The Shepherd of Our Shelter

[special_heading title=”The Shepherd of Our Shelter” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]A recent Pearls Before Swine comic strip may speak for many of us, as we mark the second month of stay-at-home orders, with no end in sight (despite some lifted restrictions).  Lovable but clueless Pig is complaining to his worldly-wise friend, Goat. I think life right now is bad. To which Goat encourages: Maybe, but it helps to be positive. Pig responds, I’m positive life right now is bad. And in the final frame wonders aloud, How does that help? 

How indeed?!!!  Positivity is good, but it only takes you so far. And it’s definitely not helpful to have your lament cut off by advice to “cheer up”  “look on the sunny side”  “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” “every cloud has a silver lining.”  Blessed are the friends who can simply hold space for your disappointment and discouragement without trying to fix you or offer soothing platitudes.

Today’s scripture text read in the middle of a global pandemic struck me in a different way than ever before. It’s an extended metaphor Jesus used to describe himself as the good shepherd. Actually in this text, he calls himself the “gatekeeper” of the sheepfold, protecting the flock from threats to their wellbeing. Frankly, it’s not been the most compelling description because it always seemed steeped in imagery from biblical times so long ago and far away. But now?  “Sheltering” has a whole new meaning. Putting physical distance between yourself and others is the smart thing to do. There’s the reality of the virus itself, and the longer term consequences of its infection into social, economic, and spiritual realms.  Much remains uncertain.  We have to sort out competing and contradictory claims of leaders to determine what’s best for health and safety. A reading from the good news according to John, in the 10th chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to us, sheltered against an invisible foe, separated from one another and much of what not long ago comprised our lives, and hear the promise that offers something more. [John 10:1-10]

“Shepherd” imagery is common throughout scripture, perhaps most memorably in the 23rd Psalm with its comforting picture of God who walks with us through easy green pastures and even the dark shadowed valley of death.  For our ancient forebears the shepherd was the epitome of a wise and compassionate leader, one who put the needs of the flock before his own, in contrast to those who abused and exploited them. The pre-eminent ruler of Israel was David, the Shepherd-King, and biblical writers took care to trace Jesus’ genealogy from “the house and lineage of David.”  The remaining image no longer invokes political leadership, but solely spiritual–even to this day, clergy of all traditions are sometimes called “shepherds of the flock.”

The image has taken on new currency in this time, brought out of the mists of biblical narrative into the “now” of global pandemic and the way it has upended “normal” life. Here stands Jesus, the protective “gate” through which we find security and the “good shepherd” who can be utterly trusted for everything we need to thrive.

Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm, further expands the metaphor.  Here is the faithful shepherd who can’t eliminate evil (that is, there will always be wolves lurking, droughts burning up the watering holes and delicious grass…and novel viruses), but strives to protect the flock against anything that threatens harm. But the shepherd’s role is more than defensive. It is active, daily work on behalf of the flock’s well-being. Unlike imposters whose care for the sheep is tied to their own self-interest, the true Shepherd has no agenda but the abundant life of the flock. He is willing even to lay down his life to save them.[callout_box title=”No one is alone, really, because we are all sheltered in the Shepherd’s loving care. ” subtitle=””]And not just “them” collectively–but each one, individually. The true shepherd knows your name, and cares for you (that’s y-o-u, not e-w-e!) Cares about your health, about the private worries that keep you awake at night and the things that make you afraid. The true shepherd cares about the people you love, whether you’re sheltered under the same roof, or scattered in many places.  No one is alone, really, because we are all sheltered in the Shepherd’s loving care.

Do you remember a parable Jesus told once about a shepherd with a flock of 100 sheep, who left the 99 safely gathered in, to go in search of the one lost sheep? Jesus doesn’t play the averages or round up to the nearest whole number. He reflected God’s economy, in which not one is lost and no one is “outside the fold.”         Perhaps it took this dangerous, unsettling time to help us see the many sheep who have been abandoned, exploited and abused by false shepherds who promised good and delivered far less. We can’t help but notice the inequitable access to green pastures and still water. Yet they belong in the flock. It is God’s intent that they too be gathered and sheltered and nourished. God sent Jesus so that they too may have life, and have it abundantly…

…in fact, now that I’m saying it out loud, it comes out wrong. The Good Shepherd shelters the whole flock–there’s no “we” and “they”–no “insiders and outsiders.”  A few verses later Jesus reminds the disciples “I have other sheep not of this fold…that I must bring also…” How then can we make a distinction?

But you know that. And in fact, I’ve heard many of you say (and I’ve said myself) that we feel “guilty” for the relative comfort of sheltering in our comfortable homes, with plenty of food and drink, access to books and entertainment, technology that connects us for work and socializing. I’m glad that many have applied grace to their guilt and turned it into opportunities to serve. No, not everyone can volunteer in person. But I know some of you have sewn masks for others. Some of you have helped our partners complete applications for financial grants. Some of you have sent cleaning supplies and food items to New Genesis and Metro Caring as they provide basic human services for vulnerable people, and some of you have focused on ensuring that immigrants have access to nourishment and stability. We created Central’s Covid 19 Response Fund to receive contributions from members concerned about how the pandemic is adversely affecting other members… and requests for assistance from other members. We’re coming to see lots of other sheep as our brothers and sisters, part of the flock, beloved and cared for.

I love how our live-streamed worship blurs the distinction of ministry “inside the church” and “outside the church.”  We’re all on the outside for now. And yet, we are all insiders. The Good Shepherd is sheltering with us, here and there and everywhere, which curiously and miraculously unites us. Maybe this time will be more than mere waiting for things to get better. I wonder if it could provide space for evaluating what is truly “essential.”  For us as individuals to deepen our experience of the spirit that reveals our true self.  I wonder if the church is being called to prioritize a simpler lifestyle and deeper trust in the One who came that we may have life, and have it abundantly. We might come to see how little that life has to do with more stuff and constant activity, but instead begins in relationship, with God and one another. I hope you’ll consider joining Tim Mooney in his online class that engages these very questions.

When I was a pastor in Iowa, I once got to witness the annual spring sheep shearing at a church member’s ranch. Clay Lanman rode a horse and had his amazing dog run behind the sheep, barking his head off, and herding the flock into a pen where they would be sheared. It was quite something. I learned from Clay that this process was the opposite of how it was done in the Middle East, where you can still see shepherds walking out in front of their herd, calling to them and keeping them together and headed in the right direction.

Friends, I think this is how we can live in this bad time with hope and courage. We follow One who has walked this way before us, and even now calls to us from up ahead, leading and guiding us to true life. Amen.