Where are the Shepherds?
Sheep on the island of Iona, Scotland
TEXT: John 21:15-17; Ezekiel 34:1-6
The Island of Iona is a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. It is 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. It is famous as the site of St. Columba’s monastery in the 6th century, and it was from Iona that the monks spread out to bring Christianity to Scotland and eventually all of Britain and beyond. The Vikings sacked the early monastery and it lay in ruins until a Benedictine Abbey was built there in medieval times. The Abbey, too, was ruined by the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century and was finally restored in 1938 by a minister from Glasgow named George MacLeod, who wanted a project to give work to the unemployed in his city.
The modern religious community of Iona sprang from Rev. MacLeod’s vision of Christians of all denominations who would work with and for the poor around the world for peace and justice. The island today attracts thousands of tourists in the summer months, and 75-100 people who come each week in the spring and summer months to live on the island as part of the Iona Community, sharing in work and joining together in the renovated abbey for worship each morning and each evening. That’s what I did for the last week of a six-week stay in Scotland back in 2004.
There isn’t a whole lot else on the island. There are some B&B’s where other tourists stay, some small shops, and there are a handful of year-round residents who have small farms with sheep, some cows, and a few chickens and horses here and there. Even at the height of tourist season I could wander the island and find solitary places along the beach or up on one of the high, bare hills. You have to watch out that you don’t step in a bog and sink to your knees...been there, done that. And you have to stay away from a couple areas where the tiny, swarming, biting beasties called midges hide. But for the most part, you can always find a private place, a thinking spot. The farmers have made peace with the tourists wandering amongst their sheep and cows, as long as we remember to close the gate as we enter and exit the pasture.
And so one day I had finished my chores at the MacLeod Center and wandered down the one lonely road, through a couple of pasture gates, and down to the beach on the north side of the island. After some time alone with the rocks and sand and waves, it was getting close to suppertime, and I needed to start the walk back. Back up the beach, back through the pasture gates and back onto the road I went, until I was about a quarter of a mile from the center. At that point I could see that the pasture gates on either side of the road were open, allowing the sheep to cross the road and head from one pasture to the other.
No one was anywhere nearby, but clearly the sheep knew the routine and almost all of them were now in the new pasture. All of them, in fact, except two. I held back a bit from the gates so as not to frighten the sheep and to let the last two get across, but then I saw the situation more clearly. The two sheep that were left in the old pasture were a pitiful sight. Lame with foot rot and probably other things, they could hardly move. One of them consistently fell onto its front knees, now black with mud and dirt. And so she hobbled and crawled...on her back legs and front knees...painfully trying to get to the gate and then across the hard road. Her friend stayed close but wasn’t in much better shape. The other sheep did not fall to her knees, but she limped and hobbled ever so slowly, also trying to make the painful pilgrimage to the new pasture with the rest of the herd.
Tears were streaming down my face as I watched them. They were too big or I would have taken them on my shoulders and carried them across. My own knees hurt every time the one of them fell on the hard asphalt of the road. I looked around. There was a house nearby, but no one was in sight. Where was the shepherd? No one was out along the lonely road. Someone had come out and opened the gate at some point, but where were they now? Anger and panic welled up inside me. The sheep were hurting...the sheep were lame...they could barely get to the pasture. Where are the shepherds? I wanted to run up and down the road and scream for them. Shepherds! Where are the shepherds?!
I stood there and cried and prayed for the hurting sheep, and as I did, I began to hear that inner voice...the still, small voice that I have come to know as the voice of God. And this is what it said. “So it is with my world...with my people...with my children. They are lame and hurting. It is not that they don’t want the good pasture. It is not that they don’t know where it is. They are lame. They are diseased and hurt. They cannot get there. They need shepherds, but the shepherds are busy elsewhere. The shepherds sit back and say, ‘the door is open, they will come if they wish,’ but they cannot come. They are lame, they are hurting, they need the shepherds to bring them. Tell the shepherds to care for the sheep.” And then the voice was still. And so I wandered back to supper, my heart breaking for the two sheep, and my spirit wondering and digesting the message I had been given.
As I thought about the message in the hours and days that followed, first I thought it was a message for pastors of congregations. After all, even the word pastor, comes from the traditional imagery of the clergy as shepherds of their congregations. And that was part of the message, but not the main part. As I prayed about it, I came to understand that every professed disciple of Jesus Christ has taken upon themselves the role of the shepherd.
We come first as sheep...not sure where to go or what to do or how to find good food. But once we meet Jesus and embark on a path of discipleship, we have entered shepherd school. We are learning to be like the Great Shepherd himself. We are learning how to find lost sheep, how to tend to foot rot and matted wool, how to fend off the wolves and lions, how to identify green pastures and still waters and lead other sheep there.
Where are the shepherds? We are in churches across the globe, both in the pulpit and in the pews, so busy with our own concerns and the managing of the sheepfold that we have failed to notice the condition of the sheep outside. We opened the gate...isn’t that enough? They can come in any Sunday that they choose. We’re not stopping them. No, and we’re not helping them either. “It is not that they don’t want the good pasture. It is not that they don’t know where it is. They are lame. They are diseased and hurt. They cannot get there. They need shepherds.” Where are the shepherds? We are the shepherds, and God’s message is “Tell the shepherds to care for the sheep."
And so I bring the message...both for myself and for you. We are charged to care for the sheep. If you have taken the step of saying that you want to learn to be like Jesus...you want your heart to be the same as Jesus’ heart, and his life to be your life...then you are no longer a sheep. You are a shepherd and you are charged by God to care for the sheep, those who need help in finding the real food and water of life.
There are more outside the church than within its walls, and they are lame and hurting and can barely make it across the road. They are the ones looking for life and love in all the wrong places, bringing harm to themselves and to others...frightened, confused, belligerent. Tell the shepherds to care for the sheep. Not to spend all our time caring about the other shepherds...not to keep propping up the sheepfold...not to keep the pasture mowed and trimmed...tell the shepherds to care for the sheep. I have told you. I have told myself. It is time to act.
Take a couple of moments to pray, asking God to bring to mind someone outside the church who needs your care. Just quiet your mind and heart and see if there isn’t a name or a face that comes to mind...a sheep that could use a shepherd. That shepherd is you. Where are the shepherds? They are us. Care for the sheep.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson