Christ Church, New Haven
The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
July 17, 2015
“For he is our peace.”
One of most incongruous, and sad, photos I brought back from the Holy Land when I visited in 2004 was of two Palestinian men, shepherds in an urban land, herding four scruffy looking sheep through the machine gun ringed Kalandria checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. I realized that far from my romanticized vision of Jesus with a fluffy white lamb flung over his shoulders, the sheep of the holy land are about the same color as the dirt there, and the shepherd is covered with the dust of the land as well. Sheep and shepherd are away from home for long periods of time, and the shepherd is responsible for finding pasture and water, collecting strays, fighting off predators. While we idealize the image, in reality, it is a lonely, some might say dull, life.
The image of the shepherd is woven through Holy Scripture. In Ezekiel we find a shepherd who is a warrior king fighting for justice and punishing the wicked. The Psalmist paints the picture we have just sung today. In the Gospels the image builds on the psalm. We hear of the shepherd who will leave his whole flock at risk to search for one who is lost, and of the shepherd who creates a safe place for the sheep, guarding the entrance. They recognize his voice as he calls them out into the world. In the Gospel of John we hear Jesus adopt the image for himself. I am the good Shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me. (10:14) and in the Revelation to John: For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; 'he will lead them to springs of living water.'" (7:17)
I find it interesting that the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd seems to hold greater significance in our culture than in many others. It’s a simple task to find references to the psalm in contemporary culture over the last 50 years. In the 1970s, Katharine Hepburn recites the 23rd psalm in the iconic Hepburn/John Wayne movie Rooster Cogburn. Decades later, Coolio begins his rap Gangsta’s Paradise with Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me, and twists the image. He begins with words of hope to rap on the tragic inability of those born into the poverty of the ghetto to escape a life of drugs and violence.
The image of God’s action in our lives stands out in the psalm. Clearly the Psalmist is on a journey through a valley of peaceful pastures and verdant water—but also painful and frightening places. Regardless of the circumstances, God is powerfully present both in leading the psalmist and in opening the psalmist to new perspectives, new ideas.
One commentator suggests that the imagery of the final line of the psalm is worthy of a second look. While the base for this translation predates the King James Version we know and love, it carries the same translation of the word shuv as dwell. However some see the word more clearly translated as turning or returning. With this perspective we would read the last line of the psalm as “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.”, reaffirming our part of the action—continually seeking God’s presence—not for future rewards, but as central to our lives as they unfold. (1) Thus the psalm doesn’t have such a neat conclusion. Rather, it rejects all claims of self-sufficiency, reflecting an ongoing purpose. Seeking after God’s presence is a lifelong enterprise, a long-term journey.
I’ve been among you as parishioner and priest for about eight months now. I came here originally over five years ago, seeking solace and peace during a challenging time in my ministry. I found deeply faithful people whose lives remain today motivated by the depth and reverence of our worship.
As an intentional interim rector, I’ve been part of the transitions in leadership in several parishes now. While I’ve joined each transition as interim rector or priest-in-charge, each experience has been, of course, a transition for me as well. I have looked into the nature of transitions—and come to see change as healthy. Not always easy, but healthy because of the opportunities transitions present.
Willliam Bridges writes, in his small paperback book Transitions, now in its 25th printing, that all change begins with endings. When you think about it, the moment we move, even when we start any movement, we are triggering endings. Every ending, large or small has a recognizable path. From endings we move into dis-orientation. Our orientation, our sense of location in the world is less clear. We relate to the world differently. We experience dis-identification. Our identity changes in relationship with old and new ways of being. We are dis-connected as other things end unexpectedly as well. Our orientation with the world, our identity, our connections are all impacted in some small way, at least, every time we move.
We move into a neutral time. An in-between time, perhaps. Bridges labels that time chaos, noting that we have very little tolerance in our culture for neutral time. Yet that time must be experienced before new beginnings can come. The gifts of that time are an awareness of the meaning of the past, and an ability to move into the future.
Some cultures foster in-between times, especially when adolescents reach early adulthood. In Native American cultures, we know, there is a time of forced transition, a “vision quest.” They are far from home and so lost that it is hoped they discover themselves. They return having discovered a new name, a new identity. Creative time and space allows these young people to emerge, set free from the past, to find in themselves a new beginning.
In a sense this is the experience of Jesus’ disciples, of all of us who follow Jesus today as well. I don’t want to trivialize the experience. However, remember the movie The Wizard of Oz? The movie begins in sepia tones, browns, tans and white. We are introduced to the major characters, the three ranch hands, the pompous traveling con artist, and even the unpleasant neighbor. Dorothy is swept up in a tornado and is knocked out.
She dreams that she steps out of her house in the brightly colored Land of Oz. All of the characters of her life appear, one after another. Those closest to her are transformed as she is. At the end of the movie she wakes up, the color is gone, and the movie returns to the sepia tones in which it began. Yet, each of the major characters see themselves and the world differently before the movie ends.
This is the gift, the joy, the delight of transitions. This is the extraordinary gift of life in Christ, where we don’t have to do the letting go on our own, where we can trust in God as we take those shaky steps into the future. Where we can, in trust, learn all that God has in store for us.
Here at Christ Church, we know that we are in transition. We are moving through the unknown into the light of what’s next to come. And that next to come isn’t something that will happen when a new rector preaches from this pulpit. What’s next to come is ours today, if we can trust in God and let God write a new story in our hearts.
We are, as a parish, in the midst of change. We are worshipping, sharing, praying much as we always did, but we know that change is among us—in Fr. Joe’s presence, and now in mine; and that change to a new rector is not very far away. Change is all around us outside the church. Sometimes we like to think of church as the one thing we can hold onto that will never change. Yet, we are living our life in Christ, who calls us on, who is with us through the trials and fears of our lives. If we aren’t allowing Jesus to transform us, we need to look at our path, for we are never completed, we are never “done.”
The image of shepherd and sheep may be old and sometimes seem too familiar, but it gives us a base of security support and strength from which we can dare to move, to respond, to risk. We can dare that Yes to God’s call because of the depth of the love of God for us which we know in Jesus. We can dare that Yes because of the security of a God who knows our struggle with obedience to that call, our need to control, our need to set the agenda, our need to assert our will, our need to feel independent—and still continues to love us as we are. So as we go forward let us find in the security of the old and familiar, the foundation of our response. The Yes that is both daring and obedience, both the risk and the answer.
Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations in the 1950s, was just a figure on TV to me for much of my life. Then I read his journal Markings, and discovered a man of great depth and commitment. In Markings, Hammarskjold wrote:
You dare your Yes--and experience a meaning.
repeat your Yes--and all things acquire a meaning.
When everything has a meaning, how can you live anything but a Yes. (2)
Jesus, our shepherd, our protector, our peace, calls us to embrace new life, to discover all that awaits us. For the sake of Jesus Christ, for God, for our beloved community, for our own sakes, can we say anything but yes?
(1) LeMon, Joel. The Working Preacher: Preach this Week, “Commentary on the 23rd Psalm” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
(2) Hammarskjöld, Dag. Markings. New York: Ballantine Books, 1964, p. 106.