"Lay it down"-Sermon for Easter 4, John 10:11-18
I can literally never forget this experience…Ashley, my two girls and I were at the epicenter of sheep country in England, a mountainous region in the northwest of the country called the Lake District, where raising sheep is still very much at the center of culture and commerce…there may actually be more sheep there than permanent residents. We were there on vacation visiting our English family on my wife’s side to hike and take in the emerald mountains and breathtaking views. For “Lord of the Rings” fans, I like to believe JRR Tolkien must have spent time in the Lake District as he was imagining Middle Earth…for it is a magical, shire-like sort of place. And despite the loveliness of it all…the memory I am about to describe is not an altogether pleasant one. We were on a hike…or what they call over there a hill walk. It was just my immediate family on this particular hike…Ashley, me and the girls. Mary Ellen, my youngest, was still small enough that we were toting her with us on our backs…but Amelia, our oldest was about 6 years old and was making the walk all on her own.
Now Amelia is a natural born explorer. Even at that young age she was often pushing off ahead of us…reveling in the adventure of it all…beginning to express her desire for independence. And, some way into the hike, while still on our assent, we came to a fork in the trail. The hillside was covered in bright green ferns with two clear paths carved into them. And as I looked up, I thought…I really thought…that I saw that the two trails led to the same place and re-converged about a hundred yards or so further up the hillside. And I thought, further, that Amelia might like to take one of the paths by herself…a little solo adventure…I wanted to support, encourage and foster her independent spirit…so I asked her…and indeed she was excited about the prospect. So…I said let’s do it…you take the left fork…we’ll take the right and we will meet back up where the paths converge. The ferns where only about waist high, so I, also, thought we would basically be able to see her the whole way. And so, we set off.
Now I learned a very important lesson here…though the ferns were only waist high…the uneven and undulating hillside quickly made here un-seeable. When I lost sight of her my heart began to quicken…but I still felt confident that the paths would come back together and soon. But, after another 50 or so yards had past, they had not. Fear, perhaps like I had never experienced it, immediately set in. I literally ran back down the hill to the point where the fork began and looked down the path Amelia had taken, and I still could not see her. So, I told Ashely and Mary Ellen to wait at the fork and I began to sprint up the path that Amelia took…shouting her name as I ran. I quickly realized that this path did not turn back toward ours but turned further left. I kept running with adrenaline fueled speed…shouting her name…tears beginning to well up in my eyes…and then just as I thought my heart might burst out of my body…I heard her shouting my name back…I rushed toward her voice, and she came into view. I did not slow till I was at her side and she was entirely wrapped up in my arms. She was scared, and I was devastated…mentally placing myself in the category of worst father in the world. As we walked back to Ashley and Mary Ellen…I apologized to her over and over again for my thoughtlessness…for being lost myself in the adventure and fun of it all…a beautiful hike, on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place…watching my daughter romp ahead with abandon. And I assured her that this shepherd whose intentions are, at least, good…meaning her father…would never let his little lamb…meaning my daughter…out of my sights again.
Jesus reminds us today that he is, indeed, our Good Shepherd…not just in his intentions…but in actuality. He is so very good, in fact, that he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Unlike a hired hand…when the wolves approach…when the darkness begins to settle in…when our death-dealing world begins to snake its way into our communities and families…he will not run from danger. He will not pass the buck. Instead, he is willing to give it all…he chooses to give it all…his very life for the life of the world…even you, even me. This is the good news we continue to proclaim…as we continue our 50-day celebration of Easter. Not so much that Jesus will lay down his life…but that he has laid down his life on the hard wood of the cross. For, in doing so, God was then able to raise him up…ushering in the defeat of death…the defeat of sin…such that in the fullness of time…God will be all in all…this world will be set to rights with love on top…and everything that is made will stand in light perpetual…every tribe and language…all standing before God and the Lamb eternally whole, fully alive, with no tears left…only joy and eternal bliss. This is the hope of the world…this is hope we are called in the Season of Easter to be filled up with, to revel in, to remember and proclaim…till it oozes from our pours, becomes infectious (in a good way!)…spilling out into the lives of others…bringing hope to the hopeless. This is the end to which we are being shepherded…this is where our Good Shepherd leads us. And, all of this…is accomplished in the willingness, in the choice, to first lay down his life. Thus, Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
And, it is, in part, for this reason that I tell the story today of losing, if briefly in the big picture, my beloved one Amelia…who I would surely lay my life down for…make no mistake…I would have given everything to find her. I would have run and shouted till my heart literally burst open. Now, I might not be the best shepherd of the sheep entrusted into my care always…this story is case in point. But still, as Jesus’ resurrected body on earth, we are called to be good shepherds, or at least the very best we can be…for those entrusted to our care. For, as Jesus’ resurrected body alive and active in the world today, Jesus has placed on our shoulders the mantel of shepherd. And, that may begin with our loved ones…but surely that is just where it begins. As Jesus’ resurrected body on earth, we are called to have an expansive view of those we are called to shepherd, to love and to care for…our friends and families, those who make up this family of faith we call St. Julian’s, and on…on to all those who need the infectious hope that dwells within us, those who need shoes on their feet like we are doing with our current sneaker drive for children seeking asylum, fire to heat homes in the bitter winter like we did with our firewood drive for families in Navajoland, creating an intentionally inclusive and affirming community to find belonging in…like the very one we continue to shape here together now.
And, like Jesus our Good Shepherd, we have choice and we have power. I believe this is in part what the creation narrative in Genesis means when it says God created humans in God’s own likeness and image. Like God…God has bestowed upon us creative powers that we can choose to use or not to use…that we can use to build up or to destroy. Surely this was a risky choice made by God at the beginning…for we have surely shown how destructive we humans can be. But, if love is to be real…it must be chosen and received…freely…otherwise it is something other than love. And, God wants us to really love him and each other…not be manipulated, coerced or controlled…but really chose to love God and each other…thus we are free. So, how then will we use that freedom…how will we choose to shepherd our beloved ones…those entrusted into the care of God’s resurrected body…again that’s us. My experience with Amelia reminded me, in one of the most frightening moments of my life, that how we choose to shepherd profoundly impacts the sheep and lambs left under our charge…for good or for ill.
Thus I say on this day, often called Good Shepherd Sunday…the 4###sup/sup### Sunday in the Season of Easter, that we humbly, willingly, and with great intention consider what it means for Jesus to lay on his resurrected body, on us, the mantle of shepherd…and, further, find within ourselves the courage…to choose to be ourselves Good Shepherds…a willingness to lay down our own lives for the sheep…those who belong to our fold and those who do not…with our time, with our resources, with our wisdom. There may be cost involved. As I said on Easter Sunday, what was most recognizable about the risen Jesus where his scars and wounds…lasting signs of his willingness…his choice to lay down his own life. But, as I also said at Easter, among those scars and wounds was glory…something altogether wonderful, new, awe-inspiring, and breathtakingly beautiful. The same will be true for each of us and all of us together…but first we must choose to be like Jesus our Good Shepherd…to lay down our lives for those many who so desperately need us.
For this is how resurrection becomes a lived experience…not something we wait for…but experienced now…glory now…life now…love now…freely chosen...freely given, as we choose to shepherd well those entrusted to our care…as we seek after those who are lost…shout so they can hear our voices…and listen till we can hear theirs…whatever the cost…until we are all wrapped up in each other’s arms again…until, in the fullness of time, we are all wrapped up in those everlasting arms of love…Jesus’ arms…our Good Shepherd. Amen.