Feed my sheep. Jesus’ primary concern was that the people around him be cared for, and he usually started with food. Jesus’ vision of the heavenly banquet had about equal parts of eating, healing, and teaching people about the kingdom of God. He charged his disciples with sharing food as a way of remembering him, and our most central act as his friends is still about that holy meal.
Feeding the sheep begins with the kind of work that Hisanori Kano came to this land to do – growing food. When people have empty stomachs, it’s very hard to focus on anything else. Much of the illness in this world is related to whether people get enough food and the right kind of food. Children don’t grow or thrive, and they can’t learn if they’re hungry. The values we hold as so important are very difficult to teach new generations if they’re living in constant want.
Feeding the sheep is a central issue in God’s economy. Every image of the Reign of God has something to do with eating, and not just eating but feasting – a reminder that the peoples who wrote the Bible knew a lot about hunger. A feast of rich foods and well-aged wines is how Isaiah sees the heavenly banquet. It’s a peaceful picnic on a hillside, where no one lives in fear – there is no fear of hunger or want, and none of the violence that accompanies food scarcity.
Hisanori-san came here to help people grow food, to feed their families and help build more peaceful communities. His harvest field expanded as he discovered some of the realities facing immigrant farmers here. His ability to stand up to racist laws and attitudes had something to do with his earlier experience of plenty, of being welcomed and well-loved. Kano had the freedom to emigrate from Japan, to choose his course in life, after being encouraged and befriended by a bigwig politician named William Jennings Bryan – a deeply Christian man who was intensely interested in peace, even if he wasn’t a very able scientist. Most people today know Bryan as the lawyer who fought the teaching of evolution in the Scopes trial. But he gave Kano a taste of fullness and possibility, rooted in the gospel.
Kano came here having discovered the plentiful vision of Jesus, and he found expanding ways to feed people. He worked with farmers at first, helping them produce more and better crops. His work gave people a glimpse of the image of God in themselves and one another and they came looking for more. People around here remember him today more for his pastoral care for people in all walks of life, not just farmers.
Feeding the sheep starts with food. It goes on to include all the blessings of life – water, shelter, being part of a community, and a growing ability to bear the image of God in a way that builds up self and others. Feeding the sheep and tending the flock blesses the world. Indeed, when one part of creation begins to heal, that begins to bless all of creation – the meadows and streams, all the other flocks, and generations yet to come.
Tending the flock has a great deal to do with encouraging a deeply rooted hope. Children who grow up knowing want as their normal state often carry a profound anxiety into adulthood, whether that hunger is for food or love or dignity. A steady diet or even a single experience of fullness can counter that anxiety, and bring the beginnings of hope. That glimmer of possibility produces resilience, and an ability to deal with hunger, shortage, lack, and loss. That is the kind of flock-tending that Jesus did – he fed the hungry, comforted the grieving, healed the sick in mind and body, and set people free from their individual prisons. He challenged his friends to do the same, born of a confidence of God at work even in the darkest parts of life.
Kano had that kind of deeply rooted and resilient hope, born of his experience of God’s love in Christian community. Knowing that kind of hope has brought each one of us here today – the family and friends of Hisanori and Ai and their children and grandchildren, and the descendants of the many people he worked with. Hope has risen for many who’ve heard or read the story of Hisanori here in Nebraska. I don’t know if there are any here today who met him as fellow prisoners during the internment years, but I can tell you that the kind of work he did with German POWs and American soldiers facing court martial continues to yield an abundant harvest. His field kept expanding – wherever he went, he discovered ways to feed people with hope.
Kano’s example continues to spread, offering hope to immigrants, prisoners, and sheep who have wandered far from the flock.
There’s an Episcopal congregation in Germany who is reaching out to tend a little flock of displaced sheep, people who’ve been deported from the U.S. for old misdeeds. They were born in Germany but most of them spent decades here, not knowing they were actually German citizens until ICE picked them up, detained them, and then deported them. They may not be POWs, but they are certainly prisoners of the same kind of American attitudes that Japanese immigrants encountered here in the last century. Immigration has been both an enormous blessing to the creative spirit in this nation, and one of our greater sources of national shame. Over and over, American descendants of immigrants have found more recent immigrant groups to demonize and blame for current social ills. One of the greatest gifts of Kano’s witness was his ability to cross the boundaries that human beings use to create in-groups and out-groups. Over and over, he bridged the divide between Japanese and Anglo, Japanese and German, immigrant and citizen, farmer and merchant, prisoner and free, even hungry and well-fed.
Tending the flock still has a great deal to do with teaching the sheep to love each other, and to understand that there is no health for the flock until all the sheep know they have a place in the beloved community. That’s the bold and gentle work Kano did, together with Bishop Beecher, in confronting the Nebraska legislature about its prejudicial laws on citizenship and land ownership. We need more like Kano, for there is still abundant work to do.
Feeding the sheep and tending the flock may be the work of shepherds, but those who follow Jesus soon discover that every sheep has shepherd duties, and that each shepherd is also a sheep. The shepherd can’t feed the sheep from afar, living apart in separate quarters. Good shepherds dwell among the sheep, and as Jesus put it, they give their lives for the sheep; they live and die together, for they know they are part of the same whole.
Feeding the sheep and tending the flock is about the whole people of God – including those other flocks Jesus says he’s still working on (John 10:16). We are meant to live as one flock, knowing one shepherd in the God who creates us all. And the whole flock means the whole creation, for without healthy pastures the sheep will never thrive.
Kano’s expertise may have been food crops, but he certainly knew how to feed sheep and tend flocks. This good and beloved friend of Jesus was a very, very good shepherd himself. Pray that his witness will continue to encourage, embolden, and challenge us to be good shepherds of the whole flock.