The Good Shepherd and Harriet Tubman

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.

Harriet Tubman’s biographer reported that Tubman sang “Swing Low” as a code. Harriet Tubman sang “Swing low, sweet chariot” to let people know that a “band of angels” was coming to take them away from slavery. Get ready. The song led the people on the road to freedom. Coming for to carry me home.

There were other codes songs on the underground railroad as well, according to Tubman. “Wade in the Water,” throw the trackers off your scent. “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,” keep your eyes on the big dipper, the constellation that points to the North star. Often these songs were spirituals. The themes in the songs are old. The music speaks to something ancient. The music of Christianity has always been music of liberation. During the shameful centuries of American slavery, liberation was a concrete hope. Freedom had a geography. The songs led people home.

And a small group of brave souls travelled the deep South, singing people to freedom. Tubman’s story of the code-songs for me has redeemed the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. These days The Good Shepherd isn’t one of the most highly regarded images of God. When I a senior in High School, I was teaching Sunday School at church. I remember clearly our rector making a pronouncement about the Christmas pageant. (Watch out for us rectors. We can be prone to pronouncements.) This rector said that we would not have any children playing animals in the pageant this year. “Little kids are not sheep,” he said. This rector thought having little kids be sheep was demeaning.

He wasn’t alone. The latest Reform Jewish prayerbook has the following prayer included. “My Lord is not a Shepherd, and I am not a sheep.” I hear that protest. I acknowledge that protest. Still, I think the image of the Good Shepherd is one of the best images we have for God, and I am grateful for Harriet Tubman’s understanding of Shepherding. Harriet described herself as a shepherd. She talked about shepherding her family and friends to freedom. To me, that is an image of the divine.

When people find out I am a pastor (another shepherding image), when they know I am a pastor, I sometimes get asked about “God’s plan.” Those two words make me nervous together: “God’s plan.” So often “God’s plan” is invoked to explain away troubles, or to sweep aside grief. “God’s plan” used this way, in some sort of convoluted faux-Calvinist sense, says that God has all of history worked out and planned. That understanding of “God’s plan” to me seems too simplistic, out of touch with reality. The image of God ticking off the moments of history in a giant book doesn’t do it for me.

“The Good Shepherd” works for me. Have you ever tried to herd animals, or people, children. Sometimes church, sometimes life, is like herding cats. Herding isn’t easy. Shepherding isn’t simple. The animals all have their own ideas about what to do. One of God’s creatures always wanders off to look at a view or munch on something new. Shepherding takes patience, and includes a certain amount of managed chaos. A good shepherd can’t pretend that she is going to govern every step of every one of the creatures in her care. A good shepherd points the way, manages stragglers, and goes looking for the lost sheep.

When you ask me about “God’s plan” the image of The Good Shepherd probably best expresses my theology. I think God is generally guiding us, but that at any given moment, many of us may seem to be wandering around a little aimlessly. That doesn’t mean God isn’t involved. God just isn’t that anxious about whether we choose to nibble here or there. Remember, as Thomas Aquinas tells us, with God we’re always talking in metaphor. You can push The Good Shepherd image too far. All metaphors break down at some point, especially metaphors for God.

But as metaphors go, I think The Good Shepherd is worth holding onto. If you have a hard time thinking of yourself as a sheep, let Harriet Tubman be your guide. This heroic woman escaped slavery herself. At the age of 27, carrying the scars from her violent treatment at the hands of slave-holders, Harriet Tubman found her way north of the Mason-Dixon line. She walked to freedom. Then she did something radical. She turned around. Without her family and her friends, it didn’t feel like freedom. She decided to play the role of the shepherd, and to lead others out of slavery.

In this sense Harriet Tubman is an icon. I mean icon in the Eastern Orthodox sense. In Eastern Christianity they write icons. They paint images of the saints who help them glimpse God. If we ever host an icon workshop here at Holy Communion, Harriet Tubman would make a great icon for the Good Shepherd. She laid down her freedom. Like Jesus’ Good Shepherd, she laid down her life for her chosen sheep.

And as she travelled South, she sang. She sang the songs of freedom, letting her sisters and brothers know that hope was at hand. The writer Bruce Chatwin, in his book, “Songlines,” recounts a British explorer’s report of the shepherds of Bethlehem in the 19th century. If you go to Palestine today, you won’t see many shepherds. The walls and fences of Israel/Palestine make shepherding difficult. But before the British occupation, there were still many Palestinian shepherds near Bethlehem.

The explorer’s report might surprise you. When we think of Shepherd’s we often think of the rod and the staff from the 23rd psalm. Those of us who grew up in The Episcopal Church might also think of the Bishop’s staff with it’s crooked neck for catching stray sheep. But the rod and the staff weren’t the primary means of guidance according to Bruce Chatwin.

His explorer wakes up in the morning to see the shepherds leading their flocks out of a cave. Shepherds often huddled together with their sheep in caves in the harsh environment. The cave kept the animals and the shepherds safe, warm, and dry. But if you have multiple flocks, multiple shepherds, how do you sort out the sheep in the morning? Simple. The shepherds begin singing. The sheep know their shepherd’s voice. They know his song. The Shepherds’ songs separated their sheep. They didn’t need the rod or the staff. The good shepherds just sang.

Friends, we have a good shepherd. From what I have seen of this life, I’m not convinced that our God is a micro-manager. God may have counted every hair on your head, but following God doesn’t guarantee that you don’t have bad hair days. Following God means listening for the song of freedom, of liberation. Following Christ means walking the way of someone who laid down his own freedom, his own life, for the sake of all of us sheep. Some of the best Christians have also laid down their freedom for others.

That’s our song, that’s the song of our shepherd. We are a people who sing songs of freedom. We sing songs of liberation. We have a Good Shepherd. Fear no evil. God will revive your soul. Christ will lead you to freedom. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God will be there. God will be singing, leading us home. Can you hear the songs of Harriet? Can you hear the songs of Christ? These are the shepherd songs, the songs that will lead us home.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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