“Where’s The Shepherd?l”
Chilmark Community Church
November 13, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
It has been a real challenge to know how and what to preach this morning. All through my seminary training, I was taught that when I was ordained, I would be ordained to the work of pastor, priest and prophet. I have been wrestling with knowing which “hat” I wear this morning. I identify most with the role of pastor, finding it very natural to care for others in a pastoral way. But this is a time for the voice of a prophet – one who speaks God’s irritable word of both challenge and warning – and God’s angry word of justice. I am not easily comfortable with that role. And somewhere in the process, the knowledge of how to be a priestly presence has to fit into the mix – how to orient myself and others toward God’s Holy Presence through order and ritual. Which hat do I wear and when? And, boy! Do I have a headache!
On three mornings a week, I walk for several miles at sunrise with my walking buddy, Rabbi Lori Shaller. On Wednesday morning, post election, the sunrise was glorious. Sengekentacket Pond was pristine. Its surface mirrored the ever changing colors of the grasses and almost imperceptible movement of the clouds overhead. Our practice is to stop on a small dock as we come around Farm Pond. We stand in the quiet as the day moves from darkness into light and we bless God – the One who separated light from darkness. Regardless of the weather on any given day, we have certainty that the day will move from darkness into light. Walking the ponds is a grounding exercise. It centers me in God – and God is a God who delights in order. The election has happened. Our sense of orderliness is disrupted. Many people around the country finally feel as though they have a voice and they are rejoicing. This is their right to do as their candidate has won. Many others woke up in shock and disbelief on Wednesday morning – knowing that life has undergone an irrevocable change – and feeling a sudden loss of stability – – feeling as though a massive death has happened.
Mercifully, the poison and vitriol has stopped for awhile. The sense of ambiguity and ambivalence that has pervaded our lives over these last months has abated somewhat. A decision has been made. But there is no avoiding the fact that the election has activated fear and anxiety and uncertainty about what the future will look like for our country. The results are reverberating around the world and we cannot yet begin to see what it will all mean. As I listen to people’s reactions I hear profound grief, unbelief, fear, anger, dread and a sense of hopelessness. These are the emotions triggered by sudden and dramatic change. Perhaps with a little more time, they will begin to soften. We will move through these initial days together. We will regain our balance.
One of the questions Lori and I often entertain as we ponder life and the events that we observe is: “Where is God?” How is the Eternal One manifesting in this or that situation or process?
Not being a strong prophetic voice in my own person, I gravitate to the strength of Jeremiah. He lived through a time of terrible political turbulence in ancient Israel. In Jeremiah’s time, the metaphor of ‘”shepherd” was applied to the ancient kings. Their role was to care for their people the way a shepherd cares for the flock. The mark of a good shepherd-king was that the people were safe, had food to eat, clothes to wear, and adequate shelter for their bodies, and were protected against foreign invasion. Jeremiah had sharp words for two self serving kings of Israel who disregarded their role as protectors of their people. Their failures resulted in invasion by foreign governments and a terrible, destabilizing and debilitating exile for Israel. The people were deported from their homeland and scattered. Israel was broken. They were without a shepherd.
As a nation, over the last year and a half at least, we have all – regardless of political affiliation – – been sinned against by the very people who would be our shepherds. We have been verbally and emotionally and psychologically abused, subjected to the sin of what the scriptures call l’shon hara – the evil tongue. The damage that has been done has had far reaching and as yet undetermined effects. The great sages teach that the evil tongue damages the one who speaks, the one spoken about – and the one who listens. It is the equivalent of murder because it kills the soul. It creates division and anger and hatred among the children of God – it sullies the image of God. Where is the shepherd?
While we were in Scotland, driving on one lane roads through the highlands, we saw flocks of sheep grazing everywhere on the hillsides. Quite often, they were grazing right at the roadside – – occasionally lying down to rest in the middle of the narrow, warm pavement – blocking traffic until they decided to get up and move. There were no fences in the vast, mountainous countryside – – not even any signs of human habitation for miles around – – no classic scenes of sheep dogs keeping an eye on things. The only sign that the sheep might belong to someone was the pink or blue or yellow splotch of spray paint on their rear ends. I couldn’t help wondering “Where is the shepherd?”
As we confront the reality of the brokenness and the divisions in our country, we might well hear Jeremiah’s strident voice railing: Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” In the ancient diatribe, God does not condemn the Assyrians or the Egyptians or the Babylonians who conquer Israel – – God condemns the failed shepherds – – the leadership of Israel itself.
The voice of the prophet resounds
But God also witnesses the trauma and confusion, the painful wounding, the disruptive forces of division and separation, the degradation of God’s people at the hands of leaders who are supposed to serve as shepherds. And after promising to attend to the evil of the shepherd-kings, God says: Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock – – I will bring them back to the fold – – and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them – they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed – – nor shall any be missing. God intends to shepherd the people where human leadership has failed and promises to provide shepherds who will, indeed, care for the people. Words of hope, spoken to a fractured and broken people. Words of promise – – words intended to let the people know they were not alone -words of healing and reconciliation and wholeness. The voice of a pastoral God echoes in the text.
We find similar witnessing in Mark. In one of the more grisly episodes in the gospels, John the Baptist has just been beheaded. In the immediate aftermath of the trauma, the disciples gather around Jesus to tell him what has happened. Recall, for a moment, that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins. The very political death of the Baptizer was also very personal and traumatic for Jesus. It affected all those who followed the Baptizer as well as those who followed Jesus. Their feelings of shock and grief and confusion and disbelief mirror our own. In the midst of the personal suffering of Jesus and the disciples the crowds gather again around Jesus. He witnesses them in their hunger, their fear, their pain and their confusion. Mark tells us: “as he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…”
So – “Where is God ?” Our sacred texts tell us. God witnesses the confusion and anxiety and fractured-ness of our human condition. God is affected by it. God is not separated from it. God takes action. God does not abandon. God stands in the midst of the gathered multitude.
Mark’s gospel affirms this in such a succinct and subtle way : Jesus encounters a confused, fearful, suffering humanity – – caught in a storm of power and passion over which they have no control. He has compassion on them – – and – – “He began to teach them many things.” And then he feeds them.
We are in the throes of change. Anxiety and uncertainty are always a part of transition. This is heightened for us largely because of the destructive and negative nature of this election campaign. For months, we have been relentlessly exposed to language and attitudes that are an affront to our sense of respect and civility and accountability to and for one another. Trust has broken down. We are like scattered sheep. The divisiveness -the fracturing – the brokenness – – is not unlike the exile of Israel. Regardless of where we come down politically, we have all been affected by this. And now we dwell in these moments of exile and transition together.
As we traveled those sheep populated roads in Scotland, I realized that the presence of those pink and blue and yellow splotches meant that the sheep were of valued and did, indeed, belong to someone. Someone bought those sheep. Someone paid attention to careful breeding. Someone made sure that they were grazing in pastures that would sustain them. The sheep are valuable. It simply did not make sense that they would be left totally unattended. Someone, by means not visible to us as we traveled, was attending to those sheep.
Jeremiah reminds us that we dwell in the line of vision of God – that we are of inestimable value in God’s sight – – and that God notices.
Jesus noticed the disarray of the people – – like sheep without a shepherd. He had compassion on them. And then he taught them many things. My own faith tells me that we are in a teachable moment. In both scriptures, we are taught that God and Jesus respond to the suffering of their people with compassion and with action. That’s the “God model.”
For a time, we will be suffering together as we begin to find our way to some kind of stability as this massive transition occurs. We can be thankful that we have in this country a peaceful transfer of power when an administration changes. But we are not to be passive in the face of such tremendous change.
We are created in the image and likeness of God. God’s characteristics are lovingkindness, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, patience. We bear the image of God. We are empowered to offer gentleness, patience, forbearance, compassion and lovingkindness to one another and to all whom we meet.
The voice of the classical prophet calls for repentance – – for tshuva – – for a return to what is highest and truest – – It calls all of us – -both shepherds and sheep to reclaim our holiness as bearers of the image of God. True repentance requires that those who would be shepherds apologize for what they have done to the flock – – to vow that the sin against the flock will not ever happen again. This has never been more critical. It is the beginning of the path to healing.
As the sheep who have been scattered, we have a significant role in repairing our world too. Civility – – simple good manners – – thoughtfulness – – kindness – – patience – -all the things that we learned in 1st grade. We can make the choice to extend loving compassion under any circumstances. And, perhaps, as important as anything else, we can maintain a heightened vigilance in one another’s behalf, in behalf of the stranger, in behalf of the immigrant, in behalf of the most vulnerable populations in our midst.
Where’s God? – – God is present when suffering and confusion are witnessed, when compassion and understanding are offered. This is the antidote to a toxic environment. We can do this. We have the power. By listening to the Compassionate Teacher who sees us like sheep without a shepherd – – we can recognize the Shepherd in our midst – – in each other – – in ourselves. This our responsibility. We have an incredible opportunity to make the Presence of God known wherever we find ourselves these days – – plainly visible. I would like to close with a few lines from Nikos Kazantzakis, Greek author and poet who lived and wrote through two world Wars. He wrote this:
“And I strive to discover how to signal my
companions…to say in time a simple word, a
password, like conspirators: Let us unite, let us hold
each other tightly, let us merge our hearts, let us
create for earth a brain and a heart, let us give a
human meaning to the superhuman struggle.”
God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.