May 18, 2015

The Problem With Sheep


Text: John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd.”

We have two very different ideas to hold together today, two very distinct ideas, and both of them are contained in the reading from John’s gospel. One is at the beginning, and one is at the end. The one at the beginning gives us the theme of today, because today, in case you hadn’t noticed, is Good Shepherd Sunday.

In the old tradition of the church on this day we link this way Jesus tries to explain himself to the people around him with a long list of appropriate imagery: the twenty-third Psalm, and a couple of the hymns we’re going to sing, and both of the anthems the choir is going to sing, and even the collect of the day: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” Jesus the shepherd, and we the sheep, a sweet, mild image.

And at the end of that eight-verse-long Gospel lesson we get a very different image of Jesus, an image of command, really an image of a ruler, of a king; “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

So I’m going to try to bring these to images together by bringing to bear a little help in the form of a small digression into music appreciation. But before I do that, I want to begin by telling you a little bit about life in Hardwick, Massachusetts.

You may know that Hardwick is the place you are most likely to find me if I am not here; it is a town I have known for now nearly twenty-five years, a place I first visited when my friend Paul Wilkes lived at Goat Hill Farm and kept sheep there.

Now, you probably think of sheep as meek and mild. Not quite. The problem with sheep is that they have a lot of bad habits, not least the habit of deciding to strike out on their own from time to time when they get bored. On a day in the summer Paul suddenly discovered that one of the three sheep in his little flock had managed to get out of the enclosure in the red barn behind the house and was off exploring parts unknown.

Now, Hardwick is still a rural place, even an agricultural place, and it wasn’t long before the telephone rang, and at the other end was a neighbor calling to say that the wayward sheep had been spotted in his yard, and would we just possibly want to come down and bring her home? It happened that there were a few of us visiting the farm that day, all of us from Boston and Cambridge, and so we piled into a minivan and went the half mile down Upper Church Road to the helpful neighbor’s house to collect the fugitive.

As we drove up the driveway, sure enough there was a very self-satisfied sheep grazing away on the neighbor’s lawn, under the watchful eye of the neighbor’s twelve-year-old son. I am not entirely sure just what we thought we were going to do, but five of us—all overeducated, supremely confident, and sedentary adults—bounded out of the minivan and began to make for our quarry.

Now, you see, we think of sheep as dumb. And it’s true that they’re not all that bright, or else they wouldn’t wander away by themselves across countryside crawling with coyotes. They don’t know, in other words, what’s best for them. But that doesn’t stop them from wandering. Sheep may be dumb, but they still have a mind of their own—a tiny little mind of their own. And—take my word for it—they are quick.

I’m going to spare myself a good deal of embarrassment by simply summarizing what happened next. One of us would lunge for the animal, and it would simply dart way at the last minute. We’d try double-teaming it, and it would just run away in another direction. Pretty soon the five of us were throwing ourselves all over that yard, diving for a leg, or a handful of fleece, or just about anything, and eating a lot of grass ourselves.

Now, the twelve-year-old was watching all this, which of course made the whole experience all the more mortifying. Eventually, at just about the point that three out of five of us were laying stretched out on the grass and the other two were catching their breath, he spoke up.

“Do you guys want some help?” To which the answer, of course, was “Not really,” but after all it was his yard we had invaded, so we sort of figured we had to let him join in.

But he did a very strange thing. He simply walked away from us, putting more distance between himself and the sheep, and us. Sure enough, that damn sheep started following him. He got slower; the sheep got slower. He stopped; the sheep stopped.

Then he turned around to face us. The sheep was still looking at him, and he was still looking right at her. “Start walking toward me,” he said to us.

So we did. “Slowly,” he said. We slowed down. The animal started munching grass again. Occasionally it would look up at him to see if he was still there. He was. We kept coming nearer. The boy didn’t move.

Eventually we drew closer and closer, and the sheep heard us coming. She stopped eating grass and looked back toward us. By now there she was in the middle of a circle; we were as close to her as the boy was. She tensed. We tensed.

The boy said, “Don’t worry. Just keep walking.” He never took his eyes off the sheep, and he didn’t move an inch.

We kept walking, slowly, toward her. I could see that she began looking from one to another of us, wondering which one of us to run over next. But what she really was noticing was that the spaces between us were getting smaller. And we were all moving toward her.

And as we got to within about three feet for her, she turned and ran right for the only thing that wasn’t moving—the twelve-year old boy. Just about right into his arms. I don’t mind telling you we were no little bit impressed. We bundled her into the minivan and drove her back to the farm.

The problem with sheep is not that they are dumb. It is that they are dumb and willful. It is that they have minds of their own, minds that are quite determined that they have big adventures and wonderful plans ahead, minds that do not see the dangers that lay in wait for them out in the big world.

They only see grass, and the possibility of more grass beyond. They do not lack in ideas; they have plenty of ideas. They have big ideas for eating more grass. You can’t fault them for a lack of focus; they are very focused. They very motivated. They know what they want in life.

We generally don’t hold sheep in high regard. But isn’t it curious that these are the same qualities that we generally think we admire in people? We admire people who have minds of their own, and who know their own minds. We admire motivated, focused people. We admire people who know what they want and go out into the world to get it.

We think of sheep as followers, as the mindless masses.  But all those characteristics that we so admire in our colleagues, our competitors—goal-oriented, focused, determined, willful—they are exactly what make sheep sheep.

And that is why when the bible speaks of sheep, it is talking about us. Not because we are followers, but because we are wanderers. Not because we lack focus, but because too often we get focused on the wrong things—the things that seem so important to us. Greener grass. More and more and more of it. That is our focus. When the prophets talk about the sheep of God’s pasture, they have us right in their sights. 

•  •  •

That is one image we have to hold in mind today. The other is radically different: it’s the image at the end of this compact gospel reading, the triumphant image of the commanding Christ, Christ the King, throned in glory, revealed for who it is he truly is. It is a truth confessed by the thief on the cross, the one person in the whole drama who gets it immediately, who sees through the shame and the speculation right to the absolute truth of who Jesus is. Jesus the king of heaven and earth, the alpha and the omega. Jesus is the still point at the place where God and all of the creation intersect for all time.

These are two very different images, images perhaps hard to hold together at once. So I want to call in a little help in giving you a way to think about them for today, a little help that I am going to draw from something you are sure to meet up with again—and again and again and again.

I am speaking of that old warhorse of all cantatas, Handel’s Messiah. I want you to leave here today with just a little bit of a music-appreciation lecture, so here goes.

You all know, of course, that Handel didn’t write the words for his great oratorio; the King James Bible did that, with a little help from Charles Jennens, the librettist who selected text from the bible and arranged them to tell the story Handel wanted to tell. But it was Handel who matched the music to the words, and this is where his mastery shows.

Because Handel was a text painter—his music is composed to reflect and express the idea held in the words. Even if you only have a little familiarity with the bible, the texts are familiar to you.

When it comes to sheep in Messiah, Handel has plenty of sources to draw on, and he turns to the prophets—this time to Isaiah, and specifically to the sixth verse of the fifty-third chapter: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.” Simple enough.

But listen to how Handel describes these sheep that we are. First it’s simple:

And then we start wandering off along the hillside, first the boys, and then the girls—

And finally all of the sheep are bounding off in all directions around the country—

So Handel gives us the prophets’ image of sheep—simple, perhaps, happy, yes, but wilful, wandering, scattered around the hillside, seeking our own fortunes, filled with our own ideas, not seeing our true place in the scheme of things—and certainly willing to follow off behind just about any shepherd promising us more of what we think we want.

But then there is the other image we have today, the image of the king—Christ the King, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Those are the words Handel uses, from the nineteenth chapter of Revelation, and even though most of you can call that music up from memory here it is again—

What do you notice about that musical description? It is absolutely solid, immovable; it practically stands still. The melody is an insistent repetition of the same note; the Christ who stands at the still point of the whole universe:

. . . and it ascends, by harmonic steps, as though approaching the throne of God.

Christ the shepherd comes after us when our willful ways set us wandering away. Like that twelve-year-old boy I once met, he is the only still point in our field of vision, as the temptations and disasters of this world come crowding in on us. Christ the king stands as the fixed point in our world, the world in which we insist on chasing after each new passion, each new idea, each new glimpse of greener grass.

The shepherd who becomes the victim becomes the Christ who rises trimphantly from the dead, the king who sits at the one point in the whole universe that is not spinning out of control and taking us along with it, wandering away after our own desires.

That king is the shepherd who knows our natures—and despite all that comes looking after us, finds us, and stands right in front of us until we are no longer afraid.

The king who is the shepherd knows us sheep better than we know ourselves. He will stand at the still center of our world, stand at the one place of safety that is left to us—and when we finally make up our minds to run, he will receive us into his arms with joy.

That is our king; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. O, that today you would hearken to his voice.