I had already failed my first test in becoming a gentleman farmer. Three years and roughly 200 chickens produced eggs for my family at a rate of roughly $1… each. A few years had passed though since my experiment in folly, and I was ready to try again. I purchased three recently weaned lambs, set up portable fencing on my land and became a shepherd.
Things went rather smoothly, until they didn’t. Two weeks into the experiment I looked out into my field and saw a third of the fencing was down. I raced outside to find two of the lambs safe and content, still eating grass. The third also had not run off. No, she had managed to turn the downed fence into a straight jacket. She had gotten herself hopelessly entangled, was on her side and kicking about wildly, tangling herself all the more. I remember grabbing one of the rubber “posts” and pushing the pointed metal end into the lamb’s side, trying to pin her down so I could begin to untangle her. She just kicked all the more. I was sweating, frustrated, and a smidge frightened, and screamed to this little one, my voice echoing across the valley, “Be still. I’m trying to help you.” That’s when I learned what it means to be a shepherd.
Most of us have a rather distorted, city-fied understanding of sheep. We remember from Sunday School that picture of Jesus, smiling as He carried that smiling lamb, the one, over His broad shoulders back to the 99. We never stopped to ask how that one managed to get so far away.
Now the world is full of failed shepherds. Some fail by confusing shepherding with bullying. Most fail by being hirelings, by just not caring. There is, however, a reason why sheep need shepherds, on earth, flesh and blood shepherds. Because sheep are sinners too. They don’t just wander off out of ignorance. They jump over fences to get at what has been forbidden them. They close their ears to the voice of the Master and follow their own downward path. They hide when they sense a shepherd has come for them. And when cornered they will hiss, bite and kick. Worse still, so often after being carried back to the flock they run off again. Some are so anti-shepherd it’s hard to tell if they’re even sheep at all.
Whenever I am blessed to visit another’s pulpit I always try to work this nugget into my address. I tell the gathered saints- “The hardest thing about being a pastor is not being poorly paid. If that needs to be fixed and you can, please do. The hardest thing about being a pastor isn’t the long hours. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call when you are in the emergency room. It does mean if you have a theological question at 9:30 Saturday night, try to wait until after Sunday service to ask. The hardest thing isn’t the lack of respect in the church and the world over his calling. If you can help there, please do. The hardest thing about being a pastor is the pain of watching the sheep you love banging their heads against the wall until their wool is like scarlet.” The hardest thing about being a shepherd is the pain of loving the sheep.
This, though, is the calling of the shepherd. Jesus repeatedly told Peter the implication of his love for Him- feed, tend, feed His sheep. He didn’t say the sheep would joyfully receive their food. He didn’t say they would return the shepherd’s love. He didn’t say they would run to you joyfully when you call them. He said to tend them, and to feed them, to love them. Feed them the Word. Love them. And know that the Great Shepherd of the sheep promises to turn the bloodiest of fleece into the whitest of wool, for them, and for you.