When I started seminary years ago, I never expected that as a minister I would spend so much time thinking about sheep.
More Bible passages than I ever realized have to do with sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd…” Jesus separating the sheep and the goats. Jesus as the lamb of God. Jesus leaving the 99 sheep behind to go after the one that is lost. The prophet who said that we were all like sheep who had gone astray…the list goes on and on. There are literally dozens of Bible verses about sheep.
And here’s the thing about sheep…they’re not that bright. They sort of follow the leader and do what they’re told. There’s a reason that when we are talking about people who blindly follow others we say that they are like “sheep”.
And that’s why sometimes all this talk of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” bothers me. Because if Jesus is the shepherd that means that we are sheep. And, really, I don’t want to be a sheep. Do you?
To put it in context, in today’s Scripture Jesus is doing a lot of talking about sheep. Jesus says the sheep will follow the shepherd. And he talks about how a good shepherd is unlike a sheep thief. A good shepherd guides us, instead of devouring us. A good shepherd cares for the sheep, even putting themselves at risk to save the sheep. And Jesus says that this is what he himself is: the Good Shepherd.
So, for those of us who do not want to be sheep, how do we wrestle with that? Do we accept that we are, at least metaphorically, these sort of not-so-bright animals? Or do we reject all of this “Good Shepherd stuff?
And there’s another layer to this has always bothered me too, and that’s that the “shepherd” language doesn’t just stop with Jesus. Christian ministers are often referred to by this title of pastor. And if you go back to the roots of that word, “pastor” has a very particular meaning. It’s a derived from this Latin word: pascere, which means to shepherd. In other words, in a congregation the pastor is the shepherd and the people are the sheep.
You might be feeling a little offended by that right now. That’s okay. I would too. You probably don’t want to be sheep anymore than I do.
But I tell you this because it was in wrestling with what it meant to be a pastor that I came to understand what it meant to follow Christ as a “shepherd”.
And that’s because, despite the title, it is Jesus, and not the pastor, who is ultimately the “Good Shepherd”. It is God who leads us through the valley of death to safety. It is God who makes sure our cup runs over. It is God who brings us into green pastures and leads us beside still waters. And it is God’s house, not the pastor’s, in which you will dwell forever.
In other words, it’s not about the pastor, or anyone else who claims to be the shepherd. It’s about Jesus Christ.
When my old conference minister in Vermont, Lynn Bujnak, was called to her ministry there she wrote something interesting in her candidating materials. She wrote that she didn’t see herself as a shepherd, because in Christ we already have one of those. But she did see herself as a pretty decent sheep dog.
A sheep dog can do a good job gathering us in. They can find the ones around the margins, and help lead them back to crowd. They can guide the way. They can push us forward. They can sound the alarm is something is wrong. And they can be pretty useful and helpful.
But as good as they are, they are replaceable. And they should be. In the 375 years of this church there have been a lot of pastors, a lot of sheep dogs, but there’s only ever been one Good Shepherd. And that’s good news.
Almost a year ago to the date, I stood at this pulpit for the first time and preached my candidating sermon for you. And then I went over and sat in the church offices while you prayerfully discerned whether or not you wanted me to be your new sheep dog.
And when I went home to Vermont, back to a church I loved filled with people I loved dearly, I told them I was leaving. And then I opened my lectionary for the next Sunday and found that, like today, it was Good Shepherd Sunday, and this was the passage. And so that Sunday I preached about the Good Shepherd, and how I genuinely believed that he was leading me in a new direction. And how I genuinely believed that he was guiding them into something new too.
“You’ll get a new sheep dog,” I told them. “But I’ve always just been the middle man. The Good Shepherd was here long before me and will be here long after I am gone.”
A year later, I truly believe God meant for me to come to this place. And I see God doing new things with my former congregation, and I rejoice for them. And I am reminded once again that there is a Good Shepherd, and it is not me.
But in the moment, in those days of saying goodbye, and saying “yes” to something new, it wasn’t that easy to trust in that truth. I genuinely felt called here, and yet, it was scary. I liked my old pasture a lot. I wondered if I would like the new one. I kept saying to myself, “I think this is God’s will, and I don’t think I’m making a mistake…but what if I am?”
Maybe you have been there. Maybe you have felt led in a new direction. Maybe you have felt God calling you to something new. And maybe you have been scared to death, and unsure of yourself. Maybe you’ve wondered, “God, what are you doing? Why are you moving me somewhere else? I was just getting comfortable in this pasture!”
You are not alone. I think we’ve all been there. We have all been nudged by God out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. And that can be incredibly hard.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I really believe that. And he wants what is best for us. But wanting what is best for us does not mean that Christ always want what is easy, or comfortable, or convenient for us. In fact, often what is best for us is none of those things.
And so, God guides us. God nudges us out of what we’ve always known, through the gates to something new, and into new pastures. And, here’s the catch: unlike sheep…we have had a choice about whether or not to follow.
But in some ways, that makes it even harder. I was saying at the beginning that I never knew how much I’d have to deal with sheep as a pastor. Because sometimes I literally have to deal with sheep.
This past Christmas was a good example of that. A few weeks before Christmas we realized that in all the transition, we had forgotten to order the sheep for the live nativity out front. And so, we got a hold of the shepherd and we scheduled them, and on the night of the nativity we waited patiently out front…and we waited…and waited.
It turns out that the sheep were stuck in traffic, and then lost. And right as we had given up hope, and the shepherds and angels and wise men were coming out on the grass, the truck turned into our driveway, scraping the curb as it went, and parked.
And then the shepherd got to work. She put this fence up in no time flat, and she opened the back of her trailer, and all the sheep, entirely unaware of the rush, filed out in this orderly line and went right into the little pasture she had made for them without a second thought. And at the end of the night they went right back in. That whole preconceived notion of the sheep being mindless followers? Those sheep proved it for me.
And there is something about that that just is so much easier than what it’s like for us. Sheep have no real choice in the matter. They go where they are told, they eat what they are fed, and they stay within the fences that their shepherd puts up for them. You don’t have to make a lot of decisions as a sheep.
But you and me? That’s different. We are more than sheep. We get to make choices. And if we are too cautious, if we are unsure, if we want to stay put out of either fear or stubbornness, we can do that.
But, when our other option is to follow the Good Shepherd, why would we want to stand still?What do we have to lose?
The reality is that I think we all choose to follow something, whether we admit it or not. We can follow Jesus, and we can dare to break out of the pastures we have always known and into something new. Or, we can follow something else, or someone else. We can follow popular opinion. Or, we can follow fear. We can follow uncertainty. We can follow negativity and self-doubt. We can follow comfort and complacency.
But no matter what we do, even if we are just standing still, we are still followers. Because even if we are leaders, we all still follow something. And here’s the most important part: we are defined by what we follow.
And so, how are you going to be defined? Who or what are you going to follow? And who or what deserves that kind of trust or loyalty?
In the end, I know I am more than a sheep, but I also know that there is no other way I want to be defined than as a follower of the Good Shepherd. I know this because every time I have willingly followed, even when I’ve been afraid, he has led me to something better than I could ever imagine.
My hope is that if you choose to follow the Good Shepherd, that will be true for you too. My hope is something will catch you, and connect with you, and lead you to go deeper, and to follow the one who will never forsake us. My hope is you find Christ, or at least a glimpse of him, in prayer and song and silence. And my hope is that this community will help you to find Christ’s love in a new and uplifting way, and that we may be fellow followers, and fellow travelers on the path.
Because we are not sheep. But we do know a pretty Good Shepherd, and he’s holding the gate open for us to follow. Amen.