By Audrey Scanlan
This is the Sunday in the church year that we call “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Each of the three years of our lectionary supplies slightly different lessons for this Sunday, all from the Gospel of John, but they all have the same theme: sheep, shepherds, paddocks, gates, and flocks.
We are comfortable with this metaphor: Jesus, the Good Shepherd who cares for us, who seeks us out when we stray, who helps to determine our direction and guides us, and who provides for us. This morning’s lesson twists the metaphor slightly, making Jesus the gate to the paddock and, hence, the one through whom we achieve both safety and salvation.
Even with this hint of Christian exceptionalism, we still find a message that makes us feel comforted and secure; with this reading, I worry about those who don’t make it into the paddock … and then I remember Jesus’ words, just a few verses later (10:16): “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.”
My sister sent me a link to an audio book not too long ago that has been a New York Times bestseller since it was published in 2015. It is called The Shepherd’s Life. It is the memoir of James Rebank, a fourth-generation shepherd in England’s North Country — the Lake District — and in his honest and unscrubbed text, we learn all about the challenges and the joys of this work that most of us consider idyllic and even slightly romantic. Because I am listening to the book through Audible, I’m finding the narrator’s English accent, with both lilt and burl, adding an extra layer of charm.
Rebank’s story is a testament to the ancient practice of sheep farming and the precarious and vulnerable nature of farming in general. I just finished listening to a chapter in which the flocks in Rebank’s region in 2001 were infected with Foot and Mouth disease and the farmers had no choice but to put their sheep down, teetering on the edge of ruin. This livestock epidemic that affected 2,000 pigs, sheep, and cattle resulted in the slaughter of 10 million animals in an eventually successful attempt to halt the disease. It is one of the grimmer chapters of the book.
There is, in The Shepherd’s Life, a description of a type of farming that is new to me. It is called “fell” or “mountain” farming. The Lake District is mountainous and it is the practice of the shepherds to release their flock up into the hill and mountain pastures, where they stay on their own for seasons at a time.
The name for this practice of sending the flock away and having them secure a place for a time, as a group, is called “hefting.” The sheep have “hefted.” They have found their place for a season and remain there. In one interview I read, the author admits that he, as a Lake District sheep farmer, has also hefted. The Lake Region of England is, for James and his family, home.
Now, I’m not here to give a book report. But I want to draw a line between this practice of hefting and what we are doing here this morning:
We are, for the most part, communal, social creatures. While there are some among us who prefer a greater balance of alone time than others, on the whole, human beings are social creatures. Christianity is a religion that draws us into community. We talk about Jesus being present, in the midst of us, when two or three are gathered in his name. We think of ourselves as, collectively, the body of Christ; that is an intimate metaphor for our community that draws us close; and we even share a communal meal each time we gather, sharing one loaf and sipping from one cup. It has been said that Christianity is a team sport.
The image of fell farming, and of hefting, suggests some subtleties that are in keeping with the Christian tradition: we have some agency and we are interdependent. We have agency in that the farmer is not always after us, prodding us with his stick, sending his dogs to nip at our heels and push us into the next pasture.
Jesus is our shepherd, but he allows us some elbow room to live into our own. It is the difference between being beholden, like the Pharisees, to the very letter of the law — every iota — or being a follower of the Way, Jesus’ Way — moving in the spirit of the law and using heads and hearts to direct our actions, in community. Fell farming — hefting, being in community, led by our heads and hearts — feels very Episcopalian to me.
And we are interdependent. We know, from Jesus’ parable, that God will seek us out, the one lost sheep, if we stray from the flock. We are valuable and eternally redeemable in God’s eyes, but the call is to heft — to be with each other, caring for each other, giving to those who have less, lifting up the lowly among us, sharing our gifts for the good of the whole. In our reading from Acts we hear: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Later, in the fourth chapter of Acts we also read: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul … and everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). The Early Church was perhaps more commune-like than our contemporary society, but we need not lose sight of the fact that the Christian call is to community and interdependence, seeking the welfare of the group before the individual.
In the gospel lesson, Jesus says that the sheep know his voice and that they follow the shepherd. Here, in this part of the lesson, we imagine Jesus as shepherd. (He has a double role, it seems, as both gate and shepherd.) Now, in fell farming, as the sheep are hefted (and away for a season), they often produce lambs. And isn’t it curious that when the farmer arrives to lead them down from the mountains, even the babies will respond to the shepherd’s voice, as though they have known him all along.
This points to more than simply following along one’s mother or father in the moment: In our faith tradition, our relationship with our shepherd, Jesus, is passed from generation to generation in the Church.
Handel’s acclaimed oratorio, Messiah, has a chorus, “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray.” I think that today, here in your parish, we’re experiencing quite the opposite: All we like sheep have hefted for a rich and meaningful walk with our Lord. All we like sheep have committed to gather in service, prayer, sacramental participation, and worship. All we, like sheep, have hefted to this holy place. And it is in that, today, that I rejoice.
The Rt. Rev. Audrey Scanlan is Bishop of Central Pennsylvania.