Earlier this fall in our Seminary chapel one of our New Testament professors provided a vivid description of having to return a scary and smelly sheep. This week I was preaching in Chapel on a "shepherd" text knowing that many of us had already been regaled with many sensory images of having to retrieve a scared sheep- you can use your imagination on that one. Below is my sermon on the text Ezekiel 34:11-24 ( our psalm for the day was Psalm 100:
For those of you who earlier this semester heard Dr Carlson’s vivid description of sheep, you may not appreciate me for this: Greetings, fellow sheep! It’s soon time to sit down and “tie the feed bag on” over Thanksgiving dinner, that annual celebration of consumption. Then groan and push ourselves away from the table to be ready for one of the biggest days of the year-Black Friday. That day kicking off our weeks of preparation, known to many not as Advent, but Christmas shopping days. I remember working at a discount department store and we dreaded opening the door on Black Friday- as the lock on the door clicks open, shoppers run amok, shoving and jostling on that quest to get more “good stuff cheap” than we need, get our fair share preferably before someone else can. You could tell the path of the herd by the trail of flung merchandise.
Some see it as progress that we being shopping even sooner now with “Black Friday leaks” of advance sales to get a head start. We’ll do that again this year while others will look on in ever growing need, shoved to the outer corners of our awareness. This is the state of our flock.
Around the world In China the flock faces profound water pollution and water shortage due to rising demands of the factories that feed our “wants.” New dams across rivers for hydroelectric power mean that as business prospers, those downstream suffer. Parched farm fields have developed cracks up to 33 feet deep making it too dangerous to farm. I can’t even fathom that. New dams mean relocating scores of villages, people scatter, forced to come to cities where they’re ill-prepared to survive. The flock farther downriver is stressed too- Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Vietnam all say China's aggressive dam-building is depriving their most needy of water, but they lack the money or political ability to build dams and reservoirs as quickly as China. They’ve been outmaneuvered. Yet those profiting from this boom ramp up their personal consumption, new gadgets and appliances, homes with gardens, cars that need washing, and more food, which needs growing, golf courses that need watering and ski resorts creating man-made snow while someone somewhere else, dies of thirst. This too is the state of the flock. In a word: SELF-ABSORBED. And I wonder as we prepare to celebrate a day that began as a way of remembering God’s providing survival how we have instead become a world that celebrates the winner of “Survivor?”
Truth is we’re a long way from the words of our Psalm, rejoicing in the sufficiency of our Lord’s providing, and arrangement. On National Public Radio’s blog, “Cosmos and Culture” I read a post by Ursula Goodenough, who teaches cell biology and molecular evolution. She also explores the religious potential of our scientific understandings of nature, in her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature. Considering our human predicament she says: all organisms, by definition, seek self interest, “Self-maintenance and self-protection are biological imperatives.” But social organisms –including us- can remain self-interested, yet also cooperate in activities like gathering food and predator protection. The mandate to flourish as individuals and in community can be seen from tiny bacteria to wolves in packs.
It’s “instinctive.” But we Primates are better than sheep- we’ve been given minds capable of keeping track of friendships, mastering changing social structures. The ability to enhance stability and the flourishing of even larger groups- and this is most developed in humans.
But the demands of self-interest versus group cooperation create conflicting impulses. Under stress we revert to the default behavior of all creatures-being self-absorbed. Sadly we often really are sheep after all.
SO WHERE ARE THE SHEPHERDS? WHERE IS THE JUSTICE? Seems like when we really need them, the shepherds in our midst disappear or engage in blame-storming of their own. The recurrent theme in our country is that it’s the shepherds’ fault- they let it all happen! They failed to protect us! Thank God that God will gather and restore and heal after judging those shepherds. But it’s in verses 17-19, the ones our lectionary omits we are faced with a message-“Not so fast, sheep!” The prophet turns and speak to us directly- we the flock- with an indictment we don’t want to hear.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Isn’t it enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you trash the rest? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest? What about the other sheep? Must they suffer because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak, scattering them far and wide? Words spoken to us. It’s not just about shepherds who fail. We have a capacity and a role in the bigger flock. And we have a role in the events I described earlier, in our celebrations of consumption.
“We’ll always be self-interested and want stuff…maybe it’s time we want what we already have more. What we’ve got is a splendid planet; what we need to want is that it and everyone on it flourish” (Goodenough). For that we need a better shepherd.
Thanks be to God we know that the promise of that Shepherd for us has been fulfilled. A Shepherd who is strong enough to be our ruler but gentle enough to be our Shepherd. A Shepherd who calls us to step away from herd mentality and to seek a path that leads to life and not death. To bring us back, heal us and strengthen us so we can rely on those other “Shepherd” words we know well- “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want” and not only say them at funerals. To instead contemplate the ways we are cared for by God right now and how we can rest from our jostling and trampling. Our Shepherd who feeds us not just physically but with what we need to grow in awareness of our ways and their consequences. And more importantly, to grow in the emotions we are uniquely gifted with by God- fair-mindedness, respect, reverence and empathy.
Fellow sheep, Thanks be to God for our true shepherd who still proclaims “I will save- they shall no longer be ravaged.” Our God, whose steadfast love and faithfulness endures and outlasts our behaviors. Our Shepherd, who is still seeking us and who still promises “I will feed you” and “I will be your God.”
This year when we sit down at the feast perhaps our first prayer should be –
“Thank you Lord for being our Shepherd. Shepherd us still.”