Last night as I was trying to put the sheep up for the evening, they began acting strange. Now I will admit that sometimes it is hard to tell if sheep are acting strange. Such an observation requires that one know what is “normal” for a sheep. And though I have been a keeper of sheep for almost twenty years, I still hesitate to assert that I know “normal.”
But last night, the sheep kept heading toward the barn, looking in, and then circling away. When a few finally stepped through the dark, open doorway, it was only a few seconds before they came running back out, kicking their heels up and stampeding away as if they were wild horses who had discovered a trap. this circling and running away happened so many times that I finally decided to go into the barn myself to see if I could tell what was going on.
The sheep were down by the gate that leads out to the road, about as far as they could get from the barn, as I cautiously walked up to the barn door. One of my suspicions was that perhaps there were bees or even wasps in there. But as I peered into the darkness all I saw were three ewes, with their lambs curled by their sides, lying there and gazing calmly back at me. The moms and their babies had apparently retired early, before the rest of the flock had headed toward the barn. I do love the way that the lambs snuggle up to their moms at night, even if they have been off playing on their own all day. As I looked at the peaceful scene I realized I was still listening for buzzing. It took me a minute to change my thinking about the bees. Of course if there was an angry swarm in the barn, those three ewes and their babies would have run out with the rest of the flock. I relaxed.
Then it occurred to me that perhaps the rest of the ewes were running from the peaceful scene itself. Maybe as they moved from the outside light to the inside dark what they saw were dark hulking shadows that seemed to be waiting there to do them harm.
I know this is the kind of moment that leads people to assume that sheep are dumb. But I have always argued that sheep are actually quite intelligent. In fact, research seems to indicate that sheep are able to recognize familiar faces, both human and sheep, and can make basic mental maps of their surroundings. People in the time of Jesus knew that sheep could distinguish vocal patterns and recognize familiar voices. Jesus’ observation in John 10 that “The sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice, and will not follow the voice of a stranger,” has been great sermon fodder for centuries. I am certain many of my colleagues preached about that just a few weeks ago when that text came up in the lectionary.
So I will give my sheep credit for noticing that something seemed different in the barn, and for being nervous about it. I, on the other hand, can be so oblivious to “something different” that when something in our worship service changes, and the change is right there in the bulletin in front of me, I still go on leading as if nothing has changed, and confuse my whole congregation in the process (This is an acknowledgement of skipping the “Passing of the Peace” a few weeks back when it was moved to a different place in our order of worship).
In the end, I couldn’t get the outside sheep to go into the barn by myself. I finally had to enlist the help of my dog Lefty. One look at him and even the most reluctant of the flock scampered into the barn and stayed there.
But isn’t it interesting that it was sheep from their own flock that they didn’t recognize? Isn’t it interesting that it was sheep that were scaring sheep?
In my human world, of course, the same thing can happen. There are shadows in the barn, and I run away in fear. I fail to recognize the humanity of others. I mistake something “different” for something “wrong.” The John 10 sheep parable that suggests that the sheep recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd continues on. It also suggests that there are “other sheep, not of this fold” who know God’s voice, and God’s love, and that the final vision of God’s heart is that “there will be one flock and one shepherd.” My work is to look further into the what seems so unfamiliar, and recognize the outline of my kin.