I have in my ministry offered pastoral care to shepherds. Not a usual thing for most Episcopal clergy. We have all manner of parishioners from all walks of life; but in this one place, I actually had several families that kept sheep. Some were vocational stewards of a rare breed, some bred for market, one kept them as a hobby. All of them learned quickly that shepherding a flock of sheep is a labor-intensive and powerfully challenging, and rewarding, way to be connected to the natural world. Sheep have been domesticated for millenia by human beings, and that relationship shows, believe me. Sheep need human assistance and protection, nearly every minute of every day of their lives. They need help in lambing. They need support in bonding with their offspring. They need protection. They need to be shorn...etc., etc. One predator in their midst and they can harm themselves almost as much as the teeth and claws that tear...because they have a habit of clustering, and then climbing up and onto each other.
What a terrible responsibility. Still, there is a great joy for those shepherds I know. They get as many rewards as they weather challenge. Wool keeps them warm, sold, spun, woven and knitted into garments that help to make clothing for those in need. Food is produced at the market for hungry people. And, frankly, there is as much wisdom to be gained as frustration from sheep. Life is lived at an elemental level. It matters what temperature it is "out there" in the world. Is there too much snow? Frost? Heat? Is there enough water and fodder for the stock? Are they safe? Being a shepherd is entering into, willingly, an other-directed and other-centered life. What wonder that Our Lord would draw a direct parallel between his witness to the world as the light and salvation of the whole fabric of Creation itself with the words, "I am the shepherd."
Jesus knows his sheep, us...the world, and he calls us by name. We are his and in following him, we are kept safe under the protection of God's grace. Not one will be lost. Not one.
Still, are we ready to accept the reality that we are sheep seeking a shepherd? Or, more challenging, that we as the Body of Christ are charged with becoming better shepherds to those seeking the safety of God's divine sheepfold? The reality of the life of faith is that we are both, and need to live fully into BOTH roles.
I remember I once preached a sermon to a committee that was seeking a new pastor for their parish. How fitting that it was "Good Shepherd" Sunday (4 Easter in the Episcopal lection due to the "theme" of the lessons being focused on the imagery of God/Jesus/David as the Good Shepherd to the people). I stepped into the pulpit having prayed on and over the challenge of presenting both a faithful message of the Good News to the congregation, while at the same time attempting to communicate the foundations of how I perceived what it meant to be a priest to a congregation. After all, this was the first, and perhaps the last, time this committee was going to hear me preach.
So, as I worked and prayed, the sermon that formed took me to a place of understanding that though Jesus may want us to see him as the Good Shepherd, we have a LOT of work to do ourselves. Our stewardship of the church, of each other and our obligation to be Christ to the world requires of us sheep a willingness to step up and be good shepherds as well. Time to GIVE care, comfort and protection even as we RECEIVE it from Jesus. Time to step up and offer ourselves in the breech between the flock and the dangers of the world, even as we realize that just like David and countless other shepherds throughout history we have to do that by wit, courage and faith. We have stick and stones and whatever else might be at hand as weapons to fight off attacking predators. We have only our own two hands, a willing heart and the discipline of being open to whatever comes down the pike with which to offer aid and comfort to those who might not be able to articulate what it is that they really need.
The sermon went over well for the congregation, but one of the committee members took issue with me. "I wanted to hear more about the sheep." Years later, looking back on that moment of feedback, I realize that we are not always ready to hear the "good" news that we are called to responsibility-even when we are feeling more than a little sheepish about God's desire to transform us into servant leaders for the kingdom. The critic offered something of merit, though at the time I was-I confess-put out that he didn't "get" my point. Even as we are answering God's call to shepherd work, we are still vulnerable as sheep seeking a shepherd. We are BOTH the crowd on the hillside that Jesus sees, and loves, who are "like sheep without a shepherd;" and, at the same time, we are the called who are even now begin exhorted by our risen Lord ("Peter, do you love me? Then tend/feed/keep my sheep") to take up the crook of the shepherd and begin our never-ending task of leading the flock beside still waters to good pasture.
In that, I think, when we are willing to be "both/and" while at the same time confessing our weak strength and powerful meekness, we begin to model what God knows is within us already...to be good sheep who find the resolve and resources in the Holy Spirit to also become good shepherds....