Tell Us Plainly? or The Good Shepherd

“Tell us plainly,” they asked Jesus. “Just tell us plainly.” Many of you will remember back in the presidential election cycle of 2000, the name of John McCain’s bus. Do you remember? To me it seems like we’re worlds away from campaigns like John McCain’s and Bill Bradley’s. But do you remember the name of McCain’s bus? It was clever. In whatever state they rented the transport, they painted big signs on the outside of the bus that said: “Straight Talk Express.”

That campaign tapped into a real frustration. Maybe it is a frustration we are still feeling today. It’s hard to sort out the truth from the spin in politics, in the news. How often do we get to ask our leaders, “What do you really stand for?” So in many ways, I sympathize with these questioners today. In some ways, it would have been nice to have a passage of Scripture where Jesus said: “Yes, I’m the Messiah. Here is my simple 10 point plan for your life.” But that’s not Jesus. Instead Jesus sang them a song about shepherding.

Have any of you ever taken care of a flock, a literal flock? Of sheep? Of chickens? (I know we’ve got some folks with chickens). Have any of you ever driven a herd of cattle? We like to joke that sometimes parenthood, or teaching, or just life is like “herding cats.” The joke works because herding of any kind 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 chaos.

Taking care of a flock isn’t what we would call an “exact science.” (Am I right chicken farmers?) 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. In that way, I’ve come to appreciate the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I’ve come to appreciate God’s role in my life as a role of shepherding.

As much as we may long for straight talk in life, as much as we wish sometimes that God could just “tell us plainly” which way we should go, deep down I think we know that life is more nuanced. Sometimes we get to make big choices about how to live our life. Sometimes we have to make choices because circumstances seem to have gone out of our control. Living life is not exactly an exact science.

The writer Bruce Chatwin, in his book, “Songlines,” recounts the story of an Englishman who reported about the shepherds of Bethlehem in the 19th century. If you go to the region today, you won’t see many shepherds. The walls and fences of Israel-Palestine make shepherding difficult. But before the walls, before the world wars and the British occupation, there were still many Palestinian shepherds near Bethlehem.

The 19th century Englishman’s report might surprise you. In the story, the visitor wakes up early one the morning and sees 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.

In fact, if you visit Bethlehem today, and go to the Church of the Nativity, you’ll discover that Palestinians believe Jesus was born in a cave. The manger scene we put up in our churches and homes in the West comes largely from Italy and St. Francis. People in Europe imagined barns or shacks, but in ancient Israel, and up until the 19th century, animals in Palestine often were kept in caves overnight. Holy Communion should really get a manger scene for Christmas that has Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a cave.

Bruce Chatwin reports about these flocks and shepherds as they come out of the cave, and as his Englishman awakes he wonders: “if you have multiple flocks, multiple shepherds, how do you sort out the sheep in the morning?” He might expect the sheep all to be queued up and arguments about which sheep belong to which shepherd as they prod the animals along. But the Brit is astonished when the Shepherds simply begin singing. And the sheep know their shepherd’s voice. They know his song. They follow their particular shepherd out of the cave. The songs, the voices, separated the sheep. They didn’t need the rod or the staff. The good shepherds just sang.

If you had a choice between “plain speech” and “song” which would you choose? (That question is dangerous to ask at 8am, in a congregation that prefers the spoken Eucharist). But which would you choose, plain speech? or a song?

I think there is an honest human hunger for things to be simpler, for life to be clearer, for choices to be more black and white. But I think Jesus’ words this morning are both words of caution and words of invitation. Jesus cautions his questioners: don’t accept the simple answer. Be aware. When you ask someone to “tell you plainly,” are you also allowing them to dumb the answer down? Jesus responds to their question, but he refuses to tell them plainly. Instead he invites them to broaden their expectations, to open their minds and hearts to what God is doing. He starts to hum this little ditty about a shepherd.

Simple answers are seductive, but problematic. By way of example, let’s talk for a moment about human migration. Immigration seems to be an area of the public debate that we wish were simpler. Oftentimes on the debate stage, in the stump speech, or when watching television’s talking heads, we are tempted to think that immigration can be discussed with “plain speech.” Either you are for building a wall across the US Border with Mexico, or you are for open borders. Plain and simple, yeah?

This reduction does a lot of damage. These simple positions can’t make room for the nuance and complexity of the human experience. How do you speak to a woman who has fled Honduras with her children because she was afraid that a gang was trying to recruit her son into the most violent conflict in the Americas, an unofficial gang war that claims more lives daily than conflicts in the Middle East? Do you want to be the enforcement agent who has to collect a father from his workplace, and force him back across the border, force him to abandon his teenage children who have grown up in the United States? Plain speech often cannot do justice to the complexities of life. We may long for straight talk, but many of the issues we face are too complicated for simple answers.

Especially when we talk about God, we have to be careful of this innate hunger for simple answers. The desire for “straight talk” about God has led to a lot of oversimplification, and frankly, over history, people have done a lot of damage to one another when they have sought to “talk plainly” about God. In the immortal words of Jimmy Buffett: “The God’s honest truth is, it ain’t that simple.”

Plain words may fail to describe the fullness of our experience of the divine. Where plain words fail, poetry and song can sometimes help bridge the distance. If someone were to ask me for a description of my life with God, I know that I couldn’t do better than the words of the twenty-third psalm. Incidentally, you’ll notice that we printed the King James Version of the psalm today. If given the chance, I will almost always choose that version for this psalm. The poetry of the King James has had a profound effect on the soul of English-speaking people.

I much prefer the modern versions of the Bible when we talk about prose, but when we get to Psalm 23, I need the words my grandmother prayed, and her grandmother prayed. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” These words have been set to more pieces of music than perhaps any other in Scripture.

The poetry of Psalm 23, in my estimation, is one of the best descriptions of life with God. Psalm 23 is a prayer that helps me remember God in all of the variability of life. God takes us from times when our cup runneth over all the way through the valley of the shadow of death. God is in the midst of it all, gently guiding, not micro-managing. In life we need both goodness and mercy. In the end God spreads a table for us. These poetic and complicated images have endured for thousands of years, and for billions of people they have served as a touchstone.

So, in some ways, it does not surprise me that Jesus responds to the request for plain words with this ancient image of the Shepherd. When the people ask for plain speech, Jesus gives them poetry, even song.

I understand the hunger for straight talk. I feel it too. Often I wish that life were less complex. Often I wish I could give exact words for God’s plan. But life with God is more complicated than plain speech can often name. But in the midst of the complexity sometimes a poem, or a song, or even a psalm can reach across the distance. For a moment we can glimpse that it is not our job to grasp God, but rather to allow God to grasp us.

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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