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May 15, 2011 | 8:00 a.m.
Born to Lose
John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church
1 Peter 2:19–25
If by your love and care you are joined with any human being, do not be afraid that you will somehow lose part of yourself. If by your love and care you are joined with anyone, you will not lose part of yourself. In fact, there is a very good chance you will no longer be lost in yourself.
Adapted from Noah benShea
Jacob the Baker
How does one respond to the question asked of me by one of my colleagues shortly after Easter Sunday? “John, have you gotten over Easter yet?” as if it were at best a bad cold or at worst a dangerous disease. If I were to have responded, “Yes,” and perhaps added a “‘thank God,” I would have risked the rebuke, “O ye of little faith.” On the other hand, if I were to have responded in some way that suggested that I had not gotten over Easter yet, would I have been giving myself away as someone too enamored of the understandable and appropriate “pomp and circumstance” that accompanies the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, especially here at Fourth Church, where now the architectural and aesthetic beauty of this place stands in sharp contrast to the shambles of demolition, destruction, and disarray that constitute a prelude to the construction of a new and much-needed addition to our campus?
Unless, of course, my response that I had not gotten over Easter referred to an awareness of the singular significance of this event and its implications for me and for the world, in which case there is a connection between the Easter event and the words of John about Jesus in the opening sentences of the tenth chapter of his Gospel record.
As a young child I was an avid listener to the radio exploits of a champion of justice and of the triumph of good over evil. The program opened with a trumpet fanfare that introduced the stirring music of the familiar “William Tell Overture” by Rossini. Then the stentorian voice of the announcer would intone the words “From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!” At the conclusion of the episode, having once more triumphed over the forces of evil, he rode off with his faithful Indian (Native American) companion and scout, Tonto, in tow. Almost invariably, a voice would be heard asking, “Who was that masked man?” So, on this fourth Sunday of Easter, the forces of evil, sin, destruction, and death having been trumped by the risen Christ, we also do well to ask, “Who was/is that resurrected man?”
In many ways and in many places the New Testament seeks to answer that question. One such place and way is found in the tenth chapter of John’s record of the gospel, the good news, of Christ. As William Barkley puts it in his commentary on John, “There is no better loved picture of Jesus than the picture of him as the Good Shepherd. The picture of the shepherd is woven into the language and imagery of the Bible. It could not be otherwise.” John’s Gospel contains many “I am” statements designed to show who Christ is—I am the bread of life, the gate, the vine, the door, the truth, the way, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, the good shepherd—as if to try to flesh out the enigmatic Old Testament articulation of God as “I am that I am.”
The imagery of sheep and shepherd is not one with which we in urban society can readily identify. Yet it is one familiar not only in biblical times but also in many parts of the world today. Whether in John’s reporting of Jesus’ words “sheep” refers to individuals or is a metaphor for the church, the flock, collectively, we may be inclined to take exception to our being characterized as animals known stereotypically as dumb and dirty, stupid and stubborn, and with a mind of their own. In fact, according to research done with mountain sheep in Wales, they were found to be quite intelligent and capable of following rules. In the words of Jenny Morton of Cambridge University, “Sheep have great potential. They’re not as daft as they look.” As the words of John’s Gospel suggest, they know the shepherd’s voice and can distinguish it from that of strangers and predators, something not always easy for us to do amidst the cacophony of the voices of charlatans, hucksters, con artists, and predators on the minds and hearts of those naïve enough or greedy enough to fall for the latest fad or get-rich-quick scheme or political promise that has very little, if any, shelf life. Some sheep may safely graze, as J. S. Bach suggests in his lovely chorale, but some sheep unsafely stray and drift into danger zones of destruction and death.
It was the task of the shepherd to gather the sheep to keep them from being scattered. To the degree that this refers to the church, it suggests that when the church consistently gathers for worship and to do mission, it is less likely to go off course and become fragmented by the lure of celebrity, by institutional and bureaucratic rigidity, by individual and corporate hubris, and by interpersonal power struggles.
Whereas interlopers seek to steal, rob, kill, and destroy the sheep, the good shepherd goes ahead of the sheep and guides them into green pastures where they can be nourished. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus doesn’t lead people to good pasture in order to fatten them up for the kill, but in order that they might have fullness of life.
Whereas others flee the flock when danger arises, the good shepherd guards the sheep and lays down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd is a sacrificial shepherd who puts himself and all that he stands for of truth and justice and mercy between the flock and danger and risks his neck for the safety and well-being of the sheep. He serves the sheep. He does not exploit or use or abuse them for his own aggrandizement.
That said, and in a world where images of royal opulence are flashed across television screens in juxtaposition with searing images of death and destruction wrought by nature’s fury and human violence, where do images of sheep and a shepherd fit in? Where in all of that is the resurrected man and his message? I found myself wondering about this in the wake of all the hoopla over the death of Osama bin Laden. As the headlines screamed in bold print “U.S. Kills bin Laden,” there was jubilation in the corridors of government and dancing and drinking on the streets and in bars and restaurants as people celebrated the death of the man who had become the embodiment of evil in the world. We were celebrating his death. But were we also celebrating the fact that we killed him?
University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, in a recent New York Times essay, argues that reveling in bin Laden’s death is an expression of unity, not vengeance, leaving little room for the likelihood that both were present.
Justice may have been done according to the criterion of equity, an eye for an eye, a killing for killing. But where does the Good Shepherd fit in all of that? Where in all of that does the resurrected man and his message about not only doing justice but doing kindness and loving mercy belong? President Obama stated that “justice was done.” He went on to say, “And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.” Does Jesus need to have his head examined, he who called the merciful blessed and said something about turning the other cheek? How is mercy rendered when justice is being done? I raise these questions not because I think I have answers. I don’t. But I think it is important for us to realize and remember that whenever we seek to do the right thing, even the necessary thing (and the two may not always be equated), we do so with less than clean hands and a pure heart, so as to avoid the trap of arrogance that causes us to see ourselves as nothing but righteous rectifiers in a world of evil in which we may also be complicit in the evil we seek to rectify.
The good shepherd lays down, loses his life for the sheep. Jesus did it intentionally and voluntarily to show God’s merciful love for all and for the sake of the eternal welfare of all. He was a maverick who, in obedience to God, chose to become a martyr in order to save losers.
The language of loss is part of the conversation of life. We are all losers. Sooner or later we lose: heart, health, money, faith, relationships, property, face, life, and, in the case of the Cubs and the Sox, ball games. We are all losers of one sort or another. We are born to lose. The world is full of losers, but the world tends not to have much use for them, even though they are us. Jesus had a lot of compassion for them and taught that we should also. When he hung dying on the cross, he was a loser, identifying with all the losers of the world, with us.
Sheep are losers. Like us, they are born to die, to lose their lives. We are not sheep, but we are like sheep. God, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, looks for the losers so as to return them to the fold of God’s love in which they (we) will always have a home. We are all losers, but we are not all lost.
The one who is our Good Shepherd calls us to be shepherds as well, to one another and to those who are in different folds, for they too are under his loving care. He calls us to lay down our lives as well, sometimes literally, most of the time in the deeds of love and mercy that are at hand for us to do. Visiting the sick, sitting with the sorrowful, helping feed the hungry, tutoring a child, chauffeuring the physically challenged, writing a letter, offering a prayer—in a word, losing ourselves in caring for those in need. And while we are at it, heeding the wisdom of Noah benShea found in the words on the cover of the worship bulletin, that we not worry about losing part of ourselves, since by caring for others there is a very good chance we will no longer become lost in ourselves.
“In short,” as Clarence Wood, president of Jane Addams Hull House Association, recently asserted, “we must face the fact that we need each other. . . . If we don’t get over our ideological rigidities and roll up our sleeves, we will fall into the trap Benjamin Franklin acknowledged as he signed the Declaration of Independence. ‘Well, gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we will surely all hang separately.’”
There is more than a hint of intimacy in the indication that the good shepherd calls the sheep by name. To know and call someone by name suggests a certain familiarity that can in certain instances spell the difference between life and death. I remember an incident that occurred when I was in combat during World War II in Europe. Our infantry unit had been ordered to move out to another location when it became apparent that the area where we had been dug in had become infiltrated by the enemy. In the middle of a pitch-black and moonless night, we were told to secure our gear, especially anything metal that could make a noise. We were to proceed silently, single file, each one of us holding on to the ammo belt of the one in front of us. At one point I stepped into a depression in the ground, lost my footing and my grip on the man in front of me, causing the man behind me to lose his grip on me. Suddenly I had been cut off from my unit as it continued to move forward. I was isolated in what was now becoming enemy territory.
I was petrified with fear and panic. Mandated not to make a sound, I was lost and, I feared, undone. Suddenly I felt a hand grab my shoulder. Startled, I did not know whether the hand belonged to friend or foe, whether I was going to get a bayonet in my belly or a knife at my throat, and whether I should run or shoot or both. Then I heard a voice in a low whisper in my ear calling me by name, “John, it’s me, George,” and I knew I had become reconnected with someone who knew me, and that I was no longer lost. My shepherd had found me and had called me by name.
Indeed, throughout the rest of the war we were shepherds to each other. We had each other’s back. Either of us would have taken the hit for the other. We were that close.
We are like sheep sometimes. But we are called, we who are born to lose, to be shepherds to one another. For God looks for the losers, to lead them back to the fold of God’s love, where forever they have a home. It’s what shepherds do.
Have I gotten over Easter yet? I hope not. Amen.