And over the last six months, as they make that run from barn to pasture, we have watched the flock increase by four lambs. I remember how excited I was when the first lamb was old enough to leave the barn with the rest of the flock. I didn’t tell anyone ahead of time that the lamb would be part of the Sunday morning parade. I just waited for the clip of the lamb, taking her tentative first steps into the Outside. Sure enough, as she peeked around the door, someone posted, ”There’s the lamb! Hooray!” I was ridiculously happy to have that little “surprise” as part of worship that Sunday, like somehow the congregation might sense my great love for them when they saw that little gift.
Over the summer the lambs have grown. The congregation has watched them leap with the simple joy of being alive, as they head out to the field. The church folks have watched as the lambs discovered they don’t always have to go straight to the field, and if they turn left there are apples and fresh grass for them to enjoy. Some mornings almost half the flock has made that left hand turn, and attendance in the pasture is down. All of it has seemed to match my Seattle congregation’s own summer wanderings, as they leap with joy, find their own summer sweetness, and then find their way back to church to tell us all about their adventures.
A friend of mine from Southern California who has been worshipping with us now that the commute is so much easier texted me last week- “Had to be out this morning so didn’t get to go to church with you all. Thanks to technology we are getting to enjoy it now. There go the sheep! Love you.” And I could just picture her settling into worship with us. The sheep had led her in.
In the Before Time, when I would be up and out doing chores by 5 a.m. on Sunday mornings in order to get to Seattle early enough to prepare myself for all that a Sunday morning would hold, I was always tuned in to sunrise. In the winter I did my Sunday morning chores in the dark, but there would come a time every spring when I would notice the light of sunrise on the horizon even at 5 a.m. I could leave my flashlight in the house. That early morning light has marked my summer Sundays for almost two decades. But this year, I haven’t experienced Sunday dawns in the same way. This summer the sheep and I “sleep in” every day, even Sunday. Since March I have marked the passage of time more by the growth of the lambs and the length of my hair than by the morning sunrise.
I miss my early Sunday morning commute into Seattle. I miss getting to church and being the first one there, or maybe seeing one of the Sunday morning openers who would come to unlock everything and prepare the building for our arrival. I miss wandering into the kitchen and greeting the Sunday morning breakfast crew. I miss watching the narthex fill up, and then the sanctuary. I miss our singing, praying, worshipping together. I miss you all.
But I love that you have adopted the Release of the Sheep as a marker to begin worship in this season when we can’t gather in person. There is something about this new tradition- however long it might last- that makes me feel more connected to you at the same time I feel more connected to this farm. When I open the door to the barn, it is as if I am also opening the door to my home and inviting folks into another part of my life.
Then, last week, as another Zoom committee meeting was drawing to a close, I realized it was also time to put the sheep up. So as the meeting was ending, I turned off the camera, put my phone in my pocket, and listened in as I headed down to the pasture. The sheep saw me coming and gathered around the gate to head to the barn for the night. As I was preparing to release them, I heard the chairperson say my name.
“Catherine, would you close us in prayer?”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and unmuted. “Sure,” I answered, as I always do. I love praying with my church. And then I told them I was down with the sheep and if they wanted, they could stay on line and watched the sheep go back to the barn that they watch them run out of every Sunday. I turned the camera on and flipped it around so everyone could see the sheep there, waiting.
“God, thank you for the opportunity to gather, and for this good work you have called us to. Be with each of us as we end our day. May we be held safe, as a flock of sheep in a barn, until the morning comes. Amen”
I’m pretty sure everyone stayed on line then, as I swung open the gate. Junior’s nose pushed through first and then the whole flock trotted back into the barn. As I closed the barn door and set the latch, I placed my hand there in blessing. “May you all rest safe tonight” I said again, talking to my sheep in the barn and to those from my church who were right there with me too, at the end of my farm day as well as my church day. Maybe the return of the sheep to the barn could become a church tradition too.
Even in this time of being apart, I love being the shepherd of two flocks.