Monday, April 22, 2013

The Shepherding Instinct

  I informed the Vestry last winter that Al Reese and I entered into a joint business venture. We built an ice skating rink in the middle of a field on the outskirts of downtown Suffolk. It seemed like a good idea at the time, given that there is no where in the Tidewater area for people to skate. The day before we were set to open, Al and I stood in the field surveying our project. Just then we happened to see a shepherd leading his flock through the field. Rather than go around our rink, the shepherd decided to drive his flock across it. The sheep, having never seen ice before, naturally were afraid and refused to move. Desperate, the shepherd used his crook to tug the sheep to the other side. That is when Al turned to me and said, “Would you look at that, the shepherd is trying to pull the wool over our ice.” I dissolved our business partnership immediately and the matter is now in the courts.

As I said at the beginning of the service, the Fourth Sunday after Easter is known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday. The Collect for the Day and the assigned readings point to one of the most enduring images in the bible. I imagine that most of us here have never seen a shepherd at work, let alone done the work of a shepherd first hand, and yet we still understand much of the meaning conveyed by the metaphor.

I enjoy watching “Through the Wormhole”, a cable TV show narrated by Morgan Freeman that attempts to stay current with all the latest theories regarding reality. In short, we live in a universe that is much, more complex than we ever imagined. Some theorists hypothesize the existence of multiple universes separated by thin membranes. While I am not advocating for this idea, I will tell you that as I watch these shows I find my faith both affirmed and challenged.

The more we come to understand the complexities of reality the more I am convinced that an intelligence beyond our imagining is behind it all; bringing it into being and sustaining it. That is what affirms my faith. The challenge is this: the more complex we know reality to be the more difficult I find it to believe that this powerful, intelligent Creator is intimately connected to you or to me. Given that reality is so big and so vast and so complex, how can a Creator be concerned with and related to each and every specific aspect of it?

For people of faith, our answer to that question is not laid out in a concrete theory or mathematical formula. Rather, it points to this day and lifts up another reality: that from the beginning of the faith people of faith have experienced God’s intimate presence in their lives. One of the ways they have described this sensation is captured in the simple phrase, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

No person of faith has ever proclaimed, “The Lord is the C.E.O.”: a remote person in a far off city isolated in a lavish office at the top of a high, inaccessible tower whose influence and control filters down through many, many layers and intermediaries. Our experience of God is personal. It is intimate. And any theory of reality needs to account for it.

We sense in God what today I want to call ‘the shepherding instinct.’ We are most keenly aware of God’s presence when we are fearful, hurting, or in danger. It is during these moments in the dark valley that we are most aware we are not alone. We sense that God does not abandon us in our moment of need, but is with us to see us through.

We human beings who are created in God’s image have this shepherding instinct woven into our very nature. This week we saw it so clearly when, within seconds after deadly explosions killed and maimed people at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, folks nearby rushed toward danger to help the injured. We saw it also in the small town of West, Texas where firefighters and first responders risked life and lost life to protect others. When God created humanity in God’s own image, God looked on it and proclaimed it “very good.” As we witnessed countless selfless, heroic acts this past week we can understand why. God sees in us God’s own shepherding instinct.

I see it in less dramatic manifestations in our own faith community time and time again; like yesterday at a ceremony to award Hack Gallotta the rank of Eagle Scout. As one person said, ‘It is not an honor your earn, but one you grow into.” While Hack deserves all the credit in the world, I couldn’t help but think he did not grow into being an Eagle Scout on his own. Dozens of men, women, and peers supported and encouraged him along the way. It is one way the shepherding instinct manifests itself in, around, and through us.

Last Saturday evening I saw the instinct as it came out in a slightly different manner. Senior Warden Grier Ferguson appeared at my front door minutes before six in the evening. He had tried to call, but unbeknownst to me my phone was on silence… ah, the blessing of being on vacation. It seems the Wallers had taken some food to Dr. Thomas’ home as a part of our Loaves and Fishes Ministry and learned that he wanted to receive communion. When the Wallers couldn’t get a hold of me they called Grier. I drove up to Chuckatuck and spent some time with Doc and his family. As we passed through the kitchen, Katherine, his daughter, pointed out the food that Roy and Shirley had brought and expressed how grateful the family was for it. I looked at it only briefly but continue to see it in my mind’s eye because it is a sacramental expression of the shepherding instinct – an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace in each one of us.

This day we celebrate and give thanks for God’s shepherding instinct; for how God leads us through life, cares for us, protects us, heals us, and one day brings us home. We give thanks for every time another person has incarnated God’s shepherding instinct through their own life. And this day we lift up ourselves and pray that the shepherding instinct might grow in us so that we can manifest God’s life and love through our very lives.