One of my first jobs after joining the community at Glastonbury Abbey was to work with the guys that cared for the animals at the Abbey. There were not as many animals at that time as there had been and most of them were strays that one person or another had dropped off over the years. Nevertheless, the animals needed caring for. There were some ducks and geese who were very nasty, and there were sheep and one goat. I used to walk the goat on a leash around the Abbey property.
I hated working with the ducks and geese, they always tried to bite me, so I worked mostly with the sheep and the one goat. Sheep are skittish at first if they do not know you but after you have worked with them the warm up to you. Our small flock of sheep was dependent upon us for everything. We did not have a significant pasture for them, and the pen they were in was rather sparse on grass for them to eat so we had to feed them each day, twice a day, rain, shine, snow, sleet, and the rest. I learned a lot working with sheep.
This Sunday is the Sunday we call Good Shepherd Sunday. All of the Scripture readings from the lectionary, including the Gospel passage we heard this morning, have this theme of the Good Shepherd. But, this passage is not always what it seems at first glance.
Show of hands, how many of you work as shepherds? How many of you know someone who works as a shepherd? How many of you have ever really been around sheep for an extended period? As I figured, not many of us have so the imagery of the shepherd and sheep is somewhat lost on us. Perhaps we have an idealized image of rolling fields and puffy white sheep scattered about and the shepherd standing high on a hill watching over them. As pretty as that picture might be it is not reality.
The life of a shepherd was anything but ideal. It was dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending most of their time in the fields rather than in polite society. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” This would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim he was making had an edge to it. If we were to put this in modern day language, we might hear Jesus say, “I am the good migrant worker.”
But, as Jesus usually does, he takes things a little bit further. In this passage, we hear Jesus speak of the false shepherds, the hired hands that did not care for the sheep but ran away at the first sign of trouble. In this statement, we hear echoes of the Old Testament Prophets who spoke out against the religious leaders who were neglecting their people. This image of the shepherd is meant to remind us that God is chiefly concerned with those at risk, and those who are vulnerable. As I learned, sheep are lost without constant, vigilant care by their shepherd.
So if Jesus is the shepherd, we must be the sheep. How do you feel about being called sheep?
There is a myth that sheep are stupid this is anything but the truth. It seems this myth of sheep being stupid was started by cattle ranchers. Cattle are herded from the back. The cowboys, on horseback, ride behind the cows pushing them forward. Other cowboys ride alongside to keep the stragglers in line. Sheep are herded from the front. You can stand behind sheep and make noise, and all they will do is turn around and run behind you. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else – their true shepherd- has not already gone. The shepherd is out in front of the sheep showing them that everything will be okay and that there is nothing there that is going to harm them. Cattle, on the other hand, will walk right off a cliff if the cowboy pushed them in that direction, so who is the stupid one?
In her sermon, “The Voice of the Shepherd,” Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”
The shepherd’s voice is critical in the relationship. Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me.” Not only that but Jesus gives his life for the sheep. The shepherd intentionally becomes the sacrificial lamb. But Jesus makes it clear that he is doing this willingly.
But the message today gives us hope. Sometimes we go astray, just like sheep do. Sheep that are ill might follow the voice of a stranger. Sheep wander off and fall in ravines and get caught in all sorts of things. There are many voices that are trying to get our attention, and many distractions lure us from the right path. But Jesus promises that he will never let us go, and his voice will bring us back. We belong to him. This is the word of assurance to us that in life’s struggles, and they will come, we have to remain faithful. In the choices that we make each day we practice our faith by saying yes to some voices and saying no to others. Jesus is right there, going before us, to lead us.
Jesus seeks out the lost, those in need of rescue, the often forgotten in our society. Those lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were the first to hear the good news of the birth of the savior. The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does and not on what the sheep do. It’s all about who the shepherd is rather than who they are. The sheep feel secure just to hear the shepherd’s voice. Our job is to let that voice speak through us as we reach out an encounter the lost and hurting along the way.