But before we get there, I want to think a bit about groups, or
collections of animals and the language we use to describe them.
A noun for a group of animals is called a collective noun, and there
is an amazing variety of them: mostly for animals which are familiar
to people because they are common, they have been domesticated or
they are regularly hunted. Some of these nouns are pretty generic
and familiar, like a flock of sheep, or a herd of cattle. But some
collective nouns are further afield, such as a sleuth of bears (named
for the hounds which were bred to hunt them), or a pride of lions.
Some animals can be described with more than one collective noun,
depending on their condition: wild foxes are a skulk of foxes, but
foxes in captivity are called a leash of foxes. Peaceful, productive
bees are a hive, and angry bees are a swarm; bats can be either
a cloud or a colony -- and neither sounds very appealing, frankly.
There are collective nouns for common birds, including a murder
of crows, a wake of buzzards, a convocation of eagles, and my personal
favorite, an exaltation of larks. And then there are names which
are just fun because they are descriptive: a scurry of squirrels,
a cackle of hyenas, and a prickle of porcupines. I haven’t
even gotten to marine animals, but I’ll stop.
Notice that not every animal which is familiar is an animal which
gathers in groups. Although cats live in close proximity to people,
there is not a familiar collective noun to describe them: after
some digging, I found a nuisance of cats. We sometimes use a verb
to talk about herding cats: a phrase which is generally used ironically
to describe trying to get a bunch of individuals to go in the same
direction with limited success: as in, “Leading the Church
Board through a discussion of the upcoming budget was like herding
cats.” That’s just a hypothetical sentence.
So, wandering back to the sheep, here are some things which we
know: sheep were familiar to the Jews of both the Old Testament
and the New Testament, because sheep were a source of livelihood
and a measure of wealth. Jewish culture was rooted in nomadic herders
who moved with their flocks as the animals changed pastures. The
metaphor of God’s people as a flock of sheep worked because
everybody knew what a flock of sheep is, but also because a flock
has a leader -- called a shepherd -- who is not a sheep. The shepherd
is not simply the biggest, toughest, or oldest sheep in the flock,
the shepherd is a different animal entirely. The shepherd understands
things which the sheep don’t know or care about, and the shepherd
is responsible for guarding the sheep -- all of the sheep--with
his own life, if necessary. This is a high calling. Not even an
exceptionally gifted, well-educated, charismatic, and visionary
sheep will ever be the shepherd.
The second thing about sheep is related to Jewish religion, which
is inseparable from Jewish culture. Sheep were sacrificial animals,
killed in a ritual way as an offering of gratitude or repentance
for sin. Because sheep were valuable, the more perfect the sheep
-- spotless, healthy, and vigorous -- the more significant it was
as an offering. When Jesus’ parents took him to the Temple
to be circumcised when he was eight days old, they took an animal
offering with them. Typically for a male child that would have been
a lamb, but we know that Joseph and Mary were poor, because they
used two turtle doves instead.
Jesus refers to himself as the Lamb of God, evoking that Jewish
sacrificial system. Even in this passage from John which Cary read
for us, he is foreshadowing his own death. Verse 11 says, “I
am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the
sheep.” And in verse 15 “And I lay down my life for
the sheep.” But Jesus not only warning his disciples about
his death, he is predicting his resurrection -- something which
never happened to an ordinary sacrificial lamb. In verses 17 and
18 Jesus says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up
again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
This is no ordinary shepherd who might be killed in an ambush by
thieves; nor is Jesus a sacrificial animal with no agency or control
over its own death. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, in partnership and
relationship with the One who created the sheep and is invested
in the flock; Jesus is also the Lamb of God, a perfect and spotless
sacrifice of immeasurable value: a sacrifice who defeated the sacrificial
system of payment by death by willingly laying down his own life
so that he could take it up again.
These are bold claims that Jesus is making, and if you read on
to the next passage, some of his Jewish listeners who understand
what Jesus is claiming for himself say, “He has a demon and
is out of his mind! Why listen to him?” Why indeed? These
are not simply the claims of a gifted sheep who happens to be a
talented teacher: this passage only makes sense if Jesus is indeed
the Good Shepherd, both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, spotless
and perfect. He alone has the power to take away our sins.
I want to share something which I hope is obvious to you: I am
a sheep. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. I am part
of the flock, one of the sheep of God’s pasture. The fact
that pastor and pasture sound a lot alike is not a coincidence --
those words have a common root in sheepish Latin. I have received
a call to ministry, and I have had specialized training and years
of practice in church leadership. But the Church of the Brethren
has always taken pains to be sure that pastors know they are part
of the flock. I am a member of this congregation, just like most
of you. I have the same privileges and responsibilities as you do.
I pray with you and for you, and can offer anointing for the healing
of body, mind and spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and the strengthening
of your faith. I have entered this ministry and this calling with
my whole heart, and the ministry of this congregation is more than
just my job, it engages my mind and my soul, and a fair amount of
my time away from this building. But I don’t have any spiritual
super-powers. I hope that isn’t a surprise to any of you.
I am a motivated and fairly compensated sheep, doing my best to
fulfil my calling as a part of the flock. I strive to be a good
pastor, but I am not the Good Shepherd, and that’s a distinction
that’s important to keep track of.
I can tell you what Jesus teaches about a good life, what we need
to do for others and for ourselves, and what we owe to God, but
that goodness-- green pastures, still waters -- whatever images
you use; that goodness comes from God. I can anoint you as a sign
of God’s power and God’s spirit working in your life,
but it is God who makes that cup overflow. I can walk with you to
the end of your life, but only Jesus can guide you through the valley
of the shadow of death, because he is the only one who has been
there and come back.
I have tried this past week -- unsuccessfully, I’m afraid
-- to come up with a collective noun to describe a group of Christians.
Something more contemporary than a flock. Even the New Testament
does not refer to Christ’s followers with any descriptive
collective nouns. I’d be happy to hear your input on this.
A congregation is pretty generic; it just connotes gathering, but
doesn’t say anything about what’s important to us, or
what we’re called to do. Maybe a school of Christians? Like
a school of fish, but folks who are always learning. How about a
generosity of Christians? That was one of the hallmarks of the early
church. Or a sharing of Christians? Or maybe a witness of Christians?
Let me know what you think about this. Really.
What I do know, is that we are called to be in this together: not
only as we congregate in this place, but as we listen and learn
from the Word, and especially as we go forth to be sheep in a world
which desperately needs the Good Shepherd. Keep the faith, keep
the flock, follow the Good Shepherd. Amen.