A tourist was traveling in the Holy Land, and as he went he came upon a man walking down the road with a flock of sheep. The tourist was surprised to see that the man was walking behind the sheep, and the sheep were trotting along in front of him. So as he passed by, the tourist commented that he thought the sheep followed the shepherd, not the other way around.
The man replied, “That’s the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”
Scripture offers two very different images of those who tend the flock. On the one hand, we have some rather famous verses from the Gospel of John (10:1-15), in which Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.” On the other hand, we have verses from the Prophet Ezekiel (34:1-16) (which may be less familiar to us, but which certainly would have been familiar to Jesus) in which Ezekiel speaks of – well, let’s call them the Bad Shepherds. Bad Shepherds do not bring back the scattered, or seek the lost. Bad Shepherds do not feed the sheep, but instead devour them.
I’m sure you all can think of some examples of Bad Shepherds. The headlines are full of them. Coaches, clergy, police, presidents – shepherds who have preyed upon those entrusted to their care, who have profited from those they should have served, who have slaughtered those they were charged to protect.
Good Shepherds make the news from time to time as well, when they lay down their lives for the sheep. I’m sure you can think of examples here, too.
So how do you tell the good shepherds from the bad? Jesus offers us an important clue, in today’s Gospel lesson. The good shepherd, he tells us, calls his sheep by name. And the sheep follow him, because they know his voice.
Now, I have a confession to make here. I grew up in Manhattan, at the foot of Fifth Avenue. So I don’t really have much first-hand experience with livestock. But my friends who grew up in farming communities tell me that as a general rule, there are two groups of animals on the farm: the ones you name, and the ones you eat. It’s best not to let them overlap.
As long as the sheep are unnamed, they are interchangeable. One is as good as another. The sheep we slaughter this season will be replaced by another next season. We may feel some sympathy for their pain, but no real grief at their loss. But it’s harder to devour them, when you know each one by name.
And as with sheep, so with people. Because all of this talk of sheep and shepherds is of course by way of metaphor. We are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.
As long as I think of other people collectively, I can keep my emotional distance from them. This is why we feel more intense concern for the one named child who falls down a well then we do for the thousands of unnamed children who fall into poverty. We may feel sympathy for the plight of the poor, or the homeless, but we do not grieve deeply over it. “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus once said, and he was right. For as long as they are simply, “the poor,” they are interchangeable, replaceable.
In the midst of the “Occupy Boston” movement, I remember reading a newspaper article in which someone was complaining that “the homeless” were stealing things from the protestors tents. As if all the city’s homeless people were there, acting of one accord. When we don’t know our neighbors by name, it is easy to make sweeping generalizations about the homeless, or the poor, or the rich, or the undocumented, or the Democrats, or the Republicans, or the Evangelicals, or the Muslims, or… well, you get the idea.
If you see one sheep, you’ve seen them all.
Unless, of course, you are a sheep.
Or just a good shepherd.
My first experience in street ministry was as a seminary student with Cathedral of the Night, an open-air church in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. I had been living in Northampton for a few years, but when I started serving its streets I realized that I was finally meeting people I had been blindly passing by for years. I learned their names, and they learned mine. Walking down Main Street took a lot longer, with so many people to greet.
That’s the interesting thing about learning someone’s name: It’s a two-way process. Whenever you ask someone their name, you begin by telling them yours. You exchange names. There’s a certain inherent vulnerability taking that step. Once you have exchanged names, you can no longer be anonymous to one another. You can no longer pass each other by on the street corner. You are now members of the same flock.
In fact, that’s the tricky thing about this whole sheep metaphor: we are all simultaneously sheep and shepherd. Jesus told his disciples, “feed my sheep.” But he also told them, “I send you out as sheep among wolves.” As the old hymn tells us, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Yet, we are also all called to be shepherds to one another. To be our brother’s or sister’s keeper. To strengthen the sickly, to heal the diseased, to bind up the broken, to bring back the scattered, to seek the lost – even though we ourselves may be sickly, or broken, or scattered, or lost.
This is the calling of the church to embrace this mixed metaphor — to be shepherd and flock at the same time. It is, after all, what Jesus did. That’s why he is known, not only as the Good Shepherd, but also the Lamb of God.
So here then is our charge on this Good Shepherd Sunday:
Be good shepherds, and love your flock.
Be also good sheep, and love your flock.
For we are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.
Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts,
April 22, 2018
Stained Glass sheep — public domain, source unknown
Lamb — photo by Liza, shepherding by Marti