Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Shepherds and Shepherd

Christmas Eve, 2000

“And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

I grew up in the Low Country of South Carolina. That is hog country. Daddy raised hogs. Breeding Durocs. Big hogs. And because I had to feed and water them, and see them slaughtered, and get to know them all over again as ham and bacon and pork chops, I know something about hogs. I know, for example, that hogs are fairly smart.  Daddy tells a story about how he had a litter of pigs one time that figured out how to climb on top of each other and make a sort of cheerleaders’ pyramid so that they could eat his grapes off the vines.

One Saturday when I was in high school I went with Daddy to an auction barn not far from our farm. While Daddy was looking at hogs to buy, I meandered around the back side of the pens. I smelt this very strange odor. When I looked over into the pen I saw a sheep. I was surprised to see a sheep, because in all my life I don’t think I had ever met a sheep, or even met a person who owned one. Perhaps it did not even occur to me until that very moment that for some reason, nobody that I knew raised sheep in the Low Country. I don’t know why.  Maybe sheep are too vulnerable to the local bobcats. But the smell was strange to me, and so was the sheep. Until that occasion, most of what I knew about sheep I knew from the Bible and from pictures. But neither Bible nor art generally has a scratch-and-sniff dimension. So I never knew about this sheep odor. (Incidentally, I say with sincere apologies to you vegetarians in the house, I had to overcome my initial aversion to this characteristic odor in order to fall in love, simply in love, with leg of lamb: one of the only things that stands between me and devoted vegetarianism today.)

 Nor did I know that sheep, unlike hogs, are not very smart. One of the reasons for having shepherds is that sheep need some guidance. While there are such positions as swineherds, their job is not to guide hogs, but to slop them, and keep them with adequate water in hot weather to cool off. The trouble with both sheep and shepherds for most of you is that, as for me, they are symbols and images lifted out of real life and put in places like Christmas cards and creches where you can’t fully experience them. In other words, there is no stink involved. And the sheep look so cute. Likewise, shepherds rarely look like the people at the bottom of the social heap that they had become by the time Caesar Augustus decided to tax the world. For us they look much like the boys and girls that trooped down the aisle earlier this afternoon in the Christmas pageant. No stink there! Or they look much like the shepherds in the 1920’s version of a creche used in one of my former parishes: blond, blue-eyed, rather preppy looking fellows that might have been on the wrestling team at Yale.

Not so, these shepherds that Luke tells us about. If they were typical shepherds of the first century, or for that matter, typical of middle eastern shepherds today, they were not a pretty sight. And I am sure that they smelt like sheep. Don’t let that mess up your notion of Christmas. Because, despite the deodorized version of the hillside outside Bethlehem that we have in our minds, it is exactly this point that Luke is making by telling us about the shepherds. It was not to kings, nor to sages, nor to the wealthy, nor to the rabbis and scribes and religious establishment that the heavenly host appeared to announce Messiah’s birth. It was the opposite. It was to unsuspecting, low class, illiterate, and doubtless sleepy shepherds, possibly—possibly—whiling the night away by nipping a little bit of wine, and quite possibly huddled around a fire telling stories and jokes if they had any energy left. It was as if, say, a cosmically important announcement were to be made in Lynchburg. Instead of being made on Monument Terrace, or in St. John’s Church on Boston Avenue, or at Thomas Road Baptist Church, or to some people gathered in a mansion on Rivermont Avenue or in Boonsboro, this impressive event were to take place among some bums that were hanging about in the middle of the night somewhere on Wise Street or halfway up Grace Street. You get the picture.

That is the nature of the Good News. When the angel said that the Good News of great joy was available to all people, that angel was singing Luke’s song: no one will be an outcast in the Kingdom of God. The only people in danger of losing the Kingdom are those who think they have it and become obstacles for others’ entrance in. And woe to them! It is the nature of this baby, cradled in a manger, to throw open the doors to all people; to smash the boundaries that separate Jew and Gentile; to restore to life the only son of a widow; to offer paradise to a penitent thief hanging on a neighboring cross; to celebrate the giving nature of outcast Samaritans; to call a hated tax collector out of a sycamore tree and invite himself to dine with him. And all who would enter his Kingdom must go and do likewise.

But there is even more to the shepherds than this sociological case statement that their place in the birth story makes. Shepherds may have been shiftless and smelly and eager to graze their flocks on just any old body’s property in the Augustan age. But theirs was a job that even the great Moses had done at one time. He had been shepherding a flock of sheep when he wandered off in the Sinai Wilderness and was arrested by the sight of a burning bush. To that shepherd, the angel of the Lord had announced frighteningly Good News that the Lord was about to deliver his people from their Egyptian taskmasters. And David, Israel’s model monarch, had been keeping sheep when, called from the field, he was anointed king. Could it be that Luke’s story is telling us that these rural shepherds outside Bethlehem, like Moses, have been surprised by the Glory of the Lord, and called as David was, perhaps from that very field, to a destiny that they had not dreamed? Could it be that he is saying that you and I too, keeping sheep in our own time and way, are apt to be thus surprised and thus called? And in the middle of our darkness, yet!

Fear not, shepherds. Because something awaits you that is greater than you can imagine. On the one hand, a common baby. On the other hand, a Shepherd of sorts, like yourselves. Come to Bethlehem and see this one who will redeem you, and your shepherding job as well. For he, who lies like you among the animals, will one day feed his flock, including you, like a shepherd.  He will carry the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. He will see himself as the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. He will talk about himself as the door of the Sheepfold, as the shepherd who will bring home the sheep, no matter of what fold. He will see himself as the Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock. And Israel will be the whole world.

 Go now even to Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass. For after you do, millions upon millions of other shepherds, people of low degree and high, will be giving new meaning to what you have known for ages: “The Lord,” they will say, “the Lord is my shepherd.”

 © Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015          

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