Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 26, 2015
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” says Jesus in our gospel. And, in 1st John, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Philip Larkin, in his remarkably unsentimental poem “An Arundel Tomb,” writes, “What will survive of us is love.”
Sometimes when we think of the Good Shepherd, we think of Sallman’s pastoral, and Hollywood pasteurized image, from the 1940’s, a beautiful Mensch of a guy standing with a staff in his right hand, and a lamb in his left, surrounded by his flock, as they stroll through green pastures, by a babbling brook. And we can feel Jesus’ love for us, all warm and tender.
Now fast-forward to 1967, the Summer of Love! I was just 11 years old, and excited to be going into 6th grade, where I would be top dog at Washington Grade School, ready to enjoy such privilege. So, I missed putting flowers in my hair and moving to San Francisco. And I didn’t become a hippie, or know what free-love meant, but still, I could feel the change in the air all around me, and I knew I really loved my bell-bottomed pants, which, if my mom would have let me, I would have worn to school every day! And, now that we’re on the subject, let me just put in a plug for the Unity Players and their upcoming production called, America Hurrah, which is all about social change in the late 60’s. Because, whatever you think of those times, I think we can all agree that our families, our church, and our communities have been shaped and affected by the 60’s, and, theatre can bring us together, and put a light on that, for everyone.
But here, in this Easter season in the 21st century, I’m wondering, what is it, that our crucified and risen savior, and the gospel message, can tell us about social change? What kind of love is Jesus talking about? And is the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd still relevant for us today?
First off, Jesus offers himself up as the Good Shepherd in this 10th chapter of John, within a very specific context – that is, as a response to the man born blind that Jesus just healed and restored his sight to, in chapter 9. Jesus had found him and was welcoming him into his sheep-fold, because the Jerusalem leaders had decided to throw him out of their community. So, the Good Shepherd, welcomes the one who is put-out, the ousted one – in this case, put-out for believing in a healer who heals without charge, who heals outside of the corrupt and exploitative Herodian system, referred to by Jesus as, the hired hands, who run away from controversy. When the going gets tough, a Good Shepherd, steps up, and offers himself, and his very life. He doesn’t run away to the wilderness, or drop-out into the counter-culture!
So this Good Shepherd, Jesus, does not fulfill the quiet pastoral image I grew up with, but on the contrary, wades right into the controversy of his community, to lead from where true authority resides. Jesus is the good shepherd because he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. And it will not be in vain, because his authority to heal, and to teach and preach, comes from the Father, who knows him, and is further confirmed by the sheep, who know his voice. The sheep do not follow a shepherd whose voice they don’t recognize. And Jesus even has “other sheep,” not yet belonging to his flock, who will listen to his voice and follow him – and who won’t trust the hired hand.
So Jesus, together with the Father, will be the reconciling presence that will unite the flock: old and new, Jew and Gentile, male and female, straight and gay, cistern and transgender, black, brown and white – it is God’s peace and justice, that unite us, and makes us one flock, even in the midst of our enemies, and their manufactured controversy.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, doesn’t go to San Francisco and start a love-in; he does not tune-in, turn-on, and drop-out – I think he may, have a few followers who wear flowers in their hair! – but, his love is deeper and stronger, and is not afraid of controversy with the political, religious and social powers of his day, because, he is the way, and the truth, and life, the bringer of the kingdom of God on earth. “I will lay my life down of my own accord,” Jesus tells them. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
Interestingly enough, after his preaching on the Good Shepherd in chapter 10, the authorities are so enraged with him, that they try to stone Jesus. But he doesn’t let it happen, “he escapes from their hands.” He will lay down his life only when he is ready, and the time is right.
By the time the summer of ’74 rolled around, I was anxiously preparing for college. The 60’s had turned into, on the one hand, a less than ideal goulash of progressive ideas, constantly being reheated and stirred up, but a meal that no one seemed to want to sit down to, and, on the other hand, a reactionary movement of the silent majority hoping to stave off the change that would expose their privilege. For my part, in ’74, I chose a Lutheran school, Carthage College, in the hope that even better than my church back home, this would be the place, and time, I would discover the community of Christ I had been looking for – a place that understood the love of a Shepherd who was willing to lay down his life for the world, who understood that we, as a people of faith, have a duty, and in this moment, an opportunity, to take up the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, and to be the change that we wanted to be.
Boy, was I naïve! Carthage was pretty much just like any other college or state university everywhere else, across the country.
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Love, is our legacy, as a Christian people. Or, as the poet Philip Larkin said, “what will survive of us is love.” Or as Paul said, “now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Love cannot survive in books, alone. Love does not grow in individuals or shining stars, unto themselves. Love lives in truth and action, in the people who have received, and who live by, the Spirit of God. So, love needs a community, a host that is bigger than Self, that is open to the living God, and a community that is willing to take risks to include those who once were blind, but now they see, willing to risk including those who have been rejected or ousted, by the powerful and privileged. Maybe even willing to risk their lives, as so many Christians are, even today, under violent persecution and chaos, in the Middle East.
A loving community, of course, is a tuff thing to build and sustain. It takes commitment, for one, or else it tends to fade like the flowers, of the Summer of Love. Ideally, it happens in churches, enlivened by the gospel message, and filled with the spirit of joy and justice for all. Sometimes it shows up in unexpected communities of two or three; in institutions who have been struck by the power of God, and guided by a Good Shepherd.
You know, Jesus didn’t just pick the image of Shepherd out of nowhere. Moses, as a young man, became a shepherd, after he helped his father-in-law Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, and her sisters, from attack by false, hired-hand, shepherds. Over and over, Moses was called to be a good shepherd, whose anger at injustice kept putting him in leadership positions, to lead his people out of danger into freedom. King David was a mighty Shepherd-General and military leader, who led the chosen people to their zenith of their kingdom, but also showed the cracks of corruption, and the expanse of his kingdom would never be repeated, the temple never rebuilt.
Jesus, followed in the footsteps of Moses and David, but also reshaped the office of Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is one who is mighty in love, a love beyond the power of the grave, a gift that he gave to the world to win it over, so that WE can now lift one another up, and win non-violently, even when, and precisely because, we wade fearlessly into controversy, through sometimes difficult sacrifices – and whenever, in community, we accept the Spirit of God! So, “have no fear little flock” – for what will survive us as followers of Jesus, if we do, is love. Love, in truth and in action!