Saturday after Ash Wednesday
PS 86: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6
LK 5:27- 32
Each of today's readings features the image of sheep and shepherd - a common enough image for a pastoral nation like the people of ancient Israel and first-century Palestine. Because sheep are not part of the daily experience of most of us, I think we have tended to reduce that image to "followers and leader" - we call the leaders of our congregations "pastors," bishops carry a shepherd's crook, and we talk about Jesus as "Good Shepherd," simply imagining someone who cares for us as individuals, not just as part of the herd.
However, having had a working relationship with the Navajo people for over two decades, I have spent enough time herding sheep myself to get a different sense of that image. Granted, I'm hardly the world's best shepherd, but after hours on horseback chasing after a herd, the metaphor feels less like "followers and leader" and more like "idiots and person who has to put up with idiots." Reading "the Lord is my shepherd" through that experience has ceased to mean "God provides good things for me" and has come to mean "God puts up with my crap."
But that's too harsh, like God is maybe going to get tired of my crap and decide I'm not worth it. But the image in the gospel which speaks of Jesus' "heart [being] moved with pity" is a translation of the Greek word splagchnizomai - Jesus' "guts churned" at seeing the crowd like sheep without a shepherd, without knowing how to get themselves facing in the right direction. That's us. Sheep are herd animals, and far too often, so are we - follow the leader, give away our critical thinking because conformity feels better. Yes, there is a lot of bad stuff in the news right now - attacks on the dignity of immigrants and refugees, anti-Semitic threats and vandalism in cemeteries, anti-Muslim hate speech and arson attacks on mosques, violence based in racism and sexism and queerphobia and more - but it's always been us. We have always been a mess, we have always been like sheep without a shepherd, and for all of our progress and smarts and science and the impressive systems we have built, we are deeply alienated from ourselves and each other and God.
Our usual response is simple: try harder. And to a degree, we CAN be better. We can make policies and lessons and workshops that challenge us to confront our own racism and bigotry as individuals and as a people, but it's a never-ending struggle, and far, far too many people continue to fall victim to our stupidities and our cowardice. God may not send us solutions like care packages from on high, but our efforts at conversion of heart point directly toward that same mission of Jesus two millenia ago - the coming of the reign of God, opposing all that destroys human well-being. We continue to be herd animals, but like Jesus, we can learn to stand against the herd, even at our own peril, for the sake of human flourishing. This Lent, when we think about the disciplines we traditionally undertake, let us consider not just that "God likes it when I don't eat meat for a day" or "God wants me to give up beer or chocolate," but "God challenges me to not give in to fear when it comes to standing up for what is right, even if it costs me." That's a much harder challenge, but one that has so much more to do with the mission Jesus enacted in our midst.
Patrick Cousins is the Assistant Director of Campus Ministry and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Theological Studies.