The “good” shepherd (5/11/03)
When I was a child, my Uncle Russell managed The Union Theatre in Anawalt, West Virginia—the little town where I grew up. So I got to see most every movie that came to town. The Union Theatre got mostly cowboy movies. Lots of cowboy movies, it seemed to me, were about the bad blood between cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers.
In those movies, the cattle ranchers were always noble, upstanding, law-abiding citizens who lived in decent, well-kept ranch houses and did their best to “do the right thing.” Sheep ranchers, on the other hand, were usually disreputable, desperate, land-grabbing rogues whose only purpose seemed to be breaking the law and annoying the cattle ranchers.
The cattle ranchers always had pressed shirts and little string ties and shiny, leather boots. The sheep ranchers were dirty and unshaven and were constantly casting lascivious looks at the cattle ranchers beautiful girlfriends.
So, in Sunday School, I had some problems identifying with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In the little colored pictures we got of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, he looked more like a cattle rancher than a sheep rancher. His flowing white and crimson robes were spotless and his hair and beard were neat and perfectly groomed. The truth was, if it hadn’t been for the beard, Jesus would have looked more like a cattle rancher’s beautiful girlfriend than anything else.
I just didn’t get it….
Shepherds are romanticized these days. That’s probably because most of us have never met a shepherd. We tend to think of shepherds as humble, gentle, dedicated, somewhat dreamy characters who rescue sheep and commune with nature. More often than not, we think of shepherds as being musical folks—playing little flutes to their sheep—wearing sandals and soft, hand made clothing.
The truth is, shepherds in Jesus’ day were much more like sheep ranchers than cattle ranchers. According to Alan Culpepper, a well-respected New Testament scholar, “shepherding was a despised occupation at the time.” Though we have a rather romantic view of shepherds, Culpepper goes on to say, “…in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other people’s land.” Another scholar, John Pilch, points out in his book The Cultural World of Jesus that shepherds were considered “unclean” by observant Jews of the day because of their violation of property rights and their neglect of their families by being away from home for long periods of time.
On the other hand, most people I know don’t think very highly of sheep. Sheep are thought of as cowardly, dumb and stubborn all at once. Calling someone “sheepish” usually means they are too timid and fearful to stand up for themselves. “Wool gathering” is a waste of time. Comparing people to “sheep” implies they will mindlessly follow the leader and not think for themselves. And sheep are so uninteresting and boring counting them is almost guaranteed to put you to sleep.
However, in first century Palestine, sheep symbolized something remarkably different than they symbolize for us. The highest virtue in the Mediterranean world of Jesus was honor. “Honor” was so valued that it was vital to maintain it even to the point of death. An honorable person in that culture would face death in silence, without complaint. John Pilch, again, writes that “while being shorn or even prepared for slaughter, the sheep remains silent and does not cry. This is how Isaiah describes the ideal servant of the Lord: ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, the servant of Yahweh does not open his mouth.’’ “
Sheep came to be the animals that most clearly symbolized “honor” in Jesus’ world. In fact, it was the silent, suffering servant of Isaiah—the figure so like a sheep—that came to be identified with Jesus in the early Church. Jesus is, after all, “the lamb of God.”
The 4th Sunday of Easter every year is “Good Shepherd Sunday”. I’ve pretty much run out of things to say about shepherds and sheep. And since I don’t know any shepherds or sheep, I don’t get any new material year to year. The cowboy movie image is new this year—but that was scraping the bottom of the barrel, believe me. I should probably stop now, move on to the Nicene Creed and cut my losses….
But there is something in today’s gospel to wrestle with before we do that. Listen: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
I don’t talk much about “evangelism”. I don’t talk much about inviting those who “do not belong to this fold” to join our community. And since I don’t have anything new to say about sheep and shepherds, this is perhaps the time to talk about “evangelism.”
A few years ago, there was a survey by the Gallop Poll people that revealed that Episcopalians tend to invite someone to church every nine years.
That’s a remarkable statistic. I’ll give you a moment to consider that and see how you fit into the Gallop Poll.
I’m a part of a group called The Mastery Foundation. I went to one of the Mastery Foundation’s workshops for people who minister in 1987. Since then I’ve been active with the Mastery Foundation. I now lead the workshop I attended 16 years ago and I’m one of the 12 members of the Mastery Foundation’s Board of Directors.
For 16 years I’ve heard about what the Mastery Foundation calls “enrollment”. And until last week I didn’t “get” what enrollment means. I thought it meant “asking people to take four days and pay nearly $500 to do the workshop.” And I’ve been hesitant for the most part to do that. I hate to “ask people to do things.” I feel like I’m imposing, like they’ll think I’m some kind of fanatic, like I’ll be implying something’s missing from their life.
But just last week, at a workshop I was helping to lead in Maryland, one of the other leaders said this: Enrollment is an invitation that enables someone to discover the full possibility and vitality and commitment of their life.
All that time—16 years—I’ve thought “enrollment” was about getting people to “enroll” in the workshop. Instead, I now realize, “enrollment” means “enrolling” people in the fullness of their own lives.
What a difference that makes. And it only took me 16 years to understand it! That’s seven more years than it takes the average Episcopalian to invite someone to church!
John Wesley—the Anglican priest whose followers formed the Methodist Church—used to ask people: HOW DOES IT GO WITH YOUR SOUL?
Evangelism isn’t about getting people to come to St. John’s and become Episcopalians. Evangelism is about “enrolling” people in the health of their soul and the fullness of their lives. And we are not only “called” to do that—it is what God intends us to do.
At the first meeting of each of the Discernment Groups we’ve been creating for over a year now, we ask people four questions as their homework. The fourth question is this: “how responsible are you willing to be for the experience and well being of the others?”
That’s the question I want to leave you with—for your home-work and your SOUL-work this week. HOW RESPONSIBLE ARE YOU WILLING TO BE FOR THE FULLNESS OF THE LIVES OF OTHERS? Are you willing to ask someone this week—in whatever way make sense to you—“how goes it with your soul?” Are you willing to be open and concerned and attentive to those who are not of this fold? Whether you invite anyone to church or not, are you willing to invite someone to a deeper relationship with you and with God? Are you willing to let someone know that God loves them in a way that can make their lives more abundant, more wondrous, more real?
I’ll be asking myself all that this week. I’ll be wresting with that along with you. I speak to you of God’s love for us. But do I speak to others, outside this fold?
And will I?