Sunday, May 15, 2011
May 15, 2011
+ Twenty-seven years ago this month, I was called to the Priesthood. It wasn’t a dramatic event—I wasn’t blinded by a light. I didn’t hear any voices. Just one day when I was thirteen years old, I KNEW I wanted to be a priest. Now, when I tell people about that they think it was just a kind of smooth, clean transition. They think that this calling was there with me, all those years, through all that schooling, until the day I was finally ordained. The fact is, it wasn’t that smooth. In fact, for the better part of ten years—during all my twenties—I tried to avoid this calling. I ran from the calling. Yes, I worked in churches—four years in a United Methodist Church. Yes, I studied and prayed.
But I also struggled. And I resisted. But despite the fact that I did so, I found that the calling was more persistent than I initially thought. Toward the end of that struggle I came across a poem. It was a poem I knew well before then, but only toward the end of my decade-long struggle, did this poem really speak to me where I was.
The poem is a kind of classic. It’s called “The Hound of Heaven.” It was written by a drug-addicted, tortured young man that we would no doubt today call a slacker. Francis Thompson, who died in 1907, wrote the poem during one of those difficult times in his life. The poem begins like this:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat - and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet -
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me'.
I won’t read the whole poem to you, but the gist of the poem is this: In it, a person is trying to avoid Christ. But Christ, like a hound, does not let the poet off. In fact, as much as the person tires to avoid Christ, Christ keeps on, doggedly chasing after him, on “strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
It was when I read this poem with eyes wide open that I realized that this is how God sometimes works. God sometimes, like that Hound, does chase us. God does nip at us and chase us wherever we think we might go to avoid God. God is unrelenting in the chase, I came to realize. Certainly this was so in my life and in my calling to the priesthood.
Now, I shared this poem once not long after I made the connection in my own life and the person I shared it with was somewhat offended:
“Jesus, as a Hound—as a Dog!” she said.
For her, it was sacrilegious to make the comparison. And for some time I did avoid sharing the poem. Then, I read, not too long, this very interesting comment from the Anglican theologian John Stott.
“Is it appropriate…to liken God to a hound?” Stott asks. He then went on to say that R.M. Gautry concedes that “there are good hounds as well as bad hounds, and that especially admirable are collies, which range the Scottish Highlands in search of lost sheep.”
Stott further shares “the theme of searching sheepdogs (or, more accurately, of searching shepherds)” occurs often in scripture.
Today, of course, we experience one of those themes in our Gospel readings. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday—the Sunday in which we encounter this wonderful reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd. Jesus describes himself in today’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd. This is probably one of the most perfect images Jesus could have used for the people listening to him. They would have understood what a good shepherd was and what a bad shepherd was. The good shepherd was the shepherd who actually cared for his flock. He looked out for them, he watched them. The Good Shepherd guided the flock and led the flock. He guided and led the flock to a place to eat.
This is an important aspect of the role of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd didn’t feed the flock. Rather the good shepherd led the flock to the choicest green pastures and helped them to feed themselves. In this way, the Good Shepherd is more than just a coddling shepherd. He is not the co-dependent shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t take each sheep individually, pick them up, and hand-feed the sheep. Rather, he guides and prods and leads the sheep to green pastures and allows them feed themselves. The Good Shepherd also protects the flock against the many dangers out there.
If we follow the Good Shepherd, if we allow ourselves to be led by him to the Gate, we find that incredible reward of green pastures awaiting us. And even if we don’t follow, if we stray, we will find him prodding us. We will find him nipping at us like the sheep hound.
But, with our eyes on the Shepherd, with Hound nipping at us from behind, we know that the bad things that happen to us will not destroy us, because the Shepherd is there, close by, watching out for us. We know that in those bad times—those times of darkness when predators close in, when storms rage—he will be there for us.
More importantly the Good Shepherd knows his flock. He knows each of the sheep. If one is lost, he knows it is lost and will not rest until it is brought back into the fold. He will go after that lost sheep, like the Hound. In our collect for today [from the Book of Common Prayer], there is this wonderful reference,
“Grant that when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name…’
This is the kind of relationship we have with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We are know him because he knows us. He knows us and calls us each by our name. In Jesus, we don’t have some vague, distant God. We don’t have a God who lets us fend for ourselves. We instead have a God who leads us and guides us, a God who knows us each by name, a God who despairs over the loss of even one of the flock and goes after us, chasing us down.
John Stott, in talking of the poem “The Hound of Heaven,” writes.
"Francis Thompson was expressing what is true of every Christian…If we love Christ, it is because he loved us first. If we are Christians at all, it is not because we have decided for Christ, but because Christ has decided for us. It is because of the pursuit of ‘this tremendous lover.’”
We have a God who, in loving us, leads us and guides us and follows us from behind, then allows us to pass through him into a place wherein we will feast. This image of the Good Shepherd is more than some sweet, gentle image we apply to Jesus. As Christians, as followers of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we are also called to be good shepherds to those around us. All of us who are called to ministry—and we all, as Christians, are ministers and we have each been called, in our own ways—know that to be truly effective ministers we have to be good shepherds. We should be helping others toward the Gate, and through the Gate into that green pasture. We should be nudging an prodding each other along. And we should be concerned about those who have fallen away, who have been led astray. This is what it means to do ministry.
So, on this day in which we celebrate the Shepherd who leads and guides, on this Sunday in which also commemorate the Hound of Heaven, who follows behind, prodding us and nudging us forward toward the gate, let us allow ourselves to be led. On this day that we look to the Shepherd who guides, let us be guided. Let us allow ourselves to be led by that Great Good Shepherd, who brings us to himself, to the very Gate. Let us listen for those “strong Feet that followed, followed after
… with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,”
And there, either led or prodded, let us go through the Gate, that goal of our spiritual lives, into that glorious place we have longed for all our existence. And when we are there, in that glorious place, let us rejoice in our God and in each other. Let us know that the joy we will experience there will be a joy that is never taken from us. Amen.