The Fourth Sunday of Easter always brings us one of the “Good Shepherd” Gospel readings. I recall from seminary days that one of my classmates disliked being compared to sheep—he thought they were ugly and smelled. (I presume he’ll take his complaint “higher up,” since Jesus seemed to find it an apt metaphor!)
My own experience of sheep was always an abstract one until several years ago, when my inner-city parish set up an outdoor nativity scene in the church courtyard, complete with a flock of six sheep.
As the sheep were unloaded from the van that brought them to our neighborhood, I immediately began thinking of possible sermon options. I imagined the sheep responding eagerly to my voice at feeding time. I began calling out their names (conveniently located on tags around their necks), and looked forward to recognizing them without the need for name tags. And, of course, I silently pledged to devoutly go in search, should any of them escape and get lost in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, none of that happened. I did discover that the sheep did not respond to their names, but they did come running every time I made an appearance in the courtyard. Why? Sheep are always hungry, and come running when anyone who remotely resembles the guy with the food arrives at the nativity!
I did get a few laughs out of my congregation, at the expense of our staff member who had the care and feeding of the sheep in his job description. He, in turn, provided me with a “shepherd’s staff” to use. (Don’t tell my archbishop!)
After three years of hosting sheep in my churchyard, I still can’t claim to be the “Good Shepherd.” I suppose I will leave that job up to you know who!
But, I have gotten some insights into what it means to be “part of the flock.” Those sheep, around the nativity are dependent on us for the few weeks that they are our guests. Without someone to feed them, keep them enclosed, provide a stable for shelter, they would fall prey to the “wolves” of the inner city—or at least the elements. So I can claim, at least, that I now understand just a bit better what John writes in the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: