The Wildness of Grazing

The Wildness of Grazing
John 10:22-30
for May 12, 2019 (canceled due to storms)
preached May 19, 2019
Easter 5C

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22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah,[a] tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.[b30 The Father and I are one.”

John 10:22-30


We’re sheep this morning. Let’s give into this image with all of its offense and imperfection. Release the connotation of mindlessness. Release the concern about odor. Release the implication of powerlessness. Just be the sheep. We are the sheep being guided from place to place by a wild shepherd who doesn’t follow the rules of polite society. He doesn’t honor property lines or acknowledge land ownership. He’s taking his sheep to the green pasture and guiding them to the still waters because it is what the sheep need and deserve. And we’re sheep, after all, so we don’t know that property lines and land ownership exist, right? We know the shepherd’s voice. We know this pasture is a good one. We’re delighted to find a stream for drinking some water and taking a nap. When we are with the shepherd and our flock, we are safe and at home. Our minds are wherever our bodies are. We are in the moment, in that place, and our thoughts do not wander to the next task or worry about lack. As long as we are tuned into the shepherd’s voice, we have everything we need. 

This is God, scripture tells us. The Lord is my shepherd. I would gather you under my wings like a mother hen. I am the Light of the world. The Word was with God and the Word was God. A devouring fire. A fountain of living water. The true vine. The great physician. Cosmic ruler and king of all. Wind. Breath. Hovering Spirit. Can you feel the pace of scripture? Almost running between metaphors. Not frantic and breathless but delighted and soaring like a child chasing a butterfly. God is shepherd! God is king! God is mother! God is Light! God is Wind! God is Vine! Scripture is setting a table before us with a feast of images to satisfy our appetite for more of the Divine. 

This is what happens when we are limited to human language to talk about the source and framework and design of everything that is beyond life. None of our words can quite get at the thing we are trying to describe, and that can mean a couple of things. Either, we make our language tight and small in an effort to pin the butterfly down that we are chasing OR our language continues to follow the expansive zigzag of the butterfly’s path. A butterfly pinned down to a piece of foam core to be studied and defined has lost its butterfly-ness. The life and fluttering and movement and beauty slips away in the attempt to control and define. So for today, we’re going to let this thing keep flying as we attempt to understand how we can live within the wild movement of metaphor.

Joseph Campbell said, “God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all categories of human thought, including being and nonbeing.”

Let me say that again: “God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all categories of human thought, including being and nonbeing.” 

This will land as heresy for some of us and agitate others. If what we want is historical nonfiction, metaphor for a mystery only hands us poetry. If what we want is a guidebook to the eternal, mystery only hands us impressionist art. And before we give ancient scripture a hard time about being confusing with these wild images for the nature and reality of Eternal Mystery, pay attention to love songs written within our own lifetimes. We humans simply don’t have the capacity to pin down transcendent reality.

Neil Young sang, “I’ve been a miner/ for a heart of gold.”

Queen gave us, “This thing/ called love/ it cries/ in a cradle all night/ It swings/ It jives/ It shakes all over like a jelly fish/ I kinda like it/ Crazy little thing called love.”

Pat Benatar cried, “Love is a battlefield.”

We don’t know how to get at this stuff of heart and soul and mind and breath and lived experience. We are limited by our words when we try to express a reality that exists in the space between us. Some mothers know that feeling of being up in the night, nursing a baby in a quiet house, and the moment just before the baby drifts off to sleep and locks eyes, and love and peace and wholeness live in that space. The swirling thing happening there is mystery and family and connection and deeply human and wildly divine. How does one begin to capture that holy moment? To call it a late night is inadequate. 

A packed fellowship hall on a Friday afternoon with judges, attorneys, community organizers, faith leaders, activists, nonprofit directors, and passionate people of faith eating lunch. Everyone deeply dissatisfied with the world as it is and animatedly describing a world as it could be and a world as it should be. It’s seeking justice. It’s loving neighbors. It’s plotting goodness. But how does one begin to capture the energy vibrating between individuals as they share the ideas of their hearts? What is being created in the collective gathered there—a new force for good that has never existed before? To call it a great lunch is inadequate. 

In our readings this morning, we are talking about “metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all categories of human thought, including being and nonbeing.” Today, God is a shepherd. And goodness and mercy are on the move, right behind that shepherd. Chasing. Pursuing. Following us all the days of our lives just like that shepherd guides us and leads us. These are images of comfort, yes. We rightly bring them out in times of panic and worry. We hold them close when death is near. We whisper them over the grave and hold to their promises, “SURELY goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…SURELY goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…SURELY goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…”

We are describing a mystery that transcends all categories of human thought but NOT of human experience. We know this. We feel this. We have those moments where everything is as it should be, even if it’s 5 seconds. We know those places the Celts called thin places when we are almost certain we could reach across an invisible line and be across time and out of time into the eternal. We know that feeling of “I wish it could be just like this forever.” And I believe that Jesus was inviting people to live into that reality here and now. I believe he was calling his disciples and followers and anyone who would listen to be sheep in the same way scripture was pointing to God as shepherd. 

Be sheep. Be baby chicks. Be the animated thing receiving air and thoughts and heartbeat for the first time. Be the drinker of water. Be the subject to the king. Whatever metaphor gets you there, be in this other space that is beyond the words we know and the limited framework we have. Don’t be afraid of the fact that you can’t pin it down and scientifically describe it. Don’t give up on it just because it’s poetry and not historical nonfiction. Move beyond the stuff of law and property lines and land ownership and mine vs. yours and us vs. them. Cross the thin place, reach through the boundary, and understand this mystery beyond words that is here for you to know and encounter and inhabit right now. 

When my friend Oteil Burbridge was in town over Jazz Fest, we went to lunch after worship with Rabbi Matt Reimer from Temple Sinai because Oteil had some questions he said only a rabbi could answer. In the course of that conversation, we ended up talking about Jesus as a teacher in the time of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai in the 1st century and his role in engaging the letter of the law or the essence of the law. Remember, we spent weeks (maybe months) over Advent and Christmas and into Epiphany talking about Luke writing in a very particular political context and understanding Jesus’ words and actions in the very real and particular place of 1st century Roman occupied land.In that same way, Jesus was teaching in a very political theological and religious context as all of the faith leaders sought to make sense of their tradition against the backdrop of 1st century Roman occupied land. This is not a perfect parallel, but I think it could be something like U.S. conservative evangelical leaders in the 21st century understanding power and scripture in one way and progressive Christ-leaning faith leaders pushing back against those ideas of power and limited, regressive interpretations of scripture. (Clearly, I know where I am in this present-day struggle for embodying truth and mystery in the complexities of real time.)

So there’s this conversation happening—robust, dynamic, likely divisive at times—about what it means to be Jewish. And Jesus is taking it even further than the boundaries of just one religious tradition and getting at what does it mean to be a person of faith? What does it mean to know God? What does it mean to be fully human? What does it mean to really be alive in your life? I want us to hold that context in the same hands we’re using to hold John 10 because we lose something with our English translation of Jesus and the Jews. This text is not Jesus vs. Judaism. This is Jesus WITHIN Judaism engaging thoughts that lots of other folks were also engaging.

Where we read “Jews,” Mark Davis is most helpful in his translation “as Judeans, rather than Jews,” saying, “It reminds me that the tensions may be more fraternal, between competing strands of Judaism, than Christian v. Jewish, as it is often read.” In fact, let’s remember there is no Christian at this point. If Jesus is still alive and teaching, then Christianity is not a reality that exists when Jesus is having this conversation with other people of faith. Some of the other leaders around him have gotten really lost in the weeds with Rome and power and exclusionary interpretations of sacred texts, and Jesus knows it. He also knows the sacred texts they are narrowly interpreting in order to tighten their grip on power and control are really meant to be “metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all categories of human thought, including being and nonbeing.”

The point of this whole thing is to draw us deeper into the way of God, the way of love, the way of peace and justice, the way of care and affection for our neighbor, the way of welcome, the way of feeding and nurturing. And if our readings of sacred text AREN’T expanding our hearts and our minds, then we’re reading them wrong. If our readings of sacred text AREN’T growing our experience of love and peace and justice and affection for our neighbors, then we are reading them wrong.

But Jesus doesn’t get wordy in his response because he wants to get to the thing beyond the thing and the space between the words. He wants to describe the holiness of a quiet house at midnight as a mother and child are blissed out in harmony. He wants to describe the synergy of diverse neighbors gathering around one concern for the collective and flourishing in that shared sense of goodness. He goes where we HAVE TO GO with those moments: to metaphor. 

Jesus’ answers aren’t complexly theological. Instead, he talks about something they all know in everyday, ordinary life; he talks about being a shepherd of sheep. He builds on a long, long tradition of pastoral language. He leans into the imagery of Psalm 23. He says to know God is to know one who anoints your head with oil and meets your needs. To be in holy space, the pasture of the divine, is to lie down beside green pastures and drink from still waters. To lock into the presence of the shepherd is to know in your gut that Goodness and Mercy are on your heels, following you all the days of your life. To connect with the sacred in ordinary time is to know what it means to have your soul restored just as much as it means to feel cared for and protected in the presence of enemies. And I would venture to guess that deep connection and provision and abundance in the presence of enemies even transforms the way we begin to understand our enemies.

Give into the wildness of grazing. Give into whatever image draws you out of the monotony and lostness of obligatory time and into the expansiveness of holy time. Move into the pasture where Shepherd and sheep are so connected that they know each other’s voices and sounds and anticipate the movement from grass to stream. The greatest danger I can see of metaphor is that we too easily dismiss it as having nothing to do with everyday, ordinary life. But this image is an invitation to be wildly awake to real life here and now in ways that are freeing, sustaining, liberating, and ever-expanding. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to follow on the way of Christ? What does it mean to know God? What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? What do we do with any of these questions and the truths their answers contain? 

We live into this space we can’t quite describe but we know it when we feel it. And we keep dwelling in that space and inviting other people into it with us. In that nameless but knowable space, we lack nothing. And in that space, everyone can lie down in green pastures and drink from quiet waters. In that space is no fear of evil but ultimate protection and comfort. In that space is food enough for all, even the enemies. In that space is the blessing of oil and the abundance of a never-empty cup. In that space goodness and mercy nip at our heels as we dwell in the holy house of God forever. 

This is metaphor and this is reality. This is poetry and this is promise. This is our deepest hope and the truest truth. We are invited into this wild grazing life today, in real time, right now. Beloveds, the Lord is our shepherd.


Elizabeth Lott