I sometimes wonder whether our growing distance from a simpler agrarian way of life limits our understanding of the Bible. Key metaphors we find in the Bible are distant from our daily reality. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, in a day when being a good shepherd means using apps to track lamb growth, synthetic antibiotics to treat injuries. Being a good shepherd today rarely means wandering about through the wilderness with your sheep. We live in a time of GPS adjusted fence-lines.
Bruce Chatwin, in his work The Songlines, recounts the story of a 19th century Englishman watching the shepherds of Bethlehem. The 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.
If you visit Bethlehem today and go to the Church of the Nativity, you’ll discover that Jesus was born in a cave. The manger scene we put up in our churches and homes in the West was invented in Italy. People in Europe imagined barns or shacks, but in ancient Israel, and up until at least the 19th century, animals in Palestine often were kept overnight in caves. Mangers were underground.
As Chatwin’s Englishman watches that morning, he wonders: “if you have multiple flocks, multiple shepherds, how do you sort out the sheep?” You could imagine arguments, struggles to identify which sheep belongs to whom. But the Brit is astonished when each Shepherd simply begins singing. And the sheep know their shepherd’s voice. They know the song. They follow their particular shepherd out of the cave. The songs, the voices, separate the sheep. They didn’t need the rod or the staff. The good shepherds simply sang.
I knew a priest once who was convinced that most church nativity plays were problematic. He insisted that children should not play barnyard animals. Though his parish had a box full of sheep costumes, during his tenure the fluffy cotton outfits sat disused. If you can’t tell, I disagree. One of the most widely used metaphors for God is the Good Shepherd. In that metaphor we are the sheep. This is an image that has comforted and consoled our ancestors in the faith for millennia.
We live in cacophonous times. Distractions are multiplying. Attention spans are shrinking. Too many voices are amplified. In the midst of all our technologically driven discourse. In a time when hate, and division, and doom-saying are on the rise, can we still remember the voice? Amidst all the noise, can we distinguish the Good Shepherd’s song?
I want to borrow some of Jesus’ confidence today, that we sheep know the Shepherd’s voice, but out of caution I also want to name three characteristics which can help even us post-moderns pick out the song. I think these three descriptors can help us distinguish the voice of the Good Shepherd over the din: The Shepherd’s song is a song of comfort, a song of challenge, and a song of life abundant.
First a song of comfort:
You know the joke about the older parishioner who walked up to the pastor on a Sunday after the congregation read from a new translation of the Bible? The vestry had spent the last several months debating about updating the translation. The pastor had worked for consensus, and in the end the parish made the change. But that first Sunday, this particularly curmudgeonly elder walked up to the pastor and said before leaving in a huff, “If the King James Bible was good enough for St. Paul, it’s good enough for me.” Now, I’m in favor of regularly reading the Bible in the language of today, but there’s a reason why, at funeral services, you usually see the psalm printed from the King James’ translation.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been at the bedside of someone dying and have been asked to say the 23rd psalm. More than once someone we thought was beyond speech began murmuring the words along with us. There is something about the song of the Good Shepherd which sings to the primordial parts of us. I would argue, there is something there to which our very souls are tuned.
Because all of us, at times, find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. All of us. The Good Shepherd’s song is a song of comfort. It isn’t a song that promises you won’t face hardship. The Good Shepherd’s song is not all still waters and green pastures. Faith isn’t just for the good times of life. No.
The folks I have known with the most intimate relationship with God have often also had an intimate relationship with loss. The closest of us to God often know what it is to find God in the foxhole, at the deathbed of a loved one, in a cancer diagnosis, or in the depths of addiction. Some of the closest people I know to God have had to hold on for dear life while their family and their church bullied them for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Those who have found God through loss know their Shepherd, they have heard the song that lead them through.
If you’re in one of those places right now, facing loss, at a time of unsureness, at a time where hope seems far away, know there’s a reason the angels often begin with the words “fear not.” God often shows up in the most antic, frantic, and loose-ended moments of life. Take time to listen. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” the Good Shepherd’s song tells us we are not alone. The path is well trod.
The Good Shepherd’s Song then is also a song of challenge
To say we follow a shepherd is to say we believe in a God who has a vision for where we ought to go. Jesus wasn’t just a healer of bodies. Jesus hungered to heal hurting communities. Jesus preached a vision he called “the reign of God.” Jesus enacted this vision around his table and among his followers. Jesus opened his meal to sinners, to tax-collectors, to all those who were counted as unclean.
We live in a day when artificial intelligence has begun writing poetry and music. I believe the Shepherd’s song will never be imitated, not really. Jesus’ voice will always be unique because the Good Shepherd’s song will always challenge us to go further than we can imagine on our own.
Jesus often sang a surprising tune, healing on the sabbath, tossing the tables of corrupt moneychangers, including those the world thought unworthy, immoral, or outside the fence. Jesus’ song, you can’t fake it, because it will always call us further when it comes to justice, when it comes to wisdom, when it comes to love.
Because, finally, the Good Shepherd’s song is a song of life abundant for all.
This passage from John’s Gospel contains within it Jesus’ mission statement. Jesus says, “I came that may have life, and have it to the full,” or in another translation, “I came that they might have life, life in abundance.” Notice, Jesus does not say he came that we might have power in abundance, or good looks in abundance, or a sense of being right in abundance. Jesus doesn’t even say he came that we might have wealth in abundance.
I know wealthy folks who can tell you, money doesn’t buy life in abundance. Life in abundance can’t be found by pursuing wealth, position, power, or prestige. Life in abundance, from the little I have learned, is often found by slowing down, by listening for the song we believe ourselves too busy to hear.
Too often the church has tried to take the role of shepherd, or the role of gatekeeper. Too often we have tried to count who was in and who was out. When we ask, “what is the Christian way to legislate? What is the Christian way to make a company policy? What is the Christian way to treat our neighbor?” I wish we would listen more to this stanza of the Shepherd’s song: “I came that they may have life, and have life in abundance.” We should listen when folks tell us, “this is abundant life for me.” Jesus didn’t say, “I came to plant and grow a church.” He told us he came that all of us might live lives in ways that overflow with love, overflow with justice, overflow with mercy.
We live in the days of constant distraction, with technologies and ideologies competing for our attention. Today it is hard to tune out the angry noise. But if you listen, I believe, you can still hear the Shepherd’s song: a song of comfort, a song of challenge, a song of life abundant for all. It’s a good voice to follow. Amen.