Learning to Live Like Sheep

The Reign of Christ
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Ezekiel 34:11-17, 20-24
1 Corinthians 15:20-28 OR Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Not everyone loves the desert. I do.

Circumstances led me to another home, but the desert remains the landscape of my heart. Like a former lover turned dear friend and counselor, it refreshes my spirit whenever I return. It was in the high desert of the Navajo Nation that I awakened to the practical significance of images so resonant for the desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible.

To see a line of cottonwoods, their green leaves trembling in the faintest desert breeze, proclaim how deep roots find life-giving water, is to know the faithful confidence of “a tree planted by a river.” (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8)

To watch a Navajo boy guide a scattering flock of Churro sheep across a busy desert road, is to feel in one’s belly the patient loving-kindness of a shepherd. (Psalm 23, John 10:1-18, and today’s readings)

But to watch sheep in action is also to grasp that being called “the sheep of His flock” is no endorsement of human intelligence. For all their wooly cuteness (more apparent at a distance than up close) sheep are distressingly stupid. With the attention span of a Mayfly that’s misplaced its ADHD meds, sheep show inexhaustible creativity in wandering from safety to needless peril.

Which suggests, based on my embarrassing familiarity with human folly, that we’re not only called to be sheep. Indeed, in ways few care to admit, most of us already are sheep.

With today’s gospel in mind, however, there are at least two dangers in imagining we’ve got this sheep thing down. Especially for a white, materially comfortable North American Christian like me, the first trap lies in believing I’ve already recognized and responded to the Christ in “the least of these.”

If my intermittent concern for the poor and spotty attendance to the corporal acts of mercy are apparent to me, I shouldn’t assume they’re at all discernible to others, Christ included. The plain sense of today’s gospel comes on the highest authority: whenever I encounter someone in great need, I have two choices: I can provide direct, material assistance, or I can go to hell. The whiny, half-hearted middle ground I’ve carved out for myself isn’t found in the text.

But, even when I do respond in ways I like to imagine appropriate, there’s a second, more insidious danger in imagining myself rescuer and benefactor of the poor. You may have encountered well-meaning church groups in an airport concourse, about to board a flight for some desperately poor, if scenic, destination, their glowing faces and pious banter nearly as conspicuous as their brightly-colored, matching T shirts spelling out in so many words just who they are and what good things they’re about to do. I’ve grown skilled at spotting them and wincing at their good-hearted, if largely self-serving, embrace of cheap grace. I spy the motes in their eyes a mile away, despite the identical – in everything but size – beam in my own.

Only in rare moments of graced introspection do I grasp the truth: I’m unsatisfied remaining a sheep. I want to be – and, more importantly, be seen as – Good Shepherd, Savior, Messiah. Yet, in the few occasions I’ve taken the time to be truly present to those truly in need, I inevitably received far more than I gave, found myself beneficiary rather than benefactor.

Which reminds me of a recent conversation with Mark Charles, the son of a Navajo father and American mother of Dutch heritage, and whose website reflections on race, faith, and reconciliation I highly recommend. We were talking about his efforts to bring Native voices into discussions of US immigration reform, since, as he points out, Native peoples might have some interesting things to say about their experiences with uninvited immigrants. Along the way, he recalled speaking with a Navajo shepherd on this very subject, to which the shepherd said, “Well, there are so many here already, maybe we should just let them stay.”

In the context of Mark’s conversation with the shepherd, however, it wasn’t clear whether the “so many” referred to the estimated fifteen million undocumented immigrants about which so much has recently been said, or the three hundred and fifty million uninvited immigrants currently occupying the aboriginal lands now known as the United States of America. Nor was he inclined to clarify this delicious – and to my ears, grace-filled – ambiguity.

When sharing his work with new audiences, Mark often uses the metaphor of the grandmother’s house, best heard in his own words and voice:

The grandmother’s house metaphor cuts at least two ways. Anglos (and when I lived on the Navajo Reservation, everyone non-Native, whether of European, Asian, or African heritage, was an Anglo) might learn some practices of humility and gratitude for the gifts they’ve more often arrogated than received. It’s not for me to say how Native peoples might act in turn, but it may somehow involve an increasing awareness of serving as hosts – if mostly to cluelessly ill-behaved and often malicious guests – in a reclaimed house.

In Mark’s metaphor and today’s gospel, how others respond isn’t my concern, nor is it my place to instruct or, perhaps, even speculate. What matters is how I respond to God’s grace. Since I’m not Indian (not even, to the dismay of New Age acquaintances, in a past life), since I am the inheritor of lands and abundance forcibly taken, and since I have for so long been schooled in comforting ignorance of race, cultural destruction, and barely-masked aggression, I have a rather stark choice: learn to live as a sheep or accept a goat’s unhappy destiny.

Sheep aren’t smart, to be sure, but neither are they proud, and if they don’t strike humans as particularly grateful, perhaps that’s because we’re not paying them the right sort of attention. A key to living as a sheep may be paying proper attention to others, seeing “the least of these” as they are seen in today’s gospel – not as indigent recipients of my occasional surplus, but as channels of grace, indeed as the source of grace, Christ himself.

I’ve been wrong all along to see myself as benefactor and savior to the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, and imprisoned. In identifying Himself with these, Christ incarnates them as my benefactors, shepherds, saviors, and Messiahs. None of this provides a complete program of Christian living or racial reconciliation, but it identifies a place to begin, a new life to accept as my own.

By living into this sheepish humility and unaccustomed gratitude, I may finally glimpse what it means for the King of the Universe to hang on a cross. And by His grace, I might even shed a few more of my unmerited riches and gratefully follow our Good Shepherd through this beautiful and life-giving desert where He alone is King.

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