It doesn’t matter if they’ve never met an actual shepherd. I remain amazed at the power this image has for even our most “citified” children. This past Sunday in Children’s Chapel, we talked about the Good Shepherd and the wide diversity that can be found among his sheep. (See below for the beautifully painted figures by our own Sue Coco.) Sheep don’t need to look or sound or think or feel alike to belong to the Good Shepherd. What matters is that the Good Shepherd knows them, and that they know his voice.
On Sunday we talked about Jesus’ line in last week’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Is it possible to be in the Good Shepherd’s hand and not know it? It’s a pretty big pasture out there, with plenty of wolves and lots of opportunities to get lost. Even when we feel lost, does that mean we’re lost to God? One of our kids looked at me like I’d asked the silliest question in the world. “God has the whole world in his hands…see?” And she pointed to the stained glass window above us – where a giant hand is indeed holding the world.
I’ve had a lot of time over the years to think about shepherds and sheep, but I’d never given much thought to the pasture before. And then in my Sunday afternoon off-duty reading, the pasture again presented itself to me. In his book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, chef Dan Barber spends a lot of time talking about the dehesa in Spain. I knew the word dehesa already from Morning Prayer. In the Spanish Book of Common Prayer, I say nearly every day that we are “el pueblo de su dehesa” (the people of his pasture – Psalm 95).
The dehesa Barber explores was established in the Middle Ages primarily for the raising of sheep. Farmers built stone walls around the sheep’s grazing areas to protect them against predators; many of those walls still exist today. Over the years the wool industry in Spain declined, so other animals came to prominence in that pasture – particularly the Iberian pig whose acorn diet produces what many call the best ham in the world. The dehesa is now full of all kinds of creatures – cows, geese, birds, pigs, as well as sheep – and the grazing space is far more wild, diverse and expansive than what we typically allow here in the States. Each creature’s presence ultimately contributes to the life of the others. The sheep eat the grasses the pigs and cattle leave behind, and all of their grazing actually ends up improving the grass. Their manure helps to fertilize the field, their trampling helps to break down fallen leaves, which in turn improves the soil and attracts all kinds of other creatures – including the birds that help to disperse the seeds and replenish the grass….kind of a nice image to contemplate on Earth Day.
So what might all this mean for us as people of God’s dehesa? It means, among other things, that we share the pasture with all kinds of other creatures – in addition to our fellow sheep. The pasture may be wilder than we’d like sometimes; it’s so expansive that there is room to feel lost at times. But our Good Shepherd sees more than we’re able to from our limited vantage point. There’s nowhere we can wander where we can’t one day be found. He’s got the whole dehesa in his hands…Thanks be to God.