I saw a commercial once a few years ago and I just love it. It shows these tough cowboys on the range. You know: horses, lassos, hats, boots and spurs, the whole thing. They are on a drive, through the open prairie. It opens with a young cowboy holding up a picture and saying “This is my grandfather. He started herding cats when he was 15.”
Instead of cattle, in this commercial, these tough cowboys are herding cats.
“Anyone can herd cattle,” one of these cowboys says. “But keeping ten thousand half-wild short hairs together… is about the hardest work a man can do.”
This ad works because it takes a time honored image that we all know and turns it on its head. That’s how I feel when I hear Jesus describe himself as a “good shepherd.”
We tend to think of pretty pastoral scenes with the friendly, smiling shepherd and gentle, fluffy sheep. The Bible evokes shepherds all the time: God appeared to Moses while he was tending sheep; David was a shepherd, and even in the era of Jesus, the image of the shepherd could evoke a sense of nostalgia for a simpler, more idyllic time.
The American cowboy is that kind of archetype for us is because he embodies the free individual. Alone, against the odds, he by himself endures and brings the herd home. If there is camaraderie, it is a companionship of rugged individuals. The archetype appeals to us precisely because we can’t imagine ourselves being part of a herd.
We human beings may like groups but we are nothing like cattle or sheep. We are not herd animals. We listen to our own beat, to many beats, all our own. When we function as a group, it very often a tentative, temporary thing; it feels great when it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. When I hear the saying “it’s like herding cats” I think we all know what that means. None of us wants to be mere cattle.
We like to go our own way, do what we think best, maybe we’ll tell people what we’re up to or maybe not. Maybe we don’t live on the range, but we think of ourselves as rugged individualists. We are a tough flock to lead.
Which is why I think the early church remembered this passage. Jesus stood up to Israel’s religious leaders about their lack of leadership. I think the Gospel of John is challenging some of the leaders of the early church, ( remember "pastor" is another word for shepherd) to remind them not to fail their infant communities by putting themselves on pedestals or preaching a gospel they did not attend to themselves.
We like to think of the church as being one family, one unit with a single mind and purpose and yet we know from our experience that being in the same building at prayer does not necessarily mean that we are one flock with one shepherd. At times we are like a herd of cats. But somewhere in between the docility we attribute to sheep and cattle and the independence of cats, there is the truth of who we are and what we need. We all need direction, purpose, and community. We all still need and seek to heed and follow a good shepherd.
Jesus is the good shepherd by showing us the way. Jesus is the good shepherd because of his unity of relationship to God. Jesus is the good shepherd because through his life, death and resurrection each and every one of us has new life and a new way of being. Jesus is the good shepherd because this new way of being does not come easily to us. We need to be reconciled, we need to be taught, we need to be challenged. Jesus the good shepherd does all these things and more.
In our baptism and our profession of faith we gave ourselves to the good shepherd and began to follow him. He guides us and protects us and teaches us.
In our prayer and worship and study, we learn to hear Jesus’ voice over the din and distraction of the culture we are in.
In our community, we learn to recognize Jesus at work in and through us. We discover how Jesus protects us from the assaults and ambiguities of daily life through our sacrament and common life, and in the ways we listen and support one another.
In our witness, we see people without hope or purpose or who doubt that anyone will welcome them into any fellowship, and we give them shelter, and nourishment and care.
In this way, we become a different kind of community. Somewhere in between the docility of sheep and the independence of cats is the true nature of the church: that the more we follow Christ, the more we, together and individually, become like him.
We are a community who daily decides to model ourselves on the good shepherd, so that we can together share in the good shepherd care and longing for the world. When we follow Jesus, the good shepherd, we are also the ones who with Jesus give ourselves to the world he loves. As
disciples, we follow Jesus so that we may become more and like him both by ourselves and in our common life.
As a parish family we have decided together to undertake a great task: this capital campaign has become so much more than fixing a wall. It has become an expression of our ministry together.No matter what image you use--herding cats, rounding up cattle or shepherding sheep--the lesson is that Jesus is the one who draws us together, unites, guides and teaches us. The Gospel teaches us that Christians work best and thrive most in community. We are followers of Jesus Christ and he is our shepherd. Jesus has made into something more than a herd or a flock. We are known and understood and loved. We have been adopted into Christ's body, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are together learning, discovering and sharing God's love in this parish, in this community, in this mission.
When we first started this project…back when the cracks first appeared and when we decided to undertake this campaign…it felt at times like we were herding cats. So many details. So many questions. So many ideas. It was hard to contain. But we have done it and we are doing it and we will do it. Together. So many people have stepped up, so many people who are working together—both long-timers and newcomers—that we have become something completely unlike a herd of cats, or a flock of sheep, for that matter. We are growing together as the body of Christ.