Called to be sheep or called to be good shepherds?

All three of our scripture passages this morning are excellent examples of the dangers of reading the Bible and attempting to take it too literally. Jesus knew that, and was wise and brave enough to tell his listeners that he was using a “figure of speech” when developing his metaphor about shepherds and their flocks of sheep and the relationship between them.

I don’t know about you but I have always struggled with the image of sheep as a metaphor for the faithful in the church and in parish life. My experience with sheep has come primarily from working at Upper Canada Village. We did not raise sheep on the farm on which I grew up and I think I am rather thankful for that. If there is a way out of the pasture fence, sheep will find it. Not only that, they will mindlessly follow the first lead animal to penetrate the fence. That’s why you don’t herd or move a flock of sheep from behind like cows. You get them to follow you. We had a code in the Village. If somebody came along one of the streets yelling “sheeps out” all of us had permission to drop whatever we were doing, if we could do so safely, and get out there and prevent them from wandering where we did not want them to go. The more of us, the better, so they weren’t constantly tempted to follow any unguarded lane or path in the wrong direction. Again, that is why one leads sheep from the front not herd them from behind. I prefer cows.

I think you may be getting the idea why Jesus developed this image in front of an audience that from experience knew a lot about how sheep behave, as he also appears to know as well. Listen to what he says to them: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him…” It is obvious that Jesus and his audience knew the culture of raising and caring for sheep.

But that was then and this is now. And there may be some inherent dangers in thinking of human beings as sheep, especially in the church or in politics, or as an accurate metaphor for the general population of our land. It’s not a flattering comparison, given that as human beings our collective brain and group behaviour does not seem to be as intelligent as some individuals. Sheep do not have the reputation of being smart and neither do human mobs. And that may be that we should not focus on the object (sheep in groups) in Jesus’ image as much as the relationship between its two parts. Shepherd and sheep. That’s what this passage is all about. It’s all about relationship. And Jesus goes on to develop his metaphor even further as he knows that sheep will only respond to someone whose voice they recognize.” They will not follow a stranger” he says, “They will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

We live in an age where there are many voices – voices that are competing for our attention. Voices that claim to have a solution to the ills that beset us and our society. Voices of politicians. Voices of those who tell us what we need to be happy. Voices that tell us how to lead healthy lives. Voices that tell us how to raise our children. You can find an expert on just about any subject. Try surfing the internet just to see what I mean. Start your google search with the words, “How do I….” and a million sites will pop up. There’s a lot of searching activity but not much light.

Even Jesus was asked questions like that. Remember the rich man who came to him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And the answer was a tough one: “Sell everything you have, Give it to the poor and come and follow me.”

Try giving that answer even today to someone who asks, “What must I do to be happy or at peace?” Selling everything you have and giving it away is probably just as difficult today as it was in Jesus’s time. But notice once again, Jesus’ emphasis is on anything that stands in the way of a relationship between us and God. It’s all about relationship. Not only the relationship with God but our relationship with the things that stand in the way – be it money, possessions, anger, jealousy, disillusionment, those whom Jesus characterizes as thieves and bandits, because they only steal and kill and destroy. And again, if we read this passage too literally we miss the much larger point that Jesus is making. The things that steal and kill and destroy don’t only have to be physical things – they can be emotional, mental, and even spiritual. Whatever stands in the way of an abundant, meaningful life.

Even the early Christian church took Jesus’s teachings about poverty quite literally in the beginning. Our reading from the second chapter of Acts indicates that very clearly. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute to all, as any had need.” And that was the way the church community organized itself in the very beginning. If you wanted to join them, you had to get rid of everything you owned. Again, try that one out in our modern age. Try making that the entrance requirement for joining the church. Later in chapter 5, there is the story of Ananias and Sapphira who joined up, appeared to sell and donate all they owned but secretly held back a piece of property for themselves. Confronted by the Apostle Peter with their dishonesty, they were both struck dead on the spot. The account concludes with these words: “And great fear seized the whole church.” I bet!

Again, if we take these accounts too literally I think we miss the larger points. There were probably good reasons why the early Christian church needed to form a protective communal society where they looked after each other. They were in danger. They faced being hunted down and killed. Luke’s account of these days in the Book of Acts was being written when that was going on around him – big time. How else could they survive but by banding together?

But is this a model by which we should organize ourselves today in the church or in society at large? Political communism seems to have failed in our modern world. Christian communal societies are few in number and even ordered communities of nuns and monks are rapidly diminishing. Most of us live in small nuclear families in the western world and even in the developing world, tribal and communal societies are becoming fragmented. Many who want to recreate the New Testament church in our own time often conveniently ignore the model of owning all things in common.
And yet, perhaps, the larger less literal truth of this passage is that, in the church, we should still look out for each other. We should still be aware that some are struggling not only financially but in many other ways that diminish their lives and we should care deeply enough about them to help in any way we can. Even if it inconveniences us or it has a cost. That’s what this passage is really about. It’s all about relationship.

And finally, we come to the passage from the First Letter of Peter. The basic advice of this passage is to put up with whatever suffering you experience in life not only when you clearly deserve it, but even when you have done the right thing. Don’t complain. Don’t fight back. Don’t seek revenge. When you are abused and punished for doing the right thing, God approves.

Really? Do we actually believe that? I think this is one more example where it is good to place this passage in a little context. If you look at this passage in your Bible, the verse (18) that comes right before this reads, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” Wow! Try that one today. Slavery was a reality in the early Christian church. Some members owned slaves and some were slaves. Slavery was accepted in almost every culture at the time. Philemon, to whom St. Paul writes a letter, now in our New Testament, and a leader in the church at Colossus, had a slave called Onesimus, who became a Christian. Does that mean that the Christian gospel condones slavery – that because the early Christians had slaves, we can also? That’s what people actually argued during the American civil war. Really? The Bible sanctions slavery?

But there is more going on here than the literal meaning. St. Paul refers to Onesimus, the slave as “my brother” or “my son” one who looked after me in prison and one who is in Christ with me. It’s all about relationship. The gospel makes us brothers and sisters of each other. Christ binds us together. And we are called to love and look after each other.

As for putting up with suffering and abuse without complaining and without fighting back or seeking revenge, I have to admit to you that I am still personally a work in progress. Although it is generally true that most of us eventually turn a deaf ear on those who complain all the time about their illnesses. But I believe that we must confront bullies and abusers. We cannot in our society for the sake of the most vulnerable let them just do what they do. And our church takes a strong stand, I am glad to say, on many social justice issues. We must confront injustice wherever we find it. Maybe there should be more Ghandis in our world, those who resist evil non-violently and passively but they are always pretty rare. How to best resist evil in the world is a complex thing. And we all struggle with it. But one thing I am sure about – we should look after the victims the best we can. And that’s about relationship as well.

Are we called to be sheep? Are we called to live in poverty? Are we called to endure suffering? Our readings this Sunday asked some pretty tough questions. The answer may lie in our relationship with God and with each other. Amen.