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Sheep and shepherds

By Mike Ruffin I spent six years of my life preaching in a sanctuary that had a large stained glass picture hanging over its baptistery. (For you good folks who worship in churches that use less water than Baptists and some others do to baptize, that’s where they dunk new believers and the occasional backslider who wants a do-over.) The picture portrays Jesus holding a lamb. It’s one of the most beloved Christian images: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We get the image from Jesus’ own words: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). When we think about a good shepherd, our minds also go back to the 23rd Psalm, which begins, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ The psalm celebrates the ways that God takes care of us as we journey through life. The Gospel celebrates the fact that Jesus is such a good shepherd that he died for our sake. We don’t see a lot of sheep in our part of the world, so most of us don’t know much about them. I sure don’t. One day I was telling a friend how weary I was of having to tell church folks the same things over and over ‘“ you know, things like how we Christians really should follow Jesus and try to treat other folks with love and respect. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘the Bible says we’re sheep, and sheep aren’t the brightest creatures in the world.’ (You should know that my friend was a layperson, not a pastor, so he was talking about his own kind. You should also know that I’d never say such a thing about church members.) The truth about sheep, as I understand it from books and other such tools of enlightenment, is that they need a lot of help to survive; they really depend on a shepherd. It’s in that sense that people are like sheep: we need God to meet our ultimate need for life. We also need other people. This leads me to mention one way that human sheep aren’t like literal sheep: they can’t become shepherds, but we can. We can become shepherds to each other. Pastors are shepherds to their congregations; in fact, the word ‘pastor’ literally means ‘shepherd.’ This means at least two things. First, it means that pastors walk ahead of the sheep, showing the way with our lives, and not driving them from behind. Second, it means that, since we pastors are shepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, we are willing to lay down our lives for people. The odd thing about a pastor’s experience is that sometimes, when she or he tries really hard to lead the sheep in the way the Good Shepherd would have them go – the ways of grace, mercy, love, justice, empathy, compassion, and service ‘“ it’s the sheep in the church who attack them while the supposed predators outside the church appreciate their efforts. But pastors aren’t the only sheep that can become shepherds. Any and all of us can as well. It’s in the Bible: ‘We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us ‘“ and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ (1 John 3:16-17). We might have a chance to help in a big way. So in Antioch, Tennessee, a few days ago, a young man wrestled the weapon away from a shooter who had already killed four people. And in Detroit, Michigan, 13 semi-truck drivers lined their trucks up under an overpass to shorten the possible fall of a man who was threatening to jump. We may not be called on to do something quite as dramatic, but we can all lay down our lives for others. It may mean giving up something as precious as our comfort, our convenience, our customs or even ‘“ get ready, now ‘“ our preconceived notions. But we can do it. The Good Shepherd, and some other good shepherds, show us how. Mike Ruffin lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville. He is the Connections Curriculum Editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon. His latest book, Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life, is available through online booksellers.

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