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