Sheep, vines, children, the sick, the weak, the outcast, and the poor: Jesus had a way of making his priorities known, and they tended to be categories of people and things that need looking after. Having triumphed over the grave, he did not set up a luxurious encampment on the beach to receive supplicants, and dole out the spoils of his victory. Instead, he appeared mysteriously, unannounced, and ambiguously to his followers. But still he made himself known. He showed up on the beach after his disciples had had a failed night of fishing, but he changed everything. He should have given them a secret. He should have written them an encyclical. He should have taken a ring off his finger and given it to one of them. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he gave them fish. And he called Peter to him, and asked him, “Do you love me?”
Peter is a fisherman. They are sitting together on a beach, eating fish. Jesus has just helped them miraculously to catch a shoal of fish. “Do you love me,” he asks Peter, “more than these?”
“Yes, Lord, you know I do,” comes the answer.
“Feed my sheep.”
We are on a beach. With fisherman. Eating fish. There is not a sheep in sight. This is what you might call a non-sequitur. “Feed my sheep.” But fish are remarkably good at looking after themselves (as long as you don’t over-fish them). They are good for miracles, but not so good for parables. And they don’t fit the category of people and things that need looking after. Hence, Peter, “feed my sheep.” Three times, Jesus gives him a variation on the theme. “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
The modern shepherd, James Rebanks, writes in his excellent book, The Shepherd’s Life, that his “job is simple: get around the fields and feed and shepherd the different flocks of ewes – dealing with any issues that arise.” Then he provides three simple rules of shepherding: “First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. Third rule: shut up, and go do the work.”
We live in a complex and complicated world, but some things are still straightforward: people need to be fed and shepherded. And you probably have to start with the people who most need looking after: children, the sick, the weak, the outcast, and the poor. As a rule of thumb, this one works for sheep, and in churches, and probably more broadly, too. People need to be fed and shepherded; and you start with the ones who most need looking after; you don’t leave them to fend for themselves with the leftovers from the ablest sheep. You don’t make sure the fattest sheep get fatter. It’s not complicated.
Let’s look at the rules. First rule: it’s not about you. Which is to say that the world does not revolve around you. Or as I once heard declared at a funeral in this church years ago: get over yourself. Most of us want it to be about ourselves. I often want it to be about me (whatever it is). But it’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about the land – and you can see what we are doing to that (poisoning it). And it’s about the sheep.
Who are the sheep? Are you a sheep or a shepherd? Depends, I guess, on the moment. There are probably times in your life when you get to be each. You might be a sheep to me, but a shepherd to someone else. It’s complicated. Except it’s not. Because it’s not about me, and it’s not about you. I’ll try to remember that. Will you?
Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. Do you need me to elaborate? You don’t already know this? We don’t get to win sometimes. But that doesn’t mean the game is over. There are still sheep out there. There is still land out there. The sheep needs you. The land needs you. Just because you and I don’t get to win sometimes, doesn’t mean we lose. It just means we don’t always win. It’s okay. Get over yourself: see Rule One. Many days are twenty-four straight hours of Rule Two. The days that are not, give cause for rejoicing. Get good at rejoicing, and enjoy it while you can. Rule Two is not going away.
Rule Three: shut up and go do the work. You don’t like Rule Three? You think I like Rule Three? Rule Three is why I go on pilgrimage every now and then. If you are a pilgrim, walking every day, whether you want to or not, you have to get up and walk. You can quit, but then you are not a pilgrim anymore. You have to get up and walk. It doesn’t matter if you want to, or if it feels good, or if the weather is nice. You have to go. You have someplace to go. God has someplace for you to go. The sheep need to be fed. Shut up, and go do the work.
The church struggles mightily with this one. We would rather hold seminars about the work. We would like to study texts that talk about the work. We are fascinated by the way ancient peoples once did the work. We think it’s nice how monks and nuns do the work. And we notice how much work there is to do in places where they are not as rich as we are. We don’t mind sending a little bit of money to people who seem to be doing the work. But only a little bit. But Rule Three is uncompromising. Shut up. And go do the work.
The shepherd who wrote these rules did not think he was channeling Jesus. But he was. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. The three rules of shepherding are an ever-so-slightly wordier re-iteration of Jesus’ instructions to Peter. But here’s the amazing thing: Jesus wants us to understand that if we love him, this is all we have to do to show it. Just keep these three rules. Feed his sheep.
You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be pure. You don’t even have to be a virgin. For all I know, you don’t even have to be in a state of grace. You do have to be paying attention to the idea that Jesus is asking you, “Do you love me?”
We live in a complex and complicated world, but some things are still straightforward: people need to be fed and shepherded. And sometimes you get to be the sheep, and sometimes you get to be the shepherd. And daily we have to answer the question that Jesus asks us: Do we love him? The church in Europe and North America has been in a tizzy for decades now about what we should be doing, how to be the church, why things are so complicated, confusing, and difficult. And I don’t want to pretend that the world is not complex and complicated – for it is. But we can make things more or less complicated. And we make some things complicated that don’t have to be. Sheep and vines, if you want to be poetic. Children, the sick, the weak, the outcast, and the poor, if you want to be concrete. Feed his lambs. Tend his sheep. Feed his sheep.
It’s not about you or me. Sometimes we can’t win. Shut up, and go do the work.
All for this: because among the many things bequeathed by Peter to the Church of Christ is this question on the lips of our Lord Jesus: “Do you love me?” Do we love him? How can we tell him? How can we show it? What difference will it make? All the difference in the world if we will feed his lambs; tend his sheep; feed his sheep.
And when he was done teaching Peter how to love him, he gave one more simple instruction: “Come,” he said, “follow me.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 April 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia