I put it to you – you'd have to be pretty hard of heart not to find this a delightful, life-affirming sight. A sight so cute cannot fail to make us go a bit gooey, a bit sentimental.
But there's a problem with this. What I've described is at townie’s response to the sight of lambs in the fields. Only someone brought up in the city, I suggest, could get so sentimental. And today, I want to suggest that that kind of sentimentality can be harmful to us because it may distort our response to Christ.
Let me tell you of my only real experience of shepherding. When I was a student, I spent a month on Fair Isle, halfway between Orkney and the mainland of Shetland. I was there to practice being a minister, and it was a very good place to do it because, in such a small community, you very quickly become involved in everything that is going on.
Fair Isle is basically divided in two by a wall that stretches across the island. The people live on the south side of the wall and the north side, apart from the lighthouse, bird observatory and airstrip, is common grazing land. That’s where the island’s sheep live. Once a year, they are all gathered in, and I was there when it happened. To do this, every able person on the island walks right to the northern tip and then fans out in a long line stretching right across the island. They drive the sheep ahead of them towards the wall. Then the people at either side of the island start driving the sheep towards the sheep fanks in the middle of the island. Deftly, they all get penned in. Then people who know what they are doing wade in among them and howk out all the young male lambs that have been born that spring and summer. Lifting them up bodily, the shepherds apply a firm squeeze where it hurts with a tool a bit like a pair of pliers and castrate the lambs. The lambs let out a sound the like of which you've never heard and, I guarantee you, every man present winces a little. Then there is the shearing, a matter of physically wrestling every adult sheep to the ground, tying its legs and giving it a good scalping. Once sheared, each sheep is then released and it runs off back to the moorland in great indignation. At other times, sheep are gathered, put in crates and loaded on a boat and sent off for slaughter. This is the reality of sheep farming, of shepherding. I learned on Fair Isle that real shepherding is very far from the kind of pastoral, rural idyll that is sometimes depicted. It has nothing to do with cuteness, or sentimentality.
I say this because it is something most of us probably don’t encounter and have therefore forgotten. And so, when we hear and read passages such as our psalm today, and our Gospel reading, we do so through muffled ears and tinted eyes. Our image of the work of the shepherd, and of the relationship between shepherd and sheep, can be far too idealised. And why does that matter? It matters because when we apply that image to reading these passages, it may distort our understanding of them and consequently it may be harmful to our faith, because it can encourage too narrow a focus.
The image of sheep and shepherding is undoubtedly an important one in the Bible. Abraham is provided with a ram to sacrifice in place of his son Isaac. Jacob has extensive flocks. David is called from shepherding sheep to shepherding God's people as their king. Shepherds are among the first to hear of Christ's birth and he himself speaks of himself as a shepherd on a number of occasions. But if we allow ourselves tot narrow an understanding of the metaphor of shepherding, we are in danger of drifting into too narrow an understanding of our relationship with Christ and of the purposes of faith.
The problem is, it can all become too sentimental – perhaps a particular danger for urban people. We get caught up in the idea of being cared for and protected, of Christ the shepherd going to extraordinary lengths to look after us, to include us, to ensure we don’t get lost. And that’s good, that’s part of it, but it is not the whole story of the life of faith.
For a start, it lumps us together as fairly indistinguishable, not terribly individual and is not particularly active creatures. Sheep are by no means the intellectual giants of the animal world. If they get wandered or lost, it is not really their fault. It is because they are a bit stupid. That's not really the case with us. When we go astray, it is entirely our responsibility, and very often the consequence of our own conscious choices. So to identify ourselves too closely with the sheep in this metaphor for our relationship with Christ can lead to too great an abdication of responsibility, to seeing faith as something primarily for our benefit, for our comfort and protection. I think there is a whole lot more to it than that.
A question posed by the writer of the first letter of John struck me very powerfully when I read it last week. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” No one can have failed to have been horrified by the loss of life this week in the sea between Libya and Europe. All our powers of empathy and imagination cannot summon up what it must be like to be so desperate as to set off in a vastly overcrowded, leaky, open boat for a five day crossing of the Mediterranean. We cannot have any idea of the terror as a boat tips up, capsizes and hundreds are thrown in the water. From one boat on one night over 700 where drowned; 26 survived and only 24 bodies were recovered. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” What is Europe but a place and a people which has the world’s goods? It is the decisions of the governments of Europe, our own included, which have led to the deaths of these people whose choice was between certain death at home or possible death at sea.
The writer of this letter of John answers his question when he says, “Little children, let us love, not in words in speech, but in truth and action.” Fine words are not enough. Action is what shows what is really in our hearts, if the love of God abides in us.
This is a call not just to be sheep, not just to see faith as something which gives us comfort and protection. Faith makes us, not sheep, but shepherds. It calls us from passivity to activity. It takes us away from our own comfort by calling us to responsibility for others. God loves us, but we cannot be content to keep his love to ourselves. We must do as we are bidden and share it, not just in words or speech, but in action. That we in Europe, who have the world’s goods, must help those we see in need is just one example. I would argue that our whole lives, and all our politics, should be mindful of those in need, for God has made them our priority. The metaphor of shepherd and sheep can only go so far because sheep cannot become shepherds. That, though, is precisely what Christ asks of his sheep – that we become shepherds with him, rough and hard as that life and calling is.