Faith and community train us to stand our ground together against things like hate, fear, judgment and prejudice. And if we are called to sacrifice everything we have, including our very life, Jesus the Good Shepherd will accompany and lead us into everlasting life.
Year B, April 29, 2012
Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace to you and peace from the One who lays down his life for those he loves, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Author Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird by Bird, tells the story of an eight-year-old boy whose sister is dying of leukemia and is in need of a life-saving blood transfusion. When doctors discover the boy is the perfect donor, he agrees to give a pint of blood to save his sister’s life. As the medical personnel place him on the gurney and connect him to all the proper IVs, the boy asks the doctor, “How soon until I start to die?” Out of love for his sister, the boy is willing to lay down his own life (p. 205).
We all know that giving a pint of our blood will not kill us, but the little boy did not. What an amazing example and witness of a child, willing to give up his own life for someone he loves.
In John 15.13, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
It can be shocking to think that someone might die for me. I can think of so many reasons why someone shouldn’t die for me. It would be way to embarrassing for me to list all those reasons for you this morning, but I’m sure you can come up with your own list of why you think someone, especially Jesus or someone you love, should not die for you.
Perhaps this is why Jesus’ death is so shocking…because he willingly goes to his death for you and for me. Jesus says, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
This is the opposite of how you and I function. Survival and self-preservation is deeply engrained in us. We have a fight or flight reflex. Whether we like it or not, when it comes down to it, we think of ourselves first and our own survival.
For instance, imagine for a moment that you are walking in the woods. I know it’s hard to imagine woods here on the wide open plains, but try. You are walking in the woods alone and you come upon a mother bear with her cubs. Trying to protect her cubs, the mother bear starts to charge you, so you turn and run to try and stay alive. This is something we would all do.
Now imagine that you are not alone hiking in the woods. You are with an acquaintance. It’s someone you know, but you’re not real good friends yet. You come upon the bears. What do you do?
Now imagine you are with your best friend…what do you do?
Now imagine you are with the most important person you can think of in your life…what do you do?
(This imaginatory scenario inspired by Rev. Jonathan Splichal Larson)
I think many or all of us would hope that we could somehow have the courage to fight for and protect those we care about, even if our own lives might be lost in the process. But when it comes down to it, most or all of us act first in self-preservation and survival. It is not easy to willingly lay down one’s own life.
In our story today in our Gospel reading, Jesus contrasts himself from the hired hand who runs away at the threat of danger. Jesus, on the other hand, lays down his life willingly for the sake of those he calls sheep. Jesus uses all kinds of metaphors in his teaching to help people better understand the love of God. Here, Jesus refers to us as the sheep. Sorry if this is offensive to you, but being referred to us sheep and Jesus as the Shepherd communicates a deep truth at the heart of being human and God being God.
Let’s think about sheep for a little bit here. Did you know that sheep have an elevated sense of sight, hearing, and smell because they are prey animals? They also “have excellent peripheral vision and can see behind themselves without turning their heads (sheep101.info).” And the reason sheep are always in a flock is because it is their main protection from predators.
What is interesting about sheep is that even though they have great peripheral vision, they are unable to see directly in front of their nose. Sheep need other sheep to see in different directions for each other, to communicate, and to survive. It doesn’t take too long to figure out that a lone, individual sheep, pardon my pun, is a lamb chop.
So what does being a follower of Christ have to do with sheep and why does Jesus compare us to them? Jesus knew the evils in the world and the challenges his followers would face. There is a reason that he chose numerous people to follow him during his ministry and there is a reason why we gather together every Sunday morning for worship. It is nearly unfeasible, if not impossible to live out faith alone.
It is too easy to think you have it all figured out or to live how you please in ways that are harmful to yourself or others if there is no one to challenge you or keep you accountable.
It is too easy to get eaten alive by materialism, greed, apathy, and meaninglessness when one wanders from the flock of a faith community.
It is too easy to fall back into addiction if you are not reminded how precious your life is and how you don’t have control over substances.
It is too easy to lose your faith when there is no one around you to encourage and care for you.
It is imperative for your survival and well-being to be surrounded with people who care about you.
In our Gospel reading, the wolf comes along and scatters the sheep, knowing they are more vulnerable and weaker alone. Think about what the wolf is. The “wolf” can be fear, hate, addiction arrogance, pride. Can you think of other things that divide people?
When we are together as a community letting Jesus lead and guide us through what life throws at us, we are given what we need to trust God, to know we are forgiven, and to be reminded that Christ died for you and loves you.
When we put our trust in something other than God, whatever it is, it will fail us. And it is a terrible feeling to feel alone, to feel abandoned.
I remember being a small child in a department store, and thinking I was being sneaky, I would hide in the clothes racks until my mom would roll the cart away. One time I came out of the clothes and my mother was nowhere to be found. I looked and looked for her, and not seeing her, panic started to set in. I wasn’t separated from her very long, but for a child it felt like an eternity. It was long enough for me to feel vulnerable and alone, not knowing what would happen to me.
This feeling of abandonment intensifies when it actually happens, not like my situation of hiding on purpose. There have been many conversations I have had with you students who have said to me how disappointed you are when your friends back home don’t write you here. I have heard it more than once here, “I guess I find out who my real friends are.” Abandonment is painful.
There are also times in our lives in which we feel abandoned by God. We might pray and pray and pray and feel or hear nothing. Really horrible things might happen to us and we wonder where God is in the whole mess of life. But just because you can’t “feel” God doesn’t mean that God has abandoned you.
Jesus promises to be with us always…not just on our good days. We know this because he gave up his life for you and for me in order that he could be with us always, even in our own death. As Psalm 23 (vs. 1, 4) says, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.” Jesus leads and guides as a good shepherd, and intimately knows those who belong to him. You and I belong to Jesus and he will never leave you.
Jesus doesn’t just lay down his own life for those he likes, but he even lays his life down for the hired hands who run away, and for those who seek to destroy him. This is the great love of Christ for you, for me, and for the world.
We are so blessed to have all of you from English Lutheran in Hazen join us today for worship. You remind us how broad and how wide the community of faith is. You encourage us in ministry and we rejoice together in what God is doing through all of us in the world.
For those of you receiving quilts today, and for those of you who will in the near future when you leave this place, the quilts are meant to serve as a reminder to you that God does not and will not abandon you. That there are people of faith all over who care about you and your well-being, who want to encourage you and pray for you. It is a reminder of God’s love that will never fail you and a reminder that you are part of the flock, the family of God.
It is in these promises and knowledge that we find the courage to lay down our own lives as well. We do not always respond to the fight or flight reflex. Faith and community train us to stand our ground together against things like hate, fear, judgment and prejudice. And if we are called to sacrifice everything we have, including our very life, Jesus the Good Shepherd will accompany and lead us into everlasting life. This is the promise of Easter, the promise of resurrection, and Jesus has given us himself to trust and to follow. Thanks be to God.