Easter 4 2012
Family Of Christ Presbyterian Church, Greeley, CO
In the history of the church, this the fourth Sunday after Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and the texts for today reflect that.
In addition to the gospel text we just heard, the Psalm for today is the twenty-third, which almost everyone is familiar with:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
The Psalm presents us with what I think is probably the most familiar image of the shepherd, the one who leads and protects the sheep, the shepherd as caring guardian.
But it’s the image from the Gospel text, the image of the shepherd as the one who knows the sheep that caught my attention for this morning.
What makes the good shepherd the good shepherd is that he truly knows his sheep and they truly know him. In the same way that God the father knows Jesus, Jesus knows his sheep. And it is because he knows his sheep that he is willing to lay down his life for them.
It’s that knowledge of those he cares for that differentiates him from the hired hand. The hired hand won’t die for the sheep, the hired hand won’t put himself between the wolf and the sheep, but will run away and leave the sheep to snatched by the wolf.
I’ve heard recently an objection to referring to ministers with the title “pastor,” which means “shepherd,” because it implies that we are all sheep who are expected to blindly follow our leader.
But if we change our view of shepherd from being the one who leads us to being the one knows us and the one that we know, then I think that objection goes away. We are no longer being lead, in spite of ourselves, but rather journeying together on a path that we have come to through mutual knowledge.
I love the feeling of being known. I love it when I go into Starbucks and they start making my Venti Soy Latte without my even having to ask for it.
I also love having friends that I can share inside jokes with, or know how I’m feeling by the tone of my voice or at a long distance by the tone of what I just wrote on Facebook.
It’s that feeling of connection that I picture when Jesus talks about knowing his sheep and his sheep knowing him. The question is, are we who have been called to be part of his church going to be good shepherds for one another, or are we going to be the hired hands?
I’ve heard from a couple of people, including my mother, that they have no idea what the title of this sermon means. And you certainly would have been confused by the original thought I had for the title “The pros and cons of content based and collaborative recommendation engines in first century Palistine”
I didn’t go with that because I didn’t think it would fit in the bulletin.
What’s a recommendation engine? I hear you asking. If you’ve ever spent any time on the internet, especially if you’ve ever done any shopping, you’ve run into recommendation engines, even if you didn’t know that’s what was happening.
How many of you have ever bought a book on Amazon? You know how after you’ve added the book to your cart it will say something like, “people who bought this also bought these books” and show you a number of books that it thinks you might be interested in? That’s a recommendation engine.
If you watch a movie on Netflix, when you’re done it will suggest other movies that it thinks you might want to watch. That’s a recommendation engine.
There are two basic kinds of recommendation engines, although most that you run into are hybrids of the two.
One type are the content based recommendation engines, which look at the things that you’ve bought, watched or listened to, and try to find things that are similar. One of the most impressive of these is The Music Genome Project, which is associated with the Pandora music service. Workers at the genome project study individual pieces of music and grade them against a list of 300 to 500 attributes, or genes. Genes are things like the gender of the lead singer, what instruments are featured or rhythmic structures. All of those genes combine to create a vector quantity that represents the song.
When you go to Pandora and pick a song that you like, Pandora’s computers look for other songs that have similar vectors and suggest them to you.
The other type of recommendation engine is collaborative. Collaborative engines ask you to rate movies or books, they then compare how you have rated those items to how other people have rated them and suggest things to you based on what those others have rated.
Netflix has used a collaborative model through most of their existence. In simplest terms, you rate ten movies on a one to five star basis, then Netflix’ computers look in their database for other users who have rated the same ten movies with a similar number of stars and looks for an eleventh movie that you haven’t rated, but which those others it found have rated highly and recommends it to you.
Recommendation engines are so valuable to e-commerce companies that in 2007 Netflix offered a million dollar prize to anyone who produce an algorithm that would outperform the one they were currently using by 10%. The prize was claimed two years later by a team of scientists at AT&T.
“But so what?” I hear you asking. Well, it occurred to me that recommendation engines are e-commerce sites method of tricking you into thinking that you’re known. They want you to feel like you feel when you walk into your favorite coffee place and they already know what you want. They want you to feel like a regular.
They want you to feel that because they understand that everyone wants to feel like they are known, like they are more than just a number. They want you to think, “ooh, Amazon knows me so well,” or “I love Netflix, they’re always recommending great movies for me to watch”
Of course, the truth is that you are just a number to them; it’s all done with algorithms and sleight of hand. They are the hired hands.
Last week we had our Mission Rally where we introduced the three areas that the session has identified for the church to focus on: Welcoming Community, Immigrant Justice and Exploring Justice through the arts.
For the first two, at least, knowing and being known are vitally important and I would caution against our falling into the trap of using the church equivalent of recommendation engines.
One way we could be a welcoming community, a route that I think many larger churches use would be to have a set of surveys for people to fill out and a set of checklists to make sure that people get put in the with the right groups and that their interests are met and that their skills are properly used. Then all you have to do when someone new shows up is have them fill out the right forms and send them to the right groups and committees.
That’s a system that works to make sure that all the little square pegs get into the little square holes, but I’ve never been very good at being a square peg, and I think that a church using a system like that would keep me very busy, but I don’t know that I would feel like they really knew me.
I’m grateful that that is not the idea that the people who have been working on the welcoming community piece of our mission focus have latched onto.
Instead, they have focused on building smaller communities, clusters, within the church where people will get to know the people in their group and eventually through the rotation of the membership of the clusters will get to know everyone in the church.
One goal of this knowing is to move our pastoral care efforts from emergency response to one where more quotidian needs are met. I know from personal experience that this church does very well caring for someone when they are hospitalized or grieving, but there are needs that fall into the gaps between those times that I hope the clusters will be able to address.
For the second focus, it’s important to note that we didn’t choose to focus on immigrant issues or immigrant charities, but we intentionally choose to use the phrase “immigrant justice”
What difference does that wording make? Well, if you’ve been paying any attention to this sermon you should be able to guess that the difference is in the knowing…
Charity is important, charity brings food to the hungry, services to the needy, but charity is what the hired hand does, charity requires very little growth or change on our part. Justice doesn’t start until we stop doing things for the other and start standing with them, it doesn’t start until we open ourselves up to the that they can change us and provide us with opportunities to grow. As long as they’re clients that we provide services for, as long as we think of ourselves as reaching down to help those others, justice won’t happen.
But when we enter into relationship with them, when they become our friends and we know them and they know us, then justice can begin.
One of the reasons that we have decided to start our immigrant justice focus by working on a community garden or orchard is the chance that it will give us to work alongside of the people, rather than for them. I don’t think there’s a better way to get to know people than to work together with them on a common goal.
It’s not that the hired hand can’t do good work or that recommendation engines can’t lead us to interesting new discoveries, but if we’re to be good shepherds for one another, we need to go beyond just checklists and algorithms. We need to move toward being in right relationship, to move toward truly knowing one another.
Last Sunday, at the mission rally I hope we started down the path of becoming good shepherds for one another, I hope that the outcome of all that will be greater knowledge of one another and of our immigrant friends.
Then, maybe, as good shepherds, we can lead each other to the still waters and walk together on the paths of righteousness for the Lord’s sake.