We Like Sheep...
|A sermon preached at St. Albans-St. Saviour's, by Imogen de la Bere, on the 25th of April, 1999||
You’re nothing but a bunch of sheep. Look at you baaing away in hesitation, woolly-headed, unable to take a lead, chewing away mindlessly all day jaws working brains such as they are, in neutral, stupidly scattering when a strange thing draws near, and yet filing into the transport trucks and down into the herding pens to be slaughtered without a baa of complaint.
Not very bright, not very brave and not very handsome. A whole load of old sheep.
Wouldn’t you be offended if I said that? Wouldn’t it be rude of me to stand up here and compare you to a bunch of animals – flock of hens or a herd of pigs? Me personally, I don’t like being compared to a so unfashionable an animal. A jaguar, a gazelle, a cat maybe, but not a sheep. And yet this comparison, of us the faithful, to a pack of sheep, is a central image of our gospel. Today’s gospel and today’s psalm lump us firmly in with the sheep. The Lord is my shepherd, the psalmist says, therefore I am a sheep, being led, being herded, being shorn, being guarded and cared for. Jesus said, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the good shepherd. If he is the shepherd, we must be the sheep, not something most of us long to be.
I suspect we very rarely give much attention to the idea of being a sheep, partly because it doesn’t appeal very much, and partly because we are too busy concentrating on the image of the shepherd. We like that picture - the gentle, tough, careful, bucolic Jesus looking out for our needs and knowing us by name. But the lovely image of the shepherd, with which we are all so comfortable, can’t exist unless we see ourselves as sheep. We don’t want to be like sheep, and generally, apart from on the train platform in the rush hours, we very rarely behave much like sheep at all.
But then do we know how do sheep behave?
The people who first sang the psalms, and the people who heard Jesus preach this parable knew a lot about sheep, a lot more than we do. They liked and cared about sheep, as you do if your livelihood is directly dependent on them. And I’ve heard every joke about New Zealanders and sheep… Sheep are far more admirable and complicated than you might imagine. For example, sheep are herd animals, who live together quite amicably, and although a herd has a dominant ram, other males are not driven away, and rarely if ever attacked by the leader. But sheep are also quite capable of living alone or in tows and threes, on immensely rugged countryside, nibbling out a living where nothing else can. Quite often in New Zealand, when you’re way out in the country, where there is nothing living for miles, except a solitary hopeful hawk, you will see one or two sheep working away patiently on the bare hillsides. Now you average sheep, in common with most mammals, is a committed and long-suffering mother, and although they become distressed and disoriented when separated from their lambs, they also participate in communal mothering. In the mornings and evenings for example, during the seasons when the lambs are demanding but not dependent, auntie sheep take it in turns to watch the lambs who play together, while the other mothers go off and get stuck into some serious grazing. And although they are generally mild and cautious creatures, when roused or threatened, a sheep can be a formidable opponent, as anyone who’s been bowled by a charging ram can tell you. And of course there are the smart too, the smart ones who lead the other sheep home, often taking it in turns to find the tracks home to safety.
So this is how sheep are, and if we were more like them, we would not drive each other from our homes, and slaughter and rape and starve one another. We would live mildly and co-operatively, not returning evil for evil but trusting in the shepherd to see off the wolves.
Peter says in his first letter, which we read from in the epistle. You should all agree among yourselves and be sympathetic; love the community, have compassion and be self-effacing. Be in fact, very like sheep at their most admirable.
Jesus compared himself to a shepherd, and therefore called us to be his sheep. But shepherd or no, he also identified himself even more closely with his sheep. For in John’s gospel he is called the lamb of God, the suffering, sacrificial victim, who goes silently to his death. So we are not alone in being sheep, he is one also. Far from being compared to a lion or an eagle, he allows himself to be identified as the lowest, least impressive creature, a sheep like us, a sheep at its most pathetic and vulnerable, when its shorn, and when it is slaughtered. He is in this with us, even to the point of ultimate humiliation and death.
In the epistle from Peter today we heard these words: Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you should follow in his steps. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered he did not threaten; he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
We are to regard suffering as part of our Christian life and offer it up as Jesus did before God, not allowing it to turn us sour and resentful, but embracing it as a mark of our closeness to Jesus. He took our pains in his body and suffered himself to be led to death; like a lamb to the sacrifice; in response to that we are asked to take merely our own pains and merely to endure.
It sounds simple enough, and hard enough, but there are a couple of complications. This particular image, Christ the suffering servant has been frequently abused. The idea that it is our Christian duty to endure all things has been used in the past to keep people in their place. Slave masters used to justify slavery on the grounds that it there was a natural relationship between servitude and Christian life. In the middle ages, and long afterwards, and still in many societies and parts of society today, the notion of holy suffering was used to keep people from questioning their lot. Do not complain, you women, follow the example of Jesus Christ; be patient, be long-suffering, be like Christ Jesus! Accept your role in life, you poor, follow the example of Jesus Christ, and we the rich will admire you for it.
Now that won’t do, not any longer. This example is not held up for us to use to oppress others, but only for ourselves. From a shared position of weakness we can use this text to find the strength to endure.; we can encourage others like ourselves to stand firm and endure in the face of unalterable suffering. But what we are not empowered to do, by this or any other text, is, to use this text from a position of strength to keep others weak. We are called to be sheep, huddled together against the enemy, perhaps bravely leading the way home along the sheeptracks, but we are not called on, any of us, to be a sheepdog and bully the sheep and keep them in their place. We have a shepherd, who is also sometime shape-shifts into a sheep, and becomes one of us. There are plenty of wolves in and out of sheep’s clothing, but there is no heavenly-ordained sheep dog telling us all what to do.
There’s another complication in this text of Peter’s: Peter doesn’t just say we must be prepared to suffer, he says: if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. When you do right. In other words, you should be doing right, first, not worrying about the consequences, and not complaining either. Jesus didn’t end up on the cross by accident. He wasn’t working away in the shop keeping his head down, when one day some soldiers came along and dragged him out and marched him off to Calvary. He was out and about, actively doing the work God called him to do. Then when the inevitable happened, and he was arrested and dragged off to die, then he became silent and suffering. He had no more to say then, only a body to show us and a bowed head.
So we are not to put out heads down and huddle in the corner of the sheep pen, we are to go and get on with the work God has given us, whole-heartedly, co-operatively, mildly, like the good sheep that we are. And when it is our turn to endure suffering, we take him as our example, for he leads us not only to safety, but through suffering and darkness, up over the hills and into the light of a new dawn.