The ewes are heavy with their lambs. The weather has taken a definitive turn, sending the wind up and the temperatures down. I had to count them four times, and I was still missing one, “Pep.” Yes, Pep, the ewe most likely to wander away from the flock, be on her own, show absolutely no sheep sense (not that sheep have a lot anyway). I finally found her, safe and nibbling hay well ahead of the others.
I’m well into my second year as a shepherd, or rather an owner of sheep. My daughter is the true shepherd in the sense that she can tell you about the condition of each sheep or lamb. I’ve learned a lot over this short time. Sheep are not cattle at all; this is both good and bad. A sheep when ill will simply give up and die. A cow (beef as opposed to dairy) will struggle to stay alive. A sheep is scared to death of the woods; a cow simply sees the forest as a nice place to lay around and perhaps escape to.
Yet from a management point of view, they each need one thing, everyday. They need to be counted. Are they all there? Is any not feeling well? Are the mothers close to birthing? What do they need today?
For those who follow the Christian calendar, this is the last Sunday in the season of Pentecost. Next Sunday will begin Advent, the beginning of a new church year. This Sunday is known as Christ, The King and the readings from the Scriptures reflect aspects of Christ as King. The reading in Colossians points to Christ as creator of the world and peacemaker/reconciler through His death on the cross. The gospel lesson in Luke recounts that death, focusing on Christ’s promise to the thief who was executed beside Him – “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Christ is the king who overcomes death by accepting it and overcoming it.
Yet it is the passage in Jeremiah that holds my attention most. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” The scriptures often talk about God’s people as “sheep.” (I’ve found this somewhat comforting, in that we see God as our shepherd. But the picture of being referred to as a “sheep” is less than flattering). The shepherds referred to in this context are the religious leaders. It was these leaders who had dispersed the flock, left them unattended, unfed, and uncounted.
It’s pretty easy to look at the professional religious set today and see the same thing. Too many trying to build their own kingdom’s instead of God’s; allowing the flock to go on half-rations by serving up “sugary snacks” (empty calories), or pursuing ideology (left or right) over grace. I look at the bishops, priests, pastors and other ministers I’ve known through the years and find a mixed lot. It seems the higher you go up that scale, the worse it seems to get. Too many times, the example of the Good Shepherd is lost.
One of the first things a shepherd does is count the sheep. “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.” Jesus casts Himself as the Good Shepherd, the one who counts His sheep, and finding one missing, goes off in search of it. That sheep may be in trouble, lost, disoriented, and stuck in a gully. It might being laying down to die, sick of living, eaten up with parasites. It may simply be scared, overcome with anxiety because everything out there looks like a predator. Jesus finds us. Jesus takes us back to the flock. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”