September 12, 2016

Sixty Pound Fleece

Once upon a time there was a sheep named Shrek.

Seriously, about twenty years ago there was a Merino sheep in New Zealand named after the beloved animated ogre, Shrek. Like his cartoon counterpart, Shrek the Sheep was also destined to become famous.

In the late 1990s, while waiting for his annual sheering, Shrek escaped into New Zealand’s mountainous countryside.

Hiding in caves and living off the land, that’s where he stayed and continued to avoid his haircut for six years.

In 2004, however, Shrek’s running days came to an end. His owner found him that April, but by that time, the crafty sheep needed more than a little trim.

Unlike other breeds, Merino sheep don’t naturally shed their wool each year. Shrek, therefore, had six years’ worth of fleece on his back.

His mane covered his eyes and almost touched the ground beneath his belly.

He looked like a gigantic ball of fur with a nose.

In fact, Shrek’s look was so distinctive that photos of him quickly began to circulate, his story became known, and he became something of a national celebrity. (Go ahead. Have a look for yourself.)

When he finally did go under the shears, it happened in front of a worldwide television audience. Millions tuned in to see Shrek’s 60 pound fleece removed and auctioned off for charity.

His fame enduring, Shrek’s story continued to inspire several children’s books and other merchandise and, in 2006, his next shearing was also broadcast—from an iceberg floating near the New Zealand coast.

And Shrek lived happily ever after, so the story goes.

Well, he lived for a very long time, anyway, and along the way he made a lot of people smile and he helped raise millions of dollars to help kids—so, happily ever after.

Of course, sheep and their shepherds play a prominent role in the scripture. From the altars of ancient sacrifices to the angelic proclamation of Jesus’ birth, we couldn’t tell the Bible’s story without them.

Inspired authors also repeatedly drew parallels between the wandering ways of sheep and our own.

“I have gone astray like a lost sheep,” is the Psalmist’s confession.

“[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” says the Lord. “And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

In fact, the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd is probably one of the most cherished teachings in the New Testament.

Drawing inspiration from earlier Greek art, the image of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders has been the subject of Christian iconography since the Church’s beginning.

Teachings about the Good Shepherd have inspired some of our greatest songs; “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought,” “Savior, Like a Shepherd, Lead Us,”

The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.

I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.

In troubles times and seasons of grief, the faithful draw comfort from Jesus’ words,
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
Yes, the Good Shepherd and good shepherding habits are bedrock Christian teachings.

Thoughts of the Good Shepherd came to my mind this week through the reading of Luke’s 15th chapter because, in this passage, Jesus defends himself and the crowds surrounding him against charges of misbehavior by, again, shining a light on wayward sheep and the people who care for them.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
This parable’s point is two-fold. First, it speaks of God’s forgiving nature.

Jesus teaches us that God receives and forgives those who humbly turn to God and doesn’t hold their past against them, like some sort of spiritual blackmail.

“Sure, come take a seat at my table, but watch your step or I’ll let everyone know what you did last night!”

That’s not Good News.

No. Jesus tells us that God is extravagantly merciful and filled with joy when a sinner comes home.

Repentance isn’t the sinner’s bargain to get just enough grace out of God to get by. Instead, it is God’s good pleasure to be gracious for “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The parable’s second point is related to the first. If it is God’s nature to forgive, then forgiveness is a holy and sacred act in which God’s people should engage.

If God isn’t willing to let the past write the future, then neither should we.

If God desires reconciliation, then those who worship God must overcome the temptation that allows arrogance and self-righteousness to cloud our judgements, to hold others at a distance, and to restrain the Spirit that makes rebirth possible.

It shouldn’t be lost on us that this is precisely the temptation to which Jesus’ audience was succumbing. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees regarded the sinners and tax collectors as inferior or maybe they would’ve preferred it if Jesus just made them jump through a few hoops before breaking bread with them. Whatever their motivation, their attitude lacked the commitment to reconciliation that Jesus deems fundamental.

“As far as the east is from the west,” says the Word of God, “[that’s how] far [God] removes our transgressions from us,” so who are we to shove someone’s past in their face?

This thought, or something like it, was absolutely on Jesus’ mind when he told this story to the would-be gatekeepers of proper piety and devotion.

The parable about the lost sheep is about a forgiving God.

The parable about the lost sheep is also about God’s call to the faithful to practice forgiveness.

These lessons capture the essence of Jesus’ exchange with his detractors, but a close reading of Luke shows us that, even though Jesus directed his comments at them, he might have had another audience in mind.

Remember how Luke sets the stage for us in verse 1; “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”

For the people closest to Jesus, then, the talk about a wandering sheep wasn’t a theological dispute or a Sunday school lesson. This was life giving Good News!

What they’d been through didn’t define them.

Their future with God wasn’t chained to the past.

And there was nothing that they’d done or left undone that was more determinative of their identity than the reality of God’s love.

Jesus might have been talking to the scribes and Pharisees, but I know that the sinners and tax collectors are the ones who really heard him.

That brings me back to Shrek the Sheep.

Why did Shrek run away?

Had he been planning a daring escape for months? I doubt it.

Something that he heard or something that he saw probably scared him and that was all it took.

I think a great many people need to hear the Good News that the same God who forgives us stands ready to receive and help us and bring healing to us when we’re ready to talk about the difficult places into which our fears have led us, too.

Lord, I never meant to hurt anybody, but I got scared and took off running and now my life is an overgrown mess—just like that famous sheep in New Zealand.

Fifteen years ago, we were afraid—there’s no shame in that—and since 2001, many of us have become well acquainted with what fear can do to us and to the people that we love.

Impaired judgment, anxiety, anger, depression, self-abuse, substance abuse, sleeping too little, sleeping too much—fear hurts us. We know this.

But the Good Shepherd knows the names if his frightened sheep, too, and he calls us home. He calls us to himself.

The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never.

I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.

May the words we sing give voice to the faith we share, and may we always give thanks to God for the Good News of our Savior’s love.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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