Lots of Good Shepherd readings this Sunday -- Ezekiel, the 23rd Psalm, 1 John -- if we can count "children of God" as sheep, and the Gospel according to John. The analogy of God as Shepherd and human beings as sheep is one of the most persistent in scripture, both Old and New Testaments; yet for some reason it is among those we take least seriously when it comes to developing our life in Christ, to deepening and strengthening our relationship with God.
There are some explanations, to be sure. One, few of us herd sheep in the Middle East or anywhere else so it's not an analogy we encounter in the course of a normal day. And two, "the picture" of the good shepherd and the sheep has gotten so sanitized, sentimentalized and fuzzy-wuzzy that its hard to take seriously as anything other than religious make- believe -- a pastoral moment in the eternal greeting card world of butterflies, rainbows, sunshine and sweet, smiley faces.
In spite of the distance and the fantasy fog, let's see what we can pick up that is healing and helpful. One: there is a good shepherd and the sheep are able to hear the good shepherd's voice. This is very important, because it means that there is a God, and that we are able to hear God's voice -- we are born with that ability. There are other voices out there and we may listen to those, but God's voice is always there and God's voice is recognizable. In trying to live and not get too hurt and not do too much harm to others, we listen to so many voices and tune out so many voices that we forget that there is a God that has a voice and that calls us by name. One of the most powerful things in the whole of spiritual growth is when we hear God call our name -- our name! It is overwhelming, now; it sets the world right. God knows my name! If God knows my name, God must know me. There is someone out there who knows me. This is a reality so profound that in a way nothing else matters; but there is more, God offers more.
Let's look at Ezekiel first. What we see is that God has a very clear understanding of the difficulties we run into in life. Instead of getting nurtured we get eaten up; we aren't very strong and need help; we get hurt and sick and need to be healed and bandaged up; we get lost and separated from one another, things frighten us and we scatter further. No one looks for us and wild and scary things attack us and drive us ferried into being alone and unprotected. A pretty good picture, right?
Now let's go from Ezekiel to the 23rd Psalm. Here we see that God has a very clear understanding of what we need to be healthy and whole. At the end of Ezekiel God says that the role of shepherd is no longer to be given to anyone; that God is going to take care of the flock, of us. Then we hear the care that God extends to us. This psalm is one of the great confessions in all of religion, the song of the sheep who has heard God's voice and allowed God's care. There is very little that can ever compare in faithfulness, in love, in understanding, in loving relationship with God. God will see that we are never in want. We will always rest in a luxuriant and safe place, we will have plenty to eat and drink, we will be filled with energy and joy, we will travel on safe and navigable paths because God wants us to. Even when bad things are near we will be safe, and not only safe but comforted and reassured. Nothing will stop God from seeing that we are nurtured, not even dangerous people. We will be filled to overflowing, goodness and mercy will follow us as we follow God, and we will live in God's kingdom always.
All that if we listen to God's voice with the ability to hear that we have been born with. The First letter of John goes on to tell us how loved we are, and how by listening to and following God we will become like Jesus and see him. When we are listening to God we are close to him, we are not separated and scattered, we are living in his presence. John reassures us that God will destroy those who try to separate us from God.
On to the Gospel and we learn more about how we are cared for. God is with us in every danger and protects us, God sees that we are fed, God sees to it that we are never scattered and alone, God calls us and talks to us and takes care of people all over the world. Someday all of us are going to be one big community that listens and responds to God and is safe and joyful and whole.
These are the big messages of the Good Shepherd stories, the ones for this Sunday and the ones scattered throughout the rest of the Bible. God is there to talk to us, to listen to us, to see that we don't get hurt and to see that we are never alone. As hurt and as lonely as we are, as beat up and hungry for love and comfort and joy, we need to take advantage of this kind of care and safety. There may be some areas in our lives where we are happy enough without God and successful enough, too; but there's not a one of us who doesn't have at least one tiny little hurt part that's scared to death and hiding alone in the bushes trying not to get eaten up by something or someone big and scary. It's time for that little part to say, "Okay, since I'm going to die or get caught I might as well listen," and then do that -- listen.
Listening isn't hard. Remember we are born with the ability, the ability to listen to God, to hear, just the way we are born to see. Listening to God generally takes place in the heart: you let God open your heart a little bit and then let God talk. The language is slow and simple, a language of presence and love -- you know someone is there. Then you know your name; you hear the presence call your name. If you let your heart open a little every day or several times a day, you can hear the shepherd talk. You can be fed and nurtured, you can be healed and forgiven and brought to life and safety. You can stop feeling alone. This can happen to all the parts inside you that are damaged and not whole.
And the whole and healthy parts can do two things: they can learn more joy than they have known and they can begin to rest a little. We have no idea how much weight our healthy parts carry; how often they have to stand up for us because the rest of us are too afraid, or scattered, or sick to do anything at all. It is a beautiful and joyful thing when we don't have to be just smart, or just talented, or just skilled, or just articulate or just reliable or just anything. It is wonderful when we can just "be," safe in the protected care of God who loves us as we are and who is willing to provide all the resources that it takes for us to be the persons we were meant to be -- who is willing to "be" all the resources we require to be whole.
We have a wonderful God. What can you say to a God who "revives your soul" except "thank you." What can we say to this person who is willing to stick so close to us that we never have to be afraid of anything, from death to hunger to evil to loneliness. We can say "thank you." We can accept this remarkable care and be thankful for it. Accepting is important: We listen to our shepherd's voice, we accept our shepherd's care, we are thankful. What happens? We are whole. We become like the shepherd, we wear a glorious train of goodness and mercy that is attractive to all and that little hidden sheep can see even if they can't see the shepherd right away.
"Feed my sheep," -- not in the lessons today but the last request Jesus made before leaving the resurrection life and ascending into heaven. Feed my sheep by hearing me, by following me, by becoming me, by absorbing the lost and hurt and fearful in a radiant train of goodness and mercy that is the glorious wake of our journey together. Feed my sheep by turning to me, by having no other Gods but me; feed my sheep by letting me feed you; feed my sheep by dwelling in my house, and feed my sheep by listening to my voice and by allowing me to love you forever. Amen.