Musty… A mixture of straw, manure, and mold. That’s what I remember from my first interaction with sheep. One of the boys in my one-room Adventist school was the son of a shepherd and our class went to his sheep farm to see the sheep. My most vivid memory of Levi is of him pinning me to the bathroom stall wall and saying hypnotically into my face, “I’m your friend.” I don’t remember being entirely convinced. Upon visiting the sheep farm, one of them kicked me. I wonder if I would have had the same impression of sheep today if I had grown up tending them. If you have ever been in 4H club, your hobby experience was probably pretty different than mine was growing up. I have never known the joy of bottle feeding a calf or having a pig to call my own. Also, you might have a slightly better idea of what the challenge of managing sheep is like. From my singular experience with both smell, and the kick, I think I might overestimate the difficulty of modern shepherding. None of us, however, would really have the authority to talk about what it was like to be a shepherd in Jesus’ time, for it is a world so different from ours as to render much of our understanding impotent. I’m willing to bet that it was stinky, but to the people of the time, sheep were money, and money was life, so perhaps they thought of it like we think of the smell of a crisp new Benjamin. Or maybe they still thought of it as just the stench of a smelly sheep. Either way, just as today we often do not manage our 401ks, the wealthy people of Jesus’ day didn’t manage their sheep. They had others do it for them, then judged them for what tactics those shepherds had to use in order to compete in their jobs. As Kenneth E. Bailey states in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, “For the Pharisee a ‘sinner’ was either an immoral person who did not keep the law or a person engaged in one of the proscribed trades, among which was herding sheep.” Shepherds, then, were outcasts in a very real sense in Jesus’ day, and while we must be careful not to assume too much about how they felt about their place in the social order, Jesus addressed the outcasts’ needs, and they loved him for it, so one can make the jump that it got to them sometimes being different and looked down upon. This brings us to Rudolph.
Do you recall the most famous reindeer of all? Robert May and Romeo Muller ask us, in their 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, to consider outcasts. One of Santa’s elves, Hermey, is an outcast because he wishes to be a dentist rather than build toys. Rudolph, of course, has a shiny nose, and his peers shun him for his difference. Hermey’s reaction to being shunned for his life choice is as honest as any outcast in the real world. He exclaims to Rudolph that he “[doesn’t] need anybody” and that “[he’s]… [he’s] independent” (00:21:43). Rudolph claims the same independence, and so Hermey suggests that they be “independent together” (00:22:00). Herein lies the first lesson of the film for unaccepting churches. Misfits will leave, and it does not take much to make this happen. As the society at large accepts and empowers misfits, churches should not be surprised when they leave unaccepting environments to seek out accepting environments. Whether it’s an evolutionary biologist who is compelled by his or her own intellectual honesty to be a misfit, or a homosexual who is designated by nature to be a misfit, or a punk rocker, or an a film maker, or a homeless woman, or a drug addict, they all will seek independence together if they do not have a place in their one-time spiritual home.
As Hermey and Rudolph leave their home, they encounter a prospector in search of silver and gold. They encounter an abominable snowman, and they encounter an island of misfit toys. Outcasts who leave their churches will encounter many different perspectives – many different kinds of people, some driven, some potentially damaging, and some who have been damaged. The abominable snowman is a danger, until he is rendered safe by Hermey’s skills, and the prospector risks his life for friendship rather than for silver or gold. This is the second lesson that the church can learn from this story: that when people allow to serve each other with their gifts, everyone changes.
The most poignant example of redemption comes at the end of the story. All of the misfits are reunited with the wider community. Hermey becomes the dentist for the North Poll, Rudolph becomes the leader of the team with his red nose, the misfit toys find new homes where they make children happy, and even the abominable snowman finds a place in the community. The third and perhaps best lesson the church can learn from Rudolph is that through accepting community, everyone is redeemed and all gifts are celebrated.
NEXT STEPS: Young Adult Ministry Training
And what of me? When I look in the mirror, I find someone who is eager to have a diverse community, brimming with life and spectrum, but if I probe that just a little, I find someone bitter toward the wider faith community to which I belong. Am I ready to return home and join Santa’s reindeer team after seeing how it has rejected the misfits in the past? The legitimate side of me looks at exclusionary language used by church leadership and concludes that it is not yet safe for misfits to return, but there is a vindictive, dark, bitter side of me that wants to punish my church for what it has done. Without my willingness, and all misfits’ willingness, to return, stand, join in, and forgive, healing and redemption cannot happen.
The shepherds could have ignored the angels, saying, “If this is the Son of the God whose people have relegated us to be outcasts, then why should we go and see him or worship him?” They chose to go. They chose to show up despite being disenfranchised. What did they receive in return? Many things, one of which was a chance to be at the ground level a movement to mainstream misfits. I hope that’s still what the movement is about.
I wonder what ever happened to Levi. I hope he learned how to gain friends without pinning them against bathroom stalls. Even if he didn’t, however, perhaps someday he still will. I didn’t foresee redemption for the abominable snowman when I saw Rudolph for the first time. Perhaps Levi’s sheep will lead him, just as I find God’s church leading me.[/box_holder]