I have confessed to you before that I am not a fan of sheep, though I must say that it is only roast leg of lamb that ultimately will stand between me and being vegetarian. Lambs are one thing; sheep are significantly different. There is all the difference between lambs and sheep as there is between teddy bears and great big black bears. Every year I have to go through a kind of uncomfortable adjustment on the Fourth Sunday of Easter trying to figure out a way to deal with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and my implicit role as a sheep.
You have no doubt heard, or perhaps have personally experienced the fact that to be called a sheep is not a high compliment. Sheep are not bright, are easily led, quite nearsighted, subject to all sorts of dangers, and rather defenseless against predators. While they have been for ages a highly valued commodity, they do have some notable drawbacks, one of which is, at least to my mind, a rather unpleasant odor, though in so saying I do not wish to offend any shepherds, certainly.
Nonetheless, the image of Jesus as a shepherd is one that stuck in the mind of the Church, and lots of Churches of the Good Shepherd are quite happy today on what is their equivalent of a patronal festival. The church in which I was ordained priest has a stained glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I used to look up at it as I was celebrating the Eucharist as a young priest and see something that reminded me of the pastoral vocation to which I had been ordained. Pastor, of course, is the Latin word for shepherd, so all those traits of sheep that give me pause are ironically the things which define my vocation in a way.
Today, which happens to be our Annual Meeting Day at St. Stephen’s, I want to shift the image from the Good Shepherd to the sheep in the pen. I want to climb right down and get with the sheep, hearing their bleating and smelling them, seeing them jammed into their small space. I want to look into their gray-blue watery eyes and feel the cockle burrs stuck in their fleece. I want to imagine for just a brief moment that the feelings I get at being with such animals—the curiosity and fascination, interest and some pity, concern and a slight revulsion—are not unlike the feelings that any good shepherd, or even a not-so-good shepherd might experience. I imagine that the Good Pastor himself might register such a range of feelings with his flock of human beings on any given day.
For purposes of comparison, let’s take the line from Acts 2:42 that we hear fairly frequently because it occurs in the Baptismal Covenant which we renew with some regularity. “They continued in the apostles’ teaching, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers.” Human flocks, of course, do that; sheep don’t. But let’s say that human flocks, specifically Christian ones, need to do those things in order to be good flocks as much as the sheep in a sheep pen need to bleat and grow wool and rub up against one another and compete for food and water and set about grazing when the shepherd opens the door of the pen and leads them out to pasture.
In this human sheepfold called the Church are packed a fair number of Christians, some of whom are prize-winners, but most of whom are just ordinary. Several weeks after Easter, when Jesus had finished his work, had risen from the dead, and appeared in glory, all the angels are said to have gathered around, asking him how things went on earth, and what the high points and low points were. Jesus recounted his ministry, putting it in terms that the angels understood, describing his community as a flock and himself as their shepherd. “Oh,” asked an angel, “so what are the flock up to now, seeing that the shepherd has come home?”
“Come see my flock,” said Jesus. “These are the ones that are going to do greater works than I did!” The angels peered down from on high and saw a little band of people that Jesus referred to as his “sheep.” A look of horror spread across the faces of angels, who exclaimed in unison, “Them?”
“Them,” said Jesus.
Centuries went by. Jesus is said to have been walking about one day when an angel stopped him and asked for an update. “So, Jesus, how is that flock of sheep coming on?”
“Oh, they have their good days and their bad days,” said Jesus. “On the whole, they do some pretty stunning things. They continue in my teaching. They break bread together. They pray for one another. And they constantly talk about how they can widen their little sheep pen to include more and more people in it. You should see them.”
“Well, let’s,” said the angel, summoning some of his fellow angels to the moment.
Jesus led them to a precipice. They looked over and saw a scrawny bunch of somewhat sheepish people in a pen called “St. Stephen and the Incarnation.” A look of horror spread across the faces of the angels.
“Them?” one of the angels cried.
Jesus, gazing at his sheep, said, “Them.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011