A friend of mine and an old acquaintance of yours, Jonathon Chesney, tells a story of a time when he was hiking in Scotland. He describes a beautiful countryside high in the hills with long, meandering roads intersecting green pastureland and flowing creek beds. It was a beautiful blue sky day and he woke with the urge to hike and set on a grand adventure. He soon found himself off the beaten path and wandering through the green pastures of the open countryside. The sun was warm and though the climb was steady, he found the walk to be more than pleasurable.
At some point in the hike he wandered across a flock of sheep. They were quietly grazing, scattered across a pasture—white, fluffy bodies dotting the hillside. Jonathon couldn’t help himself, as he came closer to them he had an overwhelming urge to bleat at them—baaa. The sheep closest to him bleated back. So Jonathon baa’d at them again. Other sheep looked up and bleated at Jonathon. So a third time, he bleated back at them. He was beginning to enjoy himself and his new game when he realized that the sheep were starting to move toward him. He wasn’t sure if they were an angry mob of hostile sheep, heading his way intent on taking revenge on this representative of the human race—alone and outnumbered—who sheared them every year around this time or if they were all simply searching for a leader. Either way, his joy was quickly being replaced by a sense of uneasiness and he felt the sensible thing was to high-tail it out of there.
The sheep kept coming and were bleating ever more incessantly at him. Jonathon was searching for the best escape route—hoping to find a fence he might climb and separate himself from the oncoming mob but seeing none started back toward the last path he remembered following. He hoped that it might lead him to a road and maybe a passing car could help in his escape. But in the moment, all he had hope for was in potentially out-distancing the sheep. He found a dirt path and was walking as quickly as possible and the herd kept coming and, at times, seemed as if they might gain the advantage.
Jonathon was growing desperate to escape the sheep. Their bleating was growing louder as they pursued him, following him whichever direction he pursued. It was as if they, too, were desperate—but for a leader and his bleating at them had signaled to them that he might be worthy of following. The sheep would stop for nothing and Jonathon began to imagine himself in some sort of comedic-horror story in which the irony of his call to the priesthood and his fear of marauding sheep were playing out in great irony.
Jonathon kept to the path in his attempt to escape—he wasn’t sure what else to do. He was outnumbered in a foreign land and the white, fluffy enemy was closing in. Then, when he believed all hope was lost and the sheep would take the victory that day in the field, he heard the sounds of his salvation—the sounds of running water. It wasn’t a loud, rushing noise, but it was definitely water and he knew he was getting closer. The path made a sharp turn and Jonathon found himself mere feet from a creek not much larger than a babbling brook. His hopes of escaping the sheep by crossing the water source began to diminish but he couldn’t stop moving now—the sheep were gaining.
The creek was a little wider than his longest stride, so after two quick steps he was on the other side and to his great surprise, the sheep stopped. They gathered on the far side of the bank from him. bleating even more urgently, but not daring to enter the water and cross over. Jonathon realized he was safe and stopped and turned around—the urge to bleat at the sheep gathered on the other side of the water passed over him, this time, he resisted the temptation. Soon he turned his back on the sheep and began to walk away. When he looked back to take a final glimpse of the rolling green pastureland and babbling brook, he realized, with relief, that the sheep had abandoned their pursuit of him and gone back to grazing—white dots against a background of greens and browns and the blue of the sky.
Sheep want a leader. They are hungry for one and when a leader presents him or herself and speaks their language—they are quick to follow. We, too, are searching for a shepherd and there are a lot of potential shepherds out there—many of them seemingly speaking our language. But there is only one Good Shepherd whose voice the sheep will know and who knows them. Poor Jonathon thought it was all fun and games that day in the field—until the sheep called him on it. They heard his voice and thought they recognized it to be that of their own, so they followed him. But the problem was that Jonathon did not know them and did not trust them—so instead of leading and guiding them, he tried to escape them.
The Good Shepherd, who we know as our Lord and Savior, knows us. So when he bleats at us and we hear his voice and follow him, he neither attempts to escape or allude us but instead: guides us along paths of righteousness for his name’s sake; leads us beside still waters that do not threaten to overwhelm or drown us in their chaos; he makes us lie down in green pastures that we might refreshed and rest in that peace which passes all understanding; and even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death—through pain and fear and suffering and doubt and despair—he does not leave us and we are comforted by his presence. God is our Good Shepherd. He knows his flock and his flock knows him and we are assured that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life.
For the Lord at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
And he will guide us to springs of the water of life.
This morning we will baptize two little ones—Isabelle Austin and Margaret LaRue—and in so doing they will become part of God’s flock. They will hear God’s voice amongst the cacophonous noise of this world that they might follow him as he knows them. And just as all of us were led to the spring of the water of life in our own baptism—we do so again today as these two lambs are brought into the Christ’s flock through that same water of life.
The water of life is the water of baptism—it is where we are made Christ’s own forever. It is where forgiveness of our sins and the resurrection of a new life in grace is bestowed upon us. It is where we are sustained in the Holy Spirit and given discerning hearts, courage, the knowledge of God, and the gift of joy and wonder. The water of baptism is the water of life—the water that quenches our thirst and gives to us eternal life so that we will never perish and never be lost to God.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
Easter 4C: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Church of the Ascension – Montgomery, AL
Sunday, May 12, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer