God Loves Us Dirty Sheep: Reflections on John 10:1-10
Note: Edgy Exegesis is glad to offer this week the reflections of a guest columnist, the Rev. Mike Baughman.
May 11, 2014
It's SHEEP SUNDAY in the lectionary with a slew of shepherd, sheep, and gate metaphors that are generally lost on the majority of people who encounter the text. Our "city slicker" confusion is understandable. After all, our economy tends to value innovation, technology, and industry more than sheep. We don't learn much about sheep or shepherding in school—neither, it seems, did the Pharisees. John 10:6 says that they didn't understand Jesus' metaphors either. We assume that's just because they were being thick-headed, but maybe we can give the Pharisees a break on this one. Like most of us, they've probably spent their lives learning from books, leaving precious little time for sheep, mud, manure, and pasture.
Despite what you might assume about my New Jersey roots, I've had the opportunity to learn a thing or two about sheep from spending time at my friends' farm and learning from Texas friends who grew up with them. Here's what I know:
1) Sheep are filthy animals, generally covered in mud and their own waste. Their wool can tangle around all sorts of nastiness and hold onto it until the shepherd shows up to get it clean. It's a good thing that Woolite works on wool whether it's in a sweater or still on the sheep. The best shepherds use it before shearing.
2) Lambs bleat a gentle "bahhh." Sheep blurt a disturbing "BLAGHGAGHHAGHAFFTT!!!!!" This has led me to plenty of embarrassing falls as I was so startled by the volume, suddenness, and generally demonic tone of the sound. Sheep start out cute, cuddly, and calming. They rarely stay that way through adulthood.
3) Sheep are either suicidal or stupid—probably both. A West Texas Shepherd, Ed Winton, describes them this way: "Sheep are just born looking for a way to die." He can recall countless stories that involve sheep putting themselves in unnecessary peril, much of which could usually be avoided by doing something simple like turning around.
4) Sheep are hard-wired to follow the sheep in front of them. Sheep do know the voice of the shepherd, but will only sometimes follow him or her. They follow other sheep far better than they follow a shepherd. Sometimes, however, sheep will follow a stranger—especially sheep who do not yet know the shepherd well. It takes time for a shepherd to know sheep well enough to tell them apart. Sheep apparently see us the same way.
5) Sheep have poor depth-perception and have a hard time distinguishing a partially open gate along a fence line. Unless a gate is wide open, they need a shepherd to lead a couple sheep through.
The more I learn about sheep, the more accurate (and less flattering) Jesus' metaphor becomes. We are dirty sheep and our very being tangles to all sorts of undesirable things. We don't ever seem to notice because, like feces on wool, our sin slowly clumps together. That which is outside, however, does not corrupt what is inside. Dirty sheep are still incredibly valuable to their owners. So are we to God.
Like sheep, we startle others, sound worse than we think, and involve ourselves in all sorts of self-destructive behavior that we cannot escape on our own.
Rev. Mike Baughman is a United Methodist pastor from the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference appointed to Union (uniondallas.net), a new kind of non-profit coffeehouse in Dallas, TX. As a part of his responsibilities at Union, Mike leads a worshipping congregation made up largely of church refugees in their twenties. A frequent contributor/editor/developer for Sparkhouse Press, Mike has contributed to books like The Hyphenateds (Chalice Press) and co-authored Worship Feast: Lent (Abingdon Press) and neglects a blog at ireverant.wordpress.com.