Even when a sheep isn’t lost, it still might not quite be following the straight and narrow. In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the Temple authorities that when his sheep hear his voice, they follow. That is no doubt true, but the idea that sheep follow in lockstep, one behind the other, is just plain silly. Instead, sheep tend to follow the shepherd in an ever flowing mass of eyes, ears, and wool.
Despite 2,000 years of Christian leaders hoping to the contrary, this is image of sheep following a shepherd is the story of Christians following Christ. Sheep might wander this way to check the sweet clover. They might stray a bit in that direction, simply following the sheep in front of them. They can still hear the call of the shepherd, who gives them a lot more latitude to follow than one might expect. To keep the sheep generally heading in the right direction, the shepherd has appointed pastors and sheepdogs who walk along the edges of safety, making sure that no sheep deviates too far from the chosen path.
The pastor is not the shepherd. She does not choose the final destination nor the path. Her job is simply to help keep the sheep within the boundaries of safety as they move along their journey. There are times when the work of a pastor is heroic, saving sheep from certain danger can be exhilarating. Pastors and sheepdogs are vulnerable to danger, they walk along the edge of the known path. There are threats from snakes, bandits, even the occasional cliff’s edge, but the pastor, like the sheep, trusts the shepherd, and is committed to following where he leads. As a result, oftentimes, the work can be dreadfully repetitive, walking for days on end, unsure of where the shepherd is leading. If you are simply in it for the paycheck, there are days when the work won’t seem worth it, but for those who are invested in seeing the sheep all the way to their final destination, the walk can be seen as fruitful. Every step is one closer to the promised land, the eternal life promised by the shepherd. I am grateful today to be called a pastor and to walk with my sheep as we follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd.