Monday, November 2, 2015

Holy Sheep! Aha Moments in Israel and Jordan

Hebrew Bible: Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3     he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Second Reading: Revelation 7:13-17 John’s vision:

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’[a]
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’[b]
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’[c]”

John 10: 14- 18  
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Does anyone notice a theme to the readings this morning? All three are about shepherds and sheep. I am still recovering from my trip to the Holy Land and have decided to share some reflections with you this morning. 

We all have those aha moments in life when we suddenly understand something. Those moments when our brain makes new connections and we just get it. It’s like a little explosion inside our heads that casts new light on everything.
Photo by Niki Brodeur
As you might guess, I had a few a-ha moments on the trip to the Holy Land. On this trip, I actually saw some shepherds at work in the land of Jesus. I saw the land on which the shepherds kept their flocks. It is astonishingly different that the sheep farming I’ve known.

The shepherds I saw were Bedouin. They are not city dwellers or farm owners, but rather a free range people. They live on the outskirts of town, often in tents—but they probably have a cell phone and maybe even a satellite dish.  Those that I met had faces weathered from being in the sun. They work hard and will hustle you for a buck. They were outsiders in the time of Jesus and many still are today. I saw shepherds at work on two occasions. I think you will hear echoes of the Bible passages in both of these descriptions.

One shepherd was along a small, flat road. The landscape was brown and rocky with occasional patches of grass and trees. I think we were getting close to the Jordan River so the landscape was more than just brown. Off in the distance was a collection of Bedouin tent homes. These are long, portable tents covered with something like burlap. Suddenly the bus slowed to a stop. I was in the back and thought people wanted to take some photos. But a herd of sheep blocked our path.

The bus driver beeped his horn and the sheep did not move. When I looked out the window to the right, I could see a young man coming out of the tents and sprinting toward the flock in bare feet.  He ran around behind the sheep and managed to push them grudgingly off the road so that we could pass through.

Sometimes a shepherd leads a flock of sheep from behind, pushing the sheep along with rod or a staff of some sort. The shepherd stays behind and keeps them moving in the right direction and from making stupid mistakes like refusing to move for a bus. The shepherd gets the strong-willed and  stubborn sheep going in the right direction and then the entire flock will follow.

Sometimes our faith life is like this, right? We’re standing around doing our thing when Jesus comes and pushes in a new direction. We don’t always want to go and stubbornly refuse, but the Holy Spirit is insistent. Sometimes the shepherd pushes us to new places from behind.

On another occasion we were in the hills and mountains. As we stood on what seemed like a barren hilltop, we could see a shepherd and sheep down below. We couldn’t see any homes or tents, just some occasional caves in the hillside.

The hill was ringed with paths and the shepherd seemed to have no tools but a song. He would lead the way calling his special call to the sheep. Slowly and carefully, the sheep made their way up the hillside toward the shepherd while he sang. Now I'm pretty sure they were not Presbyterian sheep because they weren’t decent or in order. They weren’t in a nice straight line, but scattered across a steep hillside.

Each one carefully placed its hoofs so that it would not slip back down the hill. Some went to the right and some went to the left, but slowly and carefully, they made their way up that hillside because they knew the sound of their shepherd’s voice. They trusted that he would not lead them into danger, but would provide for them.

Sometimes this is what our life of faith looks like. We know our shepherds voice. We hear Jesus calling us forward. Inspired by the song we make are way slowly and steadily toward him, trusting that he won’t lead us into danger.

Scottish Sheep
I realized that despite the fact that I've seen a lot of sheep in my life, I’ve never seen a shepherd until this trip. I have memories of visiting some neighboring sheep who lived behind a fence when I was a child. There is a sheep farm on the way to my kids' school. And when I first met Matt, his family had a couple of sheep. Then, I went to Scotland and the sheep were everywhere at our vacation house. Thousands of free range sheep just roamed around on their own in the green pastures.  

But things were different in Israel and Jordan. 

In Pennsylvania and Scotland we have sheep farmers, not shepherds. The grass and water are abundant. The sheep wander the hillsides covered in grass and watered by regular rain. Here they are inside fences, left free within a confined area of grass and a water source.

But in parts of Scotland sheep reign. They independently roam the hillsides and wander down roads. They are left to their own devices much of the time. In fact in Scotland it’s the houses that are fenced to keep the sheep out so that the sheep don’t eat the landscaping.

But in Israel and Jordan, water is more scarce and grass grows in patches, not on hillsides. The grass is only green for a couple of months and the sheep can eat all the grass in an area in a day. So the sheep and shepherds are nomadic, travelling from patch to patch.

Mark Twain wrote that the sheep in the area appear to eat rocks, since there is no grass visible while they eat. The reality, our guide told us, is that the sheep can eat brown, dry grass.

There’s not much grass in many of the parts of Israel and Jordan because there is not much water. If you see a tree or plants growing, you see irrigation hoses. We visited a family friend who kept track for the rainfall near the Sea of Galilee--a "wet" area. A whole year of rain fit on one side of a small piece of paper.

Photo by Abby Thornton
So, looking at the sheep on a barren, brown hillside led to my a-ha moment. Being a sheep in the Middle East is really, really hard. They can't be independent and survive.  The sheep are totally dependent upon the shepherd. And so are the people. 

Being in the Holy Land helped me to see that all of us in this room today are born into abundance. Many of us go through wilderness times of grief or illness, but we have so much that we take for granted every single day.

Water, fertile soil, grass, and trees are probably the ones we think least about. We are fed from this ground of abundance both with produce and livestock. It happens so easily and naturally we may forget that God is involved. But the shepherds and sheep of the Middle East don’t forget. Water and grass are a gift from God. Survival is a gift. Life is a gift.

And so in this month of Thanksgiving, I’d like to remember to bless God for the things I often take for granted—and I invite you to join me in this, on paper or online. Together we will participate in a Great Thanksgiving—we will give thanks every day for the big things and the little things, remembering the God is intimately tied to everything in our lives.

You should have a paper calendar on which you can write down something you are thankful for every day (download it here). Or, you can find and like the Reunion Church Facebook page. Each day there will question or thought prompting you to give thanks. You can comment or just use it for inspiration for a prayer of thanksgiving.

Since it is November 1, I’d like to start today. I give thanks to the LORD for the rain and the grass. For God, the shepherd, who provides for us and leads us through dark valleys. For Jesus, the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, who promises that we will not hunger and thirst and wipes away all of our tears. 

I am thankful for the sound of our shepherd’s voice that calls us in our everyday lives so that we may dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

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