Easter Four – Good Shepherd Sunday

A writer by the name of Dean Yeong tells the story of an old Cherokee Indian being asked by his grandson about the conflict and discord in the world. The elder reflected for a moment and then replied, “My child, there are two dogs battling within my heart. One is full of anger, hatred, and rage. The other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.” The old man paused, and he and his grandson sat for a moment in silence. Finally, the boy spoke, “Grandfather, which dog will win the battle in your heart? The one filled with hatred or the one filled with love?” The old man looked at his grandson and replied, “The one I feed will win.

The conflict we at times experience, whether personally or through the media, is not necessarily on the streets, or in our neighbourhoods, or in lands far from us. Conflict is most often fought out in the human heart – the Indian wise man was right. Unfortunately, at times we feed the dogs of anger and hatred. Jesus knew this fact as well as we do – his world really was no different from ours. Many conflicts of his time and land are with us today – the human heart does not change so quickly or easily.

The world still has its share of “thieves and bandits” to which Jesus referred, who are ready to snatch and scatter the flock. Today we might regard the Covid 19 virus or those who are capitalising on it in this category. But all of us need love and compassion – yet the world can seem torn apart by hatred, anger, and rage. Often, there is a thin veneer of order and discipline, but the human condition can remain as messy and chaotic as a flock of sheep without a shepherd. In these situations, thieves and bandits lie in wait, ready to snatch heart and soul.

Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin tells us in her recent book, Animals in Translation, that animals perceive the world far differently and much more chaotically than we do – we might think we have little in common with them. But Grandin also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together.” Like it or not, we have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit.

I was reminded of our commonality with other members of the animal kingdom last Sunday as I watched the ABC seven o’clock news. The final segment concerned the indirect effects of Covid 19 on the present situation at the Billabong Sanctuary in North Queensland. The newsreader remarked that it is not just people who feel the effects of isolation, but that animals are also vulnerable. She continued to show how the carers are using routines and cuddles to ensure that the creatures are not feeling lonely or bored during lockdown. To reduce the feeling of being unloved and of missing the company of spectators, the wombats and koalas were being regularly cuddled, the bird-flight show continued rehearsing (admittedly in front of empty seats), and the pythons and crocodiles were brought out.

And it also confirmed for me the necessity for us to care for other people as well as other creatures in God’s creation, not only during this corona virus pandemic, but at all times. In a very pertinent way, St Francis supports this thought in his statement:
If you have people who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have people who will deal likewise with their fellow people.

Like the flocks they tended, the shepherds of Jesus’ day were often dirty and woolly, enduring sun and rain for days or weeks on end. Unlike their charges, they were vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture and allaying thirst. The shepherd knew his flock as no one else; the sheep followed him “because they know his voice.”

Jesus speaks of himself as “the gate for the sheep.” Shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across small opening of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of flock. The image of the shepherd as a human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor is his own presence stretched out and bridging our ovine insecurities. “Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

When we hear the reading from Acts, we are reminded once again of the spread of Christianity during the period immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. To me, there are two aspects to the account. First, and probably more important, is the impact that the life and example of Jesus had on those who followed him into these years. There is no doubt that this was in a major part due to the influence, not only of what they had learnt, but also of the Holy Spirit, in and on the lives of those like Peter and the other disciples who had been in a close association with Jesus during those formative years. And, as a result of this, the people were praising God and having the goodwill of all the people, and had all things in common. We may well be certain as Luke says that day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The second is the fact that, while there was still persecution of people and suspicion of this new movement among those who did not embrace it, nonetheless it survived and grew. Other religious and philosophical movements have come and gone, many to be forgotten completely, but despite numbers of attempts on our faith, either deliberate or through carelessness, the Christian faith is still living. We can thank God for the power of the Spirit through the ages and for the witness of God’s faithful people. It is a shame that there are so many divisions within the church, often accompanied by a lack of respect for the other. It might be timely to think on the adage often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

It is not insignificant that Peter is given so much credence in Luke’s account of the events described in Acts. When Peter wrote his letters, he was writing to communities where trials and afflictions had not disappeared, but instead people faced the reality of things getting more severe. While Peter empathises with the suffering and persecution he sees among the people, the letter reveals his profound faith in God and hope for the future. He implores his audience to put aside those qualities and behaviours that are contrary to what Jesus exemplified, and, as he says, to be “like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” (And we, too, are part of that audience.) As we think on these words, is it possible to see some comparison with Jesus’ comments about sheep?

When we think of the situation of the world today, as we pass through the Covid 19 pandemic, it can be easy for us to forget God’s presence. But, as we read and probably recite Psalm 23, we trust and pray that we believe these verses:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil:
for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.”

We may not be facing an untimely death, but it is surely comforting to know God’s presence with us. And can we remember and give thanks for the many people who at present are working to bring peace and comfort into our lives and who help us to keep our faith alive as we think on those final verses?

You prepare a table before me
in the face of those who trouble me:
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup shall be full
Surely your goodness and loving-kindness
will follow me all the days of my life.”

It is all too easy to lose our direction, our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going, that is to go astray like lost sheep. And it is worth thinking about, because it is then we are most vulnerable to “thieves and bandits”. I wonder if we are familiar with Aesop’s ancient fable of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, where a wolf who was hungry found a sheepskin and inveigled his way into a flock of sheep in order to get a feed. Yes, appearances can be deceiving, and each of us can be capable of sin and hurt. And so we look to the Shepherd for strength, protection and guidance.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday and through this Easter season, may we all be fed by God’s Great Spirit of love and forgiveness, to be nourished for the journey ahead.

The world in many parts is still a place of famine and danger. However, the human heart listens for the voice of the shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. As we have been fed and led, so we are called to feed and lead others in Christ’s name.
Let us go in peace to love and serve the risen Lord.