Have you ever noticed that we have certain sayings that really lean into the physicality of doing something? For example, it’s a long-standing tradition in the theater to tell the performers to “break a leg” as they prepare to take the stage. It’s considered bad luck to wish them good luck. So we say “break a leg” instead. When we’re talking about leadership, we often say that we want someone who doesn’t just talk the talk but instead walks the walk. It’s a clever way of saying that we don’t like our leaders to be all talk and no action. If someone is invested in a situation, especially a situation that carries some risk, we say they have some skin in the game.
Based on my limited research, we don’t know with certainty where these sayings came from. But we can agree they have this element in common. They rely on the language of body and movement. Legs and skin. Talking and walking.
When the stakes are high, we want someone who will put their body on the line. Someone who is willing to give it all, to make the necessary sacrifices, to take the risks.
Each year on the fourth Sunday of Easter we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s tempting to sentimentalize this image that Jesus uses to describe himself. We’ve been conditioned by countless portraits of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, gently cradling a lamb in his arms or carrying a sheep on his shoulders. We’ve developed a kind of stained-glass notion of shepherding that overlooks the grueling, messy, dangerous work that it has been for centuries.
As I read through today’s scripture throughout the week, I noticed three aspects of the Good Shepherd’s role and wondered what they might mean for us in our 21st century suburban lives.
For starters, the Good Shepherd provides.
The Good Shepherd provides the still waters beside which we can rest. The Good Shepherd prepares a table for us in the midst of fear and danger. We celebrated Earth Day this past week, and when we think about the expansive beauty of creation, it’s hard not to be awed by all that God has created and provided. Think about where you experience that most deeply. Digging in your garden, hiking in the woods, standing beside the ocean with your toes in the sand, listening to your kids shriek with laughter while they play in the backyard, hearing the rain fall gently on the roof.
My friend Jennifer sent me a picture yesterday of a northern spotted owl that she had seen in Baltimore Canyon in northern California. It’s a species that has been endangered but is slowly making a comeback. The story of the northern spotted owl seems to me a story of both creation and resurrection. And my friend searches for birds in memory of her father, who was an avid bird watcher. Often the best thing the Good Shepherd provides is the love of those dearest to us.
The Good Shepherd provides for us, but the Good Shepherd also pursues us. We hear in the psalm: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”
The Hebrew word for “follow” in Psalm 23 is more intense than it sounds. It’s the same verb that’s used when God parts the Red Sea and the Israelites begin to cross through the waters to escape from Egypt, but then Pharaoh and his army follow them. They chase after the Israelites with chariots and horses until God intervenes.
The Good Shepherd is unrelenting in his pursuit of us. It begins in baptism, when we are soaked in God’s love and grace without having to do a thing except let the water wash over us. That goodness and mercy searches us out and finds us again and again throughout our lives. It doesn’t always look the way we expect, but it never gives up on finding us.
Think about a moment when you were completely surprised by someone’s kindness and generosity. Perhaps you even felt that you did not deserve it. That was the Good Shepherd pursuing you, refusing to let you give in to despair or self-doubt.
The Good Shepherd provides. The Good Shepherd pursues. The Good Shepherd also protects. He is there with us as we walk through that valley of the shadow. Having a shepherd does not mean that bad things will never happen to us. It means that we are never alone when they happen.
As we hear in today’s gospel, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the wolves come and the hired hands run away in fear, the shepherd stays and puts his body between us and the danger.
Jesus knows what he’s talking about here. He understands what it means to put his body on the line. Not long before this moment, Jesus has been teaching about the freedom that comes from following him. It makes the crowd so angry that they start picking up rocks to throw at him. They want to stone him to death. And right after he talks about being the good shepherd, the crowd gets riled up once more. They accuse him of being possessed by a demon. They start hunting for those rocks again.
We know of course that in the end Jesus does lay down his life for us. The cross becomes the ultimate place where he provides for us, pursues us, and protects us.
How, then, do we respond to a Good Shepherd who does all this for us? The life of a sheep doesn’t seem all that appealing
I hear some different instructions in our reading from 1 John, which says: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” It goes on to say: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
We are called to lay down our lives too. To walk the walk. To have some skin in the game. To love, not just with words, but with action. To face the risks that come with that kind of love.
What does that kind of love look like?
That love looks like providing for those in need. Each Wednesday when we join with other volunteers in the community to distribute food, I am moved by what is possible when we reflect God’s generosity. And each week people who are receiving that food ask me to offer a prayer of thanks for that generosity and for all the people sharing it.
That love looks like pursuing authentic relationships with the people in our lives. It means not giving up when those relationships are difficult and in need of healing. Relationships change over time. Sometimes they end. But even when they end, we can pursue a path of forgiveness. It’s hard work. It asks a lot of us. But we have a shepherd who shows us the way.
That love looks like protecting people who are the most vulnerable. When the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial was announced on Tuesday, I was flooded with different emotions. In the hours and days since then I have tried to pay attention to the voices of people of color, who have reminded me that while this was a rare and important moment of accountability, it was not justice. Justice would be George Floyd being here to spend many more years with his family. Justice would be having a system in which black and brown people didn’t keep dying at the hands of police.
Provide. Pursue. Protect. We are not ourselves the Good Shepherd, so we will have to rely on his goodness and mercy as we seek to live like him.
Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
April 18, 202
I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether or not we believe in ghosts. My friend lives in a really old house and has had several mysterious experiences that might be explained by some kind of supernatural presence. I’ve certainly known people who have seen or felt the presence of loved ones who have died, often when those people were near death themselves. We didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but we both agreed that the veil between this world and the next is probably more thin than we like to admit.
If we were willing to entertain these ideas with all of our 21st century sophistication and sensibilities, imagine what ghostly ideas people accepted in the ancient world. In fact, one of the questions on the minds of the disciples in today’s gospel is “How can we be sure the risen Jesus isn’t a ghost?”
Much like last Sunday, this morning we get another story about Jesus appearing to some of his followers after his resurrection. Notice that in these stories no one ever calmly says, “Hey, Jesus! Good to see you. I see that you’ve come back from the dead just like you said you would.” Instead Jesus usually finds them hiding out somewhere filled with all kinds of emotions – surprise, fear, joy, doubt, wonder. He starts by saying “Peace be with you,” but they feel anything but peaceful. And I can’t say that I blame them.
In today’s account from the gospel of Luke we hear this detail: “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”
So how does Jesus persuade them that he’s not, in fact, a ghost? First, he invites them to touch him, to see that he has flesh and bones just like a real person. He shows them his hands and feet, still bearing the wounds of his crucified body. And then he asks for something to eat. They give him a piece of broiled fish, which he devours right there in front of them.
These disciples had experienced a profound trauma, and I wonder if part of what Jesus is telling them is to remember that we all inhabit bodies. By inviting them to notice that he is a flesh and blood resurrected body, by showing them his hands and feet, perhaps he wants them to be more aware of their own bodies, their own flesh and bones, their own strength and their own fragility.
Jesus also says, “Let’s eat something.” Some people have claimed that he eats that fish just to prove that he’s not a ghost, and while that may be true, I think it’s something more. I think Jesus eats that fish because, quite simply, he loves to eat. He especially loves to eat with other people. Why would he miss an opportunity to do that again after his resurrection, especially when food shared in community can be so healing?
I think everything Jesus does in this gospel is about more than debunking a ghost story.
By proving that he is in a flesh and bones body, Jesus reminds us that all bodies are holy, and all bodies deserve our care. Jesus shows up as someone whose body has been unjustly wounded by the powerful people of his time. That’s especially important to remember in our own time when there are so many assaults on bodies. Jesus in his risen body points us to all the other unjustly wounded bodies to whom we are joined in his name. Everything in his life, in his ministry, in his death, and in his resurrection points us to work for the well-being of the most vulnerable bodies.
Think about bodies killed by gun violence, which happens so often that we can barely comprehend it. 147 mass shootings so far this year, each with at least four injuries or deaths. Indianapolis. Rock Hill, SC. Allen, TX. Orange, CA. Essex, MD. Boulder. Atlanta. Indianapolis again – twice.
Or black bodies killed by the police, including 13-year-old Adam Toledo this week in Chicago and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota – while we await the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis.
Or transgender bodies from whom legislatures are trying to take away health care and other rights.
Or Asian bodies assaulted by those filled with hate; a 65-year-old Filipino woman attacked in broad daylight in New York and left lying in the street while security guards in a nearby apartment building closed the doors and refused to help her.
Jesus must weep when he sees how little we seem to care for bodies. He must wonder why his own body was nailed to a cross if we are going to cling to these particular sins so stubbornly.
Notice that after he’s invited them to touch him and after he’s eaten that fish, Jesus then opens the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures, to see that there is a new purpose that awaits them. The next step of the journey will be the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.
He’s telling them: Remember for yourselves that it’s not too late to turn in a new direction, to confess and name the ways that you have broken the world and hurt each other. To remember that God’s forgiveness is there for all who repent, all who make that turn. And having remembered that for yourselves, make sure everybody else knows that too. Everybody. From here in Jerusalem to everyone throughout the world.
You are witnesses of these things, he says to us too – witnesses of new ways of living, of new possibilities, of the power of repentance and forgiveness. Bear witness in what you say and how you live. Bear witness in what you do to make this world safe for every single body that inhabits it.
The work of protecting bodies in this world is not easy work. Problems like racism and gun violence do not have easy solutions. Because it all seems so daunting, it can be easy to hide under the covers and hope it will all go away on its own.
Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of Ralph Abernathy, a Baptist minister, a civil rights activist, and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Among other things, Dr. Abernathy collaborated with Dr. King to launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to work for justice. Yesterday was also the day I learned what is on Dr. Abernathy’s tombstone. It’s very simple. It has his name, the years of his life (1926-1990), and this simple inscription: “I tried.”
I tried. How might we live so that we can say the same at the end of our lives? I tried.
The hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes is a new one to us [“Touch That Soothes and Heals,” All Creation Sings 939]. Listen to the refrain:
“See my hands and feet,” said Jesus,
love arisen from the grave.
“Be my hands and feet,” said Jesus,
“live as ones I died to save.”
We are witnesses of these things. So let’s keep trying – keep trying to keep all bodies safe, keep trying to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, keep trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ