In the 12th-century, St Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the great Cistercian reform of Benedictine life described Holy Scripture as:
a vast sea in which a lamb can paddle and an elephant can swim.
When it comes to our encounter with the Bible through a regular practice of reading Holy Scripture, most of us will be lambs paddling. Yet maybe some of us if not already elephants swimming the depths will be encouraged to grow in that direction.
In a few weeks, we will finish our reading of the Bible Challenge, a programmatic reading of the Bible begun after Easter last year. We began the year-long reading of the Bible as a way of dispelling the fruits of 150 years of Biblical Criticism that has left us feeling that the Bible is for experts, scholars, and clergy trained to be able to unpack the sitz im leben, the historical, cultural, and theological settings in which a text was originally written. This has led to a propensity among Episcopalians to encounter the Bible through the lens of commentary. Thus learning about rather than engaging with the text keeps us in our detached comfort zone.
Yet our Anglican Tradition speaks in the imagery of the three-legged stool in which Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are held in a mutual tension of equal relationship. We still honor Scripture, but we now only hear it within the context of worship. Outside of the formality of liturgy, we attempt to sit on a two-legged stool of Tradition and Reason. Straddling a two-legged stool requires considerable acrobatic dexterity.
St Martin’s is a community where few of us find it possible to accept faith as a matter of unquestioning obedience to the literal interpretation of words on a page. We are a community where faith is increasingly seen as a major life-shaping story. Many of us enjoy the way meaning is conveyed through language that is complex, and nuanced. We are beginning to understand the way story shapes us individually and communally. We believe that metaphor more effectively conveys truth-plus, and that truth is poorly conveyed when limited to the face value of the words on the page.
The language of the Bible is such that meaning is conveyed imaginatively. Meaning is fluid and open-ended able to speak to the challenges encountered in our lived experience. Stimulated by the power of curiosity we are encouraged to explore beyond the simple meaning of words on the page. A rich appreciation of metaphor allows us to echo the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty.
Approaching the text for Easter 4 can we discover our experience revealed as truth-plus through the way text uses of metaphor and poetic figures of speech?
The Fourth Sunday after Easter conveys the arresting metaphor of The Good Shepherd conveyed through the powerful imagery of the 23rd Psalm and John 10. In 2015 I preached on the Good Shepherd text, drawing upon what for preachers can become a clichéd contrast between biblical and contemporary images of shepherding. However, coming from a country where sheep outnumber people by 40-1, I am very familiar with the contemporary experience of shepherding sheep.
You may recall that I have spoken about my nephew Hamish who on his sheep station in The Lord of the Rings high country of N.Z’s. South Island, shepherds his Marino sheep either from the seat of an ATV or the saddle of a horse, depending on the terrain. In response to a complex set of whistles and verbal commands from Hamish, he drives his sheep before him in the direction he wants them to go.
Sheep have been gifted by the Creator with a double dose of stupidity. Nevertheless, the image for our relationship with God is often depicted as a version of modern New Zealand sheep herding; God in the rear driving us on with his dogs of guilt barking in our ears and fear nipping at our heals. Yet, contrast the words of Psalm 23 in which God is the shepherd and we the sheep. God as the Good Shepherd does not drive us before him, setting his dogs upon us, whose bark frightens us, and whose teeth nip us into line. Instead, he leads us beside still waters so that we may lie down in green pastures. Even through the valley of death, he accompanies us so that we need not fear any harm befalling us. His rod and staff are not symbols of discipline and control, but of protection and comfort. The Biblical image of sheep is one of cherished objects with which the shepherd feels an intimacy of love and concern.
Again, a contrast between sheep and people reveals that it is not only sheep who are created with a double dose of stupidity. Jesus, teaching in poetic metaphors discovers again and again that it’s the human beings that fail to hear his voice. The biblical image draws a distinction between the sheep who hear his voice and the people who are deaf to his voice. Hearing in this sense is a metaphor for knowing and being known by.
In John 10 Jesus speaks about the unreliability of the hired hand who at the first sign of the wolf runs away. He speaks of robbers, identified as those who do not enter the sheepfold by the gate. His metaphor for the entrance shimmers between images of gate and gatekeeper before finally identifying himself as the gate. Jesus is not some arbitrary gatekeeper but with his body becomes the gate across the entrance of the sheepfold, so that those who seek to enter to do us harm must first encounter him.
In response to hearing his voice, the sheep come and go, responsive to the shepherd’s voice, in pursuit of the green pasture. The mention of green pasture is a metaphor for life lived to the full takes us full circle back to the imagery of Psalm 23.
Despite the great distances of time, place, and mindset separating us from Bernard of Clairvaux, John the Evangelist, and the psalmist of the 23 Psalm, we share the experience of being shaped by the power of a poetic imagination whose rich language of allegory and metaphor opening our ears to recognize the distinctiveness of God’s voice among the cacophony of competing, false voices in the world. Whether as lambs paddling on the edge of a vast scriptural sea, or as elephants venturing beyond the safety of the shore, we face the prospect of no longer living in a place of security, but still hearing God’s voice echoing through the creative imagination –we swim with increasing confidence and trust. Hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice we navigate through a difficult and at times dangerous world.