The Good Shepherd
by The Rev. Keely Franke
May 15, 2011
It’s been a strange week in my world. Not because of the weather, which was 30 then 85 and humid then back to drizzly and cold. That’s just called Minnesota. That’s normal, not strange at all. No it was a strange week for other reasons. I began the week by spending a couple of days with 70 or so clergy at our biannual clergy conference, enough to make any week a little strange.
It’s also been a week of dealing with death and dying. On Monday I went to Bishop Anderson’s funeral, who many of you know. He was the bishop preceding Bishop Jelinek and the ordaining bishop for many of our clergy in this diocese, including Barbara. Then on Wednesday I went to the funeral of a friend’s son who died at the age of 43. He didn’t have health insurance and so he died from pneumonia. And in between these things I spent time with an older man who I have come to absolutely love and adore and who was dying.
A strange week and today we are given even stranger texts to deal with. I don’t know about you but the text of the Good Shepherd doesn’t do much for me. It reminds me of bad Christian art at best and at worse bad Christian theology. I also don’t really know what it has to do with Easter and the resurrection.
The first problem I have with it though is that I don’t really see myself as a sheep – bah. Sheep are dirty, cute and herdable. I on the other hand like to shower, I am cute, but ask my husband, I am not very herdable. I have a mind of my own and don’t like to go with the crowd.
Aside from that I’m confused with this text. Is Jesus the shepherd, the gate or the gatekeeper? Which one is it? And what does Jesus mean by these things? John says, “but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” No kidding, I don’t either. I assume “they” were the disciples because the disciples never seemed to know what was going on. Or maybe “they” were the Pharisees who are supposedly the thieves and bandits in this passage. Whoever they were, I’m with them. I don’t get it either. And instead of explaining himself, Jesus continues with even more examples no one can understand. He says things like “I am the gate.” And in the passages following where ours left off today he says “I am the good shepherd.”
I don’t like this imagery of the gate and gatekeeper, because it has been used to keep people out of church. To define who is in and who’s out. Who’s saved and who’s not. And that’s just not the God that I know and understand. That’s not the God of love.
A strange thing happens when you become a priest. People all of the sudden start expecting that you have an extra “in” with God. They want to know things like where you go after you die and what this resurrection thing is all about. They want to know who’s in and who’s out. And most importantly if they’re in. And I’ve got news for them, there are no neat and tidy answers for these questions. At least not that I know of. All I know is what the church has done with passages like today, creating places like heaven for the “in sheep” and hell for the “out sheep,” otherwise known as goats. This doesn’t work for me in my world and my God.
Madeleine L’Engle responds to this beautifully when she says: “But for most of us, who see a God of a much wider and greater love than that of the tribal God who only cares for his own little group, more is needed. And that more is a leap of faith, an assurance that that which has been created with love is not going to be abandoned. Love does not create and then annihilate. But where my husband is,” she says “no priest, no minister, no theologian can put into the limited terms of provable fact…The important thing is we do not know. It is not in the realm of proof. It is in the realm of love.”
I have to trust that somehow this is where the Good Shepherd fits into our Easter story. Not in the realm of understanding or of proof, but in the realm of love. And I have to believe this is why Jesus spoke in such confusing riddles. Because the realm of love is so expansive and limitless that Jesus has to say it is like this and like that. Because there is no other way to explain it.
This week a bishop who lived out his life well and to the fullest was put to rest. And in the same week a young man for whom life was a long, hard struggle his end came too. This week I held my friend’s hand and told him he was not alone. I told him that his wife, who had passed just a few months ago, was with him and would take him where he needed to go. His mouth widened into a huge grin when I said this and he opened his eyes and his face lit up in acknowledgement and hope. Last night I was with him again after he had passed away, and I gave him my blessing to send him on.
Where these three men will go this week I don’t know. But if God is a gate, I can only imagine She is a gate flung wide open with a place for all. The Gospel today ends by saying “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It’s a strange life that we profess. Some of you might be thinking, “Welcome to your life, Keely, you might as well get used to it.” But I have a feeling, 40 years down the road it will be no less strange or mysterious.
In honor of these three men and the countless other lives who this week came to an end only to begin again, I end with Bobby McFerrin’s 23rd Psalm. This is his version which he put to song and dedicated to his mother:
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk, through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.
She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil,
And my cup overflows.
Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me,
All the days of my life,
And I will live in her house,
Forever, forever and ever.
Glory be to our Mother, and Daughter,
And to the Holy of Holies,
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
World, without end. Amen.
“A Grief Observed” – Foreward by Madeleine L’Engle