John 10: ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. 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 because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.Down here in the rolling lands of the South Midlands, or East Anglia, or Northern Home Counties or whatever you want to call us, shepherds and sheep don't always have the same relationship, it seems, as they did in Jesus's time. All that gentle calling and they follow; all that cutesy loveliness of the carol, "The Little Road to Bethlehem". We don't generally get to see that. I've seen shepherds herding sheep with a quad bike. I've seen a Rutland shepherd, out Belton way, screaming blue murder and swearing at his sheep because they specifically wouldn't behave like the ones in Jesus's parable. I learnt some new words that day, I can tell you.
But then I've been hearing the Twitterings of some shepherds, such as Herdwick Shepherd and Yorkshire Shepherdess, tweeted into the old timeline. And you know what, there's more similarity to the parable in modern England than you might think? Especially at this time of the year, when the lambing is just coming to an end up in the high country. The inter-dependence is as much as when Jesus told us the parable. The shepherds and the sheep cling to the land, facing the elements together. There's no wolves in Yorkshire or the Lake District, but it's still a hard land in late winter and early spring, when the ewes are lambing and the weather is stair rods one minute and freezing solid or snowing heavily the next. Then the shepherds are close to their sheep, who need them - and the job of dealing with shelter, food, births, occasional deaths, fostering brings their lives so close together. And of course the shepherds need the sheep - because without the sheep, they have no livelihood. And yes, I know all about mint sauce. But let's not spoil the pastoral image eh?
So Jesus tells the story of how our lives and his are intertwined. As sheep and their shepherd. So we learn that our lives are never alone. As sheep who go astray - to quote Isaiah - we are never allowed to go on our own way. The shepherd is always there, always looking, always watchful. Prepared - even at the cost of his own life - to cross the downs, plough through the valleys, risk the swamps to find us.
And we are indeed sheep. Left to ourselves we will break down the hedges that keep us in the green pastures. We'll roll across the cattle grids. Or, at any rate, plod across very carefully...
And the Shepherd knows that his job is to keep looking, keep worrying, keep going off and getting his woolly pals when they've decided to play in traffic yet again. Keep binding up wounds, keep looking out for us.
And what would Jesus be trying to tell us, by calling us sheep? You know how we have some dreadful stereotypes of what sheep are like. Dim, "woolly-headed", sheepish, following the herd - you never hear somebody say that someone's as "loyal as a sheep" or "steady as a sheep" or "brave as a sheep".
Yet sheep have their moments. A mother ewe can be pretty vicious if she thinks you're after her young uns. Cumbrian sheep are bright - able to be left out on their own patch without wandering off and getting lost. They're tough as old boots. They can survive some horrendous weather. And, above all, sheep stick together.
|Soay Sheep, Flag Fen. Proper Beaker Sheepy Folk|
Sheep stick together. There's no idea of being a Christian on your own, anymore than you'd expect to see a sheep on its own, unless it was lost or confused. Jesus started by choosing disciples. And they attracted more. And though he went off to get peace and quiet sometimes, he never talked of solitary followers. He founded a Church. And the Church is not a bunch of individuals who happen to come together on a Sunday morning. The Church is Gods's alternative community - the outbreak in time and space of God's kingdom. The expectation is that, whether we like it or not, we are being built together into one body. And a flock of sheep isn't a bad metaphor for that. A whole bunch, acting as one body. And it doesn't matter, it appears, if we don't all get on. We don't seem to be called to be the sort of people who are called to put our own preferences first. We're part of the flock.
To be part of a flock - part of God's Church - sometimes means we have to put our own preferences second. We have to love other people - even ones who aren't particularly lovable - as ourselves. We are supposed to stick together, to work together, to meet together. We are told that we don't call our brothers and sisters fools. We should rather be offended than get our own back. We should be happy to sit at the low end of the table, rather than fighting over our place - struggling for our rights.
And because we are one flock - one body - one Church - we are close to the Shepherd. That is the reward, that is the reason, that is the incentive. I've always loved John Wesley's reported last words - "The best of all is, God is with us." Wesley, that weird mixture of High Anglicanism and Evangelicalism, knew that God is with us. God is not with me, or you, or them. God is with us. We are the sheep who hear the shepherd's call. We are the ones that recognise his voice. We are the ones that respond to his call. We are the ones he knows by name. We may have to go through some rocky country. We may have to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But if we stick together, we're told, we will find the still water, the green pasture - and at last the place where we will rest, one flock, with our Shepherd, who came to find us, to lead us, and to guard us - forever.