I've been here at General Conference for a full week along with delegates and observers from around the world and while much work was done in legislative committees over the past week, this week the real work begins as legislation is brought to the plenary. Yesterday I had the chance to take some time off and spent the morning worshipping at Hyde Park UMC here in Tampa. Bishop Will Willimon from North Alabama Conference, in his inimitable blunt and frank style, preached a strong message on John 10:11-18, the famous passage that reveals Jesus as the Good Shepherd and we as his dumb sheep.
That's an interesting and apt metaphor for what's going on here in the plenary. Ironically, the voting delegates on the main floor of the plenary are separated from the rest of us by a fabric fence that runs the whole way around them–a thousand Christian of different colors and dispositions all penned in like sheep. On the stage and presiding over the proceedings is the Council of Bishops whose symbol of office is a shepherd's crook. The shepherds in this case preside over the sheep, but it's the sheep who do the voting and deciding via electronic keypads. Indeed, half of the delegates in the sheep pen are pastors, which is another word for shepherd. The shepherds are also sheep, so…well, you get the idea.
Many of these shepherds/sheep have their own ideas of whether the flock should go left or right (let the reader understand). Indeed, some will want to stray no matter what the shepherds say. Some of the sheep here are biters and some are the docile type whose brand is their victimhood. The sheep form sub-flocks and talk about how all the other sheep are idiots. The bleating and biting has already begun and, by all accounts, it promises to get worse as the week goes on.
Bishop Willimon reminded us yesterday that there are two important realities in the Gospels that the sheep need to hear today–two truths that will both guide and critique the work within the General Conference pen. The first is Jesus' definition of who's really in charge: "I am the Good Shepherd." All other shepherds pale by comparison. Whatever we do here, if it fails to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the real leader, we are destined for disaster. A lot of the sheep here think they know what Jesus is up to and want to herd the flock in his stead but, as the Bishop put it, the first step in being able to really follow Jesus is for each of us to state an important reality: "I am not the Good Shepherd." Only Jesus can lead us, and the way he does so is by laying his life down for the sheep. Any shepherd that isn't willing to lay down his life for the sheep isn't a shepherd at all, but a hired hand (John 10:11-13). Any would-be sub-shepherds will need to have the same mind as Jesus, who sacrificed himself and his own interests for the good of the flock, from the temptations of the wilderness all the way to the cross. That's an attitude missing in many of these debates.
The second reality has to do with the Good Shepherd's assessment of his beloved sheep, which he offers at the moment he lays down his life for them: "They don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Maybe we ought to admit that in the midst of all this wrangling and politicking that, in the end, we don't know what we're doing. We don't know what the future of the United Methodist Church will be. We don't know if any the proposed reforms, if passed, will make any difference in the end. Despite all appearances to the contrary, we really don't know what we're doing. We like to think that Jesus' word from the cross only applies to those who nailed him there out of hatred and self-interest, but we're guilty of hatred and self-interest, too. Maybe if we admitted that we don't really know what we're doing, we'd do a lot less legislating and lot more listening to the Good Shepherd in worship and prayer.
I once gave a children's message where I was making the same essential point that the bishop was making–that sheep are pretty dumb when it comes right down to it. One of the children stood up and said forcefully, "Sheep are not dumb!" Her grandpa had them on his farm and she was convinced that they were smart. Subsequent studies have revealed that, indeed, sheep aren't that much dumber than any of the other barnyard animals. But barnyard animals need to be constantly cared for, fed, and protected. They can't generally survive in the wild on their own. Intelligence is always a relative term, whether you're talking about sheep or people. No matter how smart you are, you're still a sheep and you need a good shepherd.
I remember watching a pre-General Conference briefing several months ago when, after 45 minutes of rolling out proposals for structure and process, one of our bishops finally said, "And where does Jesus fit into all of this?" That's the dumb question that defines the problem. The sheep want to try and bring Jesus into the pen. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wants to lead them to an altogether new pasture.
My prayer this week is that we'll spend more time asking the Shepherd than debating with the sheep–that maybe the ethics of the sheep pen will be replaced by the ethos of the Good Shepherd.
Let the sheep say, "Amen."