Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 26, 2015

2015.04.26 “The Laid-Down Life” – John 10: 11 – 18

Central United Methodist Church
Pastor David L. Haley
The Laid-Down Life
4th Sunday of Easter
John 10: 11 – 18
April 26th, 2015

"Good Shepherd" 5th-century mosaic from the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“Good Shepherd” 5th-century mosaic from the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” – John 10: 11 – 18, The New Revised Standard Version

So I was out walking on Concord Lane the other day, when suddenly I thought I spotted a shepherd, herding his flock of sheep. But then it turned out not to be a shepherd, it was only Myles Glasgow. And it wasn’t sheep he was herding, it was his beagle, which he was walking. Maybe it’s time to get my eyes checked again?

Seriously, on this Fourth Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday – this highlights the biggest problem we face, which is that we don’t know any shepherds or sheep, and therefore don’t know much if anything about them. Every Fourth Sunday of Easter when we come back to this text, I think back of the few times I have been around shepherds and sheep – like on trips to Ireland or New Zealand – and wish I had paid more attention.

For most of us, what little we know we likely learned either from speculations in sermons by ignorant pastors like me, or from Hallmark-like pictures in Sunday School rooms of squeaky-clean shepherds with fluffy white sheep on their shoulders. I mean, I like wool sweaters as much as the next guy, but how clean would we really be if we walked around with a sheep on our shoulders? Warm, maybe, but not so clean.

So the more we think about it, the more we may admit that we have an ambivalent attitude about this metaphor of the shepherd, because even though we cherish the image so much, we know so little about it.

Thus I had to laugh this week when I read one commentator – Debie Thomas’ – who said:

“I’ll confess at the start: when I Googled the lectionary readings for this week, and realized I’d have to write an essay about The Good Shepherd, I cringed, turned off my computer, and went for a walk.”

Because, as she went on to say:
“If you grew up in the Church, you might carry shepherd baggage, too. Was Psalm 23 the first Psalm you memorized as a child? Did you spend umpteen hours in Sunday School, making sheep out of toothpicks, cotton balls, and Elmer’s glue? Did your kids’ choir sing “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep, Baaa Baaa,” all the way through middle school? Did you spend any time in your church narthex after morning service, staring hungrily at a painting of Jesus wearing flowing robes, an adorable lamb perched on his shoulders, and wonder why God never sweeps down from the heavens to cuddle you?” (Debie Thomas, “Just Wondering,” The Journey with Jesus, April 20, 2015)
Whether you had such experiences or not, even though we don’t understand it, we still love this image of the shepherd, and of Psalm 23, and of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, don’t we? After all, Psalm 23, with its imagery of a God who guides us along life’s pathways – including through the valley of the shadow of death – is one of our best-loved Psalms, isn’t it?

Really, if there’s anything I’ve learned about shepherds, it’s that they were not at all like our Sunday School or Christmas Nativity stereotypes of them. Shepherds – as far as I can determine – were tenacious people who lived hard lives. They lived long hours outside, away from home, in the worst of conditions, facing predators with two legs and four legs. They had to be tough, willing to battle thieves, bandits, and wolves. They were not “Rent-a-Shepherds,” in it only for the big bucks, who would run away and abandon the sheep at the first sign of trouble. They put the welfare of their sheep ahead of their own, and were willing to risk their lives for their sheep.

No wonder the author of John’s Gospel utilizes shepherd imagery to offer an extended meditation about Jesus as the Good Shepherd – which was – by the way – one of the first depictions of Jesus in early Christian art, such as this one, of the Catacomb of Callixtus, dating from the mid 3rd century. The Good Shepherd, watching over his sheep, calling them by name, laying down their lives for them.

While we moderns may not know much about shepherds – this, I think – the laid-down life – is our point of contact. We may not know any shepherds, but we know people who live in such a way as to lay down their lives for us. And I don’t mean by dying for us like Jesus – though there may be a few of those – I mean by living their lives for us.

I think of those in the military, for example, soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines and their families, who for the last 15 years since 9/11 – through two wars, have endured great sacrifice of body and mind and of life itself, to fulfill the mission our country asked of them. And it should be noted that they did it voluntarily.

But I also think of teachers, who poured their knowledge and their mentoring into us. I think of coaches and scoutmasters and people who encouraged us, especially when we were young and needed encouragement. I think of public servants like city workers and firefighters and paramedics and police, who are there when we need them. I think of doctors and nurses and caregivers – modern shepherds of people, not sheep – who watch over us. I think of pastors and counselors and youth workers, who had often unacknowledged impact upon our lives, by giving us council and advice, at a time when we needed it most.

And our course I think of parents, who – as we maybe only learn after we become parents – sacrifice in so many ways their time and energy and money (did I mention money?) to raise us to independence and maturity. Aren’t all these examples of laid-down lives that we have known and experienced in the world, that more than substitute for our ignorance about shepherds and sheep? By their examples, we have seen and experienced what it means to live lives for others.

Of course, just as there are bad shepherds, there are bad examples in every profession who generate the negative publicity, who do the right job for the wrong reason, for power or control or money or ego trips. However – despite their prevalence in the spotlight of the media – let us never forget the majority who are good, like those we have known, for whom we are thankful.

I was thinking about his recently with regard to police. There have been some egregious examples in the last few years of the abuse of point-of-contact force by police, especially against unarmed black men. Make no mistake about it, those have been glaring examples of injustice. But are all police like that? You know they are not.  I worked with police as a Police Chaplain for 15 years; I can tell you they are not. Most of them are upstanding men and women in a profession, which – as one of my police friends once put it – has become sometimes more “curb and collect” than “serve and protect.”

What about us? We might as well face it, I doubt there is a single person among us here today who will spend any serious time in the future, as a shepherd. However, on this Good Shepherd Sunday – after our Master Jesus – might we consider living laid-down lives, in which – through whatever gifts God has given us – we consider laying our lives down for others.

As Debie Thomas reminds us, maybe we shouldn’t wonder why the Church has turned the Good Shepherd into a greeting card. Because – in reality – it’s so hard to face who he really is, and to contemplate what he in fact requires of us, that we too live laid-down lives. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” May God grant that we do so day by day. Amen.


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