April 13, 2008
Good Shepherd Sunday
BAAAA! Good Shepherd Sunday comes around every year and I know your paaaaastor’s name is Shepherd, so she always likes to make a big deal of it.
But, people probaaaably don’t like to be likened to sheep. I think it’s a simple matter of a laaaack of information that puts people off. And I can remedy that, if you will RUMINATE with me on being a sheep.
The first thing people think they know about sheep is that sheep are stupid. Let me tell you – someone has been pulling the wool over your eyes! there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Sheep are quite bright.
Want proof? Do you know what a cattle guard is? As you can guess from the name, it is designed to keep cattle and other hooved animals out of certain areas, but allow vehicles and people to cross. It consists of a grid of bars or tubes, usually made of metal, firmly fixed on the ground with a depression underneath. The spaces between the bars are wide enough that a hoof would slip through, but narrow enough that a vehicle's wheels will not. A cattle guard will allow wheeled vehicles to pass through the entrance, but will keep animals out, because they will refuse to step on the grid.
At least that’s what humans in Yorkshire Moors, England thought. But hungry sheep foiled a cattle guard to raid villager's gardens. According to a witness, the sheep would lie down on their sides (sometimes their backs) and keep rolling over the grids until they were clear. Pretty smart!
Sometimes churches, and the people in them, encounter an obstacle, like a cattle guard, that keeps them from getting where they need to go. And, from one sheep to another, the question is . . . how creative are you willing to be to get there?
Of course, that is just anecdotal evidence of sheep’s intelligence. But there’s some solid science to back it up: few (or seven) years ago, National Public Radio reported this story:
“…the lowly sheep may have gotten a bad rap. That’s the conclusion of a new study on sheep behavior by British scientists, who say the easily herded creatures may be smarter than originally thought.A study published in the Journal Nature describes research at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, southern England. As it turns out, the sheep quickly learned to recognize the face that produced a reward, and discriminated between that face and other sheep faces that didn't produce a reward. The research showed that sheep can get it right eight out of 10 times -- and the research showed the sheep remember faces for an extended period of time. Some sheep could remember up to 50 images for two years.
The study concluded that, like humans, sheep have special systems in the brain to discern between faces that are very similar in appearance. The results also suggest that sheep have remarkably good memory systems and are extremely good at recognizing faces. Both are signs of higher intelligence, says Dr. Keith Kendrick, one of the authors of the study.
Kendrick says the reason sheep may have a reputation for little intelligence is that they seem to be scared of just about everything. ‘Any animal, including humans, once they are scared, they don’t tend to show signs of intelligent behavior,’ Kendrick told Reuters.”
National Public Radio. All Things Considered. November 7, 2001
Maybe that is why Jesus was always telling his followers not to be afraid. Jesus knew that fear confuses people as easily as it confuses sheep, and both species of us are likely to rush off in the wrong direction when we are afraid.
The researcher is wrong when he says that sheep are afraid of everything, though. Sheep are afraid of anything new. They are “neo-phobic” – that’s an actual clinical term that veterinary researchers have for sheep. They are afraid of anything new. This fear is a big factor that has to be addressed when doing any kind of research with these animals. A new sheep introduced into the research group, a new handler, a new procedure, all these things produce such a strong physical response in the sheep that any experimental results do not even apply to normal sheep.
New things are hard for people, too. Change puts us under a certain amount of physiological stress. You’ve probably seen those “stress” inventories – where you can gauge how likely you are to come down with a cold by how many stressful events you’ve had to deal with in the past year. Moving is worth 20 points. A new mortgage is 31. With the economic trends in the headlines, I note that foreclosure is 30 points of stress, actually less than getting the mortgage. That’s sort of a surprise. Marriage is 50 points. Increase in arguments with one’s spouse is 35. Job change is 38. You add up all the stressors you’ve experienced in the last 12 months, and get a score that predicts how likely you are to get sick in the year to come.
Some of the stressors are good things. Some are unpleasant. That doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they introduce something new into our lives. When we have a lot of these stressors, we are advised to be extra careful, to be on the lookout to avoid unnecessary risks.
It might be worth thinking about – how many new things, happy and sad, have come into your life in the last year. If their have been a lot, it might be especially important to add healthful counterbalances to your life as well. Prayer and meditation have been shown to balance the effects of stress on health. A devotional routine, like Bible reading, using These Days, just a few minutes a day is likely to reduce the risk of stress making you sick or crazy.
On Friday, I went to a continuing education event on writing as a healing practice. A scientist from the University of Texas has done research that shows that 15 minutes of expressive writing a day – writing how you think and feel – helped college students get better grades, avoid depression, stay healthier and even drink less. And there are also studies that show that regular church attendance helps. I’m not kidding. We can’t avoid new things. But we can pay attention to the things that can make us healthy and strong.
What’s true for us as individuals is also true for this group. As a flock, we suffer stress sometimes. One of the biggest points that church officers learned at our officer training event in January is that a church making a transition from a familiar state to an unfamiliar one is full of anxiety and doesn’t - in fact can’t – behave “normally”. Even if the new state is something really good – like members, for instance, or something we think is small – like the new lot behind the church. These things can be . . . scary.
And, our church life specialist told us, we are in an unstable flock size: between small and medium now, too big to operate the way we’re used to, and not quite big enough to have gotten comfortable with more appropriate ways of doing things. And it makes us a little edgy. We sense the need to move, but the way isn’t clear yet. Some of us are headed one way, others off in a different direction. Like sheep, sometimes we run into someone headed in the opposite direction and it throws us into a tizzy. Yet we know that sheep, and people, need to keep moving. A healthy grazing flock quite naturally covers a distance of mile or more a day. It’s really bad for sheep to be confined where they can’t move. And it’s impossible for a people to stay healthy and strong without some change and some movement. If you’re not living, you’re dying.
We have to move, as individuals and as a church, even though we are afraid of anything new. That’s why we need to listen especially carefully for the voice of our shepherd. And I don’t mean me, though I am certainly trying my best to take care of the flock God has called me to tend. The real shepherd of this flock is Jesus, of course. He is the came, lived, died and rose again so that we might have life and have it abundantly.
It is Jesus who is our security in times of fear and change. We trust him because we know that he is the one who has led his flock to green pastures and through dark valleys. The good Shepherd knows that He calls his own – by name – did you hear that little part of the scripture? He knows us so well that each of our names leaps to his lips. He recognizes and knows us, even if sometimes we fail to recognize him. ( Remember how, when Mary Magdelene met the Risen Christ on Easter morning, at first she didn’t know him. But then he spoke her name – “Mary” and she knew who he was.)
If you don’t hear anything else this morning, I want you to hear that Jesus knows your name. When you get ready to fall asleep tonight, I want you to close your eyes and hear him say your beloved name. He knows you by name.
That kind of knowing . . . there is a particular word for it in Greek – ginosko- that means knowing in a personal and particular way. Jesus knows us this way – intimately and personally – and he clearly teaches that we are capable of knowing this way, too. “Even sheep do not blindly follow a stranger, but run away from him because they do not know the sound of his voice” but Jesus’ followers listen carefully – we swivel our little sheep ears forward and pay attention – to hear if the one calling us is our shepherd and our friend.
And when we hear Jesus’ call us, we freely and calmly follow him. “He goes ahead of them and they follow” with full faith and assurance that he will not lead us astray, but guide us through danger, into the joy and the security of his very own fold. Amen.