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When I took the call twenty years ago to the First Reformed Church of Little Falls, New Jersey, I found an office that had been unoccupied for two and half years, but before that had been used by the previous, long-term pastor of the church.
There was a lot to sort through! File cabinets that held the records of the previous pastor’s 26-year ministry, stuffed desk drawers, jumbled closets, full book shelves. My husband and I peered into every dusty corner and took up the old, brown carpet to see what was underneath (nice pine). I made decision after decision regarding what should stay and what should go.
At one point, we found a bunch of vintage 1940s and 50s-era art—giant paperboard posters declaring oddly time-bound slogans like “Building Boys is Better than Mending Men; Attend Church Regularly!” and “Mother’s Day: Are You Worthy of Her Faith In You?”
We also found two old lithographs depicting Jesus the Good Shepherd. They were different and yet had similar themes—the shepherd’s crook, the still waters. In each, Jesus carried a lamb, of course. Because they were so similar, I re-framed them and hung the pictures on two small areas of the wall where I could see them when I sat at my desk.
Sometimes, in a quiet moment, I gazed at them, thinking, “I myself am a kind of little shepherd myself as a pastor. What can I learn from these scenes?”
One day, as I looked at one of the pictures, I noticed something that I hadn’t before. The sheep that Jesus the Shepherd is tending are fluffy, pure white—except one. One sheep, half-hidden behind Jesus’ robe and behind others of the flock, is black. I looked quickly to the other framed picture—well, I’ll be dashed, there, only partially visible, was another lone black sheep!
This isn’t a coincidence, surely. Perhaps this inclusion of one black sheep in the otherwise homogeneous flock reflected a traditional “rule” for art depicting the Good Shepherd in that era. I have since read about how Renaissance art depicting the Flight to Egypt traditionally includes a small snake on the ground, or how those depicting the Annunciation must include an Easter lily.
Now, when I look at my two Shepherd pictures, my eye is always drawn to those black sheep. They are half-hidden. They are not at the front of the flock, but in the midst of it; behind Jesus, never before him. I find myself wishing that the artists had been braver, more expansive, more willing to depict a diverse flock. I try to understand that, like those paperboard posters, these images are time-bound in the 1940s idealized Western, white Christendom (even Jesus is shown as Caucasian, yikes!).
One differently-colored sheep is not enough. But even in these paintings, from that era, there is at least the small admission that Jesus’ flock is not all the same. Those black sheep can at least symbolize for us the fact that the congregations we are a part of are never homogeneous—even when they might seem so at first to the eye. Of course, we are racially and ethnically diverse, but are also diverse in so many other ways—rich and poor share Bibles in our pews, old and young partake the Sacrament, male and female lift their voices in song together, people who are gay and straight and trans pray for one another. This is how God has meant it to be.
“The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body! If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 16-17). In other words, diversity in the Body of Christ is its own reward. It allows us to function well and to do God’s will with harmony and health.
Conformity is not only boring, Paul says, it actually distorts the Body (“if the whole body were an eye”) and prevents even its most basic life. In 1 Corinthians 12 in his extended allegory of the Body, Paul repeatedly uses the words diaireseis, (variety, difference) and polla, (many) as positive descriptions of God’s dream for the Church. Paul tells us that the only way in which believers are “all the same” is that we all believe in the same Lord.
So may we let diversity be our new ideal! Let us look for this kind of blessed variety in our churches, in our workplaces, in our families, in our friend-groups—including the sorts of variety that are not immediately evident to the eye. Let us give thanks to God for diversity in the flock—it is its own reward.
The black sheep could represent diversity of externals or diversity of sin. It looks to me like Jesus welcomes even those who struggle more openly with sin. We want to stay in the background, but we are still included in His grace. He doesn’t send us away.
Great observations! Things have changed. If done today, the painting should show that the majority of the sheep are brown and black and various shades, with the white ones in the minority. That is the reality of today’s worldwide church.
Maybe you should lend those pictures to be hung at this years synod of the RCA along with your right on article!
It’s good to hear your voice here, Emily.