The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
John 10: 11-18
In Eugene, this is Eugene Marathon Sunday. In church, today, if a stranger were to wander in with absolutely no other exposure to faith, he’d probably conclude that sheep figure heavily in our faith. This Sunday is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. We tend to hear “good” as in good is the opposite of bad. Cake is good. This past week, I learned that what we often hear of as good, the opposite of bad, can also be considered “good” as in a good model, ideal, true, faithful, competent, “the best model of” . Sweet Life Bakery has the good cakes. Jesus is not just the good shepherd, but he’s the model shepherd for us. That makes our lives infinitely more challenging.
From the research these past few days, it seems that most people see very few sheep these days. As for us, we live in Oregon. We see them in the fields off I-5. I see them when I drive to Salem or Portland. The commuters among us see them every day. Sometimes I see and hear and smell them as I bike the country roads. I used to hear that sheep were rather stupid creatures, because they spook so easily. They will run away from their own home pen if something seems to be wrong. You cannot chase a sheep into a pen. I watched these very cool viral videos created when a few bored Welsh shepherds got their dogs together and put lights on the sheep and had them run around in the dark. The shepherd dogs chase the sheep from danger. But I am told that sheep actually suffer from a smear campaign organized by cattle ranchers. You see, you move cattle around by poking and prodding them from behind. That doesn’t work for a sheep. You move a sheep around by teaching them to follow a trusted voice. They learn to associate that voice with good things like food and safe shelter, and they follow their own shepherd’s voice, and not another. They aren’t dumb, per se. They are choosy in whom they follow. This makes for a much more challenging view of the sheep in our parable. The Good Shepherd isn’t herding stupid animals, but he’s charged with gathering a choosy flock together.
So who is this “good” shepherd? In Greek, the word used is kalos. That does mean “good”, but it also can be translated as ideal, model, or competent. The good shepherd, the kalos shepherd, is the best of the shepherds. No one denies that shepherding is messy work. Far from the idyllic pastoral scenes involving flutes and sunshine (see a good quality copy of the children’s book “Heidi” for examples), shepherding is physical, dirty work that takes a fair amount of know-how and a decent gift of good instinct. A modern equivalent, indeed, would be “I am the good bike mechanic”. Yes, I know you are going to laugh, but it’s true. It’s a dirty job that takes know-how and a good instinct. So a good shepherd is one who isn’t afraid of hard, dirty work, and who also loves his work.
The more I look at this model of the good shepherd, the more it seems that we as a people are not the sheep of the parable. Labeling us as the sheep means we are the ones who are led, and thus we are absolved from responsibility of doing the tasks of the shepherd. If we are the sheep, other people are the ones who have to do the work. And that is just not the sort of people we have here at St. Mary’s.
No, as a thinking people of faith, we have work to do. That’s what Jesus models for us in the parable. That is the work that makes Christian community so endlessly interesting. To start with, a shepherd feeds his flock. How do we adequately feed our flock? Is it through many services, like the six different ones that we offer each week? Is it through our educational offerings? Is it through small groups? A good shepherd understands that you can’t put sheep out to pasture in the same meadow every single day. They have to move around so they don’t overgraze one area. The good shepherd works to constantly challenge the sheep and keep things fresh.
Good shepherds care for the wellbeing of their animals. How do we care for the ailments of the sheep? Whose responsibility is that? Is it the work of just the Outreach Council and their many projects throughout the year? Is it the work of the clergy in pastoral care? Is it something we can offload to Catholic Community Services because they just have better connections to the social services? Is caring for the ailments of the sheep what we do when we bring meals to the sick and the suffering, or wrap them in prayer shawls? Is it what happens at Saturday Breakfast, on second and fourth Saturdays? The good shepherd cares, truly cares, for his sheep to be well and happy. Isn’t that what we want in our community, for each other to be well and joyful?
Now, the keeping the flock together role of the shepherd, that’s where things really get tricky. It is hard work to keep a diverse flock, all thinking different thoughts, together. We are the Episcopal church. We pride ourselves on being a diverse, thinking church. Yet we are, by definition, a denominational church. We throw those doors wide. But we are also defined by who we are not. We are not a dogmatic church that requires adherence to a given creed in order to worship or belong. In fact, your clergy encourage everyone to have their own strong opinions and thoughts about everything we teach. And still… we are not the same thing as St. Mary’s Roman Catholic. We are not the same thing as Temple Beth Israel. We are not the same thing as Four Square. How do we reconcile this very exclusivity of our society’s denominational structure with Jesus’ modeling that his flock expands beyond the boundaries we see? Especially here in Eugene, we are, if I may say, rather an opinionated bunch here. When opinions are held, they are held strongly. I could tick off on my fingers who opposes and who supports logging, police power, animal abuse, animal consumption, war, soldiers, student loans, and politics on both sides. And that ‘s just what I saw on Facebook yesterday. Isn’t it interesting, then, that Jesus’ model of the good shepherd includes the notion of one flock? Is it perhaps a challenge to us as a thinking community to keep those doors open wide?
In the parable of the good shepherd, we are given a model of the sort of work it takes to be Christian community. We are, therefore, to emulate that shepherd and to be for each other co-leaders, co-authors of our liturgy, co-workers in the sheepfold. We are all called to feed, to care, to unite. We are called to be an empowered people, claiming our active and vital faith in our world. We are called to follow the model of a good shepherd, working for the good of a fold.
*Definitions and Greek from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. .Ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Westminster John Knox Press.