We are talking about shepherds a lot today. Our music reflects shepherds. Our scripture readings talk about sheep and shepherds, and today is one of the “Good Shepherd Sundays” in the liturgical calendar. The word ‘sheep’ is used over 500 times in the Bible and the word ‘shepherd’ is used 247 times. That’s a lot of sheep.
In our lives today, we don’t really understand how common and important shepherds and sheep were in ancient times. At that period in history, shepherds and sheep were as common as Wal-Mart, telephones, and convenience stores. So, what IS a shepherd?
Simply put, a shepherd is the man or woman who takes care of the sheep and goats. Easy enough. But what does this mean? What did it mean in Biblical times for a shepherd to care for his sheep? The duties of a shepherd in an unenclosed country like Palestine were very onerous. In early morning he led the flock from the fold, marching at its head to the spot where they were to be pastured. Here he watched them all day, taking care that none of the sheep strayed, and if any for a time did stray from his watch and wandered away from the rest, he would have to seek diligently till he found and brought it back. In those lands sheep require to be supplied regularly with water, and the shepherd for this purpose had to guide them either to some running stream or to wells dug in the wilderness or furnish them with troughs. At night he brought the flock home to the fold, counting them as they passed under the rod at the door to assure himself that none were missing. Nor did his labors always end with sunset. Often, he had to guard the fold through the dark hours from the attack of wild beasts, or the wily attempts of the prowling thief.
Shepherds in ancient Israel likely worked with, among others, the broadtail Syrian variety of sheep, which have large fatty tails and a thick fleece. The rams of this breed are horned, and the ewes are not. These docile animals are easily led and completely at the mercy of their environment and predators.
Shepherds also cared for goats. The goats were uniformly black or brown. Their long, flapping ears easily got torn on thorns and briar bushes as they clambered on rocky hillsides and grazed on shrubbery.
The shepherd faced the ongoing challenge of teaching the sheep and goats to obey his commands. Even so, good shepherds took tender care of the animals in their charge, even giving them names to which they would respond. —(John 10:14, 16.)
It was a tough job.
Great men such as Abraham, Moses, and King David were shepherds. The image of the shepherd as one who cares for flocks and people is one that is pretty easy to understand and runs deep in the imagery of ancient times. In Mesopotamia, the region along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the model for kings was the shepherd. The king-as-shepherd was to “rule kindly, counsel and protect the people,” and “guide them through every difficulty.” Babylon’s Hammurabi, credited with the world’s first written law code, was described as a shepherd of his people. In ancient Egypt, the shepherd’s crook was used “as an insignia of kings, princes, and chieftains.” In the Iliad and the Odyssey from ancient Greece, ship captains are called “shepherds of ships.” Plato uses the shepherd analogy to define justice in the Republic, and in the “Statesman” uses the shepherd to symbolize the work of a good ruler.
And of course, today, the shepherd’s crook is a symbol of our bishops, representing them as the shepherds of Christ’s flocks….
Which brings us to today’s Scripture Readings. The reading from Jeremiah is, to me, probably the most terrifying scripture in the whole of Holy Writ. “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD. Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD.”
Wow. This is scary stuff. As a bishop, as YOUR bishop, it’s my responsibility to take care of each of you. Your soul, your spirituality, your eternity, becomes my responsibility. It’s my job to see that you have everything you need to live as Christ wants you to live. Heavy stuff, that!
But, this not only applies to Bishops, but to any church leader, pastor, priest, deacon, or Christian. And I’m here to tell you that those Christian leaders who have turned people away from Christ will suffer for all of eternity. My heart breaks almost daily when I read or hear of so many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have turned their backs on God because of the teachings of “the church.” And it’s not just LGBTQ folks. There are SO many who have been either led astray or sent away by church leaders who have twisted and cherry-picked scripture to meet their own agenda. Woe to them. Woe to those who have so muddled the message of Christ that people have decided that the church equals hate!
So, what about you? Now that we’ve had Sheep 101 and Bishop 101, what does this mean for each of you? I would bet that you never thought of yourself as a shepherd. But you are. You ARE! Think for a minute. Who is your flock? Who are those folks who look to you for advice, for guidance? Who is that that you influence? Your children? Your families? Co-workers? Neighbors? The kids you eat lunch with and have classes with? The folks on your sports team? Your golf buddies? What about those people who see you but don’t know you? Those folks in the line with you at the grocery store?
I have said it time and time and time again: YOU are the only Bible some folks will ever read. YOU are the only Jesus some folks will ever see. While it is true that it is the job of the clergy to lead the church, what about you? Saint Peter teaches us that “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5-9).
Is this who you are? Who is your flock? Who are you sheep? What kind of shepherd are you? Do you, by your words and actions, reflect the Gospel? Where are you leading your sheep?
Let us pray: Gracious God, we welcome the presence of Jesus, our Good Shepherd and pray that you help us to accept the mission of Jesus, that we be good shepherds and bring the good news to the world. By our baptismal vows we have committed to living the Gospel. Inspire us to live our lives leading our own flocks to you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.