a place for us in the universe
Grace mercy and peace to you in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Like most parents, I have been forced to face the unpleasant fact that I am unable to do middle school algebra. I understand in theory what my sons are trying to do. I can understand the general idea of the x and y axes, as well as slope and intercept … I just don’t know enough operations to solve for any of those variables. I think I remember, sometime in my distant past, muttering the words, “When am I ever going to use this?”
That’s one of the long time knocks on math, right? Especially for those of us who weren’t drawn to STEM careers. When are we every going to need to know this? When are we ever going to use this? Well, when you are staying home in the middle of a plague and your son asks your help with math problem. I guess that’s one time.
In truth the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made the importance of math perfectly clear to the entire world. The rallying cry of our great global struggle so far this year has been #flattenthecurve. The preferred mathematical model for this pandemic has been displayed as a curve with a slower and gentler rise and fall. In this way those who fall ill will not overwhelm our medical system or other essential systems of life. For verbal folk like me, the hashtag helps me translate numbers into a goal. We have been part of an effort toward a more model of our future, a model represented not as a spike, but a hill-like curve. For all us kids who smarted off once and said, “When am I ever going to use math.” Well, let me just say to all of my math teachers … I’m sorry. I repent.
What I didn’t know then, but have come to learn in a kind of crash course over the past 6 weeks is that one way we understand of our world is through mathematical models. These give us pictures of whole systems and even describes relationships within the system. Each day morning at the top of my NY Times app, I see “the curve" a visual representation of a mathematical model that gives me a picture of how our town, our state, our nation, and our world is doing. I understand the curve, even though I can’t do any of the math that allows the curve to predict a possible future. I get the curve.
But there is something about these mathematical expressions that I find overwhelmingly distressing. You see mathematical models, if you let them, can also tell stories that verbal folks like me can understand. Because there are certain point and values on the graph that stand for a single human life, and each and every human life is a story. Can we even begin to comprehend the story of the curve when as of midnight on Saturday May 2 there have been more than 3.3 million cases COVID-19 and more that 238,000 deaths worldwide. One third of those cases have been our fellow Americans. While for now we it appears that the mathematical curve that has come to be the representation of this pandemic appears to have flattened, and we started to move down the reverse slope, I have to admit that I have difficulty coming to terms with numbers, especially when we start to understand that what we are solving for, calculating and modeling is human pain, suffering, death and the grief that radiates out from each story plot on the graph.
We do not live as data points in mathematical models. We live as human beings in human relationships and as creatures in relationship with other creatures and with the entire creation. We are part of a big picture, but that big picture is formed by so many individual points of color and texture. Which do we focus on — the big picture? or the individual point?
Maybe that’s where we are this week. Caught in between. Not knowing where to look. The New York Times summed it up with this headline today: "Your Life or Your Livelihood: Americans Wrestle with Impossible Choice. As states begin to loosen restrictions," the article begins, "the act of reopening will be carried out not by governors or the president but the millions of individuals being asked to do it.”
That captures the dilemma. We are part of larger world, but we are individuals in it. We live as individuals, but what do effects the people and world around us. While we might be able to understand all this on a small scale — like within our own a family system. It is more difficult to wrap our minds around the reality of being one in 7 billion, one in 380 million, one in 100,000 or even in 1000. Yet that is what we are. We are a single part of an interconnected and interdependent universe of people on this planet. And when it comes to grasping the cold statistical reality of more than 1 million people who have fallen ill in this country or the more 65,000 fellow country-folk who have already died, I scarce can take it in. It looks one way on a chart. It looks another way in the hospital room of a single sick person. The million-person chart is distant and unreal, but approachable. A single sick person, multiplied by 1 million, is all too real, but overwhelming in its horror, as is a single death, multiplied 65,000 times. And the counter keeps running. We can mathematically represent the interconnectedness of each sick person in their network of relationships and interactions, and find the infographic fascinating, but when we hear the news that some one we know and love is sick or has died, the full realization of our interconnectedness hits us. We are all connected.
And so we are blessed to open scripture and find ourselves in John chapter 10. Here Jesus gives us a way to see both the larger picture and our individual place within this larger universe. He does so not with a mathematical model, but by using an ancient figure of speech — the image of a flock and its shepherd.
If you are like me and grew up singing, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” or “Have no fear little flock” — two of my favorite hymns -- then we can easily get lost in the beautiful and simple, pastoral romanticism of the image of the shepherd and his sheep. This is where sheep like me, prone to daydreams, often go astray. We get lost in all these beautiful and comforting little points of the image that we don’t see the big picture. What Jesus is giving us throughout this gorgeous chapter is a way of describing the kingdom of God, a world under the rule of its good and gracious God, now present and abiding with us as Jesus, the Christ.
Jesus uses the image of a shepherd and that shepherd’s flock to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom and his calling and purposes in establishing that kingdom among us. He is the one, true shepherd of the flock. In scripture, we often hear this image used as a way of speaking about the relationship between a ruler and a nation, a king and his people and also between God and God’s people. Through this figure of speech Jesus is describing what is happening in his ministry. He is calling and gathering the flock, God’s people, but he is also making a claim about himself as the true ruler and Lord of this assembled flock, this nation.
Even though most of us have little to no experience with flocks and heards, I think we can all agree that this image does make it easier for us to understand how we as individuals are part of something larger than just ourselves. In this case, how we are part of the coming of the kingdom of God.
The image of Jesus as our good shepherd-king also reveals the special relationship Jesus has with us, not only as flock, but the way Jesus knows and understands each of us as individuals. Jesus knows each sheep within by that sheep's own name. Jesus knows and understands its own story, its own relationships and connections and personality. The true shepherd knows us all and employs that intimate knowledge to rule and guide us in love. To Jesus there is one flock, but he doesn’t relate to us in the aggregate, but as the individual stories that make up the flock, and, even deeper than that, Jesus uses this figure of speech to show us that Jesus’ ultimate purpose is to gather these individual stories together into one large interconnected story that proclaims our salvation, healing and the gift of a new and abundant life. Jesus has come to save us from harm and to provide life in abundance. That is what makes him the good shepherd. He not only establishes an intimate and accessible relationship with us, but he gives himself entirely for our life and salvation.
Jesus works with us one-on-one, but understands that we are part of the flock, and by doing so reveals the true nature of his goodness and his love that takes both realities of our life together into consideration. What is good for one of us but comes at the expense of others is no good at all. What is good for the shepherd but harms the flock is certainly no good at all. Yet what is good for each sheep and good for the flock, but calls for the shepherd to sacrifice and offer himself up for the sake of the sheep is a crisis that reveals the goodness of the shepherd. In fact Jesus boldly asserts that this is the ultimate witness and sign of the authentic shepherd. All others are but thieves and robbers. All others look at the flock as something that exists for them and their well being. All others see power as license to exploit, profit and take.
This kind of revelation should strike us like a bolt of lighting today. Because it is nothing less than radical revelation of who is actually worthy of love, allegiance and devotion. Jesus so beautifully and gently, and yet powerfully, reveals the glory of the cross. You see, by the violence and power of the cross the rulers and powers of this world think that they exert their own power and authority as they seek to destroy and humiliate all rivals, but Jesus tells us here that the violence and power and of cross actually reveals the true ruler and authority in this world as the one who has been crucified for the sake of the world, the shepherd who gives his body and blood to save the flock and sustain them in eternal life. The violence and the power of the cross reveals the true shepherd … and the exposes who are hired hands and ravenous predators masquerading as shepherds, rulers and authorities.
This good shepherd, Jesus, the Christ, has called you into the fellowship of his flock. Jesus calls you into a close and personal relationship with him and through him with God, our Heavenly Father. He welcomes you into the family, the people of God -- which is a multitude more than the stars in the sky and grains of sand on the sea, and yet you will not be lost in all that universe. You will not disappear into the crowd. You will not become a nameless, faceless number or plot point. Jesus calls you to be what you were created by God to be, a unique and glorious child of God … and a member of the fellowship of all God’s people. Even before you knew his name, he laid down his life for you … so that you might enjoy life and life in abundance. This cross stands as reminder. Jesus is our good shepherd, and the only one truly worthy of our love, our allegiance and devotion. Not because of the power he exercises over us, but because of the love he shown us.
And that is the truth. A truth on which we can build a whole entire life, a truth that can guide us and lead us in forward right paths.
What does life look like as part of God’s flock? It looks like Psalm 23. What is life like when we follow Jesus? It looks like Psalm 23. It looks like a people who devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to prayer and the breaking of bread. It looks like a people who know contentment and abundance in Christ so that they can give with glad and generous hearts. It looks like a people who take on the personality of their true leader, Jesus Christ … and who look to act in a way that is both good for the individual member and the membership as a whole, even if it means that we sacrifice what we enjoy so that others can enjoy what is good and true in life.
And it is in that way, that I think even today, Jesus can lead this community and its people through this tight valley of a dilemma under the shadow of death, and out into a future that is about the healing oil of peace and the overflowing cup of abundant love and mercy that flows from God.
Even with our powerful mathematical models, we do not know for sure what tomorrow brings, except that tomorrow brings with it tough choices that will continue to challenge our faith and test our love. But we do know this: We have been gathered into the flock of the Good Shepherd, and he will not leave us or forsake us, but he will continue to gather us in and lead us out so that we might enjoy what Jesus has so graciously provided: life … in abundance. Amen.
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