Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, July 2, 2017
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”
KEEPING SHEEP is a profession and a lifestyle that dates back to the beginning of time. History records it back at least 5,000 years. Sheep tend to flock, and needing leadership, they will follow a shepherd wherever he leads. Several herds of sheep can approach a watering hole at the same time, mingling with others at will, without fear of losing any. When they have watered, one shepherd will call or whistle his own special tune and only his sheep will come out of the mass of wooly backs, rejoining his flock. All the shepherds do likewise and their flocks follow them.
A sheep needs a shepherd. Now there are, it can be told, wild sheep. Mountain goats and other wild breeds do very well by themselves. But domesticated animals of the wooly headed variety are just food on the hoof for predators unless they are under a shepherd’s guarding eye. In old times, the herds wandered anywhere, feeding wherever there was wild grass to eat. Sheep can’t stay in one place long, as they will eat the grass down to the roots and defoliate an area, if left to that. They must be driven to move and leave something to grow back, and thus shepherd cultures have historically been nomadic.
When Abraham came to Canaan, he drove hundreds, maybe thousands of sheep. Local people grew crops, but the original Hebrew was a nomad. The chiefest figures in the Old Testament tended sheep, from Abel, Adam and Eve’s second son, to Noah, Isaac, Jacob and all his sons. After the Promised Land was captured and inhabited, shepherds became a lower caste, living outside the cities. When Samuel came to Jesse in Bethlehem, seeking one of his sons to be King in Israel, the elder sons trotted out and were all rejected. “Are there no other sons?” the old man asked. “Well, there is that good-for-nothing boy who tends the sheep and sings songs,” he was told. And David was sent for. He tended the family herd because he wasn’t valued in his family. A shepherd became the greatest King of Israel.
Time and again in Scripture the image of sheep and shepherd replay for us, God favoring this relationship as the metaphor of His tending us and leading us in safety. We are sheep, and if that’s not a compliment, it’s because we deserve it. Sheep are dumb. But they are dumb in comparison to the shepherd, and if that is God, then naturally we can count ourselves no better than imbeciles. If we need proof of the herding instinct, watch people and where they gather, and what they do, and the trouble they get into when not being watched.
Modern sheep-herding requires a fence. No longer can nomadic shepherds, except in some Middle Eastern lands, wander through seasonal fields, clipping the grasses with thousands of teeth, going where they might. No longer. Not in America, or Europe. A sheep farm must have its own fields, and the sheep graze within boundaries of barbed wire fences, pasture to pasture. The metaphor isn’t as good today. For God does not cage us, engulf us with fencing. He invites us to His pasture, joins us to like-minded sheep, if we please. He protects us when we follow His voice, and if we escape, He looks after us, but He doesn’t arrest us, pick us up, and chain us to His side. This sheep herd is not obligatory. It’s voluntary. So a modern sheep farm isn’t quite the same.
Nursery rhymes and college drinking songs abound with sheep images, from Mary and her little lamb to Yale’s Whiffenpoof Song with its poor little lambs who have lost their way; Baa! Baa! Baa. Sheri Lewis and her sock puppet Lamb Chop charmed us in the 50s. Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph E. Wolf fought over sheep in Merry Melodies cartoons, and Shaun the scrawny sheep invaded Wallace and Gromit’s home, eating everything down to the morning paper. We feel we understand sheep, and maybe we do, being seen by heaven as sheep ourselves.
Jesus used sheep as motifs in His parables and teaching. He sent the newly appointed Apostles out to preach and heal, directing them to “go to the lost sheep of the nation of Israel.” He gave them instruction to proclaim the approach of the Kingdom of Heaven and to heal lepers and lame people, and to drive out devils. “I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. So be as cunning as snakes but as innocent as doves… When they hand you over to the authorities, don’t worry about what to say or how to say it. When the time comes, you will be given what to say. Indeed, you’re not the ones who will be speaking. The Spirit of your Father will be speaking through you.” Matt 10:5-20 These are sheep to be reckoned with.
People of every walk came to Jesus, causing Him to be ridiculed for lacking standards for His disciples. Of course we know tax collectors, prostitutes and other unlikely people were among His retinue. But when He was criticized for it, He answered, “Suppose a man has 100 sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the 99 sheep grazing in the pasture and look for the lost sheep until he finds it? When he finds it, he’s happy. He puts that sheep on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says to them, ‘Let’s celebrate! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ I can guarantee that there will be more happiness in heaven over one person who turns to God and changes the way he thinks and acts than over 99 people who already have turned to God and have his approval.” Luke 15 Joy in heaven over a lost sheep found. That’s you, my friend, and of course it’s me.
Jesus wasn’t the first to use sheep as symbols for God’s people. God spoke through Ezekiel a long parable of how the shepherds, Israel’s priests and rulers, had misused the sheep, eating them and not tending their needs, abusing them and neglecting them. They would be judged and replaced by a new shepherd, God Himself the good shepherd, who we know was Christ. “I will search for my sheep myself, and I will look after them. As a shepherd looks after his flock when he is with his scattered sheep, so I will look after my sheep. I will rescue them on a cloudy and gloomy day from every place where they have been scattered. I will bring them out from the nations, gather them from the countries, and bring them to their own land. I will take care of them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in good pasture, and they will graze on the mountains of Israel. They will rest on the good land where they graze, and they will feed on the best pastures in the mountains of Israel. I will take care of my sheep and lead them to rest, declares the Almighty LORD. I will look for those that are lost, bring back those that have strayed away, bandage those that are injured, and strengthen those that are sick.” Ez 34
Sheep can take care of themselves only to a point. They can eat and water, get pregnant and grow wool. There are things they can’t do. One is that domesticated sheep often can’t give birth without assistance. A shepherd or veterinarian must stand by during lambing because their legs get tangled up in the birth process. Lambs wander off and get lost. Lambs that stray can be easy for a lion or a wolf to catch and eat before help arrives. Their eyes are bigger than their brains, so it’s no wonder they go off to see whatever catches their attention. So it is with us.
It has been my honor to serve as a shepherd, or pastor, under the Great Shepherd for many years, nearly 32. I will soon, God willing, be placed as a shepherd over certain shepherds, assisting my shepherd who is governed by our archbishop, under Christ. Shepherds need assistants. Christ sent His Apostles across the world, giving the Gospel, representing Himself. He couldn’t be everywhere, not as a man. We can do it, if enough people answer the call. Everyone is empowered to be Christ’s eyes and mouth and hands and feet, being more than mere sheep, but assisting the shepherd in His task of bringing more sheep into His fold.
This assistance can never be done in pride, nor with the sense that ‘I can do it, I am qualified.’ St. Peter’s Epistle today says it well. “Be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble… your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.” That lion is looking for fresh lamb.
Jesus described Himself as the Good Shepherd, reflecting the 23rd Psalm. With Him as shepherd, we shall want for nothing. He will give us green fields in which to graze and still water to drink. Our souls revive and our paths are good. Though death stalks us, we don’t fear. Our enemies will enviously watch us eat in plenty, for they are excluded from the great feast. Our cup overflows and our dwelling place is with God forever.
Jesus called Himself the sheep gate, a narrow aisle where one sheep at a time can enter a safe place, and the shepherd himself lies down at night to guard the way from thieves. He provides for His sheep for they are His possession. And He is willing to die for His sheep, unlike a hired hand who runs at the sign of danger. He knows His sheep and they know Him. There are sheep belonging to Him that He has yet to bring, but eventually there will be one flock and one shepherd.
The metaphor doesn’t show the Shepherd using sheep as shepherds do, milking them, or making lamb chops and shearling coats from them, even shearing their wool. He is careful to remind us, He is the one who dies, in our place, to make us ever safe.
“I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind but now I see.” I was a student at Cal, wandering through a confused emerging culture that denied Christianity, traditional values of marriage, patriotism, property rights, and even hygiene for the mirage of a revolution. It was revolting, all right. It makes me chuckle, and then wince, to see young people dress like we did, wear their hair long, grow scraggly beards and use patchouli oil in emulation of my hip generation, who are now mostly bald, or shorn, and leading normal lives, having gotten over it a long time ago. I wanted a world where no hate or conflict bothered anybody, but I had ignored the fact that real enemies exist who are not our government, and may not speak our language, and who will not leave us alone if we lay down our arms. I’ve learned. I’ve found the shepherd, or rather He found me, lost and wandering, and spouting my nonsense. He showed me the way, and joined me to His flock, and I have been happy with the decision ever since. I hope you can say the same.