This morning we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday – in case you didn’t know, which is why we have all these readings about Jesus as the good shepherd. This is the tradition across Christendom for the fourth Sunday in Eastertide.
Sermons on Good Shepherd Sunday tend to go on at length about the peculiarities of sheep and the quality of their relationship to shepherds, all of which is well and good but to be perfectly honest, I’ve never much appreciated the metaphor. For one thing, I’ve never felt inclined to compare members of my congregation to animals that let’s just say are not known for their intelligence; and for another thing I’ve always been confused as to whether I should be relating to the sheep or to the shepherd. If pastors today are shepherds, we’re more shepherds of cats than of sheep, for starters; and for another thing, it is obvious to me that Jesus is the shepherd, not me, so then I’m left wondering “What then, am I?” and that just gets me all confused.
But then I get to thinking about what it must have been like to be a shepherd lying awake at night under the stars, and a different sermon emerges.
Last week I was in Michigan, attending a writer’s conference, where I had the pleasure of listening to one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson. Robinson is one of those rare novelists who writes very slowly and very brilliantly; she has written only three novels, and each one has received some of the greatest awards in the field, including the Pulitzer, the PEN, the National Book Critics’ Circle. If you haven’t read Gilead yet, you must put it on your reading list, along with its sequel, entitled Home.
While I was there I picked up a copy of her latest book of essays, entitled When I Was A Child I Read Books, and I found in her preface a lovely discussion of Walt Whitman and those other American writers who appreciated, as does Robinson, the sense of wonder that seizes us as we look up at the stars and realize the fact that, through us, the universe has found a way to perceive itself.
She quotes Whitman here:
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity – yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth,… creeds, conventions fall away and become of no account before this simple idea.
This simple idea: that we are this extremely rare and special creation, a creature that is able to utter the word, “I” and “you” and “all of this.”
This is the kind of insight that comes to people who spend a bit of time staring up at the stars. People like shepherds. When you live in the fields, like a shepherd, and your primary form of entertainment is to sit under the stars by a campfire and tell stories of what you see up there, and every night you fall asleep staring up into the black void of space and the infinite magnificence of it all, you begin to appreciate just how rare and beautiful a thing it is that we have any awareness at all.
I think this is the reason why it was the shepherds who were the first witnesses to the Incarnation – they were the most exquisitely attuned to the possibility of miracles. I think it was after a night staring up at the stars that Whitman was able to write these ecstatic songs of praise:
All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments, all that was or is
apparent upon this globe or any globe,
falls into niches and corners
before the procession of souls along
the grand roads of the universe.
Marilynne Robinson reminds us that this is a common theme in many 19th Century American writers, including Emerson, Melville, and Dickinson – they all experienced consciousness itself as having the quality of revelation; they all developed a reverence for this experience that is born under the stars; those moments when we identify what Robinson calls the “sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life.” And, she says, this is the experience that gives birth to democracy as an ideal – because as we experience the miracle of what it means to be alive and conscious, we find ourselves identifying all other conscious beings as sacred and worthy of reverence. Because it is impossible to accept the miracle of our own conscious life without also acknowledging the sacred miracle of every conscious life. It is this revelation that leads us to imagine the possibility that everyone is important; everyone is worthy of God’s love; everyone is equal; everyone gets a vote.
In Jesus’ time, shepherds were among the poorest and least respected members of society. And so of course they would become the ones most ready to recognize the miracle of God taking the form of a homeless child born to an unwed mother.
It was the shepherds, witnesses to fireballs and meteors, eclipses and solstices, thunder and lightning, who would be most attuned to possibility that the universe is filled with miracles. These days, modern astronomers and physicists continue to play that role, as they tell us stories of great mystery, where the laws of ordinary physics bend and warp at the edges of what is real. What is time, after all? The only explanation physicists can give us is that time is the thing that clocks measure. What is gravity? They tell us gravity has to do with a bending of the timespace continuum – who can understand that? And yet we all feel the weight of our bodies on these pews. We are all participants in this mystery; we are held in place by a warp in timespace.
And so the shepherds began to imagine time in reverse – a moment when we would grow younger, not older; the ancients, telling stories under the stars, began to imagine a time when our inevitable decline into old age and death was reversed. And why not? All of reality has this sense of contingency about it – as if, at any time, another set of rules might prevail. The constant fact of our suffering would give way to joy; the shroud of death would be lifted; our hunger would resolve into feasting on the mountaintop. And then Jesus comes along, and he enacts this new being: the lame are healed, the blind receive their sight; the dead are raised; the oppressed are relieved; justice is restored to the shepherds and to all others whose dignity is denied in the present age. Jesus is seen by the shepherds as the sign that this great reversal has begun.
In our Scriptures this morning we hear about Peter’s speech before the rulers of his day. And what has he done to get him into trouble with the most powerful people of his time? He has healed a man who had been lame since his birth. Peter, walking in the spirit of the resurrection, has begun to spread this new reality around. The high priest and the scribes and elders are astonished that as ignorant and unlearned men should have this power. The King James Bible has Peter referring to this moment as the “time of refreshing;” it is the “restitution of all things.” Clearly, this has to be stopped; this great reversal cannot be allowed to continue. And so they threaten Peter and John – as if death has any meaning to them anymore. And their threats do nothing but condemn the ones doing the threatening, as people who are confused as to the nature of reality, and blinded by their worldly power.
And so the virus of new life begins to spread. The seed of a new reality is being planted. The time of refreshing has begun. This is the proclamation of shepherds and fishermen, who have gazed up at the stars long enough to know of its possibility; and who have seen it become real in the person of Jesus.
And this is why we care about homeless people – the outcasts of our age, those men and women who go to bed at night with nothing between them and heaven. They are every bit as miraculous as any one of us, and we see that in their eyes, where Christ is alive, and where the great reversal is taking place.
Thanks be to God for this great privilege: to be alive on this planet; to have the privilege of loving the least among us: the shepherds and outcasts, the sinners and the heretics and the saints, all of us brothers and sisters on this tiny planet, singing praises to God in the Spirit of the one who is bringing about the great reversal, one soul at a time.