May 15, 2011


“A View From The Pasture”

Psalm 23

John 10:11-18



These are the texts for the fourth Sunday of Easter.  They are familiar lessons, not only because we hear them every year at this time but also because they are so near and dear to our hearts that we read them at funerals and recite them in our minds when life gets difficult.  They are familiar.


They are familiar to us because they are so valuable for our faith.  Generations upon generations of believers have turned to these very texts in times of trouble or sorrow, to assuage grief or to strengthen resolve.  But as I read these texts in preparation for this morning, I was attracted to the other side of these texts.  There is another side; usually we read them as lost sheep in some unfamiliar box canyon with wolves nipping at our heels.  It is good to remember that “He restores my soul,” the Christ is the one who ‘mends that which was torn,” and all that.   Still, there is another place to view these texts from, and it is from within the pasture, inside the sheepfold, and that is where I am looking from today.


Did you ever stop to think about the imagery we use to talk about ministers and ministry?  We say “Pastor Fogle.”  We pastors tell old friends we are in the “Pastoral Ministry.”  Pastoral, we say.  It is a word that may conjure up all kinds of images in your head but they are tied, through this language, to images of shepherds and sheep.  The minister is the shepherd and we are the sheep. 


Some time back I was doing some consulting with a (as we say) ‘church in transition.’  That means that the sheep ran off the shepherd.  Anyway, they were asking me about church growth and how to grow.  One person latched onto this imagery and said that it is the shepherd’s role to create more sheep; I said it’s the sheep’s role.  Without thinking I added, “you know, the shepherd can go to jail for that.”  And in that one careless comment I ruined a perfectly good metaphor.  Still, it is the shepherd’s job is to tend too the sheep.  It is the job of the flock to grow.


In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel there the intricacies of shepherding are used to explain the relationship between the shepherd and the flock.  I am always intrigued to hear Jesus say, “…the sheep listen to [the shepherd’s] voice.  He calls them by name…”[1] Picture this, there are a whole bunch of sheep in a stone or brush pen.  They belong to different people and are watched over by different shepherds, but one shepherd goes in, calls out to his sheep and they follow him out. 


Why?  Well you could say that they know that they are going to get fed.  Maybe they know they are going to get some water, I don’t know.  But that isn’t the real reason they go.  They go because they know this shepherd and trust him.


All flocks act the same way.  See first the congregation recognizes the pastor as “A” pastor.  They look over his profile and see where he went to college and seminary, they see an ordination date and that she is in good standing in a particular association.  Then they call her to be the pastor of their church.  Then she becomes “The” pastor.  Now she is not only a pastor whose credentials meet certain criteria, but she is “The” pastor of the church.  This process goes on, further, hopefully.   THE pastor goes about her work, preaching, visiting the sick, teaching, and low and behold one day when she goes to visit Mrs. Jones at the nursing home, Mrs. Jones says to her roommate, “look, MY pastor has come to see me.”  MY pastor.  It takes trust to become MY pastor. “A” shepherd becomes “my” shepherd.


The shepherd who walks into the sheepfold without any relationship with the sheep, a new shepherd, isn’t going to get those sheep to go anywhere.   I used to help a farmer friend, Tom, tend his flock of ‘black-face’ sheep.  Every spring, one day we would gather them up from the pasture, move them across the gravel driveway into a smaller paddock and vaccinate, shear, and tag them on in one marathon day.  The vet would be there the shearer would be there and we would handle them all at once.  I still remember how the lanolin from their coats would soak my Carhart Bib Overalls, as I would squeeze the ewes between my legs to hold them.  But what I remember most is that I could not be the one standing at the gate to the paddock.  The sheep would run right or left but not to me.  Tom had to be there by the gate.  Listen, they knew Tom.  Day in and day out Tom was there when they came into the barn in the evening.  It was him who spread hay and grain in the feed box.  It was Tom who was there on those cool and rainy spring nights when the ewes were lambing.  Tom was involved in the everyday life of the sheep, they knew him, they new his voice, they trusted him.


I, on the other hand, was a hireling.  I came to help from time to time, but if there was something more important going on in my life, well, I wasn’t there.


There is nothing magical about how sheep come to trust the shepherd.  In ancient times, as now, trust is built by sharing life together.  It is built upon dependability and something called presence.


These texts do not only speak of shepherds.  They also speak of Sheep or, congregations. To say that followers of a shepherd are sheep, if you think about it, isn’t all that endearing a term.  As animals go, sheep are not the brightest of creatures.  Thus, Jesus himself sees the downside, recognizing people once as ‘sheep without a shepherd.’  As a flock they need direction.  They tend to follow quite nicely, but if they are all following some young ram that is going over the next hill, just because he feels like it, they can be in danger.  That doesn’t mean that sheep are not cautious.  They will not follow just anyone.  But there is a point, a point in the process, where the sheep have to let the shepherd lead them.  See without following, without, taking some risk there is no way to come to know the shepherd and his intentions.


Folks, I am telling you, I don’t know one shepherd from another.  I don’t think I could decide in advance the character of the shepherd by her gender, or by the clothes he wears.  If I were a sheep (which I am) I would decide to follow, first, on faith, and then based on experience.  There are lots of followers in any flock.  They see those bobbed tails heading for the back forty and off they go.  “Where are you going,” one finally asks?  “I don’t know, everybody else is going that direction, so I am going that way too” When sheep do this we call it stupid.  When people do this we call it ‘group-think.’  Something energizes part of the flock and they get all fired up and head out in a certain direction.  The shepherd watches and wonders what in the world is going on.  It was the shepherd who had been seeing that they get to green pastures and still waters, feeding and tending.  It was the shepherd who kept  his eyelids pried open each night, his rod and staff, keeping predators at bay.  The same shepherd calls out to the flock, saying, “Hey, you’re going the wrong direction.” And the flock yells back, “shut-up, we’re making progress here.”


I once read an article about sheep, saying that where domesticated sheep have not natural predators,  the flocking instinct is almost nil.  There is something about sticking together, traveling as a unit, and some of the flock has to keep an eye peeled and ear cocked to warn everybody else of danger.  If one wanders a little too far from the fold, the others ought to notice and call out.


At our church we have a pretty systematic way or reviewing the church membership rolls.  I we cannot account for someone attending, contributing or communing within the last year then we put them on a list we call “lost sheep.”  After a year we turn them over to the Elders, we send them a letter.  If after a while we don’t see them or don’t hear from them they get dropped from the rolls.  What if some of the flock went after this one gone astray?  Wouldn’t that send a strong message?  Sure, the shepherd cares about you but he has to.  We care about you too, you are one of us, one of this family, one of the flock.  It is best if the sheep heed their ‘flocking’ instinct.


Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Did you hear that?  He is the shepherd, he is the leader, it is he who offers protection, and it is he who offers his affection for the flock.


I have to confess that there is something that I hear pastor’s say that disturbs me.  No it isn’t cursing.  It isn’t angry words.  There are times when pastors gather and are talking about churches and inevitably some one will say, “well, at MY church…” this or that.  Oh, I know that they mean no harm.  But I want to stop them, mid-sentence and say, “excuse me, but it isn’t your church.”  It isn’t their church for the same reason that when members over identify with the church and want this or that to go their way, say, “not in my church.”  It isn’t your church either.  If it is a Christian church, it is Christ’s church, not ours and so we look to Christ as the head and leader of the church.  We get so possessive. I was at a meeting of pastors and treasurers once and one of the treasurers was talking about how he dispersed OCWM and other benevolences.  He was talking about how savvy he was by holding back on some of these funds to even out some of the dips in church income.  Others were nodding their heads in approval.  I raised my hand and for once did speak up.  I said, “excuse me, but it isn’t your money.”  You could argue that it is the church’s money.  Or you could be really honest and recognize that it all belongs to God and when people return a portion of God’s gifts to God we have no right to see those resources as ours. 


One idea that contributes to this kind of thinking, so deeply embedded in our UCC ecclesiology, our thinking about church, is the idea that the church is autonomous.  I picture in my mind a shepherd and a flock that sets out from the sheepfold.  The owner of the flock has called for them, to go over there, and they don’t arrive.  The owner is probably worried, where are they, did something happen to them, and all that.  When the owner finally catches up to them he asks, where are you?  I’ve called all the flocks to come and you never came!  Then the sheep say that they and the shepherd talked it over and decided they didn’t feel like coming.  After all, the sheep said, we’re autonomous creatures.  It’s sad really.  The idea of an “independent church.”  There isn’t any such thing really, because theologically there isn’t any shepherd or any flock that is autonomous.  Only God is autonomous.


I want to ask you something.  I saw a sign out front that says The United Church of Christ.  Is it enough to gather a group of people who look like each other, share a similar ‘world view,’ call a person whose first name is Reverend, get together for coffee and doughnuts on a Sunday morning, get some rules and regulations to guide our group, be nice to each other, and raise enough money through bake sales and barbecues to pay for this pastor; would this make the sign true?  Or would it be true is together we saw Christ as the head of the church, tried to listen to Christ, be united in him, subject ourselves to his leading, his binding us together and no other thing?


I know I haven’t really been preaching to you this morning.  I’ve just been talking about shepherds and sheep.  But here in church it makes a lot of sense to talk about these things, I think. 

[1] John 10:3b NIV