In the Bible, we human beings are often described as being like sheep. It’s not an especially flattering image.
Sheep are thought of as not being particularly smart animals, but that’s not altogether accurate; as far as animals go, they don’t rank too badly, a little bit under pigs who are thought of as being quite smart. They are smart enough to be able to recognize individual faces of humans or sheep and to remember them for years, which points to a very significant part of what it means to be a sheep: Sheep need to be a part of a flock. They are social creatures. They are nothing like cats.
They can, however easily get themselves lost, and a lost sheep is in big trouble, not likely survive; it is easy prey for predators. Sheep also tend to be followers. They don’t think for themselves. Where the flock goes, if something doesn’t distract them, they tend to follow. And the one they may be following isn’t necessarily a sheep that knows what’s it’s doing; it may just be the most active of the sheep.
So not only do sheep need a flock, they need a good shepherd, especially after thousands of years of living as domesticated animals. \
If I were to choose one word to sum up what it means to be sheep it would be “frailty.” Sheep are weak, vulnerable, incapable of making it without help.
Now this isn’t how we like to think of ourselves, especially when we first grow up and are trying to establish ourselves as strong, self-reliant, and capable of standing on our own two feet.
Story Corps is a project that has been around for a decade or so that seeks to record people telling the story of their lives. It’s based upon the premise that our stories are important and need to be told and remembered. There’s this little booth in New York City that you can make an appointment to go, usually with a loved one, to spend an hour with the help of an interviewer to record something about your life. On occasion, some of these stories end up on National Public Radio.
One particularly moving recording was done by Zach Skiles and his father Scott. When they sat down to record their story, it was the first time they had talked about Zach’s experience of having been a marine serving in Iraq. Scott the father started off by recounting what he said to his son Zach when in 2003 he drove him to catch his plane to go off to the marines. “Of every gift that I’ve been given in life, I don’t have a better one than to be your dad.” He remembered his son smiling and saying, “I love you too, Dad.” And then as Scott put it, “you got out of the car and went to war.”
Like most young men who go off to war, Zach had little idea what it would be like. He probably imagined himself having adventures shared with comrades in arms, testing his metal for a worthy cause, and coming back a hero, his manhood fully established.
But when Zach returned from Iraq he came back as one very lost sheep. Like so many others traumatized by the horror of war, he came back deeply emotionally shattered. He couldn’t hold down a job. He said he was pretty sure someone was going to kick down his door, and he was afraid to go to sleep. He ended up homeless. There was a period of time, his father said, when he didn’t have any idea where his son was. “It’s difficult to watch anyone let go of hope,” he said, “and when it’s your son, its excruciating.”
He remembered the great relief he felt when Zach decided to go into inpatient treatment. He describes watching his son walk back into the treatment building one night. It was dark and his head was down, and for a moment Scoot could feel the weight his son was carrying. He said he uttered two words — he didn’t know if they were some kind of prayer or not, but they just came out: “My son.” And he was absolutely overcome with grief, and love, and the beginning of hope.
Overtime, Zach’s life began to heal. He graduated from college — summa cum laude his proud father is quick to point out. Zach now helps other veterans with PTSD through the same program that helped him recover. He’s enrolled in a doctoral program in clinical psychology to further equip him to help others.
Scott remember his own dad saying to him something he has now said to his son: “It’s your life, so you have the last work. But as your dad, I have the second to last word: And that word is this: I believe in you, and I’m on your side.”
I was moved when I heard this story, and I recount it here for two reasons.
The first is that life has a way bringing us face to face with the truth we really are sheep in the sense that there is a frailty to us that is hard to acknowledge, but must eventually we must face it. We can’t make it alone. We need help. We may feel that we are strong where others are weak, but the truth is, we’ve managed to avoid discovering how fragile we are. We need to reach out to the grace of God that comes in so many different forms.
But there is a kind of strength that comes on the far side of facing our frailty. There is this strange truth that if we hope to be a good shepherd to others, we first must know ourselves to be lost sheep. If you’re going to be a good shepherd, you have to know what it feels like to be the lost, frightened sheep.
Zach owned up to the fact that he was a lost sheep, and reached out for help, and now Zach has discovered the strength and the compassion to be a good shepherd for others. In the story I told the children about, Maurice and Miguel, the cook and the maintenance man found the capacity to be good shepherds where the others were mere hired hands because it wasn’t hard for them to relate to what it feels like to be lost sheep. “My parents, when they were younger, they left me abandoned,” he says. “Knowing how they are going to feel, I didn’t want them to go through that.” Miguel the janitor.
But the second reason I recounted this story is to focus on the love of the father for his son, a love that those of us who are parents can identify with. A love that will never give up on the child.
(Where does this love come from? You can say it is an evolutionary necessity for the survival of the species, but I think it is an expression of the love that is at the heart of the universe.)
When Jesus talked about God, his two favorite images were the Good Shepherd, and a loving parent, and they are closely related. This is the claim of the Gospel, the good news, simple and plain. That though we be sheep, the God who created the universe loves the creation, loves us, wants to be in relationship with us, like the father in this story, like a Good Shepherd loves his sheep, only more so.
The striking thing about the image of the Good Shepherd for God is that to truly grasp it we first have to recognize what it is to be sheep. And initially, that recognition isn’t pretty. Sheep stink, they are so frail and in need. Life has a way of revealing our sheepness to us. And the first response is to feel pretty unworthy.
When young man goes off to war feeling confident and strong with fantasies of being a hero, and comes back instead frightened and shattered, his own assessment will be that he is worthless, unworthy. The sheep that has gotten lost and isn’t worth sending out the search mission.
And here is this extraordinary claim of the Gospel: no you are a lamb that the Shepherd is willing to lay his life down for. You are a lamb for whom the Shepherd was willing to die. And frail though you are, you are cherished. You have worth far greater than you know.
So in John’s Gospel in the 10th chapter Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life. To get at what this mean, it is helpful to consider the story that takes up most of the 9th chapter.
Jesus and his disciples are walking around in Jerusalem and they come upon this beggar who was born blind.
(For his disciples the man raises an abstract theological question: How was it that this man was born blind? It must have been some punishment for sin, they figure. They have bought into the prevailing way of seeing things. People suffer, because they sinned.)
This blind beggar is someone who has no trouble recognizing himself as a sheep. He knows he needs a flock, that without a flock he will surely die.
And the local flock allows him to belong, but the belonging comes with a price. There is this unspoken contract: “We will let you live among us,” they flock says, “we will allow you to beg and we will make sure you don’t starve to death, and in giving you alms we will feel good and noble. You will carry the burden of endless guilt and we will feel superior to you.
But Jesus has come, as he said in our lesson, to give us life and give it abundantly, and abundant life isn’t mere survival. So Jesus takes some saliva and mixes it with soil and makes a paste that he puts on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. And he does, and lo and behold he can see.
But curiously, the community isn’t so sure they are happy this man can now see, particularly when he begins to tell the leaders that it was the man Jesus – in their eyes, this troublemaker, who has brought about his healing. And so they pressure him to change his story, but he won’t, and they go and pressure his parents, who say, yes, this is our son, who was born blind, but we have no idea how he sees. He speaks the truth as he knows it, but they don’t want to hear the truth, and so they cast him out of the flock. Strangely, he becomes stronger as the story continues as he sticks to his truth, which that he was a helpless sheep, but by the grace of God that came to him in this good shepherd by the name of Jesus he can see again.
And in the final scene of the story, Jesus comes to him, the Good Shepherd, to the sheep without a flock; and the implication is that he is being brought into a new flock; the Good Shepherd’s flock. And in this flock you don’t have to be less than who God made you to be; you don’t have to live in mere survival mode.
But Jesus doesn’t reject him. He comes to him… I have a new flock for you to be a part of. One in which you can be who I made you to be, and not the mere shadow of yourself.
The good shepherd knows who you are. We aren’t all the same and God made us that way. So we might as well be who God make us to be…