Not Just Sheep, But Shepherds May 2, 2007

by Robert J. Karli

In a Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon from a number of years ago, one lone sheep is seen standing erect on hind legs, visible above the surrounding flock. Its front legs are raised, and the sheep is proclaiming to the totally disinterested flock around it: "Wait! Wait! Listen to me... We don't have to be just sheep!"

To me that word from the "Far Side" is good news. You see I don't like sheep, and I don't particularly like being called or referred to as a sheep--which is what Jesus does a lot in the 10th chapter of John's Gospel. I don't want to be just a sheep. In fact, I don't want to be a sheep at all.

I'll grant you that this shepherd/sheep imagery from scripture is homey, and it's very easy to get all sentimental about it—painting pastoral scenes in our minds if not on canvas.

But people who romanticize the pastoral shepherd/sheep image have probably not spent a lot of time with sheep. I haven't either, but I've spent enough. On the farm where I grew up in South Dakota we didn't raise sheep, but I had all the contact with them I wanted, and more, as part of a Future Farmers of America livestock judging team while I was in High School. I don't like sheep.

It's not that they're not very intelligent—though they're not. It's not that they're easily led—which they are. It's not that they have a bad disposition—which contrary to our image of cute little lambs, many do. No, my biggest problem with sheep is that they stink—and if you spend enough time around them, and in contact them, you end up smelling like them.

I don't want to be a sheep, and I'd prefer not to be compared to one. But the good news is that the sheep in Gary Larson's "Far Side" cartoon got it right--"We don't have to be just sheep!"

You see, we sheep can also be shepherds. The prayer of the day for the Fourth Sunday of Easter says so: "God of all power, you called from death our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep. Send us as shepherds to rescue the lost, to heal the injured, and to feed one another with knowledge and understanding; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord...."

We who are sheep can also be, are also called to be shepherds! That, of course, entails some responsibility--as the Prayer of the Day makes specific. Shepherds are faithful, shepherds lead, shepherds provide, shepherds protect, shepherds guide, shepherds help the sick and injured, shepherds search for the lost, and shepherds sometimes lose sleep while watching over the sheep. Sounds like a job description for parish ministry.

Shepherds are people like Dorcas in today's First Reading--Dorcas who was a disciple, one of the Good Shepherd's sheep; but a sheep who by her devotion "to good works and acts of charity" was also a shepherd; a living example of that for which we prayed in that Prayer of the Day.

This shepherd/sheep imagery has deep roots in the Hebrew Bible. It reflects the pastoral, nomadic society of the early Israelite people when they literally did have flocks of sheep and goats and moved from place to place, shepherding them as they went. But the imagery carried over to later Israel's settled, non-nomadic, life.

Centuries before Jesus picked up on it, the metaphor of shepherd and sheep was part of Israel's religious and political rhetoric. Israel's rulers were its shepherds, and the people were the sheep. And the shepherds had responsibility for the sheep. And when the rulers failed in their role as shepherds the prophets called them on it.

Jeremiah rebuked the rulers as "shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep" (Jer.23:1-2). Ezekiel assailed the "shepherds" who slaughtered and fed on the sheep, rather than feeding and protecting them (Ez.34). As a good shepherd looked after and defended the sheep, so the prophets called on Israel's rulers to act in the best interest of the people rather than to benefit themselves. (And, yes, there's probably also a message in that for us clergy and about-to-be-clergy.)

In using shepherd and sheep language Jesus was drawing on his heritage. And though we're not a nomadic or primarily agrarian society (not too many sheep grazing in Grant Park or on the Midway of the University of Chicago), and though we may not be personally familiar with sheep or shepherds, we know and grasp the metaphor. And it continues to hold meaning for us.

Much as I hate to admit it, we (clergy, rostered, laity)—we are the sheep--sometimes in the worst sense of the image (stinky, smelly, stubborn, easily led, obstinate, stupid). And we look to Jesus the Good Shepherd who leads, guides, and sustains us throughout life, at all of the various stages and passages of life--birth, growing up, maturing, marrying, having children, in sickness and in health, good times and bad, in life and in death; heading out for internship, interviewing for one's first call, in the midst of one's calling to ministry, or anticipating retirement (five congregation council meetings to go—but who's counting).

We are the sheep. And Jesus is the Good Shepherd who never deserts us, who seeks us out when we stray, who carries us on strong loving shoulders when we falter, and who travels with us wherever the road may take us—sometimes leading us, sometimes beside us, sometimes behind us pushing us forward (occasionally kicking us in the butt).

But also, as the Prayer of the Day reminds us--Jesus, the Good Shepherd sends us to be shepherds to other sheep. Sheep, become shepherds. Shepherds who become the loving and caring hand of the Good Shepherd as we touch the lives of others, as we comfort and strengthen, as we protect and console, as we share the good news about the Good Shepherd--shepherds to each other, to children and parents and other family; shepherds to friends, to co-workers, to others within our own communities of faith and beyond; whether our ministry is as one of those our church calls "rostered" or as one of the laity; whether we're interns or supervisors, whether we're in a first call or completing thirty-six years of ministry, or somewhere in between.

Knowing all the while that as we live out our shepherd role, Jesus the Good Shepherd will be present with us to guide and provide, to support and sustain, to bring rest in green pastures, to lead beside still waters, to restore our sometimes troubled spirits, to help banish fears and anxieties when they present themselves, to provide a bountiful table of goodness and love in the face of difficulties and even death.

In all of this, as it turns out, we are in the very best of company. For, lest we would forget, today's Second Reading reminds us that the One who is our Good Shepherd was also once a sheep--a sheep in the form of the sacrificial Lamb who gave his own life to take away our sin--"...the Lamb at the center of the throne [who is our] shepherd,...[Who guides us] to springs of the water of life...." [Rev.7:17].

I still don't much like being compared to a sheep--because I don't like sheep. But knowing that our Good Shepherd was also a sheep makes an important difference. And knowing that we don't have to be just sheep, that we are also called to be shepherds--that's important too.

But first and foremost is the good news that the One who is our Good Shepherd, who became our sacrificial Lamb, leads us and guides us both as sheep and as we seek to be shepherds to others.

May God's blessing be upon, and may God's Spirit go with those of you who go forth from this place to live out your calling to be sheep—and shepherds, and also with you who serve as sheep and shepherds in this hallowed place we know as LSTC. AMEN.


Acts 9:36; Ps.23; Rev.7:17; John 10:22-30

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