Jesus was surrounded by politics. City. A city is, in Greek “polis” and is full of people, noise and activity. People want what they want and they fight to get it. So politics is part of our life as we move among people. When we are told to be “in the world, and not of the world” the word “world” was about the noise of daily life, not the planet of blue and green. We are definitely in noise as messages ding and buzz and ring in our pockets and computers, televisions and mobile devices.
Synagogue politics would finally catch up to Jesus. Sales politics in the temple grounds. Politics among the competing, climbing, attention-seeking disciples. Roman politics which would collude with the ecclesial leaders of the day. There was a lot of noise around Jesus. So it is no surprise that Jesus went too the mountains to pray in the darkness. And walking to and from his early morning God-download, Jesus would pass shepherds moving their sheep. And, like I do in my books and www.thedailysip.org , Jesus used the regular things of the day to preach about God in real, human, lived life. Abundant life.
The parable of the good shepherd is misnamed. The original text is best translated as “the beautiful shepherd.” In John’s gospel, the beauty is in life and its abundance. In the parable of the beautiful shepherd, Jesus is portrayed as one with the sheep – so united to the beloved sheep that he knows his sheep, and we know Him, and He is willing to lay down his life for us in order to bring us to abundant life.
I grew up in Montreal, and in my late teens in Montreal, we lived on a 150-acre property called Dove Haven. It had a small nineteenth-century Scottish stone farmhouse with a red roof, four-foot -thick walls and a back property line which was the American boarder. Not all of it. Just a bit. My mother tended an English Garden full of heather and lavender. Dove Haven was the king’s first concession to Scottish settlers, so the road was “First Concession Road” and was named for the sogs of morning doves on the land.
My father worked downtown, but kept 48 sheep and two rams on our farm. He and his boarder collie would move the sheep from one area to another for grazing and I often wondered how that work was in contrast with his career as a writer in the aviation version of the United Nations (ICAO). My Dad talked to the sheep. He began mumbling to them when he left the back door and one could see the sheep hear his small voice and move, like an undulating tidal wave, towards his voice. It was like the dog, the man and the sheep were intertwined somehow – like something wove them together like those Celtic knots in which everything is intertwined.
Life, on this planet, is intertwined with God. The problem is that God is a lot like those Celtic knot loops – God’s beginning and end are hard to find, while easy to see. Everywhere working, and yet not usually seen directly in front of us.
Sheep have a narrow, horizontal slit in their eyes which makes it hard to see what is directly in front of them, but which also provides them with an astounding ability to see almost 360 degrees around them – so that dangerous movement from behind them can be seen. Is that not interesting? They have so much input from their eyes, and yet they cannot see in front of them. Everything beside and around them is seen and is interpreted as dangerous – but they do not see t cliff towards which they are running.
I think we modern Americans are a lot like sheep with media-cellphone-CNN-eyes that see 360 degrees of terror all around us but find it hard to see what is right before our eyes. Even if what if before us is God.
We are told that the average American checks their phone for news every 9 minutes. And it takes 22 minutes to focus the minds so… Our news feeds, our mobile devices, our texts and tweets, alarms and buzzing, dinging and singing smart phones give us a 360 degree view of the planet and yet we remain blind to what is in front of us be it our peace or the suffering of others. We are overly aware of danger from behind us and yet unable to see bounty in front of us.
So what shall we do? Well, the gospel today asks us to recognize the voice of the beautiful shepherd – to train in recognizing it. A good shepherd, one who moves sheep well, uses a combination of the trained sheep-dog and his or her own voice to move the sheep while also using his body. The shepherd clicks and clucks, whistles and chirps various sounds which move the dog and so, move the sheep. The sheep trust those sounds and that voice while aware, by 360 degree sight, of the dog rustling them from here to there.
The sheep see too much which makes them constantly hyper-vigilant and anxious. It is that overstimulation, from seeing too much around them, which makes them easy to run off a cliff or step into a trap since they have trouble seeing what is in front of them while terrified of what is around them.
I think we are like them, we humans. We are over-caffeinated, over-stimulated, over-scheduled, over-drawn, and exhausted – trying to keep up absurd standards of living – blinded to what is in front of us while over-aware of what is happening around us. Our adrenaline never stops pumping and our breathing is shallow.
So I think the great work for you and me is to train in hearing Jesus’ voice. To watch for the boarder collies Jesus sends and also to identify the sheep in wolves’ clothing. In short, we need to focus on Jesus. Train in hearing that voice.
This (holding the wooden Shepherd’s Crook, willed to me by my father and which arrived at the monastery in a very long box.), this was my father’s shepherd’s crook.
I know that you see it, and think it is a Bishop’s staff or “crozier” but you are wrong. It was my dad’s shepherd’s crook. He left it to me when he died, hoping I would need it. It arrived one day at the Monastery. I was a monk and so could receive no gifts of money, no inheritance. But my father sent this in a very long box. It was the legacy he gave me along with a fountain pen.
My mother had visions of it being my staff when I was a Bishop, but that will never be, nor would I want it to be. I have seen what happens to too many (but not all) good people who become Bishops – it is horrible to watch. But my father had no such aspirations for me. He just wanted me to have his crook as a physical reminder – an icon – nearby, so that I would remember who was sheep, who was shepherd and who was boarder collie. I keep it by the door so that I see it every day on my way out to the mission-field.
The Bishop is not the Shepherd. That is a lie. Nor is the Bishop a Sheepdog. The Bishop, like the rest of us clergy – well – we are all mutts – some poodles with diamond collars, some black labs, some terriers, and some pitt bulls.
God is the Shepherd, as is Jesus, by extension. The Holy Spirit is the Sheepdog, always circling us, always nudging, always watching and moving us around. Mutts and congregations both.
The book of Acts calls the church to be different from the society around it, to narrow our sheep-vision from 360 degrees of terror to a Trinity of degrees – looking with 3 degrees directly into the eyes of the beautiful shepherd and away from blue-lit screens of our devices and the tsunami of lies and truth which are so hard to separate. If we train in listening for Jesus’ still, small voice; all manner of thing shall be well and our adrenaline flow will slow.
Rest. Prayer. Breath. Sleep. Friendship. Simple possessions. Silence. Meditation. Vegetables. Water. These things will focus us on the Shepherd whose calls and clicks, even on his shepherd’s crook, which will pull us from danger and lead us to life abundant.
In the end, I do not want a savior to rescue me from hell and the devil. I want a savior to rescue me from my own wanderings, and from yours. The cliffs over which we walk and the traps which clamp shut on our ankles don’t come to us. We wander off of them, into them, distracted, frightened, lost.
Listen for the voice of our shy God. It will lead you home. Sit with a candle and follow your breath for five or ten minutes each day. This world will not recognize The Voice – may even revile it. Status, wealth and power in industry and in church are always interwoven with evil. But Jesus takes us to new pastures – to abundant life. Listen for Him. Go with him. Narrow your vision.
Looking at our cells phones, our bank accounts, our massive homes and important titles, our gold croziers and pointy hats will distract us. They are symbols of power, prestige and possessions. Jesus called us to a different way. Look away from prestige to love.
The great gift this cathedral has for the planet and for Denver is its great love for the poor and the marginalized. But the cliff, the ravine and the steel trap towards which we may so easily wander: prestige, privilege, entitlement – they remain a great threat to any church and to this one.
The reason this plant is so beautiful is that it has its Father’s eyes. They see 360 degrees so that we need not.