It's all about ewe: embracing your inner sheep

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, May 7th, 2017

You may know that I am a big fan of cats. I think they are really smart and I have no doubt that if they had opposable thumbs, they’d be the ones in charge of the world now, relaxing by watching YouTube videos of the funny things humans do.

One animal that you won’t find very high up on the list of the intellectual giants of the animal kingdom, however, is this one: the sheep.

We know that sheep are famous for following each other, regardless of whether that’s a good idea or not. And when they get lost, they are completely stumped. They just lie down and don’t move. They can’t find their way back – they don’t know how to.

But before we congratulate ourselves on our complete dissimilarity to sheep, let’s first ask ourselves why Jesus felt that our fleecy friends would be an excellent metaphor in many of his stories and sermons.

One thing I was struck by immediately when I moved to the US from the UK seven years ago was the almost total lack of sheep. Granted, I had moved to North Carolina, which is famous for its pulled pork, not its pulled lamb, but even so, I expected to at least see one or two sheep in the course of five years.

A Lambing Sunday at a village in England

A Lambing Sunday at a village in England

Now, in Britain, you can’t move for sheep. They’re everywhere, in every village, in the fields by every freeway. I grew up in a rural community where sheep farming was an important way of life, and which the parish church was closely connected with. We had a Sunday in the spring called ‘Lambing Sunday’ where we gathered at a farm and gave thanks for the gift of these new lives. And in the summer we’d be at the sheep shearing, giving thanks for the wool that they had given us. The community had a strong connection with this animal husbandry.

One reason that Jesus chose to talk about sheep was that the agrarian society he was living in would have been even more familiar with the behavior of sheep than the one in which I grew up.

Sheep are utterly dependent on their shepherd. They learn to recognize their shepherd’s voice and follow only that, and they rely on their shepherd to come looking for them if they are lost and frightened, and to bring them back.

A couple of years ago, as I have mentioned many, many times, Kelly and I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting the Holy Land. We spent a couple of days in Bethlehem, and we were able to visit the Shepherds’ Field. This is the place – still fields, still with sheep – that it is reputed the angel of the Lord visited at the time of Jesus’ birth.

We learned a lot that day about the life of a shepherd in Jesus’ time. How he would lead his flock to the oftentimes scarce pastures, and would bring them back to the sheepfold each night, counting each one of them in through the gate, and knowing each one of them by their own characteristics, and personalities, and even by name. He would always be there with them, would salve their wounds and grazes with ointment, would carry them on his shoulders if one was hurt and would round up the wandering ones. They’d know his voice, and they would trust him.

It’s easy to see how all of these characteristics of shepherding were a fitting metaphor for Jesus to use with his hearers. We can recognize in it the steadfastness and faithfulness of God, the selfless care of his flock, the personal attentiveness to each one of us, with all of our individual personalities and characteristics, each of us infinitely precious.

But the thing I learnt that day which perhaps stood out to me the most was that by the time of Jesus, shepherds were virtual outcasts from society: the lowest of the low, just about; right down there on the social scale along with tax collectors, prostitutes and other so-called disreputable characters. [1] You know, the testimony of a shepherd was typically not accepted in court cases – shepherds were universally assumed to be up-to-no-good. They were shunned by most of the population: virtual outcasts.

Several hundred years before that, before the Israelites’ exile into Egypt, shepherding had been a noble occupation, one that employed some of the most prominent figures in the Old Testament, including the shepherd boy who became King David. This is the cultural context of shepherding we sang just now in our sequence hymn which is a hymn-setting of today’s Psalm – the most famous psalm there is – Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I will lack nothing. He feeds me in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters”. The sentiments of this psalm are the same as the ones I was talking about just a minute ago – care, guidance, security, compassion.

It is easy to see how culturally apt the imagery of God as a shepherd would be at a time when the shepherd was an important and valued member of society. But what happens to the metaphor when Jesus uses it at a time when shepherds were despised and people went out of their way to avoid them?

As I was saying earlier, Jesus always uses imagery in his stories and sermons that his listeners would be intimately familiar with. Doubtless, today he would use cats and dogs.

The fact that he is using such detailed images of sheep and shepherding, tells us that Jesus may have been sharing his teaching with shepherds and their families. We know, of course, that Jesus deliberately sought out the people that had been excluded from the fold of mainstream society. He picked poor subsistence laborers as his first disciples. He deliberately chose to hang out with tax collectors, prostitutes and other people excluded from the community’s wider embrace. In the passage immediately before the one that we heard today, he was describing the caring, compassionate, loyal role of the shepherd – one which many shepherds of Jesus’ day aspired to, even if they were rejected by society.

But how had shepherding moved from being the noble occupation of the Old Testament to the despised group of outcasts in Jesus’ day. A clue is in the start of our reading. Jesus says, “The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him.”[2] It would seem that over the centuries, shepherding had moved from something where the shepherd of the sheep was the owner of the sheep and the shepherd and the flock were virtually like siblings, to a situation where sheep farming had got to be more of an agri-business, and the owner was no longer the shepherd, and had outsourced his sheep care to people who evidently couldn’t really care less about the sheep, and cared more about their own skins or their pay check.

Perhaps, then, given the reputation shepherds had by his time, that’s why Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. We tend to put the stress on the word ‘shepherd’, but perhaps we should be putting the stress on the word ‘good’. When Jesus says, ‘I am the good shepherd, he’s not only drawing a distinction between himself and the despised, rogue shepherds of the day, but also harking back to the time when shepherding was held in high esteem. Both he, and his hearers, knew that shepherding, in and of itself, was a good and fine thing but that it had been spoiled by greed and tarnished by people who couldn’t really care less about the sheep. In short, perhaps Jesus was reclaiming shepherding as a good thing, and perhaps also giving some hope to the decent and caring shepherds of his day that he, at least, was making them feel included in society.

'The Lost Sheep' by Alfred Usher Soord (1868-1915)

'The Lost Sheep' by Alfred Usher Soord (1868-1915)

Jesus message in this gospel reading is that all of us – even shepherds – are included in God’s sheepfold. God’s sheepfold is so big that everyone can fit in it, and God is the very model of good shepherding

Today, God is calling us to model ourselves on the Good Shepherd. Our calling is to seek out the lost and the indifferent and warm their hearts with the Good News that they are loved by God and more precious than anything to him. Our calling is to tend to the needs of that flock, to bind brokenness, to soothe wounds, to reassure and to calm – just like the shepherds of sheep do.

I’ve used the analogy a couple of times in my sermons that coming to church services in church buildings is like base-camp. An expedition without a base-camp is doomed from the start. We need base-camp in order to get the preparation we need to go out on expedition. See the sheep-pen as base-camp. It’s shelter, rest and re-energizing, but when morning comes the Good Shepherd leads us back out of it in search of green pastures. Our calling is to go back out through the gate and into the world, finding the green pastures and the still waters.

The parish church in my home town in England is decorated with all sorts of paintings and carvings, and over the main entrance are the words ‘This is the Gate of Heaven’. Not all that unusual for a Church, one might suppose. But, the thing is, it’s on the inside of the church, as you’re going out.


[1] See: Poverty and charity in Roman Palestine: Gildas Hamel. 1990. University of California Press

[2] Eugene Peterson, The Message

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