Fooled by the Past
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
As you may recall, it was April Fool’s Day that ushered us into this season of Easter—the weeks following Easter Sunday—when we read the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and reckon with the difficult-to-believe reality of resurrection, an idea that flies in the face of everything we know to be true about being human. During these weeks of the Easter season we’re grappling with experiences we have that try our ability to believe in resurrection—new life—by replaying old narratives that can fool us into life-defeating realities. Doubt and fear were the first two we tackled; today? The past.
Unlike the last two weeks, however, today’s assigned scripture is not a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Instead, as you might have guessed during the reading of today’s passages, this Sunday is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day when our scripture talks a lot about sheep. Our gospel passage appears in the gospel of John just as political tension was getting high and Jesus was feeling the pressure of the message he was preaching. But it happened before his torture, crucifixion, and death…so why is this passage assigned for today?
Honestly, I have no idea. Which, in a way, makes it an exciting challenge for us. What does Jesus talking about sheep have to do with us trying to figure out how to get our minds around resurrection? Well, humor me here, but I think this passage might have a message for us about the past.
By that I mean that you and I have experiences that sear themselves onto our realities—they teach us what human life is like. And this body of knowledge, of course, helps us to navigate a treacherous world because we know how things work and we know the results of certain choices and we know what to expect.
But resurrection changes everything—knowing Jesus changes everything, in fact. And when we learn the new reality of life as informed by the gospel message, where we’re called to live in the world following a law of love, well, the old ways of doing things just aren’t true anymore; we are invited into a new reality altogether.
The problem is that we’ve heard the old stories too many times; they rise to the surface when we’re afraid or unsure. And all too often we look at the future through the lens of the pain we’ve seen and experienced, fooled into thinking that the narrative of the past is the only script we have as we face the future.
Jesus lived in an agrarian society, as you know, filled with farmers and fishers and…shepherds, so Jesus must have quickly concluded that a good way to make his point that day was to use a metaphor his neighbors would find easy and familiar. We, however, are less likely in our day-to-day subway commutes to run into a flock of sheep, so here’s a little background.
Remember what your Mom always said: “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow?” See, if you were a sheep, the answer would be . . . YES. Sheep just are not all that smart. They have to be watched carefully because they can easily be sidetracked: they will wander off into remote parts of the pasture following an interesting insect; they come to the stream, feel the water on their feet, lean down to drink and, if they’re not careful, tumble into the stream and get stuck. If one sheep starts a stampede, all the others will follow along, not bothering to look where they’re going, and they will follow each other into a ravine or even, yes, off a cliff!
This makes the work of a good shepherd critically important. The sheep depend on the voice and the care of the shepherd, the one who watches over them as they graze, who protects them from harm, who leads them toward safety as the sun begins to sink beyond the horizon each night.
When Jesus described a shepherd who fell down on the job, who didn’t pay enough attention or care very much at all for the sheep, who saw danger coming and ran away instead of staying to guard his flock, people in the crowd looked at each other and nodded in grim familiarity…that kind of behavior was far too common, and it put not just the sheep in jeopardy, but the entire society that depended on the work of the shepherd for food and financial sustainability.
By contrast, Jesus told the crowd, he was a “good shepherd,” and becoming part of his “flock” meant he would never let his followers down. In fact, he told them, he’d go so far as to sacrifice his very life to show them the way of love, lived out in real time right in front of them.
And maybe this is why the passage of Jesus talking about the Good Shepherd comes in this fourth week of Eastertide. Post resurrection we are being asked to believe something that is not part of our general experience of being human. The pain of our pasts—all of us—includes story after story of people we trusted letting us down, of actions and messages that tell us we are unworthy, of leaders casting hopeful vision and then leaving when the going gets tough, of death as a final, irreversible loss. This is just our experience, our human reality. Why would we ever try to imagine a future that looks different?
But Jesus is here asking those who were listening that day…and asking us…to believe in a future that could be different, one in which he will not leave us, in which love really is the power that can change the world, in which the painful experiences of our pasts do not have to be our future reality. He’s the “good shepherd,” and he wants to help us write a different, hopeful future.
Whew, that’s hard…trying to live a life with expectation of a changed narrative of the future. We’re so used to the past, to the pain that has defined us. We can be easily led astray by the many voices we hear in our lives, voices bound and determined to convince you and me that this world is going to hell in a hand basket, that there’s no hope to be had here, that war and devastation, hunger and pain is all there really is for us. And it makes sense that we would listen, because this has very often been our experience. You know, there IS a lot of pain in this world. What if pain is the only thing we can expect for our future?
And what about the experiences of the past that radio messages like: “What are you thinking? Your perspective is invalid; you don’t have anything to offer!” They might even say harsher things, like: “You are worth nothing. You deserve to be mistreated. Unhappiness is your lot in life.” These echoes of the past can sometimes be loud and uncompromising. Hearing them makes our ears perk up; based on our experiences, these voices strangely make sense.
Let’s be honest: we’re often unable or unwilling to imagine and live into a future that is different from our past. But, hear what Jesus says today: “I am the good shepherd…. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
The experiences of our pasts may fool us into thinking that the only “shepherd” we’ll ever find is a shepherd who runs away when things get tough or, worse than that, is defeated by evil. But Jesus wants us to know that following him means enjoying the care of a good shepherd, one who has tenderly nurtured us all our lives long, who will reconstruct the disappointment and pain of our past by helping us write a hopeful narrative for the future.
I had the distinct pleasure this week of traveling to Boston and paying a visit to Elinor Fosdick Downs. Those of you who know the history of this church might know that Elinor is the oldest daughter of the first pastor of this church, Harry Emerson Fosdick. Do the math and you’ll quickly realize: “Fuzzy,” as she’s affectionately known, is now 106 years old and she’s sharp as a tack. She’s a graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School—a retired pediatrician who was a doctor long before it was common to find women in the role of physician, so she was quick to bring up the fact that this was a banner week for women in the city of Boston. Not only did Desiree Linden become the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years, we talked at great length about the woman who came in LAST in the Boston Marathon.
It took Mary Shertenlieb more than 13 hours—which, to be fair, is far less than it would take me—to finish the Boston Marathon. Shertenlieb ran Monday’s marathon, her first, to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, a medical center where she was a patient. Shertenlieb was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013, living a medical nightmare that included two relapses and a stem cell transplant. In five years of ill health Mary endured hopelessness and pain, a body that was steadily diminished, and frequent grappling with her mortality. Mary decided to run the marathon to paint a different picture of her future, to tell a story of renewed health and beautiful strength and robust tenacity, so she started training in September of last year and began the marathon last week with high hopes.
The problem was, temperatures in Boston that day hovered around 30 degrees, with pouring rain soaking the runners. Around mile 15, Mary was shivering with cold, her lips blue, her body fatigued. She ran into a medical tent, where she was advised to take a shuttle back to the base.
“It infuriated me because I trained so hard for this. And I’ve gone through so many tougher things,” she said. “They were like, ‘It looks like you have the beginning signs of hypothermia and if you stay out there, you could get really sick.’”
Shertenlieb finally admitted to herself that she was risking her health to continue. But her husband, Rich Shertenlieb, had an idea. He suggested he take her home, get her a warm shower and some warmer clothes, then they could get back in the race around 8 p.m., when the rain and wind were forecast to stop.
After a quick dinner with their children, the couple returned to the same place they’d left the race hours earlier and made their way to the finish line in the dark. Against the odds, Mary Shertenlieb crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon at 12:18 a.m. Tuesday morning. “I never thought I would feel this happy being in last place!,” she said.
Imagine a body diminished by a deadly disease, on the brink of death on several occasions. For Mary Shertenlieb, this was her reality. But it was not the future she dreamed for herself. And so she—literally—stepped out in faith to embrace a new reality for the future, refusing to be fooled into thinking that her past was the only story her life could tell. (Click here to read more about this story.)
“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”
That was the past.
But what is the future?
Long before Jesus walked on this earth, there was a man named David who knew that the voice of God was really the only compelling voice in all of our human experience. And, of all people, David should’ve known. He was, after all, the one who followed voices of temptation, greed and lust and got himself into a whole heap of trouble.
But he was also the one who, one night, sat down with his harp and began to think about his former life as a shepherd, all those days and nights that he had camped out on the hills outside Jerusalem, sling tucked into his belt, staff clutched to his side, surveying his flock at rest.
And as David sat on his throne, harp in hand, the distracting voices of international strife, power-hungry advisors, and needy people rang in his ears: the soundtrack of his life. And, as David thought about those feelings, perhaps he began to think that the only voice that really led him out of his own pain and confusion toward a hopeful future…was the voice of God. And maybe it was then that David began to think of God kind of like…a good shepherd.
So, needing to hear that clear voice steadying him toward a different, hopeful future, David plucked the strings of that harp and began sing:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Thou annointest my head with oil.
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Now, that’s a hopeful future, for sure.
Don’t let yourself be fooled by the past; whatever the pain of your past, it does not have to be the narrative of your future. There is a good shepherd, a resurrected shepherd, inviting us to write a different future for ourselves and for our world. The only question for us today is whether or not we will have the courage to step out in faith…and follow.