I read an article the other day in the New York Times about the complexities of creating the game schedule for the N.F.L. Apparently it’s not as simple as just pairing up teams to play one another; the schedulers have to take into account divisional games, west coast starting times, bye weeks, and TV schedules, not to mention the weather in Buffalo in December. According to the Times, the N.F.L. must whittle its schedule down from 14,000 potential, more-or-less acceptable schedules, and the end product is guaranteed not to please everybody. “This is the annual ritual of finding out how stupid I am,” said Howard Katz, the N.F.L.’s scheduling czar. “We’re geniuses one day and absolute morons the next.”1
This being the fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, it can sometimes feel like this is our annual ritual of finding out how stupid we are. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, than it follows that we must be the sheep, and few people enjoy being compared to a sheep. Sheep are not as stupid as they look, but they do look pretty stupid, and none of us wander around baaaaaing all day or spend our time falling off of cliffs, right? Being compared to sheep is not particularly complimentary, but if you think about it, it’s not without a bit of merit.
We, like sheep, are vulnerable, vulnerable to attack. There are wolves around us, looking for opportunities to attack. Disease, accidents, bad hair days, the wiles of the Devil and his minions; death (both physical and spiritual) stalks us like wolves stalk sheep. St. Peter warns us that our “adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” Like sheep, we are vulnerable on all sides, and most of the time we don’t even see our enemy coming.
We, like sheep, are vulnerable to the evils and insanities of history. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is one thing, but we are susceptible to watching our enemies rise up without the power or the will to do anything about it. Just in the last hundred years, within institutional memory, we have seen fascism and communism, rabid secularism, and most recently, of course, Islamic terrorism. We are vulnerable to the consequences of living in a fallen world, a world in which sin and death are actually embraced by the few to the detriment of the many.
We, like sheep, are vulnerable in that we are prone to wander. Like we sing in Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;” we have this sheep-like tendency to wander off without much thought to the wandering. Rarely do we hear anyone say ““I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in Christ. I renounce God and Christianity and therefore I am taking a new direction with my life.” That type of behavior rarely happens. Instead, human beings drift away from God, drift away from Christ, ever so slowly, losing the closeness and deep faith that they once had. And someday, after months or years, they wake up and say, “Where is God? Where is Christ? What happened to the faith that I once had so many years ago?””2 We, like sheep, sometimes look up from where we are standing and have no idea how we got wherever we are.
But that doesn’t sound like any of us, right? I know that I’ve spent the grand majority of my adult life thinking that I am self reliant; I am a rock, right? I’m certainly not a sheep. John Wayne ain’t got nothin’ on me.
But one of the great deceptions, the great pretenses of life, is that we bear no resemblance to sheep. It takes either continual self-delusion or a special kind of arrogance to walk through life thinking that you’re the one person who in no way needs a shepherd, but many of us, myself included, have been there.
But thankfully, when we look up and find we don’t know how we got where we are, when we realize how vulnerable we are, when we realize how much we need not only a shepherd but a Good Shepherd, that Shepherd is there, Jesus calls us by name and we know His voice. This Good Shepherd Sunday is not our annual ritual of finding out how stupid we are but rather our annual ritual of remembering just how good our Good Shepherd is, of remembering how vulnerable we are without Him, and of giving thanks once again that Good Shepherd laid down His life for us, His sheep.
1The Art and Science of Scheduling Meet in the NFL Office, The New York Times, April 20, 2012
2Ed Markquart, All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray, Sermons from Seattle, along with the three vulnerabilities.