All Saints' Episcopal Church

Claim Your Inner Sheep

 

Photo by Arnie Chou from Pexels

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known in the Church as Good Shepherd Sunday.  This Sunday we have in scripture images of Jesus as the gate for the sheep, Jesus as the shepherd who calls the sheep by name and saves them and leads them to pasture and to abundant life.  And if Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then this Sunday we get to claim our inner sheep.  

It can be hard to see ourselves as sheep.  It’s hard to admit that we need help, protection, and saving.  As a society that honors rugged individualism, we have become so unpracticed at asking for help that there’s a three-part article on WikiHow with step-by-step instructions on how to do it, complete with drawings.   

Maybe it’s hard to admit we need protection and guidance and saving because such admission makes us feel vulnerable.  Maybe it takes us out of the position of power.  Maybe it requires that we push aside the skepticism of our day and really trust that there is a loving goodness in the world that moves us forward.  Maybe it makes us feel like children, taking us back to a day when someone bigger than ourselves held our hand and guided us to where we needed to go, to places of safety.  And now that we’re older, we think, we should be the shepherd, not the sheep. 

That’s how things went in my own faith journey.  When I was young I claimed my inner sheep without any problem.  I believed whole-heartedly that I could not save myself and so I needed the protection and guidance of a shepherd.  I prayed over and over again that God would save me from being separated from God in the life to come; in other words, I prayed that God would save me from hell.  I didn’t know if there would be fire or brimstone there, but I knew it was a place I didn’t want to go.  And so I begged for a shepherd who would watch over me and guide me safely from this world to the next.   

As I grew older my theology changed.  I was no longer scared of hell, or of eternal damnation – the distance between the God I knew from my own experience and the idea of hell was just too great.  But when I lost that particular understanding of what salvation meant, I began slowly to lose my understanding of God as shepherd as well.  The image didn’t resonate as deeply with me.  After all, what did I need God to protect me from?  And, besides, as social justice became increasingly important to my faith, if anything I saw myself in the role of protecting others.  Somewhere along the line I went from being a sheep to being a shepherd.  I quit claiming my inner sheep. 

This is a possible trap of liberal Christianity.  Here I am speaking not of a Christianity that is liberal in the sense that it can live side-by-side with other religions and see everyone as equal and appreciate shades of gray: I’m talking about a Christianity that is liberal in the sense that it is individualistic and achievement-oriented.  Everything is up to me.  I can save and protect and empower myself – and others, too, for that matter. The thing is: this just isn’t true.  Whenever culture, ego, or skepticism sends us this message of self-sufficiency, it is, I believe, the voice of a false shepherd, the voice of a thief and a bandit. 

Here’s the truth: God is God, and I am not.  I cannot, by myself, save myself.  Some things can only come to me as gifts; I cannot earn them.   Life and love and the voice of the shepherd are some of these things.  I am a sheep, not a shepherd.  And there is tremendous grace in knowing this.  In fact, there is grace upon grace. 

Today’s gospel reading is actually part of a much longer story in which Jesus cures a man who has been blind form birth.  The Pharisees are angry that Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and they are angry that because of his healing acts people are beginning to believe in him.  The Pharisees call the man who has been healed so that he can answer their questions about Jesus.  When the man refuses to agree that Jesus is a sinner, the Pharisees drive him out of the synagogue.  Jesus hears that the man has been driven out and looks for him.  When Jesus finds him. he asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  The man answers, “And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.”  The man replies, “Lord, I believe.”  And he follows Jesus.  It is in this context that Jesus tells the story of the shepherd and the sheepfold. 

The man experiences grace when he is healed and able to see, and he experiences grace again when he realizes that he is a member of Jesus’ flock – a sheep who has heard and knows his voice, one for whom Jesus brings abundant life, one who has been saved by the healing power of Jesus’ love.  The man claims his inner sheep, and he receives what John describes earlier in his gospel as “grace upon grace.” 

This claiming of our inner sheep is what we sometimes call Easter faith.  Because when we trust in resurrection, we trust that we are the sheep and not the shepherd.  If there is anything the dead cannot do for themselves, it is to create for themselves the gift of new life, to bring themselves back to life.  Resurrection is always something that comes to us from outside ourselves; resurrection always exposes the lie that we are self-sufficient – when it comes to our own healing or to the healing of the world.  When we embrace resurrection, we understand that we are part of a picture and a grace and a love in the world that is greater than ourselves.  And that knowledge brings us so much freedom!  

There is a well-known prayer written by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw for the anniversary of the death of Oscar Romero (Archbishop of San Salvador), who (while celebrating mass) was shot and killed for speaking out against human rights violations.  I think it speaks to the distinction between sheep and the shepherd: 

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.  
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. 
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent 
enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. 
No statement says all that could be said. 
No prayer fully expresses our faith. 
No confession brings perfection. 
No pastoral visit brings wholeness. 
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. 
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 
This is what we are about. 
We plant the seeds that one day will grow. 
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. 
We lay foundations that will need further development. 
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. 
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. 
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. 
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an 
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. 
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master 
builder and the worker. 
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. 
We are prophets of a future not our own. [1]

Bishop Untener could just as easily have said we are sheep and not shepherds. 

This distinction doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of striving for social justice; it doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of speaking a word of life into the death that is poverty and prejudice and illness.  But when we realize that we are the sheep and not the shepherd, we do this work not relying on just our own resources and courage, but relying on the unlimited depth of God’s grace and protection and strength, as well as the grace and protection and strength of those around us.   

When we look to God and not ourselves, Isaiah tells us that we shall renew our strength, we shall mount up with wings like eagles, we shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:51).  Or in the words from the gospel of Matthew, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  

This Good Shepherd Sunday, let God’s grace rain down on you like rain – grace upon grace.  Don’t mistake yourself for the shepherd; claim whole-heartedly your inner sheep. 

[1] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.cfm.

Claim Your Inner Sheep
Scroll to top