SHEEP ARE CUTE. Their wool makes clothing. Some of us eat them. And they are one of the most prominent images used in religion since forever. Dr. King was all about sheep, and lambs. In March of 1968 he preached a sermon entitled, “Unfulfilled Dreams” at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (The same pulpit from which President Biden spoke yesterday, by the way. Not sure how I feel about that one). In his sermon, Dr. King referenced the parable of the lost sheep, and just why that sheep may have gotten lost in the first place. And, lest we forget, Dr. King had jokes. Talking about, “Now, the terrible thing in life is to be trying to get to Los Angeles on Highway 78.”
Yesterday, Fellowship Monrovia’s Pastor Albert Tate continued the monthly series on the Sabbath. I wrote about that last week, about the resting. This week’s message was about delight, a word that delights me just by saying it. Its origins come from other words, like charming and alluring. Tate used Psalm 23 as the framework for the sermon, calling the Psalms “David’s journal,” which I thought was a pretty cool way to look at that book. Tate asked us to delight in God’s “Is-ness” (and not Satan’s “bizness” – ’cause Tate has jokes, too – so, so many jokes). Turns out that Dr. King also talked about is-ness, but the is-ness of people. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 he said, “I refuse to accept that the ‘is-ness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.” So what is we and what ought we to do?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.Psalm 23
We is sheep, if we accept the premise of most of the Abrahamic religions. That’s supposed to be a good thing; we have a shepherd to care for us, and we get directed to yummy green grass and nice quiet water. It’s the ultimate hook-up. BUT, culturally we all know that being called a sheep is a baaaaad thing. (I got jokes, too). For example, throughout this pandemic, some of us who have chosen to wear masks in certain circumstances have been referred to as sheep, animals uncritically following the lead of a shepherd — in the form of the CDC or Dr. Fauci, I guess.
“Desperately dependent,” is what we want to be according to Pastor Tate – but not on man. Woops, wrong shepherd? Then again, aren’t some people worthy of leading us? Oh say, Dr. King who everybody and their cousin is quoting today. (I pray that most of those folks are also walking King’s walk throughout the year, too). So how do we know when something is good for us, and when it’s not? When should we follow?
Tate refences the line in the Psalm where it says “He maketh” me lie down in those green pastures. He maketh us because we don’t know enough to chill out once every seven days (if that’s available to us). So we have to be made to lie down. But we all know what it means to be told we “lied down” — it’s an insult, like you aren’t thinking for yourself. Rest or work? Mask or don’t? Move to Los Angeles or stay put? Say what I’m thinking or keep my mouth closed? We are faced with quandaries umpteen times a day. So how do we decide what’s best? It depends upon who our shepherd is, I think. My tradition says it’s God. Others might call it a Higher Power, or may simply name their shepherd as morality. You know who a lousy shepherd is though? Our ego (fear, pride, envy being the herder dogs). I mean you ever follow your ego? You’re going to end up in some arid land with no water to drink, I can almost guarantee that.
I remember one time years ago when I was able to drag my mother to my little church in Madison, New Jersey. So my pastor is talking about shepherds and sheep, and specifically about the characteristics of sheep. Well, my mother – who grew up on a farm in Indiana – was huffing, puffing, tsking, and talking under her breath about how this man did not know a thing about sheep. He made the usual reference to their ignorance, for example, to which mom responded something to the effect that the sheep she grew up with seemed smarter than most people she knew. Fact is, it’s a bad rap that sheep get in this category. Anecdotal studies show that they can do all sorts of things that pigs (apparently the valedictorian of the farm animal) can do. So that takes me back to this cultural question: is it baaaad to be a sheep, or good?
Nobody really wants to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but I am guessing we all have. That’s the dark, cold, place where you feel pretty much alone. It’s not a favorite season for anyone. But we can contend with those seasons, argues Pastor Tate, by finding delight somewhere somehow in them. For most of us, a ray of hope is available even in times of despair. And (not or) we can also do as Dr. King called us to do in his speech at the March on Washington: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
So let’s be sheep (maybe even black sheep if your circle is not one of activism). Follow that inclination to seek out greener pastures for you and your fellow human, even if you don’t get all the way to that verdant mountain top yourself. King said in his “Unfulfilled Dream” sermon, “Thank God this morning that we do have hearts to put something meaningful in.” And that is where we are different from sheep, we can be moved by a spirit (The Spirit) to follow through on our dreams. So say amen, somebody, say amen.
Photo by Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain – Black sheep . Do u also feel different? // la Oveja negra. Tambien te sientes diferente?, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5050231