Sunday, May 20, 2012

A good shepherd (Easter 4 Year B)

Lectionary Musings Easter 4

Acts 4: 5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

This week I have been following a story from Farm Sanctuary.

Farm Sanctuary is now at three locations, two in California the other in New York. It is about an hour drive away from Ithaca. Andy and I sponsor a sheep named Donna and a pig named Terrin who we like to go and see. We love to visit Farm Sanctuary. We especially like to take new foster children to visit . . . it helps to show them why we do not allow meat in our home. (or to coin Linda McCartney’s phrase “we don’t eat anything that has a face!”) The love and care of the animals at Farm Sanctuary is obvious to all visitors. Of course, Farm Sanctuary is more than just a place that cares for abused animals. Tireless advocates work to change legislation on the treatment of farm animals, ending cruel practices and seeking to get factory farming banned.

However, the story I have been following isn’t about factory farming but about a small farm in upstate New York. The local SPCA called in Farm Sanctuary after they investigated the report they received about animal cruelty. (I posted the link with a short video clip on my face-book page this morning). The worst abuse was with the sheep (although probably only because they were the most numerous). There was a dead and decaying sheep, and 30 sheep and lambs still alive all in extreme condition of starvation . . . there was no food or water. The sheep with baby lambs were the worst as the mothers had sacrificed themselves in order to feed the babies.

So, after following this story about a cruel and neglectful shepherd. I read the gospel for today and found the story of the good shepherd. Christ was portrayed in this metaphor as the good shepherd. The one who cares for the sheep.

We talk in the community prayer about finding Christ in those we meet. In the Farm Sanctuary story it is easy to find Christ in those people . . . the one who made the abuse report, the ones who tenderly cared for the sheep in a filthy barn, the ones who gently carried the lambs to the transport van, etc, etc.

It started a train of thought about what qualities a good shepherd needs. If we are to be as Christ to those we meet we need to be good shepherds . . . all of us, not as is so often suggested only those called to formal ministry. We all need to be good shepherds to those we meet.

When I looked at those Farm Sanctuary workers I saw compassion. There was compassion for the hurting and the helpless. If we are going to be good shepherds in imitation of Christ we need to have compassion. We need to look around us and see where there is hurting and need. In Acts we read about Peter being questioned because he had looked with compassion on the sick and done what was within his power to bring healing. Not always the easy way having compassion on those in need.

Another quality a good shepherd needs is constancy. It is hard work to care for sheep. It isn’t glamorous, mucking out barns, making sure water troughs are full, etc, etc. I think the pictures we see of Jesus with a lamb around his neck and the caption “I am the good shepherd” do not do justice to the meaning of this passage. Actually I think they detract from it. Shepherding wasn’t easy in those times. Think about it, walking over rough terrain to find fresh grass, sleeping rough in the open air, drinking from streams (no supermarkets to buy bottled water!), eating what can be cooked over an open fire, keeping animals safe, protecting them from predators. The shepherd needed to keep constant watch, to be constantly alert.

Care, Compassion, Constancy . . . these are all needed if we are to be as Christ to those we meet. And, of course, this fulfills the commandment we read in today’s epistle “love one another” and more than that, “let us not love in word or speech but in truth and action”.

Apart from those thoughts, which were inspired by the Farm Sanctuary story, I must admit that I wrestled somewhat with the passages today. I found them disturbing. They made me uncomfortable.

This was also influenced by the events of the week. In this case because of some work I had been doing. I was writing the last two essays of my college course. The course was on world religions, looking at the rise of the pluralistic society since the 1965 Immigration Act. We live in a society where we work and have neighbours and friends who practice other religions than ourselves. How do we relate to them? What do we think about them?

In one of the required college reading books it was obvious that the author really struggled with what he thought about this. It left a somewhat confused message. On one hand he was very clear he wanted to see acceptance and tolerance and understanding between religions. He was of the opinion we could learn from each other. There should be no sense of considering the religion of others inferior. Yet, on the other hand, he was saying that he believed that Christianity was the “one true religion” and should be preached to all our work colleagues and friends. It was clearly a dilemma for him.

The verses used to support his latter position are reminiscent of the ones we read today, “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold” (John) and “There is salvation in no one else”  (Acts) The latter is very interesting, all through the story it talks about healing, then for this phrase the word is translated as saved. Almost feels like a bit of Christian triumphalism or exclusivism.

I think many people do struggle in these days with the question of other religions. I think they share the same dilemma as the author of the book I was reading. They want to stay true and honest to the religion they are practicing, yet want to honestly recognize the validity of religions of others. I often think that the religion we practice is an “accident of birth”. If we had been born into a different family, in a different part of the world and culture we may have embraced another religion in our search for God.

I am grateful for the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and others like him. They showed that one can embrace both one’s own religion and those of others without inner conflict. (some within our community have shown this too). God is bigger than our own imaginings. As the author of the epistle says, “God is greater than our hearts”.

I want to let  Thich Nhat Hanh have the final word. He says,

“Sharing does not mean wanting others to abandon their own spiritual roots and embrace your faith”

“Different religious traditions can engage in dialogue with one another in a true spirit of ecumenism. Dialogue can be fruitful and enriching if both sides are truly open. If they believe that there are valuable elements in each other’s tradition and that they can learn from one another, they will rediscover many valuable aspects of their own tradition through such an encounter. Peace will be a beautiful flower blooming on this field of practice.”

(Living Buddha, Living Christ p.196)

Blessings +Jane