"Shepherd, sheep, & sacrifice " by Aeren Martinez
May 6, 2009, the Fourth Sunday of Easter
This week’s readings are rich with possibilities. There are 104 instances of the use of shepherd in the bible; six of those instances were in the readings for today. Now, before you get worried, this is not a sermon about numerology. I like to categorize and look for themes as I read the liturgy. In searching for those themes I found three: shepherd, sheep, and sacrifice. That actually tells you little, so let me expand on those themes: I’m looking at the life of the shepherd, the invitation to be sheep, and the sacrifice of both.
Last week I met Art Carpenter who was visiting us on his way to walk the Camino in Spain. I learned he was raised on a sheep farm in West Virginia and I explained that I was writing this sermon. I gave him a quick outline and he gave me a suggestion for the music we used as the prelude, "The Lonely Shepherd." And then he mentioned his fondest memory, "early in the morning I love the peaceful quiet of being with sheep as they graze. They have a way of eating where they curl their tongue around the blades of grass and pull up the grass making a soft clicking sound." The Lonely Shepherd is kind of like that.
WHAT IS THE LIFE OF A SHEPHERD?
Let’s look at my first theme: The life of a shepherd. What image comes to mind when I say, “to live the life of a shepherd?” If you are like me there is probably one image that quickly fights its way to the surface and trumps all other thoughts. For me, the first image is from a short story I read in a college Spanish literature class, by Anna Maria Matute, titled “Pecado de omisión” translated “Sin of omission.” The sin, Matute writes about is not relevant for today’s discussion, what is important is that this story gave me a vivid picture of the lonely life of a shepherd. It is the story of Lope, a 13 year-old-boy, taken in by his Uncle Emeterio when his mother dies. He is sent off to the countryside of Sagrado (which means "Sacred") to become a shepherd of his uncle’s flock. His uncle, tasked with the responsibility of raising another child finds instead an opportunity to lower his operating costs by creating a “shepherd in training.” I’ve translated two short paragraphs to give you a sense of that imagery:
Lope arrived at Sagrado, and calling out loudly found Roque the dwarf. Roque was somewhat simple minded and had been working in Emeterio’s fields for the last fifteen years. He was nearly 50 years old and hardly ever spoke a word. They slept in squat clay hut under the oak trees nestled in the roots’ embraces. They only fit lying down in that hut and had to enter it crawling and half dragging themselves inside. But, it was cool in the summer and protected against the elements in the winter.
The summer passed, then autumn and winter. The shepherds didn’t go to the town… Every fifteen days a youth would bring their rations. Bread, cured meat, tallow, garlic. Every once in awhile – a wine skin. Sagrado’s horizon was spectacular, a deep blue, terrible, and blinding. The sun, high and round reigned like an imperturbable pupil. In daybreak’s fog, when the flies had not yet begun buzzing, Lope loathed to awaken to the clay ceiling staring back at him. He remained still for long awhile, sensing Roque the dwarf’s body next to him that was like a lumpy duffel bag that happened to breathe with life. Later, dragging himself out, he headed for the corral. In the sky, crossing like fugitive falling stars, the screams were lost, small and large. God only knew where the falling star would land. Like the stones. Like the years. One year, two, five.
It is a painful story and this is not Lope’s choice for a life. He’s not even a hired hand, for all intent and purposes he is a slave. Yet he does his duty and from what I gather cares for the sheep never abandoning them. For Lope it was quiet and lonely, filled with isolation by living with a man who was all but a mute. Who would want to voluntarily go into a life of such solitude caring for sheep that could care less if he was around, except when they needed something, like protection?
Jesus made that choice; he was born into a comfortable life as a carpenter’s son, a trade that – well done – would give him a steady flow of funds for him and a family. And yet he knew that he was more than just a man. Deep in his heart and soul he heard his immortal Father’s call to be the Shepherd of humanity. In today’s gospel Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, " How positive he is! How strong, as he says these words, and as I read I am comforted by them.
And yet I wonder, does Jesus as "the Shepherd’ work for us today? In a society so far removed from the manual labor of the farm it is easy to forget the importance of the shepherd and where our food and clothing come from. Shepherding is a profession over 6000 years old. Raising sheep in the US today is both radically different and the same as in those ancient times. Life has become high tech; rich farmers can embed sheep with radio frequency tags in their skin to let the owner know to where the sheep have wandered off. But regardless of all the hands off improvements, people are still needed hands-on care for the sheep in the fields.
If society doesn’t understand what a shepherd does, or how important he was in 2, 4, or 6000 years ago how do we draw the comparisons we need to understand Jesus today. Wouldn’t it be better to have Jesus compared to some other profession like teachers? The answer in my mind is simply – No. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is not the same as teacher and student. The comparison must be with an individual and a group that is totally dependent on that individual as provider. Students have other people they can count on to be providers – parents, friends, or other family. Sheep only have the shepherd; therefore, Jesus as “Shepherd” works because the sheep is all of us.
THE INVITATION FOR US TO BE SHEEP
My second theme is the “invitation to be sheep.” To understand this theme lets first look at the behavior of sheep. Sheep are basically a communal species although they tend to be skittish, easily confused, and have a group mentality. They congregate all the time, the process of moving together should make difficult for a predator to get in among them but, sheep can be split up just as easily as they congregate and head every which way. Jesus says, “… the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. Ages earlier, Ezekiel told a stubborn leadership in Israel that “Lost sheep or scattered sheep become the food for wild animals.” In other words scattered sheep and lost sheep die. And while “physical death” is pretty much guaranteed for the four-legged sheep; when I talk about us, you and I, as “sheep” I believe that “the death” is spiritual one. By being called to be sheep, we are called to be in community. Sheep gathered together are a hard target; with their bodies pressed up against each other they are protected from the elements like the emperor penguins that protect their eggs in the harsh cold winds of the Antarctic.
As a community of believers we are stronger, following Jesus our shepherd, we are unified in one belief as one flock. And the beauty of this flock is that it is not limited to the people in this room, although this room is a very special community all its own. Jesus are invites us to be sheep, even as he spoke to the Jews around him he said, “I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” He called for us all to join together gentile or Jew, man or woman, old and young.
THE SACRIFICES OF THE SHEPHERD AND THE SHEEP
Finally, let’s look at the sacrifices of the Shepherd and the sheep. For Jesus to become Shepherd many things had to be put into motion. He left behind his family in Galilee. He gave up his privacy, peace, and quite. In becoming a public figure, his life became very complicated despite trying to live a simple life. Jesus talks of the ultimate sacrifice to come, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep." During Holy Week we lament Jesus going from Shepherd to sacrificial lamb and rejoice on Easter with the glory that is the Resurrection. In this state continues to lead and protect his sheep.
But if Jesus’ sacrifice is death for his flock, what is the sheep’s sacrifice. What do we give up? To explore this I’d like to carry the sheep metaphor a little further, the shepherd is responsible for ensuring the sheep are sheared at the appropriate time. Sheep shearing is not easy task, although a good shearer, as Art explained, develops a technique whereby he flips the sheep around to where it’s sitting on its rump and keeps all four legs off from the ground. He said, "The sheep struggles to regain control until it realizes that its legs aren’t going to get free and relaxes to allow the shearer do his work." As with the sheep, I think this might be one of the hardest things for us to do – to let go, to relax in Jesus’ arms and let Jesus do his work. This is the sacrifice the sheep makes, a sacrifice of self – a sacrifice where we release control and individualism to become community.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not just because he said so, but because he lives so in us. We are the sheep, not because we acknowledge it, but because we live it. Together we have a relationship where we give up our troubles, huddle together, and accept the help Jesus provides. Even to the point of allowing Jesus to carry our burdens in community as he companions us through life.