Happy Sheep Day! (Year B, Easter 4)

I offer two beautiful poems of love to capture the essence of this Good Shepherd Sunday.  The first is simply a re-formatting of the Gospel for the day:

Icon of the Good Shepherd
Icon of the Good Shepherd

Jesus said,
“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The hired hand,
who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock,
one shepherd.

For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me,
but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down,
and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.”

– John 10:11-18

And the second is a short poem by Edwin Markham.

Outwitted

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

– Edwin Markham

As I’ve approached Good Shepherd Sunday this year, I keep remembering those two

Fresco of the Good Shepherd in the Catacomb of Callixtus
Fresco of the Good Shepherd in the Catacomb of Callixtus

lines in the gospel: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. I have often pondered these two lines of scripture, wondering what they mean.  In the context of this gospel lesson, I believe that this fold referred to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time.  Jesus assures his people that he will take care of them, will love them, will keep them together and safe from the wolves in this world.  It is a beautiful and a comforting promise.  The thing is, it’s a promise to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time.

But we know that Jesus extended his love and care to others, while he was here.  He sparred verbally with the Samaritan woman at the well.  He sparred as well with the Canaanite woman in Tyre, and even healed her daughter.  In parables, Jesus taught us that even nasty, unclean Samaritans are our neighbors, and he commanded us to love everybody, including our enemies.  So why should this loving care be extended only to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time?

Sheepfold near Stonethwaite, by Ann Bowker
Sheepfold near Stonethwaite, by Ann Bowker

The thing is, sheepfolds are something humans build.  A sheepfold is walls to enclose the things or people we choose to include, and to shut out those we choose to exclude.  We are really good at building walls like this, both tangible and intangible.  I was once a member of a parish that could feel almost like the Stepford Christians.  There were two types of people in the congregation: young families with husband and wife and children, or older, retired couples.  None of these people seemed to want to have to think too much about their faith, to be challenged by Jesus.  If you did not clearly fit into one of these groups, then you found yourself subtly excluded, pushed to the margins of the congregation.  Since I’ve always been a bit quirky, studying and reading from the great saints and mystics, delving into scripture study, and asking questions of those in authority — and since I had an unhappy marriage, and attended church alone — I found myself on the margins of this parish.  I knew I was loved, but nobody there knew quite what to do with me, so mostly I stood on the edges and watched the life of the parish.  There were not walls of stone or of brick or of wood or even of glass, but there was definitely a sheepfold there, and I was not of that fold.

This Good Shepherd Sunday is a good time to think about the walls we build, to think about the shepfolds we have and the ones we aren’t even aware of.  A congregation might say, we are a fully inclusive church, but do they live that out?  For example, if we say that we are fully inclusive of women, is this really true?  If we say that we are fully inclusive, regardless of sexuality, do we live this out?  Or is it more accurate to say that we’re mostly inclusive of women, as long as they don’t try to sit on a parish council or mess around with the work of the buildings and grounds committee?  Would it be more true to say that we’re okay with homosexual couples in our congregation, as long as they don’t hold hands in church or expect to be married here?  Do we say that we’re fully inclusive of children, but then “invite” all the children out of the congregation and into a children’s church or children’s chapel?  Do we claim to welcome all, regardless of race, but then leave extra space around the one non-white (or non-black) family when they come to church?  Do we say that we welcome everyone, but try to discourage those who don’t put money in the offering plates, or those who aren’t dressed appropriately, or those who don’t smell quite right?  Do we marginalize those who come to church in a wheelchair or with a walker or with an oxygen tank or having seizures or talking to people we can’t see?  What sheepfolds exist within and around our congregations?

This isn’t fun and comfortable stuff to face.  We’re not Jesus, as hard as we try, and it

Psalm 23 by Irv Davis
Psalm 23 by Irv Davis

can be difficult to identify and measure our shortcomings.  But there is good news.  The good news is, Jesus promises to gather together all of the sheep, not just the ones in one human-built sheepfold.  No matter how we build walls around ourselves, Jesus continues to build those spaces bigger.  There is no sheepfold large enough to encompass the entire flock of Jesus.  Jesus is the one Shepherd, who finds us quiet pastures in which to rest and clear water to drink.  Jesus the Good Shepherd guides us as we journey, and he stands with us when we face trouble.  Jesus welcomes us to the eternal banquet, embracing us and leading us to God’s kingdom.  And no matter what walls we build, no matter what circles we draw, Jesus will always win.

Amen!  Alleluia!

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