One Big Happy Flock

Good morning. I had a feeling *this* would be our quiet Sunday. We have people on spring break, plus it’s just one week after a very big service with the new bishop, Matt Heyd. 

Of course we’re thinking of all our Jewish friends celebrating Passover this week coming up. I know this will be a profound year for them, so much different than last year at this time. Our hearts are with them.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, when every year we read these lovely lessons from Scripture--the 23rd Psalm and John’s Gospel. I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. I lay down my life for them.

It’s a lovely image, the shepherd and sheep, for many of us recalling Sunday School, and coloring sheets, little figurines and felt boards. I’ve populated our children’s corner with sheep-related things this morning, including some cute little toys I found this week. Why playing with sheep during church will teach our kids that they’re loved by God I’m not exactly sure, but it works. Right? I’ve said before that the shepherd and sheep is my earliest image of God and myself. I credit that with giving me a fundamentally loving sense of God.

And I want it to be so for our kids here, too.

Last week the bishop was here, and it got me thinking about how much this metaphor has shaped the church. You may have noticed that Bp Heyd carried with him a silver staff. It’s called a crozier. It reminds us of his role as shepherd of his people.

This wasn’t new to the church, or even to Jesus. The shepherd and sheep imagery goes back to the Old Testament and especially King David. He was an actual shepherd, a boy, out minding sheep, before he was called to greater things as king and shepherd of his new flock, the people of Israel. 

In the New Testament Jesus took up this image for himself, but also imparted it on his disciples. Jesus asked Peter to feed his sheep after Jesus’ departure, and that has been the responsibility of popes, bishops and priests ever since.

This image is so closely associated with clergy in the church that Roman Catholics call this Vocations Sunday. It’s when they honor those who’ve taken ordination vows, and try to recruit others to the priesthood.

“Pastor” in Latin, just means shepherd. Some of you come from traditions where the priests are called pastors. (“Priest” by the way, means elder, or “old man.” Go figure.)

“Pastoral care” is what we say to describe a priest’s caring role towards their parishioners. “Pastoral” from “shepherd.” 

There are always problems whenever humans occupy these vaunted roles. Jesus is the true shepherd. Human beings called to the priesthood or just the care of others haven’t always succeeded in being that loving, protective shepherd, we know that all too well. But Christ wished to have his representatives on earth and took a chance, knowing that some might actually live up to the calling.

But let’s talk now about the other side of the metaphor, the flock. It, too, goes back to the Old Testament when Israel was referred to as God’s flock. It was a favorite of the prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel. In the New Testament Jesus used the term for his disciples in Luke chapter 12: Fear not, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom [of heaven].

It wouldn’t be long before the early church used this to refer to a congregation of Christians, the flock, led by the bishop-shepherd. 

It’s not a herd. ”Herd” brings to mind herd mentality, the idea that we’re dumber together. Or Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd” to refer to the masses of undiscerning, uncritical, rule following yes-men.

Flock has a gentler sound, and meaning. It’s still about being part of a larger whole, but in the best of ways. We don’t always need to stand out, as individuals. 

In his memoir “Hitch-22” Christopher Hitchens wrote, and I’ve always loved this: “I’ve lost count of the number of memoirs by old comrades or ex-comrades that have titles like ‘Against the Stream,’ ‘Against the Current,’ ‘Minority of One,’ ‘Breaking Ranks,’ and so forth -- all of them lending point to Harold Rosenberg’s withering remark about ‘the herd of independent minds.’”

The truth is, when we walk through these doors on a Sunday, we’re reminded that we don’t need to be out in front, blazing our own path, standing out above the others, “breaking ranks.” :)

In fact, that’s what we come here not to do. 

I can think of few traditions that appreciate this more than ours. Our Book of Common Prayer is named after the importance we place on “common” as in, life in common. Saying the same things, moving in the same ways, being not singular but a body of people, and more than any of us would be by ourselves.

I enjoyed recently explaining to the confirmation kids that every part of our prayer book was written with the consideration of being able to say it together. The very words, phrasing, syllables, meter, the way the text looks on the page, all that stuff they’re learning in English class--everything was considered with a mind towards saying it together, in unison, with ease.

So please don’t be that person who rushes ahead so I can hear you standing out above the others. Or lags behind. Or says the prayers with a certain panache or alternate cadence. That’s like the sheep that wanders off causing a great amount of distress to the other sheep and distraction to the shepherd. 

 We’re a flock. Together. Not just in liturgy but in other ways. It only starts there. We pool our money. Our whole polity and the way we function is designed to emphasize our Common Life. That’s why you don’t pay for confirmation classes, or baptisms, or Church School. Everyone pays for those things. We all share in our kids’ formation. Just like we all share in the services of last rites to the elderly, or the investment in the choir, even though not everyone comes to the 10:30 to hear them, but other members of our flock do. Nobody pays for any one thing directly - it’s all of us together.

We’re a flock. We move together, we pray together, we say the creeds together. Under the imperfect earthly shepherds of your priests, and your bishop. But most of all, our true shepherd, Jesus, who loves us, guides and protects us, and calls us each by name. The Good Shepherd of the Sheep.