Loved and Protected

John 10:11-16 & 1 John 3:14-18 & Psalm 23
4th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Sheep and shepherds show up in all the important places in the Bible. Moses was tending a flock of sheep when God called to him out of the burning bush. King David was called while serving as a shepherd. Jesus’ birth was first announced to shepherds tending their flocks in the field. Jesus is called both the shepherd and the sacrificial lamb. The last thing Jesus says to Peter in the resurrection according to John’s Gospel , is “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.” There are about sixty references in the Bible to the Lord being our shepherd or to the Lord calling leaders to be good shepherds or to the flock being as one without a shepherd.

What is it about that relationship of dependency that resonates with us? We could compare it to “I am the good business manager. I care for my employees.” But there’s something in the image of the Good Shepherd that captures our imaginations. Is the loving care of a more sophisticated human being for a more dependent animal? Perhaps it is the power of that unbalanced relationship between human and animal, which helps us appreciate the beauty of the relationship between Creator and creature.

We will now read both the Gospel lesson and the epistle for Good Shepherd Sunday. The Gospel of John encourages us with the promise that Jesus is our loving, protecting shepherd, much as Psalm 23 does. The first letter of John challenges us to be loving, compassionate shepherds of others.

Read John 10:11-16, followed by 1 John 3:14-18.

When Jesus in the Gospel lesson tells us the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, we all get this image of the wolf coming and devouring the shepherd while the sheep run free. But the word there for life is sukane the Greek word from which we get psyche or soul, which means the shepherd sets aside the inner self, not so much the body, which is what we typically think of when we give up life.. The psyche is the self, the character, the heart and soul of the person. So the Good Shepherd lays down his own desires and wishes in order to be fully attentive to the sheep.

This is like the parent of a 18 month old child, who cannot complete a personal task like checking email or reading an article or doing the dishes because of the pre-eminent need to keep the curiously climbing toddler out of trouble or danger. That is not giving up life, as in dying, but it is giving up life, as in one’s own psyche, for the good of another. Jesus did relinquish his life for us, having given us his soul. We are called to relinquish our psyches for the good of another. Not for the whims or the selfish demands of another. This is not a call to unhealthy co-dependency. This is a call to a life of loving.

“Anyone who does not love is as good as dead,” Eugene Petersen translates it in The Message. And then comes the real zinger – if you hate a brother or sister, seems like he’s talking about fellow believers more than nuclear family, then you are a murderer. And murder and living the eternal life of God do not fit together.

This is a difficult word for all of us. I bet there is not one person in this room who has not at some angry moment said, “I hate ___________”

David Thomas, who corresponds with me weekly over the lectionary texts, (something I’d welcome from anyone else who wants to do some study during the week), made me think about whether hate is the opposite of love or whether indifference is. What do you think? Maybe we could agree that indifference is the absence of love, while hate is the underside, the opposite side of the coin of love. I wonder if indifference is actually a helpful tool in moving us away from hate, while compassion is helpful in moving us from indifference back to love. So, in the end, I would put indifference and compassion as opposites and love and hate as opposites.

Illustration from a middle school encounter, where emotions are usually worn on sleeves. Eighth grade Abi HATES classmate Evan because he makes fun of what she’s wearing everyday. If Abi could become indifferent (not care) what Evan thinks or says, then she might be able to be compassionate toward Evan who picks on her because he is insecure himself and wants attention. If she felt compassion for Evan in his insecurity, she might even begin to love Evan, not in the romantic sense of love, but just in the I care about you kind of agape love. I say, if Abi can learn at home and at church that the Lord is her loving and protecting Shepherd, and by learn, I mean, experience that love in her home and church relationships, then Abi is in a better position to hear Evan’s comments and say, “I don’t care what he thinks. I don’t hate him.” Likewise, Evan, if he is learning that he has a loving and protecting Shepherd, will not need to make fun of others to gain attention for himself. And if more of that happened, middle school would not be such a difficult stage of life for so, so many young people.

The indifference and compassion tension is raised by the tough question of the epistle text, “How can God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in needs and refuses to help? The choices we make with our worldly goods and our use and ab-use of global resources are affecting others. Our indifference to the suffering of the very poor will not go away quickly, but we can chip away at it, by adding compassionate practices into our lives, by stretching ourselves to give more generously, even as we feel recession’s squeeze.

Two tough calls – one to love over hate. The other to compassion over indifference. What’s true for the middle schoolers is true for the middle-agers and everybody else. To know deeply the love of one who accepts you as you are and wants you to be all you can be is to be secure enough to reach out in compassion and love toward others. That love begins with Christ and ends with Christ, but that love is learned by the way the Christians live together with their Lord and with one another.

Loving others is a complicated matter because it often means giving them space to graze, to be their own psyche, while also offering support and care. I have not yet seen it, but I understand the movie, “The Soloist” explores the intricacies of friendship, and the barriers we put up in our lives, and the misconceptions about love and compassion that even the most well-meaning of us experience.

I pray Peace people will continue to be models of love and compassion, letting go of hate and indifference by securing ourselves, not in our wealth or our success or popularity or gifts and abilities or anything else, but in the love and compassion of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his soul for us, calls us to lay down our soul, our psyches for others.

I’d like to end with a video of 100 year old Jean, reciting the 23rd Psalm, with a little help from her Hospice chaplain, Richard. Jean is blind and almost totally bed bound, but her soul is full of joy, as you will see.

Let us pray as the choir comes forward: Lord, when our bodies fail us, as they surely will one day, enable us, by your Holy Spirit to continue singing your of your goodness and mercy, relying on you, our Good Shepherd for all our needs to be supplied. Hear us now Lord, as we pray in the silence of our souls for your love and protection to secure us so we might better love one another and have compassion for all people......