There was a fascinating news piece this week about urban chickens. For years, Portland (Oregon) has limited back yard flocks to 3 chickens. The DC metro area still bans chickens or restricts them to minifarms, though some people are working to change that. In Portland, city regulators have gotten a bit more generous with variances over the years and now there are several hundred flocks with more than three birds. But the issue of what to do with hens that have passed their laying days, as well as old roosters, continues to vex their keepers. City dwellers turn their chickens into pets, and many become too attached to them to turn them into chicken soup. For those who have grown too fond of their egg producers, there are now several retirement ranches for chickens in the farmland surrounding Portland.
Chickens just might be more familiar to urbanites than sheep are these days. Even goats are encountered more frequently than sheep. These biblical images have become so distant or idealized that we have a hard time making sense out of what it means to be a good shepherd. Yet the imagery around shepherds is absolutely central to the biblical narrative. It includes the most familiar of psalms, extolling God as the shepherd who cares even for the dying sheep; it undergirds much prophetic language challenging kings and despots to care for the sheep in their care; and it is one of the most enduring images for Jesus, even though it’s been horribly sentimentalized.
Leaders are still thought of in shepherding terms – that is, after all, what pastor means – and we compare them either to Jesus or to the David the shepherd-king, whom Nathan confronted about sheep-stealing. Thinking of our fellow human beings as sheep is convenient when we want to focus on less than stellar intellectual gifts, and faulty shepherds earn our scorn, akin to what we reserve for those infamous wolves.
What is it about sheep? Undoubtedly it has something to do with the fact that human beings started to domesticate sheep ten thousand years ago. They are portable clothing factories as well as mobile stocks of meat and sometimes milk. They’re not as difficult to herd or keep penned in as goats, and they’re not quite so intelligent or such distinctive individuals, though a shepherd who’s never kept goats will tell you a different story. Sheep, and flocks of sheep, are more manageable – they can give shepherds a hint of being able to control a part of creation. There is a part of most human beings that relishes the thought of having a shepherd, and being the subject of another’s care. From shepherds of the Navajo Nation to the Druze of Palestine, and the highland sheep-keepers of Scotland or the Himalayas, human beings have had a complex and rich relationship with ovines for all of recorded history.
Jesus calls us sheep – and he calls us to be shepherds as well. The good shepherd calls us each by name, and those who hear his voice and follow find godly paths to walk in. John encourages us to respond in boldness, healing the sick, and caring for those in need – not just with words but in deeds. We’re challenged to become like the great good shepherd who simply offers his whole life for the sake of the sheep. That kind of self-offering seems far beyond any imaginable capacity of a chicken tender, even those who will ensure their flock has a good retirement pasture. This caring for sheep is a far more serious business, when the shepherd identifies so wholeheartedly with the sheep, even to the point of offering one’s life.
That is a radical challenge, but it is the kind of challenge that gives life vitality and urgency. We’re here to help heal a broken world, filled with hobbling, hungry, helpless sheep. We are ourselves some of those sheep. What does that halting helplessness look like, except the inability to see the suffering of our neighbor? One of the remarkable things about sheep is that they recognize faces – both human faces and those of their own kind, and they can remember them for years. They recognize individuals, and they can detect something about the state of their neighbors – like pain, illness, or fear.
Human sheep can lose that ability – we’re often blind to our neighbors, not seeing them or their suffering. It runs the gamut from nearly complete isolation from the poor, to a sloughing off of any sense of responsibility when some go hungry or sleep cold and rough. It’s being expressed in the horrific polarization we’re seeing right now – when some think it normal and righteous to keep filling barns while the hungry sit on the sidewalk.
Healing for all sorts and conditions of sheep – the overfed and the skinny, the fluffed up and the pinched, the bleating and the boasting – comes from being gathered into one flock. Jesus says he’s got more sheep who aren’t in the fold just yet, but he’s still working at it through his band of sheep-shepherds. Our health depends on the health of all the other sheep, and it doesn’t matter all that much whose name is invoked in their healing. Jesus’ health bill doesn’t need a Republican or a Democratic imprimatur – just do it, says Peter – heal the sick.
Our salvation – and that word at its root means healing – depends on letting our hearts be touched enough to feel compassion and then act on it. It begins with noticing the suffering of our neighbors, or the deprivation and blindness in our own souls. Where do you see it in your neighborhood, or around the world?
World Malaria Day was observed on Thursday – and a major initiative called Nets for Life has distributed 8.5 million nets in the last few years. The Episcopal Church has been part of that creative response, begun by a man who visited Ghana 8 years ago and noticed the suffering. Chris Flowers helped pull together an amazing consortium of business, banking, foundation, and church interests to launch Nets for Life. He probably wouldn’t use this language, but he’s been a very good shepherd for people in malaria country.
Yesterday this space hosted an interfaith service to celebrate 100 years of Girl Scouting. We heard from several girls and many faith leaders, all urging compassion and the courage to care for sisters. In this case, “sister” is generic – it applies to the sheep of all those different flocks Jesus talks about. We are sheep of one fold, and we are the keepers of our sister and brother sheep, whether white or brown or spotted, the ones with horns and the bald ones, the pregnant and the elders, the lambs and the rams. We’re meant to be God’s partners, fellow shepherds who flock together to care for the entire band, and for the pasture. We’re invited to join the good shepherd, leading by still waters, to green pastures, and spreading out banquets of peace, until there are no more enemies or foreigners, hungry or sick. That is the cause of our lives – will you lay down your life for this?
That may sound overwhelming or beyond us, yet it happens every time we choose to act for larger life, beyond self-preservation or self-satisfaction. Befriending the lost stranger, recognizing the dignity of another driver, voting for the common good, consciously using time or water – each is an opportunity to lay down our life, and to pick it up again as a shepherd. We have a choice: we can be sheep and shepherds, or we can be chickens scratching and clucking in the pasture.