Easter IV – May 3, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Today is ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. I have never liked ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. I don’t have any problem with Jesus as ‘the Good Shepherd.’
It’s that, if Jesus is the Shepherd, then we are the sheep. I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like being considered a dumb sheep. If I’m going to be part of the Flock of Jesus, I’d much rather be part of a Flock of Birds, thank you so much.
Let me restate that: I have never liked ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ – until – I was in England about 10 years ago and had the opportunity to talk with an actual shepherd.
I was spending the summer in England, finishing my work on a diploma in Urban Studies at the University of Sheffield, before heading down to Canterbury where I would be attending my first Lambeth Conference in 1998.
As you may know, driving in England is a bit of a challenge – they do, after all, drive on the wrong side of the road. They do this knowingly and willfully, having had this pointed out to them many times by both the French and the Americans. The only people the English hate more than Americans telling them how to speak English or how to drive is the French telling them anything.
At any rate, while I was at University, I drove a car. The other challenge about driving a car in England on the wrong side of the road – besides the fact that the roads are so narrow and winding and the British drive as if they weren’t – is that, when you drive in the country, you are apt to come to a full stop, right in the middle of the road, for sheep crossing.
It’s not just that you have to stop, it’s that you are at a full stop for quite some time. Ten, fifteen, oh, sometimes twenty or thirty minutes, depending on the size of the herd – and, to be perfectly honest, the attitude of the shepherd.
That happened quite a bit when I was in Britain that summer, so I often found myself striking up a conversation with the local shepherd. Eventually, over the next few weeks, we developed something of a relationship. In the process, I got to know quite a bit about sheep.
Here’s the thing I learned best about sheep: the problem with sheep is not that they are dumb. They are decidedly not. Sheep have a very keen sense of smell. They can actually smell the new green grass and they can smell where the water is and they know how to find it. They really don’t need a shepherd to find it for them.
That’s not the problem. The problem with sheep is not that they are dumb. The problem with sheep is that they get very excited when they smell the new green grass and the water.
The problem with sheep is that they can get so excited about getting to the new green grass and the water that they don’t watch where they are going. They can trip over each other and hurt each other – especially the new little lambs. They will run into big trees or stumble over rocks. They have even been known to head over a cliff because they smelled the water beneath.
As I considered what my shepherd friend was saying, the whole Good Shepherd Sunday thing began to make more sense. We’re not dumb sheep, but sometimes, we do get excited about life. Well, at least I do. I have been known to go running off with half-baked plans that were doomed to fail until, in prayer, Jesus sort of tapped me on the shoulder with his shepherd’s crook and said, “Hang on. Wait just a minute. Have you considered this?”
I was feeling a bit better about the whole Good Shepherd Sunday thing, but a question continued to nag at me. As luck would have it, I got a chance to ask the question of my friend the shepherd before I left.
My question to him was this: “Why is it that the sheep follow your voice and not mine? They know my voice after all these weeks, I can see that, but they follow your voice. Why?”
“Ah,” said my friend, “that’s the other thing about sheep. Not only are they not dumb, but they have a great sense of smell.”
“Well, yes, you’ve already told me that,” I said, wondering whatever any of that had to do with the price of wool.
My friend smiled and said, “You see, I smell like them. When I help with the birthing of new lambs, or when I sheer the sheep, there is a sort of lanolin that is given off. After a while, that lanolin gets under your skin. You can’t smell it, but the sheep can. They know my smell and they know that I am one of them. And so, they follow.”
And then, I got it. Like a dumb sheep finally smelling the new, green grass, I got excited and said, right out loud, “It’s the Incarnation, stupid!”
My shepherd friend, thinking that I was talking to him and questioning his intellect, got a bit startled and then distressed. I quickly explained to him that, suddenly, this passage of scripture made sense.
God came to earth and put on human flesh. God got ‘under our skin’ the same way that the lanolin from the sheep gets under the shepherd’s skin. God in Christ Jesus smells like us, so when God speaks to us in the name of Jesus, we hear and recognize God’s voice. And, we follow.
Well, I got so excited about this new insight that I tripped over a rock and fell flat on my backside. I suddenly remembered what the shepherd had said about the problem with sheep not being dumb but getting excited, and I started to laugh. So did my shepherd friend.
Some of the wee lambs and momma sheep came over to check me out and make sure I was okay.
“Careful now,” my shepherd friend called out. “Besides the smell of lanolin, the other way sheep know you is if they pee on you.”
I wasn’t that dumb. I got up very quickly.
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”