Each year, the fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, to remind us that even in resurrection life, Jesus still acts as our shepherd.
Just this week, a friend was telling me about a book she was reading that was written by an African priest. The purpose of the book was to explore Psalm 23. This particular priest had previously been a shepherd, and so his life experience influenced his understanding of Psalm 23.
According to this shepherd/priest, sheep, like chickens, participate in a “pecking order”…except it’s called a “butting order”. The purpose of this is to determine the hierarchy of the group. He also related that sheep are skittish and easily startled, so it’s important for the shepherd to try to keep the flock together and calm.
What I found most interesting though, was that sheep won’t lie down easily. Not because they’re big and clumsy, but because the shepherd has to be skilled in such a way as to meet these four “requirements”:
--the sheep need to be free of fear; they need to be comfortable and calm
--the sheep need to be free of conflict within the group…butting can’t have happened recently
--the sheep need to be free of pests such as flies and mosquitoes; it they are annoyed, they will start conflicts and become fearful
--the sheep need to be free of hunger…so they need to have been recently fed.
Why I found this so interesting is because it makes me think of us…the church.
We don’t want to be living in a state of anxiety, worry and fear. If we do, we can’t open our hearts to God and each other. We can’t make good decisions for the future of the church. We can’t be calm. Instead of working about bringing the kingdom of God, we become restless with bringing about the kingdom of US…what’s best for US, what WE like best, and so on…
While conflict is part of human nature, how we deal with conflict is important. As Episcopalians, one of our values is that we rely on scripture, reason and tradition equally…not one more than the other in helping to discern how God is calling us. As Episcopalians, one of our values is that we don’t all have to see things the same way. However, when conflict does arise, do we engage in a “butting order” or do we talk about our concerns? How do we listen to each other?
And then I started thinking about being free of pests…well, I can’t help but think that might be a bit self-explanatory. If we are annoyed, then we can’t be calm. If we can’t be calm, then we can’t focus on our work…which is ministry to each other and the world.
And if we aren’t fed, then we can’t do our work. For us, the idea of being fed means participating in community and in the Eucharist. As our concluding prayers say, “thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food of Christ’s body and blood…now send us out to do the work which you have given us to do with gladness and singleness of heart”.
So yes, the Lord is our shepherd.
But Jesus expands the idea of the Good Shepherd’s work. For Jesus, being a good shepherd is about being in relationship. As he tells his disciples in the gospel of John…”I know my own and my own know me”. Jesus knows us. He knows what we need—our hopes and desires, as well as our fears. As a Good Shepherd, it is his guidance which eases our fears with grace and mercy. And we know our shepherd because of his love. A shepherd’s love for his flock requires a willingness to provide for, to guide, to love, to heal, and to defend. It is an awesome responsibility to be a shepherd.
Jesus also told his disciples that he had other sheep and that he needed to bring them along. For early hearers of the gospel, this probably meant the Gentiles. The way I read it, it means everyone is invited. And if that’s true, if everyone is invited, then chances are there will be times of fear, conflict, hunger and pests. But like I said, it’s what we do with those experiences. We can give up and remain skittish little sheep, or we can experience the love of the shepherd who guides us to still waters. We can choose to leave the flock, or we can be fed by grace.
So I invite you to consider your life as a sheep.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.