Recently I was visiting with a friend who has a sheep herding dog. Being a church person, my mind went to that very scriptural image of the sheep. From there I was off and running considering Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with her dog. (Please don’t think me heretical. You have to admit it was a logical train of thought.)
Maybe you’ve watched dogs herd. They race from one side of a flock to the other, nipping at the heels of stragglers, corralling more adventurous sheep who are heading who knows where. These dogs’ goal is admirable. They keep the flock together and bring them to the fresh pasture and water sources that will sustain them. They protect the sheep from predators. They ensure their future. Even in our not very agrarian society, the 23rd Psalm that likens us to the sheep that the Lord will shepherd still speaks to us of this comfort and hope. But to accomplish their tasks, herding dogs are some pretty in-control animals.
I began to wonder how sheep stayed safe before they were domesticated. After some investigating I learned that within flocks of wild sheep there were “wise” sheep – elders of a sort. These were the animals who through knowledge gained by experience would warn the others of danger and guide them along well-worn paths to historic pastures and water holes. The lambs and frisky young played a role as well. In their gamboling about, it was they who might discover new places to graze.
The leadership was shared from within the flock and was for the benefit of all the sheep. It was not for the welfare of just some of them, much less any single one. And it was the entire flock that was protected and brought to sources of nourishment where, together, they could thrive.
If we listen to our scriptures it is clear that, as a leader, Jesus was no dog. He led from within the community – fully one of us – as he drew on internal wisdom. He was more like a sheep elder. And he called us to go and do likewise…to lead our flock (the human community in its context – this earth) to Life!
As I write this we have just marked another Earth Day. This social movement, while not begun in the incubator of the church, has much to say to us who follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd. It reminds us that God has charged us to tend this earth – to shepherd its potential for Life that we find everywhere from the tiniest microbes to the largest plant and animal species. It reminds us that Jesus accepted death so that we might have Life, not just in the world to come, but here and now – and he showed us that the way to the Life that God wills for us is the non-violent life.
Our scriptural writers had only a fraction of the knowledge we have about how Earth “works” – this amazing web of interdependence with all parts functioning in harmony. But you and I do have that knowledge – knowledge we ignore to our peril – not just the peril of our world, but also the peril of our souls. Shepherding, as Jesus showed us, is spiritual work.
We often talk in the church about our call in Genesis to be good stewards of the earth. To be those good stewards, though, we must begin to shepherd one another. Living as Jesus lived, each of us must shift our concern from ourselves and those we love to that Whole of which we are a part. We must widen our perception to include not just our own species but every single organism that makes up this web upon which you and I are dependent – right down to the tiny microbes we can’t even see.
And using that knowledge of how God’s good creation works and embracing fully our roles as stewards, we must each rise up, not just to live our own lives in harmony with the rest of creation, but we must also lead our human flock toward Life. This is our deep spiritual calling in this time when the very environment on which our common life depends is at risk.
Setting ourselves aside is not easy for most of us, but it is what Jesus showed us how to do. We are called to give our lives for the sake of God’s world. The beauty of that, though is because we are not separate but are part of this Whole, dying to self is how we will thrive. In this era more than ever, understanding our connectedness and, as wise shepherds, leading one another toward the Life that will sustain us all is our sacred task.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.