Sunday, May 3, 2009

(Easter 4) To place my life

Easter 4: John 10:11-18; 1 John 3:16-24; Psalm 23

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Everyone think for a moment about
how you would describe the 23rd Psalm.
Think about its message—
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.”
Think about the other phrases of the psalm you can remember,
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil.”

Now, think of one word, just one word,
that best describes this psalm.
Fill in this blank with one word . . .
“This is a ____________ psalm.”
Don’t say the word out loud.
Just think it.
Everyone got it?
Okay, raise of hands,
how many were thinking of the word “comforting”?

Not surprising.
Psalm 23 is one of the most comforting psalms we have.
It is the first psalm memorized in childhood.
Of all the psalms, it the most frequently set to music.
It’s the psalm turned to most often when we are in distress,
or grieving,
or tired,
or feeling threatened.
It’s the psalm recited more than any other
at hospital bedsides.
It’s the psalm most frequently put in PowerPoints,
and paired with pretty pictures and soft music,
and emailed to everyone in the address book.
It’s the psalm to turn to whenever we need a word of comfort.

And don’t we all know . . . we often need words of comfort.
So thank God for psalms like this.

But you know . . . it’s comforting only because
we read it from the sheep’s point of view.
It’s a comforting psalm . . . if you’re the sheep.

The shepherd has a different point of view.
God, the Lord, who is our loving Shepherd,
has taken some pretty radical risks.
Being a shepherd is no cake walk.

You understand, don’t you,
why we sheep can lie down in green pastures and rest?
It’s because the shepherd stays awake.
You know why we, the sheep, can be led in safety down right paths?
Because the shepherd’s out in front, doing the bush-whacking.
You know why we the sheep are comforted
by the shepherd’s rod and staff?
Because the shepherd uses them to get between us,
and the hungry wild animals on the attack.
The rod in the shepherd’s hand,
absorbs the worst of the assault.

We can rest, because the shepherd doesn’t.

This is the picture of Jesus, the Good shepherd,
that we find in today’s Gospel reading.
“The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,”
we read in John 10:11.
Not so the hired hand.
Jesus said, “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.”
That’s not because the hired hand is negligent,
or incompetent,
or immoral.
It’s because he’s hired. He doesn’t own the sheep, Jesus said.
After his night shift is over, he goes home.
He’s not fully invested, and understandably so.
He has another life.

You can’t be a “good shepherd,”
until the sheep are your life.
There is an interesting Greek idiom
used in John 10:11, where it talks about the shepherd
“laying down his life” for the sheep.
The Greeks words for “laying down your life”
can also be translated, “placing your life.”
It’s reminiscent of taking a helpless, vulnerable infant,
and placing that life in someone’s arms.

Now, if we stick with this shepherd and sheep imagery,
it gets even more interesting, and less comforting,
when we move on to today’s epistle reading,

Because, you see,
this is not just an image for Jesus, the divine Son of God
who has other-worldly powers, and other-worldly agenda.
Scriptures don’t leave us with the luxury
of just hanging on to this comforting image of being cared for
by this amazingly caring, and sacrificially loving
God of a Good Shepherd,
who is ready to lay down his life for us.

Listen to the apostle’s words, 1 John 3:16.
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

This thing of having my personal Good Shepherd
who will lay down his life for my sake,
is not some cozy little arrangement that he and I have going,
strictly for my personal blessing,
for my own spiritual benefit.
In reality, the Good Shepherd is just showing me how it’s done.
Because the very same thing is expected of me.
I am called to lay down my life for my sister and brother.
It’s not enough for me to tell my brother in Christ that I love him,
or tell my sister that I’m committed to her well-being.
1 John 3:18—“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action.”
True love is revealed in action—the action of laying down my life,
placing my life in the life of another.

See, laying down one’s life for another,
is not just a message about martyrdom.
Martyrdom is real.
There are some persons today, although relatively few,
and there are some occasions, although somewhat rare,
and there are some circumstances, although unusual,
in which a person is called to willingly die for another.
I know that some people here have been close to situations like that,
where martyrdom is part of real life.

Now, without discounting that reality at all,
let me say that Jesus’ words are about a lot more than dying.
Every single day, every single one of us
has opportunity to place our life in the life of another.
In fact, that’s what Jesus did every day of his life,
not just at the end, when he paid the ultimate price on the cross.
His whole life was bound up
in and with, the lives of those he loved.

When I place my life in the life of another,
or . . . when I lay down my life for another . . .
I become deeply and spiritually connected to them.
To place my life in another
means that I identify, radically, with the other.
The sharp distinction between my life and the life of the other
gets a little bit blurred . . . a little bit.
When my own well-being is directly tied to your well-being,
when my own happiness is deeply affected by your happiness,
when your joys are my joys,
and your sorrow my sorrows,
I am laying down my life for you.

This is what makes possible deep Christian compassion:
when we blur this distinction—not do away with, but blur—
the distinction between you and I.
This is what makes possible genuine Christian community:
when we blur this distinction between us and them.
Our lives should be bound up in the lives of others.

Of course, we need to be careful here.
This doesn’t mean we lose our sense of selfhood.
I don’t ever want to be heard as saying we erase the self.
No, we free the self to be what it was created to be—
a self in deep relationship with others.

It can be a fine line—but there is a huge difference—
between being bound to the life of another,
and being in bondage.
I’m not talking about being in bondage.
I’m not talking about sacrificing our truest self.

When we are in genuine, God-ordained community with another,
when we lay down our lives for each other,
when I place my life in the life of another,
it becomes a positive and life-giving flow
that goes both directions.
If only one side is laying down their lives,
that’s not love, that’s oppression.
And the Good News of Jesus Christ
has nothing to do with oppression.

I’m all for celebrating the individual person,
the one uniquely created and loved by God.
You and I, individually, are of infinite worth
in the eyes of God who created us in God’s image.
But it is a worth that is most fully realized
when lived out in community.
That is the intention of our loving creator.
We were created as God’s beloved individuals-in-community.
That’s biblical individualism, if you want to put it that way.

But we utterly reject the individualism our culture promotes,
which is the worship of the free, autonomous,
self-determined, and independent individual.
That, sisters and brothers, is idolatry,
it is sin against our Creator.
It will ultimately unravel our social fabric,
and destroy the authentic self-in-community
which God created us to be.

Being in deep community, being in healthy community,
is what creates the condition
whereby we have the strength
to lay down our lives for each other.

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s a reality designed by God—
we come to see and understand our true individual self
when we live in a community
where it’s safe to sacrifice this self.
It’s safe, because the sacrifice is mutual.
We know that others are laying down their lives for our sake.
Well, maybe “safe” is too strong a word.
Self-sacrifice is never really safe,
if what we mean by safe
is a predictable and pain-free outcome.
Self-sacrifice may well take us on a wild ride,
with all kinds of surprising twists,
and gut-wrenching drops,
and long, hard climbs.
But it takes us down a path that leads to life.

That is my deepest longing
for the people of Park View Mennonite Church.
That we all might find a full life in deep community.
And I’m not talking about right here on Sunday morning
with 300 other people.
This is one kind of community, and it has value.
Important things happen here.
We’ll keep doing this.

But even more important,
is the smaller, more intentional kind of community
that is bound by a shared covenant and mission.
It is in that kind of community—
of two people, or three, or thirteen—
where I can literally “place my life,”
lay down my life for the other,
and I know that that act of laying down
will be honored and respected . . . even made holy.

It’s the kind of community where everyone
places their lives in the lives of the other.
Where your well-being is so wrapped up in my well-being
that you will do just like the Good Shepherd does,
the one who owns the sheep.
You will instinctively, daringly,
jump in between me and whatever is threatening me,
and help absorb the blows.
And when the time comes,
I will do the same for you.
Self-sacrificial caring and daring will happen by instinct,
in communities shaped by and led by Jesus the Good Shepherd.
And every person’s true self will not only stay intact,
it will bloom and grow.

It will be like Jesus’ kingdom parables—
like the seed that falls to the ground and dies,
and thereby produces new life.
And Jesus’ strange words will prove to be true,
that those who cling to their own lives will lose them,
and those who lose them for the gospel, will find them.

In that kind of community,
where we all are led by the Good Shepherd,
where we all embody the love of the Good Shepherd,
where we all are at home with the sheep,
where the sheep are our life,
and we don’t have another life to go home to,
where we place our lives in the lives of others . . .
in that kind of community the 23rd Psalm becomes fully realized.

Because Jesus the Shepherd will indeed be present,
through the Holy Spirit,
and through the lives of each other.

And there, my Shepherd will supply my need.
And like the hymn writer says,

There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

Let’s sing together hymn #589.

—Phil Kniss, May 3, 2009

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