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Focus texts: Acts 13:14, 43-53; John 10: 27-30 (Good Shepherd)

There’s a lot in me that resists today’s gospel that suggests you and I are sheep.  My impression of sheep is that they’re not all that intelligent, they get spooked easily and their entire lives revolve around their drive for food.  I’m, frankly, a little offended at the analogy.  It’s nearly impossible to avoid it in the church, though.  Frank and I are given title “pastor,” meaning shepherd, implying you are the flock.  Can I get a “baaaa!”  In this church that we are building, brothers and sisters, I don’t need, desire, or promote following my voice or the voice of anyone else with a blind herd mentality.  But this shepherd/sheep symbol isn’t going away.  Like anything that we resist, it shows up on our doorstep to be dealt with and today is the day when I feel challenged to learn from sheep.  I hope to reframe this ancient symbol to speak to our contemporary minds and, more importantly, our hearts.    

Getting to Know the Sheep Within

Looking at a book on human gestation, Finn, my 4 year old, comments on each picture.  “Is it a fish, mom?  It looks like an alien fish.  This one is a duck. See! It has webbed feet.  Look a tail! Ahhh… there’s a baby (finally turning to the 5 month image)!”  As we develop, in utero and out, we undergo the same evolutionary leaps our ancestors made to become the homo sapiens we are today.  Metaphorically and biologically speaking, there is a sheep living inside of us.  An animal brain controls both our conscious and unconscious thoughts and actions.  We’ve spoken in this space about this brain before.  Frank has spoken about it in terms of rising above it to reach beyond our fight or flight impulses to a place of compassion and love.  Without gainsaying the truth of that goal, today I want to look at these creatures that we are, and examine the subtle ways our animal bodies interact with the world to get in touch with a wisdom that flows through our entire body, not just our brains.  Today I invite us not to judge this part of ourselves, but to know it more fully and allow it to be a part of our spiritual awakening.

This part of us is primal, it is the original connection to Life itself.  There was a time when we were unashamedly animal.  It’s evidenced in our evolutionary science and in our mythology.  In this “Garden” we would eat when hungry, sleep when tired, make love and not be ashamed of our nakedness.  This is the good life of sheep.  How often have you looked at your dog and thought, “What a life!”  Our ancestors knew this life, but a creative leap was in the works.  Eating from the tree of knowledge was not an act of sin, as it is so often interpreted; it was an evolutionary leap that sparked the fire of consciousness – both a gift and a curse.  It gave us the knowledge of God, allowed us to observe ourselves, analyze and categorize our world to make meaning; it also made us aware of our separateness and forced us to leave the Garden of oneness with Life itself.[i]

But that Garden, that pasture that flows with life giving water, still exists in our collective Soul and in our very genes.  That place free of inane chatter, regret of the past, anxiety in the future, shame and judgment.  And in that place there is a Shepherd that calls to us in a voice older than words.  It’s that Voice to which we are to become attuned.  This is where faith comes into play.  We must believe that that Voice exists and that it desires good for us, even when it means walking through dark valleys.  It’s a faith that can’t figure it out with our rational brains, but feels the pull in our very bodies through Life, into Life – a pull on us individually and collectively, as a flock. 

Hearing the Voice

I don’t want you to take my word for it, though.  It is my hope that each of us experiences this Guiding Presence.  It requires we learn how to hear differently. It requires practices that may look different in each of our lives.  But it seems essential, especially in this age when we are so divorced from our earth and by extension our bodies, that we begin to accept, love and be in our animal bodies.   In learning to hear differently we learn a new language.

[We] strive to discern and perhaps to practice a curious kind of thought, a way of careful reflection that no longer tears us out of the world of direct experience in order to represent it, but that binds us ever more deeply into the thick of that world.  A way of thinking enacted as much by the body as by the mind, informed by the humid air and the soil and the quality of our breathing, by the intensity of our contact with the other bodies that surround.[ii]

Observe children and remember your childhood.  Bodies running around each other like water, expressing every moment with full self. For me, I continue to return to a moment in childhood sitting on a swing at dusk knowing I could talk to the birds and they were talking to me.  Even though at some point someone told me that wasn’t real, I’ve come to discover on this spiritual path that that experience is one of the realest, truest experiences of my life.  As children we are so much closer to the Voice of the Shepherd. 

In our everyday lives we can slowly begin to create space to observe our thoughts like observing flocks of birds, not judging.  Feeling the tension in our bodies that signal the ways we store the shame and grief of our exile from the Garden; accepting the burning of animal desires for food, comfort and pleasure; thereby tuning into subtler messages being communicated all the time. Today in our yoga class here at church a student came up to our teacher noticing that every time she was in a certain pose it not only made her physically uncomfortable, she felt scared, terrified even.  Finding this simple bit of wisdom in her body signaled to me that the Voice of the Shepherd was working on her.

Trusting and Getting Lost

Beginning to hear the voice and trusting in it are two different things, especially because the Voice often calls us to unfamiliar places.  The leading may seem completely irrational.  Faith in this voice to leave what we know appears foolish.  But our gospel and the witness of Paul and the early disciples shows us people, in spite of the challenge, living out of that faith.  In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas stir up a following but also a persecution.  They were driven out of the city, but the very last line in today’s periscope state, “The disciples were full of joy and the Holy Spirit.”  Joy in the face of persecution – they were tuned into something beyond the voices of jealousy and hate, beyond themselves and their need for comfort and safety.  The Shepherd was leading them into Life itself that looks different than any of the narrow plans or hopes they may have constructed.  And evidence of this is joy.

Of course, no person (or sheep) ever follows the Shepherd’s Voice perfectly.  It’s a part of our learning to hear, to trust, and to respond… to get lost.  I spend a lot of time lost.  It seems to make sense to me that the next green pasture should be right over that rise and I forget to pay attention to the Shepherd’s cues, especially when the Guiding Presence is leading somewhere scary looking.  So I set off on my own way and wonder how I got to this desert.  Now I’m in a desert and alone… two things a sheep hates most.  And I feel so disconnected from the Shepherd I think I’ll never find my way back.  But the Shepherd knows how the sheep wander and seeks us out again, reuniting us in communion with the flock. 

At Sts. Clare & Francis we are a flock that strives to learn the language of the Shepherd.  We listen to each other and to the wordless language of Silence to discern who we are and where we are going.  It’s a difficult way to be and we, as a group, may get spooked and run away from the Shepherd seeking a church that looks and feels more familiar.  But we can never be beyond the Shepherd’s care and the Voice comes back to us through the prophets, saints, contemplatives, and activists that sit among us, tuned into a Presence that draws us all together in communion with each other and the Good Shepherd.

Rev. Jessica Rowley
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 20, 2013

[i] This idea of the exile from the Garden as an evolutionary step I gleaned from Anne Hillman, Awakening The Energies of Love: Discovering Fire for the Second Time (Bramble Books, 2008).

[ii] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) 3-4.