What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “good shepherd?” A pastel painting of a man in flowing robes holding a long pole with a hook on the end in the midst of several, fluffy white sheep? Or maybe it’s that other pastel painting of a blond-haired Jesus carrying the lost sheep across his shoulders. It could even be Little Bo Peep in her frilly pantaloons and wide brimmed hat that comes to mind.
Professional actress Anne Priest became a shepherd in the 1970s. She didn’t mean to. After her divorce, she was looking for a new adventure, so she purchased a piece of land on the coast ofNova Scotia. Her property was on a point that overlooked the ocean. Just out from the point was a 138 acre island. She bought that island and—somehow—ended up putting sheep on it.
Trafficking in Sheep is Priest’s memoir of her twenty year career as a shepherd. In addition to the sheep she kept onBlue Island, she eventually bought another sheep farm inNyack,New York—that was so she could stay close toNew York City and continue to act.
That’s also where the sheep trafficking began. Because the winters are so harsh inNova Scotia, breeding the sheep had to be carefully planned so that lambs would be born in spring. Had lambs been born in autumn, they weren’t likely to survive winter on the island. At the end of each summer, then, Anne would load the ram and a few ewes into her truck and take them back toNew Yorkfor the winter. Each summer she would load up a few more sheep inNew Yorkand cart them back toNova Scotia.
Carefully planning the birthdates of lambs isn’t the only thing a good shepherd does. She also makes sure the sheep are sheared once a year. She tends to their horns, which sometimes curl around and grow into the heads of the sheep. When the sheep start inbreeding and unhealthful traits begin presenting—like the extensive overbite of parrot-mouth—she culls those sheep to keep the flock healthy. When neighbouring dogs threatened her flock inNew York, Anne bought a guard donkey—yes, a guard donkey–to help keep her flock safe. A lot of hard work goes into being a good shepherd.
In her book, Anne gives examples of bad shepherds, too. There’s Peter, who, in a flurry of excitement one year, bought 28 sheep from Anne to start his own sheep farm. As sometimes happens, Peter’s interest waned; he wanted to sell the sheep back to Anne and go to law school. Anne agreed to buy 28 lambs. The deal was made while Anne was in NY.
The plan was for Peter to bring the lambs toBlue Islandin the late summer so they could get acclimated to life on the island before winter. Peter’s schedule got busy, though, and he didn’t bring the lambs to the island until November. When Anne returned to the island the next summer, she discovered the carcasses of all 28 lambs. A good shepherd would have adjusted his schedule for the benefit of the sheep.
Anne also relates an example of bad shepherding fromPapua New Guinea. A friend had gone there on a Peace Corps-like mission. Concerned for the lack of protein in the diet of the islanders, some people from a neighboring country had once tried to introduce sheep. “They had simply dumped…a thousand sheep into the provinces, providing no help whatsoever in how to care for them. The sheep all died.”
Anne’s friend and his wife tried a different approach. “They introduced a few sheep at a time into the school system, where the children were taught how to care for them and how to shear. The sheep grazed on the abundant grass outdoors all the school day, then the children shut them up in a barn at night at the school. By 1988, when [Anne] got there, there were small flocks of sheep in 65 different schools. Those children who showed a keen interest in shepherding were given a small flock of three ewes and a ram at graduation, so they could start their own flock.” (157) That was good shepherding.
Here’s what I’ve learned about good shepherding from Anne Priest: shepherds know their sheep. They go out of their way to accommodate the sheep. They do whatever it takes to help the sheep be the best sheep they possibly can be.
So, when Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, maybe that’s what he’s saying—that he knows his sheep (that’s us) and will do whatever it takes to help us be the best possible us we can be.
Which is all really great, right? It’s great to know that we are known by Jesus. It’s great to know that we are known by God. And if the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep, there’s a good bet the shepherd loves the sheep, especially if we go with the definition of love as “the power to act another into well-being.” Everything Anne Priest did for her sheep she did as a way of acting them into well-being. Dumping 28 lambs onBlue Islandon the brink of a brutal winter did not act those sheep into well-being.
So, we could take this metaphor for Jesus as shepherd and run with it. We could remind ourselves all over again that God loves us and will do whatever it takes to act us into well-being. We can bask once again in the good news that God has loved us, loves us now, and will always love us. But then what? Or to ask my favorite question: So what? So, Jesus knows us and loves us and lays down his life for us. So what? So God loves us and acts us into well-being. So what?
And by “so what?” I mean…so what difference does God’s loving you make in your life? I know that saying “God loves you” to many people is still news. A lot of people have never been told before that God loves them. It’s important to continue to proclaiming the “God loves you” message. There are many people who still long to hear those words.
But for those of us who know that and have experienced God’s love, there’s more. Once we receive God’s love and care, the next step is to respond to it in some way. That’s what the author of the first epistle of John is saying. Listen again:
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought also to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
For those of us who know God loves us and who know there’s a whole lot that needs doing in the world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, isn’t it? Where do we even begin? World hunger? Poverty? Human trafficking? Child sex trafficking? Political oppression in many countries? Wars…disease…illiteracy…global warming… If you’re like me, you want to love “in truth in action,” but don’t have a clue where to begin. Sometimes when I think about all that needs to be done in the world, I just want to scream like the person in that Edvard Munch paining. It’s too much!!!!!
“We know love by this, that “he laid down is life for us—and we ought also to lay down our lives for one another.” He laid down his life us; we should lay down our lives for others. Maybe that phrase gives us a clue. Maybe we begin loving others “in truth and action” by doing for them what God has done for us. Maybe we share love with others in the same way God has shared love with us.
That’s what Sara Miles did. I mentioned Sara a couple of weeks ago and am sure to mention her several more times in coming months. Her’s is a remarkable story. A leftist leaning agnostic journalist who also is a very good cook, one day Sara wandered into an Episcopal church inSan Francisco. When she received communion, Sara’s spirit was fed in a way she’d never before experienced. When she received the wafer and wine, she received God.
Finding God in being fed was such a powerful experience for Sara, she began feeding others. She set up a food bank at her church (and eventually at several other sites in the area). They served people—literally—from the table in the sanctuary. God had loved Sara—that is, God had acted her into well-being—by feeding her. She now acts others into well-being by feeding them.
So, how might you act others into well-being? In what specific ways has God’s love changed you? Might the answer to that question give you a hint as to how you might “love [others] in truth and action?”
Has God’s love fed you? Feed others.
Has God’s love sheltered you? Shelter others.
Has God’s love nurtured you? Nurture others.
Has God’s love healed you? Heal others.
Has God’s love helped you accept yourself? Help others accept themselves.
Has God’s love helped you make sense of life? Help others make sense of their lives—teach them, counsel them, ask them annoying questions.
Has God’s love helped you with your anger and addiction problems? Help others with theirs.
Has God’s love parented you? Parent others.
Has God’s love empowered you? Empower others.
As children of God, we have been shepherded well. Jesus is our good shepherd. The question now becomes, How might we become good sheep? Perhaps one way to become good—or at least better—sheep is to remember the ways in which God’s love has acted us into well-being and THEN to act others into well-being in the same way.
How has God acted you into well-being? Go and do likewise.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan (C) 2012
A reading from Psalm 23 and John 10:11-15
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.