Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Looking Inward For The Shepherd

The fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday.
I am honestly surprised Good Shepherd Sunday
has survived the waves of liturgical reform
that have abolished countless metaphors
in which someone might lead someone else.
We recoil against any image that might suggest
we should obey anything other than our own whims.

I have spent two decades defending this day
from indignant Episcopalians who insist they are not sheep
and will not tolerate being treated as such.
Something in a human being rebels against the suggestion
we might need a shepherd.
But then something in a sheep also rebels against the suggestion
they might need a shepherd.

Like human beings, sheep are a thoughtless and errant species
inclined to wander willy nilly and get themselves in trouble.
We are certainly more articulate and smell better,
but we do share with sheep a tendency to go astray
and a certainty that we do not need a shepherd.
We have that much, at least, in common.

As modern Americans, we don’t like the notion
of someone telling us what to do – even if it’s Jesus.
Our American psalm, the feci viam meam, which will probably
Be in our next prayer book.
It’s by Frank Sinatra.
In English it’s, “I did it my way.”

So I wonder if there is anything in the lessons for Good Shepherd Sunday
that we might be willing to hear.
I hope so, because often our society reminds me of a lot of lost sheep
ambling about the desert going bah bah bah to the tune of
“I did it my way.”

When we read a Scripture lesson,
it’s important to put it in the context of the whole Bible,
and especially in the context of the whole book
where the text is found.
For example, the Good Shepherd lesson
is in the Gospel According to John.

In John, Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd
who knows his sheep, cares for them, calls them by name.
But where is he doing that from?
Is he sitting on a cloud watching us and saying “turn left,
no a little to right”?
Or has he delegated this job to ecclesiastical authorities
like priests and bishops?

No in John Jesus prays that he may dwell inside us.
That’s part of the meaning of Holy Communion.
We take Jesus into ourselves.

St. Paul says in Philippians,
“Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
So if we are looking for the Good Shepherd,
where are we to look?

After the Ascension, the disciples were staring at the sky,
looking for Jesus,
but the angels said, “You’re looking the wrong way.”
People have been looking at preachers, gurus, and so called saints
for generations hoping to see Jesus.
I can’t tell you how many times somebody has said of their priest,
“I just can’t see Jesus in him.”

That’s because they’re looking the wrong direction.
They are looking outward -- when to find Jesus,
we have to look inward;
to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd
we have to listen inward.

You see we are not each like an individual sheep.
We are each like a whole heard of sheep.
Inside each of us, there isn’t one will, one personality.
There’s a whole herd in there.

We are one person at work with one set of thoughts, feelings, attitudes.
At home we turn into somebody else.
Out with our friends, we actually think, feel, and act differently.
And those different parts of ourselves don’t always get along.
Sometimes the ambitious worker takes over and we ignore our family.
Sometimes we get so ensnared in our family duties
we don’t allow ourselves space to have any friends.

Sometimes some of us get taken over by a part that likes to feel sorry for itself.
Sometimes, a righteous judgmental part of us takes over
and goes after either other people or parts of ourselves.
There’s a whole herd of personalities in there,
each of them capable of wandering off on one fool path or another.

That happens to me every single day of my life.
But there’s somebody else in there too.
There’s a part we might call “the Good Shepherd.”

That’s the part that just stands back and watches over
the whole flock, caring for them,
knowing each one by name,
calling them back together.
Another metaphor might be to say that we have a spiritual gyroscope
that keeps us right side up and headed the right direction.

We have a lot of parts of ourselves that get agitated
over one thing or another.
There are parts of us that are inclined to go off on a tear.
And that’s ok.
Those parts of us are not bad.
Without them, we’d be pretty boring and our lives would be pretty bland.

But they will wander right off a cliff
if we don’t check in with another part
– the Christ within us, the Good Shepherd.
When we find the Christ we receive in the sacrament,
he is always serene, objective, wise, curious,
sometimes amused, and always compassionate.
He understands all the wild and crazy parts of us.
He doesn’t judge them or condemn them,
even when they judge and condemn each other.

He just calls them by name and nudges them back on the path.
He makes sure they all get fed and watered,
and he keeps them away from the predators.
That’s why it’s so important to listen,
so important to stop and pay attention
from time to time to the serene center of our souls.
It’s so important to feel what we feel, think what we think,
but then step back and check in with the Good Shepherd
before we act.
Can you see how different this is from the Proverb of the 1970’s?
Remember that one: “Go with your gut.”
Don’t do that.
Your gut is one of the sheep.
That’s where we keep our fear and loathing,
our regressive impulses, our unmitigated selfishness.

Don’t go with your gut.
Listen to the Shepherd.
Be still and look at your situation through the eyes of wisdom,
the eyes of mercy, the eyes of Christ.

That isn’t being docile.
It isn’t being timid.
It isn’t being indecisive.
It’s wisdom.
It’s spiritual balance.

If you are looking for Jesus, look inside yourself.
John says that’s where you’ll find him.
And he’ll speak softly, not harsh words of judgment,
but calm words of guidance,
“leading us beside the still waters,
restoring our souls.”