Proper 11, July 19, 2014: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6”3-34, 53-56
Have you ever watched a sheep-herding contest? They’re apparently fairly common in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, the North of England and a few other places. I happened upon one in Southern Scotland, and it was absolutely amazing. It’s the sheepdogs who do the work, and apparently border collies are among the smartest dogs there are. The shepherd gives directions to the dogs by whistles, and dogs run around and behind the sheep, constantly driving them into a tighter group while chasing down the strays. The whistle commands seem to start the ingathering, catch the strays, move the sheep in the same direction, or give everyone a chance to catch their breath. Check out some examples on YouTube – there are a number of short samples of the sheepdogs in action.
Sheepdogs are not that common in the middle east, there the shepherds themselves have to do the work, generally with smaller herds and more children helping, but the idea is the same. If left to their own devices, sheep will wander off, so ancient shepherds not only protected the sheep from predators or getting hurt, but spent a good deal of time calling them together.
Today we have another round of sheep readings- they come up three or four times a year, and just to be clear, we are almost always collectively the sheep – in many scripture passages, except for the lambs who are sacrifices, and of course, the lamb of God as a primary symbol of Christ, the Passover and the Paschal lambs. But the shepherd is sometimes God, sometimes a faithful follower of God, and sometimes a bad shepherd who leads people astray, such as the prophet Jeremiah reveals to us today. Now, sheep are not the absolute brightest creatures on the face of the earth (although there are apparently exceptions to that), so I’m not sure how I feel about always being part of the herd, but in many ways it works well as an analogy.
Sheep need to be gathered together – if you remember our conversations about ecclesiology several weeks ago, we started with the etymology of ekklesia, the Greek word that is the source of our word church. It really means a calling out of citizens from their homes into a public place, into an assembly or a gathering. So to be church is to be called out in order to be gathered together – and the similarities to the work of gathering the flock of sheep becomes obvious.
Our vocation – our calling – is to be church, and what we do first is to be gathered. It is probably easier, and more logical, to think of gathering as something we do ourselves – after all, we’re the ones that get up in the morning, gather family or friends, arrange for transportation here, and slide in the door - often just in the nick of time. But theologically, the church is gathered, we are called, we do not gather ourselves, but we are gathered by God, particularly through the workings of the Holy Spirit (perhaps border collies as the Spirit might work!) Think about the difference for a minute – reflect on those moments, this morning, another Sunday morning, when something nudged you, something perhaps made you change your mind, and you came – summoned to be church.
It’s those types of nudgings that prayer and quiet, listening and pastoral conversation work to hear. Gaining facility with one’s sacramental sense, a sort of 7th sense, is the work of a lifetime of being a Christian. And a deep and ancient symbol of gentleness and guidance, of security and peace, is the image of the good shepherd; the one who leads us beside still waters, who finds the green pastures that will nourish us, and who protects us through the valley of the shadow of death, who calls us and leads us to the house of the Lord.
But in the midst of all the sheep and shepherds in our readings today – the bad shepherd of Jeremiah who scatters the flock, the good shepherd of the psalm, and Jesus who while caring for his disciples, takes pity on the crowds of people “because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” – in the midst of all this, there is this amazing reading from the letter to the Ephesians that acts like a hinge. I have to admit that this part of Ephesians contains some of my favorite lines. The overarching concern of the letter is unity, and our section today begins with the divisions between gentile and jewish Christians and how in Christ Jesus those divisions have ended. Christ has made “both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” But it’s the other image that is so alluring – whether one has been far off or near, now both are to draw near. “So Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
For centuries this image of those far off – outside the church, keeping their distance, not willing to enter, not willing to be gathered, has remained a hopeful one. Just like the glorious story of the prodigal son – who is seen by his father “while he was still far off”, and is welcomed with compassion, so we are reminded that that being far off is not always a permanent state. Those who are far off have been used in Christian spirituality as a reminder that regardless of distance, whether physical or cultural or linguistic or other – these children of God are also called to the household of God, just as those who are near - those born into Christian families, those who have always been here. All are to be invited to the font, into the household of God where there are no strangers, no aliens, but a house built of living stones that is us.
Starting in the 3rd century, many of our liturgical texts began the communion rite with a call to “draw near” – to erase the distance between those who are near and those who are far off – draw near, be gathered. Do not wander off but be part of this household, this herd, be here together. In the ancient Armenian liturgy, the deacon calls out: “with fear and with faith draw near and communicate in holiness.” Just as the sheep are gathered in towards the shepherd, we gather in to communicate with holiness itself.
A couple weeks ago our scripture readings were about being sent out – Jesus took the training wheels off the disciples and they were sent out two by two to preach the reign of God come near. But today, we are called inward – both of these are part of Christian discipline and discipleship – called in, gathered from near and far, and sent out to be the body of Christ, to be the voice that proclaims there are no strangers, no aliens here. Two Sundays ago we were invited to reflect on the final words of the liturgy – “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Today we are to hear “draw near” – those far off, those very close, those prone to wandering, those snuggled up to the shepherd, “draw near.” And as we have reflected on before, God knows, and sometimes even we know, that we “draw near” for many different reasons – “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal.” Sometimes it is solace and consolation, sometimes it is for strength to move forward and to do more, other times it is for forgiveness and healing, and there are those times when we know we need renewal, and we know we will be transformed. Sometimes we are just too close – we draw near anyway, sometimes we are far off – but God has spotted us and draws us into the fold.
And at our dying the church prays that God acknowledge us –recognize us - as sheep of God’s fold, as lambs of God’s flock, to be gathered into the arms of mercy, the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Perhaps being the sheep of the Good Shepherd is not so bad after all – draw near, the shepherd is calling.