Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 13:24-37:
Every Thanksgiving morning when I was growing up my brother and I would get up and go into my parent’s bedroom and climb into bed with them and together we would all watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade all the way until Santa Clause appeared, which was the best part because that was the official beginning of the Christmas season and the time when we could begin playing Christmas music. That is one of my fondest childhood memories. As an adult, it is also one of the traditions I have tried to keep alive.
Even this year when we were at the Grand Canyon we watched the parade in our hotel room. Linda and I have also gone to New York to see the parade with the girls twice, although they do not remember going. Now, following the parade broadcast, NBC shows the National Dog Show. Since Linda and I have begun our own traditions for Thanksgiving, it has included watching the dog show as well. Now, if you can disregard the overt racism that comes with and was very much a part of the founding of kennel clubs and dog breeding which seeks to create the perfect breed and to make sure that the breed remains pure, if you can disregard all of those facts, dog shows can be fun to watch. But, you may be wondering, what in the world do dog shows or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade have anything to do with the first Sunday of advent or the scripture that was read this morning?
Traditionally the minister has been seen and talked about as being the shepherd to the flock. I’m the shepherd and you’re the flock. This has been the symbolism both metaphorically and also literally for a long time. Ministers will often refer to having to take care of their flock, congregations often use the same type of language, and the Pope and even our bishops carry a shepherd’s crook. We are supposed to be the shepherd guiding and keeping the flock safe. However, this is an image that has always bugged me and as the scripture this morning illustrates, it is actually incorrect.
The minister is not the shepherd, nor is the district superintendent, the bishop or even the Pope the shepherd. I understand what a powerful image the leader of the congregation as shepherd is, and I can see how it became part of the tradition. But, the simple fact is, it is wrong. I am not the shepherd; God is the shepherd. Now scripture is full of shepherd imagery, but it is nearly always God who is the shepherd not someone else. As the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd….”, or as we are told in Matthew, that Jesus had compassion for the people because they “were like sheep without a shepherd.” So first of all we need to remove the idea of the minister as shepherd from our thinking. But, if the minister is not the shepherd then what are we?
Many of you will have already figured this out from the title of this message; if God is the shepherd, and you are the flock, then the minister must be the sheep dog. Now, I really wish I could take some credit for the idea, but it is not original to me. Several years ago a friend of mine was appointed to a church in the middle of the year, after the minister there was indicted. This was a congregation that had a history of troublesome ministerial appointments, and so for her first Sunday at the church, in order to give her some adjustment time, the daughter of one the members of the congregation gave the sermon. She wanted to talk about what had happened to the church, about its future, about its obligations to itself and about moving on. In order to help illustrate her point, she talked about how ministers were a lot like dogs and dog shows and I loved the analogy and thought it would be great to try and pass some of it on to you.
There are currently more than 150 different breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, and there must be at least than many different types of ministers, but all of them will fall into certain types of categories. The first category, and one we’ve probably all seen before, is the show dog. The show dog is most concerned with the appearance of things. It wants to be groomed and primped and showered with praise. It wants everything to be just right, to have everything in its place as it were. As a result, everything looks beautiful, most especially the show dog, and this is very impressive to behold and many people are won over by this display.
Unfortunately, even though it looks as if this work is being done for those who are witnessing the event that is actually a deceptive appearance because everything is about the dog. The dog is the most important thing. I don’t know how many people have had ministers like this, but you’ve almost certainly seen one of them on television. All the energies of the minister and also of the congregation go into feeding the ego of the minister. Everything that is done, even the good and beneficial things, are all ultimately done for one purpose: To make the minister look good.
Now, there are some benefits to having a show dog as a minister because their desire to be recognized and to be the best in show invariably helps to bring attention to the church, and people will come to someplace that is getting attention. The show dog might help to put butts in the seats, as they say, but ultimately, because they are so consumed with themselves, they can do little to make sure that the flock is being properly cared for. Little hurts are caused and ignored which eventual become open wounds which injure the community. But, by the time this happens the show dog has usually moved on because there is always a bigger and better show to move go to.
The next category of dogs is known as the toy dog, or as I like to refer to them “yip dogs.” In real life this category includes Chihuahuas and dogs like that. Now I’ll admit my bias against these types of dogs by saying that any dog that can fit in a woman’s purse is not a real dog. These dogs tend to have lots of energy and run around barking, trying to imitate real dogs and in that sense they can be cute and certainly there are lots of people who are attracted to this sort of dog. But, my obvious bias aside, they are supposed to make wonderful pets, especially for families and those living in the cities. They are loving and friendly to everyone and can climb and sit on you lap, giving them their other moniker, lap dogs.
Ministers who take after toy dogs spend lots of time running around, being ultra friendly and talking a lot. Again this is very appealing to some people because it looks like they are doing a lot of work. They are also certainly friendly enough and who does want a very friendly minister? But there are several problems with this type of minister. The first is that there is a big difference between looking busy and actually doing work. The expenditure of energy does not necessarily indicate that any work is actually getting done.
The second problem with yip dogs lies in their friendliness. For you see, there is a solid rule for clergy that is little discussed outside of the ministry: The minister is not a member of the flock. Ministers and congregants are different. I can never be one of you. I will always be the minister no matter what we are doing, I can never separate from that role. Now there are certainly ministers who violate this code, who try and be just one of the sheep, but this is almost always to the detriment of the minister and most importantly to the detriment of the congregation. When these boundaries are crossed bad things tend to happen.
Now I am not saying that the minister shouldn’t be friendly and likable, because that is certainly not the case. Nor does this mean that the minister shouldn’t love each and every member of the congregation, because that is the case because most importantly, we are the guardians and have to treat each and every member of the flock the same, no matter if you are a white sheep or a black sheep. We cannot show favoritism based upon whom we like or dislike. We are obviously human, and this is very hard to do because clearly there are going to be members of the congregation that we get along with and those that we don’t. But that is the very problem. A minister has to provide their services to all regardless of how they feel about them, and therefore they cannot show signs of favoritism. In times of crisis and times of joy, the minister needs to be able to convey the love of God for all and to all.
The final category is that of the working dog. Now this is a fairly wide category and will include the majority of pastors with whom you will ever have to deal, but there are also still some specific types within this group. First, there is working dog who doesn’t really want to work, or more blatantly, the lazy dog. The one who seems to spend their time lounging in the sun while the flock does whatever it wants to do. They tend to be those who are burned out or those who, for whatever reason, seem to be there simply to collect the paycheck and await retirement. But caution must be made when deciding if the sheep dog is lazy or not, because there are also those who appear to be lazy who aren’t.
Like with the toy dogs who seem to be always busy but who are getting little done, just because the dog is laying down at the side of the flock does not mean that he is not ever alert, watchful and doing a lot of work. It is entirely possible that they are getting a lot of the work done that needs to be done when the flock is not paying attention. But a good watch dog usually makes sure that the flock sees the work they are doing, not only to stop this sort of thinking, but also to let others, who might be a threat to the flock, know that the dog is ever vigilante as well as to let other sheep know that there is a good dog working with the flock.
The second type of working dog might be known as the point dog. This is the type of dog who, wanting to get a flock moving, goes out front and then turns around and starts barking in order to get the flock going. When the flock doesn’t move, they’ll take a few more steps forward in order to show the way and then start barking even more. When the flock still doesn’t move, they will then run back right in front of the flock and start barking a lot. This is type of minister who will use a lot of shoulds, you should be doing this, you should be doing that. The problem is, as one person so eloquently told me, people don’t like being should upon and many will leave the flock when they feel they are getting too much should. Of course the sheep dog in this situation is not in any position to do anything about it because they are so far out in front they can’t stop those at the back from leaving. The dog doesn’t understand what has gone wrong because he was only trying to lead the flock to better pastures, and the flock doesn’t understand why dog let so many other sheep get away, leaving resentment on both sides.
But, the best working dogs take combinations of all of the positive attributes and combine them. The best watch dog stands at the side when things are going well in order to survey the entire scene, but also to let the flock do its own thing. The flock has responsibilities to take care of itself as well. A good sheep dog not only lets the sheep do what they are supposed to be doing but also helps facilitate those things the sheep need to take ownership for, including bringing more sheep into the flock. One of the primary misconceptions about getting new sheep into the flock is that it is up to the sheep dog. But here’s a simple lesson in biology, sheep dogs cannot make new sheep, only sheep can make sheep. The sheep dog certainly plays a role in being able to get more sheep because they provide security, comfort and stability and they help move the flock to where the shepherd is calling them for the health of the flock, but by themselves sheep dogs cannot make more sheep.
The good sheep dog should spend his days wandering among the flock, checking on all of them, keeping them from straying to far and making sure they are content as a flock. The sheep dog does not care whether you are a white sheep or a black sheep, whether you stay firmly with the flock or whether you are more prone to become a stray. The dog doesn’t care because the shepherd doesn’t care. The shepherd has no particular favorites but loves each and every sheep exactly for whom and what they are, white wool, black wool, or no wool at all.
Now occasionally the flock will need to move in order to find better pastures. One of the problems with sheep, and other grazing animals, is that if they are not moved from time to time then they will destroy the pasture where they are. Now many sheep will be hesitant to move and some even resistant because they don’t see anything wrong and more importantly they remember how good the pasture has been to them. They remember how green it used to be and how much grass there was and they think if only we can bring that pasture back then everything will be fine. Now certainly, the sheep figure, they can’t have that old pasture again if they leave it, so they don’t want to leave. But the simple fact is, sometimes in order to regain the abundance of the past, in order to regain a thick grass on which to feed and which other sheep would like to join, the flock needs to move. And it takes a good sheep dog to know how to do this.
A good sheep dog will pick out a few of the sheep and get them moving forward, for the flock is always more likely to follow other sheep then they are some foolish dog. Once those sheep are moving, and this may require some barking, the sheep dog will move among the rest of the flock cajoling here and there, barking some and sometimes maybe even nipping at some heels in order to get the rest of the flock going forward. The dog will also make sure the flock is moving in the right direction, all under the instruction of the shepherd, and working from the back and the sides to make this happen. The flock will follow the sheep leading at the front, and the dog will keep those at the back moving with them. That is how a good dog operates, with the entirety of the flock in its mind and always looking for ways to make the flock stronger on their own. The more the flock can do for itself the better off the flock is going to be, for there is only so much that one dog can do.
Now obviously I hope that I am more like the last dog then the others, but the reality is that every minister has a little of all of these types in us. There are times when I will be a little show doggy, although that makes me very uncomfortable, I know there are times when I will want to be the point dog, but I hope I spend most of my time as the last one, working within the flock, inviting the leaders in the flock to provide the movement and direction, nipping where necessary to get everyone moving but letting the flock do what only the flock can do best. Because here is the most simple truth about sheep dogs, we come and go. The only constant is the flock and the love and presence of the shepherd.
The shepherd will never leave or go away, and the shepherd cares more for and about this flock then even the best sheep dog ever can. The strength, the endurance, the vitality, the spirit, the essence, the life and the future of any flock does not reside with sheep dog; it resides in the sheep and their relationship to the shepherd. The sheep dog will always exist outside the flock and they are always prone to change. The only constant is the flock itself, and that is where the power of any church lies. It resides in the flock, in each individual member and in their trust in the shepherd. So this week as we enter the season of advent, as we prepare to again celebrate the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus, the greatest gift we can receive, let us remember that God is the shepherd, the guide, the light of the world who shows us the way. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.