“By This We Will Know: The Dance of Love”
John 10:11-17; 1 John 3:16-18; 23-24
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, April 25, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
It is officially the fourth Sunday of Easter on our liturgical calendar, sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday, and the texts are filled with shepherds and sheep. The imagery of God as the Good Shepherd isn’t unique to Psalm 23, God is often described as a shepherd who leads, protects, comforts and nurtures God’s people.
Those are comforting images, ones that we appreciate hearing whenever we’re going through difficult times. I don’t think I’ve ever NOT read the 23rd Psalm in a memorial or funeral service. The reminder that God is walking alongside us, and particularly that God the good shepherd has walked alongside our loved one in their final moments, ushering them into heaven is something we want and need to hear.
And still we realize that in this day and age, and in the place where we live, we aren’t all that familiar with shepherds, or with sheep for that matter. I’ve shared before that my grandpa raised sheep when I was a kid and I remember them very clearly, particularly the cute little one we called “Bucky” who head-butted me, sending me over the fence and unconscious on the ground. Okay, as an adult I realize that’s probably a very dramatic re-telling of a story that wasn’t nearly so exciting, but that’s what I remember and I’m sticking to it. I really should ask my aunt someday who I remember as saving me from the clutches of death in those moments, but I never remember to do that and I’m not sure I want to know the real facts. You know, it might ruin my story.
Though he owned sheep, I’ve never thought of my grandpa as a shepherd. He didn’t have a shepherd’s staff with a crook at the top of it, and basically the sheep lived out in the hilly and grassy and wooded areas of the farm, coming back to the sheep shed at night for fresh hay and whatever else they needed.
I think I saw sheep and shepherds when we traveled to Israel many years ago, and I definitely saw them when I walked the Camino in Spain in 2015. But our primary encounter with sheep and shepherds these days is in scripture readings at Christmas time (with cute little kids all dressed up), and when we hear the Psalm read at funerals.
But today, we read in John how Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd (“I am the Good Shepherd,” he says.). Three times in these few verses he very clearly states that the Good Shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep. (Note that he says he’ll lay his life down for “the” sheep and not “his” sheep. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.)
The Good Shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd, Jesus says.
Jesus contrasts the “Good Shepherd” with the hireling/hired hand, or maybe we can just as legitimately call this guy the “Bad Shepherd.” To the hireling, it’s all just a job. The hired hand doesn’t own the sheep and has no real commitment to them. He scopes out a wolf coming their way and he runs away. He leaves the sheep at the mercy of the wolf who sees these fluffy white creatures as a meal and a bit of sport, to scatter and destroy, then he moves on to other hunting grounds.
But the Good Shepherd has a relationship with the sheep. He knows them, and they know him. They recognize the sound of his voice. In the same way, Jesus knows us and knows God, and because of that relationship with both God and with us, he says—again, 3 times—that he will lay down his life for the sake of the sheep.
Being a person who has at one time experienced sheep up close and personal—and having read and heard over the years that sheep aren’t exactly the smartest tool in the shed, I’m not completely thrilled with the fact that Jesus so often refers to you and me as being sheep. And yet, I admit I can relate: we have been known to go astray, to think we can make our own way in this world, to not listen, to put ourselves into danger. Though it may pain me to be identified as a sheep, I very much find Jesus as the Good Shepherd to be a comforting image in response to my sheep-like behavior. And the truth of Jesus’ willingness to lay down his life for us has been made very clear as we’ve so recently walked with him through that final week of his life. When we witnessed his willingness to give up his life for us. He laid down his life, as he tells us in verse 17, in order for his life to be taken up again. In order for us to experience Easter.
What I want us to hear very clearly this morning are Jesus’ repeated words of being willing to die for us. When someone is willing to die for us, they must consider us to be pretty valuable. We must be loved by them…
Do we hear, can we accept the depth of God’s love for us, that Jesus died that we might live?
It seems that love to that depth requires a response, doesn’t it? For some reason, Scott and I were talking about the response one might hope to receive when telling another person that you love them. “Thank you” doesn’t quite cut it. In the preview for next week’s Young Sheldon the older brother tells his little sister that his girlfriend’s response to his confession of love to her was “same-sies.” Okay. How do you respond to that?
In 1 John, we read that we can know God’s love for us because Jesus laid down his life for us. And so, the writer says, we ought 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 to help?” We are to love, not in word or speech (“same-sies”), but in truth and action.
How do we do that? We do our best to be like Jesus. As we claim to be his disciples, as we seek to be his followers, we want to be like him, to do as he teaches, to love as he loves. I realize that being like Jesus is something to which we can only aspire—we’re so human—and yet, we can humbly offer our best selves to be who he calls us to be…
To be a shepherd to others, to be willing to lay down our lives for one another, which may not literally involve dying for another—but might instead, be the willingness to step out of our own skin, out of our own place of comfort, to speak for someone who doesn’t have a voice, to stand in the gap for someone who in today’s world has limited personal power…to be a friend, an advocate for someone else, to make another person’s world a better place…which ultimately makes our world a better place.
This past Thursday was Earth Day: as we think of being shepherds, it seems that caring for the earth is a good place to start. We need to be better stewards than what we’ve been in the past. Our quest for advancement has caused damage to the earth and we can’t easily “fix” all that we’ve done. We need to be sure we’re cautious in the use of chemicals, to recycle, to be aware of how we impact the earth, the ocean and waters, and the air in the things we do…and then do our best to leave the world a better place for our children and our grandchildren and all those who follow us.
Turning from the care of the earth to the care of those who inhabit the earth brings us back to its sheep:
Jesus says that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep—not necessarily “his sheep” but the sheep. Some Biblical scholars believe that Jesus here and in verse 16, in talking about the sheep that don’t belong to this fold, that he’s speaking of gentiles/the non-Jewish community--(that would be us)—who Jesus longed to enfold. Since we very much believe that we are included as a part of his family despite first century belief—shouldn’t we also consider the possibility that those whom we consider “outsiders” are not considered “outsiders” at all to God? And are also people Jesus longs to enfold?
We might consider the poor, the prisoner, the immigrant, those with a different color skin, those whose sexual orientation is different from our own—and others—as being outside the fold/excluded from God’s love, and yet…it seems we’re all sheep. In response, how can we be shepherds to those who need a safe place, a home, a voice? Might we be willing to step outside ourselves, to lay down what is comfortable in our lives, to welcome, to advocate, to demonstrate God’s love?
Maybe it’s not a group of people but an individual person who needs what you have.
I have a friend who is making the decision of whether he should offer his kidney to someone he knows who is on dialysis, who has a young family, who is spending hours on dialysis each week, unable to do what we consider normal everyday activities of living.
My friend is considering what he has, and how he can make a difference in this man’s life…in this man’s family.
That’s a big deal. A big decision.
Where might we make a difference in someone else’s life?
Where might you make a difference in someone else’s life?
This conversation should always begin with prayer, but that doesn’t mean that’s where the conversation should end. Sometimes we meet a challenge that we don’t know how to respond to, and we say, “I’ll pray about it.” That isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s a great beginning. But the prayer can lead us—perhaps ought lead us—to something more. We don’t want “I’ll pray for you, for this situation, for whatever it is to be our final word.
Our prayers inspire and they sometimes demand action. I read a quote by Frederick Douglass that so appropriately speaks to the text from 1 John. He said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer till I prayed with my legs.” Some of the things we’re dealing with today—from the devastating social issues of racial injustice and gun violence to the everyday needs and griefs of our neighbors—call us to also pray with our legs…and our voices…and our actions.
As we who seek to be like Jesus, we who are the sheep of the Good Shepherd: may we have the courage to act: To step out. To speak out. To be a shepherd. To show our love through the things we say and do.
These are important prayers that will make a difference. Amen.