We are all like sheep—intelligent, but prone to scattering when we don’t listen to our shepherd. Like sheep, we are meant to stay with the flock, and follow Jesus, our shepherd. If you listen, you will hear the shepherd calling!
Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 16, year B
texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
There are a lot of sheep in our readings for today. And a lot of shepherds. And for Jesus’ listeners, shepherds and sheep were very familiar, because if they were not shepherds themselves, they knew or worked with people who were. Encounters with sheep were common experiences, so when Jesus compared his listeners to sheep, as he does several times in the Gospels, or when they heard references to sheep and shepherds from the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, they probably had a pretty easy time understanding what that meant.
Most of us today don’t have the same advantage when it comes to sheep images. Of course, we know some things about sheep. We know they live in flocks. We know they give us wool. We know they smell. And of course, we know they “baaaa!” But all of these things that we know about sheep from our limited experience are very little help when it comes to understanding what it means for us to be like sheep. After all, we may live in flocks, sort of, but we don’t shed wool, we hopefully don’t stink as badly as sheep do most of the time, and we don’t typically “baaaa,” except of course when we are singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm, or having fun with Biblical sheep imagery!
No, our limited experience with sheep is not very helpful at all. We might have better luck explaining rotary phones or pilot lights to someone under 18! But in spite of the challenge to our 21st century minds, sheep and shepherds are really major themes in the Bible, and given today’s texts, it is worth spending a little time thinking about what it means for us to be like sheep, with God as our shepherd.
Sheep often get a bad rap for being “stupid,” and it is true that they have been known to walk off the edge of a cliff, one following another, with no hesitation. Sheep stick together as a group for safety and companionship, and if a lead sheep heads off in a bad direction, it is likely that others will follow. The truth is, however, contrary to popular opinion, sheep are actually very intelligent, and they are good at solving problems. While they may get misled, sheep can also find their way back home. And, they can go to lengths, even working together, to get into fields of juicier grasses!
Does that sound familiar? We human beings, like sheep, are intelligent, and are very good at working together to solve problems or achieve our goals. We also find safety in numbers. And, we have been known to trust and follow leaders who made bad decisions, not fully aware of what we were doing. Think of the last time you were in a car caravan when the lead car got lost. How long did it take—how many minutes, or miles, or turns, or silent thoughts that maybe this wasn’t right—before someone actually decided to question the leader?
The results of our human flocking tendencies can be harmless, and even humorous. Taken to an extreme, our sheep-like behavior can lead to nothing short of tragedy. Dylan followed false shepherds and other sheep whose ideas were not only misguided, but simply evil, and it led him straight into the Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel AME for the purpose of taking the lives of nine innocent people.
I think perhaps Jeremiah could have been talking about this when he said, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” Those spreading overt messages of hatred and division and supremacy and bias are certainly responsible. But so are all of us who remain silent in the face of subtle jokes or comments that demean whole groups of our fellows, or remain unaware of our own biases. We are following and encouraging others on a path allowing racism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression, to go unchallenged.
We who don’t respond and share our abundance with those lacking basic needs have gone astray. We have forgotten that our well-being, and the well-being of all creation, is not dependent upon individual success or safety. Our lives are inextricably intertwined with all of our fellow sheep and this world in which we live. When we forget that, like sheep without a shepherd, we are scattered and separated from one another.
We have been scattered, driven apart. We are all responsible to look to the shepherd who can lead us home.
In Jeremiah, God promises to raise up a new shepherd, and call his people back from where they have been scattered. We as Christians understand Jesus to be God our shepherd, the one who prepares a table for us, protects us, leads us along the right path. Paul assures the Ephesians that Jesus, our shepherd, has called us together, with all of our differences. Jesus has compassion on the people who seek him, because they are like sheep without a shepherd, and he teaches them. Jesus becomes their shepherd. And Jesus is our shepherd, the one who brings all of us sheep-like humans together as one flock.
We, like sheep, can be confused and led astray when we are not listening to our shepherd. But non-human sheep can recognize each other, and even distinguish one human being from another. This means that sheep can identify who their shepherd is! They know their shepherd’s voice, they know their shepherd’s face.
The crowds followed Jesus, ran ahead of him to wherever he was going, because intuitively, they knew who he was.
And so do we. We hear the voice of our shepherd all the time, if we listen for it. We hear it in the scriptures. We hear the shepherd calling in the voice of loved ones and mentors who know us well, and can help us find our way when we are lost. We even hear that voice, I daresay, in the voice of the preacher telling us hard truths on Sunday morning. And when we hear the voice of the shepherd, we know it, the same way we know the voice of our parents, our children, our spouses or partners. We can’t explain how we know, we just know.
Our shepherd is with us, always, no matter how lost or scattered we may become. Native legend tells us that humanity will not be whole and healed of brokenness until all of us—all colors, ethnicities, traditions, backgrounds—come together and share equal voice in the circle. Our shepherd is calling!
We humans are like sheep, even if we don’t “baaa” . . . . we are intelligent, we know our shepherd’s voice when we hear it, and at our best, we tend to follow our shepherd and stay with the flock for safety and companionship. Our lives and our well-being are dependent on realizing that we are not meant to be scattered or divided along any lines, and only our shepherd can keep us from getting lost. Come together, little sheep! And listen to the voice of Jesus our shepherd in scriptures, pastors, trusted companions. We are all like sheep. And—listen, do you hear it?—our shepherd is calling!
Thanks be to God!