Back when I lived in Hutchinson, there was an Episcopal Church right down the main street from us that was called Grace. I liked the name. And Grace every Wednesday would have a short service at 10:00 in the morning. It was in their chapel, a space a lot like First’s chapel, where the priest would reflect on the saint commemorated for the day and then celebrate Holy Communion out of the Book of Common Prayer with its beautiful antiquated English.
I would find myself at that service sometimes. Sometimes we Pastors find it helpful to just sit in the pews. Especially I would find myself at Grace when the week was difficult and when thoughts were many. It was refreshing. There was a stained glass window above the altar in their chapel, the main figure of which was Mary, and she was kneeling and there at her feet was Jesus as a toddler.
We don’t get many artistic images of Jesus at that stage in his life. We see him as a baby in the manger, and then as a full-grown man in his 30’s being baptized and beginning his ministry. It gets the imagination going to think of Jesus stumbling around the world, figuring it out for the first time. Mary is kneeling down and her hand is held out near him as if to guide him, to make sure he is on the right path. The combination of that beautiful image of guidance together with the repetition of the words of the service of Holy Communion in that old beautiful language was quite a steadying thing for me. It spoke to me of how even though every week had so much to throw at a person; there were thankfully some things that were constants that could be counted on. But the most important thing I got reminded of in that space and time, was that it wasn’t all up to me.
Guidance, shepherding, it is not something we easily accept all the time. There is a rebellious bone in every body, and perhaps we especially of the American heritage are more prone to ask others what right they have to guide us. We are proud of our right to guide ourselves. This is also perhaps why the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is not as popular as other images. Because if Jesus is the good Shepherd, that makes us sheep, and sheep are not the smartest things in the world. When things are going good it hard to think of Jesus as our Shepherd, or if he is, he is one that is at quite a distance, calling out the occasional small course correction from the horizon while we self-assuredly go about our business. When things are going not so good, it’s easier to call out to Jesus as our Shepherd, who sometimes has to not only call out to us from a distance but stand over us staff in hand, and none too gently show us both our folly and the way out of it. The shepherd’s staff is not just for decoration after all.
To call someone a sheep is a term of derision, especially in the context of belief. A sheep is someone who blindly follows, unthinkingly believes, someone who looses one’s uniqueness by accepting the thoughts of the masses. There are those that think we Christians are sheep, though I have never really understood why. If I were going to blindly follow someone, it would certainly not be Jesus. I would pick a shepherd who was guiding us all to Hawaii instead of to the cross. I would pick a faith that just made me feel better about myself rather than insisting on the sometimes difficult way of discipleship, and the way that leads to the poor and the needy. Following Jesus can mean you end up in some places that are not so nice. Like the valley of the shadow of death, for instance, which has never been and never will be the name of a resort or subdivision in a nice neighborhood. Yeah, though I walk through it, even when the Lord is my Shepherd and perhaps, because he is.
Understanding that we are the sheep of Jesus is not about unreasoning devotion as much as it about living in the simple truth that we are not God. God is God, people of First Lutheran, and that means that you aren’t. Thinking that thought, not just once, but over and over again, leads to a certain kind of humbleness. If I’m not God, then it means by definition I can’t see the whole picture, since only God can. If I’m not God, it means that my opinion and preferences are not the most important thing in the world, and that the thoughts of my neighbors deserve space as well. If I’m not God, it also means it is not up to me to enforce justice in every situation however much we might long for justice. The reason after all that we are told in the bible not to judge is not just so that we will not be judged, but rather we are told not to judge because we are not qualified for the job.
Well, if we are not qualified, let’s get qualified, let’s learn it all, let’s see the whole picture, let’s figure it out, let’s do whatever we have to do to not be sheep, maybe then we can be lions or something more respectable. That may be the inclination of our pride, but it is not the point. Jesus our shepherd demands we leave our vanity at the door of this sanctuary to which are called to rest in the fact that we are not God. Rest in the fact that we are God’s creatures, following the sound of our Shepherd’s voice.
We read the Psalm wrongly if we take it as assurance that if we follow God rightly, we will never have hardship. The one who wrote this psalm would have known that even better than we do. This psalm isn’t painting a picture of the perfect life, which you will get if you believe; it’s a picture of what the state of our souls can be despite what life looks like. The inner peace of someone who trusts the Lord. Not in way that escapes the world, not in a way that buries one’s head in the sands, but in a way that sees life’s valleys in the context of God’s goodness and mercy.
Peace often looks like a limited resource in our day and time. When we think of peace, we think of pastoral images like the one conjured by the psalm, somewhere far away from Ward Parkway and our places of business and our busy households and the demands upon our time and energy. We think of peace and we think of a place, like the beach, or the mountains, the sanctuary at Grace Episcopal, but the thing about this peace of God that passes all understanding is that it can go with you—even on Ward Parkway—and into your work, and into your home. The green pastures and still waters are a place within us when we know who our Shepherd is.
As Mary guided Jesus as he took his first steps in the world, may Jesus guide us as we continue to find our way forward in this sometimes confusing and chaotic place. And may our trust in him create places of peace within us all, peace that is untouched by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Peace that passes all understanding, peace that comforts us in every valley, and a peace that frees us up to guide others to the same green pastures and still waters, to which Jesus has led us. Amen.