Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sermon: The Zookeeper

John 10:1-10, Psalm 23

In my career I have preached on sheep and shepherds many times -- Which makes no sense, because I have never taken care of sheep. Everything that I know about sheep and shepherding I have learned from books, google or Wikipedia. I really shouldn’t be preaching on sheep. Of course, let’s be honest. I’m not really preaching on sheep at all. Neither was the psalmist or Jesus really talking about sheep. They were really talking about people, and using sheep as an image to help draw us into the teaching, so that we would listen and learn and grow.

But if Jesus were to walk into Buchanan today, he probably wouldn’t use sheep and shepherds as his main teaching images, because most of the people here, like myself, don’t really understand sheep. So what image would he use to tell you about himself today?

And I jokingly thought to myself, zookeeper. Because working with people is like working with a zoo. We have our strong gorillas, our cute little wallaby’s, the grand and proud egrets, the goofy giraffes, the grouchy bears, the dangerous tigers, and the playful otters. I know why I came up with that image, it’s because I personally enjoy going to zoos, because I love to see the animals. Quite often when we go on vacation, we will check out the city zoo.

But I must admit, that among zoos there are different types and qualities. Years ago, many of the zoos kept animals in cages or enclosures that were too small and were more like prison cells than homes.

You had to feel sorry for these animals. I remember one bear that had clearly lost its mind. It walked the same path, with the exact same number of steps back and forth, did the exact same turn at the edges, for hours. No variation. Zoos are working hard to improve. But there are still some bad zoos out there, and some bad zookeepers.

Starting his new job at the zoo, the eager young zoo keeper asked the Head keeper what he should do for his first task. "Go and clean out the aquarium" he was told. Arriving at the aquarium, he discovered that all the fish were dead. He rushed back to the head keeper and asked what he should do. "Throw them to the lions" said the head keeper, "the lions will eat anything". So the young keeper returned to the aquarium, picked up all the dead fish and threw them into the lion's cage.

That done, he returned and asked what he should do now. He was instructed to go and clean out the ape house. Off he went and started cleaning. He was shocked to discover dead chimpanzees in the cage, and rushed back for instructions. "Don’t worry" said the head keeper, "just throw them to the lions, the lions will eat anything". So the young man returns to the ape house and throws the dead animals into the lion’s cage.

The next day, the zoo obtains a new lioness. The lioness is walking around the new cage for the first time, and starts asking the other lions what things are like here. "How’s the food?", she asks. "Fine" comes the reply from one lion."

"Not bad" replies another, "yesterday, we had fish and chimps."

Most zoos are more careful about giving animals space to roam that resemble their natural habitats. They also try to give the animals things to play with, changes in their scenery, ways to keep their minds and bodies engaged.

And some caretakers of animals really go out of their way to ensure that the animals are healthy and happy. I have a video example for you:

[show lion hugger this is how Sirga the lion greets her owner]

That’s an image of a good zookeeper! That lion clearly loves him. Maybe a little too much.

One of the zoos we visited did a demonstration on how they train all of the animals so that they can give them their health check-ups. They used an otter, which of course made the demonstration cute. When the zookeeper would hold out a stick with a red ball on the end, and give a command, the otter would stare at the stick like it was the tastiest fish it had ever seen. And it would do it for a long time. This would allow the vet to look over the animal without it struggling or putting up a fight. Then when given another command the animal would relax and be given a reward.

It was so funny to see this hyper otter act like it was playing freeze tag. It would whip its head to find that focus, and hold absolutely still. I don’t know how many hours it took of training to get it to do that, but I am sure it wasn’t easy. They claimed they used the same method for many of the other animals, although not all animals can be trained so easily. I’m thinking rattlesnakes don’t listen well.

The point is that the zookeepers took a lot of time with the animals so that they could take care of them. They spent hours training them, working with them, calling them by name, just so that they could be examined by a vet if they got sick.

At other zoos we have seen demonstrations on feeding the animals, and how it is important to make sure that the animals receive a healthy diet. Each species requires different foods.

My favorite was a time we were watching – I think they were lemurs, but it has been so long ago that I don’t remember properly – They were thrown a whole bunch of fruits and veggies. Clearly the favorite was the grapes. All of them went racing for the grapes ignoring everything else that was thrown into the enclosure until all the grapes were gone. Then they raced around looking for the bananas, obviously they were second best. The whole community all shared the exact same order that they ate their food – because if you didn’t grab a grape in the first few seconds you didn’t get one. Last to go were, I think carrots or something like that – and honestly I didn’t blame them for leaving those for last. No one wanted them, but when everything else was gone, they ate them.

So here’s the thing. If Jesus is our zookeeper, and not just any zookeeper, but a good zookeeper -- Jesus knows what each and every one of us needs.

He understands our differences, but he also knows that ultimately he is responsible for our safety and security. As a good zookeeper, Jesus takes the time to know us by name, and make sure that we know his voice. Of course there are problems with the comparison. None of us likes to think we are caged up, or on display for others’ entertainment.

But I think there is value here in the comparison. The idea is that Jesus actually cares about us, whether we are otters, lemurs, bears or chimps or rattlesnakes. He wants the best for us. He doesn’t want us to be stuck in a life where we are trapped and confined. He doesn’t want us to lose our mind and pace back and forth in a never ending trance. No, he takes the time to teach us a different way. So he asks us to sit at his feet and learn from him, what is important, and what is not so important. He wants us to enjoy the food we eat, to chase the grapes. But he also wants what is good for us, so he gives us carrots. He really wants us to have life to the absolute fullest.

Likewise, we could look at the 23rd Psalm and rethink about it from the perspective of the zookeeper.

Perhaps the words of the psalmist would be that the Lord as my zookeeper leads me to my perfect home – whether that is deserts for tortoise, or cold water for the polar bear. God prepares my perfect banquet, he cares for my health and well being, protects me from predators, parasites and zoo guests that might unwittingly harm me, and in the end provides the best life for me possible.

There is something powerful in the knowledge that in this zoo we call life, we have a keeper, a good one at that, who calls us by name, who leads us and who cares for us. It is a message that is simple and timeless – God knows us, God loves us even though God knows us, and God tirelessly works on our behalf. Even showing sacrificial love in the death of Christ on our behalf. We have a good zookeeper, a good shepherd, and for that we should be truly grateful.

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