The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
May 7, 2017
As I mentioned in the opening reflection, this Sunday is popularly known as "Good Shepherd Sunday" because of the references to Christ as a shepherd which appear in the lessons. Now before any member of the clergy attempts to deal with the image of sheep and shepherds, one point needs to be made perfectly clear. Despite the adoption of pastoral roles and titles by parish priests, bishops and pontiffs, our Lord said that there was one flock and one shepherd and so we are all members of that one flock led by a solitary shepherd. In other words, it should be understood from the onset that the following remarks are based on the premise that at this particular time and place, there ain't nobody here but us sheep.
Having said that, I think that we have all been dangerously misled by a prevalent image of sheep and shepherds, an image which has been carefully developed over the centuries, from the walls of the Roman Catacombs to Victorian stain-glass. When we hear that our Lord is our shepherd, often a well-crafted portrait flashes across the screen of our imaginations. There stands the Good Shepherd, the bearded Christ in flowing robes, surrounded by dazzling snow white sheep, which look up at him with an almost intelligent gaze, filled with adoration and devotion. It is a comforting image, gentle and innocuous, but I do feel compelled to point out that it is based upon a very unrealistic and delusionary notion of our woolly friends, a notion which might well lead us into a dangerously idealized understanding of the relationship between the flock and its master. When I lived in England, I spent a good deal of time taking long walks in the country, particularly in Northumbria and Scotland. During those jaunts I decided to make a special study of sheep, watching them, walking among them and generally spending long hours observing their behavior. In reality, as those of you know who have spent any time seriously observing these creatures, sheep seem to have three noteworthy characteristics: they are dumb, they are easily scared and they are filthy dirty.
Sheep are stupid, notoriously stupid, even when compared with their fellow "barnyard" cronies. Like other grazing animals, they spend the vast majority of their waking hours in a relentless and methodical search for food. They will wander aimlessly through the fields and countryside, driven by an apparently insatiable appetite. They rarely look up to see what is around them, where they have been or where they are going, but instead, they apply the whole of their severely limited mental energy directly upon that small patch of grass immediately in front of them. They are certainly present in the moment, consumed by their desire to consume, but they have no sense about how that consumption relates to their lives, where it began or where it is leading them. So voracious is their appetite and so limited their means to curb or control it, that they will often go astray. They will literally lose all sense of direction in their frantic search for feed and fodder and will then become the proverbial "lost sheep." To make matters worse, once lost, they can do very little, if anything at all, to aid in their own recovery. They lack the means to retrace their steps by sight or by smell and often they are simply too dense to recognize the shepherd's image or voice, and so they stand there and Bah, helpless victims of their own blind appetite. The lost sheep stands there bleating pitifully until it is finally found by the indefatigable efforts of the good shepherd.
In their proper environment, of course, sheep live in flocks which tends to endow them with a certain communal stupidity. When they occasionally raise their heads to look about them, they appear to derive a certain sense of comfort and security from the fact that they are surrounded by similar creatures all doing the same thing. They seem to take immense satisfaction from being an almost indistinguishable part of the whole, from looking and acting just like everyone else. Outside of the flock, the sheep really has no life or identity. Ironically, it is the Shepherd who bestows upon them a real identity by giving them a name, an identity which they are often too stupid or too busy to recognize and understand. When confused or disoriented, the sheep can always follow the lead of the flock, not ever imagining, of course, that their comrades may well be as confused and disoriented as they are. Quite often, the flock will move in unison, almost with one very small mind, especially when they are confronted with a perceived threat, which brings us to our second observation.
Sheep are easily scared. Almost anything can send a flock of sheep scampering off in thoughtless and frenzied flight, even the approach of the shepherd's right arm, the sheep dog. To look into the eyes of a sheep is to see terror, a blind terror that strikes a deep resounding cord in the heart and mind of the sensitive observer. Their eyes reflect an irrational and all-consuming fear which reminds one of that final fear that all of us face, the ubiquitous fear of death. Sheep are indeed easily scared. They are essentially fearful and it is easy to understand why living in flocks provides them with a sense of security, identity and direction, albeit one founded upon the stupidity and confusion of individual members. It is the shepherd who provides the flock with the only meaningful direction and it is his vigilance and guidance which affords them with the only real safety in the midst of the encroaching terrors. The good shepherd knows the terror behind the eyes of the sheep and he seeks to calm their fears by providing them with the assurance of preservation and protection.
Sheep are dirty. In their continual search for food, they stray into brambles and thickets and the rain and mud soon make their coats a matted mess of mud, twigs, grass and burrs. No animal on earth was given a more impressive coat by the Creator and no creature has been more effective in turning that divine gift into a tangled and disheveled mess. Most animals have at least the rudiments of grooming or preening, but sheep are too obsessed with grazing to be concerned with such matters. Focused on the next inviting patch of grass, the sheep pays no attention to any dirt or rubbish that they encounter in their relentless pursuit of fodder. The shepherd, however, knows the true value of that precious gift, despite its disheveled appearance, and under his care, the sheep are shorn and that matted and filthy coat is cleaned and carded, spun and woven into a new and beautiful coat, marvelously transformed.
Given its stupidity, its fear and its propensity for filth, it is no small wonder that sheep require shepherding. Without it, they might indeed survive, but their existence would be without purpose or direction, deprived of any real and lasting value. Left to their own devices, they would simply pursue an endless cycle of foraging for food, running from real and imagined threats and collecting refuse in their shaggy, unkempt coats. Their identity would totally be defined by their relationship to the flock, where they must define themselves and their intrinsic value according to the internal pecking order of ovine hierarchy. The shepherd, however, knows his sheep by name. He knows their unique value, far beyond any communal definitions of merit and self-worth. He knows their stupidity and their insensitivity and so he takes the initiative and calls them out with merciful attention, patiently waiting for their response. He knows their fear, for he too knows death, that terror behind all terrors, and since he knows it well, he can offer real direction in the midst of it. He does not deny the reality of pain and death, but he holds them up as part of the fabric of life, a life which through his acceptance has become the means of grace and salvation. Even in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us, assuring us that we should fear no evil as we walk in faith.
And finally, the shepherd knows the sheep's filthiness. He knows the brambles, the burrs, the thicket and the muck and he knows the damage that such things do to that glorious coat of wool. Yet, he is not deceived by appearances. He knows the real value of that marvelous coat, created in the very image of the divine, and he knows that in his hands it can be redeemed, restored to its original beauty and value, given once again its inestimable worth.
This morning we call to mind the image of the Good Shepherd and in doing so we are asked to accept our own “sheepishness.” Not as portrayed in Victorian icons, but as represented by those pitiful creatures that share our common existence: frail and frightened, bedraggled and mucky, short-sighted and a bit addled. We must acknowledge our own stupidity, our obsession with consumption and our preoccupation with worldly standards of prosperity, success and achievement. We must own our short-sightedness, our constant failure to place our lives in the context of a greater meaning and purpose. We must accept our fears, the anxieties and worries that so dominate our consciousness preventing us from enjoying the deep and simple richness of nature and intimacy, often inhibiting us from taking the risk of love. We must look at ourselves and see the filth, the countless acts of sin, self-deception, pretension and self-righteousness that have so marred our integrity, so compromised our glorious identity as the beloved creatures of Almighty God. Despite our pretensions, we are here because on some level we recognize those truths and we intuitively know that we too are in desperate need of shepherding. That need is met here and it is met with a marvelous and graceful paradox which demands no less that a life-time of study and reflection.
One shepherd chose to become a sheep, a lamb led to the slaughter, and by that choice, by that outrageously compassionate act, he provided us with the means of discerning and accepting our salvation. The shepherd now calls us through our sheepishness, the very stuff of our all too human reality, so that even when we are lost in the midst of our endless search for direction and sustenance, we can no longer ignore or mistake the clear tenor of his redeeming call. We must strain to hear the call of the Good Shepherd who knows us all by name and promises to lead us beside still waters all the days of this life and far beyond.