If you were to ask me to choose the 100 best TV commercials of all time, do you know what would be at the very top of my list? It would be an ad that first appeared in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.
Picture tough, dust-caked cowboys riding the range. They are on a drive through the desolate, wild, open prairie. From their horses they shout, whistle and use their lariats to bring their herd home. The ad opens with a young cowboy standing next to a Conestoga wagon, holding up a picture. “This is my grandfather,” he says. “He started herding cats when he was 15.”
Yes, these 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 with wonderful details like a little yarn, a sneeze, and a lint roller---not to mention dozens and dozen of cats--and turns it all upside down.
Sort of like taking an historic parish founded by a famous industrialist located in a town re-named for a famous athlete and then raising up for that parish an all-female leadership team.
The American cowboy is an 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 may like groups but we are nothing like cattle or sheep… or so we tell ourselves. We listen to our own beat, to many beats, all our own. 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. We don’t live on the prairie, but we do think of ourselves as rugged individualists.
To tell you the truth, we are a tough flock to lead.
So when we hear someone say that parish life is “like herding cats” we all know what that means. None of us wants to be mere cattle…let alone sheep!
Which makes me wonder: Why would the early church remember today’s Gospel image of sheep and, most of all, why would they remember Jesus calling himself the good shepherd?
For one thing, I think they remembered that Jesus stood up to Israel’s religious leaders about their lack of leadership. One of the things that Jesus calls out, is the temptation to think of ourselves as so unique, so special, so “apart” that it cuts us off from the world God has placed us in.
The Gospel of John is also challenging some of the leaders of the early church. He reminds those "pastors" (another word for shepherd) 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.
Yet somewhere in between the docility of sheep and the independence of cats, there is set before us the truth of who we are and what we need. We all need direction, purpose, and community. We all need, heed, and follow a good shepherd.
Now before you start giving Rebecca the side-eye glance and expect her to have all the answers, remember who the good shepherd really is.
Jesus is the good shepherd by showing us a way. Jesus is the good shepherd because of his unity with 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 redeems and shapes us to be something more than docile sheep or independent cats.
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 and prepares us to face the assaults and ambiguities of everyday life through our sacramental 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.
As followers of the Good Shepherd, who is at the very same time the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we are members of a different kind of community. We follow a shepherd who serves. Who lays down his life for the sheep. Who seeks us when we are lost. Who leads us to new life and new community.
And in following Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we find that the true nature of the church lies somewhere in between the docility of sheep and the independence of cats. The more we follow Christ, the more we, together and individually, become like the One we follow.
If herding cats is one of my favorite ads, one of my favorite quotes about mission comes from Pope John XXIII. He said about the Church that “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”
In looking around this church, and yes I’ve been one of those tourists, there is a little sign right at the top of the grand outdoor stairs that no one uses because of the elevator. It tells people that you are a “free” church. That is, when this place was built, Mr. Packer decided not to charge pew rents, so instead of the wealthiest always getting the best seats in the house, anyone could get the best seat!
Once upon a time, my own parish of Trinity, Easton, had a church fight over abolishing pew rents. It was so fractious that the Easton Express Times reported on how the police were called to calm everyone down. The Bishop had to take the train from Reading to sort out which of the two vestries (yes, two!) that were elected that day was the real one. Those were the days, lemme tell ya!
That little sign on your door says you are open to all. It says that for all the beauty and all the grandeur, despite the Tiffany windows and the Mercer tile, this was to be a church open to all people. Which is why that even though the big mansions are over there, this church was built where all the tradespeople, workers, railroaders, merchants, and coal-crackers lived.
But, as the sign also indicates, free is not cheap. There are things we have to do, and that means more than knowing when to stand, sit, or kneel.
Accepting the free gift of grace means that our lives will change in unexpected ways. Which is why the church is most obviously the church when we choose to model ourselves on the good shepherd, so that we can together share in the good shepherd’s 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.
In taking on Rebecca as your priest in charge, especially after accompanying her through so much of her journey, you might think that you are taking on the familiar. You might be tempted to do what you've always done with even greater fervor, as crazy as that sounds.
The truth is that being the body of Christ at once grounds us and is unpredictable. It is full of challenge and change. Living the Christian life is always on-the-job training (no matter how long you’ve been at it), learning and doing the work of Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus in community is demanding.
The good news is that Jesus is our shepherd. Jesus has made into something more than a herd of individual cats and something better than flock of docile sheep.
All of us in this parish, in this diocese, in this community, in this time are adopted into Christ's body, and are guided by of the Holy Spirit and living in sacramental community, so we are together discovering, sharing, and learning what it is to follow him. And in this moment, in this place, we are Jesus' friends and apprentices, inviting everyone around us into new, life-giving life with him.It may feel like herding cats, but we have a direction, a place and a purpose because we hear and follow the Good Shepherd, who knows us and calls us each by name.
Preached at the celebration of new ministry of the Rev. Rebecca Parsons-Cancelliere at St. Mark and St. John Episcopal Church in Jim Thorpe, PA on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B, April 22, 2018.