Baa, Woof, Woof

by Rev. Trip Porch
July 19, 2015

Cover art "Sheep Herd at Night"

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 

With the exception of the 48 of you from our church choirs who went to Scotland, I would probably guess that the vast majority of you this summer have not hung out in a field of sheep, you probably haven’t even seen a sheep let alone spent hours studying their movements, and worked in the role of the person responsible for guiding them and keeping them safe and together.

To my knowledge there is only one house that I’ve seen in our area that keeps sheep

So I think it is safe for me to make the statement
that we modern humans... 
living here in metro Columbus area...
in 2015...
have almost no understanding of what the writer of Mark meant when he wrote:

“Jesus had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd”

We have a distant almost fairy tale-like idea of what shepherding is like, and a very general guess at what sheep behavior is like… 

If you’re like me, my whole understanding of this metaphor is grounded in part by all of the different scriptures that reference shepherding, in part by the 1990s movie “Babe” where a pig became a shepherd Dog, and of course the occasional quaint nursery rhyme like Little bo-peep who lost her sheep, and doesn't know where to find them;

For the people in the many different cultures and societies of the bible however, sheep would have been a daily or weekly sight. Just look at how many people in scripture were shepherds by profession: Abel, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Rachel, Jacob, Jacob's twelve sons, Moses, and of course David (just to name a few). 

Even people who weren’t shepherds would have spent hours of their life around these animals, and if they were shepherds… they would have known the individual personalities of each animal, which ones were prone to run off, which ones took the lead, and which ones followed. They would know exactly what it means to be sheep without a shepherd…

When WE hear this phrase however, even without this kind of intimate knowledge we start to make assumptions about what this means:

Monika Flütsch: Herd of sheep, 2012 ( source )

Monika Flütsch: Herd of sheep, 2012 (source)

We assume it means that for the sheep, a world without shepherds means helplessness, like without a shepherd sheep are aimlessly roaming off alone into dangerous areas. We assume because of the way people are rushing to Jesus, crowding around him and even running ahead to the next village in order to have contact with him that sheep must be desperate for a shepherd, they must be desperate for someone to watch over them and care fore them, because life without a shepherd is like a death sentence.

While these assumptions could be accurate, I think there is a huuuuuge knowledge gap for us reading this scripture compared to people living in the roman empire. And because this small verse details Jesus’ compassion for the people of the world and frames this scripture… 

I think its time we dig a little deeper into the world of the shepherd and sheep.

While I am no expert, if you were to look at my google search history over the past couple of weeks, you will find several wikipedia articles on sheep species, both domestic and wild. Articles on herd mentality, animal dominance structures, herd dogs, and more youtube videos of shepherding competitions and sheep running through fields than anyone should watch. 

...these are my favorites...

In seminary I could have never guessed that this would be part of my role as pastor…

At any rate… I learned acouple of things about sheep behavior and in particular sheep without shepherds… So here are acouple of “facts” about sheep from wikipedia that I think will give us a clearer picture of how Jesus saw the people of the world:

First fact: Even in the wild sheep establish a home pasture, they don’t tend to roam freely beyond this certain range, even if there is no fence.

Secondly: Sheep stick together in a flock not only for protection to confuse predators but they also rely on the flock for social interaction, and will become very stressed when removed from the group.

Even inside of the larger flock, sub flocks will form based off of family lineage, and within those groups sheep tend to follow their moms.

Finally: Sheep are naturally followers… but even though they have a dominance hierarchy, think two rams fighting in order to show their power… Even though they have this structure, flocks don’t follow the most powerful ram, instead people think the flock follows simply the first sheep. This way if a predator sneaks up on them, they don’t have to wait for the dominate sheep to move… if any sheep moves they assume there is a good reason for it and they all start going

Maybe these observations of sheep behavior don’t seem that interesting but what they lead me to believe is that sheep without a shepherd aren’t helpless, they have everything they need to survive and keep going… God created them to evolve to their surroundings and gave this species everything they need to survive on their own. 

But I think this is the point Jesus is trying to make… on their own in the wild, sheep have everything they need to survive, but this is all they can do. On their own, In the face of the cruel realities of the wild… they will experience anxiety, loss, stress, and they will scrape by and survive, but this is not the existence God hopes for them. 

Without a shepherd, in the wild, sickness can spread throughout the flock with no one to care for them. In the wild when drought happens there isn’t anyone to guide them to a places with good grazing, they have no one to bring them to an enclosure when predators have been spotted in the area. They are able to scrape by and survive but not to thrive.

When the writer of Mark says that Jesus has compassion for the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd.. I think this is what he is trying to show. These people are just barely scraping by, they are just barely surviving, and this is not what God intends. God wishes that these people have someone to care for them, someone guide them on to fuller pastures, to lead them beside still waters, to watch over them even when walking through the darkest valleys. To show them the way to a life that is not centered on the scarcity and harsh realities of survival in the wild, but centered on God’s vision for a kingdom of abundance, a safe community of protection, and a Good shepherd who loves to the point of self sacrifice.

When I look at our world today I have a reaction similar to Jesus, I can’t help thinking …they are like sheep without a shepherd! I see so many people who feel like maybe they are the exception to the rule, that they have everything they need to make it on their own, when in reality they are just surviving… 

I see people who are following the first sheep to move in what seems like a good direction, people who are form their own flocks of protection out of desperation because they are just so exhausted living in the harsh realities of the wild. 

Marsha Elliot,  Parable of the Lost Sheep  ( source )

Marsha Elliot, Parable of the Lost Sheep (source)

And more and more people who are even following, as the prophet Jeremiah describes shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture. We all easily follow shepherds like money, greed, inequality, affluence, discrimination, and bigotry. Shepherds that not only fail to attend to the needs of God’s sheep, but drive people away from each other, isolating them so that they become stressed and afraid away from their flock. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd because this was the best way he could describe what he came here to do. He was the person God established to guide us sheep on to greener pastures not because we can’t survive without a shepherd, but because God wishes that we thrive. Christ is the shepherd who cares for us, who walks with us, who goes out in search for us, and who brings us back into a flock where we can flourish, and develop the world that God intends.

For centuries, the church has embraced this imagery, even to the point of adopting it for its leaders and naming people in my position in the church “pastors” a term which comes from the latin word for shepherd, because we have been tasked with caring for Jesus’ flock, and guiding them in the right direction, even though in so many ways, we shepherds also need to be sheep, who are held, guided, and cared for.

I think all of this imagery is so helpful for the church. It is so important for us to understand who we are as a community, how here we are cared for and supported here.  

We need an image like this for us to understand how we are protected in this flock as followers of Christ, and can simply follow the way in that Christ guides us. But I think this imagery fails in some places… If we are all sheep of God’s flock who have found a shepherd in Christ, we run the risk of becoming passive! 

We run the risk too often of using the comfort and protection we have in this community as an excuse and we forget the role we have in ministering to all of the sheep who are still scraping by in the wild. And so I want to suggest another image…

Last summer when the High schoolers spent a week at heifer ranch in Arkansas, we saw that they had a field with a flock of sheep in it. When we arrived the volunteers at the ranch were quick to give us a warning about this field… 

They said: “feel free to go up to any of the enclosures on the farm, but when you go up to the sheep fields don’t approach the dogs.”

We looked closer and realized that some of the white puffs of wool were in fact big fluffy sheep dogs.

They said, “these are working dogs, who are aren’t as civil as the dogs in your house, they will bite. They live as part of the flock and blend into them, they protect them from predators, and we’ve trained them to guide the sheep in our absence. So they are always working to keep them together and to take the lead so that the flock will follow them to other pastures, and if some of the sheep get separated they rally them back into the group”

I think it is time for God’s flock to realize that some of us sheep are in fact sheepdogs. That there are times where we need to be a part of the flock, blending in as part of that community to be guided by our shepherd, loved and supported, but there are also times where we need to be out in the wild working. Finding God's flock, the one's who are scattered without a shepherd in our world and guiding them to greener pastures. Fending off the shepherds that try to scatter God’s sheep rather than promoting life and helping them thrive. Sheepdogs who are doing the work that our shepherd trained us to do.

May it be so… Amen.