Sunday, May 15, 2011

Quantum Shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.1925; John 10.1-10
Sunday, May 15, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

The shepherd was a well-known image for first century Jews and Christians. Not only were shepherds part of the everyday landscape of their agrarian society, the image of a good shepherd would have had significant political and religious meaning for these people. King David, the best known and most loved of Israel’s monarchs was the Shepherd King – an ordinary shepherd boy who God anointed to be king, who would go on to become the greatest of kings, the standard by which all future kings would be measured. In fact, the long-awaited Messiah was anticipated to be a king of the line of David, with all the positive attributes of David and more. The Psalmist, who may have been David himself, writes of God as protector and provider using the imagery of shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. He makes me like down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” (Ps 23.1-2). And in later times, the vision of the Messiah would even incorporate the image of shepherd, as portrayed by the prophet Isaiah: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Is 40.11). So it is significant for the original hearers of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel that he fulfills Israel’s hope for a good shepherd, and more importantly, a messiah in the form of the good shepherd. The simple imagery carried a loaded message about who Jesus was.

Even in our non-agrarian culture, we still find the imagery of sheep and of the good shepherd comforting. But most of us today have no experience with sheep other than at a petting zoo. So how does this imagery speak to us in our present day, in a context completely opposite of the original? Well, the meaning behind the imagery is no less true today than it was two thousand years ago.

Jesus uses imagery of himself as both the shepherd and the gate into the sheepfold. While a little confusing, being both shepherd and gate, these images help us to understand something of what it means to be his followers.

As shepherd, Jesus specifically addresses three characteristics about our relationship with him: the shepherd leading, the sheep following, and the shepherd being known by the sheep. First, Jesus tells us that the shepherd leads the sheep out of the sheepfold and goes before them, leading the way, and second, the sheep follow the shepherd. What this clearly means is that Jesus leads and we follow. Not that we lead and expect Jesus to follow. We may not always know where the path will take us, but we have to have faith that Jesus knows the way, pioneering the trail for us. We often get bogged down in the minutia, only seeing what is immediately in front of us, immediately around us. But Jesus has the big picture, seeing longer range than we are able to see, or longer range that we are sometimes willing to see. So a big part of this is trusting that Jesus is leading is on the right path, which really is a path only he can fully know. And the other part is being willing to give up our own needs or desires for control, letting Jesus lead the way, trusting that Jesus knows better than we do.

The ability to do this is all tied in with the shepherd being known by the sheep. Jesus says the shepherd calls his own by name and that “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Very important piece. Jesus himself even comments on it, talking about knowing the voice of the shepherd and not knowing the voice of strangers, of those whom he refers to as thieves and bandits. We are willing to follow because we know the sound of his voice – we know the sound of his message and are able and willing to do the critical work of comparing what we hear at any given time with what we know to be the truth. Is the voice we are hearing, the message being proclaimed, consistent with the truth as proclaimed in Scripture, the law and the prophets, as well as the words and actions of Jesus himself; as proclaimed in our historical understanding of the experienced tradition as passed down through the last two millennia; and as revealed in the reasoning necessary to apply the shepherd’s teachings to the present circumstances? Only when filtered through our understanding of scripture, tradition, and reason, can we discern if what we are hearing from the Church, from our leaders, clergy and lay, is the path Jesus is leading us along, or some other path.

As gate, Jesus specifically addresses three characteristics about what his followers can expect: that entering through the gate provides safety, allows us to find pasture, and provides us with place and identity. First, Jesus tells us that “whoever enters by me will be saved.” By entering into a life in Christ, we are assured of shelter from the world. This is not to say that what happens in the world will not impact us. It most assuredly will. What saved means is that if we place our trust in Christ, with making following him our first priority, we will always have the love and protection of God to fall back-on when times do get tough. We will have the resources of God’s family backing us up, our church family to care for us in our times of need. We will have the strength of our faith and the assurance of God’s love to stand upon and to guide us through whatever we may confront in life.

Second, those who enter the gate “will come in and go out and find pasture.” We don’t know much about pasture in our contemporary lives, but pasture is a place of comfort, rest, and sustenance. In this case, it is not necessarily physical respite. Rather Jesus is speaking of a spiritual comfort, rest, and sustenance that come from being his followers. By coming into the sheepfold that is the Body of Christ, that is the Church, we are assured of the spiritual comfort and rest from the cares of the world outside these walls, even if only for a brief time. This is a pasture where we can come and be nurtured and cared for, where we can recharge and gain the strength we need to go back out and face the world, to do ministry in the world. And that comes through the sustenance we receive every week in Eucharist – in the hearing of the word proclaimed, and at the altar where we are nourished by the bread and wine, by the body and blood of our Lord.

And third, by entering through the gate that is Jesus, we have a place and an identity that is determined exclusively by relationship with him. We have a place at the table. We have an identity as members of his body, as a part of the family of Christ that is the Church. We are part of a community that is defined by Jesus, the gate through which we enter, but also that is defined by and consists of the flock of which we are a part. For being part of the larger family through Christ, of being Christians, is essential. But so is the flock, the local community of which we are a part, as here at Trinity. For it is in the local community of faith that we discern and live out what it means to enter the gate and to follow the shepherd.

While all of this stuff about the Good Shepherd is meant to be comforting to us and descriptive of what it means to be Christian, there is something missing from the imagery. The Good Shepherd and the gate describe the nature of the Church as a body, of community and its centrality, and of our place and identity within the community. But it does not really say much about what the community does. We need something else to help round out the image, to give the flock some sort of purpose, other than just standing around in a group, grazing in the pasture. We are not quite the same as sheep, are we? As humans we are not content to just be as sheep. We need some purpose for the flock. For that, we can look to something called the Quantum Sheep project, or the “Poetry of Sheep.”

In 2002, Valerie Laws received a grant of 2,000 pounds from an arts council in northern England, to create living poetry using sheep. She spray-painted a single word on the backs of 15 sheep. As the sheep wandered around, the ordering of words took on a new structure every time they stopped moving. The reason Valerie undertook the project was out of an interest in quantum mechanics. She noted that randomness and uncertainty are apparently central to how the universe was formed and operates, and that this is quite difficult for many of us to understand, particularly since we rely on order. The sheep project was an attempt to explore such principles of quantum mechanics as randomness, duality, and the influence of the observer on the observed; to explain how something of meaning might come out of the randomness of the universe. Specifically, the project explored how the random movement of the sheep might occasionally result in somewhat meaningful poetry. Even if not rational, some of the resulting poems certainly had a whimsical, even comedic, quality.

While Valerie Law’s experiment was intended to illustrate something of quantum mechanics and the workings of the universe, particularly in a whimsical manner, it also ties in nicely with the story of the Good Shepherd and what it means to be part of his flock.

First, the Quantum Sheep project demonstrates that you can’t write a poem with only one word. We need most, if not all, of the words painted on the flock to make a meaningful poem. This reinforces the fact that we need each other, living in community, to do the work God has called us to do. One cannot do it by him or herself.

Second, the flock sometimes gets spooked and scatters. Be it by some outside influence or at the hands of an inept or uninterested guide, the flock can easily spook and scatter to seek safety. So too with communities of faith, which must be handled gently and tenderly. For sometimes we too become spooked, with the community scattering, individuals running for cover. But generally this is only temporary, for we come back together because we ultimately know that in community we are safer than by ourselves; that we have the community for support and protection.

Third, the flock sometimes is a jumbled mess, with each of the sheep just sitting there doing nothing. When this happens, the poem makes no sense. It is just words strung together without meaning. Communities of faith can be like that, too. When we are together, we sometimes have a jumbled mess that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But the reality is that even if we look like a jumbled mess, we are still together in community, still taking in sustenance as when a flock grazes, drawing nourishment from each other and from the sacraments. The jumbled mess is an in-between time while we wait for movement and for meaning to occur, for our purpose, our message, to be revealed.

Fourth, sometimes the flock does not have all the words it needs to make a complete or comprehendible poem. Other sheep with other words, which are not like us, may be needed to expand the vocabulary and allow for even richer, more meaningful poetry. As a community, we may not have all the resources needed to carry out some project or ministry. Sometimes we need others to come in and add to our vocabulary, to add their gifts and talents to ours, adding to the richness of what we are capable of.

And finally, and most importantly, the members of the flock occasionally surprise the observers by arranging themselves to form a poem that is both coherent and beautiful. As we stumble about in our lives within the community, we occasionally surprise ourselves and write an absolutely beautiful and poignant poem that shows to God and all the world what we are capable of. And when we do this, the Shepherd delights in what he witnesses.

That’s what the Good Shepherd is all about. By trusting in Jesus and being willing to follow, even when, especially when, it seems as if we don’t know where we are going; following him whose voice and message we know and that we know to be true; by entering into relationship with Jesus Christ, who promises us safety and shelter from the world; who promises a place for comfort, rest, and sustenance; who provides us with our own true identity; we are freed to, open to, called to, be the community of faith God has ordained us to be – one in which we can rise to the occasion and write beautiful poems that are witnessed by our God and by others – poems that bear witness to the love and grace of the Good Shepherd in our lives individually and together as his flock.

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