“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 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. I have received this command from my Father.”
1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
Former first lady Barbara Bush died this week at the ripe old age of 92.
I was driving in my car when I heard a story about Barbara Bush’s controversial commencement address at Wellesley College in 1990. I guess I must be getting old, or wasn’t paying attention in 1990, because I couldn’t remember the speech or the news reports about it at all. The graduating class of Wellesley that year invited Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple to be their commencement speaker. Alice Walker declined, so the college invited First Lady Barbara Bush.
The students at Wellesley were aghast. After all, Mrs. Bush had dropped out to marry a certain Navy pilot, George H.W. Bush. Not quite a feminist move, in the view of many college students. But Mrs. Bush made her speech and it was triumph.
They played parts of her speech on the radio this week, and I was particularly struck by this:
“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”
I’ve heard that sentiment expressed by other people in other ways, but hearing the quote from Mrs. Bush struck close to home as I was driving back from a long meeting, back to my mother’s apartment where I would help her get her clothes out, check she’s taken her medication properly, assist her with preparing dinner, take out her trash, do her laundry, help her put on shoes and socks, and what seems like a million other small chores.
I could hire someone to do all of this for her and there are days when I get pretty cranky about being the kid who ended up doing the caretaking. Yet, here I am, a slice of ham in the sandwich generation.
Then I look at my mom and I know her.
I know her.
Know what I mean?
A caretaker, no matter how well-meaning and helpful wouldn’t know. I know her.
I know this lady. I know how she likes her turkey and muenster cheese sandwiches on Roman Meal bread with way too much mayonnaise and I know what kind of bread and butter pickles she likes with that sandwich. I know that she could watch Golden Girls pretty much 24 hours a day and frequently will.
I know the sweep of her life over the past 56 years. That she raised two kids on her own and served on the school board and led a center for victims of violent crime and took care of her own mother for years.
I know she got cranky too sometimes.
I know she’s ticked about getting old and losing her ability to make her own stupid sandwiches.
My mother doesn’t have to tell me these things.
And I know, as her eyesight is dimming and her physical ability is declining, that having someone close by who KNOWS her, is worth everything.
Barbara Bush was right. I will never regret the time I’ve spent with my mother, even when it is inconvenient, or frustrating, or just too sad.
Not everyone can do what I’m doing for my mom, and I would never, ever say everyone should. All of us go through much of our days weighing those things we can commit to and those that we just can’t. Everyone’s relationships are very different. And eventually, I won’t be able to do it. But right now, I can.
In today’s text, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” That kind of deep knowing Jesus is talking about doesn’t happen overnight. Intimacy, real intimacy with another human being is built over time through hard work. Deep knowing is the love that perseveres through disillusionment, dirty dish towels, and even diminished physical and mental capacity.
In the reading from the gospel, Jesus contrasts the casual attitude of the hired hand versus the deep commitment of the good shepherd. When the going gets tough, when the “lay down your life” moment arrives, the hired hand leaves the scene.
The good shepherd sticks around, Jesus tells us. The good shepherd lays down his life willingly on behalf of the sheep. The good shepherd is connected to the flock and the flock to the shepherd in a relationship of deep knowing that endures even in the face of wolves and death.
The text of 1 John was written for a struggling group of new believers, who saw itself as an oppressed minority who tried to define itself over and against the world around them. The question on the mind of the community seems to be, “How do we know we are children of God? How do we know we are a part of the flock?” And the writer of the epistle tells them that when they love each other, they will know. If they assume the intimacy and caring of one another as family, even to the point that they are willing to lay down their lives for one another, that is how they will know the love of God.
This kind of sticky, enduring commitment is the same way Jesus loves humanity.
In that tender way you and I usually reserve for those who are our flesh and blood. How do we know we are God’s beloved children? We know this because, “He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another…not in word or speech, but in truth and action. That is the reality that ought to shape our lives.
When the writer of the epistle makes this demand that we lay down our lives for each other, he’s going in close, down from lofty ideas and into the daily grind of real life together which can be icky, difficult and frustrating. He says that it is here, in our Christian communities, that we must practice giving ourselves away.
We start with giving away our things, things that are dear to us so that we can learn what is truly dear. We learn to empty ourselves for others. We learn to be accountable to one another and stick with each other. It is by doing it that we learn to love. It is not by feeling it. This lay down your life love is not an emotion. Love is lived out. Love becomes real when it is acted upon. When it actually begins to shape your life.
This self-giving act of Jesus on the cross is not just one aspect of love, or one piece of the love puzzle. The cross is the very picture of love, the essence of love. God came very close to us in this. God came very close to us in Jesus, and we need to look and listen and observe and mirror that kind of closeness toward each other in our lives.
I read an article a few years ago about a neuroscientist who did research revealing that the human brain registers people in low status differently that the brain registers people we approve of or recognize. The part of the brain that normally activates when you look at people is strangely silent when looking at a homeless person. But when you ask people what kind of soup a homeless person might want to eat, the brain snaps to attention. When we go from the abstraction of homelessness to the reality of a homeless person eating a kind of soup, our brains activate so we can begin to know the person.
When we travel to places like Malawi or South Sudan and get to know people there, the economic devastation of third world countries ceases being an abstraction debated by the United Nations or the IMF. When we live among real flesh and blood people in community, we come close. We begin to know them.
When you serve food at the Center in Bellevue, the challenges facing lonely and mentally ill are more than a matter of healthcare policy being debated in Congress. You see and greet real flesh and blood people, and bring them nourishing food and a friendly smile. You come close. You begin to know them and the recognition part of your brain begins to buzz.
When Rev. Fred Rogers looked into a television camera and made connections with children reminding them that they were loved, not because they were good or bad, but because they were uniquely and beautifully made as child of God. And he did it for years, touching millions of kids, without ever once uttering the word, “God,” Rev. Rogers got close.
This is the way Jesus moved through his life on earth. Jesus connected. He didn’t solve or eliminate large social problems. He touched and healed and cured and comforted individuals who suffered because of social problems. Jesus didn’t eliminate leprosy or create healthcare policy. He cured lepers and said it was ok for the rest of us to cure people on the Sabbath. Jesus dealt in specifics and he told his followers to do the same.
Loving in truth and action means sacrificing something, but it’s not a one-and-done kind of sacrifice. It’s a daily struggle to understand and respond to the needs of people around us by laying down some things that we need to lay down.
Not just our money or our stuff, but even more precious things like our time. Our need to be right. Our prejudices and preferences. Our discomfort. Our grudges. Our old hurts.
Laying down our lives means giving up whatever it is that is keeping us distant from a brother or sister who needs us. And Lord knows, those are the most difficult distances to bridge.
Our impulse to love which is a gift of the Spirit and our reassurance that we can actually get over ourselves and do this work.
If God is good, and God is love, then God desires and will bring out the best in us, even when we are very uncertain of our own goodness. God sees strength in us when we feel weak. God sees ability in us when all we see is inability. God sees faith in us when all we see is doubt. God sees hope for us when all we see is despair. And God sees all of that in the person sitting next to you, too.
What are you willing to lay down for the sake of this community?
Close your eyes for a moment. Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the face of one person in this community who is in need of something that you have in your power to give them. Let us remain silent for a moment.
How will you connect with that person this week? How will you find a way to be with them? Abide with them? Trusting that Christ will abide with you both, and you will both abide in Christ? God of mercy, hear our prayer.
This is not an item to put on your to do list. This person is a gift to you to receive from God through the power of the Holy Spirit. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
Perhaps you are called simply to pray for them. To hold their image in your heart as you pray for their well-being and peace. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
Perhaps you are called to connect with that person by phone or for a visit, simply to offer yourself to them. For a conversation or a cup of coffee or a meal. God of mercy, hear our prayer.
Perhaps when you close your eyes, the only face you can see is your own because the person most in need right now is you. You are awash in anxiety or worry. You need a brother or sister in Christ to pray with you, or you need a few dollars to make it to the end of the month, or you need someone to simply be present with you because you are lonely. Will you bless one of us with your outstretched hand? Will you risk laying down your deep needs and allow someone to see? God of mercy, hear our prayer.
We have this Good Shepherd who doesn’t abandon us and strengthens us to not abandon others.
The Good Shepherd feeds us and eats with us, binding up our wounds so that we can bind the wounds of others with understanding, empathy and compassion.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t give up on us and that means, on our good days, we don’t give up on each other.
And on those days when we feel we simply can’t stay a minute longer, when get cranky and tired, that same Good Shepherd seeks us out, gives us rest, and brings us home again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.