1 Peter 2:19-25
Well, today is Sheep Sunday. I know that our bulletin says that it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday,” but for some reason, it’s always stuck in my mind as Sheep Sunday. I think it’s because while I have no problem thinking of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, I tend to get hung up a bit on thinking of myself as a sheep. In all honesty, I don’t want to be a sheep. I mean, yes, they’re cute, and fluffy, and they provide wool for us, and can be a source of food. My son currently loves sheep, he has a Little Lamb book, and five little toy sheep that he makes hug and kiss each other - it’s very cute. But sheep, well, I don’t want to call them dumb, because they are clever in their own way, but sheep aren’t very independent. I guess that’s the best way to put it. Sheep stay in groups - they flock together. They don’t like to be alone - apparently sheep get very anxious if there are less than four other sheep around. When sheep get separated from their flock, they lie down and bleat until the shepherd comes and gets them. They stick together and they do what all the other sheep do - there’s actually a documented case of a sheep who ran off a cliff in eastern Turkey in 2006, and all 1,500 of the rest of the herd followed it, with almost a third of them dying. They don’t really think for themselves, and that’s why I don’t want to be a sheep.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think in this country independence and free will and thinking for one’s self are all pretty highly valued. I would guess that the majority of us don’t actually want to be sheep. We don’t want to have our decisions made by others; we actually want to maintain some kind of control over our lives. People who belong to groups that do encourage a kind of sheep mentality - cults, gangs, fanatics of a particular creed or a religion - don’t get a lot of respect from the average North American. We don’t understand it, and we don’t want to be a part of it. We would rather be our own shepherd.
Which makes Sheep Sunday, or Shepherd Sunday, kind of difficult for us to relate to. Our psalm for today, our Gospel reading, and several of our hymns all talk about us as sheep, about our heavenly Shepherd protecting us from our enemies, and watching over us, and leading us in and out and to where the food is. So how are we supposed to reconcile an upbringing and a culture that tells us that mature, responsible adults take care of themselves with biblical texts that assumes that we are actually the opposite: in need of someone to bring us to where we can eat, in need of someone to tell us where to walk, and incapable of protecting ourselves from our enemies?
Well, the reconciliation starts with an acknowledgment of the fact that there are enemies out there that we simply cannot overcome on our own. Illness - that’s one of them. Sometimes, no matter how well we take care of ourselves - eating lots of fruits and vegetables, only having organic food, exercising, taking vitamins - sometimes despite these things we just get sick. We get a cold. We get the flu. More serious, more fatal - we get cancer, HIV/AIDS, or we get in accidents, or hit by disasters. And these are things against which we cannot prevail. Like sheep who have no natural defences and can’t protect themselves against predators like wolves or coyotes, we can’t truly protect ourselves from those forces that would take our life. We may, possibly, keep them at bay, but we can’t honestly say that we ever truly beat them.
That’s because lurking behind these illnesses and accidents is the really big enemy - the one that nobody can do anything about - death. From the beginning of time, death has been the one, great, unstoppable enemy of humankind. We can’t stop it, we can’t avoid it, we can’t get around it. It doesn’t matter how powerful we are, or how independent, we simply cannot protect ourselves, or those we love, from this enemy. It has nothing to do with maturity, or responsibility, capability or free will - death is that one great predator, if you will, that we, created beings, cannot defend ourselves against.
And this is the source of a great deal of distress, mostly because when the reality of death actually hits us, we realize that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, take care of ourselves as well as we think. We cannot actually protect ourselves. We are, really, more like sheep - frightened, confused, wanting to drop to the floor and bleat pathetically until someone rescues us. In the face of death, we huddle together, we don’t wander off on our own, and we willingly give up our independence to anyone who can protect us from this most implacable enemy. It turns out that when confronted by death, we are not, actually, very good at being our own shepherds after all.
How fortunate, then, that we are not our own shepherds. How blessed we are that the living God, as we sang today, the living God is our Shepherd. This God not only created us but continues to watch over us, too. A shepherd’s job is 24/7 - remember the shepherds in the fields watching their flocks at night in the nativity story? They were there because shepherds watch over their sheep unceasingly, and that is how God watches over us. And our Shepherd-God doesn’t just watch. As we heard in the Gospel reading, God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, calls us, and leads us out of danger, protects us from the thieves and bandits that would steal our lives. Later on in this passage, Jesus says that he, the good Shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep. In Psalm 23, our divine Shepherd walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and keeps us safe in the presence of our enemies. Our Shepherd does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Now that’s not to say that we will not get sick, and we will not die. It might seem like something of a contradiction to say that Christ protects us from death and that even so we will die. We will all die, and so, in the short term, it seems that our enemy has won. But in the long term, it’s the opposite. Christ our Shepherd protects us from the permanent consequences of death, from the complete obliteration of our being, from the eternal loss of the very essence that makes us who we are. Yes, we will one day die, just as Christ, too, died. We will be alone when it happens, as one’s own dying is an experience that cannot be truly shared, and it will overcome us. But it will not hold on to us. Christ, whose sheep we have become in baptism, who has experienced death, and has been brought to new life, will walk with us through death, and God will bring us to new life. Your being will not be completely obliterated. That essence that makes you who you are will not be eternally lost. You will be reunited with the flock and see your fellow sheep again.
Now, to be clear, just because God is our Shepherd and we are God’s sheep does not mean that we are dumb, dependent, lacking-in-all-will sheep. I’m not saying that because we are Christ’s sheep that God controls our lives, that we have no free will, that we don’t make the decisions that do shape the course of our lives. I’m not saying that we have been reduced to immature or irresponsible people. As God’s sheep, we are still who we are, created with free will and independence, running our own lives to the extent that we can. God does not require us to abdicate all reason and intellect, or to mill about in groups playing follow-the-leader. Christ’s flock includes rebellious sheep, independent sheep. Our divine Shepherd has a far-reaching arm that protects even those sheep who like to wander out into left field, who like to walk their own paths. Christ, as it says in the Gospel of John a couple of verses after we left off, Christ has flocks we don’t even know about, sheep he cares for that don’t belong to the same particular flock that we do. The Shepherd calls us, and we are his, and he protects us from our enemies regardless of what we think or how independent we are.
So it turns out that despite my initial reluctance, maybe it’s not so bad to be a sheep. Maybe it’s not so bad to acknowledge that when it comes to certain things, I actually don’t have any control; to recognize that there are certain enemies out there that I can’t actually overcome. And it’s probably a good thing - actually, it’s definitely a good thing - to realize that if we have to have a Shepherd, if we have to surrender control of our lives to someone, at least that one is God, our gracious Creator. So let us rejoice that today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and we are God’s sheep. Thanks be to God, Amen.