Year B, Easter 4 April 26, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“I am the good Shepherd.”
On most Sundays there is a subtly discernible theme in the propers of the day, that is the complex of the collect, the readings and the season. It is usually pretty subtle, but not today. Today we are squarely in the realm of the shepherd.
As most of you know, the ministry I was engaged in before coming out here to Eugene was agricultural. My doctoral thesis was a theology of sustainable agriculture and was sourced largely in the farming work I was doing at a monastery north of Boston. This was a somewhat irregular ministry that took a lot of explaining. When I did try to explain my vocation to agricultural ministry, I often got sort of a cockeyed look of unknowing, so I settled on a really short elevator speech that went, “well, in part it is about biblical literacy, most modern people can’t tell the difference between sheep and goats let alone how to separate them.” That usually got at least a laugh and though it was a tad to the left of snarky, it was true. The agrarian world that Jesus and the evangelists who wrote the Gospels inhabited was so different from the world that most of us live in here and now that some of the basic metaphors used are really outside of our ability to even imagine. Like the idea of a “Good Shepherd.”
Does anyone here know anything about shepherding? Any thoughts on the matter? We have a small herd of goats out in Jasper, five does and a buck who lives off site (which makes everyone’s life a bit more bearable). But the does are all pregnant, so by the end of May we will have more than 15 goats running around. Come to the picnic in June to see them. But Windy’s kind of shepherding is a long way from the kind of shepherding Jesus or the psalmist would have known. Our goats live in a barn, behind fences. It is rather bucolic, not that unlike the herds of sheep that overwinter on the grass seed fields of our southern Willamette Valley. Kids or lambs gamboling and frolicking, eating buttercups and brambles. The girls are reading Heidi, just think of the Alpine scenes of Peter and Heidi and the goats… That is not what Jesus is talking about.
Shepherding in Biblical times, be it when the psalmists was writing or in Jesus’ time, was a different animal altogether. The sheep on the grass fields in Lane and Linn counties are just here for the winter, to fatten on soft grass and lamb in relative safety. For most of the year, for most of their lives, think Brokeback Mountain, if you have seen that beautiful film about shepherds in the mountains of Wyoming. Those sheep spend most of their lives on the other side of the Cascades, in rough wilderness where water is scarce and wolves are not hypothetical or environmental policy issues, but are clear and present adversaries. The dogs are there to kill cougars and a rifle in the window of a pick up is not just a political or cultural statement. Rough land and rough work calls for tough workers; enter the shepherds.
Shepherding was dangerous work, lonely and isolated, often consigned to slaves. (St. Patrick was kidnapped from England and sold as a shepherd slave in Ireland). Shepherds were social outcasts in many ways, distant from polite society. It was a scandal that St. Luke puts the Annunciation of Christ’s birth into the ears of lowly shepherds first. It would have been scandalous for Jesus to have said, “I am the good shepherd,” as scandalous as a modern prophet saying “I am the good migrant worker,” or “I am the good oil field worker.”
But goats and sheep were essential to the economy; the wealth of the people was carried in the flesh and hides of the flocks. The wealth was the wool, leather, meat and milk and the fertility the animals redistributed as they worked cultivated land not unlike on the grass fields outside of town today. The work of the shepherds was dirty and unpleasant and essential to the economy of ancient Israel, not unlike how dirty and unpleasant and just as essential migrant farm labor, or rough-necking in the oil fields is to our economy.
What does it mean that Jesus equated himself with this essential but outcast and somewhat unclean category of laborer? What does it mean that just about the only psalm than any of us could possibly recite from memory (let alone name) equates God’s own self with so lowly and grimy a figure in society? What does that imply? What does it mean about our vision of God?
It means a lot of things, but what is on my mind in the midst of this glorious Easter Season is the earthy reality of our God. The bucolic, sanitized little boy blue, Godly Play wooden cut out sheepfold… that is good for us when we are this tall, a reminder that God is with us, “I know my own and my own know me.” And it is a useful vision of God to cling to in times of trouble and grief (I can attest to the comforting power of the 23rd Psalm liturgically, at bedsides and in times of my own struggles; “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” I want that to be true or at least to feel true). But the shepherding Jesus is talking about, the shepherding of his era, shepherding in the wilderness, that is rough stuff, rough and very real stuff. As starkly real as God is.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” That is not a figure of speech or a dramatic metaphor for sacrifice. It is a reference to the Cross and that Jesus’ death there was akin to the type of sacrifice made by shepherds in the actual execution of their duties. (Remember Joseph’s brothers covering his sale into slavery with a plausible shepherds death)? Shepherds get killed protecting the flock; their society depended on their vigilance. Agrarian economies didn’t/don’t have a lot of wiggle room, not a lot of excess that loss can be replaced from (and anyway, whatever abundance and a chucnk of the principal was stolen by the various imperial occupiers and corrupt governments that Israel suffered under). They couldn’t afford the loss of breeding stock or produce. Further, the flocks the shepherds protected were not just their own personal livelihoods. Not only the shepherd was at risk if the flock was scattered, but his family and even the entire village would be at risk as the shepherding task was often a collective endeavor on common land or in the wilderness with one or a few shepherds tending the community’s flock, which was actually a bunch of small flocks collectively tended. (If you notice that the sheep on the grass fields have different color paint on their backs… often because flocks are mixed and grazed collectively). The well being of the community rested on the backs of those outcasts on the fringe of society. Now that sounds a lot like the ministry of Jesus Christ.
What Jesus is talking about is something that everyone of that time would have known and respected: “The Good Shepherd.” A good shepherd is one with pride for their work, one with a sense of responsibility and equanimity, or at-oneness with and for the community and its well being. A good shepherd has sense of ownership, not in an ownership of the means of production kind of way, but as a participant with agency which the hired hand, the contractor can’t and won’t have. The Good Shepherd. She is a good neighbor. A good citizen. They contribute to the well-being of the collective. The hired hand, the conscript, slave will not care for the community’s resources in the same way (and there are a whole lot of good reasons why they can not and should not help the owner and/or oppressor prosper, but that is another sermon). What Jesus is relaying is what farmers and shepherds have known for ever, that is that it takes an extraordinary level of dedication and responsibility and get up in the middle of the night when the dogs are barking and check things out. It takes a lot to go through kidding season and the night after night of vigilance that requires. It takes a lot to care for fragile crops under the threat of frost. It takes a lot to do the dirty and demanding work of tending livestock and crops well, respectfully, lovingly even, as it is hard to raise children, and tend communities and institutions and care for the sick and those near death. Hard, dirty work, daily-grind-with-no-glory kind of work. The brilliant David Foster Wallace writes in his posthumously published gem The Pale King, “True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” Or in a less poetic way attributed to one Bobo the clown, “Any idiot can learn to juggle chainsaws. It’s the day-to-day balloon animal making that gets hard.” That is the true nature of our world as much as I try to make it more exciting than that. We can’t expect the spectacle. Sure there is the occasional drama of laying down a life or running down a coyote, but it is the day in, day out micro-sacrifice that identifies the good shepherd. And to do that out of love and not simply out of obligation or under threat, that is what being a good shepherd is all about. And a good neighbor. And a good mother or father or wife or husband or friend. And it is what being a good and loving God is all about, too. AMEN.