2020 Easter II – Herd Instincts

Postulant Ken Kubo
26 April 2020

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.St. John 10:11-12

As you may have assumed from the readings today, Easter II is sometimes termed “Good Shepherd Sunday.” When you look back at through the Bible, that particular occupation shows up frequently. The descendants of Adam were frequently herdsmen, starting from the get go with Abel, whose offering found favor with God (and, as you recall, not with his brother). Abraham and Isaac had herds, although God provided a ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. Jacob and his sons allegedly spent all of their days in the fields with sheep. Moses tended the flocks of the Midianites and found it an honorable duty even after life as a Prince of Egypt. David had to be called in from the flocks to be picked for giant-slaying duty. His many times removed descendant (on the human side) on the other hand, was the son of a carpenter which was both a more respected artisanal trade as well as being quite a bit less dangerous.

Remember that being a shepherd meant being ready to defend the flock against predators. Flocks typically were free ranging (and antibiotic free), which meant that they grazed in the wild. It was the shepherd’s job to make sure that the flock all made it back each day, when wolves were themselves just looking to survive by making sure that only most of the flock made it. David did not prep his sling technique with the intention of a Philistine target – his aim could have made the difference between the life and death for one of the flock or even himself. Shepherds were the first line of defense and warning.

The fact that the job itself existed tells you that flocks were important; critical the prosperity and even survival of a family, tribe, or settlement. In modern parlance, sheep get kind of a bad rap, despite the intrinsic value of wool fabric, pecorino and other sheep cheeses, and the occasional lamp chop. To be a sheep is to be a follower with no independent will. Og Mandino wrote, “I am not a sheep waiting to be prodded by my shepherd.” (The Greatest Salesman in the World, Scroll 3). At the same time, sheep are also characterized as having too much independence and not enough wisdom. “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6) Perhaps sheep are characterized by doing exactly what their tender doesn’t want – sticking when they should be moving and wandering in different directions when they should be staying. If you think about it, it gets back to the ovine equivalent of Original Sin – my will not thine be done or, more simply, baa humbug to you. However, this misses the point a bit, because it looks at a single sheep alone. That’s exactly what wolves are trying to do when they attack – to scatter the herd so that they can pick them off one by one. One sheep by itself is in danger of being prey, but the flock taken as a whole is a wall of wool, armed with lots of pointy bits, and a flock with a skilled shepherd to keep them united is more than a match for the threat. The world and its Prince, like wolves, are always circling around us, using temptation or fear or negativity to try to scatter us so that we become lost in the Fallen creation. Theirs is the voice saying that we are but sheep, and we should stray because we don’t need a shepherd to tell us what to do. And our response is that we are together moving towards a better place, led by Our Shepherd because He knows the way, and all expectations to the contrary, I am delighted to stop and ask Him for directions.

“In death’s dark vale I fear no ill with thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still, thy cross before to guide me.” – Henry Williams Baker

The shepherd protects the flock with sling and rod and staff, driving off those who would do it harm. This keeps them safe and together. But the shepherd also must know where the flock should head, where the next pasturage is or whether the flock should turn towards home. Sheep dogs have been essential in keeping flocks together and getting them moving in a common direction. Remember, though, that in Biblical times, dogs still hadn’t earned great repute, so there had to be other ways to turn the herd. When one of my former campus leaders wanted to close up our facility and move the business to Colorado, he stated that he didn’t need to try to move everybody – he just needed to figure out who the respected, influential senior staff were and convince them to move and the rest of the herd would follow. He might have had a little more success if he hadn’t finished with “just like finding the female goats.” So I’m still happily working here in California, but the technique does work. These influential first-among-equals in the herd are sometimes called “bellwethers” (from the old days when you would actually place a bell on the lead sheep). The shepherd primarily guides the bellwethers and watches for strays. Our Shepherd has provided the flock with guides chosen from within, called with a vocation; yes, beginning with the example of Our Lord, sending His disciples even as He had been sent, and down through our bishops, priests, and deacons who follow where the Shepherd leads and themselves model the path for the rest of the flock. Their job is to help us understand the path and where we’re going, so that we do not follow blindly but of our God-given free will. As God’s creations, making our way through God’s creation, together we walk the path our Lord shows us, trusting to the power of the Spirit to keep us from error, like a spiritual sheep dog but hopefully a bit less nippy.

The old saw runs that children should be seen and not heard. As of Quasimodo Sunday, you embrace the faith as if you were a child, and it should be your faith and practice to be, in fact, seen as part of the herd. The blessed company of all faithful people spans millennia. As a flock, we can circle around and protect the weak and lift up those who stumble. We can support each other so that despair and darkness cannot scatter us and pick us off in isolation. This is our spiritual “herd immunity.” And we know that even in the darkest and loneliest of times, when human connections fail to keep us from straying into danger, our Good Shepherd will carry His light into the darkness and peril to find us and bring us back to safety. The Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, and there is no greater love. Regardless of the value the world sets on us, when you look at our lives through heaven’s eyes, each of us is held precious. Stay close in spirit, even though physically apart in these times, and take strength and comfort from being a part of something much bigger than yourself, guided to safe pastures and led by the Cross of a loving Shepherd.

O most merciful God, thou Great Shepherd, protect and guide us through all our days. Give us humble hearts that we may heed your counsel and cleave ever to your paths.  Abandon us not in our times of trial, but be swift to seek us out, that we may not die but live ever sheep of your fold, lambs of thy flock, sinners of thy redemption.