This is Good Shepherd Sunday. The fourth Sunday in Easter season always turns to that image from John's Gospel of the shepherd caring for the sheep. Easter faith is a joy, energy and passion for life that goes with the safety and trust of sheep who have a shepherd.
Under normal circumstances one might have thought that sheep and shepherds would be fairly remote subjects for a sermon, but not since Dolly the cloned sheep arrived on the scene. Just two years ago she made the cover of every major news magazine as the first mammal ever to be cloned. Dolly had been created as the exact genetic equivalent of another sheep.
And so one magazine had two sheep on the cover, staring out at the reader, with the logo, "Hello Dolly!" Another used as its title a line from William Blake's poem, "Little lamb who made thee?" Some are saying now that this is the most significant news story for the future of the human race since the splitting of the atom.
Cloning promises many practical uses -- in agriculture, for example. But, it is momentous because now we are faced with another watershed event in humanity's conquest of nature. From acquiring the power to defy gravity and fly, to defy distances and communicate by satellite, to take apart the atomic structure of the physical world and release unimaginable energy for good or ill, we have now come to the edge of a world where we may be able to clone human beings -- not only to create genetic imitations of any of us, but also to manipulate genes to design our own new human beings.
One recent cartoon had the case for and against cloning. The case for showed multiple copies of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein. And the case against showed multiple copies of Roseanne and Ross Perot and Dennis Rodman.
It begins to turn inside out the notion that we are sheep and the Lord is our shepherd. Human beings are now capable of creating other human beings. More and more it is beginning to appear that the sheep are in charge now, and they have powers that once belonged to the shepherd.
The possibility of manufacturing people has been on the minds of writers for at least two hundred years. There was Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, who created his own living creature and there was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which embryos were split into 96 identical copies which were then gestated and grown to produce five classes of workers.
And of course there have been movies I have been told to see, such as "The Boys from Brazil" about making multiple clones of Hitler. But the movie that sounds especially appealing is one called "Multiplicity," which portrays a harried man who gets himself copied in order better to tend to his office work, his home chores and his family relationships. (We all knew there had to be a breakthrough in efficiency ahead for us.)
Years ago Gore Vidal said that he thought human beings had already been cloned. "Anyone who says 'Have a nice day' is a clone," he said. "There's a big loaf of them and they just keep slicing them off."
Quite a number of suggestions have been made about how cloning might be helpful. We might clone individuals of great intelligence or athletic ability or beauty as a service to society. Wouldn't it be great to have hundreds or thousands of Einsteins, for example? Or we might clone a sick child to provide a twin who could supply material for a transplant. Or we might clone a child who had accidentally suffered severe brain injury, allowing parents an identical twin of the child they will shortly lose.
But the more you ponder any of those ideas, the more unlikely and troubling they become. For one thing, genes don't guarantee any results. A vast amount of who we are is shaped not by nature but by nurture, by our upbringing. Mozart born in a family of non-musicians wouldn't have produced great music.
But much more troubling, cloning toward a particular goal would be an effort to impose an identity on another human being. To design a human being to be like a child who has died or to be a great scientist or pianist, is to take away the child's freedom to discover her unique, irreplaceable identity. Granted, plenty of us spend too much time trying to clone ourselves now with our children. But to take responsibility for designing their genetic codes is to claim for ourselves powers we should not possess.
Parents are not the owners or determiners of the lives of their children; parene human nature, we are giving them immense potential power over other people, and we are putting at risk the sacred mystery of every human being.
Yet again, our science seems to be out ahead of our wisdom. As T.S. Eliot put it, "Where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?"
We are here today because we believe that there is an Easter wisdom that addresses even human cloning -- not because our lessons talk about that, in particular, but because they show us who we are as human beings, and how we are to view our lives in relation to God and to each other.
The Acts of the Apostles describes an Easter people whose lives have been turned inside out by the death of their Lord and by their experience that even beyond death he was still with them. And we see in them a picture of the freedom, dignity and love of which human beings are capable. "They were of one heart and soul," Acts says. "And there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold ... and it was distributed to each as any had need."
Here are people not made by calculation. They are aware of the sacred gift of their lives, and that they find their life in opening themselves to one another and taking responsibility for each other. They have a wisdom and a generosity we in our driven, calculating, designer-shaped lives are missing.
This is the Easter miracle, of a group of lowly, powerless, uncredentialed, uneducated people discovering in their life together the real power behind the universe -- the power of a life-giving welcoming, compassionate love. And this despite what must have been their very modest genetic make-ups!
Wisdom begins in awe and wonder. It begins in our awareness that life is sacred. And, therefore, each life is something of unspeakable dignity, and is not to be used, manipulated, or designed for other purposes.
The problem, the danger, is not scientific discoveries. It is that this kind of knowledge grants uneven power. And none of us is wise enough to wield that kind of power without finally beginning to use and control each other.
"I am the good shepherd," Jesus says. "I know my own and my own know me...."
This Easter faith declares that there is a Power of love and justice and compassion who knows and loves us each, intimately, in all our mystery and complexity. That means that each of us is unique, irreplaceable, unduplicatable. We are made for eternity, not to be manipulated, designer-built, or used for someone else's purpose.
We are to be a flock that stays together lest the wolves come to devour them. There are many troubling versions of reality out there around us -- there are versions that argue old people ought to be able to remove themselves from life if they believe they are too much trouble for themselves and to others. There are versions that say that poor people ought to be allowed to sink if they can't swim. But we are followers of a shepherd who cherishes every individual and whose people seek to ensure that no one is lost.
I wonder how many of you have read J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy "The Lord of the Rings." It is three-volume fantasy quest novel, but it isn't, like so many such stories, about seeking fame or glory or power. There is, you see a great Ring of Power, and whoever has it can control the whole world. By some odd turn of circumstances the Ring falls in the hands of a modest little creature called a Hobbit, and the story is about the journey this Hobbit and his friends make to save the world by casting the Ring into the Crack of Doom.
Do you see how odd that is? The great quest to save civilization is not a quest to conquer other nations or achieve or possess something, it is a quest to surrender power over others, not cling to it. In the story whoever possesses the ring begins inevitably to be corrupted by it. And the one hope of the world is that no one possess that power any more.
That is not a choice we have now. It is too late. We have the power.
It may seem more and more in the coming years of the new millennium that the sheep are in charge now. That a creator has been cast away. Our job here at church is to an Easter people, like that group we heard about in Acts --- people who keep alive in the way we live and speak and work and love this wisdom, this wonder, that comes to those of us who gather with this Shepherd, who knows us and who calls us each by name.