Today I’d like to count sheep with you. What do you think – how many times does the word ‘sheep’, either in the singular or the plural, come up in the Bible? Any guesses? 186 times.
The word lamb is used even more times, 188 times. Then we have 165 rams and 10 ewes, that adds up to 549 times the ovine family is mentioned in the Bible.
I guess we are getting the sense that sheep, in whatever form, played a big role in the life of Biblical times, to the extent that sheep were used in a symbolic way to describe God’s relationship to God’s people. Jesus himself was declared the Lamb of God.
And today’s lessons give us a very good idea of the importance of sheep in ancient history of the people of Israel. We prayed with the words of the arguably most beloved Psalm of all times, Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In the story about King David offering to build a temple for God, God reminds David of his humble beginnings as a shepherd, and a man of the field. One could argue that shepherding taught David a thing or two about leading God’s people.
In today’s gospel, we hear how Jesus, weary and ready for some time of rest and renewal, looks at all those coming to him for healing and a word of forgiveness, and says, ‘They are like sheep without a shepherd’- people without guidance and care. And we get the sense that there must be some connection between sheep – and us.
Now let’s backtrack just a little. Apparently, sheep are not as important in our culture today as they were in Biblical times back in Middle East. Who here has ever seen sheep, I mean, in nature?
A follow-up question: who has ever seen a shepherd? This is another important word from the Bible, which appears 87 times. The trade of shepherding seems to be a profession on the brink of extinction, at least in the north-western hemisphere. The fact that neither sheep nor shepherds play a big role in our time and culture anymore may keep us from truly understanding what the whole sheep and shepherd analogy is all about. So I want to fill you in a little – and, by the way, I don’t claim to be an expert on sheep, but I did some research.
There is one flabbergasting detail about sheep, or, to be more exact, domesticated sheep. I read somewhere that sheep are the only domesticated animals which have basically lost all their feral instincts. A cow, for example, left to its own devices, may detect and find a water source. A sheep, on the other hand would not be able to find it, unless it stumbled into a water hole by accident. In a nutshell, sheep without a shepherd or without any safe enclosure might die. A single sheep is even more prone to perish, since sheep are herd animals and need the protection and guidance of the flock. The good shepherd going after the one sheep in Jesus’ famous parable about the lost sheep knows it’s a life or death situation for the sheep. That sheep is truly lost.
According to the Bible, we are like sheep, and being a sheep means following the shepherd, as if our life depended on it. For what happens if we don’t? Well, we are what Jesus calls sheep without a shepherd. Lost and confused, mindless and even destructive – a sheep that isn’t watched chomps up everything that tastes good, including flowerbeds and the tender shoots coming up from the fields. Do we like to hear that? Probably not.
We may like Psalm 23, the psalm we prayed this morning, so much because here we have an idyllic image of a personal shepherd, someone who takes care of me personally, who feeds me and carries me on his shoulders. We may like the idea of the pampered sheep. But that’s just one aspect of being a sheep, a child of God.
That whole idea of actually following the shepherd, and of sticking with the flock, even though we may not necessarily like the way it is headed, can be very difficult, especially in a day and age when individual freedom and expression is emphasized so much.
Some sociologists have said that it is actually so much harder for our kids today, kids like little Esin, who will be baptized here in a little bit, to grow up and find their way than it was for us – because the world has gotten si much more competitive. We admire the leaders, right? We want our kids to be leaders. We train our young ones to be leaders. And we put an enormous pressure on them by doing that, as we want them to stand out and be special. And, don’t get me wrong, every child is special and wonderful – but what if he or she is not exceptional in any particular way? There needs to be a place – and validation and support – for people who are not exceptional.
I would like to argue that it may be even more important to raise followers, people willing to be part of the flock, and an entity where individuals depend on each other, protect each other, and help each other. If everyone is a leader, but there is no group to follow and support, we go off in a million or more different directions, alone, and don’t get anything done that’s good for the whole of society. And one might argue that we are already in that age, when people rather look out for themselves than pay attention to the need of the group – or society – in its entirety. An age when many of the weaker ones fall through the cracks. And this doesn’t sound anything like the visions we have of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of peace and justice.
How is it that so many people seem wary and weary of following someone else, or buying into an ideology? I think what contributes to that is the fact that, too many times in history, we have seen how following someone or something blindly has led to disaster. And, yes, we need to be careful and apply our good judgment. But in the end, we got to follow something.
Now this distrust of following also extends to the church. It is no secret that most churches in the northern hemisphere are not doing too well these days, and that more and more people seek meaning for their lives outside of faith and faith institutions.
And yet there still is a longing for some sort of protection, a God who looks out for us and protects us. We want and need this for ourselves – and we want this for our children. That’s why we bring them to the baptismal font, like Esin today. And the baptismal verse you, Lindsay and Corey, chose for Esin is a beautiful example of our longing for someone who walks with us, guides us, and encourages us, like a good shepherd: Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9).
But baptism is about more than just entrusting a child to the care of God, the good shepherd. Through baptism, Esin will become a part of the flock – God’s church which transcends time and space. Esin will be part of a community where people look out for each other and help each other. And that may be St. Matthew’s, but it also may be any other community in this world, where people come together in the name of Christ. Esin will always find a home with God, no matter, where he ends up on his journey in life. That’s one of the beautiful promises of baptism.
But baptism also requires Esin and all of us, for that matter, to follow – to follow the good shepherd, God, who has our best interest in mind, individually and collectively. And that’s why you as the parents and the sponsor will make the promise today to raise Esin in the Christian faith and bring him to church – so that he gets an idea who this God is who is his shepherd – who is with him always so that he doesn’t need to be afraid. And to introduce him to all his brothers and sisters in the faith who promise to walk with him and help watch out for him. In Christ, we all become family – and we all know how important family is.
Baptism reminds all of us that we are embraced as God’s children, and are called to be the sheep of God’s flock. To be a child of God – to be a lamb, a sheep – means to be part of something that’s greater than us and our immediate environment. It means going in the same direction, following the same goal. And the ultimate goal is: to be the body of Christ in this world, challenging, loving, healing, forgiving – and thus help bring about the kingdom of God on earth. As part of the flock, and with Christ as our shepherd, we can do amazing things. Our life – the collective life of God’s creation – may depend on it.
Thanks be to God that we will receive Esin as a new member of this flock today – someone to make the body of Christ stronger and help it be God’s healing and loving presence in this world.
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