A number of years ago, late one Saturday morning, I received a phone from one of the parishioners of the church I was serving in Cleveland, Ohio. It was Karen, a young mother of four small children, and she was just beside herself. She told me that her youngest child, four-year-old Rebecca, had been missing for about three hours. Karen had looked all through the house, had asked several nearby neighbors if they had seen her, had walked up and down the neighborhood calling out her name. Becky was nowhere to be found.
Karen told me she didn’t know what else to do and had just called the police.
And could I please come over…
As I drove over to their house, my imagination was running wild about all of the potential dangers facing children in today’s world. When I got there, my heart just sunk; because out in front were two police cars and a fire department rescue vehicle, and Karen was standing in the driveway talking to two officers.
But they were all smiling—as if they had just shared a good joke.
Karen came over to greet me, as I got out of the car, “We found her,” she said, shaking her head and looking a bit chagrin. And she told me the story.
Apparently Becky and her older sisters, the twins, had been playing hide-and seek around the house earlier that morning (a fact which, for some reason, the twins did not feel was relevant to tell their mother during her frantic search). Becky hid behind the sofa in the den. In fact she hid so well that the twins finally gave up looking for her, and went on to some other activity. Meanwhile, Becky had curled up and fallen asleep in her hiding place, and remained blissfully oblivious to the ensuing hullabaloo.
When I looked in on her, Becky was now blissfully curled up on the sofa watching TV.
“Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, doesn’t leave the ninety-nine on their own and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” [Lk.15:4]
Today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday in the church. On this Fourth Sunday in Easter, the common lectionary traditionally refers to both Old and New Testament passages that use the analogy of shepherd to describe God’s relationship with his precious children.
The psalm affirms, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus tells his disciples. “The Good Shepherd willingly gives up his life to save the sheep. My sheep know my voice.”
The notion of shepherding was more than just serene poetic imagery to the disciples. Its roots run deep, not only in the agrarian culture of the ancient Palestinian people, but also in long history of their faith.
Adam’s son Abel was tending sheep, when his brother Cain killed him in a jealous rage. Abraham was a simple shepherd, when God made the promise to make him a great nation. Jacob was on his way to make amends with his brother Esau by giving him a large part of his flocks and herds, when God gave him the name `Israel’ for wrestling all night with the angel of God. Moses was leading his father-in-law (Jethro’s) flock over Mt. Horeb, when he heard God calling from the burning bush. David, the `runt of the litter’, was tending the family flock, when Samuel anointed him future king of Israel.
When Jesus was talking to the disciples about shepherds and sheep, he didn’t have to do much explaining of that analogy. They knew well the old stories.
And I’m guessing they probably understood the implications of Jesus’ reference. Just as you know the sinking feeling which comes in the wake of a missing child. And the indescribably joy and relief of finding that lost child once more.
And if you were a shepherd in ancient Palestine, you knew that the sheep which belonged to you meant everything; even life itself. Tending them, grooming them, feeding them, leading them, keeping them in line, calming them when they get skittish, finding them when they wander off—are all the `raison d’etre, as the French say: your reason for being.
But all that’s a bit of a stretch for those of us who exist two thousand years later; and some seven thousand miles and a cultural quantum leap away.
How do we relate to Isaiah’s words, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray,” [53:6], or his prophetic reassurance that, “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart . . .” [40:11]?
Diane and I were driving from a Santa Fe Presbytery meeting at (our denomination’s conference center) Ghost Ranch in north central New Mexico, back to our home at the time in Grants, New Mexico. It’s typically about a four and a half hour drive; and we decided to take the scenic route, which was taking a lot longer than we expected.
We were traveling a two-lane patchwork blacktop through rural high desert countryside. It was a beautiful drive, but it was getting late in the day, we were both tired after a long business meeting with other Presbyterian types, and a bit frazzled from the inevitable debates of such gatherings. And, as I recall, we were getting a bit fussy toward each other. Diane had grown quiet, and I was leaning into the windshield just trying to get home.
At one point, we came over the crest of a sloping hill to come suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – upon a large flock of sheep crossing the road. I quickly put on the binders and we went from the 55 mph speed limit to a complete standstill.
Actually, the sheep, as it happens, were not exactly directly crossing the road; they were more like sort of casually meandering diagonally down the road from one side to the other. It was a pastoral scene replete with shepherd leading the way and Border collie bringing up the stragglers at the rear.
“I guess we’ve just shifted over into New Mexico time,” Diane said.
We sat and watched for a good twenty minutes – cars lining up one by one behind us – as this idyllic little scene unfolded: a flock being led home after a day of being nourished by green pastures and nurtured by still waters; ambling by as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
And then the significance of it all occurred to me.
It’s easy to get confused; when we feel like we’re two thousand years and seven thousand miles away from our faith origins. It’s easy to become preoccupied by potential threats and unfamiliar territory; we become skittish, fearful, willful, lost.
We sheep tend to forget that, our salvation has little if anything to do with our own meanderings; or our efforts to relate to the Shepherd. It is first of all something that the Shepherd has done to relate to us.
For the Good Shepherd has come to seek us out, and to carry us back.
Which is why one of the most important things we do as the church is what we’re doing right now: to worship God. We come here to praise God, to love God, to devote ourselves to God, to affirm our faith and trust in God. But we also must remember that do all that in response to that which God has already done for us.
We come to give something to God: our prayers, our praise, our lives. But mostly, what we do here is receive that which God has given us: God’s gifts, God’s comfort, God’s love and care, God’s challenge and prodding.[i]
“For we are his people,” asserts Psalm 95, “the flock that he shepherds.”
We come here because – in the midst of all the voices of the world which tell us we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough, we’re not rich enough, we’re not thin enough, we’re not young enough, we’re not productive enough – we need to hear the Shepherd’s voice: a voice of guidance when we stray; a voice of calm when we startle; a voice of clarity when we stumble.
A voice that calls us home to love when somehow we’ve lost our way.
I recently read, from Thomas Long’s wonderful book Testimony, about a remarkable woman Mary Ann Bird, who has written a personal memoir entitled, “The Whisper Test.”
Mary Ann Bird was born with multiple birth defects: a cleft palate, disfigured face, crooked nose, lopsided feet, and deafness in one ear. As a child, she suffered not only her physical impairments,, but also the emotional damage inflicted by other children: “Mary Ann, what’s happened to your lip?”
“I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie.
One of the worst experiences of school was the day of the annual hearing test, when the teacher would call each child to her desk; and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper a simple phrase: “The sky is blue,” or “You have new shoes.”
Mary Ann could not hear in one ear and did everything possible, including cheating, to minimize attention to her disability. She hated the whisper test.
One year, her teacher was Miss Leonard, whom every child loved. The day came for the dreaded hearing test. Mary Ann went forward and cupped her ear. Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper.
Mary Ann remembers: “I waited for those words which God must have put in her mouth, those seven words that changed my life. Miss Leonard did not say “the sky is blue” or “you have new shoes.” What she whispered in Mary Ann’s ear was, “I wish you were my little girl.”[ii]
“Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, doesn’t leave the ninety-nine on their own and go after the lost sheep until he or she finds it?”
The Good Shepherd is the One who has come to find us, claim us, tend to us, and carry us home in his loving arms.
Can we now do any less for others in his name?
[ii] Long, Thomas G., Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, Jossey-Bass, 2004.