When our children was small, we bought them a toy that looked like a barn. It had a pull string that would make an arrow in the middle of it spin and a voice would magically say the name of a farm animal and the sound that animal makes. "The cow says moooo" it would say. "The pig says oink." "The sheep says baa." There were many animals on it and each had a unique sound it made. The kids enjoyed pulling the string and making the animals talk as they tried to imitate each sound. As they grew older, the toy was left in the toy box and, believe it or not, we still own that toy and it still works.
I like to think about sheep saying "Baaaaaa!", not just "Baa." Now, you may be wondering what is the difference between "Baaaaa!" and just plain old "Baa." I have not been around sheep very much, hardly at all to be honest, but the few times I have been around them I have noticed that sheep who are in need do not just say a normal, monotone "Baa" but they really shout it out, a long, low or high pitched noise to really get your attention. It is more like "Baaaaa!" with that exclamation point emphasizing the need they have that must be met.
My wife and I spent a week in Wales back in 2001 when I had a sabbatical in the United Kingdom for a month. We tacked on two weeks of vacation to the month of sabbatical and were gone for six weeks. We had a marvelous time, choosing Coventry as home base from which to explore the rest of England and Wales. We were there when the terrible "hoof and mouth disease" had spread throughout the land and massive amounts of cattle and sheep were being slaughtered to prevent the spread of disease. Everywhere we went that was agricultural in nature provided mats that contained disinfectant that one had to walk over in order to keep the spread of the disease down. Even when we returned to the States, we had to take one final walk across a Lysol mat before we could go home.
One week we were there we spent in a cottage in Wales. It was part of a timeshare organization to which we belonged. The cottage was down a narrow country road and adjacent to a field in which a herd of sheep resided. Sheep would often block the way down the road so that you had to stop your car and allow the sheep to pass before you could proceed. The sheep were of many kinds--some fat, some skinny, some little, some big, some younger and some older. We would drink our coffee each morning and look out onto the meadow beside our cottage and it truly was one of the most pastoral scenes we had ever encountered.
There was one particular sheep in the pasture that we became fascinated with. We called him "Fluffy". Fluffy seemed very lively and occasionally kicked up his heels. I figured he was the life of the barnyard and made all the others enjoy their day simply by his presence. One day a terrible lightning storm came up. Rain came down in a deluge. Lightning and thunder happened again and again. We watched out the window at the herd of sheep and learned that the sheep would simply stand still like statues when the bad weather was coming down on them. They never moved as long as the lightning was flashing and the thunder was roaring. The rain pelted their fur and they just took it. Even Fluffy just stood there withstanding all the blows that nature could pass out. Finally, the storm passed by and the sheep went back to grazing and milling about. The worst was over and they could resume life as normal.
Sheep are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for being. They have been tested and compared to other animals that we assume are smart (such as chimpanzees) and proved to be just about as smart as the average chimp. They can recognize their names after hearing it a lot. They can roll over when they need to cross a cattle guard to get to a more lush meadow if that is in the way. They can recognize people they know and follow them around, much like a dog does. The old story about them being so dumb they would follow the leader over a cliff has little to do with intelligence but much to do with being part of a community. They need to be part of a group and actually get very anxious when separated from their group. They need the security that being part of the group provides.
This week's Gospel lesson from John 10 has Jesus teaching people about sheep. He tells them that he is the good shepherd and cares about the sheep. He also says that he comes to give them "abundant life" not just ordinary life. Abundant life is fulfilling, meaningful life. It is life that expands and excites and goes beyond the ordinary into the unexpected. The Good Shepherd leads the sheep where they should go and calls them by name. He knows each one by name and they follow him wherever he goes because he knows them. They respond to his call because they know he truly cares for them.
Abundant life is life worth living. It is life that does not settle for just anything but looks for the unique and wonderful in daily live. It is not content with just existing but wants more out of life than many people want. Maybe that is why sheep are not content to stay in one pasture but want to explore and look for the greener grass even if it means crossing a chasm or a river. The green grass may be worth the effort and risk but one will never know unless one goes in search of what may be the best grass one has ever enjoyed.
"For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls." (I Peter 2:25)