It is my favorite tv commercial of all time. A group of cowboys gallop across the screen on their horses, dust flying everywhere, whips snapping in the air, yelling at each other as they try to guide the herd across the dusty plains.
Then you notice the herd, and suddenly you realize why these herders seem to be having a particularly difficult time. They are not herding cows; they are herding – or attempting to herd – cats.
Despite the herders’ attempts to round them up and get them going in the same direction, cats are spread out and going where they please. Some suddenly stop to bathe. Another turns around to chase a butterfly, one finds a sunny rock on which to nap.
I have no memory of what product this commercial was trying to sell, but the imagery has stayed with me. I’ve been known to say that being rector of St Dunstan’s is a lot like herding cats.
Fortunately, I like cats, as anyone who has seen our resident cat, Dunstan, take over my office knows.
That old commercial came to my mind this week as I read the scripture lessons for today. Every year the fourth Sunday of the Easter season is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The biblical lessons dwell on one of the most well-known images of God and Jesus, the shepherd.
Jesus always spoke in the imagery of his day, and the mostly rural and agricultural people who were his first listeners were well acquainted with the work and ways of sheep and shepherds.
The image still holds true for us today, but my guess is that most of us do not have first hand knowledge of the lives of shepherds and sheep, or any kind of herding tasks. It doesn’t help that sheep have a reputation of not being the smartest of animals, and perhaps not the beasts with which we would like to compare ourselves.
Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor had those ideas about sheep, so was delighted when she met someone who grew up on a Midwestern sheep farm, who assured her that sheep are not dumb at all.
That’s an ugly rumor spread by cattle ranchers, she was told.
Sheep and cattle have decidedly different personalities and traits. The sheep farmer says that cows are herded from the rear by cowboys with cracking whips.
That way of herding does not work with sheep. If a cowboy on a horse came cracking a whip behind a flock of sheep, the sheep would run to get behind him. Sheep prefer to be led.
You push cows, the farmer said, but you lead sheep. They will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first.
The shepherd’s job is to lead the way, showing the flock that everything is okay.
Taylor also learned from her friend that sheep develop total trust in their shepherd. The shepherd can walk through a sleeping flock without waking a single sheep. But if a stranger enters the fold, pandemonium ensues.
Sheep also come to know their shepherd’s voice and call. In Palestine today it is still possible to see a scene that has changed little in the 2,000 years since Jesus’ day.
Bedouin shepherds bringing their flocks home from a day of grazing will often join up with friends, the sheep from many different flocks mingling together at a watering hole. When it’s time to leave the shepherd merely calls and his sheep follow.
The sheep know their shepherd’s voice and will follow only him.
Without a shepherd, the sheep are at risk – in danger of being lost, without nourishment, and vulnerable to attacks or being led astray.
From other Bible stories we know that the sheep have good reason to trust their shepherds. Jesus compares himself to the shepherd who will leave a flock of 99 sheep to go search for the one that is missing. The shepherd protects the sheep, finds the lost, binds up the injured, makes sure that food and water are at hand.
The good shepherd is willing to risk his own life to protect his flock.
But who is in Jesus’ flock?
One would think that religious leaders would surely be in. But in today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the religious authorities who ask if he is the Messiah that the reason they don’t know is because they are not part of his flock.
“The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”
Those can be chilling words, which have sometimes been used – or perhaps misused – to say that only the elect are true followers of Jesus. Some churches make that the very core of their identity – that only a select few are truly part of Jesus’ flock, that Jesus’ promise of eternal life is only available to them – the pure, the elect, the true believers.
You won’t find that kind of interpretation in the Episcopal Church too often. We are a church full of what Rachel Held Evans called “doubt-filled believers.”
As Taylor describes it, this is the way most of us believe: “valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get out of bed on others.
“Since we believe in what we cannot know for sure, our belief tends to have a certain lightness to it, an openness to ambiguity and a willingness not to be too sure about everything.
“Our belief is less like certainty than like trust or hope. We are betting our lives on something we cannot prove, and it is hard to be very smug about that.
“Most of the time the best we can do is live ‘as if’ it were all true, and when we do, it all becomes truer somehow.”
Taylor adds that “just because we believe does not mean that we are not afraid of what might happen to us; it just means we believe we know who will be with us when it does…We belong to the flock not because we are certain of God, but because God is certain of us, and no one is able to snatch us out of God’s hand.”
The shepherd who will leave a flock to find the one stray sheep is not going to exclude us from the flock because our beliefs are not sure enough or pure enough.
We are all part of the flock. The shepherd knows each and every one of us, and will call us and search us out until we learn to follow him.