Although I dislike preacher to cracker comparisons, Minister Westminster does resemble a saltine: steady, with a dash of salt for flavor, or savor, as the Bible puts it. I am not a Calvinist, suggesting that people cannot rise above their packaging; with faith and good works, anyone can be a Triscuit. When church member Garton Purby decided sheep sounds were suitable for worship, no one would have compared Westminster’s reaction to that of an ordinary cracker.
Used with restraint, “amens” are an accepted part of worship—sheep sounds, not so much. After the first baa, Westminster stopped in mid-sentence, looking for a sheep, a plausible thing in Sycamore Shadows. Seeing no livestock, he continued. Garton Purby baa’d again. Westminster stopped once more, looking at Purby, who baa’d a third time, as if daring Westminster to object.
As a shepherd, Westminster could not permit sheep sounds in his flock. Allow sheep noises and someone will bray, followed by grunts, gobbles, clucks and quacks. Soon, worship will more resemble the county fair livestock barn than church services.
Explaining that biblical sheep were a metaphor, Westminster admonished Purby to rightly divide the word of truth. His hands gripping the sides of the pulpit, Westminster raised an eyebrow and scanned the congregation. If other members were feeling woolly, he would let them know they were under observation. Even those who walk the straight and narrow feel guilty when a preacher raises an eyebrow and scans the congregation.
“Did I miss a sin?” they ask themselves.
Not Garton Purby. Arms folded, he smiled toward the pulpit with typical liberal arrogance.
His anger roused, Westminster pounded his fist, rumbling the pulpit like a kettledrum.
“As the veil of the temple was rent in twain,” he thundered, “the earth did quake, and the rocks did rent!”
So powerful were his words that waves formed in the baptistry. While the echo of his admonition shook the building, Westminster pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the tears from his eyes.
“As happened on that dismal day,” he said quietly, as if to himself, “so is this congregation in danger of being torn asunder.”
Oppressive silence fell upon the Church of the Lost Sheep. Edwina Hotchkiss, relieved to finally understand metaphors, resolved to quit smoking by the end of the month. Irrationally afraid of farm animals and believing that she’d have to work as a shepherdess for eternity, Edwina had chosen certain eternal damnation over the unknown horrors of animal husbandry. Myrtle Blemish, who had never considered making animal sounds in church, suddenly wanted to grunt like a pig. Curly Dowd wondered if he should cover his peas and beans.
Garton Purby stood, smiled toward the pulpit, and left the building. Seventeen members followed, the last one crowing like a rooster as he closed the door. Worshiping at the Fainburn Hotel, they call themselves the Church of the Progressive Sheep. As I walk to the Nightshade Diner for lunch each Sunday afternoon, I hear the sound of asses braying in the basement.