A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on September 9, 2001

Once again, it is that time of year when we wake up from our long summer's nap and get back to the real routines of life -- school, church, uninterrupted work. For the most part, the vacationers are back home and we are glad to see them and each other. We come back together to begin a new church year full of socializing, working, eating (we love to do that!) and, of course, listening to wonderful sermons!

It is interesting that we call this coming together "gathering." Many churches call their first service in the fall the "ingathering," and have rituals to mark this significant event. Even our sign by the road says that this church was "gathered" in 1881 - exactly 120 years ago. When we first moved here and saw that sign and the flock of sheep in the pasture below the church, Jerry threatened to herd them all up around the sign, dress me in my robe with a shepherd's crook, and take my picture to use on our Christmas card to our distant friends, by way of telling them where we were and what new direction our lives had taken. He would have titled it, "Sarah's new flock."

It was a cute idea, but somehow it did not seem appropriate for the minister of a Unitarian Universalist church. The suggestion that UUs are like a flock of sheep is largely ludicrous. We are the church of the free mind and spirit; we are fiercely independent and individualistic; we follow our own consciences and don't like the idea of being "led," or "shepherded." In fact, UU ministers refer to their jobs as more like herding cats than leading flocks of sheep.

Now I have nothing against sheep. I enjoy hearing their bleats and baas below our bedroom window at night. They provide warm clothing for people all over the world; they are excellent lawnmowers; they give milk which makes strong, tasty cheese; they are even good to eat --although some people don't like or won't try their meat. Myself, I prefer lamb to beef, which caused one wag to suggest that I didn't just want to minister to my congregation, I secretly wanted to devour them!

But for some reason, sheep have gotten a bad reputation. They are supposedly smelly, stupid, lacking in initiative and likely to fall over cliffs or entangle themselves in brush. They are not playful. Lambs have a winsome charm, but adult sheep are stolid and boring. If we want to denigrate someone, we call them a "black sheep," thus showing our prejudices against both sheep and black people. We say of both that they all look alike--if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Sheep represent mediocrity, or worse. Can you imagine parents urging their children to be good sheep, to aim for mediocrity in academics, sports, or life? No, to be a good sheep is not part of the American dream. Our society places a high value on ingenuity, creativity and individuality. We admire people with high levels of energy and a zest for exploration. We place a high value on being leaders rather than followers.

But there is no such thing as an independent or self-made sheep. A sheep needs the shepherd to guide and care for it, and rescue it from disaster. There is nothing sentimental about the relationship; for the sheep it is a matter of survival; for the shepherd a matter of economy. So I have often wondered why religions use the metaphor of the sheep and shepherd so often. I suppose it comes from the biblical verse - Jesus is the good shepherd, willing to lay down his life for the sheep. But I know of very few pastors who are actually willing to die for their flock. Or maybe it is due to idolatry, giving clerics some divine power. In some churches the pastorate or priesthood are considered to have some special powers, or at least some special connection with God. But not in UUism. We believe in the priesthood of all believers; we are all equal. Which I find very refreshing, and freeing, for I don't feel I need to be "holy," or somehow better than anyone else.

Or maybe pastors like the metaphor of the shepherd because they like to think they can manipulate and control their congregants; that their "flock" is stupid, stubborn and dependent; that without the pastor to keep them on the right path, they might go astray and be lost. Surely, this is the approach of some religions. Pack the whole kingdom and power and glory of the good shepherd into a tight doctrinaire box and stuff the sheep inside, lopping off whatever doesn't fit. No questions asked and none allowed.

But not Unitarian Universalism. You all find your own paths; you are each capable of making your own decisions and determining your own beliefs. I couldn't any more tell you what to do and how to believe than I could fly or walk on water. We have no pat answers to the great questions, which makes our religion more difficult in the short term, perhaps, but much more deep and meaningful in the long run. We approach religion with our whole minds, as well as our hearts and souls.

Which is why I do not like the term "pastor," and usually correct people and say that I am a minister, not a pastor. Sometimes I add that my congregants do not, will not, act like sheep, so there is no need for me to "shepherd" them. But there are other reasons. My dictionary gives as the definition of pastor: 1) A Christian minister in his capacity of having spiritual charge over a congregation, and 2) A shepherd. Now I am neither a Christian minister nor a man, and I do not have spiritual charge over this congregation. You are, I am afraid, all responsible for your own spiritual path. Nor am I a shepherd, because you are not sheep.

So I much prefer the term "minister," which simply means one who serves. A minister can be the officer or head of an administrative or executive department of government, or can be one authorized to perform religious functions in a church, which is why, on marriage licenses, I write "minister of religion" in the space asking for my position. In either case, the role of a minister is to serve some group. And the act of serving suggests that it is the group members who decide what the minister shall do to serve them. In other words, the power comes from the bottom up, not the top down. And that is the way I like it.

Another possible reason for following the shepherd idea is to stereotype people; to think that members of a given church all dress, think, talk, act alike. This is consistent with the view of sheep. Garrison Keillor's stories about Lutherans is a good example; we all know how Lutherans act, dress, think and talk because he presents these stereotypes all the time. Yet we all know Lutherans who do not fit the mold. I suppose we are all guilty of stereotyping people to some extent. Many jokes are based on stereotypes of various groups of people. Most groups dislike such jokes, even find them offensive; for some strange reason I cannot figure out, Norwegians seem to like being made fun of. I have yet to meet any Norwegian as dumb as Ole and Lars and Lena and the lot, but there may be some. The thing is, the Ole and Lena jokes make Norwegians out to be like sheep--stupid, stubborn, and boring. Maybe that is why Lutheran clergy are called pastors.

The trouble with stereotyping is that it can easily be a way to exclude people; if they are not like us, or if they can be laughed away, then they are not worth associating with, or caring about. So Reagan could put all welfare mothers into a stereotyped category of "welfare queen," and quickly being on welfare took on a negative connotation, which led to "doing away with welfare as we know it.," and all the problems that has caused and will continue to be cause as more and more people, especially children, fall below the poverty line. Whenever we think of groups of people as a "flock," as mindlessly behaving in a certain way, or blindly following a leader, it is easier to dismiss them from our minds and ignore them with our hearts.

When we think of people as a flock, they begin to look alike, and we tend to treat them as though they were all the same. But the good shepherd knows her sheep as individuals. Each one is worthy of care and attention. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is trying to give his hearers some idea of the worth of each person when he tells the story of the shepherd who leaves the flock to search for the troublesome stray. For all we know, it was a scruffy sheep, the runt of the flock. But the shepherd rejoices as he carries it home.

We easily turn people into sheep--those people who "look alike." The boisterous, slightly threatening-looking teenagers who gather on street corners; the homeless who warm themselves on sidewalk grates and huddle in doorways; the frail aged lined up in their wheelchairs in nursing home corridors; the caged young men in our jails and prisons--they can become sheep. When we look at pictures of refugees in camps all over the world, they begin to look alike. Even the individual children with great pleading eyes shown on TV to get our sympathy begin to look like every other starving child; the mother holding her dead infant looks like all other mothers.

We turn people into sheep because it is easier that way. It shields us from being touched too deeply by their pain, and it helps us deny any kinship with them, or need to become involved in their lives. But in our religion, which has no shepherd to take care of us and keep us from going astray, we are called upon to be shepherds ourselves. If we turn other people into sheep and treat them as a faceless flock, we are, in a sense, acting as shepherds. Just as we embrace the idea of the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, we also have to accept the shared responsibility of pastorhood; we are all shepherds. What is important is that we remember that the good shepherd knows his sheep. At the same time that we are shepherds, knowing and caring for others, we are all also sheep, moving in groups, doing what everyone else does, going with the flow. We will easily follow a leader, like the children in the story who styled their hair like the one who dared to be different. Yet we also yearn to be known and recognized and appreciated as individuals. Most of the time, we let ourselves be known only in bits and pieces, and we learn to know others in the same way. My husband of 41 years probably thinks he knows me; my children are sure they have me figured out. Foolishly, I think I know myself. But I want to be known on my own terms--a carefully constructed and edited version, not one of the sheep who gets lost and falls off cliffs. Not as a sheep who can't find her own way.

Yet, as soon as we break loose from the flock and declare our individuality, we take risks. To be fully known is both painful and profoundly comforting. And it carries with it certain responsibilities; if we want to be known, really known, for who we are, then we have the obligation to try to know others in the same way. This act of attempting to really get to know people, to appreciate them for who they are as individuals, not just as members of a flock, gives us the role of shepherd. For, as our Bible verse said, the good shepherd knows the sheep. The good shepherd lays down her life for the sheep.

Well, I am not going to ask you to go that far, but I do think that, in our role as shepherds of a sort, we do in a sense need to give our lives for others. We need to be aware of others' personalities and problems, their soulfulness and suffering. And from this awareness, this knowing of the sheep, we need to respond in ways that show we appreciate their individuality, and understand and empathize with their needs. If they have gone astray, we need to try to rescue them, and bring them back into the flock.

These are not hard things to do; in fact, you do them every day, because you are as much shepherd as sheep. Responding to people can be as simple as talking to them, visiting them in hospital, nursing home or prison, supporting them in times of difficulty or crisis, sending money to help in some way.

Of course, it is easier when we do, in fact, know the sheep. I am constantly impressed with how much people in Hanska and in this church care about one another, and how much they do to help others. But these are our friends, our neighbors, our flock. The real test of being a shepherd is caring about "other sheep that are not of this fold." The nameless faces on TV, the vast numbers of homeless people in America, the hordes of refugees in squalid camps, the young black men who cannot find jobs and turn to drugs to salve their souls, the migrant workers who move from place to place planting and picking our food, but who never have a home. We also need to care about these sheep, the ones of different flocks. We must bring them also, and let them hear our voice.

It is already true, of course, that Christianity is not the dominant religion in the world. Soon it will also be true that the majority of even Christians will not live in America. The center of balance in Christian churches is not in the West; Black Africa, South Korea, mainland China and Central and South America have become the new centers of gathering the other sheep into Christian folds. But other folds are also important; those who gather under the signs of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. The mission is everywhere, and we must drop the language of home church and local community, and realize that we are part of the world, and whatever affects others in the world also affects us. We can no longer let their anonymity, their facelessness, their being different from us, be an excuse for not knowing them. So we are again gathered together to do church, not as mindless sheep, but as strong shepherds. That we gather together is good; not foolproof or perfect, but good. It is better to be gathered together than to be off alone, perhaps scared or despairing. Surely it is better to be gathered together than to be isolated, doing your own thing, perhaps lost in indifference, never thinking about anybody else. There is power in being together.

Now here's the trick: We are doing church, and that is good. But we have followed Jesus in here; we use him as a model of the good shepherd, the wise and caring leader and teacher. We gather here every week to be renewed, so that every week we can also follow Jesus out of here--out to the school and the hospital and the bank and the office and the neighborhoods. We gather together here to gain strength and knowledge, and then we go out to seek the lost, the broken the bleating, the alone. We do what we can to know others and to be with them. Not because they are necessarily part of our flock, but because they are people, and as such have worth and dignity. We go because we are as much shepherds as we are sheep, and it is the duty of the shepherd to take care of all the sheep, even the black ones and the lost ones.