Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. And also Earth Day. Let the pastoral images in pastel colors abound. It’s a perfect set-up for a beautiful and peaceful meditation. Ten minutes to dwell in the idyllic imagery of green pastures, and still waters. To contemplate God’s gentle, loving care for us, perhaps with an inspiring exhortation about our care for creation folded in.
I would LOVE to preach that sermon. To give my poet’s voice free reign, and nurture the weary souls among us with the TRUE promises of God’s protection and love.
But God’s Spirit, and our readings for the day, wouldn’t let me. Not when our gospel reading – in just eight verses – has Jesus declaring three times that he lays down his life for his sheep. And he isn’t just talking about laying down at the opening of the sheep pen. He’s talking about dying! And we don’t paint that picture in pastel colors. The pivotal way in which Jesus acts as our Good Shepherd is to lay down his life for us.
And if that was not jarring enough, we have our reading from 1 John, which tells us that, in the same way, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And in case the English is not clear – that isn’t a mild suggestion. The Greek word translated as “ought” means literally “to owe as a debt.” We owe as a debt to lay down our lives for one another.
We spent some time talking about this obligation at my pastor’s Bible study this week, because it can’t really mean that we are all supposed to martyr ourselves, can it? And of course, no, it doesn’t. But that does not necessarily get us off the hook. Death is not the only way to “lay down our lives.” We lay down our lives when we stop thinking of them as “ours.”
Which is such a hard thing to do, that I’m not sure I know how. Especially when John follows his give-your-life command with an elaboration of what that means for the other things we think of as “ours”:
“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 to help?” (1 John 3:17).
This is NOT an easy teaching… not in a world that is constantly confronting us with our human siblings in need. A never-ending litany of need for resources, and for justice, and for compassion that could so easily drain my heart dry.
I spent half of the day yesterday at a workshop put on by my former organization, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. The workshop was an outgrowth of a project that I helped to spearhead looking at the evidence of the connection between poverty and structural racism in New Jersey. The report compiles data and stories that represent the truth that I spent the first 15 years of my working life studying and confronting... and it still brought me to tears.
There is so much PAIN; and so much INJUSTICE; and there are NO EASY ANSWERS. There is a lot that we can and should do, but none of it is easy.
And I try to do what I can; but I don’t lay down my life. I give of my excess, but I still consider my resources “mine.” I use my voice on occasion to call for justice, but I also enjoy my privilege.
Then I read John’s condemnation of those who “have the worlds goods” but don’t help those in need…and I feel the weight of the LAW crashing down and condemning me. Because I know that “ought to” will never makes me so generous that I can actually lay down my life for others. Obligation and law can never create the kind of soul change that would make me into a life-giving person.
But that doesn’t mean there is no hope. Our Synod’s description of the core value of generosity, reminds us where the ability to lay down our lives really comes from:
"To live IS to give. Giving beyond expectation or reason can reflect the grace and compassion of the One in whose image we are made.
A life characterized by generosity – by laying down our life for one another – is about GRACE. And that grace allows us to actually live (in giving away our lives), because it allows us to reflect the One in whose image we are made.
Generosity is not some standard of self-sacrifice that we have to achieve. It is a reflection, and that comes from being close enough to Jesus for his light to reflect off of us. Generosity flows from relationship.
As I meditated on this week’s readings I couldn’t help but notice how many times this relationship is described in our texts with the language of knowing:
In the gospel Jesus says: “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.” (John 10:14-15)
And again in the epistle, John writes: “And by this we will KNOW that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him wherever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts and he KNOWS everything.” (I John 3:19-20)
In John’s writing, the language of knowing is about relationship, And relationship is the point behind that frightening verse about laying down our lives. It’s about our relationship to Jesus. Laying down his life for us is how we know Jesus’ love for us, and if that same loves infuses our lives, then of course it will shape us into a reflection of Jesus.
Being generous with our very lives is not the way to ACCESS love, it is the RESULT of abiding in God’s love. Our relationship with God, in which we are known and we know God in the unreserved fullness of God’s love for us… that changes who we are, and it changes how we live. It makes us into people who stop seeing the problems of our society as belonging to other people and it makes us into people who seek to give our lives in service and care for others – just like our Good Shepherd.
Of course, that transformation is not automatic or uncontested. Everything we learn from our culture, AND our fallen instincts, works against this kind of generosity.
First and foremost, FEAR works against a life that is free to give. The fear of scarcity… the belief that we have to hold back to make sure that we have enough for ourselves. The self-protective belief that that we have to take care of ourselves, because we can’t trust the Good Shepherd.
And that’s why KNOWING our Good Shepherd is the essential first step – knowing how he loves us and cares for us gives us the SECURITY to be able to live generous lives for the good of others.
But even in the knowledge of Jesus’s care for us, it can be hard to fully trust… to lay down our lives, and to let go of all the habits of self-protection and possessiveness. And even as we begin to reflect our Good Shepherd, and then to see need that we do not or cannot meet, “our hearts condemn us,” as John writes.
And GUILT can block generosity just as effectively as fear does. Because it turns us back in on ourselves, and makes love seem like an impossible task, instead of a promise that we already hold.
But in the middle of all the words in the epistle about laying down our lives, and never refusing help, and loving in truth and action… and in response to the recognition that our hearts DO condemn us, John offers us this essential reminder:
“Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:20)
God is greater. And God knows us.
God knows that we are like sheep, much more than we are like the Good Shepherd. Sheep who mostly look out for themselves, and for whom generosity is not a natural characteristic.
But God also knows that we do, truly belong to the Good Shepherd. And that we can know our Shepherd’s voice. And it is our Shepherd who changes us.
Monika Jackson, one of the women who spoke at yesterday’s workshop described herself as the posterchild of every negative stereotype about welfare recipients you can name, and then she said six powerful words: “but that’s not my whole story.”
A small part of her story will unfold in just a couple of weeks, when she will be graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary, with a Master of Divinity Degree, and a calling to speak the powerful gospel of GRACE from the pulpit.
Monika's faith helped her to survive life experiences that most of us probably cannot imagine, and she KNOWS the love of God. And she knows the power of that love to change lives.
“We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16) That love changed Monika, and it can change us. It can make generosity toward the needs of our siblings in need not just a possibility, or an obligation, but a joy.
Thanks be to God.
 The report is available for freedownload here: http://antipovertynetwork.org/The-Uncomfortable-Truth