Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.
I went down to the dog park this morning with Molly and Sam. The weather here is beautiful, and there was a nice but not overly large collection of dogs playing happily together. Sam, as usual, was the biggest dog around, and Molly, as usual, was the most popular. White Dog Mom and Dad took an interest in my two, and we chatted amiably. I was checking my cell phone for the time, trying to figure out how many more minutes we could spend enjoying the sun and the convivial atmosphere, when I heard White Dog Mom say, “That dog is alone.”
Sure enough, there was a grey-muzzled black lab mix circling the dog park, on the *outside* of the fence. Two sides of the park are wooded, and one end is the parking lot, but the other long side is a very busy street. I have a morbid fear of car vs. dog accidents, and Lone Dog was too close to the road for my comfort. I made an attempt to get him to come to the gate, but he ran around to the wooded side, where he seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly. White Dog Dad followed Lone Dog along the fence and tried to tempt him to the gate, but that was a no go. I called the city and asked if Animal Control would come to pick him up. We could see he had tags, but he just wouldn’t come close. White Dog Mom and I wondered if Lone Dog just didn’t like men, and she went to talk to him through the fence. Moments later, she had him just inside the first gate and we found two phone numbers on his tag. I made the call. The first number had no answer, but a young woman answered the second. “Do you have a dog named Hooch?” “No, but my mother does. Why? Do you have him?”
Hooch, meanwhile, was having a fine old time roaming the park and reading his pee-mail. When the Human Sister of Hooch arrived, she told me that he is quite the escape artist and was once found riding at Big Hospital riding the elevator up and down!
Last night at Bible Study we spent a long time talking about how shepherds were regarded in Jesus’ time (not very highly) and about the qualities of sheep (not very bright, inclined to get off course, prone to making their mistakes in a group by following the wrong leader–okay, tasty, too, but that doesn’t help to make the point here…), and finally I asked, “In our modern culture, who are the sheep?” Someone offered up, “The homeless?” Someone else wondered, “The poor.” And then someone said, “It’s us!” Yes, yes.
All we like sheep have gone astray. We are always in need of help keeping to the right paths. And, really, in many circles in 2005, Jesus (and what we Christians have made of him) is not held in much higher regard than those first century shepherds. Churches want to take our money; churches are a place where people get hurt; churches are not valued by society.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
All we like sheep have gone astray. All those statements about churches are both true and false. I always feel awkward when people ask me what they should pledge or what kind of financial commitment the church expects. In my church, most of the budget is me! I value my work and hope that others do as well, but when you come right down to it, that’s the part that is hard to say. Some churches expect a lot and they lay it right out there. Some are afraid to ask for anything at all. The first church asked for everything. How did we get to the point where we take what we can get?
I’d say it’s because we’re too much a part of this culture. In America we’re supposed to fend for ourselves, not share things in common. And that is strange when you consider the number of utopian societies that tried to establish themselves on these shores. I wonder how long those 3000 who were converted on the first Pentecost managed to keep living that way together? They believed the commitment was for the short-term, that Jesus would soon come back and they would all be in heaven together. To us that may sound like a scary Kool-Aid drinking cult. Being part of an organized group that gives guidance on how to live, that has expectations for participation, that focuses on those in need and those who are otherwise marginalized, is at odds with this “fend-for-yourself-and-buy-what-you-need-24/7” culture.
We all need shepherding away from the frenzy. Can we hear the shepherd calling through the sensory overload we experience every day?
I think something calls to all of us, even though we may call that something by different names. We’re pretty good at ignoring the voice of the shepherd, just like Lone Dog Hooch, who felt like taking himself for a walk today. The sun was shining, and the sky was blue, and the smells of spring were abundant in the air.
I’m not saying you’ll find it in every church, or that everyone who goes to church is even looking for it.
But in my life, that’s where I have heard the voice that keeps me on the right paths, that catches me before I run off foolishly far afield or tumble over the edge of the cliff, that pens me and frees me all at once. That’s what I find if I listen for the shepherd.