Scripture: JOHN 10:11-18
A new couple moved onto our street a couple of weeks ago. You may not think this is particularly significant. After all, people move all the time. Mary and I live on a cul-de-sac with eight houses, though, and the arrival of these new neighbors was a minor milestone because we have lived there for going on seventeen years, and until a few weeks ago, we were still the newest people on the block. That’s a snail’s pace home turnover.
When the new couple moved in, we stopped by one day to introduce ourselves, to deliver a loaf of fresh pumpkin bread, and to welcome the new couple to the neighborhood. I tell you this, though, not to blow our own horn for that small gesture of hospitality, but rather as a form of confession. Because the stark truth of the matter is that, while we have lived in our neighborhood for a sixth of a century, there are still numerous neighbors we don’t know. In every direction are homes whose inhabitants we have never actually met. We may say hi or wave when they drive by. But, as in so much of suburbia, we have lived somewhat isolated lives.
And I confess this because I don’t believe this is the way Jesus is, and I don’t believe this is what I was made to be, either. Shortly before he embarks on his last days of life, Jesus says something apparently rather simple and straightforward. He says, “I am the good shepherd.” It’s not unusual for Jesus to utter an “I am” sentence. In fact, in John’s gospel, Jesus says, I am the bread of life (6:35); I am the light of the world (8:12); I am the gate; (10:9); I am the resurrection and the life (11:25); I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6); I am the true vine (15:1).
And then there’s the one we’ve heard today: I am the good shepherd, which Jesus says twice (10:11, 14). It’s the only one of the seven “I am” statements in which Jesus likens himself to a person or to a human role. Maybe it’s that human role that makes the image so endearing and the subject of numerous works of art, in which Jesus is pictured as a shepherd tenderly caring for the sheep. That may also account for the 23rd Psalm being the most well-loved of psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd,” about which we sing today. Despite how antiquated the image is, and the unlikelihood that most of us have ever even met a shepherd, there’s something about that image that warms our hearts and maybe makes us relax a bit and breathe just a little easier.
We warm to that image, I suspect, because the shepherd, after all, is a caretaker. The shepherd, as Jesus says, is the one who gives life for the sheep. The shepherd, says Jesus, is not like the hired hand, who runs off at the first sign of trouble. No, the shepherd is the one who stays with the sheep no matter how awful things may seem. The shepherd is the one who sticks it out in the face of rejection or danger or threat of any kind. The shepherd never deserts. The shepherd is simply there for the sheep.
We live in a world in which such commitments are rather more rare than we might hope. We live in a world in which we’re so often pitted against each other, rather than being prompted to tend to each other. You may well work in such a field. A recent TV ad for a memory-enhancing medication has the main character saying he needs to take the drug in order to remain “competitive.” Not creative. Not cooperative. Not productive. Competitive. He sees his life as a competition and his primary requirement as beating his peers. Not particularly shepherd-like.
Excessive electronic screens and rampant overwork have diluted human connection and mutual commitment, as well. We spend so much of our time devouring videos and social media and electronic communication, and all the while starve for actual human contact. Our vast cultural divisions have contributed to this social dismemberment, as well—that prevailing sense that, if you don’t think the way I do, you’re my enemy, and fat chance that I will ever make the slightest gesture of commitment to you or your kind. Not particularly shepherd-like.
In a world in which such commitments and support and care are relegated to a woeful second-class status, with caregivers indeed paid less and granted far less social status than those in countless other fields, Jesus’ statement stands out, and calls us back to the center. It reminds us that at the core of life is the One who says, “I know my own and my own know me” (10:14). Beneath the competition and the jealousy and the desperation and the loneliness and the anger and the fear and the helplessness is the One in whose arms we are always held. That’s the heart of the life of faith—that God knows us, and we are invited always to respond by knowing God, and knowing each other.
It may sound odd and unlikely, but the sobering and staggering truth is that this Jesus knows you and loves you. This Jesus wraps warm and holy arms around you. This Jesus knows that you snapped at your spouse today, that you forgot your child’s game or recital, that, try as you might, you haven’t been able to produce in yourself a good mood. This Jesus knows that you may often feel defeated by a sense of isolation, that you wonder about your legacy in the family and the workplace, that you’re frightened of dying. This Jesus knows you drink too much, or watch too much porn, or go too often to your secret stash of candy. This Jesus knows all that, and forgives you every single failing. This Jesus knows all that, and loves you with a relentless affection. As one of the psalms says, God has “searched [you] and known [you]” (139:1). The Jesus who is God’s embodiment knows every single part of you. And loves you just as you are. Did you get that? And loves you just as you are.
It may not surprise you to know that I can be something of a control freak. Maybe, indeed, you share this trait. When I have a plan for something, I want it to go the way I laid it out. And one of the hardest, but also most valuable, lessons I am learning, is that it’s when I let go of my imagined control that the best moments happen. I can’t control the meeting or the conversation or the process. I can, and should, plan. But I also need to release the results into God’s hands. And when I do? That’s when the gifts and blessings cascade. A turn in the road opens a stunning vista. A chance encounter leads to a job opportunity. What begins as an ordinary conversation with a child uncovers anxiety and social shunning, and yields, finally, an unexpected healing and peace. Radiant gifts, all.
And it’s all because the Jesus who knows us again and again sees fit to fill us with those unimagined gifts and blessings. And the strange and wonderful thing is that this Jesus knows just what would be good for you and for me and for everybody. Because Jesus knows the sheep of that holy pasture—knows you and me and everybody. And wants nothing more than to give us what we most deeply need.
What most marks the heart of Jesus is what he says near the end of today’s passage: “For this reason God loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (10:17). Jesus is willing to give his very life for his friends. There can be no greater love than that—to give oneself for the sake of someone else. This is who Jesus is. And it’s what Jesus asks of us. As it says a little later in John’s gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). That sort of sacrifice is, in truth, the very core of Christian faithfulness.
Laying down life for our friends may mean reflecting prayerfully on how we might support our Black and brown and Asian American and Pacific Islander sisters and brothers in the wake of persistent racism. It may mean finding ways to make the world safe and welcoming for trans people. And it may mean changing some of our cherished habits in order to care for our beloved and imperiled earth—using less water, eating less meat, buying vehicles that run on electricity or with better gas mileage.
During this week of Earth Day, Sweden’s Greta Thunberg never ceases to be inspiring on this front. Her call to each of us, as well as to governments and corporations, has about it a drumbeat of deep rightness. She calls on all of us to lay down perhaps treasured parts of our lives for the sake of something greater. And we hear there a holy voice.
PBS devoted the entire evening, this past Thursday, Earth Day, to a three-hour documentary on Thunberg. Strangely, and wildly coincidentally, in the first hour of that documentary, she walked on vanishing Arctic glaciers with a man named John Pomeroy, a University of Saskatchewan water scientist, as he explained the immense damage we’re causing to those glaciers. You may remember my mentioning, a few moments ago, that a new couple had moved in on our street a few weeks ago. The house they moved into was owned by Dick and Betsy Pomeroy, who have both since died. And here’s the unlikely coincidence: water scientist John Pomeroy, he of Thursday’s documentary, is the son of Betsy and Dick, and a man Mary and I have met. In teaching Greta Thunberg and us about the devastation of climate change, John Pomeroy, too, is laying down his life, in some manner, for his friends, and not just for his immediate friends, but for the larger good.
Laying down our lives is something that can happen on a broad cultural level. At least as often, though, it is something that can happen in the intimate moments of our ordinary lives. Elaine Olson tells this story: “Mark’s feet hung over the edge of the mattress. For six weeks my husband of thirty years had been on this bed [multiple cords and IVs running in and out of him]. . ..
“I wanted to touch him, and I longed for his touch, his nearness, his warmth. But . . . Mark’s bones, hollowed into honeycomb by multiple myeloma, screamed a silent caution against my desire to embrace him. It hurt him too much to be touched.
“Mark was also too exhausted to speak. . .. He seemed to hide within an internal shell, seldom reaching beyond the hospital bed. I looked for some way to feel the love we shared and say good-bye. How could we connect when talking was too hard, touching too painful, and presence not quite enough?
“Navigating my way to the foot of the bed, I softly placed my hands on his toes, gently touching them, studying Mark’s face and body for a response. He opened his eyes. With a tiny upward turn of his mouth and a simple nod, he gave his approval. I held one foot, then the other, caressing the old calluses grown soft, stroking the skin pulled over once-strong muscles. The toes wiggled in acknowledgement, speaking in a language of their own. I thought I heard them say, ‘I miss you too.’ His size 12, basketball-loving, hook shot-trained, golf-putting, resting-on-the-desk-to-think feet became the harbor for our connection.
“Relating in this way became the nightly ritual. As each day moved into night, the room darkened with only the glow of a single lamp. Mark’s breath eased. I would take a bottle of scented lotion, pour a few drops into my palm, and rub my hands together to warm the soothing balm. With the words, ‘I love you,’ I carefully embraced his feet.
“After Mark died, I took the bottle of lotion one last time, poured the liquid into my shaking hands, and caressed his lifeless body beginning with the soles of his feet. Then legs. Arms. Hands. Face. In this final and sacred anointing, I whispered, ‘I love you’” (The Christian Century, Feb. 26, 2020; https://www.christiancentury.org/article/readers-write/feet-essays-readers).
“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “I know my own and my own know me. . .. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus knows us, loves us, indeed lays down his life for us. And it is as we live out that same sort of self-giving love that our lives are made full and our joy is made complete. May it always be so.