April 29, 2012 The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” I have a confession, a pretty significant one for a priest to make: I struggle with feeling a personal relationship with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus Christ is very much part of my understanding of God, and I understand that Jesus Christ is my savior, the redeemer of all who ask that of Him. Why? Because God loves us and wants us back in Right Relationship with everything. How? Well, He, Jesus Christ saves us in the mystery of His incarnation and baptism, His life and work, His death, resurrection, and ascension to the seat at the right hand of God because in all of these things He somehow reconciles us to God. He somehow aligns us with the arc of the universe, the true nature of things, the imago dei. His presence, Christ’s very real presence as a human being in time and space spans the gap between us and our ability to relate to God and through God, to each other. How? How does it all work, well, that’s the mystery.
But the personal part… the “I have a friend in Jesus” kind of living God presence, O, I struggle. Maybe struggle is the wrong word; I long for it and I wrassel with that longing. Feeling held, nurtured, comforted, protected… I want to feel God like that, feel Jesus looking over my shoulder and giving me that Blessed Assurance that I am in fact loved and valuable and all of that. I have wanted that, but I have only fleetingly ever felt that. Usually I feel God as the grandeur of the creation, as the infinite complexity of ecological systems, as the starkness of silence, as the love of a woman and two little children. I feel God there, I know God’s unmistakable fingerprints, but I don’t usually feel all warm and hugged by Jesus, and I have always felt very self-conscious about that. When I was in divinity school and started feeling a pull towards Christ and His one true church (joke), I asked everyone I could think of the following question: Is a personal relationship with Jesus a pre-requisite for considering one’s self Christian? I did not feel it and did not know if I could be Christian without it. Authentically, genuinely, faithfully Christian, that is. And do you know what, I never got a clear answer. Usually, I got no reply, and when someone did risk a response to my query, it was always evasive. I have chalked up the reticence to answer this question to either simple laziness or deep wisdom.
This, struggles with a feeling of personal, one-on-one relationship with Jesus is not actually an aside. It is central to our consideration of this text. What does it mean that Christ calls himself the “Good Shepherd”? He says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I know my own and my own know me… They will listen to my voice.” If you feel a close personal relationship with Jesus; if you feel the presence of the Living God as Jesus, as a personal encounter with Jesus, then this image of the Good Shepherd gets traction. But what if you experience God in some other way? What if you experience God as the Ground of Being, as an Ultimate Concern, as serendipitous creativity, ruah, the breath of life, or the Cosmic Christ, if you feel God more abstractly, less personally, how does the Good Shepherd fit into your understanding of God? How does the longing, the desire, the need for that, for the good shepherd, protector, friend, personal presence, or how does that fit into our understanding of this text, our God and everything?
This text, like the psalm for today, are sources of great comfort because Jesus is addressing a tragically universal experience of the world: the world is a scary place. Bad things do happen, and to good people. Wolves do scatter the flock, and too often those appointed to be the protectors, they flee at the first sign of trouble like the hired hand. We do not have a benevolent protector and we so desperately long for it and we make a lot of bad choices looking for it because we need that comfort and safety. Additionally, the flock itself is fragmented. Some are outside of the fold and haven’t come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace. Who doesn’t want a good shepherd looking over you, willing and able to lay down His life for you? Who doesn’t want someone to call you back in when you have strayed too far? Who doesn’t want someone, I don’t know, maybe God, walking with you in the valley of the shadow of death, God’s rod and staff comforting you along the way? I want a table like that spread before me, I want my cup to run over with abundance from God. There is a lot to be scared of, a lot to fear in the world and the good shepherd is an image of God that makes the world feel safe for the flock, for us, for me.
Also, though, I want to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. This text is so comforting not only because the Good Shepherd is offered as our protector, but because of the intimacy Christ offers. “I know my own and my own know me… I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold, I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” This is intimacy; being known, recognized, listened to, valued. Who doesn’t want to feel treasured by the foundation of the universe? I want to be laid down in green pastures, led by still waters. I want to feel held by God, nurtured, mothered more than fathered. This is intimacy with God. St. John offers a vision of an intimate Christ. Bringing us to safety in and intimacy with God; it is Jesus’ job description. Truly, that is the role that the second person in the Trinity satisfies. He is the link between the always and everywhere to the here and now. The actual and eternal. The Living God.
Howard Thurman, the great pastor and theologian of the middle of last century captures this sentiment perfectly in his prose poem “Strange Freedom” from the book The Inward Journey. He wrote, (and this is a sparse adaptation) “It is a strange freedom to be adrift in the world of men without a sense of anchor anywhere… It is a strange freedom to go nameless up and down the streets of other minds where no salutation greets and no sign is given to mark the place one calls one’s own. To be known, to be called by one’s own name… It is an honor to act as one’s very own, it is to live a life that is one’s very own, it is to bow before an altar that is one’s very own, it is to worship a God who is one’s very own. It is a strange freedom to be adrift in the world of men, to act with no accounting, to go nameless up and down the streets of other minds where no salutation greets and no sign is given to mark the place one calls one’s own.”
The good shepherd is an antidote to that strange freedom of anonymity and baselessness, lack of accountability and aloneness. Where Thurman feared going nameless up and down the streets of other minds, Jesus calls us by name. Well, that is what we are supposed to feel. That is what Jesus is calling us to feel through the words of St. John. So the big question, the question that still keeps me up at night sometimes is what to do if we don’t feel it that way? Or worse, what do we do if we don’t feel it that way but we want to?
If you just don’t feel it that way and are not so bothered by it, well, good for you. That is great. I should probably follow my former professor’s and pastor’s wise discretion in not answering that question about a personal relationship with Jesus, but I am here. And I am here authentically, genuinely, a priest in Christ’s church. Is a personal relationship with Christ a pre-requisite for being Christian? Who am I to say?
But in the darkness of the night, in the shadow of grief, in the grips of fear, in the wake of disappointment and betrayal, so many of us need, I need an existential hug, warm comfortable arms to seek refuge in. I need to be carried in the palm of God’s hand, I need someone to walk with me through the valley of the shadow of death, their rod and staff close at hand. I need a good shepherd who knows me and I know them. I need it but I don’t often feel it. What is a soul to do?
There is an old joke: a priest goes to the pope and says, “Holy Father, I have lost my faith. How can I keep serving as a priest?” The Holy Father responds, “Fake it.” There is wisdom in that pithy joke. Act as if, is maybe a nicer way of saying it. If you need a good shepherd in your life, then act as if you have one. Pretend that is the way it is. When you pray, imagine it, visualize it, picture God in God’s self calling you by name, seeking you out, spreading out the table before you, your cup over flowing with abundance. Be in that space, a space of comfort and joy, safety and shelter. Being is believing, and one of the great gifts God gives us, a strange freedom we have been blessed with is having a great ability to be many things, often at once. You want to feel loved by God, personally? Well, imagine what that might feel like and you will feel like it. You want the feelings of security and intimacy with Jesus the good shepherd, imagine what that would feel like and you will feel like it. This is one of those rare opportunities to experience the transformative power of prayer very directly. Imagine how you want to feel God, how you need to feel God, imagine and imagine and pray and try to open yourself and you will become what you pray for, a beloved child of God. “But O! How far have I to go to find Him in whom I have already arrived!” AMEN