Sheep That Count
Fourth Sunday of Easter
from the book
Sermons On The Second Reading
Series I, Cycle A
Richard W. Ferris
Once upon a time there was a lamb named Edgar. Edgar lived with his family and friends in a large flock that roamed the countryside under the leadership of a kind and protective shepherd. Edgar followed his mother, along with the others, from one grazing spot to another, and seemed perfectly content with his life. He would play games with the other lambs, chase butterflies in the meadows, and nuzzle up close to his mother for afternoon naps in the sun. Like all the other sheep in his flock, he went wherever the shepherd led and would get his soft, thick hair cut on schedule.
One day, during a game of hide and seek, Edgar was hiding in some tall grass near the tree line to a neighboring woods. From out of nowhere he heard a voice calling to him, "Hey, Edgar."
Edgar turned to see a handsome fox peering out from behind one of the trees. He had never seen a fox before, so he didn't know that he was supposed to be afraid and run from it. "Who are you? And how did you know my name?"
"Everyone calls me Destiny. And I guess you could say I'm sort of your destiny. I know all the lambs in your flock by name. That's part of my work on earth, to get to know you all."
"You look different. Are you a sheep?"
"Not really. I could have been a sheep, I suppose, but I chose to be who I am. And you can be like me if you choose to get out from under the oppression of that shepherd."
Destiny then began to teach Edgar about the world outside his flock. He told of all the wonderful creatures that roamed the woods and of the many things that Edgar had yet to experience. He had definitely gotten Edgar's attention.
"Now, Edgar, don't tell your mother or the other grown--up sheep about me. They won't like it that I'm sharing secrets with you that they don't want you to know about. Why, some of the things I've told you, they have never heard because they refuse to listen. They just want to live in bondage to that stupid human being, walking around eating grass and giving up their coats for him every time he takes a notion. But you, Edgar, you are different. You have a mind of your own. I like that about you."
So Edgar went back to the flock, thinking about all the things he learned from Destiny. And like Destiny told him, he spoke not a word of it to his mother. He did tell many of the other lambs, trying to convince them that there was more to life than following the flock. Some took an interest, others warned him not to think like that. But it seemed that the more the others condemned his new way of "free--thinking," the more he knew that he must be right.
"It's time we leave this flock, and venture out on our own," he told those who would still listen to radical ideas. "Do you want to spend the rest of your lives going nowhere; wandering from field to field; always going where you are led; never making a decision for yourself bigger than which clump of grass you will bite off or beside which rock you will sleep? It's time to make a choice."
The others seemed tempted, but they would not change their ways. Edgar kept visiting with Destiny on the sly, always careful that none of the adults would see him, and especially careful not to get caught by the shepherd.
Destiny continued to tell Edgar about the outside world. He made it sound so exciting that Edgar became more and more rebellious. He refused to eat with the rest of the flock, always going just a little further outside the circle. He continually had to be chased back by the shepherd. Edger grew tired of the scolding he received for his insubordination.
"What's gotten into you, Edgar?" his mother asked. "You were always a perfect child. You never talked back and you always listened. You were one of the shepherd's favorites. Now, you do nothing but cause him grief. What's going on?"
"I want to get out of this flock, Mother!" Edgar shouted. "I want to see what's out there in the rest of the world. I want to think for myself, make my own choices. I'm sick and tired of following someone else's footsteps all the time."
Edgar's mother didn't understand this talk, or where it had come from. All she knew how to do was what she had always done. And that was to follow the shepherd, stay in the flock, and be kept safe and healthy. That seemed like quite enough for her. She told her son what all the elders had always said to her, "The grass may look greener over there somewhere, but without the shepherd, its taste will seem quite bitter."
But Edgar knew he had to taste that grass over there and beyond. He knew there must be a better life outside the flock, and he would not be happy until he found out.
Finally, one day, Edgar took up Destiny's offer to come and see his den. He had told Edgar how nice it is not to have to sleep outside and to be protected from the hot sun and the rain and the blowing wind. Edgar could not wait to see this wonderful place. So he carefully sneaked away from the flock and the watchful eye of his shepherd.
Edgar never returned to his flock. Of course, he never got to see the rest of the world either, not even the inside of Destiny's den. Destiny had played a mean trick on Edgar, and Edgar became Destiny's victim.
But the other lambs that coveted Edgar's freedom didn't know what really happened. They had visions of Edgar out in the world on one adventure after another, and a few of them followed Edgar's Destiny.
We don't always want to follow our shepherd. It's tempting to want to go it on our own. But the price of leaving the flock - is it ever worth it?
There's an old Texas story that goes like this: A new school marm in a prairie schoolhouse asked a little boy, "If there were twelve sheep in a field and one jumped over the fence, how many would be left?"
The pupil said, "None."
The teacher said, "You don't know arithmetic, do you?"
"No, ma'am, but I know sheep."
The shepherd knows his sheep. Jesus knows his followers. God knows his children.
Peter is writing to Christians during a time when being a follower of Jesus was not a very pleasant nor always positive experience. Throw in the fact that Peter's audience for this particular text included slaves, and you can understand why the writer felt especially compelled to offer words of support and encouragement.
Peter doesn't tell them to find a way out of their rut. He doesn't instruct them on how to rebel against slavery and fight for freedom. Instead, he tells them that Jesus is to be their example in all things. That, even in their present circumstance, Jesus is their strength and assurance. And, like Jesus, they should seek God's approval in what they do and keep that as their major priority in this life.
Jesus suffered though he himself did nothing wrong. Jesus was treated unjustly, and yet he did not speak out against his enemies. When he was attacked, he responded in love and not in retaliation. Like a shepherd who leads sheep to nourishment and safety, Jesus is an example to us in our day--to--day struggles with the reality of our world. As Jesus chose to accept the abuse of the world in order to save the world, we follow in those steps today. And we have to admit that there are sometimes more important issues than our comfort, our lifestyle, and even our health. We have to choose our fights carefully and always weigh in the balance the good of the outcome we are trying to achieve.
Now, for a reality check, and without rationalizing what I just said, I have to add that not all selflessness is admirable, and not all self--defense is bad. I do have problems condoning some situations of oppression for the sake of the gospel. A child does not have to tolerate an abusive parent. No one needs to live in constant danger in fearing his or her spouse. And if our neighbor attacks us and physically threatens our life and the lives of our loved ones, then there is a "time for war and a time for peace." But we should not look for excuses simply to get out of a tolerable, but unpleasant situation.
When the world looks at us, the sheep of his fold, they see Jesus. We are the living remnant of the Christ who came into this world to save it. And although Peter is not condoning slavery or any other oppressive lifestyle, he is telling us that with Jesus as our example, we are to take certain misery and hardship upon our shoulders and represent Jesus in everything that we say and do. It's not always easy, and it's certainly not always what we want to do, but that is the life we have been called to live and the witness we are to bear.
There is a legend that recounts the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth. Even in heaven he bore the marks of his earthly pilgrimage with a cruel cross and shameful death. The angel Gabriel approached him and said, "Master, you must have suffered terribly for people down there." Jesus replied that he did. Gabriel continued: "And do they know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?"
Jesus replied, "Oh, no! Not yet. Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know."
Gabriel was puzzled. He asked, "Then what have you done to let everyone know about your love for them?"
Jesus said, "I've asked Peter, James, and John and a few more friends to tell others about me. Those who are told in turn will tell others about me and so on and so on. My story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe. Ultimately, all of humankind will have heard about my life and what I have done."
Gabriel frowned and looked rather skeptical. He well knew what poor stuff people were made of. He said, "Yes, but what if Peter and James and John grow weary? What if the people who come after them forget? What if way down in the twenty--first century people just don't tell others about you? Haven't you made other plans?"
And Jesus answered, "I haven't made any other plans. I'm counting on them."
Jesus still seeks sheep he can count on. He wants sheep that will follow their shepherd anywhere. He needs sheep who will go into the thickets and swamps of the meadows, and to the top of every mountain and bottom of every valley. Twenty--one centuries later, he's still counting on you and me. His early disciples chose Jesus' priorities and devoted their lives to reaching the world. Christ counted on them and they delivered. Can he continue to count on us?