The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
April 16, 2016
My first year in seminary we were all required to meet each week in a small group called Curriculum Conference. I was surprised to learn that one of the members of the class, lived on a farm in a nearby suburb—a sheep farm. All winter long as we talked about our lives and our experiences as new seminary students, we watched Liz knit scarves and sweaters from fine wool of vibrant colors—wool from the sheep she and her husband raised. The last meeting was held at her house because it was lambing time. We marveled at the gentle lambs—they seemed to be all legs, covered with white fluff. We held them and they nestled into our arms.
When you think about it, it’s pretty surprising that the image of the shepherd holds much meaning at all for us today. Farms are the norm in this area, with no grazing land of any size. There are no shepherds to be found here or in most of the US, and still those words the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, reverberate in our memories, move our souls. The image is strong and comforting for us, even today.
I remember a few years ago driving across the dry undeveloped central and western plain of Spain. We were miles from houses or villages when, all of a sudden, we came upon a flock of sheep, hundreds, with a lone shepherd walking alongside them. Perhaps the Holy Land was like that in Jesus’ day. During my visits to the Holy Land I’ve seen shepherds and smaller herds of sheep near Jericho and on the edges of the Negev Desert. I even saw a herd of about six sheep, their coats as brown as the sand they stood on, being moved through the infamous and urban Kalandria checkpoint that everyone must travel through to get from Jerusalem to the city of Ramallah.
Being a shepherd in much of the world is an under-valued, and possibly largely unwanted job. While being a shepherd offers little to measure in the way of what we’d call success, it is essential in any economy where sheep are valued. Sheep are not known to be thoughtful intelligent creatures. They will wander into crevasses. They will fall off cliffs. If they become dehydrated they will fall over, and if they aren’t put upright again, suffocate.
For all its implied goodness, for all the ways in which knowing that the shepherd of the Gospels is essential to our lives, the job is in reality far from any romantic ideal. It is labor intensive—messy, demanding, exhausting and isolating.
The shepherd keeps track of the sheep, protects them from wolves and other predators, and rescues them from the trouble they wander into. The shepherd protects them all from running off in panic when one sounds the alarm. A Shepherd is a reliable presence. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is one of dependence, love and trust. As Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.
We hear in our Gospel reading that Jesus spoke at the time of the Festival of Dedication in Jerusalem. One might think that this lesson would occur in December as the festival is actually the feast of Hanukah still celebrated each December. Hanukah recalls the Maccabean revolt against a Syrian ruler who had profaned the temple and celebrates the rededication of the temple where God would be rightly worshiped. And so Jesus takes this opportunity, pregnant with religious meaning, to say that he is the long sought Messiah. That he and God are one, and God is found in him and he in God, rather than in the Temple. And that he will give the sheep, those whom he cares for, eternal life.
Our reading from the Revelation to John is familiar to us as it is frequently read at funerals. Christ is the Lamb before whom a great multitude who have come through the great ordeal, robed as the baptized were robed in the early Christian church, are protected by the Lamb who will guide them to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from their eyes. (v. 17.)
As we move this morning from Revelation into the Gospel reading the Lamb has become the Shepherd, still leading the sheep, knowing them, holding them in his hand. I wonder if that image, of the lamb becoming the shepherd might hold meaning for us today. We are lambs, all of us. We wander away, sometimes we panic and we can panic others, we are blind sometimes to our own needs and those of others. And then lost, hurting, feeling alone, we finally realize we can’t lead our lives alone, but need that healing, loving, guiding presence, that shepherd which is Christ.
The internationally respected Jesuit retreat leader and poet Anthony de Mello offered this image of the sheepfold.
A sheep found a hole in the fence and crept through it.
He wandered far
And lost his way back.
Then he realized that he was being followed by a wolf.
He ran and ran, but the wolf kept chasing him, until the shepherd came and rescued him and carried him lovingly back into the fold.
In spite of everyone’s urgings
To the contrary, the shepherd refused
To nail up the hole in the
While it may not be our preference, our lives as Christians are about finding the hole and wandering away, only to be found, healed and made new again by Christ. Then having become a newly renewed being, we tend to look for that hole again, and again. Yet, how much we learn about ourselves, how much we grow and change every time we wander away and are led back. How much more finely tuned our ability becomes to hear the voice that calls us into new places and new ways of being.
Our lives as Christians are grounded in knowing Christ first as lamb, and then becoming the shepherd we have known for others. Becoming lamb and shepherd at one time. Being lamb allows us to be shepherd—being shepherd can only happen while we know Christ as a lamb.
In the early Church those baptized and anointed were clothed in gleaming white linen—symbolizing their new spotless life in Christ. Then, baptized, they went into the world, changed, emboldened and empowered to serve others as Jesus served. As Christians we are called into the liminal place, that place of mystery and great promise where moving into the cycle of being lamb and shepherd, we, too, are clothed in gleaming white.
It is a demanding path to follow Christ, moving appropriately from the role of lamb to that of shepherd, and coming to live both roles at once. Those who follow Christ serve as Jesus served taking the role of the lowest servant in the house that last night when he gathered with his disciples. Jesus was clear in his life of radical self-emptying, and of being one with the under classes and the oppressed, that we who follow Jesus are to follow that path as well. It is a gradual movement, gradual change, but it is movement on that path.
It has been a month now since Easter. We have moved this week from hearing about the experiences of the disciples as they discovered the meaning of the words, he is risen. They found him powerfully present as they tried to get back to their old lives. Today we hear that he will always be with us, and we will know him as we serve and in the breaking of the Bread.
As we follow, as we open ourselves to struggle and to serve, we get hungry; and we need food so that our lives can be sustained. We need a sense of direction and we need to hear his voice so we don’t get lost, discouraged or burdened by guilt. Here, in the presence of Christ, we can see more clearly who we really are as followers of the one Shepherd. We can look at each other with appreciation, for we can see around us others who have heard the voice and are trying to follow it with us. We are individuals, but individuals who make up a community, always gathering others in, traveling together, becoming one.
We are hungry. Other food we found along our journey has failed to nourish us for more than a short time. We gather because we hear the voice of the shepherd calling us here. We grow to know his tender and enduring love. The food he gives is none other than himself. He joins us in the gift of our selves in service.
In our Baptismal Covenant we promise to see Christ in every person. We promise to seek and serve others, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are sheep, lambs, following the one Shepherd, becoming lamb and shepherd as we know him to be.
(1) De Mello, Anthony, S.J. “The Lost Sheep” The Song of the Bird New York: Bantam Doubleday, 1981, p. 156.