No sheep am I: Thoughts on Proper 19

No doubt there will be lots of preachers this Sunday that expound on the image of the Good Shepherd, one of the most beloved and durable metaphors in the New Testament. I served in five parishes over thirty five years and visited dozens more and every one of them had a Good Shepherd stained glass window or image somewhere in the Nave. Each featured a very white (albeit bearded) young man in impractical but appropriately Biblical garb (long flowing ballroom-style gowns guaranteed to snag every bramble in the pasture) cradling a lamb bearing a suitably grateful countenance. The image transports me back living room gatherings organized by earnest Christian parents anxious to redirect the raging hormones emerging in their teens to more spiritual passions. I’m not sure the meetings actually turned my thoughts away from the girls present to more ethereal satisfactions, but I do remember the songs we sang and their assertion of divine ownership and oversight of our lives (and thoughts):

In God’s green pastures feeding by His cool waters lie;
Soft in the evening walk my Lord and I,
All the sheep of His pasture
Fare so wondrously fine; His sheep am I.

It’s probably a little late in the game to admit that the comparison never really fit comfortably for me. I have never seen myself as having much in common with a quadrupedal ruminant. Placid, compliant, pretty far on the left of the Bell Curve, sheep may bear a striking resemblance to some of Jesus’ favorites, but not, I fear, me. Admittedly, I do wander off from time to time, landing in places I ought not to be, but my experience is that I frequently emerge from those experiences bruised and battered, worse for the wear rather than being rescued by a benevolent deus ex machina. If, in fact, Jesus has observed my descent into lost-ness or incompetence, I’m pretty sure he’s been content to let me learn the hard way.

So, if I was preaching this Sunday (which I won’t be), I’d want to look somewhere else to find my experience affirmed, normalized. Thankfully, there’s a remarkably familiar image elsewhere in this week’s lections, as far removed from even-toed ungulates as east is from west.

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:10-14)

Now, there’s a shocker – Moses standing toe to toe with God arguing, lawyer-like and presumptuous, telling God what God should think, using shame and embarrassment as a bargaining chip. That’s my kind of ruminant. What’s even more surprising is that Moses changes God’s mind.

Uh, excuse me? God is malleable? Really?

Okay, so this story requires a little “suspension of disbelief,” as they say in the movies. I fully understand that plenty of folks out there are convinced that every word in the Bible is historically accurate and that it was delivered inerrantly to whoever happened to be Scribe of the Day, and while I have no desire to rob them of their sense of security, I suspect that the truth imparted in scripture is more deeply grounded in the insight of the ancients into the eternally divine than in the historical accuracy of their reportage. I suspect that there was, deep in their knowing and in their experience, the realization that if God was Godly, God is as affected by humans as humans are affected by God; that the relationship of the human and divine is characterized by mutual interactivity.

I once told a congregation, “You know, if I was going to start a religion, I wouldn’t choose any of you – I’d pick golden retrievers. Genetically designed to please, unquestioningly agreeable and astonishingly dumb, goldens are supremely sheep-like. That’s who I’d pick.” Remarkably, God picked humans – difficult, rambunctious, argumentative, stiff necked humans. That’s as incredible as a landlord who advertises for tenants that rarely pay the rent and always complain about the accommodations.

But there I am: quick to argue, non-compliant, always looking to bend the rules and fight for advantage. And sought anyway.