While at the grocery store the other day, I met some friends who’d spent the winter months away. After I welcomed them back to beautiful Gurnee, they asked about our trip to Israel. They’ve traveled to Europe, but have never ventured to the Holy Land and were anxious to hear my impressions. This is the reason they patiently endured my fifteen-minute summary of the trip’s highlights. When I realized how long I’d kept them from their shopping, I apologized, thanked them for listening and sent them on their way. As for me, I breezed through the rest of my grocery list with a smile. After loading the car, I nestled into my seat, inserted the key and switched the radio to CD mode. Suddenly, I returned to our tour boat on the Sea of Galilee. While I imagined the hillsides which Jesus frequented so long ago, our boat captain Daniel sang of his newfound love for Jesus. These images remained with me for the rest of the day.
The house was quiet when I returned home, so I stowed the groceries quickly and headed to the study to begin this writing. Because we’re in the midst of the Easter Season, my mental return to Israel was perfectly timed. On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the first two scripture passages focus upon the enthusiastic disciples. Peter and the rest couldn’t contain their good news regarding Jesus’ resurrection. They encouraged all who would listen to open themselves to the Good Shepherd who had paved the way to God for us all. It is John’s gospel (10:1-10) which addresses the nitty-gritty of shepherding and Jesus’ willingness to embrace this role on behalf of each one of us.
In Israel, I discovered that shepherds continue to work on the hillsides where Jesus once walked. Though some must secure other employment to supplement their incomes, modern-day shepherds take this work as seriously as their long-ago contemporaries did. They teach their flocks to follow their voices and their scents. Though a shepherd smells much like his flock by the end of a long day, sheep instinctively sort through the aromas in the air to find him. Christmas card images of shepherds carrying lambs around their necks suggest the shepherds’ affection for these little ones. In reality, shepherds carry wandering lambs over their shoulders until they learn their scent. This gesture indicates far more than fondness for a wayward lamb. It’s a life-saving effort.
John’s gospel tells us that for Jesus every effort on behalf of his sheep was life-giving and life-saving. This is the reason Jesus spoke so harshly regarding those who attempted to steal sheep. These thieves had no intention of caring for their captives. They stole sheep to use them for their own benefit, for food or for sale. They engaged in covert efforts to draw unsuspecting sheep into their grasps because no sheep would approach these interlopers on their own. On that particular day, Jesus referenced the Pharisees in the temple as similar robbers. Rather than getting close to the people, they set themselves apart. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, the gospel told of the Pharisees’ repeated questioning of a blind man whom Jesus had cured. When the man attributed this healing to Jesus, the Pharisees labeled him a blasphemer and banished him from the temple. Rather than rejoicing in the man’s newfound sight and the amazing future which lay before him, the Pharisees ostracized him in an effort to avoid giving any credence to Jesus. Jesus responded by making it very clear that there is no room for exclusion in God’s family. Jesus expected everyone who found himself or herself in a position of leadership to remain close enough to the flock to smell like them. This Good Shepherd of ours went on to ask both the leaders and the followers among us to remain close enough to him to recognize him with certainty. If we do as Jesus did, we’ll remain close enough to each other to know one another equally well.
One of the most important lessons I learned while in Israel is that there is great holiness to be found amidst the hustle and hassles of our daily lives. Wherever we were, local people hurried about their business while our guide led us to the amazing sights which, out of necessity, they had learned to ignore. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is surrounded by bustling Jerusalem while Solomon’s Quarry rests beneath this city. In an effort not to miss any of Israel’s treasures, visitors make their way as best they can to enjoy them. It seems to me that we’re asked to make our way as best we can as well. We’re asked to venture through the crowds around us with the eagerness of tourists to find one another. Like our Shepherd, we’re asked to get up close and personal and to care for one another as only you and I can.
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