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
“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