God's beloved people, let us pray together.
Dear Creator, Sustainer, Everlasting God of all, thank you for this time together to listen and to hear the words that are precious to each one of us-that you care for each of us. Call us by name and reach out to us in our time of need. Thank you for your presence and your assurance that each and every prayer is heard and each and every need is met in you. Be with us this day. In the name of your Son Jesus. Amen.
In today's world we seldom think about the gifts of sheep. We wear warm woolen clothes, sleep under soft, woolen blankets, eat rack of lamb or lamb chops on special occasions. Many have never seen a live sheep or a flock of sheep gathered together except in pictures or possibly at a children's petting zoo. We forget that this animal has been the staff of life for many civilizations for thousands of years.
In Jesus' time there were many shepherds in their community. These people were entrusted to keeping the flock safe and providing the bounty from the sheep for the nourishment and care of the community. Many times that put shepherds into a solitary life which took them away from the central core of their communities. Shepherds would come into the villages to reconnect with people after spending the majority of their time in the wilderness. This gave them plenty of time for solitude and thinking. Some shepherds became poets, musicians, writers. Still others learned the hard work of keeping the sheep in safety. Many times the villagers looked upon them as strange, rowdy, or silent. They appreciated their job but were wary of the worker.
What is the shepherd? What does the shepherd do? Why is this description used so many times in Scripture and what can we learn from it?
Let me tell you a story. This happened more than one time in the range wars of the western United States in the late 1800s. There was a shot and then another one and then another one. With each shot the man tied to the tree wept and cried out. There was nothing he could do. He was tied to a tree by those who would have him and his sheep destroyed. Another shot. Another death. Another sheep slaughtered and for what reason? What had they done? Where was the violation? After the flock had been killed, the shepherd was released. He was told to tell the story to others as a warning. If they persisted in coming onto land that was meant for cattle, their fate would be the same.
Exactly what does the shepherd do? We know it is not a 9-to-5 job. He is the one who follows the sheep, protects the sheep, leads them. The shepherd makes sure they have water to drink, grass to eat, and a safe place to sleep. In the West, this meant continual moving from place to place, pasture to pasture, to feed and rest and be renewed. A shepherd's life was one of solitude. He was gone for days, weeks, even months at a time. In the spring, he helped to deliver the lambs, kept away the predators, and walked or rode a horse across the great western landscape. His reward was the beauty of the sky, the clear waters of the streams, and encountering the whole creation as it unfolded in his gaze. He knew the land intimately. He also had to learn how to recognize the potential dangers that awaited him and his flock.
Sheep are interesting creatures. Many times we think of them as passive and cuddly; however, they are gregarious, cantankerous creatures. They like to stick together, and if one was lost, it was a serious issue. The shepherd had to take all of this into consideration each day as he moved the herd from place to place. He had to find grass, watch for wolves and coyotes, find water, and find a safe place to bed down for the night. The shepherd was the total caregiver. The sheep were well acquainted with the shepherd. They could recognize his voice and followed where he led them. His voice or tone of his voice could give them commands and they would listen. There was a strong bond built between the shepherd and the sheep. Shepherds hate to lose even a part of their flock.
In the story that Jesus told, the shepherd left behind the ninety-nine to look for the one. Does this make sense? One would think the opposite would be true. The shepherd would shrug his shoulders and be glad the majority of the flock was intact. However, God's mind is not our mind. The one was so important that ninety-nine who were safe and nourished were left in order to rescue the one. We don't know when the sheep was lost. It had been part of the flock. It wandered away and got into a situation it could not solve by itself. It was probably bleating loudly, the plaintive wail of recognition of its status-lost. There is no more pathetic situation than to be separated from the community. The potential of being killed, maimed, eaten or starved to death was very real.
Jesus uses this story to remind us of the times when we have been distracted by something and left the flock, only to find danger separated from the caring of the shepherd and the comfort of the community. The distraction may be profound. Losing a loved one, finding a new job, losing an old job, losing one's home, separation from loved ones, economic challenges-the distraction could be minuscule, being mesmerized by an illusion like the television, video games, entertainment, partying, too much work, too little time. When one finally looks up and recognizes that he or she is all alone, one panics. There is nothing like the feeling of being alone, abandoned, wandering in the wilderness, feeling that one is on the edge of a cliff ready to fall over into the pit. To be rescued in these circumstances is a miracle. God has promised to be with us through every circumstance, through every trial and tribulation, through the good times and in the bad times. God has promised to be faithful, even when we wander off into places unknown. It is a powerful promise. The one lost sheep was as important as the ninety-nine who were fed, nourished, and safe.
The one lost sheep can be us at many times of our lives. The one lost sheep will not be forgotten or forsaken. God will not turn God's back and be happy that the ninety-nine are OK. God is satisfied when every member of the flock is safe, fed, and well cared for. The one lost sheep will be rescued and restored to the community because the shepherd will not allow us to perish.
Just like the shepherd of the old West, Jesus was tied to a tree, nailed to a tree for us. Jesus placed himself between danger and us. Jesus is the caregiver, the one who provides living water, food, and a safe place.
He also witnesses the bullets that can kill us. He cries out in pain each time he sees one of God's children in pain. Jesus was free to tell the story, but it is not one of pain and despair but one of hope and love. The gifts of the sheep return to the community-warmth, food, challenge, companionship-all good things.
Remember what Matthew tells us: The Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
Thanks be to God.
Please pray with me.
Creator God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your willingness not to allow any of us to perish. We thank you for your kindness, your goodness, your love, and your grace. Amen.