As we said the 23rd Psalm this morning, I wonder how many of us could have said it for memory. As I child committing it to memory, I discovered that saying it once or twice as I fell asleep was a much better method than counting sheep and left me knowing how much the Good Shepherd cared for me. Many of us will remember the Mother Goose rhyme about how “Little Bo Peep lost her sheep and didn’t know where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” I’m not sure what the theological implications of those sheep were, but, according to our gospel – sheep definitely need leadership.
It’s fairly common to hear comments about the stupidity of sheep. However, the facts are that sheep are more aware than we thought. Studies have shown that sheep are smart enough to recognize the faces of more than 70 other sheep in their flock; and that they are able to recognize that some are getting special attention and will demonstrate jealousy toward some of their own flock. Hummmmmm
Reflecting about the Good Shepherd and the sheep recognizing each other, I found myself wondering: “Do we recognize each other as ‘children of God?’ Do we pick and choose to whom we assign the face of Christ? Or like some sheep do we show jealousy because others get special or more attention?”
Karl Barth reminds us that there is no such thing as an individual Christian. In the same vein, there is no “separate singular form of the word sheep,” (in other words, there is 1 sheep, or fifty sheep). As children of God, we are not separate from one another. Brian reminded us of this last week! And yet, I suspect that all of us at times find it awkward or even feel uneasy if we have to make room for “those others”, especially those who are marginalized from our clan.
What if the words we heard this morning were Jesus claiming to be the “the good migrant worker”! Would we see those folks as the image of Jesus? Like Jesus, we are to provide a space where all are welcome. The flock is open-ended, never closed.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar to the World: she reflects on “encountering others” as a spiritual practice and she expands our understanding of hospitality as the biblical “love of stranger.”
Taylor does a remarkable job at describing our tendency to be at the center of our own awareness and forgetting that other people are at the center of their own awareness; not on the fringes of ours. We need to be challenged as to whom ”the others” are in our lives, in our churches, our communities, and in the world: These “others” are on the margins of our horizons, -- horizons which are established through circumstance, habit, and some of the unfairness and unjust practices present in our society.
Let me tell you about something that happened to me some years ago in Cambridge. I was spending six weeks at Harvard as a part of an NEH grant. I had started running very early along the Charles River each morning before we all gathered for breakfast. The campus streets weren’t crowded yet and the people out and about were mostly runners or walkers.
One morning coming back from my run, there was a woman of a different ethnicity who started following me, shouting all manner of obscenities at me, very loudly. She was obviously wounded and full of hatred; for whatever her reason, I was the scapegoat for her that day. At first it was embarrassing, awkward to say the least, because everyone in the Cambridge Square was staring at the two of us. Block after block she followed me, relentless in her determination to let me know how much she hated everything and everyone I represented.
I tried to ignore her at first, then I tried to pray for her under my breath, and then finally after several humiliating blocks, I decided to stop and face her, which I did. “I’m truly sorry, I really am, for whatever it is that I represent to you. I can tell that you are deeply hurt, and I’m sorry.”
Her response I can still hear: With venom, she responded: “that just doesn’t cut it, BITCH.”
You, know, she was right; my telling her that I was sorry from her perspective was pretty meaningless to her in that moment.
Our reading from I John this morning puts it like this: …we should…love one another, not in speech but in action, knowing that Christ abides in our brothers and sisters because of the Spirit that God has given us.
There’s a story told about Robert Coles going to interview Dorothy Day in 1952. Upon entering her “house of hospitality” he found her talking with a woman who was obviously very drunk. Eventually Dorothy got up and came over to Coles. With a voice that could be heard by the woman, she said:
“Are you waiting to speak to one of us?”ONE OF US? The troubled, intoxicated woman was not “the other” “the outsider”, or “one of them”; she was definitely not AN OBJECT of Dorothy Day’s charity. Rather, Day was ONE with this woman -- in the love of Christ.
What an example for all of us. Taking down the boundaries that we all have a tendency to put around our circle of those we accept! Was there a way that I could have better responded to the woman that followed me that day?
And with others like her, how are the traumas of our falls and fears to be healed and what is our place in helping to set one another free? Free to experience God’s healing love! My avoidance at looking at this hurting woman for several blocks, ignoring her because of my own discomfort still haunts me.
What about my own commitment to grow with God’s help in being responsible in ways that might help prevent some of my own blindness and ignorance?
Jesus lived a counter- cultural lifestyle which took him away from security, daring to express by words and actions the grace of God for all peoples in ways that scandalized so many of the respectable. Rather than exalting princes or religious leaders, he was quite often to be found with the most rank of outsiders, telling them that they had a stake in the Kingdom of God. And through it all, he was attracting the enmity of the predators of his day, predators who would eventually get their way in his being hounded to a brutal public execution.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, not only revealed God in his teaching, but how important to recognize that he revealed God in his WAY of BEING! As the image of God, we know what God is like – a compassionate Jesus who was moved to touch lepers, to heal on the Sabbath, to see in the ostracized members of the human community –“children of God”; and then to risk his life for the sake of saving his people from a future which he could see and they could not.
Compassion is both a feeling and a way of being!! We feel compassion and then we are to be compassionate.
There is a social dimension as well as an individual dimension to the compassion of God as we see it in the image of the Good Shepherd”. For him, as for the prophets before him, the divine compassion included grief and anger about the blindness, the injustice, and the idolatry that CAUSED human suffering. Persistent blindness and heedlessness do have their consequences!
But Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, discloses that at the very center of everything – is a Reality, a God, that is in love with us and wills our well-being, both as individuals and as individuals within society. When you and I are filled with the Spirit of God, the Compassionate One, then compassion is given us as a grace ---not an achievement. Our level of compassion is dependent upon our relationship to the Spirit.
And so if we know Jesus as the Good Shepherd, then growth in the Christian life is essentially a growth in compassion! Do we recognize the presence of Christ in one another, here in our own church, or in those ostracized members of the human community? Will we seek and serve Christ in ALL persons?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed……”
Let me close by sharing from Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: (listen with your hearts open to the wisdom that Merton speaks)
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness, which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point of spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal…. which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind, or the brutalities of our own will.
This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us…….It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.
IT IS IN EVERYBODY, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…”
Merton goes on to say: “I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”