The Lord is not a shepherd

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on April 26, 2015.

John 10:11-18
Psalm 23

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. Continue reading “The Lord is not a shepherd”

  1. Wendell Berry, “VI” (2011), This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013), p.365.

The thicket

One afternoon in early fall, a couple of years ago, I walked out over a piece of land I had thought about buying. A two-story house had once faced the road, and a barn had sat somewhere behind it, and tobacco fields and pasture and gardens ran most of a mile down to the river. Now it had been ten years since the family had given the place up, and the house had been torn down and the barn too, and back of a brief yard the land had grown up in fresh woods, pines and skinny poplar and sweetgum. All that remained of the house was a well that might yet be hooked to a hand pump. For two hundred yards the woods were — littered would suggest too sparse a treatment of refuse; I could hardly walk a straight line anywhere without stepping over or around a beer bottle or a condom wrapper or a lumpy-full garbage bag or a moldy couch or the rusting hulk of a washing machine. If the human beings of Alamance County could purchase a thing and cast it aside, one or another of its kind surely made it into those woods. How many dumpster loads, I thought, would it take to clean up this mess? And how many months, or years? For how long would I be unearthing the flotsam of present-day consumer culture, like the world’s sorriest archaeologist?

But I had driven forty minutes to get here, and the owners’ agent was meeting me to show me the place, so I waited and tried to imagine what the place had looked like, a decade or a generation or a century ago when it was half a small working farm, and what it might therefore look like again. It required a good deal of imagination. I needed to see what was under those woods, how the land lay, how much was level and how much had been or could be cleared.

The agent arrived, late, in his full-sized pickup with a bumper sticker about how he’d rather be hunting, wearing camo-print cargo shorts and a machete holstered at his side, carrying a plat map and a topo map. His outfitting did not give me hope, but we set off into the woods, he telling me what he knew of the family, I wishing the children who did not want their parents’ land had made up their minds sooner to sell it. There was a way down to the river, he said; he’d found it before, though it was a couple of years ago. We picked our way through the trash, through the first scrim of pines. And then we came to the brambles. Continue reading “The thicket”

Ordinary miracles

Saturday afternoon my daughter and I volunteered on a local farm tour, at a farm where the two main attractions are goats and pickles. I’ve got a cabinetful of pickles at home, but no goats, and I figured even if a nine year-old girl got bored checking people in and welcoming them to a farm then surely baby goats would keep her entertained for hours. I was more right than I’d bargained for, as it turned out.

We arrived too early. We were supposed to arrive half an hour before the tour started, to set up and get the lay of the land, but I got us there half an hour before that. The farm was, I thought (and Google Maps confirmed) over half an hour away, and I had to stop off to buy chicken feed. But the map was conservative, the trip easy and the errand quick, and so I allowed far too much time. As I climbed out of the car and saw Mike, the farmer, walking towards me, I apologized and promised to stay out of the way.

“No problem,” he said, friendly but a little hurried. “In fact we’ve got a goat giving birth right at the moment, if your daughter wants to watch.”

I leaned back into the car. “Ivy, you want to watch a goat give birth?”
A second passed while my words sunk in — it is not the sort of question she is used to being asked — and then she bounded out of the car. Continue reading “Ordinary miracles”