FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
As I’ve reflected on today’s Gospel reading from John, I’ve been drawn to two images.
One image is that of Jesus, Pharisees and sheep.
The other image is of Jesus, Cody (the Motherhouse farmer) and the Motherhouse cows.
A number of weeks ago the cows were grazing in the pasture out in front of the Motherhouse—along the road up the hill from the highway. Then, suddenly it seemed, they were gone and a section of the fence was down. A thief and marauder in the night? No. The cows, it turned out, were happily grazing in the field in back of the barn. One of the sisters asked how they got there. How do you move a herd of cows? Load them in a truck?
So one day I asked Cody how he got the cows from the front pasture to the back pasture. He laughed and said it was easy—he simply opened the gate, in this case made one by taking down a section of fence, went into the pasture, and called the cows. They came at the sound of his voice. Then he led them forward, out through the gate, to a pasture waiting with renewed grass, good food, and fresh water. They knew his voice and they followed him.
A few days later, as I was driving down the hill, there was Cody putting the finishing touches on a new farm gate in the place where he had taken down the fence to move the cows.
Then last week I walked through the pasture down to the Valley House. The cows were grazing there. I tried calling them. Guess what? They didn’t come, they didn’t follow me. Some simply continued to enjoy a lovely grass lunch in the sun. Others, gathered in the shade, eyed me with more interest and some suspicion. By the time I got to the Valley House a dozen cows were crowded around the gate—blocking it. They were in no way about to move to let me in. Two thousand pound cows make for serious gate keepers. I had real doubts about elbowing my way through them. So I crawled through the fence where a slat was missing—taking the way of thieves of marauders.
Cody is the gate keeper, the gate, the Good Shepherd, the Good Herdsman, of cows. Cody knows the cows and they know him. He knows gates. And pastures. What it is to call and to lead. To have in his heart the needs and wellbeing of the land and the cows. It’s a gospel-like image. Jesus would have liked it.
Jesus knew what he was talking about when he talked about how shepherds are with their sheep. Sheep were part of his environment as much as the cows are a part of ours. He knew what he was talking about when he said he was the gate, and the gatekeeper, and the good shepherd.
John notes that when Jesus used the images of the gate to the sheepfold, the shepherd entering the sheepfold, calling his sheep and leading the sheep out to pasture, the Pharisees didn’t get it. They were even more determined to have Jesus killed. Shepherds and Pharisees lived miles apart in the same tradition. In the Gospel they are foils to one another.
Shepherds had a long tradition in Israel. Abraham was a shepherd—called to shepherd not just his flocks—but also the people—to father them as a new nation, to lead them to a new land and a new future and new relationships with God. David was a shepherd and the Pharisees anticipated a messiah from David’s line who would free them from Roman occupation.
Just a couple chapters earlier in John’s gospel the Pharisees had identified Abraham as their father. Jesus had challenged them – if Abraham was truly your father you would do what Abraham did. Act like a shepherd. Shepherd the sheep. Shepherd the people. Lead them where God would have them go. Out and toward a future abounding with life.
By the time of Jesus the social status of shepherds had declined significantly. They were despised by the “good” people of the day—especially the Pharisees. They were unable to keep the details of ceremonial law, to observe the meticulous ritual of hand washing, the rules and regulations—the things so important to the Pharisees. The constant needs of the flock made all that impossible. And so they were looked down on– certainly not “real” children of Abraham. They were among the lowest of the low, not worthy of the temple—–or the consideration of God.
The Pharisees had arrived much later on the biblical scene—just a few hundred years before Jesus. The Pharisees saw themselves as the guardians of the law and put upholding the letter of the law and the traditions of ritual observances above everything else. They defined holiness in terms of appearances and ritual observances. They saw themselves as the gatekeepers of righteousness and holiness—and God’s favor. They may have considered themselves the children of Abraham but they despised shepherds—Jesus tended to see them as hypocrites. The looked good but their praxis revealed false hearts, rigidity, harsh judgement, and exclusion. They harassed the man born blind whom Jesus healed. They refused mercy or understanding to the woman caught in adultery. They slammed gates in the face of others and did not shepherd.
They rejected Jesus as they rejected shepherds.
I look back at Cody. Last week he opened the pasture gates and the barn doors to a group of Head Start kids. He opens gates for Kentucky’s young farmers—educating, mentoring, providing experience, leading them in a future of farming practice grounded in care, reverence, and respect. He is leading Loretto into a future that is hopeful, sustainable and life giving. He shepherds. Hopes for a future.
That’s what Jesus calls us to. We must be shepherds, protecting the weak and vulnerable. Safeguarding creation. We are called to open gates and lead others to life—not build walls to keep others out, or slam doors to keep them in places of violence and poverty and death. We are called to a practice of mercy, of open arms and open hearts. To live for a future of abundant life.
Sue Rogers May 7, 2017