Sheep Gracing

 

Book of Jeremiah 23:1-4
November 24, 2013: Ingathering Sunday
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.

This is our annual Ingathering Sunday…..again. It is, as always, a very special Sunday in the life of our community. It is the day when we gather and celebrate our harvest as a community, when we come to the table, God’s table, with our offerings and with our hopes and dreams for our future life together. It is a day of living eucharistically, that is, it a day of deep thanksgiving, as the word eucharist literally means. This is a day when we thank God for each other, for the graces of our community, for the magnificent whole that we create when we join hearts and hands.

This is also the last Sunday in our liturgical year. It’s sort of our Christian New Year’s Eve. The liturgical term for this last Sunday in the church year is Christ the King Sunday. In his 1925 encyclical, Pope Pius instituted this Feast Day, registering his opposition to the secularism that was challenging the authority of Christ even among Christians, even among Roman Catholics. And so this day is meant to be a reminder, in the secular vernacular, that Christ reigns….still….as always.

Unlike last year’s Hebrew Bible reading on Christ the King Sunday, which held up King David as the model for our own discipleship, the flawed but faithful ruler of the realm, this year we are offered a very different vision from the Book of Jeremiah. This year our model is not a King, but a shepherd.

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter my sheep says Yahweh. I will gather the remnant of my sheep and bring them back to their fold and they will be fruitful and productive. And I will raise up shepherds to care for them, and my sheep will fear no longer. And none shall ever again be lost. This is God’s promise to us on this last Sunday in this season of Pentecost, the season in which we are sent out to lift God’s work through our connection with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to help build the kingdom with our own blood, sweat, tears, and lives. God will raise up shepherds. And those shepherds are we. This is God’s promise and charge to us. The season when we are sent out by God to be God’s heart and hands and Spirit in the world. And according to this reading from Jeremiah, to be God’s shepherds, to find

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God’s sheep, and to tend God’s sheep, and to do it without fear. And so this year, Christ the King Sunday could be called Sheep to Shepherds Sunday.

As many of you know, my sister and brother and I met in Nashville Tennessee last Sunday to spread my mother’s ashes in the Great Smokey Mountains. Monday would have been her 77th birthday. And her wishes were to have her three children gather and put her remains to rest in a part of the country where she felt she had lived most closely with God. The Great Smokey Mountains. Each of us had a relatively tumultuous relationship with my mother. For different reasons. And each of us has had challenges in our relationships with each other. So this was a difficult trip to anticipate.

But, we are all the blood we have on this earth now. My brother and sister and I….and their children. None of us has laid eyes on our father in over 30 years. And my mother had one sister, from whom she was estranged for the last decade of her life. So estranged that when I called her to report that my mother, her sister had died, she informed me that she would not be at the funeral because her husband, our only uncle had died a week earlier and his funeral was the next day.

So last Sunday I boarded the plane to Nashville with a bit of……both hope and angst. But this was my mother’s last request, and it would be honored.

I have an ipod, one of the older ones, that is loaded with dozens of movies that I love. I used to take it with me on the long flights to Australia. But I have not used it since my last trip abroad in 2009. For some reason, I packed it for Nashville. And as we sat on the runway in Washington on Sunday evening, waiting for the tornados to clear the flight path to Nashville, I pulled out the ipod. Put in my headphones and queued up the movie section. And the movie that popped up on the screen was “The Secret Life of Bees.” If you have not seen it, I recommend it. And, my ipod shepherd could not have had better timing. If there was one movie I needed to see, it was this one.

The movie is about….well the story is somewhat complicated, but the movie is about….good shepherding, I think. It takes place in 1964, in South Carolina, just after the Civil Rights Act was been passed. It’s the story of a young girl, Lily, who lives with her abusive father and her African American caregiver, Rosaleen, who is not much older than she is. Lily is haunted by the memory of her late mother, who was shot and killed a decade earlier, accidentally, by Lily. To escape her lonely life and troubled relationship with her father, and the imposing guilt she felt about her mother, and also to protect Rosaleen from a violent racist, Lily flees with Rosaleen to a small town that turns out to hold the secret to her mother’s past, and to Lily’s hurting heart. The two travelers are taken in by the Boatwrights, three African American sisters who defy all of the stereotypes of black women in the south at that time.

They are well appointed, well educated, independent, fearless, shepherds of……bees and other gorgeous 2

creatures of God. They make their living selling the honey that is made by the bees that they tend. And the label on their jars is a picture of the Black Madonna, whom we learn later in the movie, is their shepherd.

After Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by the Boatwrights, the rest of the main plot of the movie is the story of how Lily, a lost, fragile, broken sheep who feels abundantly “unlovable” (having killed her own mother and been abused by her father) finds love…..with and through the wonderful shepherds who have taken her in, and tended her wounds, and offered her a home with their flock, fearlessly. You know these women are going to be wonderful shepherds when the matriarch, August (all of the sisters are all named after months in the spring and summer – May, June and August Boatwright), but you know they are going to be good shepherds when August Boatwright gives Lily the keys to the kingdom of beekeeping. Lily has just encountered the bees for the first time. And they do seem a bit terrifying as you hear the deafening buzz and can almost feel the visceral reflex in your own being that tells you to recoil, even though its only a movie. But Lily sees and hears the bees and she suits up in the protective overalls and face screen. And as August opens the first hive and the bees begin to swarm out, she tells Lily that there are four simple keys to keeping, shepherding, bees:

  1. Do not be afraid. (for fear will distract you)
  2. Do not be an idiot. (don’t be afraid but do use your head)
  3. Do not swat. (do not abuse the bees for doing what they were born to do)
  4. Surround the bees with love.

And that’s it. And the it that I am talking about, is, I think the description of a good shepherd. Don’t be afraid. Use your head. Do not punish the sheep for being themselves, even to protect yourself. And most importantly, surround the sheep with love.

Like my mother, I love the Great Smokey Mountains. And I love my southern roots. But those roots were, I think a bit of the heart of my troubled relationship with my mother. Because I could never quite get past what I saw as the rampant racism that seemed part and parcel of the southern….package. I tried to talk with my mother on a number of occasions about the language that she used and the need for us to own and claim and try to begin to heal the racism that almost comes with southern DNA. But my mother and I never reconciled on this issue. And I could not bear it. And so my discomfort with this aspect of my mother drove me further and further from the home that included her. And so returning to the south to put my mother’s incarnation to rest, felt….hard. And yet, it felt that she had, in her last wish served as the consummate shepherd. Drawing my sister and brother and I together in the most sacred and intimate and mortal way….binding us to each other for the next leg of this journey.

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In the living room of the Boatwright house is a large wooden statue of the Black Madonna, Mary who was the mother of Jesus and the shepherd to these women and their friends who gathered here regularly, to pray together. August explained that this Mary was their shepherd. That Mary had come to them saying, “It’s all right. I’ll be taking care of you now.” And she had. For these women are clearly well cared for. Mary said that if they were ever to grow weak they had only to touch her heart. And that is what they did. Whenever fear or sorrow or suffering filled them beyond coping, they would go to the wooden icon and touch her heart. They would take heart from their shepherd.

Touch her heart, her cor, which is the Latin for heart, and the root of the English word: courage. When the women touched the heart of Mary, they were, en-couraged. When we are en-couraged we are filled with heart. To en-courage someone, is to put heart in them. Courage is the balm of a broken heart. And it is the recipe for a good beekeeper/beeshepherd in one word. Or as the Taoist yogis might phrase it: What is the way to be fearless and mindful and respectful and ever loving? Answer: courage is the way. A good shepherd allows the sheep to touch her heart.

So courage, I think, may well be the top quality of a good shepherd. Although the funny thing about courage is that, like humility, it is not exactly a quality. One cannot have courage, one can only live courageously. And courage is always in the eye of the beholder. That is, it is a matter of perspective. What I call courageous may not be what you call courageous. But courage, deep heart, I think is the, or at least a, central characteristic of a good shepherd.

That said, en-couragement, may well be the number one tool of the shepherd. The art of putting heart deep in each other seems to be the finest art there is, and the maybe the best way to loving each other as we have been loved. The job of a good shepherd, then is to en-courage the sheep.

And so here we are on this ingathering Sunday, shepherds and sheep, every one of us. A whole community of shepherds, of highly committed, diversely talented folks who have opened and offered their hearts, who have volunteered outrageous amounts of their time and talent to carefully and mindfully tend the life of our community. No one here has not contributed to the vibrant life of this community. No one here is not a part of the legacy that we are honoring with our en-couragement of each other. No one here is not rising to the occasion of God’s call to us in this place and this time. No one here is not a shepherd, and no one here is without a shepherd.

And just as with bees, we each have a secret life, as well. A part of ourselves that lies just below the radar. A place where we contribute without acknowledgement, where we ache without en-couragement.

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And this morning, I encourage us to embrace each other as both shepherds and sheep. Pulling us together in ways that speak to our inner lives. Offering our time and talent and treasure and maybe most of all, our courage. For there is no flock on earth that has more heart in it, than this one.

Let us pray
Gracious God, we are grateful beyond words for this community and what we have and can build together. We give thanks for each other. We give thanks for our opportunity to share this good earth, this fertile life, this precious time. We give thanks for the richness, for the depth, for the friendship. And when we are blown about and dragged along and disheartened, we give thanks for the comfort, and the strength, and the en-couragement of each other. We work. We delight. We suffer. We rise. We fall. We fail. We forgive. But we do it all together. And we do all of this for love’s sake alone.
Alleluia!

Amen.
© November, 2013 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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