May 7, 2017

Easter 4 Year A

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus employs the imagery of first-century shepherding practice in an attempt to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. The most experience I've had with sheep was during Laurie and my sabbatical a year and a half ago when we would see small groups of sheep in the country-side of England and Ireland and sometimes on the narrow roads being led by their master to another pasture. If you're anything like me, you have no clue about shepherding practice of any sort, ancient or modern. Therefore, in order to access what John calls a "figure of speech," we first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus' choice of image, and second we embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations.

So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside next to the sheep of several other shepherds who share this particular fold. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.

When the shepherd arises the next morning, Jesus explains, "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." The sheep can't spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There's no food in the fold, after all. The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.

Jesus' choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English hides the special word that Jesus uses. "When he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them," says Jesus in the version we use. In this verse, there's a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the money-changers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the "ruler of this world." In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply "brings" his sheep out of the fold.

Now, perhaps those dimwitted, woolly animals trod placidly from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus, of course, is using the analogy of sheep for his followers. He's talking about us, about you and me. He's talking about calling out to us, about speaking to us in a way that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don't know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.

Now this is not to say that we don’t need sheepfolds and that rest and relaxation are not beneficial – they are! One of our primary health challenges in this country is our sleep deprivation, especially those in their teenage years and young professionals. And too many of us are so busy that we don’t take time for ourselves, to enjoy a sunset or a sunrise, to eat our meal mindfully engaged with those we love, to take a day off, not to do more work, but to renew ourselves in mind, body, and spirit, to observe a Sabbath, which by the way doesn’t have to be on a Sunday. But sometimes we get so comfortable in our sheepfold, that sociologists call it cocooning, hibernating from engagement with the real world, with our friends and community, avoiding life rather than living it. During those times we don't live, we merely exist, simply settling ourselves in our sheepfold. Our minds numbed. Our hearts hibernating. Our spirits deflated. But then something happens and God drives us out of our sheepfold. And life begins anew.

This is the message of the Resurrection: life cannot be conquered-- not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens--fully, intensely, abundantly. Indeed, Jesus tells us: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." The Resurrection of Jesus ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter shows us the utter lengths that God goes to offer us abundant life.

And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds--whatever they may be--we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.

We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. God drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God's unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you out of complacency. And give God the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.

Amen.