Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the time in the schedule of scripture readings in the Revised Common Lectionary when several passages compare God’s care to that of a good shepherd. In the Hymn we sang, based on the 23rd Psalm, God is the shepherd. In the gospel and epistle passages, Jesus is the shepherd. In both, we are the sheep.
Are any of you farmers or relatives of farmers?
Did you ever raise sheep?
My sole understanding of sheep raising in America comes from a legendary story about my late ex-brother-in-law, Ed. He was my first husband’s oldest brother. We divorced a little more than 10 years ago and Ed died a few years after that. He was born and reared in the city of St. Louis, but he wanted to be a farmer. He majored in Agriculture at Mizzou for a year, then quit and joined the Army. After he came back from the service, he majored in accounting. But he married a farm girl and they bought a farm off Highway 3 between Waterloo and Red Bud.
Ed was an enthusiastic experimenter. He didn’t just plant strawberries. He read up on all the varieties and planted some that were good for freezing and some that were good for making jam and some that were good for eating raw. He planted grapes and made wine. He kept horses and he and his wife, Alice, would buy a couple of calves, feed them and then have them butchered, keeping some of the meat and selling the rest to his relatives.
Ed didn’t make a living farming. He worked most of his adult life as an accountant. His and Alice’s best, most successful crops were their five children and several grandchildren, all raised on the farm.
Early in his farming days, Ed decided to try sheep raising. I haven’t seen a lot of sheep in southern Illinois, but Ed wouldn’t let that stop him. He figured if you had pasture, you could raise sheep. He bought a ram and some ewes. My ex-husband was a teenager at the time of this story and tells it with great detail.
This ram was one ornery animal. It evidently had not read the scripture passage about sheep responding to their master’s voice. This ram would attack anyone who entered the pasture. Anyone including – maybe especially – Ed. Leading this sheep anywhere would have been difficult, because you couldn’t turn your back on him. He’d butt you. Ed’s wife thought it was funny. But it was a real problem for Ed. He had invested considerable money in this experiment. It would have been the early 1960s. And if I remember the story right, Ed paid $200 for the ram alone.
I don’t know enough about sheep to know if this territorial ram was typical, or if there were things Ed could have done to change the ram’s behavior. Cowboys used to sing to cows to calm them down. Does that work with sheep? I don’t know.
Anyway, one day Ed was in the sheep pasture, tending to the sheep, and he leaned over – to pick something up, or maybe to pull a weed. And the ram butted him in the behind and knocked him flat on his face.
Ed had had it with this ram. This was no placid sheep following his master’s voice. This was one dangerous, annoying animal. So he went over to the house he was remodelling for his family and he got a 2 by 4. Ed played semi-pro baseball in his younger days and he had a pretty good swing. He swung that board and hit the ram right between the eyes. My ex-husband said the ram took one shaky step and just collapsed. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Suddenly all Ed had from his sheep raising experiment was some very expensive stew meat. And a good lesson.
That was the day that Ed decided he would not raise sheep. That there was more to being a good shepherd than buying the animals and providing them with green pasture, still water and protection from predators.
Whenever I’m tempted to romanticize passages in the bible about sheep, I think of that cantankerous ram and how he met his end by butting Ed’s end. Sheep are not cuddly little stuffed animals gambolling through a Disney cartoon. They’re smelly and stupid. A good shepherd understands the sheep and has patience with them, even when they foolishly butt the man who feeds them or when they scatter and run off at the first sign of danger, as in the passage from 1st Peter.
Getting sheep to recognize your voice and to trust you and follow you is evidently not an easy thing. Well, isn’t that the way with people too. Sometimes we follow the wrong leader’s voice, or we fail to recognize the one who would best care for us. We resist and rebel. We’re not good followers. Neither were the listeners of Jesus’s parable.
In the context of this gospel, Jesus tells this parable to doubting pharisees who have challenged him about healing a man blind from birth. These listeners may have wanted to believe Jesus, but they had a lot of baggage – pride, privilege, too much power or too many possessions to give up easily.
Jesus surely had Psalm 23 in mind when he told his parable about the good shepherd. God fills our every need; God leads us in paths of righteousness; God comforts.
But the psalm and the gospel reading both acknowledge that the world is not all green pastures and comfort. The psalmist walks through the valley of the shadow of death (the darkest valley). He feasts in the presence of his enemies. In Jesus’s parable, thieves and bandits climb over the gate to get at the sheep.
Jesus was reminding his listeners that some leaders would take advantage of people’s yearning for tender direction from God. In his day, as in ours, there were would-be leaders who would use God’s name for their own purposes, and, in effect, steal and rob the people’s confidence and allegiance.
There were “hired men” who looked on their sacred trust as leaders as just a job that they could forsake at the first sign of trouble.
Episcopal minister, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells about a friend who knows good sheep-raising techniques.
Taylor says, according to her friend, “cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that will not work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all they will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led.
You push cows, Taylor’s friend said, but you lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first — namely their shepherd — who goes ahead of them to show them that everything is all right. sheep tend to grow fond of their shepherds, her friend went on to say. It never ceased to amaze him, growing up, that he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium.
I guess Ed didn’t keep his sheep long enough to be trusted in that way.
Taylor’s friend said sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to. A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that a cluck of the tongue means food, or a two note song means that it is time to go home…They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.” So says Taylor in her homily.
This coincides with what Jesus says about a good shepherd, “when he, the shepherd, has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
Jesus has gone ahead of us, facing death at the hands of sinners. Then he came back after the resurrection to tell us that the way was safe, that we can trust God to lead us through the darkest valley. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
As the writer of 1st Peter wrote, “They called him every name in the book and he said nothing back. He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right. He used his servant body to carry our sins to the Cross so we could be rid of sin, free to live the right way. His wounds became your healing. You were lost sheep with no idea who you were or where you were going. Now you’re named and kept for good by the Shepherd of your souls.”
We may have more in common with Ed’s ram than we would like to admit. But Jesus was not weighed down by sin, the way we are. Jesus has infinite patience with us, even when we do the worst. Peter tells us his wounds became our healing.
When we respond to our shepherd’s voice, we are led in right paths. We are followed by goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. The Good Shepherd – who came that we would have life abundantly – has shown us the way.
Praise God, Amen.
Please pray with me.
Gracious and merciful God, our every waking moment is made safe and comfortable through the sacrifice of your son, Jesus. We praise your grace and patience in leading us in paths that lead to goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. We pray our gratitude in Jesus name, Amen.