. The Shepherd’s voice speaks over the chaos, and cuts through our complacency. You will hear the tender voice of the Shepherd. Calling you. Inviting you. Reminding you that though is a valley of death, there is also goodness and mercy and a place of Eternal Safety.

Thanks be to God!

———- 0O0 ———-

In closing, listen to this arrangement of Psalm 23, created by Bobby McFerrin. The Trinity is offered in a feminine voice, and the rich chords bring a sense of safety, wholeness and love. I invite you to turn up the sound, close your eyes, and feel The Shepherd’s warmth and care — for you.

Shalom.

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