For the Sheep

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on April 21-22, 2018 (the Fourth Sunday of Easter) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois.

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week I had the chance to attend a really delightful event at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s called the Festival of Faith and Writing, and it brings together all kinds of writers in all kinds of formats—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism, hymnody, children’s literature, young adult literature, devotional, secular, and so on—to talk to other writers and readers about what they do and why it’s important.

This year I had the chance to see a friend speak about women in Hollywood. This friend is a television writer and producer and she is Catholic. And the moderator of this panel asked her, “what’s it like to be Catholic in the entertainment industry?” My friend answered with something that I thought was very obvious and yet kind of profound. She said “I’m the only one in the writers’ room who thinks that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to a person.” She went on to talk about how, in movies and television shows, if a character is faced with the possibility of dying, writers and audiences will accept that the character can do anything to avoid it. That dying is the worst fate, and nothing you do to avoid it is immoral or unjustified.

My friend talked about growing up with stories of saints who were martyred rather than giving up their faith, and that left her with the idea that some things really are worse than death. You can lose your life, but it’s worse to lose your soul.

I wish people, especially Christians, were more mindful of this fact. We’re a very fearful society today, and we have convinced ourselves that this fear justifies any action we take to protect ourselves. While I was in Michigan there was a story about a fourteen-year-old student in a different part of the state who missed the bus and had to get to school by himself through a neighborhood he didn’t know. He stopped to ask directions at a home only to get chased and shot at by a man with a shotgun. The student was African-American and the neighborhood was predominantly white. And I feel terrible and angry for the young man, who was just asking for help the way people do and who will probably be traumatized for years by this experience. But I feel bad in a different way for the man who tried to kill him. To be so poisoned with fear. To move so swiftly to kill a fleeing fourteen-year-old boy. It’s horrible.

This fear is a dreadful burden to carry. It really is. We don’t notice it, because we’re so accustomed to it, but it’s like a load of bricks on our back. It’s a way of letting death win in advance. And here’s my pet theory about it: It’s not that we, as modern Americans, are so in love with our own lives—that we are so overflowing with joy and satisfaction that we lash out at the slightest hint of possible danger. It’s that we do not believe in or value our eternal souls. As if so many of us believe we are not prepared to bring our sins before God. Or maybe worse, as if we think there is no such thing, and there will be no accounting of our actions.

In today’s Gospel we hear something entirely different. Today Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. What makes him good? He lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hands run when they see the wolf coming. They leave the sheep on their own. But Jesus, the good shepherd, does not run. He does not seek first to preserve his own life. He lays it down for the sheep.

I said a few weeks ago that Jesus’s words and Jesus’s actions are consistent with each other. As he speaks, he acts, and as he acts, he speaks. He tells his followers not to worry about tomorrow, not to worry about their lives, but to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness first. He tells them not to fear those who can kill the body but to fear the One who has power over body and soul in the world to come. He tells them, over and over again, “Do not be afraid.”

And he doesn’t do this to make them better people. He does this to show them who he is. He does this to show them who God is. He is the one who has the power to lay down his life and take it up again. Because all of the self-protection, all of the hired hands of the world will let you down. Even if we manage to escape this world unhurt and in peace, God sees in secret and knows our hearts. Only the good shepherd loves the sheep. Only the good shepherd will give his life to see that his sheep come to no harm.

We hear this echoed so beautifully in the first Letter of John, which we hear today. He laid down his life for us, so we lay down our lives for each other. The resurrection of Jesus breaks the chains of death and hell, first in himself, and then in his church. He speaks of a life that is greater than death because he is the Life that is greater than death. When he gives us this life, through words and sacrament and preaching and faith, we share in his life beyond death too. 

So a good rule of thumb: if a voice in the world is telling you to be more afraid—if a voice is cultivating your fear, using your fear, enjoying your fear—that is not the voice of the Good Shepherd. That is at best the voice of a hired hand. None of us can save our own lives, in the end, and no one can do it for us, either. Instead, we are told to listen for the voice of Jesus, and to hold to it even when we may be fearful.

That is what John’s letter calls “our victory over the world”: our faith. We worship one who points us beyond fear of death into love of life. Not the brief experience of life that we try so hard to keep from slipping through our fingers, but the life that stretches out before and after everything we can see. We worship one who teaches us with his words, and then shows us with his resurrection, that death has not won. Amen.

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