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Why Sheep?

Preaching the Parables
Series IV, Cycle A
Why sheep?

For one thing, next week will be Youth Sunday, so I moved things up a week. Next Sunday, which I decided to move up to this Sunday, is called "Sheep Sunday" by preachers, because every year about this time the lessons are like this morning -- John's description of Jesus, the good shepherd, and the psalmist's song is "The Lord Is My Shepherd."

But, I wondered out loud to myself this week, why sheep? Why not eagles? Why not think of you and me as eagles in God's glorious sky, instead of sheep in God's muddy pasture?

Isaiah writes ...

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
-- Isaiah 40:31

That's why I have a plaque on the wall in my office with those words. That's why I love the following hymn. It goes:

You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord,
who abide in his shadow for life,
say to the Lord: "My refuge,
my rock in whom I trust!"

And I will raise you up on eagles' wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of my hand.

Why not eagles? Why sheep?

Maybe it's because the prayer of confession got it right -- got us right: "Almighty and merciful God, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts...."

We seldom soar like eagles; more often we act like sheep. As one old song puts it:

We are poor little lambs
who have lost our way ...
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We're little black sheep who've gone astray,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
damned from here to eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Baa! Baa!

Some of us are old enough to remember that as the "Whiffenpoof Song," popularized in the '30s and '40s by the singer Rudy Vallee. It was originally part of a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It would make a great prayer of confession, if we could sing it or say it with a straight face. Let's try it. Repeat after me.

We're poor little lambs who've lost our way.
We're little black sheep who've gone astray.
God have mercy on such as we!
Baa! Baa! Baa!

But whatever our words, our confession is still only a refrain to our lives, as Kipling's words are only the refrain to his poem. Kipling's poem reads, in part, like too many lives:

We have done with Hope and Honour,
we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment
is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance
for the crime that brought the sentence,
Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us
till an alien turf enfolds us
And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!

We have erred and strayed -- like lost sheep. I know that. You know that. The Bible knows that, and uses that as a metaphor for the reality of our lives, lives we live together in our families, at our work, in our community, in this church, every day. And it's our life lived together that the Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith, sees as explaining why the metaphor for you and me is "sheep."

Some of you know Jeff Smith's recipe books. One of them serves up some wonderful sounding recipes for lamb chops, grilled, with mint and cinnamon, in grape leaves; and lamb stew with figs and wine. The Frugal Gourmet says the sheep metaphor in the Bible finds its meaning in the fact that:

Sheep are communal by their very nature. [Pointing out that] As a matter of fact we do not even have a word for one sheep. The term is always understood to be plural.3

I'm skeptical of anyone who writes of the love of God for his "sheep," and how to cook lamb chops in the same book. But maybe the Frugal Gourmet, who happens to be a Methodist minister, as well as a good cook, is right. The meaning of the metaphor is simply that you and I together, like sheep -- plural -- are a community, a flock of faith in which we are cared for by God as a shepherd cares for his sheep. We're in it together, and together we are shepherded by Jesus Christ.

That's a good corrective to the excessive individualism of our day that leaves many of us feeling so very much alone in the presence of almighty God. We feel more like a sheep at the mercy of a predator than a lamb in God's arms of protection provided in Jesus' story by the sheep being together in the sheepfold -- not just in his willingness to run around willy-nilly to find lost ones.

The nineteenth-century Princeton theologian, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, whose work was to have great influence on the original "Fundamentalists," apparently considered this to be fundamental: That in Jesus Christ, God was "saving the world and not merely one individual here and there out of the world."4 In Jesus Christ, God came as a shepherd to his sheep -- plural.

The children's poem says Mary had a "little lamb." And the classic picture of Jesus, the good shepherd, has him carrying a single lamb on his shoulders. As though he has a little lamb, too. But the biblical picture has him surrounded by an uncountable herd of sheep. To paraphrase the children's book by Wanda Gag, there are sheep here, sheep there, sheep and little lambs everywhere. Hundreds of sheep, thousands of sheep, millions and billions and trillions of sheep. All acting like sheep and in need of a shepherd.

So Charles Cousar writes:

The language [in John's gospel] is reminiscent of the Twenty-third Psalm. What is eloquently sung there about the Lord's care, guidance, and protection of the flock is here [in John] reaffirmed in terms of Jesus.5

As one writer says,

... sure, it's possible to encounter Christ anywhere, but the biblical witness is that that encounter is most likely to happen in a place where people are gathered....6

People gathered, like sheep in a sheepfold, are those most likely to encounter the shepherd. People gathered like sheep in a sheepfold can be shepherded -- brought together in warmth and the safety of life together.

I did a little research. I read a book called, Approved Practices in Sheep Production, that says, that in caring for sheep,

... most important is that ... continuous attention [is] required. Sheep are often quite helpless and fall easy prey to predators, especially dogs, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and eagles. They might even fall prey to such hazards as picket or woven wire fences, or to ditches and gullies in which they might lie and suffocate unless aid came quickly. Parasites and disease are also ever present problems to guard against.7

The book says sheep have a lot of problems. So do we. Sheep face a lot of dangers. So do we. Sheep are best tended together. Says the Bible, so are we. But then what about me? Me?

I remarked to some recently that I find it interesting, and telling, that it was about the time we discovered that the sun does not revolve around the earth, that we decided that the universe revolves around the individual. The individual is important, hence the biblical picture of Jesus seeking out that one lost sheep. The image of the sheepfold and you and me as sheep, is not intended to make us feel sheepish, or to make us feel individually unimportant; rather it is intended to reinforce the importance of each and every one of us, all of us, to the shepherd who is God in Jesus Christ.

The sheepfold, then, while constraining and confining is not claustrophobic. Rather, by setting limits on how far we can stray, and what can get at us, it frees us to live life as God intends -- to live each day to the fullest. This is what Jesus meant when he said,

I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
-- John 10:10

I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.
-- John 10:10 (CEV)

Some of the fullest moments of my ministry have been moments filled by folks like you. I had such a moment not too long ago, when someone shared a poem with me that has meant much to them. It's called "Live Each Day To The Fullest," and describes what life lived that way might look like. It goes:

Live each day to the fullest
Get the most from each hour, each day, and each age of your life.
Then you can look forward with confidence and back without regrets.
Be yourself -- but be your best self.
Dare to be different and to follow your own star.
And don't be afraid to be happy.
Enjoy what is beautiful.
Love with all your heart and soul.
Believe that those you love, love you.
Learn to forgive yourself for your faults, for this is the first step in learning to forgive others.
Listen to those whom the world may consider uninteresting, for each person has, in himself, something of worth.
Disregard what the world owes you, and concentrate on what you owe the world.
Forget what you have done for your friends, and remember what they have done for you.
No matter how troublesome the care of life
may seem to you at times,
this is still a beautiful world --
and you are at home in it,
as a child is at home in his parent's house.
When you are faced with a decision,
make that decision as wisely as possible --
then forget it.
The moment of absolute certainty never arrives;
... act as if everything depended upon you, and
pray as if everything depended upon God....

If you live like that, if I live like that, and even when we can't, we can depend upon God, the good shepherd, whom we know in Jesus.

I wonder how things might have turned out if the rich man in Jesus' story had lived like that? If he had understood himself to be just one of the sheep in God's fold?

Whatever you make of the rich man's predicament in the parable, his money wasn't worth a dime in death. It won't be to you either. But it will matter to others -- it can matter a lot to those you love -- family, friends, the faithful flock we call church, your fellow sheep.

The rich man's sin was not being rich. Andrew Carnegie, a Presbyterian, once said that "It is a sin to die rich." You might ponder that some time. But even he never said it was a sin to be rich.

I walk a lot back and forth around Georgetown and across the Key Bridge. I walk past a lot of men. It is mostly men, who like Lazarus lie waiting even in one of the richest zip codes in the United States for someone to give them something. I'm urban savvy; not what my children would call "street smart," but smart enough to know that a handout isn't always a helping hand. Most of the time I am inured by all the other times I've walked past such men -- to the point that like the rich man in the story I hardly see them anymore. Sometimes I look furtively in their direction -- mostly to protect myself.

Last week, walking across the bridge, I glanced at a man, barefoot, dirty, half my age, holding a sign. It said the usual: "Have wife and kids. No work. Need help. God blessed you." Have you seen those? I kept going. But I couldn't get the sign out of my mind. I still can't.

And I don't think you heard why -- I don't think you heard what I said. You heard what you thought I said. You've heard it, seen it, before. What you thought I said was: "Have wife and kids. No work. Need help. God bless you."

But that's not what his sign said and not what I said. His sign said -- listen closely -- "Have wife and kids. No work. Need help. God blessed you."

I don't know about his wife and children. I don't know why he can't or won't work. I don't know for sure what kind of help would really help. I don't even know if the way he worded his sign was just bad grammar. But I do know he has me dead to rights when he says, "Dick, God blessed you!"

I can just hear Lazarus, outside the rich man's gate, day after day watching the rich man go for his aerobic turn around town, saying, "Dives, God blessed you!" And Dives, as in the anthem earlier, replying, "Thou art none of mine, brother Lazarus, / Lying begging at my door."9

Long before I arrived on the scene, the Georgetown Presbyterian Church committed itself to a better answer than that. The church committed to meeting the needs of those lying at our door. In this neighborhood where the other day I saw something that even around here is unusual -- a stretch Rolls Royce -- we have joined with other congregations to create and support the Georgetown Ministry Center, a ministry to the homeless in our midst, through which we recognize the man with the sign as "one of ours," as one of God's ... one of God's sheep.

Let's be honest. We'd like to have the man (or the woman) with the Rolls as a member -- as one of our flock. God chooses to have the man with the sign as one of his too.

You can respond to the man's sign in many ways. One way to respond to the fact that God has blessed you is with your will. God has blessed you. God has blessed me. I looked it up. The fifth definition of "bless" in the dictionary is: "to confer well-being or prosperity on." God has done that for us. The fourth definition of "bless," however, is: "to honor as holy; [to] glorify."10 You see, we can bless God too! And one way to do that is with a will. A will that is not just a way of getting what we want in the end; but a way of praying in life and in death the prayer of those who belong to God -- "Thy will be done."

Someday, somewhere, someone like me will pray. You will be there, but will not hear it. The prayer will go: "Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming." Then they'll go have cookies and punch, and if they haven't already, they'll go read your will.

The hymn, "Take My Life And Let It Be," is usually a "Stewardship Sunday" song, but it's really a hymn about life -- life in the sheepfold lived well. Pay close attention to stanza 4.

Take my will, and make it thine;
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is thine own,
It shall be thy royal throne,
It shall be thy royal throne.


1. "You Who Dwell in the Shelter of the Lord," With One Voice, 779.

2. Rudyard Kipling, "Gentlemen-Rankers," Barrack-Room Ballads (New York: Signet Classics, 2003).

3. Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1995), p. 20.

4. Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy (New York, Oxford University Press, USA, 1993), p. 45.

5. Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching, Cycle A (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 290.

6. John Wurster, Sermon preached at Market Street Presbyterian Church, Lima, Ohio, 4/21/96.

7. Elwood M. Juergenson, Approved Practices in Sheep Production (Vero Media Inc., 1981), p. 6.

8. S. H. Payer, "Live Each Day to The Fullest," source unknown.

9. Andrew Carter, "Dives and Lazarus," Traditional English Carol.

10. http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=bless.

11. "Take My Life, and Let It Be Consecrated," The Hymnbook, 310.
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