Sunday, August 31, 2014

It's All About the Sheep

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
 Driving in along the winding road on the Island of Mull, Scotland, we could see sheep feeding on the lush green grass.  The more remote we got, the more sheep there were. We’d come of the crest of a hill on a single lane road and there would be a cluster of sheep calmly looking up at as. As the car inched forward, they would move off the side giving us just enough room to get by.  The owners of the cottage didn’t want the sheep eating their landscaping and leaving  behind piles for guests to step in. So they put up a fence and a gate.

When we pulled up to our stone cottage on the Island of Mull in Scotland we laughed at the sign on the gate. It said, Please close gate to keep sheep out. The sheep were everywhere! 

Because my family and I were on a remote island and not sightseeing, there was plenty of time for walking and thinking—and looking at sheep. Sheep dot the landscape of Scotland and the landscape of the Bible.  It was a week-long sheep meditation.

Most of the big names in the Bible were shepherds: Jacob was a shepherd, David was a shepherd. Moses cared for the flocks in Midian when God appears in the burning bush. 

The Psalms talk about sheep and shepherds a lot.

Shepherds came to the manger at Jesus’ birth. Jesus goes after the lost sheep. Jesus sees crowds of people who are helpless and has compassion upon them since they are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd and his sheep know is voice. But, Jesus is also the Lamb of God, the one who suffers at the hands of the world. Jesus is pictured as a lamb in Revelation.

The early Christians choose Jesus as shepherd as the primary symbol of their faith. They didn’t emphasize the cross, but the care of Christ for the poor. It’s the Good Shepherd, Jesus with a Lamb around his neck, that is on the Roman catacombs.

Shepherds and sheep are a huge part of the biblical witness that bypasses us because it’s not a part of our everyday experience. We don’t really understand all this sheep and shepherd business because very few of us encounter sheep on a regular basis.

But, living alongside the sheep for a week provided an opportunity to see Christianity in another way. Who knew that sheep would be the source of such wondering? God is infinitely complex and engaging, it seems a bit odd that sheep are a dominant symbol. Sheep seem so simple. Some might say stupid.

But there is a complex interdependence between the sheep and shepherds that is worth exploring. In the Bible sometimes we are the sheep. Sometimes we are called to be shepherds.

On Mull,  the sheep just went ahead what sheep do. They coexisted with the houses, cars, and people. We could walk right through a field of sheep and they just kept their heads down and did their sheep thing—which is eating grass or chewing cud. They weren’t aggressive or territorial. But they didn’t just run up to us either.

Both my kids really wanted to pet a sheep, but each time the sheep managed to scoot out of the way before they could get a hand on them.

The sheep had their own little community within the world that we humans have created. We walked the same roads and paths and hung out in the same fields, but we went about it differently. While we were busy snapping photos of breathtaking views or checking out the standing stones, the sheep were there, too.  Doing their sheep thing.

As I walked among the sheep I wondered if this was what it was like to be an early Christian. Jesus and the early Christians lived at a time when they were not the dominant culture, the Romans were. Today, things aren't too much different. Christians aren’t the ones in charge of the building or creating the culture anymore, but we are participating in it. We live alongside many different kinds of people, but we live according to a different set of rules.

We don’t need to be in charge and in control of culture to live out our lives as Christians. We can just do our thing. We can worship, pray, care for others and glorify God. We can intermingle and interact without losing our Christian identity. We can love people without demanding that the be like us. We can be God’s sheep in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

And maybe, if we act like God’s sheep, people will be drawn to us as my own girls were to the sheep of the fields. Maybe people will come up to us, walk alongside us to discover what is means to follow the Good Shepherd.

As the week went by, different Bible passages came to mind. I remembered that in the Bible, we aren’t just called to be the sheep. We are also called to be shepherds. In our Bible story today, Jesus is telling Peter to feed his sheep. We, too, are called to care for each other and those around us. We are to take up the mantle of the Good Shepherd and continue the work of Christ in the world.

Jesus is saying to Peter and the church that we are the ones who are to feed the sheep. We are the ones who are to be a healing presence in the world. We are to find and care for people who cannot do it for themselves. It’s a huge job that we really aren’t equipped to do. But do you know what? Neither was Peter.

Jesus tells Peter, Feed my sheep. But remember Peter is a fisherman. Peter knows how the fish behave. He knows how to create and mend nets. He knows the fish market. When Jesus called him to be a disciple, he told Peter to follow him and he would make them fishers of people. Now, the resurrected Jesus is changing the rules of the game. He’s telling Peter to feed his sheep, not fish for people.

Peter is a little perplexed. What is Jesus saying? Why does he keep talking about love and sheep?  Of course Peter loves Jesus. Of course he wants to do what Jesus tells him. “Lord, you KNOW that I love you,” Peter says.

And what is Jesus’ reply?

Jesus says: when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.

In other words, Jesus tells Peter, you may have been in control of your life before, but if you love me, if you follow me, you’d better buckle up because we’re heading into unfamiliar territory. There is a good chance I'll take you someplace you may not want to go.

As shepherds, we are to care for the sheep. And if the image of a white, fluffy sheep on the hillside is idyllic for reflection, it’s not the reality for farmers and shepherds.

The reality is that some of the sheep need shepherds to care for them. They are too simple to get by in a world of cars and wolves. The shepherd's most important work isn’t done when things are going well, but when they are not.

The shepherd is vital to the sheep in need—the young, the sick, those who cannot care for themselves. Shepherds wander into dangerous and difficult situations. Sheep farmers works in the constant Scotland rain. The ground is boggy and the mud is ankle deep in places. Getting from one place to another can mean jumping over puddles. Falling means getting dirty, really dirty. 

When Jesus says feed my sheep, he’s calling us to go to the difficult places--prisons, hospitals, homeless shelters or with the homeless on the street in the grey and miserable weather. He's telling us to get dirty. This is the field work of the Christian shepherd.

It’s not easy. And sometimes it’s not pretty. My own teeth have chattered in fear when I've ventured into these places--my first day as a hospital chaplain, chasing street smart teen girls who wanted to beat up a young woman who seemed to be their friend the day before, facing an angry, red-faced homeless man who called me a hypocrite because I would not give him my phone number. 

For some reason, vulnerability and violence seem to be intertwined. Just ask Jesus. To be successful in our world means we shield ourselves from vulnerability--both our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others. We look the other way when we see someone in need. It's just easier to let the sheep be then to try being a shepherd.

But, God calls us to look out for the sheep--to care for the vulnerable or exploited--to see that homeless person and do something to help him.

We can do this. Regardless of our background, we are shepherd material. As a church, we have great potential to make a difference in our community. Some of us are visionaries, some of us are builders, some of us are administrators, some of us are encouragers and some of us are brave enough to venture into the world of extreme vulnerability.  We can build up the weak, help heal the sick, go after the strays and look for the lost. 

This church is the body of Christ, the shepherd in the community.  Let us follow the example of our Good Shepherd and live out God’s call upon our lives, trusting that God will direct us, support us and guide us. Jesus says:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. 

We aren't called to live in a gated home or community. We aren't called to stay inside the church. We are sent out. We are called to follow Jesus out into the field, walk among the sheep, get our clothes dirty and work with him there.