Sunday, May 10, 2015

Marking the Sheep

I’m from New York City. I have no firsthand knowledge whatsoever of sheep or shepherds, or wolves … however, my last name is Reddall. It’s English. I grew up being told that our name came from being the people who worked in the “Red Hall.” But a few years ago I joined a Facebook group of people who share the Reddall surname—most are in England or Australia—and discovered that some of them believe that our name comes from being the people who used the “raddle” stick to mark sheep with red ochre dye to make sure you got to the whole flock if you were breeding them or giving them medicine or dividing the herd. So it may be that I have shepherds—or more likely, hired hands--far, far back in my ancestry: specifically the people who marked the sheep.

Which when I think of it, is what I do as a priest. I mark Christians—I seal them with oil in baptism and in our prayer book say, “So-and-so, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I declare that through the vows and waters of baptism, and the chrismation of the holy oil that you are one of Christ’s sheep—you belong to his flock. Unlike the big red ochre marks on the sheep’s wool, our marks aren’t visible—but nor do they wash off.

“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.”

Part of the joy of being here is to meet more members of the flock--and specifically, to encounter this wonderful ministry of the Anglican Church in Qatar where it is our marking as Christians that so clearly cross the boundaries of the world--boundaries of language and nationality, of different levels of education, and within this complex, wide differences of denomination and tradition. A very scattered flock has gathered together. And to be with you, and to remember that it is the same baptism that seals each of us and unites the New York Epiphany with the Qatari Epiphany is a joy. Here we are, the sheep following the one shepherd.

And at its ideal, that is an honest delight. But we all know in our churches that the flock does not always get along. And that those differences of the world--not to mention differences in theology and practice--make it very hard to see the unity of the flock. I friend in New York who is a Lutheran Pastor who once said that on his worst days he wants to have a ministry to furniture and dishes, because you can polish them and arrange them to perfection and they stay where you put them. Ministry with people is so much more complicated.

I was blessed to be part of a choir singing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms this March. I’ve spent much of my life as a choral singer, but had never sung this work before. Three movements, each a combination of two Psalms, all sung in Hebrew. They were commissioned by Chichester Cathedral in 1965, so this is the 50th anniversary of their composition.

The second movement is a commingling of Psalm 23 and Psalm 2. It begins with a solo voice—characterwise, a shepherd boy, a young King David—singing psalm 23, perhaps the most familiar Psalm of all.

Adonai roi, lo echsar. Bin’ot deshe yarbitseini; Al mei m’nuchot y’nachaleini,

naf’she y’shovev, Yan’ chei ni b’ma’aglei tsedek, l’ma’an sh’mo. Adonai roi, Adonai roi, lo echsar.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside the still waters, (break)
He restoreth my soul,
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,
For His name's sake.

It is pastoral and beautiful and lyric. And then all the trebles come in and continue the prayer for a few more verses.

And then chaos and violence destroys the beauty of the pastoral landscape. The men’s voices come in with the opening of the second psalm: La! Ma! Lama ragashu, lamaragashu goyim, lamaragashu

Why do the nations rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His anointed.

You could hear it as the urban vs. the pastoral; conflicts between Christians; conflicts between the life that our faith teaches us and the life that the world teaches us. And there is this moment where the tenors are sort of bellowing the word “yahad” over and over again in a taunting way… it means “together” and it’s the taunt of those rulers who are taking counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed. You hear it and you feel ganged up on; you feel the anxiety of playground bullying on a grand scale. They are together. The enemies. A pack of wolves. We are just a lowly shepherd boy and a few sheep—how can we possibly prevail?

And then the sopranos and the voice of David enter again, with the direction, “Blissfully unaware of threat” to complete Psalm 23 while the men continue their percussive singing until the men and violence fade away. It's a fascinating theological statement--by music--about confrontation with evil. The treble voices of Psalm 23 don't sing really loudly and try to drown out the wolves; and they don't alter their melody. They just continue to faithfully pray, and eventually, the wolves themselves wear out and go away. And I would quibble with the "blissfully unaware of threat" direction--we are not called to be ignorant of the threats facing us. But we are not called to panic at them. We are left once again with just the treble voices completing the psalm, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

The piece is an incredible testament to the hope and confidence that the shepherd will keep the flock safe even when beset by the pack of wolves.

The Chichester Psalms end at the conclusion of their third movement with verse 1 of Psalm 133: “Behold how good and pleasant it is when breathren live together in unity.” And so the very last word is, “Yachad”, “together.” With all the voices in unison. The word that was so taunting before because we were alone and scattered and the enemies were together is now our word. Now we are the ones who are gathered together. One flock. Under the one shepherd. Yachad. It is such a blessing to be yachad with you.