Homily for Sunday, August 18, 2019
Ashley and I have just returned from Ireland where we saw beautiful scenery, drank good beer, heard fabulous music, survived driving on the “wrong” side of the road, understood most of what was said to us, and almost nothing of what people said to each other.
In rural Ireland some farms have “sheep dog demos,” in which a local shepherd demonstrates how he and his Border Collies herd sheep. They are astonishing. (Astonishing!) By the shepherd’s whistled commands the exact dog—a good shepherd can work with up to four at once—the exact dog knows exactly when to sit or when to stand; when to move the flock to the right or to the left; when to bring them closer or to drive them further up the range. And with some pointing, the dogs can even separate the males from the females(!). It was truly astonishing—and beautiful—to see this centuries-old craft still practiced, and to such a high degree.
I hope that, when we came home to our dog lounging on the sofa, he didn’t detect my twinge of disappointment…
And I want to get back to sheep dogs in just a minute, but first, today’s challenging lesson from the Gospel of Luke…
Though Mark’s is the Gospel most often associated with a fast pace—“immediately they left their nets and followed him”; “at once his fame began to spread”—Luke, too, beginning in the middle chapters, moves at a rapid pace. Though Luke begins in a measured way—with his leisurely infancy narrative and a genealogy, and by giving the full texts of songs like Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis—by chapter 12 (from which today’s Gospel lesson is taken) Luke’s Gospel is moving right along: here Jesus dashes off a parable, there he tells off the Pharisees; here Jesus comforts, there he admonishes; here he heals, there he warns. The Jesus in these chapters is a Jesus on the move and with a purpose. And he takes no prisoners: the choice is to be with him or to be against him, to follow or to be left behind, to repent or to perish. It could be that Luke, the master story teller, picks up the pace in order to mimic Jesus himself as he in these chapters journeys to Jerusalem. It could be that Luke is trying, by a quickened pace, to build tension and to prepare us for the crucifixion. Or maybe Luke picks up the pace in order to foreshadow his action-packed, never-a-dull-moment sequel, The Acts of the Apostles. Whatever the reason, Luke’s writing in these chapters is urgent, his style “breathless,” and the effect on the reader is not unlike being on a river whose previously calm flow has turned to white water rapids.
Today’s Gospel lesson in chapter 12 is part of this new, faster pace. And it’s not just Luke’s pace but his content that begins to unsettle: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division…. Father against son… Mother against daughter… Mother in-law against daughter in-law.”
I wonder if Luke in these chapters writes the way he does—with urgency and “breathlessness,” and with unsettling content—because [and here we return to sheep dogs], like sheep dogs gather the flock, nudging and funneling them through the gate, Luke in these chapters is gradually gathering, nudging and funneling us his readers—gradually shepherding us toward a choice point, that of: “Are you going to follow Jesus?”
One of the questions asked of the shepherd during the sheep dog demo was “Why do the sheep run from the dogs?” “Because to the sheep,” he said, “the dog—with his long muzzle and his eyes set on the front of his face—looks like a predator. Even though the dogs have never hurt them, even so the sheep still run from them.”
Though we might want to run from them, I have a hunch that Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, though difficult, are actually healthy words. Though Luke often uses easy words to “shepherd” his readers, sometimes he uses challenging words… all for the purpose of nudging us to a place that is good and life-giving. A place that we might not naturally go and for which we might need some more nudging. So maybe the difficult words in today’s lesson: as in the story of Zacchaeus, these hard-to-hear words tell us that following Jesus involves giving things up and making a complete about-face in our life; or maybe, like Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan, these words tell us that following Jesus involves practicing extreme generosity and engaging with others beyond our comfort zone; or maybe, like his story of the Prodigal Son, these words tell us that choosing Jesus involves recognizing how far we have fallen and our need to return home. In these stories, and in these difficult words –and throughout his Gospel –Luke shepherds us to one choice point: “Will you choose to follow Jesus?”
As we consider Jesus’ words, Luke’s “shepherding” and our choosing, I will leave us with a question: “What do you want?” What we want—our desires—are one of the ways God speaks to us. To get in touch with what we really want—what we deep-down really and truly want—is one of the ways we can open ourselves to Jesus’ shepherding. And if you’re not sure what you really want, why not ask Jesus to show you? Jesus is the one who gave us the capacity to desire, after all; why not ask him? The place our Shepherd invites us to go is the most life-giving, satisfying, joy-filled place that our souls could possibly desire. Why not this week ask God to show you what you desire? And maybe ask God for the grace to allow yourself to be shepherded there?