Few Biblically inspired images are as enduring and essential to Judeo-Christian tradition as the one who cares for sheep.
The shepherd . . .
Moses tended his father-in-law’s flock of sheep when the burning bush interrupted his day and his life.
David the King was first the slingshot-wielding defender who protected sheep from wild animals and confronted Goliath.
Or, a shepherd/sheep image that you remember from the Bible is (fill in the blank) . . . ___________________________________.
The 4th Sunday of Easter – for May 15, 2011
“ . . . and the sheep hear his voice . . .” (John 10:3)
And so it was and so it is that all who follow Jesus, all who are part of the Christian heritage of servanthood and discipleship, can be known as . . . cloven-hoofed, two-stomached, dim-witted, herd-oriented, oft-fleeced, and frequently smelly.
I resist the sheep label. I’ve seen sheep sheered (say that fast, twice!) and all things considered I’d rather be the sheerer than the sheered. One of my heroes is naturalist John Muir. You can thank him for our National Parks. In the mid-1800s, Muir cursed destruction of the valleys and meadows of California’s Sierra Nevada by the wooly ruminant. Indeed, Muir referred to sheep as “hoofed locusts.” If sheep wander into a glorious alpine meadow or your weed-infested backyard, soon both places will look pretty much the same: picked clean, barren, and nary a wildflower or weed to be seen. Heck, after sheep do their thing, you’d need a microscope to find a blade of grass.
Sheep. I shudder.
And aren’t shepherds and sheep out-of-date anyway? Most of us have seen more pictures of sheep than spent time around them. Ask ten people where wool comes from and how many will say “sheep” and how many “Macys?” As an annual ritual, I’ve listened to Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor retell the Christmas story. His version transformed the lowly Bethlehem-based shepherds into parking lot attendants. After all, how many Booroola Merino or American Blackbelly sheep have you “tended” compared to Honda Accords or Ford F150 pick-ups? Would you rather imagine yourself as a Prius or a Priangan, a Mercedez Benz or a Medium-Wool Merino?
Oh Lord, You who are the great parking lot attendant, please guide me, your loyal muscle car (or, for the more enlightened, your humble hybrid), toward the road of life. Let me head for Highway 1 on California’s coast or the next NASCAR track . . . rather than a pasture of soon-to-be-stunted alfalfa.
Me, be sheepish? Be the victim? I’d prefer to join the hunters rather than the hunted. Indeed, I have my own inspirational images that are far better than four-legged mutton.
Years ago, while visiting Yosemite, I arose early to enjoy a solitary walk through the sublime valley. And even though zillions of people visit each year, I felt alone in that gray dawn light. The magnificent falls flung water from the granite rims. Trees swayed in a light breeze. A thin mist curled over Merced River. I tramped through the forest, a thousand and more campers still snoozing in their tents or snug in cabins, pretending I could’ve been taking this stroll a century or millennia ago.
I spotted a shadow to my left, then another to my right. A coyote. Two coyotes. They walked. I walked. They started trotting. I joined, keeping pace. As we moved across the valley floor, I realized other coyotes were now ghosting among the trees with me, with us. For a moment or two, certainly no longer, I ran with a pack of coyotes. As mysteriously as they appeared, they vanished.
Alone. Falls flung water. Trees swayed. Mist curled. A thousand campers still slept. For a moment or two, certainly no longer, I inhabited a primeval world. I was hunter.
And yet I am a sheep. Not in the worst sense, but the best sense. No, I don’t want to have the “wool pulled over my eyes,” nor do I like to think of myself as sheepish. But the ancient, even anachronistic, reference rightly defines and encourages my faith.
Do I love to tell the story of the morning run with coyotes? Oh yes I do! Each time I remember it, primal feelings are rekindled. I am in control, feared, and have staked out my territory.
When I am controlling, trouble comes. When I use fear, hate follows. When I claim a border, ignorance and prejudice guard my gates.
The Good Shepherd never “pulls the wool over my eyes.” The “lamb of God” helps me honestly see the world and sense how I can serve.