Other Sheep

Sermon for Sunday, April 25, 2021 || Easter 4B || John 10:11-18

On Monday morning last week, the buds on the maple tree in front of my house appeared. They weren’t there last Sunday, and then – BOOM – there they were in all their potential glory. I knew they were coming in the vague sense that it was spring and that’s what happens to trees. But I hadn’t spared much thought as to when. And then, suddenly, there they were: skeletal sticks one day, green buds the next, like a quick costume change between scenes of a play.

At least that’s what I saw from my perspective. What about the tree’s perspective? What would we see if we imagined our way into that majestic maple? We would feel the slow return of warmth and sunlight that would get the sap moving again after the near dormant days of winter. We would explore deeper with our roots, seeking nutrients and water. We would spend weeks gathering and converting energy to power all the tiny interactions within our complex body to send forth those little green buds. Over the course of one night, the buds would slowly unfurl from the ends of their little flagpoles.

What looks to me like a spontaneous greening, the maple spent all winter preparing for. What looks to me sudden and surprising was for the maple slow and deliberate. What a difference our perspective makes.

One of the great challenges of life is learning to see beyond our own perspective. Thankfully seeing beyond our own perspective is also one of life’s great gifts. How lonely and isolating it must be to cling to a worldview that is always completely self-referential? How small and limiting such a cramped view must be! I don’t know about you, but one of the best things that has ever happened to me was discovering the joy of expanding my worldview by consciously seeking out the perspectives of other people.

Other people. It is so easy for us to distance ourselves from people by “othering” them – by keeping them at arm’s length, by selecting a particular characteristic to explain why it’s okay not to get close. 

In the Gospel Jesus falls into this societal trap when confronted by the Syrophoenician woman, who is looking for healing for her daughter. Jesus parrots his culture’s standard tribal line, but then the woman breaks through it. And her faithfulness helps Jesus recognize his society’s error in othering. Throughout the Gospel, we see Jesus breaking down barriers that separate people from one another. He eats with Roman collaborators and others the religious establishment labels “sinners.” He touches people with skin diseases that keep them quarantined and heals them. He tells stories with surprising heroes like the good Samaritan. He reaches out to the thief on the cross and promises him paradise. There’s a wonderful cartoon that often makes the rounds on the Internet. People are drawing boxes around themselves with big pencils, and Jesus is in the center, tirelessly erasing the lines.

(Used with permission from the artist.)

Jesus invites us across these erased lines to meet the other. And we begin by recognizing how often we live a siloed, self-referential life. Here’s a little experiment using today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

Now, how many of us are wondering who those “other sheep” are? Who could we possibly include in the other sheep who do not belong to this fold? Are they the people Jesus crossed boundaries to meet and include, folks like the Samaritan and the Syrophoenician and the thief on the cross? If we were in person in the church, I might ask for a show of hands to see who immediately thought about the identity of the other sheep. And my hand would be the first to rise.

Because I have read this chapter of John’s Gospel approximately 179 times, and until this week I had never once considered that I might be one of the “other sheep.” Such is the pervasive programming of self-referential thinking. And the closer you are to the identity that our society has historically invested with undue power and influence (someone who looks like me), the deeper the self-referential programming. The funny thing is that when you think about it, we are all part of the “other sheep”; after all, we weren’t around to be part of Jesus’ original sheepfold. And yet we tend to read ourselves into the original group because we don’t want to be othered.

But Jesus’ words as the Good Shepherd remove the otherness just as surely as the cartoon Jesus erases the boxes. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The one flock contains sheep from over here and sheep from over there, sheep with woolen coats of many colors, and sheep of every perspective under the sun. What a fascinating journey of discovery it is to learn those perspectives, and in learning them, help Jesus erase the lines. When I contemplated the maple tree from its perspective, my appreciation for the tree grew. And I thanked God for its presence on its particular patch of earth that I am blessed to walk by every day.

I wonder what perspectives beyond your own have changed your life? How do you encounter those perspectives? Reading books? Watching TV or movies or documentaries? Placing yourself in unfamiliar situations in which you rub shoulders with people you wouldn’t have met any other way? Proximity is key. Author, lawyer, and activist Bryan Stevenson speaks about the importance of becoming proximate, of getting near another in our to learn their story so that it becomes part of your story. Stevenson recounts doing this in law school when he was having a tough time figuring out why he wanted to be a lawyer. And then he met a child sentenced as an adult to life in prison for killing the man who was abusing his mother. Stevenson held that child as the boy cried about the abuse he was now suffering in prison, and now the law student had his forever “Why,” the reason that would animate the rest of his life in seeking justice for children in prison and inmates on death row. And all because he got close to this child; he was too close to see the child as only a prisoner, as only “the other.”

I invite you this week to spend some dedicated time in prayer. Ask God to help you reveal your own self-referential programming. Ask God to propel you into the paths of other perspectives so you can broaden your experience through the power of proximity. Ask God to grant you the grace to become an eraser of lines, just like Jesus.

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