“I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:15b
When I was learning to play the piano as a kid, I’ll admit that I didn’t always love to practice. I knew the practicing was necessary in order to get better, but I wasn’t motivated to do it 100 percent of the time. At one point my dad created a record-keeping system that we put on the wall. For each half-hour that I practiced, I could color in a square on a chart. Then, when I had consistently filled in enough squares for a certain period of time, there would be some kind of small reward. Nothing huge – but I’m embarrassed to admit how much I was motivated by that chart. Those external rewards were often enough to get me to do what I otherwise would have avoided.
But there were other times when I would practice without any thought of a reward. Maybe I’d fallen in love with a song from a movie – the theme from “Ice Castles” comes to mind – and I’d really want to learn how to play that song. Maybe I was learning my half of a duet for an upcoming recital, and I didn’t want to let down my partner, so I worked hard on it. Sometimes I got so excited by a piece that I was learning that I didn’t even notice how much time I was sitting at the piano. The progress was its own reward.
Doing it for the reward versus doing it out of love. Both had their place, but one was more satisfying.
Today Jesus reminds us of the difference between a hired hand and a shepherd. The hired hand does what he is obligated to do, but his motivation is purely transactional. Protect the sheep. Get a paycheck. So at the first sign of real danger – a wolf, for example – the hired hand is out of there. The paycheck is not worth his life.
The shepherd, on the other hand, is motivated by something much deeper. The sheep belong to the shepherd. The shepherd loves the sheep, loves them so much that he will face down any danger. The shepherd puts his body between the wolf and the flock and dares the wolf to do its worst. The shepherd’s love makes him do crazy, difficult things, even if it costs him his life.
It’s the Easter season, and in recent weeks we’ve heard stories about the risen Jesus showing up among his followers, standing there in a wounded but very-much-alive body and offering them his peace. In these moments he’s doing a kind of shepherding. He’s gathering them and preparing them for what they will soon be called to do – tell the story, share the news, form the beginnings of the church. Theirs will be dangerous, difficult work. He’s getting them ready to be shepherds too, shepherds who will love people and build community.
But today we go back in time a bit. Before Jesus is arrested. Before he is crucified. Before all of the events we recalled during Holy Week not so long ago. Today we hear Jesus talk about being the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but the disciples don’t yet know that he means it literally.
But what prompts this shepherd speech in the middle of John’s gospel? Just before this moment, Jesus has restored the sight of a man who had been blind since birth. This healing sets off a bit of a local ruckus. The religious leaders interrogate the man’s parents, who are scared to be caught up in the drama. They interview the man himself to find out how he was healed. The man tells the truth, which only seems to agitate the leaders more. They drive the man out of town. It’s crazy. On what should have been the most joyous day of this man’s life – a day he can see for the first time – he’s driven out of his community.
Jesus goes to the man out there on the edges of town. Jesus stands with him. Jesus stands up to the authorities who have driven him out.
Jesus’ shepherd speech is not meant merely as the inspiration for stained glass windows and beautiful music. Jesus is showing us how there are other ways that shepherds put themselves on the line for the sheep. It’s not just about dying for the sheep. Sometimes it’s about living in such a way that we risk something – our safety, our comfort, our reputation – in order to stand with those who have been driven out of their safe places.
Our Second Reading from 1 John 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. 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 help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
That’s what Jesus is trying to teach us to do – to love in truth and action. To lay down our lives for one another not just in what we say, but in what we do.
What does that look like? Sometimes it looks like laboring mightily on a Tag Sale all week long in order to support people who do not have homes and need a way to get back on their feet. Sometimes it looks like what parents do – staying up all night with a sick kid or sacrificing your own wish list so that your kid can do that special summer program or shivering through those extra innings of the game on a chilly night.
Many of you this week have seen the footage from Philadelphia in which two black men were arrested after sitting for a few minutes in a Starbucks while they waited for others to arrive for a meeting. These men did nothing wrong. If sitting in a Starbucks waiting to meet someone is a crime, then I would be serving a life sentence right now. But I am not seen as a threat. And in this country black men too often are. The men were later released without charges, but they spent several hours in custody. Imagine the exhaustion, the fear, the trauma of that experience.
The video is disturbing, but one thing I notice is that there are people who try to intervene on behalf of the men. They challenge what is happening. They attest to the fact that the men were doing nothing wrong. One woman records everything with her phone so that we are able to witness it for ourselves. Those people are doing shepherd’s work, putting something on the line on behalf of another’s safety. They are loving not just in word and speech, but in truth and action. It made me ask myself if I would do the same in that situation.
As we read and sing today about the good shepherd, it might be tempting to think of that image as quaint. It’s something we dust off for funerals and on this one Sunday a year, but what does shepherding really have to do with our modern life?
Jesus knows that we would prefer to be the hired hands. Just do what we are obligated to do and run at the first sign of danger. But Jesus reminds us that there’s plenty of shepherding to do, plenty of powers that threaten the most vulnerable among us, plenty of people who have been chased their whole lives by all kinds of wolves. As Christians we don’t run from those fights. We run toward them. We have been loved by the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us. And so we are called to live a sacrificial kind of love…a love that costs something…a love that can change the world.
May we, like the Good Shepherd, love not just in words and speech, but in truth and action. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
This sermon was preached by Drew Seminarian Leif McLellan.
My dad is a doctor and my mom is a former nurse and, let me tell you, growing up with two medical professionals in the family was both a blessing and a curse. I was thankful that, whenever my body wasn’t cooperating, I could get my parents’ expert opinion. We could generally avoid a trip to the doctor’s office. However, my parent’s medical expertise sometimes worked against my wishes. See, I was a weird child because I hated missing school. I remember one morning before school I woke up feeling miserable. Feverish, weak, the whole nine yards. But I sat at the kitchen counter trying to muscle my way through a bowl of cereal. I was determined to get on that school bus. But my mom, the ever watchful nurse, noticed I was ill and she insisted I stay home. Good thing, too. Staying home allowed me to heal and prevented anyone else from getting sick. Because my parents knew when I was sick and because they cared for me so well, I was able to be honest about my own illnesses and I was able to heal.
Isn’t that how healing often happens? When we try to hide our wounds they can get worse. But when we reveal our wounds, they can heal. This happens with physical ailments, of course. If we go to the doctor for a broken bone, the doctor can give us a cast and medication. If we ignore the broken bone, the bone either doesn’t repair properly and we live with that pain. Our emotional and relational wounds seem to follow the same pattern. Who here has not felt the sting of loss or abuse or a broken relationship? When we receive these wounds, it can be tempting to deal with them alone. We like to think that we are self-sufficient, that we can heal ourselves. But like a broken bone, these internal wounds can get worse if they stay bottled up.
In our gospel reading for today the resurrected Jesus reveals his own wounds to his disciples. This passage begins with the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem on the third day following Jesus’s crucifixion. News was spreading that Jesus had risen from the dead. Those who had gone to visit Jesus’s tomb found it empty. Two of Jesus’s disciples had met him on the road from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. This news then reached Jerusalem and the disciples began discussing this strange yet wonderful information.
Then Jesus appears in their midst, saying “Peace be with you.” Even though Jesus brings this message of peace, the disciples are “startled and terrified,” …startled and terrified, like they had seen a ghost. I wonder how Jesus would have felt about this reaction. Not three days ago Jesus was publically stripped naked, mocked, and nailed on a cross for all to see. How humiliating. How shameful. This once powerful rabbi had been publically executed. Moreover, as Jesus predicted, his disciples had abandoned him. Jesus received not only the physical wounds from the cross, but also the wounds of shame, social isolation, and public humiliation. Yet, despite his shame, Jesus was able to go to his disciples. He bravely risked even more humiliation. However, his disciples were startled and terrified. I can hear the frustration and sadness in Jesus’s voice, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look! It really is me, the one you have followed and loved!
But then something miraculous happens. Jesus tells his disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.” Jesus shows them where he received the wounds from the nails on the cross. The revelation of these wounds changes something in the disciples. Although it took time for the disciples to grasp what they were seeing, they were immediately filled with joy. As Luke writes, “While in their joy, they were disbelieving and wondering.”
In this joy, while they were doubting, Jesus asks his disciples for a piece of fish to eat and they give him one. Even after all the shame he experienced, Jesus still seeks fellowship with his disciples. Even after his death he invites his followers around the table again. Jesus shows up in his body, hurt and hungry. He shows his wounds to his dear friends. God uses these wounds, this hurt and hungry body, to restore a community that was once living in fear.
A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of traveling to South Korea for one of my classes. Much of the class focused on the tragedy of the so called Korean comfort women. The term “comfort women” was used by the Japanese military in World War II to name the estimated 300,000 girls and young women that they used as sex slaves for the Japanese soldiers. These girls and women endured unimaginable horrors at the hands of Japanese soldiers. But the nightmares did not end with the war. Those women who were able to return to a peacetime society could not speak about their experiences. Because of cultural stigmas around sexuality, they feared deeper shame, humiliation, and social isolation. Since they could not share their experiences, their deep psychological and physical wounds grew even worse.
But in the early 90s things began to change. In 1991, Haksoon Kim was the first survivor to share her story publically. With the help of a Christian justice organization,[i]other comfort women began to courageously tell their traumatic stories and revealed their wounds. They have testified before the Korean, Japanese, and American governments as well as other international communities. Although the Japanese government still refuses to make amends, the comfort women have found healing in their testimonies and a supportive community. They have also formed the core of a movement that now supports victims of war and sexual violence across the globe.
When we were in Korea, we were blessed to meet Il Chul Kang, one of the few remaining survivors. She came out of her nursing home to meet us, walking slowly with an attendant supporting her. The first thing she did was shake each one of her hands. Then with a shaking yet confident voice she said, “Thank you all for coming. I am grateful for the United States and all who were fighting for the cause of the comfort women.” And she told us, “When I close my eyes I still see what happened to me.” As she spoke her face glowed with a deep calm. Even though she still had memories from the war, she clearly had also experienced profound healing. It was as if she had said to us, “Peace be with you. Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.”
Not only had God healed Il Chul and others like her, but God gave them the vulnerability to heal others. Vulnerability: the ability to risk the wounds of shame, failure, and defeat.[ii]These women were not captive to their wounds. God had transformed their pain and their shame into a new life for themselves and for others.[iii]
That’s the power of the resurrection.
In a world that that values appearances and demands we have everything together, we all have our wounds. What are yours? Do you feel like you have failed as a parent? Have you been hurt by a family member, a classmate, or a coworker? Are you struggling with that secret that’s weighed you down for years? Into our hurting places the living Christ comes and says, “Peace be with you. Look at my scars. I know your pain.” Christ knows our pain and still loves us beyond all our shame. And yes, despite all our shame God can use our wounds in ways we might not be able to imagine.
We are no longer captive to our shame. We no longer have to carry our burdens to the grave. We trust that God will transform our wounds into a new life of healing for us and for others. I pray that God will work in your life to transform your wounds into healing for a wounded world. Amen.