In the Gospel of John, Jesus identifies himself through a series of statements that start with "I am." He says:
* I am the bread of heaven.
* I am the light of the world.
* I am the resurrection and the life.
* I am the way, the truth, and the life.
In next week's Gospel, Jesus says:
* I am the true vine.
And this week we hear:
* I am the good shepherd.
These "I am" statements begin to spell out to us who Jesus is.
As we hear he is the good shepherd, we must get beyond the Christmas pageant images of people dressed in bath robes with shepherd crooks made of tinfoil. We must get beyond the beauty of the 23rd Psalm to truly hear its message. We must hear what it means for Jesus to be one's shepherd.
To be the shepherd means you're the one in charge and the one responsible for the flock. Our first allegiance is to him. Stephen Carter, in writing the "The Cultural of Disbelief," said, "Our religion is, at its heart, a way of denying the authority of the rest of the world." It's a way of saying to our fellow human beings and to the state those fellow human beings have erected, "No, I will not accede to your will." It is to make our prayer, in the words of Father Tim in the Mitford series, "the prayer that never fails, 'Not my will be done but thine.'"
A few verses before our lesson today Jesus tells us how the sheep know and respond to the voice of the shepherd. The sheep's very existence depends on the shepherd for protection, for sustenance, for guidance. So when Jesus is our shepherd, we heed his will as our authority. We seek his way for our lives.
A little girl reciting the 23rd Psalm began, "The Lord is my shepherd; that's all I want." Maybe she missed the wording, but she sure got the theology right. To have Jesus as our shepherd is indeed a blessing. As he moves towards the cross, Jesus holds up this model of the good shepherd, reminding his listeners that a good shepherd would lay down his life for the sheep. He would give his life to protect the sheep from thieves, wild animals, or whatever danger might confront the flock. We can give him our allegiance because of his commitment to us.
His commitment to us is also a challenge to us. Just as Jesus commits his life for us-his flock, so we're challenged to get beyond living with the attitude of What's in it for me? to find a commitment worthy of our life, to move beyond What can I gain? to What can I give?
When we act from love, it makes a tremendous difference. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, "When a chap is in love, he will go out in all kinds of weather to keep an appointment with his beloved. Love can be demanding; in fact, more demanding than law. It has its own imperatives. Think of a mother sitting by the bedside of a sick child through the night, impelled only by love. Nothing is too much trouble for love."
Jesus makes it clear as he draws near the cross that his motivation is love. He is choosing to make this sacrifice. He is choosing to be faithful to what God has put before him.
In the first letter of John we are challenged to love in that same manner. If he loved us enough to lay down his life for us, we should be willing to lay down our life for each other. There is a tale that in the first century a man came to Tertullian, a father in the early church. And in trying to justify some compromises the man had felt he had to make, commented, "I have to live, don't I?" to which Tertullian is reported to have said, "Do you?" The challenge is to focus away from self and to others, to ask where our real values are-survival only, or living as to make a difference.
Leo Tolstoy said, "The only certain happiness in life is to live for others." It is when we see the world with a larger level than self. It is when we become concerned with others that we find the depth of God's love for our lives.
Call the roll of those who cared for more than mere survival: Of Stephen being stoned to death for his faith, of Paul being chained and executed by the Romans, of Peter hanging on a cross upside down, of the countless martyrs of the ages. More died for the faith in the 20th century than any other. Listen to the words of Paul in 2nd Timothy: "God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control."
Jesus draws the contrast between the shepherd with his great commitment and the hired hand. The contrast is between one who is committed for life and the one for the moment. The contrast is between the one who is responsible and accountable and the one who can walk away with no responsibility. We are called to care in the same way as the shepherd. Knowing we are accountable for what we have done for the least of these, our brothers and sisters.
And the call to risk, to sacrifice, is not only with one's life but with the years and days that make up our lives. Have you ever seen the famous drawing called The Praying Hands by German artist Albrecht Durer? There is a legend behind the painting that tells of two struggling artists. One is a musician whose goal in life was to play and compose music to the glory of God. Durer, the other of the two, was a painter and engraver. It was a struggle for the two to survive, and the musician began to work in the fields to help support the work of Durer. By the time Durer gained enough notoriety to be self-supportive, the friend's hands had become too hardened to return to his career in music. The legend is that those hands have become the model for the famous praying hands. Laying down one's life is not always a matter of life or death, but at a time of postponing or canceling dreams and plans so that another might fulfill their dreams or plans.
This giving of self is not only sacrifice but a willingness to put all of who we are in our commitments. The hired hand can walk away without a worry; the shepherd knows his very existence is dependent upon the sheep.
There was a time when former President Jimmy Carter was working in the Philippines on a house for the Habitat for Humanity. The house was near where the famous Bataan death march of World War II began. It was a very hot day, and as President Carter and the others worked, their bodies were covered by sweat. The homeowner was later asked what meant the most to him about the project. He replied that one day as he watched, he noticed that as President Carter worked with the mortar, some of his sweat fell into the mix. I know my walls are blessed with the sweat of President Carter in them. This commitment is seen when we give of ourselves.
For the shepherd reflects not only commitment but care. Our lesson from John's Gospel tells us the good shepherd knows his sheep. We worship a God who knows each of us. He knows us, we're told, to the extent that the very hairs on our heads are numbered. Jesus knows that one size does not fit all. He cares for us where we are and what each of us is struggling with.
We are called to love in this same way, particularly for those who have no voice, those who need us to care for them. These would include the children in our homes, in our churches, in our communities. Almost 200,000 children die every week from preventable causes in the world. Where do we start? I am suggesting here, now. We who follow Christ, we who are the church, are called to show this care.
The shepherd can show this commitment and care because he is clear what his core values are. Jesus in laying down his life for us is modeling what a great love he has for us. The cross reminds us that he knew what he stood for, and there was no turning back from that commitment. Speaking of his life, he says, "No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." His love for God and for us was at the very core of his being. What you truly value in life will make all the difference in the world.
The challenge for us is to stay focused. There is a story of a keeper of a lighthouse along a rugged coast. Many were dependent on the light his lighthouse provided. He received delivery of enough oil to fuel his light for one month. More would come next month. There came a knock on his door. There stood a poor mother who was in great need of some oil to keep her child warm. He gave her some of his precious oil. Soon there was another request, this time for some oil for a lamp so that a man's son might study. Still another came so that the man might be able to run the engine of his boat so he could make a living fishing. Toward the end of the month, he found to his dismay that his tank was empty. The light went out. Three ships went down, more than a hundred lives lost. Agents from the government came and said, "Your light went out last night." The keeper of the lighthouse began to apologize for the darkness, telling of the many ways he had helped. The agents replied, "You were given one task above all others, to keep this light burning. Other demands on your fuel were secondary to that. Your light went out. Three ships were lost, and over a hundred lives were lost. For this, there can be no excuse."
For the church, for the one following Christ, there are many tough decisions to make. We can't be everything to all people. We must seek God's will for the best uses of our resources. Unless we're truly committed to where the shepherd leads us, we will be like the chameleon that found itself on Scotch plaid and blew up trying to match all the colors.
To follow the good shepherd means a centering of who we are in his will. It means recognizing and knowing the authority with which Jesus speaks. Soren Kierkegaard wrote, "We must be absolutely related only to the absolute, and only relatively related to the relative." Our first commitment must be to him. From the love and grace he has given us, we know we can trust our lives to his care and guidance. He is our shepherd.
But this singleness of commitment must never be seen as being narrow toward others. The challenge is to open our hearts and minds to others in a way that we shall see ourselves as a part of one flock with one shepherd. Some that gather with us will not be like us, but we can love them because God loves them. It is the shepherd that will determine who is a part of the flock. We must resist the temptation to expect all the other sheep to be the same as we are. The evils of intolerance to those different can destroy the vision of the church that Jesus is telling us of in John. He is specifically telling us that there are others who are not here with us at the moment. This statement of Jesus that there are other sheep is a reminder to be tolerant of different ways of worshiping, different views on social issues, different traditions. We're called to open our hearts and minds to be greater than what would divide us and see the love of the shepherd that unites us.
We must be very suspicious of those voices within our culture and even within the church that claim to have an exclusive hold on the truth. How the shepherd must laugh at the sheep, trying to get the other sheep in line. Christ is the standard, not our interpretations. Truth is greater than we can understand or state. We must not be afraid of those who sound different. The theologian John Cobb in an article in The Christian Century entitled "Being a Transformationist in a Pluralist World" wrote, "If we trust Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we have no reason to fear that truth from any source will undercut our faith. Indeed, we have every reason to believe that all truth, wisdom, and reality cohere in him."
We all have one life to live in such a way that we may invest it to the glory of God. We model our lives out of the sacrificial love of his life. We find room for each of us in the inclusive nature of God's love.
All of this comes with a cost. When you make a commitment to love as he loved, you will have to let go of some things. When you care as he cares, you'll have to get beyond yourself and your interests. To arrive at this core value that you will live for others, you must walk away from many other choices. For it is so giving our life and days in this way that you will find the authority of God's living word for your life. You stop listening to the many voices of the world and follow the one who is our good shepherd. As the little girl said, "Could we want any more?"
Let us pray. Gracious God, give us the courage to so commit our lives that we will love as you have loved us. Amen.