I have often wondered about those ‘other sheep’ to whom Jesus refers today.
- Specifically, who are they?
- And why does Jesus make it a point to mention them at all?
- In the midst of comforting words about his identity as the ‘good shepherd;’
- Just before the promise that this shepherd would lay down his life for the sheep;
- In the wake of the certainty that Jesus knows his sheep and they know him, he speaks of other sheep. Ones that ‘don’t belong to this fold,’ but who will be brought along also.
- And what do those ‘other sheep’ have to do with you and me?
And so it is I have wondered at where I have encountered those ‘other sheep’ in these past days. And I have wondered at my, at our, response to them as those whom Jesus knows and who know Jesus in return. I would offer you some possible scenarios now…
Two weeks ago I got a call from a local funeral director. A woman had died. She had no church home. Would I do the funeral? He went on to say the funeral would be at the funeral home. And that the family would like a lunch.
The latter doesn’t happen often. In my experience, most people, if they have no connection to our congregation, do not expect us to provide a meal. But this time the death had been unexpected and those closest to the one who had died truly did not know where to turn.
If you have walked with me for a while, you know it is a rare thing for me to say ‘no’ to a funeral for I have never believed a family should be left alone at such a time, particularly if they are asking. As for the funeral lunch, when I visited with the family, I suggested we just serve desserts as the funeral would be in the afternoon. They readily agreed. I passed the request along to the faithful folks in my congregation who serve in this way. And yet, I know that at least a few eyebrows and questions were raised when it was learned we would provide this hospitality. The questions are normal, of course. What obligation do we truly have to those who are ‘do not belong to this fold?’ And yet, it appears that Jesus opens up the question for us today by blurring the lines between those who belong and those who do not yet and those who perhaps one day will.
Speaking of funerals, here is another:
In the middle of Lent I officiated at a double funeral. She was 93. He was 94. She was Lutheran. He was a life-long Catholic. They died within days of one another and their children wanted them to share a funeral.
I am not fully aware of all the conversation that led up to this decision. I do know that in her last weeks, I had visited Vivian almost daily and I got to know her husband, Bob, quite well over that time. So it was that I was asked to officiate at their funerals together. Only they would like a priest to be present.
His own priest was unavailable that day. We found another, only he told me that while he would be there, he would not be allowed to actually participate. When I let him know the family had requested Communion he quickly replied, “But Catholics can’t take communion there.” In turn, I said, “Well, Father, that is not my call. Our practice is to invite everyone. Whether or not they receive will be up to them.”
Everyone who attended the funeral received the sacrament. Everyone but the priest, that is. And yes, there were a fair number of Catholics among those gathered. They may have even been in the majority.
So, who is ‘of the fold’ and who ‘is not’ and who is ‘not yet’ and who is to judge? Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus just shakes his head sometimes at how we tend to draw lines between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘not in’ the fold.
We are in our fourth semester of providing free sack lunches for students at Northern Illinois University. The mission is clear. A high percentage of our students are hungry. We have the means to feed them. And so once a week volunteers have stood on the street corner and handed out 100 lunches to whoever wants them. No strings. No questions asked. The other day it took all of 15 minutes to give them away! Questions about who is ‘belongs to the fold’ and who ‘does not’ have never come up.
Several weeks ago we were approached by the marketing person from a local restaurant chain, offering to help. They would be happy to provide the sandwiches.
The instinct of those who were first approached was to say ‘no.’ We were getting along just fine, thank you. And did we want to get in the business of advertising for local businesses?
Then we thought again. We returned to the mission. One hundred donated sandwiches would allow us to do this on another day. More young people would be a little less hungry. And so we sat down with the one who offered and worked it out and for the last several weeks we have been able to ensure that twice as many students are fed.
We had seen this as our mission. And yet, maybe it is so that as Jesus says, the ‘sheep not of this fold’ are simply ‘not yet‘ of this fold. And by partnering with anyone who would help us do good, perhaps we are exhibiting the same openness as Jesus when he says “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Perhaps in this way, we are paving the way for them to be part of it with us. Perhaps?
I could go on and on offering examples of times when those ‘who belong to the fold’ have encountered those who ‘do not yet belong to the fold’ and have wondered how to proceed. I imagine you can as well. And so for now I am wondering:
- How do you hear Jesus’ words about ‘sheep that do not belong to this fold?’ Why do you think he speaks them here in this context?
- What do you think his words have to do with you and me who understand ourselves as those who ‘do belong to this fold?’
- When have you encountered these ‘other sheep?’ What happened next?