“The Bible is not an end but a beginning, a precedent, not a story--the perennial motion of the spirit. It is still at the very beginning of its career, the full meaning of its content having hardly touched the threshold of our minds; like an ocean at the bottom of which countless pearls lie; waiting to be discovered. More than two thousand years of reading and research have not succeeded in exploring its full meaning.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
Isn't it true? We gather each week for Bible study on Wednesday morning and Sunday worship at 10:00am, yet we've hardly touched the full meaning of our Holy Scriptures and each week the preacher searches for that pearl waiting to be discovered. Our plate this morning is more than full, it's spilling over the edges with rich scripture readings to explore and special occasions to honor.
Today we honor the feast day of our name sake, St. Mark the Evangelist, a disciple of Jesus. The Gospel according to Mark is likely the oldest of the Gospels and is the shortest of the four books. The Church of Alexandria in Egypt claimed Mark as its first bishop and most illustrious martyr. The great Church of St. Mark in Venice commemorates the disciple who moved ahead rather than turn back, while on a missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas. The winged lion is the symbol for St. Mark the Evangelist.
The twenty-fifth day of April is a Major Rogation Day set aside in the early Church for fasting and prayers associated with intercession for the harvest. In later times the period of prayer was offered up for the needs of mankind, the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands. Planting and prayer goes well together.
And because of the numerous scripture references to sheep and shepherd, the 4th Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday.
I know dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, cattle and a horse and a milk cow and a canary, as my home for fifteen years was located on two acres of land with plenty of space for a family of five and an assortment of animals, as well as a large vegetable garden to the rear of the house and a flower garden in the front. Of course all these creatures and this space didn't exist on its own, it needed to be tended and weeded, and fed, watered, and sheltered so everyone took part in nurturing our small farm. Living in that environment one learns the needs of each animal and each is different from the other. Use of the land was divided between pasture land and spaces to be cultivated and planted with vegetables of several varieties. In the fall produce was pickled, preserved and canned. Poultry and beef was cut, wrapped and frozen. We lived very well from the produce of our land.
I know little about sheep, for we never had any on our property for good reason. Sheep and cattle don't easily coexist. When sheep graze they eat the grass down very close to the ground leaving nothing for cattle to graze upon. We simply did not have enough land for both.
Today we hear two of the most familiar and cherished portions of scripture--the 23rd Psalm, and the section from John's gospel where Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." Over the centuries, this image of Jesus as the good shepherd and his followers as sheep has been very appealing. The amount of stained glass, painting, music and poetry that it has inspired is truly staggering and the number of sermons, articles and hymns devoted to it is surely hard to imagine.
Still, of all the words read and heard on the subject of the Good Shepherd and his sheep, there is one thing about all this that no one talks about. It has to do with the simple question of "Why in the world do shepherds have sheep in the first place?
Well, Shepherds probably keep sheep for pretty much the same reasons that ranchers keep cows, farmers keep cotton and small property owners cultivate vegetables. Being a shepherd and taking care of sheep and being a sheep and having a shepherd are sooner or later going to have something to do with wool and mutton. And this little reality never shows up on the stained glass windows or in the comforting word of the 23rd Psalm. It’s all about wool and mutton.
In a sense this is rather encouraging after all, the problems with sheep and shepherds is that sheep have a reputation for being passive, docile and dull. So if we are the sheep of our Lord's pasture does that mean we are to be like sheep, just quietly showing up, not doing much and occasionally getting lost and being taken care of for we might not survive on our own? Is this story saying we aren't worth much and are not very capable? No, Remember shepherds don't usually keep sheep as pets. Instead there is reason to keep them and care for them with expectations for all. So back to wool and mutton. It’s about us and what's going on with talk of green pastures and still water. The Lord expects things of us and if we don't come through there is no Plan B.
The point is not that Jesus is the Good Shepherd to only the most useful of the sheep. Jesus isn't going to leave us to the wolves if we don't produce. The Lord cares for us and blesses us. He has laid down his life for us. That sacrifice, that love, that continued care is simply gifts. We don't try especially hard to please God in the hope God will be nicer to us or love us more.
Nevertheless, there are expectations. The care that the Lord offers us is intended to lead somewhere, to offer something real and meaningful. We are to produce, to give back from who we are and what we are able to do from our skills or abilities. We don't grow wool, of course not, that's not in our nature. But it is our nature to worship and reach out, to study and pray, to seek justice, to sacrifice some of our time to grow in Christ and to do this in community. This is about the church outside the walls of this space.
Every one of us has value and purpose. We are needed and without us the mission of our Lord and his church is lacking. We matter, we are valuable assets. One of the many truths of the biblical stories is that there is no such thing as being chosen for privilege. We are not chosen by our Good Shepherd for the sake of our own comfort or ease of life. God's care and provision are given so that we might be better equipped for service. We are valuable and important and we have an essential role in all of this. It's much more than the business of wool and mutton. AMEN
Ack. The Rev. James Liggett