A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on April 26, 2015.
I was determined that I was not going to stand up here and talk about sheep, but in thinking about today’s readings I kept being pulled back to the image of them—the shepherd, the flock, the pasture, the sheep. I have to admit I’m just not crazy about that image. It isn’t that I don’t like sheep. I do like sheep. I’ve toyed with the idea of having sheep some day. They’re relatively easy to manage, and they’re good for multiple purposes throughout their life cycles: they give wool, they give meat, some breeds even give milk. They can live off of relatively poor land. They can be integrated fairly easily into a multi-purpose farm and a household economy. And lambing season, if you don’t mind being kept up at night, is a glorious thing. Wendell Berry, one of a dwindling number of literal “good shepherds” the western world has left in this age of industrialized agriculture who also gives us his own eloquent descriptions of the experience, has this to say about keeping sheep:
The old shepherd comes to another
lambing time, and he gives thanks.
He has longed ever more strongly
as the weeks and months went by
for the new lives the ewes have carried
in their bellies through the winter cold.
Now in the gray mornings of barely
spring he goes to see at last
what the night has revealed. 1
Berry is a Christian, which I think shows through pretty clearly in his poetry—not that he is actively trying to convert anyone, but that he never strays very far from the image of rebirth. The care he takes for his sheep is the sort of care we’d want from our own Good Shepherd, but Berry’s is a very human shepherd—a humble one, who “gives thanks” for a lambing time that he, far from controlling in the manner of an industrial foreman or a software engineer, takes as a holy mystery.
I was determined not to talk about sheep, but, as you can see, I’ve failed. Sheep and shepherds are everywhere in the Bible, and we’re so used to seeing them that most of the time I think we hardly do see them. I read you this poem to point out that being a “good shepherd” is considerably more complicated than the image most of us have in our minds—which I suspect is more or less the image you see above my head, in stained glass. A white-robed Jesus, blandly kind to the point of looking nearly stoned, cradling a sweet and innocent if fairly vapid lamb in his arms. It’s that image that draws many of us to the 23d psalm: The Lord is my shepherd… he leadeth me beside the still waters, and so on. It’s comforting, in its place. There are times when we’d all like Jesus to pick us up and cradle us in his arms. But the world I know doesn’t look like that [pointing to the post-Raphaelite stained glass scene behind me]. Even Wendell Berry’s ideal shepherd is considerably richer and more complicated than our disconnected, urban, post-pre-Raphaelite visions.
What I really want to talk about is these images of God we have in our heads, and what good they are. But I’m going to have to talk a little more about sheep and shepherds first.
If, like me, you don’t recognize the happy world of the stained glass above my head, I have some good news: That’s not the world Jesus was talking about. It’s not the world that needed his shepherding. Pastures in Palestine don’t look like that, and never did. The Bible (and especially the Old Testament) is so rich in agrarian metaphor because the people by whom and for whom it was written were largely an agrarian people, but most of the land in Israel is not arable; either the terrain is too hilly or the soil too poor for crops. But it will grow grass, and where you have grass, you can graze sheep—though not always very much grass, or of high quality. The line between pasture and wilderness wasn’t always clearly drawn, and sheep often needed the guidance of a good shepherd just to find something to eat. They might stay out for days at a time, moving from one scrubby field to another—hence “watching their flocks by night.”
And if the line between pasture and wilderness wasn’t clearly drawn, neither was it safely fenced, which meant that the shepherd not only had to worry about sheep wandering off but about wild animals snatching them in the dark—not to mention bandits. He had to be prepared to fight them off—that’s what that staff was for. Today we’re apt to infantilize shepherds as much as sheep, especially at Christmas, when we turn their hooked staves into candy for children. But the shepherd’s staff was a tool and a weapon. It could be used to block a sheep’s path into danger or to prod it to safety; and it could be used to beat off an attacking wolf—or an attacking human. A shepherd had to be continuously alert, always ready both to care kindly for his sheep and to do battle with enemies. “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” not because the shepherd looks so comfortable leaning on them, but because they show that he’s ready to defend us. If he’s leaning on it, it’s because he’s exhausted from the effort.
The Roman poet Virgil, who died a couple of decades before Jesus was born, did as much as anyone to romanticize shepherding—using a form we now call pastoral, literally of a pasture, and take to mean idyllic contentment.
When Summer’s West Wind sounds its joyful tones [he wrote,] Lead all your flocks to glades and pasturelands:
Catch the country frost with the morning star,
When day is new, the grass still white, the dew
A sweet delight to herds. 2
Such was his advice for bountiful Italy. But Virgil’s description of the lives of Libyan shepherds gives an antitode to this fantasy, and might have been more familiar to Jesus’ listeners (not to mention Isaiah’s, and Ezekiel’s):
Now, shall my verse pursue the Libyan nomads,
Their pastures, huts, their scattered settlements?
Their flocks will often, day and night for a month,
Roam and graze the empty tracts and find
No shelter in the vast expanse of land.
This African shepherd takes his world along,
His household, weapons, dog, his bow and arrows,
Much like the Roman soldier fierce in arms
Who marches forth, unfairly burdened down
By all his field equipment, and arrives
Ahead of time, to catch the foe off guard. 3
If that was the kind of shepherd with which Jesus’ hearers were familiar, then the image of God as shepherd was not, in fact, opposed to the image of God as warrior—there was, in fact, a lot of overlap.
But now consider this: For all a shepherd’s vigilance and care, for all that he might have to take on the role of warrior, his job was not well respected. True, shepherds enjoy an exalted place in the Bible—God, kings, priests, and Jesus are all metaphorically shepherds, and David was a real one before took his sheep-defending skills to war and slew Goliath. But as much as we all enjoy rooting for an underdog, we’d rather not be one. Shepherds—we do learn this much from the Christmas story—were more or less at the bottom of the social ladder, perhaps not least because after days in the field they smelled rather much like their sheep. The job of tending flocks was typically given to a youngest son or to another who was considered too weak to do more strenuous farmwork. Shepherding was thus easy to disdain—not real work. Much as we hate being compared to sheep, it wasn’t actually all that much more flattering to be compared to a shepherd. When Virgil starts talking about shepherding he says “I know full well how hard a task it is / To crown with honor such a crabbed theme,” but he commits to doing it anyway.
All of which is to say that, when Isaiah and Jesus and others talked about shepherds and sheep, the metaphors were richer for them and their hearers than they are for us. To call God a shepherd may have been a little jarring: it suggested stooping to a role respectable people wouldn’t want to play. To call earthly rulers shepherds was surely a little jarring, and served to put them in their place and remind them of their duty. Lacking the context, we have only fantasies.
That’s one danger of relying on metaphor to talk about God. If the metaphor doesn’t speak to our experience, if we don’t share or understand its shades of meaning… Well, “As a thorn goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouth of fools.” (Prov. 26:9) We’re apt to miss the point.
Here’s another danger of the Good Shepherd metaphor. If the Lord is my shepherd, what am I? Well, a sheep, obviously, which is why I’d have preferred to avoid the whole topic. I read a lot of “good shepherd” sermons over the past couple weeks and about the best anyone can find to say about sheep is that they’re useful animals. The best that I could say about them is that they’re useful animals. But truth be told, I rather thought that being made in God’s image made me more than just a “useful animal.” We all resemble sheep sometimes—we like sheep have gone astray. But while it might be instructive to think of the good shepherd as a model for one’s own leadership, thinking of the people under one’s care as sheep seems a pretty easy shortcut for an earthly shepherd to become a wolf. To think of human beings as dumb animals who spend their days mindlessly, endlessly consuming, occasionally being shorn, our babies being eaten, and when we grow too old to be productive being slaughtered for dog food—well, it starts to sound more like a model for global industrial capitalism than for the kingdom of God.
In any case, speaking frankly and personally, I’m not a sheep. I’m a goat. I know Jesus said the sheep will be separated from the goats, but all I can say is there better be a place in the kingdom for goats, too.
The good news—at least, I think it’s good news—is that the Lord is not, actually, a shepherd. As we know from Psalm 17, God is actually a mother hen, hiding us under the shadow of her wings. (Ps. 17:8) Except that, as we know from Isaiah, God is actually a woman in labor, shrieking, panting and gasping for air. (Is. 42:14) God is also—in addition to the usual king, judge, father, rock, and fortress—a friend, potter, builder, midwife, farmer, bride-groom, and old woman; a lion, a wild dog, and possibly a sea monster; a vine, a fountain, and a gate; wind, breath, light, bread, and both water and fire. He is further (in my favorite metaphor, or actually simile if we’re being precise) like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth. Not to mention that the Good Shepherd, in laying down his life for his sheep, will become the Lamb!
But of course God is not actually any of these things. And that’s the point of metaphor. Metaphor takes two things that are palpably not the same, puts them together, and jars us into seeing a similarity and a relationship that we otherwise would miss—a deeper truth, you might say, beneath the level of fact, that skips away from us when we try to examine it too closely. It’s a way of expressing mystery and depth. But it only works if the juxtaposition is, in fact, jarring—if we haven’t already heard it a thousand times, and if we know enough about the things being compared to understand the comparison being made.
To say that God is our father or that we are children of God (for example) is useful only inasmuch as it expresses a closeness, a direct relationship, and shocks us with the news that we, mere mortals, are as direct offspring of the creator of the universe. But God is also not like our father, and certainly not literally our father—which ought to be a comfort to anyone who had, or has, a troubled relationship with their own literal father.
To say that Jesus is the Good Shepherd is useful inasmuch as it reminds us that we, like sheep, can safely follow where he leads—even through the valley of the shadow of death—when he calls us each by name. But Jesus is also not like a shepherd, which frees us to be also not entirely like sheep.
Every metaphor is as much about what is not as about what is, and that’s precisely what metaphor offers to someone trying to explain God. “The ‘is not,’” writes Sarah Rebecca Freeman, “acknowledges that we live in a fragmented world where every word, phrase, name, and image for God is incomplete. It is the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ that lets us speak about God without claiming too much, without normalizing our experience, and without confining God to the incompleteness, brokenness and restricted nature of the human experience.” 4
Metaphors constantly shift, evolve, and elude our grasp. And that makes a lot of us uncomfortable. We are a very literal culture, more prone to take offense at the is not than to laugh or learn or merely appreciate the beauty of it. We like doctrines and data because they’re clear, and clean, and safe. But they’re also impersonal, and excluding. Hence the poet Kathleen Norris says of the metaphors she hears in scripture: “I encounter there not a God who rejects me because I can’t pass some dogmatic litmus test but one who invites me to become part of a process, the continuing revelation of holy word.” 5 Metaphors ought to be inviting. It’s when we start taking them as literal that we get into trouble—permitting our own understanding to be limited, claiming a sort of power over others’ understanding, and indeed claiming a kind of power over God.
R.S. Thomas, a 20th-century Welsh priest and poet who well understood how impossible it is to pin God down, often found it most helpful to describe God in terms of what he is not rather than what he is. And so in closing, I’ll read you his poem “Via Negativa”:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
It can seem a bleak image, of a God who always manages to elude our grasp. But the Good News, paradoxically, is that God will always slip away from our attempts to pin him down—which means that he will always be able to return to be as great as we need him to be. God will be, after all, what God will be.
- Wendell Berry, “VI” (2011), This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013), p.365. ↵
- Georgics III, p. 70. ↵
- Georgics III, p. 72. ↵
- Sarah Rebecca Freeman, “Metaphors for God: The Characteristics of Metaphor and the Use of Metaphor in Contemporary Women’s Preaching,” Homilectic 36:1 (2011), pp. 12–13. Available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.15695/hmltc.v36i1.3435. ↵
- Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 217. ↵