“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
It is comforting to recognize that we are sheep, not shepherds.
The famous scholar and author Peter Gomes, shares this interesting history about churches in New England, he writes,
In New England, the ancient parishes of the seventeenth century in the Congregational order are not described as "founded"--if you ever look at an old seventeenth-century New England church, the sign will not say, "Founded in 1620," "Founded in 1636," "Founded in 1690"--but use a very strange nomenclature used nowhere else in the church, either in Europe or in this country: it says "Gathered in 1620," "Gathered in 1640," "Gathered in 1690," and there is something very different between being founded and being gathered. The notion is that of sheep being gathered into the sheepfold.
The Congregations of 17th century New England recognized they were sheep, not shepherds.
The other night I attended a friend’s birthday party --- she invited a diverse group of 5 people to celebrate with her, all of whom she knew but who did not know one another there was a fire and good food --- and over the course of the evening strangers did become friends. We were each quite different from one another. As we sat around the fire ---we told stories about our lives, loves and challenges as we did this I thought about today’s gospel and the image of being gathered into a sheepfold, being cared for, held together by one shepherd.
I don’t usually like to think of Jesus as a shepherd, I find the image somehow too cute, or too distant, the metaphor doesn‘t feel particularly relevant to our contemporary cosmopolitan lives--- but as I thought more about this passage and listened to a simple but beautiful gospel hymn sung by Ralph Stanley the famous bluegrass singer --- the more the image spoke to me, the more I was able to trust it --- Stanley’s piece goes like this,
“listen to the shepherd, listen to the shepherd calling calling us over, we are all his children, we are all his children calling, calling us over, he will guide us safely, he will guide us safely calling, calling us over.
There’s very little in our 21st century lives that helps us recognize ourselves as part of a flock, part of a community being gathered, there’s little that inspires us to let go of our individual wandering and find our lives and meaning as part of a community. Fragmentation, being scattered seems to be the only reality we know, or find comfort within, despite numerous forms of technology that tell us we are being connected --- many of these tools seem to actually pull us further a part. Everyone’s plugged in, looking at different screens, listening to different music, chatting with someone else. Fragmentation, being scattered, separated out --- pulled a part, today’s gospel and the lessons as well point us to a different way of being ---- that frees us from the powerful urge to think that we are in charge --- that we need to be in control, on top of it all. John tells us there is one flock, one shepherd. We’re being gathered. I’m not the shepherd, you are not the shepherd, Jesus is the good shepherd and we are all sheep --- we are all his children. We are being gathered.
One gift of bluegrass music, of sitting around a camp fire telling stories with strangers and friends--- of worshiping like this, singing hymns together, is that we are somehow more free to embrace the idea of being part of a flock. Acknowledging, noticing that none of us are the shepherd, but that we are all in need of the one who lays down his life for us is liberating --- is in a strange way comforting. We don’t need to fix one another --- as John’s letter tells us --- we are to love one another. Even Peter after the healing in the temple in our reading from Acts, --- rather than claiming his own role and power points the gathered community to the one shepherd, Jesus who heals and whose spirit inspires his strong words. He could have very well drawn attention to himself but instead pointed to the one who called him into the sheepfold.
Perhaps what links all of our sacred stories today --- the amazing miracle in Acts and Peter’s powerful speech, the poetry of John’s letter on loving others, and today’s gospel --- is this sense of being held --- being cared for ---being led out of lives of fragmentation, separation, isolation, to being part of a story greater than ourselves as individuals, being attended to in such a way that our actions, stories, struggles and hopes speak to a deeper identity --- as a people being gathered seen and recognized as part of the shepherds flock.
This recognition of being part of one flock, and Jesus as our shepherd need not be exclusive or triumphalistic --- for as Jesus says in today’s gospel “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Many people committed to the way of Jesus, understand this passage as an invitation to live a distinct and unique faith while wholeheartedly engaging in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue for peace and justice. This text also frees us from the arrogance of thinking that only our tribe, or our particular part of the flock, or our specific narrow religion listens to God’s voice. Again we are the sheep, Jesus is the shepherd.
May we in the days to come find ways to get over ourselves and our need for control, may we discover practices that help us appreciate being part of a gathered community in which Jesus is our shepherd --- perhaps its making a meal for someone, or visiting a sick person, or noticing and appreciating the ways others reach out to us in love and care ---- perhaps its praying or studying in a group ---- but what ever we do may we be invited to embrace this strange, foreign and ancient concept --- we are part of a flock --- we are not the shepherds of our own destiny --- we are part of one flock, we belong to one shepherd.
As we contemplate our belonging to a flock --- as we open ourselves to the deep and beautiful ecology of God I invite you to listen to this poem by Mary Oliver --- who as a fellow sheep reflects on our work of loving and place in nature.
By Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.