You’ve heard the old saying about how Eskimos have 36 different words for snow.
Well, apparently, Arabic has about that many different words for sheep.
There are words to distinguish sheep by gender, breeding ability, and age.
And others, depending on the season in which they were born. And there are at least twelve words to describe color—not only black or white: in Arabic, there’s even a word for sheep with a brown-and-white-spotted face.
And then, if your sheep gets sick, there are apparently even more words, based on whatever it is that it’s got, and then how bad a case it seems to be of whatever it is.
That’s a lot of words.
It also means that where some of us may only see a herd of sheep… know your Arabic, what you see is different.
Because for those with the right words, and then the right eyes, a herd isn’t just some sort of random jumble of hooves and fur.
Not at all.
Instead, it’s a whole collection of unique faces and bodies—it’s a vision of Creation in all its startling diversity and particularity.
And that changes everything if you’re a shepherd.
Because then each one comes to have a story of its own.
If an animal gets its leg stuck, you aren’t just rescuing one of the sheep—to you, the rescuer, it’s that little kid born at the springtime with the brown and white spotted face, who’s gone and done it again.
I find that helpful to remember as we think about this morning’s Gospel passage from John, in which Jesus speaks of himself as the good shepherd.
Because I think what Jesus is saying is that God’s love sees us—God’s love knows us—God’s love calls us—with just that kind of appreciation for the particular.
God sees each of us as a special case.
I spent some time this week pondering what it is in my life that I try to see with that kind of particularity….what it is that I have thirty six words for.
I asked Liz and she said: “the only thing you have thirty six words for are books you want on Amazon.”
(That wasn’t kind of you, Liz.)
But maybe I am just sort of challenged in this way.
My roommate in college was a trumpet player, and he once satme down in our living room because he wanted me to learn how to appreciate the subtleties in three different recordings of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”
I have no idea why that was so important. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, when I admit that I failed miserably.
We didn’t end up connecting over that.
Similarly, when my parents left Brooklyn and were moving into their new house, my mother asked me to compare the five different shades of off-white that she was considering for the living room walls.
Looking at that little book of paint strips, I couldn’t even see five different shades of white on what she handed me.
I was no help whatsoever.
We miss out when someone tries to share his—her passion with us, and we can’t find our way into it.
Learning someone else’s language—learning their 36 words for whatever it is that’s most important to them…whether it’s snow or sheep or the names of sails on a frigate—whatever it may be: learning someone else’s language is how the strongest human bonds are forged.
That’s how we let someone know we have entered his—her world.
But as a pastor, I’ve come to see how rare that actually is.
As a pastor, what I encounter much more often is the great pain of people who feel as if the ones they love no longer see them, or no longer appreciate the lengths they go to…the effort they make and the courage they show.
The pain of losing that sense of being known, of being seen, of knowing we are loved is one of the hardest things our souls can go through.
It’s a cliché, but it’s nevertheless true, that the person who is living a life that’s constantly behind the eight ball, but who still feels noticed and cared about, is in a totally different place than the person who is doing well but feels invisible in his own home.
It’s not that we lose sight of one another’s special passions that is so crushing, but the way that we lose sight of one another’s daily struggles and triumphs.
One of the greatest gifts we can offer is attention to each other’s daily particularities, to what happened at work, or how the sciatica feels, or what Christian said that Ellie did after she got that text from Molly about Lisbeth.
Whatever those particularities might be.
Because it’s in those moments that we live out our days, and slowly become the people we become, and the character we bring to our tasks emerges for all to see…if they only would.
And so the message of this morning’s Gospel is simple.
It’s saying that God sees.
The late nights and the red-eye flights and the dutiful driving to all the recitals—God sees.
The mother who’s grown old worrying about an adult child who is in trouble—God sees.
The sick husband who is trying to be so brave—God sees.
The third time or the umpteenth time you’re a finalist for a position and come up short—God sees.
When your college plan or your promposal doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped—God sees.
In the face of all the challenging particularities that we encounter—God sees.
God knows us.
Each one of us is a special case. And the God we serve is a God who speaks our language, whatever it may be.
Now I know this is hard for some people to accept.
In this morning’s Gospel, when Jesus is talking about being the gate and being the shepherd, his audience isn’t just the people who know they’ve lost their way—he’s also talking to the Pharisees, who have been listening to his teaching with arms folded and eyebrows raised, waiting for something they can jump on.
When Jesus is talking about the good shepherd, he’s also talking about bad shepherds too, and he’s channeling the words of the prophet Ezekiel, who had called out the false leaders of Israel many years before, saying:
“Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!…You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool…but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-3)
He’s calling them out, and they know it.
And even now, we know we have to be on guard from anyone who suggests that God’s love is limited or conditional, or intended only for a select few.
Or who suggests that we ourselves aren’t lovable, whether it be to God to or anyone else.
We are all far from perfect and have a ways to go. That’s true.
But we must never forget that God doesn’t love some sort of plain vanilla sameness. God doesn’t make saints with a cookie cutter.
God loves us in all our uniqueness. And for all the ways we give of ourselves as only we quite can.
God loves us for the uniqueness of each face before him.
And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us.
So may we learn to see one another’s face, and to speak one another’s language.
For it is in loving the sheep that we show our great love for our Good Shepherd, and work for the day when at last, we shall all be one flock.