Enter the Sheepfold, Easter 4 (A) - 2005

April 17, 2005

An Episcopal bishop who served for many years in the upper Midwest loves to tell stories he learned from the Native Americans of the area, many of whom are Episcopalians. Here is one of them.

A wise man among the Indians—many Native Americans in the Midwest still prefer to be called Indians—was asked by his grandson about the conflict and discord in the world today. 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.”

Our world is still untamed and full of conflict. We can see it daily on our televisions and read about it in our newspapers. We do not have to drive far in our cars to feel it on our streets. The world is a dangerous place, whether we live in the Middle East or the American Midwest. Yet, the conflict we experience is not truly on our streets or in our neighborhoods, much less in lands far from us. The conflict is always fought out in the human heart. The Indian wise man was right. Too many of us feed the dogs of anger and hatred.

Jesus knew this fact at least as well as we do, for his world was really no different from our own. Many of the conflicts of his time and his land are with us yet today. The human heart does not change so quickly or easily. The world still has its share of “thieves and bandits” ready to snatch and scatter the flock, as he makes clear in today’s Gospel account.

We like to think that we are in control, that no one can hurt us if we do not let them, and that no problem is so intractable that we cannot solve it. But events of the past few years have made us doubt our conviction. We are not secure even in our own little worlds. We really do not have our act together. We remain vulnerable as much to our own sinfulness and the blandishments of contemporary life as to far-off terrorists and revolutionaries. All of us are starving for love and compassion. Yet the world is torn apart by hatred, anger, and rage. In spite of its thin veneer of order and discipline, the human condition remains as messy and chaotic as a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Thieves and bandits lie in wait at every bend, ready to snatch heart and soul.

Left to our own rhetorical devices, we might not have chosen dirty, bleating, vulnerable sheep as the appropriate image for ourselves as Christians in this sleek post-modern world of digital efficiencies and sophisticated technological solutions. After all, as animal behaviorist Temple Grandin tells us in her recent bestseller, Animals in Translation, animals perceive the world far differently and much more chaotically than we do. Surely, we might be tempted to think, we have little in common with them. Yet Grandin also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together.” Like it or not, we probably have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit.

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. But 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. And the sheep followed him “because they know his voice.”

Jesus speaks of himself as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor, 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.”

Our hymns today will probably not include the “Whiffenpoof Song,” but the words are nevertheless worth remembering. “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way. Baa, baa, baa.” It is all too easy to lose direction, to lose our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going. It is all too easy to go astray like lost sheep. And that is worth bleating about. For it is then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world, most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart: to hatred, anger, and violence.

This of course does not mean that we are notorious sinners. It is hard to imagine vicious sheep after all. It even sounds funny. But we are also familiar with the story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is wisdom in Aesop’s ancient fable of course. Appearances can be deceiving. Each of us is capable of sin and hurt. There are always creatures at war beneath our woolen pelts. Which shall we feed?

The bishop likes to conclude his story of the Indian elder with a kind of postscript. “Which one of the dogs will win?” asked the boy of his grandfather. “The one I feed will win,” replied the elder. But then he continued, “My child, feeding one dog or the other is only part of the answer. The Great Spirit feeds each of us. It is from the Great Spirit that we first learned to feed others at all.”

This Easter season we are all fed by the Great Spirit of love and forgiveness. We have come to the Paschal banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance and be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world is still a place of famine and danger. The human heart listens for the voice of the shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. As we have been fed, we must now feed others in Christ’s name.

Amen.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema