I did not grow up in the United States.
I was thirteen years old when my family moved to New York City.
It was December of 1979.
I remember the dismay I felt on that first morning in New York.
I was just a kid.
I’d flown halfway around the world by myself, so I was already bleary and worn out when I caught sight of my mother’s familiar face among the people waiting at the gate at JFK.
A cab took us up and over the Triboro bridge into Manhattan. The sun was coming behind us, and from the onramp I looked out over the neighborhoods of Queens as they were waking up…
This was America!
The exhaust fumes of an idling delivery truck.
Commuters hurrying to work, hunched against the cold.
The rattle of an elevated train.
The corrugated iron fences darkened with rust and old graffiti.
A plastic bag stuck in a tree, whipped by the wind.
A few days before
I’d been in New Zealand.
This unbearably immense city!
Each building – each window, the suggestion of human souls, numbered beyond measure.
And everything, everywhere seemed hard and unforgiving – the stark, angular shadows of the buildings –
the long avenues, shot through with winter light…
108 Evans St was perched up on the side of a steep hill, so my childhood memories are slanted. Everywhere I went was downhill, which meant it was always uphill to get home. When I yelled out to catch up with my friends, my voice carried out over the rooftops of the houses below, and I felt like I was giving a little bit of myself – an echo – to the wind of that place.
The sun rose over Mt Cargill, in the west. The silhouette of the mountain looked like an old man lying down to rest. The orange and red neon of a lonely Chinese restaurant sign, came on at the bottom of the hill at day’s end.
The hills were speckled with sheep. The small white dots did not stay in one place – they moved about, but imperceptibly slowly, so that you didn’t really notice a change unless you looked away and then, later, looked back again.
Once, when my father was invited to preach in a church in a rural part of the southlands, I had the opportunity to watch a sheep farmer moving a flock of sheep from one paddock to another. The farmer opened a small gate in the corner of the field, and whistled for his dog, who dutifully swept around behind the flock and gave a few sharp barks, as if to say, “Hey, wake up!” The nearby sheep hopped to it, but the others, who were scattered here and there around the paddock, just looked up to see what was going on. A whistle from the farmer prompted the dog to dart to another spot, and those sheep took notice. Soon a nervous crowd was forming around the opened gate. It was like watching water drain from a sink – the energy of all the beasts gradually collecting in the corner of the field, and then, in hurried motion, all streaming through the narrow gate.
The Jewish and Christian scriptures make liberal use of the sheep symbolism.
The most well known psalm – Psalm 23 – begins with the words:
The Lord is my Shepherd.
When John the Baptist first sees Jesus, he points to him and says: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
And in today’s passage, that Carol just read for us, Jesus makes use of both shepherd and sheep in an extended metaphor that seeks to describe his own (Jesus Christ’s) role in the process of salvation.
Personally, I find it difficult to preach on this passage. There are two things that I don’t like about it. The first is that this passage has traditionally been used to claim that Christianity is the only religion that can offer salvation.
Jesus uses the parable of a shepherd leading sheep through a gate to show us that God (the shepherd) wants us (the sheep) to go through the gate (Christ) into eternal life.
When the disciples don’t get it, Jesus spells it out for them:
‘Very truly, I tell you, he says, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved…
As the child of a Japanese father and an American mother, who grew up in different parts of the world, I was aware, early on, that there are many ways to do things. An Indonesian Amma who makes a soup for dinner will end up with something very different from the Scottish Granny likewise employed. Must one be pronounced superior over the other? To affirm one way of doing things, is it necessary to proclaim all the others frauds? Must I, in my delight of apple pie, throw cannolis, croissants and moon cakes into the compost pile? Does being a follower of Jesus require me to condemn the Buddha and Mohammed to the dumpster of human history? I hope not, because I refuse to do so. Truth – especially religious truth, that tries desperately to understand how the mystery of the eternal interacts with the human soul – must not be limited to a single teaching.
The second thing that bothers me about this passage, is that we – you and I – are sheep.
Isn’t the sheep the animal that is mocked for not having a mind of its own? Aren’t sheep known for being complacent – for being content to follow the crowd wherever the crowd happens to be going? Sheep are actually prized for being obedient – for not having a will of their own.
Is that what we are?
Is that what God wants us to be?
If that were so – if God wants us to be meek and subservient – then why make our every living moment an insatiable pursuit of freedom? Why bestow us with souls that long to find and express beauty? Why give us the spark of curiosity, and the intellect to follow the interminable winding paths into mystery? The human creature was not created to be obedient. Or rather, if we were, we soon rebelled. That’s why totalitarian states never flourish for long. Our spirits may be trampled, but they cannot be extinguished. Even if we die, our consciousness – our love – lives on in those we have touched.
This reaching beyond ourselves, is the very thing that makes us human…
And not sheep.
But even as I write this, I see that there is another way to look at it.
My high rhetoric in praise of human curiosity and freedom makes good sense to us, because we live in a culture and time that values the rights of the individual above all else.
But when we easily dismiss “obedience” as weak, preferring instead to claim the right to create reality as we see fit , we are in very real danger of creating a world that conforms to our own forms of insanity.
I am thinking, right now, of the peculiar set of cultural circumstances that make it possible for events like the one that happened in Texas on Friday night, when a man, who was asked to stop firing his gun in his yard at 11pm, turned his gun on his neighbors and killed five of them – including an 8 year old child.
Unthinking obedience may be misguided, but so too is the sin of headlong pride. Can we claim to be the sole arbiters of our own existence, when we construct a culture that is more interested in protecting the right to carry a gun, than it is interested in protecting the life of a child?
Before we throw out the idea of “obedience” and assert our right to shape our world, perhaps we should find out what our faith traditions call us to be obedient to…
I’m fifty-seven years old now.
It has been forty-four years since that December morning, when I looked out over Queen’s and saw America, in all its complicated beauty, stretching to the horizon.
Was that day the end of my innocence?
Did I, in some fumbling way, wake up to the asphalt and the gravel of all this, our great human struggle to determine our own reality?
My childhood had been obedient to simple longings – the joy of running till I was out of breath and collapsing under a pine tree; following the bed of a creek in a fern-laden ravine; the sound of my father’s slippers, the comfort of my mother’s arms.
To find meaning in my life –
to make sense of this world, O God…
To fight for the Justice that you require of us
I need to go my own way.
I need, O God, to be empowered by curiosity, trusted with knowledge, offered the possibility of wisdom.
But in all this, I do not claim to be self sufficient.
I need, also, to be obedient.
Obedient to wonder.
and to love.