Shepherd School: 4th Week of Advent at Harrow United Church

Audio file of the Learning Time
Video of the whole service

Welcome to Shepherd School.

Congratulations on taking your first step towards a rewarding career in the field of well, being in a field.

My name is David ben David, which means, David, son of David. My father was David ben David, and his dad’s name was, well, you get the idea. Taking care of sheep has been our family’s work for many generations.

You may wonder, since we’re in Bethlehem, famous for David, the shepherd boy who became the king of Israel, is my family descended from royalty?

I don’t want to pull the wool over your eyes, spin you a yarn that isn’t true. The further you go back in history the fuzzier things get.

My grandfather David used to say, do you think if I was a prince I’d be out here in the cold, watching these flocks by night? He had a point, my old granddad, he was as sharp as a needle, and great at knitting things together.

As soon as David was crowned, he left the fields and sheep behind, and moved into the biggest tent in the village. He spent time with soldiers, generals, and the general’s wives- but that’s another story. David sometimes acted more like a wolf than a shepherd!

Shepherding is good hard, honest work. It doesn’t pay much, has no retirement plan, and won’t make you famous. Can you name the shepherds who visited Jesus on the night he was born? See!

We are anonymous. But the whole economy depends upon us. Can you think of any other jobs that pay poorly, have long hours, get little respect, and if nobody did them, the country would starve? Can you imagine royalty doing any of those jobs?

There’s no getting around the fact that King David was a well-known shepherd. But between ewe and me, he wasn’t much of a shepherd. He abandoned his flock to follow his brothers into war. He’s the one who picked up smooth five stones, and his sling, and took down Goliath. I guess you could say he was a real rock star!

There’s a whole album of King David’s greatest hits- not the ones he inflicted on the giant Goliath, but poems he wrote that were set to music and became psalms.

His most famous one, interestingly, goes back to his roots. You’ve probably heard it. It starts with, “ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”

I’ve always liked that one. Old King David offered a picture of God, not as a mighty king, but as a humble shepherd, who guides the flocks to good grazing places and stays with them in the scary times. The Good Shepherd is there to guide, protect, and comfort the flock.

Which is pretty much our job description.  Makes you wish more Kings were like shepherds.

But should more shepherds be like Kings?  Would it be a good thing if we lived in biggest tents, or castles, and had servants to do everything for us that was hard or messy? I don’t think that’s the life I was made for.

My family claimed the name David, only because we are shepherds from David’s city. The difference between us, and that other family, is we still do the work.

Like my old grand-dad used to say, there are shepherds, and there are crooks. Not everybody understood his sense of humour.

A crook is another name for the long staff we carry, with the hook on the end. We use the pointy end to fight off wild animals, and curved end to hook under a sheep’s leg, or around their neck, when we need to pull them to safety. They fall, or get stuck, and we have to rescue them.

I have to warn you, the work can be dangerous. We go places no one really wants to go, to rescue the little lambs. There are risks, and the hours are long.

I mentioned earlier those anonymous shepherds who visited the baby Jesus on the night he was born. I’ve always loved that they were welcomed in, by Mary and Joseph, to see the special baby. The world usually looks down on us, but not on that night, in that place.

My guess is the shepherds had to take turns, because there’d be too many sheep to bring along for the visit. Someone would have to stay back with the sheep. You don’t abandon the flocks. That’s like one of our big rules in shepherding.

When Jesus grew up, he told a story about sheep, and a shepherd. Maybe you remember.

Jesus was talking to a crowd that included some disreputable people- tax collectors, who collaborated with the Romans, and other folks the religious types called “sinners”. Sinner is kind of an all-purpose word applied to anyone the religious bullies didn’t like, or who didn’t look, or act, or smell like them. Most shepherds fall into that category, let me warn you!

The authorities weren’t happy about the company Jesus kept. I guess it didn’t give them warm fuzzies. It was not a compliment when they said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Personally, I take it as a good sign when a person is interested in me, not for my job, or what the neighbours whisper about me, but for who I am, what I care about, dream about, hope for in life.

Shepherds have a lot of time to think about these things, on those long nights out under the blanket of stars. Spend a few nights out in the fields near Bethlehem, watching the flocks, and looking out for wolves and jackals, and you sort out who your friends are, and who are the real predators.

Those clean-handed, well-dressed religious authorities wouldn’t know what to do if one of the lambs was in danger. They’d need help.

Jesus said, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

I am not sure what to make of all that bleeting about repentance. I’ve heard too many preachers try to tell me that God will only love me if I walk, talk, and look like them. But I do know how good it feels to find a vulnerable lamb you thought was lost and bring it home to the flock.

As a professional shepherd, there’s a part of Jesus’ story I wish he’d been more clear about. When the shepherd noticed one of flock was missing, did he abandon the 99 to go look for the 1?

Here’s the thing! Shepherding is lonely work, but it’s not solitary work. If I am taking care of a flock in these fields, I don’t do it alone. If I was on my own, and a wolf attacked on one side of the flock, and I run with my pointy shepherd’s crook to deal with him, I need my partners to watch all the other edges of the flock. Otherwise, the wolf’s buddies could pick off the tasty sheep on the north end, while I’m dealt with the threat at the south end.

Taking care of sheep is a big job, and it requires teamwork. If I had to do a solo job, I’d guide my sheep to a field where there was another flock, watched over by some of my shepherd friends. If something happened, we’d have each other’s backs.

After your classroom training, when you start your apprenticeship, you’ll be going out as part of a squad.

I think when the Good Shepherd in Jesus’ story chased after the one who was lost, he left the other 99 in good hands. When he found the one who’d wandered off, and brought him back on his shoulders, the other shepherds were there, waiting with the rest of the sheep.

The other shepherds would understand what David had gone through, looking for the lost one, and rescuing the furry, smelly silly little thing. They would have been worried about him, out on his own, seeking the lost sheep, and they would be filled with relief and joy on his return.

We shepherds need to stick together.