You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord GOD. —Ezekiel 34:31

Please pray with me. Just as the Israelites of old, we too wander, we lose our way. God, be thou vision our vision. Be our guide in this life you have given us. May the words of the prophet open our hearts to hear your word, and we pray these words may draw us back to your shelter and safe keeping. In humility, we offer this prayer. Amen.

“A lamb has gone missing. Its mother is agitated. She runs up and down the fence. I left them, hours ago, safe and well, mothered, and now it is gone. There are no clues. I ride around the field, checking the other mothers haven’t stolen it or taken it by mistake. They haven’t. I check the becks in case it has fallen in and drowned. We try to keep ewes and young lambs away from the becks, but it isn’t always possible. I hate losing a lamb. I check the neighbouring fields. No sign. Then I see it has gotten itself stuck between the trunks of an old thorn tree, about a foot off the ground. It is fine, just squashed and tired. I lift it out and it runs off to suckle its mother. You can lose hours looking for a lamb.”[1]

The passage of frantic search for a lost lamb is from James Rebanks’ memoir The Shepherds’ Life, which critics described as “bloody marvelous.” Indeed it is bloody marvelous in chronicling the life of a shepherd in the Lake District in England. Rebanks comes from a long-line of shepherds, and like many in that region dropped out of school at age 16. When he returned for the British equivalent of the GED, he not only finished, but also received a full ride to Oxford. His memoir is a study in the Lake District, the craft of shepherding, and the intricate relationship between the land, weather, sheep, and humanity.

Sheep are mentioned more than 500 times throughout scripture, if you look for the references to ewe, lamb, and ram and the nuanced ways of describing the Hebrew word for “small cattle.” They are mainstay of the pastoral Israelites, providing food, milk, clothing, shelter, and inevitably serve as the medium of wealth accumulation and exchange. [2]

Sheep are affectionate, docile, relatively defenseless, in constant need of care, and compel a complex relationship with a shepherd. At times, they drive the shepherd to the heights of frustration and anxiety…but also fills them with pride and love so that a shepherd will give it all to search for and tend a lost sheep.

From the very first book in scriptures through the last, sheep are constantly present. This existence, between sheep and shepherd, stands as an ever-present reminder of our relationship with God. Just as sheep cannot survive alone, they need the security of the herd and protection of the shepherd; we too will perish if alone. Each of us needs each other and God. We cannot be a Christian all alone.

In veterinary school, one may study “hollow-horned typically gregarious ruminant mammals”[3], but if you want to learn how to raise and tend sheep, school and YouTube cannot help you, you need to apprentice at the same time you begin to walk.

James Rebanks was born into such a shepherd family with father, grandfather, and generations of shepherds who have tended sheep in the Lake District as far back as the Middle Ages. In page after page, he describes gathering the sheep from the fells (or hills) in the late fall, struggling in snow and ice to keep them fed in winter, the agony of lambing season in the spring and plotting the future blood lines of breeding in the summer. Shepherding can only be described as grueling labor that is not measured in hours, but is a lifestyle devoted to land and creature and weather and trade that keeps you awake at night and fills each hour of the day. Rebanks claims “tough work slaps the silliness out of you when you grow up in places like ours.”[4]

He then defines the three rules of being a shepherd: “The first rule of shepherding; it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.”[5]

His writing is not always so sharp. Rebank’s grandfather taught him how to be true to his responsibilities. This is what he writes:

He loves to tell stories. True stories. This is how he passes on his values.
How he tells me who we are. They have morals, these stories.
We don’t give up, even when things are bad.
We pay our debts.
We work hard.
We act decently.
We help our neighbours if they need it.
We do what we say we will do.
We don’t want much attention.
We look after our own.
We are proud of what we do.
We try to be quietly smart.
We take chances to get on.
We will fail sometimes.
We will be affected by the wider world…
But we hold on to who we are. [6]

Forget anyone of these values, the flock begins to wither, neighbors fall away, trust evaporates, and isolation sets in.

A shepherd’s life can only be measured by the passion extended for each creature. And, a shepherd’s legacy depends upon a vision for the future that may not be born in the generations of sheep of his or her lifetime.

Throughout Israelite history, any leader who was venerated as one of the greatest was never referred to as a “commander” or “king” or “warrior”, even if that were his primary function, but instead those deemed righteous were described as a humble shepherd. The patriarchs, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses all tended sheep. King David was chosen by God while a young shepherd and always called the shepherd king.

Anyone who is in a position to care for the well-being of a group of people is a shepherd. CEOs are shepherds for their corporations; doctors are shepherds for their patients; parents are shepherds for their children; when parents age, children become shepherds; financial advisors shepherd their client’s wealth; teachers are shepherds for their students. In the Judaeo-Christian model, everyone who offers leadership, however vast or modest the scope is to do so with the heart of a shepherd.

All of us need shepherding. We need guidance: someone to help us find the right path or to rescue us when we have strayed from it. We need protection: someone to warn us of hidden dangers, to shelter us from adversity, and to restore us when we fail. We need nurturing: someone to share with us wisdom and truth.[7]

Yet, those rulers and priests in the 6th century BCE lost sight of those leadership ideals. No doubt the leaders condemned by Ezekiel never sullied their hands in the sodden wool of a sheep or labored along with a ewe in birth, but actual animal husbandry was not the point.

Shepherds are accountable to God for what happens to their sheep, and the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that God has a particular anger toward selfish shepherds.

Through Ezekiel, God condemns the leaders for feeding themselves while the people starved. They did not care for the weak, the injured. Because of their greed, and greed alone, the people became targets to all forms of predators inside and outside the nation.

The Israelite people became such easy prey that the Babylonians captured the holy city of Jerusalem and exiled the people. Consider a contemporary analogy. Imagine if Chicagoans were sent to the far reaches of Alberta, exiled in country where we would always be aliens, all because of the corrupt behavior that damaged the lives of others, constant fighting, or too much greed that made us all vulnerable.

God was furious with the Israelite leaders.

Despite giving them the Ten Best Ways, religious practices to center them on God’s love, prophets to speak the truth, and story upon story to remind them of who they were and the importance of community, they got lost.

So, God promises to become the true shepherd. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured…I will provide for. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God.”

Divine grace is never afraid to get into the muddiness of our lives and drag us back to the loving community where we belong.

During our pilgrimage walk of the Camino in Portugal and Spain, I understood how it felt to be shepherded. Each morning, we would receive a detailed, written description of the walk from our guides; exactly where we were to meet the van, exactly how much elevation we would climb, and the exact location of each turn. Some of the directions were in capital letters and bold typeface: “easy to miss turn,” a polite way of saying “it is easy to get lost!” Although the Camino is marked throughout with yellow arrows and the symbol of the shell, the four guides for twelve pilgrims left nothing to chance.

You know what? Each day, several times each day, we would get to a fork in the road and just stop. We had directions, but like clueless sheep, we would rather wait to be told…sometimes.

Would you be surprised to hear also that each day, several times a day, like a clueless sheep, someone would take a wrong turn?

It is easy to get lost, even with guides and a group.

When have you felt lost? Think about the substantive times in your life.

Remember when you were young and felt as though no one heard you, everyone had their daily to-do, others were driven literally or figuratively to matches and practices, and you just could not find anything to care about. You felt lost.

Maybe on that drive down Sheridan and Lake Shore Drive, which you can almost do with your eyes closed, but you begin to wonder where you are headed? After a solid degree and landing a great first job, one by one, some promotions became detours and now you have a mortgage and tuition. You sometimes don’t know how you got here and you wonder if you can ever get back to a job that excites you. You feel lost.

Or maybe you have been married for decades and become so familiar with a spouse that the routine has stifled what once drew you together. You see others more attractive, more exotic and you start to text, call, and lunch your way away from your marriage vows. It can be easy to get lost.

Just like sheep, we get lost. When sheep are lost, rarely do they cry out, they just hunker down and hide or wander further away, making it even harder to be brought back. We know what that is like too. It is easy to get lost and then sometimes it is easier to stay lost and stubborn rather try to find our way back to the fold.

Just as God promised, God sent the good shepherd. Throughout the gospels, Jesus tells story after story of searching after the lost sheep, the lost coin, or a wayward son who is lost. In all the lost and found stories, not once does Jesus imply that whatever is found—metaphorically us—is required to pay a fine or sit in a penalty box. Jesus assures us, he will bring us back into God’s loving care. There is no mess we get ourselves into or distance we will travel that is beyond God’s divine grace.

There is one more time you may feel as though you are lost or becoming lost. It may be one more diagnosis of cancer, a test result that was not what you’d hoped, or the steady decline in memory. We wonder if we can hold on to faith or if faith will hold on to us. When we lose our ability to hold on to life, the good shepherd gathers us and takes us into life beyond.

We are reminded of this at the commendation and prayer offered in memorial services, across many of the denominations:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant.
Acknowledge, we humbly pray,
a sheep of your own fold
a lamb of your own flock
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

From birth to death, on whatever roads we take, or find ourselves on, the shepherd leads us as one flock, is always in front of us, beside us, behind us, leading us until we return safely home.

Please pray with me. Good shepherd, we have become lost at various times in our lives. Find us. Bring us back. Supply our needs. In gratitude for Jesus, our shepherd, Amen.

[1] James Rebanks, The Shepherds Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015) 265.

[2] B. D. Napier, “Sheep,”The Interpreter’s Dictionary of Biblical, Vol 4 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962), 316.

[3] “Sheep,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary accessed June 14, 2017

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Ibid., 208.

[6] Ibid., 74.

[7] Guy Sayles, “Preaching Texts for Ordinary Time,” Journal for Preachers 37, No 4, (2014), 5.