My Dear Friends in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, through our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. When I was at Loras my first year, one of my friends basically forced me to go on the Antioch retreat. I say she forced me to go on it because, in all honesty, I had made up my mind that Antioch was not going to be my thing when I first heard about it. I didn’t do retreats. I viewed them with the same kind of suspicion that one has for a cult, that simple-minded people needed them so that they could stand around and sing Jesus songs. But this friend was both particularly persistent and one of those people you just didn’t want to upset so I headed out to my first Antioch during October of my Freshman year. I can remember being surrounded by a bunch of people that I didn’t know, which was intimidating. I can remember seeing a priest not walking around in a polo shirt and jeans and thinking that that was a really weird thing. But, the thing that would have sent me driving back home had I had a car, the thing that I’ve resolved never to do at our Antioch retreats, was when they came around with a brown grocery bag and had us throw our watches into it because we were on “God’s time.” I actually tried to put my watch in my pocked quick before they came by but I got caught. I hated the idea of being deprived of my God-given right to know approximately where the sun was in the sky and what relation we were to Grenwich, England. It was just wrong and unnerving that this cult thought they could take my watch away. How dare they?
This Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday. Both the responsorial psalm and the gospel called God the Shepherd and called us the sheep. When I was in seminary, we had a rather heated debate about the usefulness of this image. In some ways, it is rather patronizing. Sheep are not exactly the most intelligent animals in the world. Being a sheep is often equated with unquestioning loyalty to the point of being willing to jump off a cliff if your friends asked you to do it. It’s what you call the person whose viewpoint you don’t agree with. Democrats believe Republicans were sheep to President Bush with the war in Iraq and Republicans believe Democrats are sheep when it comes to health care. Let’s face it, if we were writing the gospel today we’d probably say something like, “We are the dolphins, the intelligent, helpful, charming herd of the Lord”. Or “We are the Koala bears, the non-threatening, eucalyptus eating, hugging marsupials of the Lord.”
And yet, I’d like to contend that, despite its shortfalls, being a sheep isn’t really that bad. The second reading from the Book of Revelation reminded us of a deep theological reality tied to this image of sheep. The vision that John, the writer of Revelation, is having appears to be of heaven. There is this large gathering of all the saved, a group that is so large that it is beyond counting. The group are all wearing pure white robes, robes similar to the ones you may have see our newly baptized put on during the Easter Vigil and which they continue wearing in church during the Easter Season. This gathering is surrounding God who is referred to as one seated on the throne. Yet, Jesus, being depicted as a lamb, is also seated on the throne because, as we know, Jesus is fully God, “of the same substance with the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God…” And the Lamb will shepherd us by leading us to the life-giving streams of baptism and Eucharist just as blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side on the cross.
It seems to me that the writer of Revelation is saying that we are sheep because Jesus was the lamb. In case you didn’t grow up on a farm, a lamb is a sheep that has not bred more sheep. One could say that Jesus is the innocent sheep while we are the sheep who bring the baggage of original sin. Yet, we are sheep because we are the sinning but redeemed body of Christ on earth.
Part of what I find helpful in the image of being a sheep comes from the last line of this reading. Not only will God give us what we need, it also says that the Good Shepherd will, “wipe away ever tear from (our) eyes.” We, the Iowa State community, have suffered a lot over the course of the last few weeks. We’ve seen three students die: one on spring break and two last week. I’ve been visiting with a lot of you who have friends and family who are either seriously ill or have died and I have a hunch that a lot more of you are hurting about that or Jon, T.J. or Tyler than we here at St. Thomas will ever know. Just know that if you do need to talk to someone, my door and the doors of all the staff members are always open here at STA. We can’t quite wipe away all the tears but our shoulders may be able to take some of them.
Part of what is so difficult about the image the sheep is the loss of control, the same loss of control I felt by giving up my watch on Antioch. And yet, that weekend turned out to be the best thing I would do during four years at Loras College. I connected with God on a deeper level than ever before and I made friends there that would become my roommates for the next three years. I had to give up some of that control and trust God for that to take place. I had to let God be the shepherd in order to be led to life-giving streams and have my tears wiped away.