There seems to have been a recent renewed interest in sheep and shepherds, Philip Walling’s “Counting Sheep” and James Rebanks best selling “The Shepherd’s Life” both published in the last five or six years come to mind and I am sure there are others, fuelled by the renewed and special subject of traditional breeds. Walling suggest that the lives of shepherds and those connected with sheep husbandry are these days in a parallel world largely unnoticed by the majority of the population yet this was not always so: the wealth of our nations was founded upon woll and in Jesus’ day the flocks were huge and the shepherds numerous although poor and distrusted. Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, a fine metaphor - if you have a few sheep Anthea has some in her little paddock for example - then you want to entrust them to somebody competent, honest and eligible, someone who knows what is best for them, who can aid their lambing and collect them from their wanderings when they need to come down from the hills in winter.
Not that all sheep are alike; a few names to think about: The Leicester, Swaledale, Cheviot, Suffolk, Hardwicke and so on each of which have a distinctive appearance and they do have a varied lifestyle. The sheep of Ronaldsay, for example, travel up and down with the tide and are so fond of seaweed that they will sometimes swim out to discover tender shoots on small islands. I have taken lunch with a sheep who, having gained access to the dining room, refused all efforts to budge him out again. So it is worth considering this metaphor some more to substitute any view we are holding of white dots of cotton wool on a green hillside with a much more varied population akin to the variety of the human race. Jesus is the good shepherd and we are all of his flock.
Of course when we are out and about in the dales the sheep are there doing sheepy things, looking strong and independent and yet as we know they need help quite often. My catalogue of rescued sheep and lambs continues to grow and this week Frances’ phone call included a story of saving an ewe and her lamb from the Dorset highway. We too need help and assistance quite often, especially when shadowed by sorrow or need and we are then able to turn to the great shepherd of the sheep in prayer asking for the help we need. Our shepherd laid down his life for us, and will answer our prayers but most often now in the agency of other people.
Returning to the letter from John where we read that:
“… we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abode in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses help?”
This gives a different emphasis to laying down our lives. There are thankfully few who are called to physically give their lives for a cause but we are ALL enjoined to lay down our lives in the sense of dying to self, setting aside our own wishes, dislikes and priorities to help others. We did see this during the last year in many communities, including our own. The team which twice a day, every day for week after week checked on the RED/GREEN cards to be sure that residents were safe had to forgo a warm morning or night at home and sometimes probably more. In this sense they laid aside something of their own lives. There are many other examples but all of them help us to remember that we each need to be Good Shepherds to one another.