The Sheep Thief: An Episcopal Story

It’s another year and another opportunity to start it with a “monumental post.”  Unfortunately, as the Anglican Curmudgeon points out, there aren’t many good things to report these days.  Our political system has gone dangerously stupid, completely in thrall to those who judge the merits of any proposal on who proposed it.  The Anglican Communion has come to the realisation that its supposed primus inter pares, Justin Welby, has sold the pass (which I’ve been waiting to happen for a long time.)

With all that, for this post I’m going back to my days at Bethesda (a church very much in the news even now.)  During most of my time there, our rector was Hunsdon Cary, whose relatives got caught in Jon Bruno’s bullying in California.  My father preferred to characterise him as a vacuous Episcopal divine, but he did manage a couple of durable accomplishments during his time: the founding of the Church Mouse (which was really the work of others) and the Boar’s/Bore’s Head celebration, which is just about the highlight of the year at Bethesda.

Our ministers would like to think that their profound theological musings are the most memorable part of their sermons.  In the case of the Anglicans this is especially problematic, but in reality the things that stick are the illustrations, something that you who preach sermons need to keep in mind.  I’m almost positive it’s Dr. Cary’s and it’s remained with me until now.

In an old village they raised a lot of sheep, and they are subject to theft.  One young man tried to make a livelihood out of it, so he was a sheep thief.

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What a sheep thief might have seen in the “old country” while plying his trade, atop Hergest Ridge, 1976.

He eventually got caught, and since they didn’t have the budgets for putting people in prison like they have now, they branded his forehead with “ST”, or “Sheep Thief.”  In a small village that was punishment enough; you were literally “branded for life” and short of taking off for London or America there weren’t many options.

Well, this sheep thief evidently took the comforting words of the Prayer Book to heart and decided to “truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways.”  He spent the rest of his days doing good deeds for people in the village, and gained a good reputation doing so.  When he was very old, while walking about, one young person asked another, “What’s the ‘ST’ on his forehead mean?”

“I don’t know,” was the reply, “I think it means Saint.”

We like to think we live in a “tolerant” time, but the reality is that it’s pretty easy to get your reputation ruined (with the consequences of that following) with one act.  In the sheep thief’s case at least he knew his act was illegal when he did it; these days the rules can change and you can get in trouble for stuff that wasn’t illegal (or considered wrong) when you did it.  And with digital memories it’s hard to shake something.  Human memory may fade but the record doesn’t.

As we start the New Year, the lesson of this illustration–in many ways harder to do now than even when Dr. Cary used it–is that we need to quit flying off at the handle and relying on virtue signalling to show the world that we are “good people.”  One of the serious consequences of the de-Christianisation of society is that we no longer know that only God is good and the rest of us need a Saviour.  That puts our “goodness” on our own efforts, and given the erratic nature of the human condition that’s an impossible order to fill.

It’s probably too much to ask at this stage in history, but at this point we as Christians need to keep the possibility–really, the imperative–of redemption in front of us, even for those whom we dislike and who hate us.  (We don’t need to confuse real reconciliation with just going along to get along, always a temptation in this society.)  Life will be a lot sweeter for us–and for others–if we do.

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