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What Desmond Tutu taught me about counting sheep

My acquaintance with sheep comes from outings to Chicago’s “farm-in-the-zoo” — tentatively patting the dense, curly coats of the little white lambs. Or gingerly holding a bottle of milk for one at feeding time.

And then there is the painting of Jesus, indelible from my Sunday school years, with the hundredth lamb, the one who was lost and now found, riding safely 'round his shoulders as he walked it back to the fold.

Not enough knowledge, really, to understand the context of “good shepherd” parables in Matthew 18:12-14 or Luke 15:4-7. Not sufficient familiarity to comprehend what Jesus meant in this week’s lesson from John 10:1-10 (and keep reading through verse 18).

Desmond Tutu doesn’t know me. But he knows about me, about people like me who don’t know sheep. We gathered to hear him preach three years ago during the Spiritual Formation Conference sponsored by Trinity Church Wall Street—but held far from New York City in the gentle mountains of North Carolina at Kanuga, an Episcopal Church camp.

He stood before us in the fieldhouse this warm spring evening, sweet breezes coming in through open side doors. And he read the parable in Luke.

We had wondered all day what the renowned Anglican archbishop from South Africa, who led the truth and reconciliation program in the aftermath of apartheid, would speak about. The struggle? The peaceful victory? The challenge of reuniting a country? His accomplishments?

No. Just the Gospel for the day. And sheep and us.

“You people,” he said, bright eyes spanning this group of 99, times two. “I suspect most of you are picturing snowy little lambs from your Sunday school leaflets when you hear this story. And most of you are thinking that you’re the little lamb Jesus carried safely on his shoulders.”

“But I don’t think so,” he suggested with a laugh, the lilt of his African-accented speech carrying us along.

First, he pointed out, real sheep are in no way appealing creatures. He described those he’d encountered, using words like smelly and obstinate and, yes, dumb. Defenseless too. The one that wandered off, Tutu mused, was no different, no worse, than the others. Except that it went missing.

There may be one or two lost ones in this gathering, he granted. But most here were in the fold of the church, the flock of the faithful, the 99.

“And what does your good shepherd do?” Tutu asked. “He leaves you. He leaves you all. In danger? Perhaps. The wolves are always nearby. And he goes searching for this missing one.”

We wondered—while he let this new image of ourselves, just one in a bleating flock, replace that older one of the lamb on Jesus’ shoulders—what “good” Tutu would show us.

It’s so simple, he said. Our God always will risk all for the one no other would even miss. The one alone. The one apart. The one outside.

It doesn’t make sense, he admitted. It’s not prudent. “But it’s how God loves,” Tutu told us. And it’s how God wants us to love each other—smelly, obstinate and dumb though we may be.


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