April 26, 2015 – Reflecting the Good Shepherd
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My daughter Emily is a teacher, so I have been hearing a lot lately about the Common Core Curriculum that has been introduced into the public schools over the past couple of years. A lot of teachers, and a lot of parents – people on both sides of the situation – have been protesting the new curriculum, what it teaches and the way it is supposed to be taught, and it has become a source of much controversy. As far as I can see, the bottom line, for those people who are supporting the Common Core, is that it gives a standard, a yardstick, the same throughout all schools and districts, by which those in authority can measure a teacher’s performance in the classroom. If all teachers teach the same thing in the same way, or so the reasoning goes, then better teachers will mean better test scores.
But whether there is any truth in that or not, being a good teacher is clearly not a matter of stuffing information into kids so they can crank it back out onto the test papers. We’ve all had teachers, at least I hope you have, who have really made a difference in our lives in a powerful way. And I doubt very much if the reason that any of them changed our lives is because they were so good at making us get good grades on standardized tests. No, the teachers that touched our lives so that we remember them even 40 or 50 or 60 years later, were the teachers who cared deeply about us, teachers who really loved their students.
I remember my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Christensen, who read chapter books to us at the end of each day, and who brought her Golden Retriever puppy in to class. Her son was stationed in the army in Vietnam that year, and we kids wrote letters to him and received letters back from him. She opened her life to us, in a way that reached even our cynical, silly, pre-pubescent little minds and hearts, and I will never forget her as long as I live.
There was another teacher much more recently, Victoria Soto, who was only 27 years old when a gunman forced his way into her first grade class at Sandy Hook school three years ago. Soto was shot and killed after she threw herself in front of her first grade students. For those parents whose children’s lives were saved that day, I think it would be safe to say that they didn’t waste any time worrying about what their kids’ scores were on their reading or math tests. The measure of Victoria Soto’s work as a teacher of those children is that she cared so much for them that she laid her life down for them.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Somehow, just those very words give me a feeling of warmth and safety. The image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd is one of the most comforting images we have from the gospels. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever even met a sheep in person or if you’ve just seen pictures of woolly lambs, the Good Shepherd is a most powerful icon for us. That’s why our beautiful window is so important and so precious to us. I know for myself, every time I stand before the altar – and I do that quite a lot, almost every day – I look up at the Good Shepherd, and I remind myself that I am that tiny lamb held so tenderly in his arms. It fills what is empty in me at the end of a hard day; it soothes my fears; it gives me peace; it reminds me that I am loved.
And all those feelings, all those reassurances, are good and important for us. But it is possible, I think, for the Good Shepherd to become such a warm, cuddly, familiar image to us, that we miss the very heart of what Jesus was saying when he called himself our Good Shepherd. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he told the crowds. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul prayed this prayer for all the saints – and that’s us – he prayed that we, “being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong enough to understand with all the people of God how wide and how long and how high and how deep – to really know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” As finite human beings, when we think about the Cross, when we contemplate the love of God that brought Jesus from a stable in Bethlehem to a grave in Jerusalem, it is beyond our comprehension. How can we really grasp the immensity of the love that the Good Shepherd has for us? How can we bear the knowledge that we have received such great goodness? How can we know what Paul admits is humanly unknowable?
The Great Commandment that Jesus left for us was this – to love one another as he loves us. But most of the time – when we are at our best and most honest, I think – we are painfully aware that we are worlds away from fulfilling the Great Commandment of our Good Shepherd. We know that we are most often so careful in our loving; we are so stingy and pale in laying down our comfort or our time, let alone our lives for our fellow creatures. But the truth is that we have within us, every single one of us, the seed, or the reflection, of that kind of love, because every human being was created in the image of the Great Lover of All, and for those who have come to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, that divine seed has been quickened in us by the waters of our baptism.
The ferocious love we feel for our children or our family or friends, the courageous love that Victoria Soto had for her little first-graders, these are reflections to us of the all-powerful, unconditional love that the Good Shepherd has – not just for all of mankind as a generic, faceless, lump – but for each and every one of us as individuals. When you look at the lamb in the arms of Christ on our window, know that he laid down his life for you, Joe, and for you, Nancy; for you, Joan, and for you, Charlie. Put your own name in there and know – he is your Good Shepherd; he laid down his life for you.
It is love that surpasses all human knowledge, but we can know the perfect love of God by its reflections in us, like the little rainbows that dance on the walls when the blazing sun shines in through a glass of water on the windowsill. We see God’s love in the love we have for those who are dear to us – for our very closest friends, our family, our husbands or wives, our children and grandchildren. We are, all of us, sinful, selfish, comfort-loving people, but we all have some one or ones for whom we would lay down our lives without a second thought. As imperfect as we are, we have all felt the kind of love that would make us willing to face a gunman or jump in front of a moving car or run into a burning building or give up our last mouthful of bread to save the life of someone we love.
And as incredibly powerful as our natural human love is in us, it is only a pale reflection of the love of our Good Shepherd. Jesus pointed out that even sinners love those who love them, and all too often in our selfishness and ignorance we twist love into something harmful and cruel. But that doesn’t change the fact that love is a divine gift to us – the love of fathers and mothers for their children, the love of husbands and wives for one another, the love between dear friends, the love of a teacher for her students: because these knowable human love give us a little glimmer of the unknowable love of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us.
And more, it is also a sneak preview of what we are in the process of becoming. Because the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us, is growing us, the sheep who know his Voice, into people who are so full of his love that we are willing to lay down our lives – not just for our children or our good friends – but for all those whom the Shepherd loves and cares for – and that includes those other sheep we don’t really like, the ones we are afraid of, the ones we disapprove of, the ones who count themselves our enemies.
The love of the Good Shepherd is big, and this is how we know it, John tells us: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us. And then John continues…. it just follows that we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How can we claim that God’s love abides in us if we hold on to what we have and see our brother or sister in need and yet refuse to help? How can we claim that we know the love of the Good Shepherd but refuse to love all those for whom he laid down his life? Love, John says, is not a matter of saying nice things or feeling mushy feelings; we love in doing; we love in truth, just as Christ loves us every moment, from his birth in a stable to his death on the Cross and even now lives to guide and protect and intercede for us. If we know that the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, how can we keep our own lives for ourselves?
When we look up at our window, it is a very good thing to see ourselves cradled in the loving arms of the Good Shepherd. But when we see that precious little lamb, we should also recognize our noisy neighbor, and the ISIS soldier on the news, and the person that hurt our feelings years ago, and the person whose political views we despise. The deep love that we know as human beings created in his image – the kind of sacrificial love we give freely to our children or our good friends – is only a dim reflection of the love of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for every single one of us, and it is also the seed of the unknowable love that he is growing in us so that we too can lay down our lives for one another.