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A few years ago when this congregation was only itself a few years old, my father who is the only one in my life who calls me a Shepherd – an old term for a pastor – asked me “so, Nadia, how’s your flock?” to which I said “same as ever. Disobedient. And a little smelly”
Once a year in the season of Easter we get these Good Shepherd texts and we chant the 23rd Psalm and every single year I struggle with knowing what to say because I find these bucolic, pastoral, images in the Bible to be almost worthless. I mean, it would just be so much easier if Jesus’ illustrations were about tattoo artists and Twitter followers. Were he saying I am the Good Friend or I AM the good therapist or even I am the Good Crossfit Coach I could have something to relate to. But no. We get I am the Good Shepherd. The problem is that friends and therapists and coaches are things I have experience with but I I’ve never spent much time around shepherds.
So, you know…. it was one of those weeks.
I started and threw away several mediocre sermons about the Good Shepherd. Oh yeah – I mean were I trying to give an interesting lecture I had plenty of material since I read a lot of useless articles about how shepherds were perceived in the 1st century. I read about sheep and what their enclosures were like in Jesus’ day. But you deserve a sermon tonight and not an interesting lecture and that’s why I deleted a whole bunch of words before writing these.
So here’s the title of my actual sermon:
The Truth About Sheep: A Sermon by Someone Who Doesn’t Know Anything About Sheep But Knows a Little About Humans and Only a Tiny Bit About God But is going to Take a Shot At This Anyhow.
The Truth About Sheep is that I don’t want to be one.
The only sheep I’ve ever seen have been the sad, filthy caged ones in petting zoos.
I mean, given the choice, I’d be a wolf or maybe a shepherd, but never a sheep. Sheep are stupid and docile and easily manipulated. I want to make my own choices and go my own way. Even, it should be noted, if those choices and that way is killing me.
So The Truth About Sheep is that sometimes we are rebellious – we are the sheep with too much black eyeliner. The ones who stay as far to the edge of the flock as possible so we can try and pretend we are free agents. We are anti-shepherdtarians. Our insistence that we aren’t like other sheep keeps us from the one thing we really want which is to belong and feel safe and it is the complete lack of belonging and feeling safe-ness that has made us turn instead to more black eyeliner.
But The Truth About Sheep is also that we want nothing more than to belong and yet never felt we have or we have felt a part of something for awhile and then not a part of something so quickly that it doesn’t feel like it even counted.
The Truth About Sheep is also that we don’t really know what size we are.
We are the small sheep. The ones who give pieces of our hearts to any shepherd shaped thing that comes our way. We are so small and in need. We love our smallness because it means we get to be parented and led and shepherded and cared for by everyone else because unlike us, everyone else is strong. We never have to meet another sheep’s need because we always get to be the smallest.
We are also sometimes the big sheep. We try to be sheep in wolves clothing sparring with the shepherd while also desperately wanting someone to take care of us, guard us, protect us. Someone to belong to. and yet us big sheep are really just scared. We are just pretending to be big so no one will suspect.
The Truth About Sheep is that we can have terrible hearing.
We are the sheep who can’t hear the shepherd because her voice is drown out by the clamor of our self-critique. I wish I were taller, I wish I were shorter, I wish my wool were as white and hers or as curly as his. We are the sheep who deplore our sheepness and so we search for our belonging in things that don’t really matter.
We are also sometimes the sheep who filter out all the good messages about ourselves and our place in the flock and choose instead to only hear confirmation that other sheep get more attention and that everyone else is having more fun and how we don’t really belong after all.
But sometimes, sometimes we can shine as sheep. We are the sheep who do unbelievably tender and perfectly sheeply things for our fellow flockmates. We show them where the best grass is, we nudge them with our noses helping them stand back up when they fall. We know when to stop baaa baaaing so that we can hear the shepherd call us. We are the sheep who love and listen to the Good Shepherd and are so often our very best selves.
We are all of these sheep. We are. And it’s ok.
Because while I wish Jesus had said I Am the Good Friend or the Good Therapist or the Good coach because I would rather think of myself as a friend, client or athlete – there is nothing wrong with the fact that I am a sheep of God’s keeping and that you are sheep of God’s keeping. For it is the truth. The truth is that we are petty and deceitful and heroic and small and filled with grace. There is nothing wrong with any of it, dear fellow sheep because it is the truth. It is the truth about sheep. And why should we fear the truth if it is the thing that Jesus said would set us free.
See the Truth Of Who We Are, the truth of our jagged little edges and our jankey little hearts and our fragile need to belong is nothing to be ashamed of. So let your sheep freak flag fly little flock. Because no amount of this rebellion and smallness and bigness and self-sorrow can ever change our belongingness to our shepherd. None of it. And none of the ways we seek belongingness to lesser shepherds and wolves can ever change our true belongingness to the Good Shepherd.
Because in reality, when we wander off and try and get our needs met through all the wrong ways and allow others to be our shepherd and when we are dumb and let the wolves in and when we do all the other things sheep just do, well, it doesn’t mean we are not worthy to have a good shepherd, it just makes it all that much better news that we have a good shepherd.
So yes, like it or not, we are all – at some time or another – these kinds of sheep because these kinds of sheep are all there is – the needy, proud, distant, rebellious, kind, vain, glorious kind of sheep are the ones who belong to the shepherd. And the shepherd loves this mess of sheep – The shepherd lays down his life for just these kinds of sheep – which means that the shepherd’s care and unfolding love is not contingent on the sheep being the right kind. The sheep need not believe in the shepherd nor must we be sure what any of this means in order for the shepherd to call us his own.
Because here’s The Truth About The Shepherd –The Shepherd never mentions the type of quality of sheep he demands. The shepherd never holds auditions. The shepherd never bases their protection and love and concern for their sheep on how the sheep look or feel or behave…that’s never mentioned as a basis for belonging to the flock of the Good Shepherd. Those are just things we created as a basis for belonging because grace is just too offensive. Grace is just too hard to take since on some level, we think that if it’s free it must be worthless. So we’ve made the church into the High Commission on Sheep Behavior and Worthiness Systems.
But The Truth About The Shepherd is that despite all of this, they call us by name. We know the voice. It is always there, under the clamor of insecurity and the cry of wolves and the murmurs of our own internal High Commission on Worthiness. The voice of the one who lays down his life for us who lays down his love for us rebellious and smelly sheep is always right there saying:
“you belong to me”