Monday, April 26, 2010

Sheep and Shepherd: A sermon by Dr. Christine Camann, DVM

This sermon was preached by Lutheran Congregational Deacon Dr. Chris Camann at St. Luke's ELCA Lutheran Church on Easter 4, 2010. It contains information that all pastors and priests need to know.

When I was in veterinary school one of our professors, who is a world-renowned goat expert, recited a poem for us entitled “Woolly Bleaters” which goes like this:

A farmer told me long ago,
he hated sheep—said I, “Why so?”
“All sheep are woolly bleaters,
time-consuming turnip-eaters,
whose one ambition is to try
to find a different way to die.
All my working life I’ve tried
to stop this ovine suicide,
but living isn’t in their nature.
A sheep’s a Kamikaze creature.”

All kidding aside, although sheep will certainly eat turnips, much of the rest of this clever rhyme, as well as many of the other things you often hear about sheep, are simply not true, just as many of the broad generalizations you often hear about teenagers are not true. I have found that the more you know about sheep, the better you can understand many of the Biblical references to them, especially when humans are compared to them. So, to promote better understanding, I would like take this opportunity to debunk some of the more popular myths about sheep.

First, all sheep do not look alike. There are very distinct differences in appearance between breeds in terms of general body size and shape, coat color, wool type, and whether or not the face is “open” (meaning it is covered only by short hair) or “closed” (meaning it is covered by essentially the same type of fleece as the rest of the body), etc. but even within a single breed no two sheep look exactly alike--not any more than any two people look exactly alike.

Second, sheep are not stupid. You may think they all look alike, but they are smart enough to know that humans don’t all look alike. Recent research has confirmed that sheep can indeed recognize and remember human faces, as well as voices, so even if you don’t remember a particular ewe’s face—guess what? She may remember you!

Let me repeat: Sheep are not stupid. However, they do think like sheep. Why should this be so surprising? Don’t expect them to read a newspaper, plot to overthrow the government, protest lack of affordable healthcare, or eagerly run into the new barn you just spent tens of thousands of dollars building for them. They have no interest in politics—unless it is the politics of attaining a desirable place at the feed trough—and although you may think that the new barn is just perfect, they think it is too new to be trusted. The floor may feel slippery. The lighting may cast frightening shadows on the walls. They may not recognize the new waterers. The new barn certainly doesn’t smell as though it has ever housed sheep before, and some of the smells associated with the building process, or the builders themselves, may be downright intimidating. In comparison, the old barn, despite its shortcomings, is a familiar, safe, and welcoming structure—one that we humans might describe as “homey”.

Third, only rams have horns. Wrong! There are breeds of sheep that have horns, and breeds of sheep that do not have horns which are referred to as polled), and there are even some sheep that have multiple sets of horns, but among the horned breeds of sheep, both ewes (females) and rams (males) have horns, and both learn to use them. A number of years ago I was called out to one of my clients’ farms on an emergency basis to deal with two horned Dorsets who had gotten their beautiful curved horns “locked” together. The owner was quite embarrassed to have to call me, but she and her husband had tried repeatedly to separate them with no success. After administering a little sedative medication to the two sheep I trimmed off the tips of the interlocked horns, freeing them from their entrapment to each other. Only then could the owner get a good enough look at their faces and their ear tags and positively identify them. As she opened her notebook to enter this event in their medical histories she began to laugh, “No wonder they locked horns! They’re mother and daughter!” So it’s not just rams that have horns.

Most of the other things I hear people say about sheep have to do with their behavior. These include such things as: sheep lack initiative, they’re boring, they’re not very playful, they’re skittish, they all want to do the same thing at the same time. If you asked sheep about human behavior they might describe it as follows: people work too hard for things that aren’t really important, they’re unpredictable, they run around a lot and and get excited about playing and watching dumb games involving a variety of objects they call balls for no good reason, they’re not smart enough to be afraid and stay away from things that could seriously hurt them, and every one of them wants to be “different”.

What we have here are two very different patterns of behavior, which are actually very well suited to the two broad groups of species that practice them: the prey species and the predator species. The prey species, such as sheep, behave in such a way as to not attract predators. They are cautious. For prey species, there is safety in numbers. If any one member of the group “sticks out” for any reason, that individual is more likely to be noticed and picked out by a hungry predator. It’s not good for one sheep to be standing off alone munching grass while the others are all lying down together.

For prey species of mammals, physical touch is considered dangerous, because it often means that you are about to be some other animal’s lunch. Once a cow or goat or sheep has licked her newborn dry, she has very little direct physical contact with it except perhaps while it is nursing, and when the young of these species play together, they don’t wrestle with each other. They hide and play chase. Their play behavior rehearses attack avoidance. They learn to be constantly alert for signs of possible danger around them, and to try to make themselves invisible to anyone and anything that might pose a threat.

On the other hand, predator species handle their young a lot—often picking them up and holding them, moving them from one place to another, and disciplining them when they get too rough with each other. When predator species play they stalk, pounce, nip and wrestle with each other—practicing the skills they will need to hunt and kill, daring each other to do these things better, faster, harder, and fearlessly.

For both groups, developing superior behavioral skills as prey or predator species also enables individuals to rise to higher ranks in their respective social orders. For males, this usually means more breeding opportunities, and for females the possibility of being more selective in their choice of mates, so mastering species-appropriate behavior has its advantages not only in terms of individual status, but also in terms of perpetuating those genetics that favor this behavior within the population. The characteristic behavior patterns of each group help them to live reasonably safely in nature given their limitations and their needs.

So much for nature. Enter humankind, and domestication. Have we humans forced animals to live peaceably with us? Have you every tried to force a 1400 lb cow to do anything? Early in the process of domestication it was as though an unwritten contract was drawn up and accepted by both parties: mankind would provide necessary feed, water and protection for some of the prey species and in exchange those animals would be willing to live according to man’s purposes for them.

With domestication, then, came the development of shepherds and other animal caretakers. There’s more to being a good shepherd than merely herding the sheep. Herding them is a means of moving them from one place to another so that the needs of the flock—food, water and protection—can be met. This is the shepherd’s job.

In the early Old Testament stories involving shepherds, it is understood that shepherds spent all of their time with the sheep. This was not a 9 to 5 job. That is why owners of large flocks might occasionally lose track of exactly where their animals and shepherds were—they weren’t necessarily checking in every evening. As populations became less nomadic, sheep were often taken out to graze distant fields during the day, and brought back into communal sheep folds (which offered some protection, often in the form of stone walls) at night. The next day each shepherd would lead his sheep out of the fold, so it was necessary for each shepherd to be able to recognize his sheep, or vice verse. When Jesus told the Jews gathered in the temple in Jerusalem that they did not believe because they were not his sheep, saying, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I’m sure they understood exactly what he meant, whether they wanted to believe it or not.

A college classmate and friend of mine maintains a small flock of sheep for use training her dogs in herding, which has become a popular dog sport these days. Although her dogs—Belgian Tervurens—are a member of the herding group of dog breeds, and in fact are good at herding sheep, they are not particularly good sheepdogs, or shepherds. Those who train and use working stock dogs will tell you that the best way to raise them is with the livestock for which they will be responsible, so that they begin to see them as their own. My friend’s son has raised a few goats as 4-H projects over the years, often keeping them with the sheep. One of those goats once proved what it meant to be a good shepherd. When a neighbor’s two small dogs came to call and jumped the fence to attack the sheep it was the goat—not the Tervs--that leapt to his feet and positioned himself between the attacking dogs and the sheep, thus saving the lives of those sheep. He let the two dogs tear himself apart rather than allowing them to injure the sheep. My friend arrived home from work to witness the end of this bloody scene. The neighbor’s dogs fled, the goat collapsed and died sometime afterward, but the sheep were unscathed.

The best shepherds are the ones that are raised with the sheep. They are the ones who know the sheep best, and who understand their fears, their needs, their joys and their suffering better than anyone else. This is how Jesus, the Lamb of God, became such a good shepherd.

In the 23rd Psalm we read,

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you art with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.”

The Psalmist acknowledges that death, evil and enemies still surround the sheep, and yet they are not afraid.

It’s not easy being sheep. Just having a shepherd doesn’t make life easier for them. Trusting the shepherd for sustenance and protection is a challenge, because the presence of the shepherd doesn’t blind the sheep to the hazards surrounding them.

But it’s especially not easy being sheep when you don’t think you really are or even ought to be sheep, and that’s a large part of our problem. For some reason, we like to think that we are a predator species—the hunters, not the hunted—but is that the truth? Isn’t that what usually gets us into trouble—insisting on our own way instead of remembering God’s covenant with us? We humans envision ourselves as more akin to the Lion, the King of the Jungle, the ultimate predator, than to the Lamb. We pride ourselves on our rugged individualism, our ingenuity, the fruits of our labor… Are we so easily deceived? Who is the ultimate victor? Is it a Lion or a Lamb who is at the center of the throne in today’s reading from Revelation?

Whose voice is it that we recognize?

Is it the roar of a lion, or the gentle, inviting voice of God who came into this world in the form of a powerless infant so that he could be raised as a lamb among his sheep? His works on earth testified to his oneness with God, and as if that was not convincing enough, he went to the cross to be slaughtered for us, by us. He died and rose again to give us the gift of eternal life, so that we will never perish, and no one will snatch us out of his hand. Dorcas, God’s servant, received this gift. The writer of Revelation wrote about his vision of it. But perhaps most exciting is that we can experience it ourselves each day as we listen for and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us into an abundant life built on radical trust in him. Thanks be to God! Christ is Risen!

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