“What’s your occupation?” That’s a question I often have to ask people. If you are getting married or having a child baptised it goes in the register, recorded for posterity. A couple of centuries ago, every other person would probably have been an agricultural labourer, but now the answers are very varied, and often quite puzzling. It’s all project managers and consultants and the like. I often have to ask, “so, what do you actually do?”
Sometimes the people answering the question are just as baffled, though. New parents booking Christenings are often at a time of flux in their lives. One or other of them may be taking time off to care for their children.They may not be sure what their plans are for the future. Maybe they won’t go back to the job they once did. But are you still a hairdresser if you don’t dress hair? How long can you call yourself a brain surgeon if you aren’t performing brain surgery?
Unemployment and retirement can lead to the same uncertainty, and it can be quite a crisis for people . “Who am I now that I haven’t got that convenient label anymore? “
I was reading a commentary earlier this week on the 23rd Psalm. It’s the set Psalm for today, Good Shepherd Sunday, which is why we sang one of the many hymns based on it at the beginning of the service. The commentator, an expert on ancient languages called Sarah Ruden, made the point that the first line, as we normally know it, really isn’t an accurate translation at all. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” That’s what’s familiar to us. But Sarah Ruden pointed out that the word we translate as shepherd isn’t actually a noun – a word for a thing - at all. It’s a participle – a part of speech derived from a verb, a doing word, if you’re interested in the grammatical technicalities. It doesn’t say “The Lord is my shepherd” ; it says “the Lord is the one who is shepherding me”. Ruden points out that in the ancient world the idea of having one occupation would have seemed rather strange to most people. They did a wide range of jobs - whatever they needed to do to provide for themselves and their families, just as subsistence farmers and smallholders do today. In the course of a normal day they might be shepherding one minute, sowing the next, or building a wall or taking goods to market to sell. There were specialists in various trades and crafts, but Ruden says that job titles were rare for ordinary people. You just did whatever came your way to put food on the table and clothes on your back.
So the psalmist isn’t giving us a title for God here; he’s telling us what God does for him, a vulnerable sheep. Shepherding involves providing food and rest, guidance and protection, being with the sheep in the dark valleys, rod and staff at the ready to defend them. You may call yourself, but if you aren’t doing these things then the title is meaningless. I expect we’ve all had experience of people set over us who bear the title of “line manager” but never take any interest in managing us, or people who are called “assistants” who don’t assist. Having a title on your contract is one thing, but it’s actually doing the job that counts.
Shepherding wasn’t an image people in Biblical times used just for God, though. They looked to their human leaders for shepherding too, for care and sustenance, but often they fell far short of God’s ideal. The Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, thundered at the leaders of Israel who’d failed to care for God’s people, “Thus says the Lord God. ..You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals...
thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. ( 34.3-6 & 11)
So when Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd in the Gospel reading we heard today, people knew exactly what he was saying, and it was deeply challenging, deeply political, and deeply offensive to many of them. A carpenter from Galilee, was setting himself up as a leader of the people of Israel, and indeed of those beyond Israel too – the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”. No wonder people were shocked. But if we look at the context of these words, we find he has good reason to claim the title, because “shepherding” is exactly what he had been doing.
These words come right at the end of a story which started back in chapter 7 of the Gospel. Jesus was in Jerusalem for the feast of booths or tabernacles, Succoth in Hebrew, a festival that celebrated the end of the harvest. During it, according the Bible, everyone had to build temporary structures – the booths of the title – and live in them. This was a reminder that , however prosperous and self-sufficient they felt, with their crops gathered in around them, they had once been homeless, hungry refugees from Egypt, and it was only God’s love and care, his shepherding, that had brought them safely through that time of trial. They were, and would always be, sheep in need of a shepherd.
But during this particular feast, on the Sabbath day that fell within it, Jesus happened to come across one sheep who didn’t need to build a booth to remind him of his dependency. This man had been blind from birth, unable to earn a living, excluded by his disability from the Temple and its worship as well as facing all the other physical, emotional and social obstacles that being blind involved. What did Jesus do? He healed him. Of course he healed him, because he needed healing. It was the compassionate, sheperdy, thing to do. And the man’s life was transformed, just as a rescued sheep’s would be when it was brought back into the fold.
But all this had happened on the Sabbath, and that was a day when you weren’t supposed to work. Healing was work. Jesus was in trouble. He’d already put the backs up of the religious authorities at this feast. They’d already accused him of being possessed by demons and he’d accused them of betraying their heritage, of being unfaithful to God. The authorities had sent the Temple police to arrest Jesus, and picked up stones to stone him, but hadn’t followed through, afraid of the reactions of the crowd who supported him. Tempers were already running high. And then there was this business with the blind man.
The powers that be hauled in the blind man and his parents, bombarding them with questions about who had done this and how and why . “We don’t know, and we don’t care” they said, “All that matters is that someone who was blind now sees – hallelujah! - how can that be wrong?” And surely anyone with any compassion themselves would simply say, Amen. But that’s not what happened.
Jesus is entitled to call himself the Good Shepherd, because he is , one who has done the good shepherding, the one who has rescued this lost sheep from a life that was dangerous and miserable. But all the religious leaders can see is that the law had been broken. They are the hired hands in Jesus’ parable here, jobsworths, who, when they see the wolf coming, the challenge to their own neat ideas, the threat to their religious comfort zone, decide it is above their paygrade and hightail it out of danger. And they were in the right, according to the law. But Jesus was in the right according to the sheep, and it’s the sheep’s perspective that counts if you want to call yourself a shepherd.
But what’s all this got to do with us? What difference does it make to us? I think it is just as important for us as it was for the people of the Bible to understand that shepherding is a verb, not a noun. We all have the opportunity to be shepherds in the roles we fulfil, whether that is in our families, in church, in our workplaces or neighbourhoods, but it’s what we do in those roles that matters, not what we call ourselves. You can call yourself a parent, but it’s parenting that will make the difference to your children. You can call yourself a carer, but if you aren’t caring, that means nothing.
Today we hold our Annual Parochial Church Meeting. In the light of this passage I wonder what difference it might make to us if, instead of calling ourselves a church, we called ourselves people who are “churching” - doing things which build up the Body of Christ and gather people together in our community? What might those things be, the things we can do to make other others feel cared for and welcomed?
I wondered what difference it might make to us as individuals if, instead of calling ourselves Christians, we called ourselves people who are “Christing”, living out his love in our everyday lives? That’s what counts, say our readings today – not what you call yourself, but what you are actually doing, not the nouns but the verbs.
So, what is your occupation? Forget the job title or the trade you trained for, what is it that actually occupies, and pre-occupies, you? What do you spend your time and energy doing? What have you done today, what will you do tomorrow that will actually make someone else feel loved, safe, noticed – those things we all need as vulnerable sheep in a wolf-filled world?
Our church, our community, our world doesn’t need people who call themselves Christians, or institutions that call themselves churches. It needs individuals who are “Christing” and groups of people who are “churching”, day by day and week by week in the places that God has put them. That’s what makes the difference.