The sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter.
In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus presents us with two ways of relating. The first one he calls “the Shepherd” and the second he calls “the Hand.”
The first thing we learn about the hand is that he’s “hired”: the hand shows up because he’s paid to be there; he gets something out of the transaction. When the relationship ceases to be personally beneficial, it ends. So, the hand is primarily self-interested.
This leads directly into the next thing Jesus tells us about the hand: Because he is self-interested, he “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them.” The hand is defensive. When he sees a potential threat, he protects himself first.
In a way, this makes sense: If I’m working a minimum-wage job and the building catches fire, I’m not going to risk my life to save the merchandise on the shelf… but if I’m a parent and my kids are in that building… just try and stop me!
But the hired hand wouldn’t risk his life for the sheep; it’s just not worth it to him. Because the hired hand “is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep,” Jesus says, he “does not care for the sheep.”
The shepherd, on the other hand, is different. Here’s what Jesus has to say about him:
First of all, we learn that the shepherd is “good.” This term strikes me as significant because, in this society where people are self-interested and defensive, the obsession is with who is “right,” with very little concern for “goodness.” But Jesus presents this shepherd (which is really a symbol of himself) as “good.”
Jesus goes on to describe a deep sense of belonging, a bond, between the shepherd and the sheep: “I know my own and my own know me.” And this sense of belonging is important because it has an effect on the way events play out. Just as the defensive, self-interested hired hand runs away and leaves the sheep to be scattered, the good shepherd looks out for the well-being of the whole community, even at the expense of his own life. As Jesus says repeatedly in this passage, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
I see these two images, the hired hand and the good shepherd, as powerful symbols of how we can relate to one another in this world.
Often, we act like hired hands toward our neighbors: we are defensive, driven by self-interest, and obsessed with being right. If you want an example of what I’m talking about, go home and turn on Fox News (if you’re a liberal) or MSNBC (if you’re a conservative). Watch for five minutes and you will see, in your political enemies, people who are defensive, self-serving, and obsessed with being right. But then watch for another five minutes, and pay attention to the emotions bubbling up inside you as you watch. Be honest and see if you can perceive within yourself those exact same characteristics. I’ll bet you can. I notice it in myself all the time. There are certain public commentators who call forth their mirror image in me. In fact, there was one last year who I found out had been invited to speak at the seminary from which I graduated. So I went online and fumed about how disappointed I was in our seminary and that this travesty was beneath the dignity of our school. And I kept going until one of my fellow-alumni spoke up in the comment box and said, “Gosh Barrett, YOU sound kind of like this commentator you’re so angry about.” And, as much as I hated to do it, I had to admit that my friend was right. We all have something like “the hired hand” within us.
We use one another for our own personal benefit, and when our relationships cease to be beneficial for us, we end them and move on. As a result, each of us remains at the center of our own little universe, and we never stop asking, “What’s in it for me?” We are defensive, self-serving, and obsessed with being right. This applies to all of us. It is the way of the world.
But Jesus calls us to another way of being in the world: the way of the good shepherd. Instead of obsessing over who is right, we can focus on what is good. Goodness is the mark of shepherd. As it says in the Book of Order (our denomination’s constitution on Presbyterian church government):
“Truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ …we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.” (F-3.0104)
In other words: when it comes to disagreements in the Church, and among Christians generally, the question is not “Who is Right?” but “What is good?”
Following the way of the good shepherd further means that there is a deep bond between us as brothers and sisters in Christ. As Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me.” This means that, through Christ, we are each other’s “own.” St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” … If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Centuries later, another pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality: What affects one directly affects all indirectly… injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We are each other’s “own.” We belong to one another through Christ. Therefore, if the building is burning, it is my child who is trapped inside. What then am I to do?
This leads us directly then to Jesus’ final statement about the good shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep.” In Christ, my ego (i.e. the great “Me” at the center of my own little universe) is turned upside down and replaced with the royal “We,” of which I am but a part.
Having passed through the waters of baptism, my life is no longer my own and your life is no longer your own, but our life is now Christ’s own. If we belong to each other and to Christ (as St. Paul says we do), then we are bound to walk in the way of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We run into the burning building to save the others, because it is not “Me” that matters, but “We.”
As we learn how to walk in the way of the good shepherd: the way of self-sacrifice, goodness, and deep belonging, the rest world will begin to take notice. Indeed, it has to, because that way of living is mind-boggling to a polarized, individualistic, and consumer-driven society that is defensive, self-serving, and addicted to ‘being right.’
And it is in those moments that we most clearly point the way forward to Jesus, our good shepherd who loves us and lays down his life for the world. This calling comes to us from Christ and leads the way back to Christ. Let us follow it, and let us love one another as he loves us.