Sermon from July 3, 2011

The Good Shepherd:

With Thoughts on a Leech, a Lamb, and Superman

John 10:11-18

I hate leeches.  I’m also not particularly fond of Superman, or sheep for that matter, but I want to begin by asking you three questions.  If you were to dream on three successive nights, on the first night that you were a leech, on the second night a lamb, and on the third night Superman – which of those for you would be the most pleasant dream?  Which would be the most accurate representation of your life right now?  Which would be the most like the life to which God is calling us?

Jesus said, I am the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.  I want to suggest that when we SEE Jesus accurately as Good Shepherd, then we can BE who we are called to be.  When we SEE the good shepherd accurately we can BE (and dream of being) the people he has called us to be.

What we see in the good shepherd is voluntary sacrificial love FOR and intimate knowledge OF the sheep.  First: voluntary sacrificial love.  I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

The voluntary aspect of this love is what he is emphasizing here.  In verses 17 and 18 he goes on to say: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again.  No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative.”  Do you hear the voluntary nature of that, the proactive manner in which Jesus carries out his love?  He is constrained by love to do what only he can do, not coerced by threat into an abusive or unjust situation.  The good shepherd would become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, not because he had to, not because he was forced to.  He freely chose this path in love.  He is the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Tom Allen, a former Army Ranger tells about the first time he saw the movie, Saving Private Ryan.  He talks about how much he loved the movie, except for the last line.  He was proud of how the army rangers take Omaha beach.  Then they receive their mission to go get Private Ryan, and they go deep into enemy territory to where Private Ryan is holed up and they hit skirmish after skirmish.  When they find him, Private Ryan says I have to stay because there is a big battle coming up and I can’t leave my men.  What do the rangers say?  We’ll stay and fight with you.  So they do and they suffer huge casualties, and almost everybody has perished except Private Ryan.  At the end the Tom Hanks character has been shot and is dying sitting on the ground and the battle has been won and Private Ryan leans over to him and Tom Hanks whispers something to him.  It’s a tear jerking moment of all tear jerking moments.  Yet what disappointed Tom Allen so much was what Tom Hanks said, his character says to Private Ryan, referring to his mortal wounds, “Earn this.”  The reason that bothered Allen so was because no Ranger would ever say, Earn this.  Why? Because the Ranger motto for the past 200 years has not been, earn this, it has been sua sponte, Latin for I choose this, I volunteered for this, of my own accord [online: www.preachingtoday.com #200].  That is, nobody coerced me to do this, I am voluntarily placing myself in harms way for the greater good of my fellow citizens.  When Jesus the good shepherd who would become the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world hung on that cross you would never hear him say, earn this.  He says I did this once and for all for you, I volunteered, it’s a gift.  Sua Sponte.  Simply receive it.

Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd, I lay down my life for the sheep.  See and be amazed at the voluntary sacrificial love.  Jesus said, I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.  See and be amazed at the intimate knowledge he has of us.  Time prevents me from saying more about that this morning, but just know that he knows us both individually and collectively – both and.

And so he doesn’t say to us, earn this, but how then are we to respond.  If we don’t have to gut it out in order to earn his sacrificial death and intimate care, what are we to do?  The fact is, when we see the good shepherd accurately, the better enabled we are to be whom we are called to be.  The answer to this really comes in a parallel passage in 1st John 3.  The answer is we when we see accurately the good shepherd as he really is with voluntarily chosen sacrificial love and intimate knowledge of us and freely receive that as it is freely given,  it is as if we can’t help but BE whom we are called to be.  The answer is we are called to be, in some sense, fellow shepherds, fellow sheep with him.  1John 3:16 says this, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren,” i.e. for our fellow sheep.  Fellow shepherds, fellow sheep with him.  He goes on to explain further the practical everyday application he has in mind.  “But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?  Little children, let us not love with word or tongue only, but in deed and truth.”  It is no more complicated than this: We give up what we want but don’t need for the greater good of all.  How do we respond to the good shepherd?   Think especially of any relationship where you have some responsibility for the well being of others: family, business, work, government, here at church, simply being a neighbor to anybody.  We are not called to be leeches that suck others dry.  We are not called to be superwomen or supermen who have no needs of our own.  We are called to be fellow shepherds, fellow sheep with him, who freely choose to love him in return by loving people.  We give up what we want but don’t need for the greater good of all.

In the classic movie The African Queen, Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Charlie Allnut, a hard drinking steamboat captain who delivers dynamite, gin and supplies to European miners and speculators over shallow rivers in East Africa.  Katherine Hepburn plays the role of Rosie, a British missionary.  WWI breaks out and circumstances work out to put Rosie and Charlie together on his boat the African Queen, fleeing German army on a seemingly impossible quest to make it to a large lake downriver.  While a full-blown romance develops between the unlikely pair it is also a depiction of a tenderness of freely chosen love amid hardship that transcends any male-female chemistry.  At one point the river dissipates and splits into a hundred streams and the African Queen bogs down in a marsh.  First they use poles to try to push the boat through; then Charlie has to get out and wade through the shallows pulling the boat by a rope, chest deep in muck as Rosie rides.  Finally he climbs back onto the boat only to find that a dozen or so 3 inch long leeches have attached themselves to the skin of his back and chest and legs.  Rosie grabs a box of salt and douses them and together they get the ugly things off of him and they both stand there shuddering in revulsion.  Charlie is a tough guy but he says if there is anything in this world I hate its leeches—filthy devils.  When they’ve collected themselves he grabs a pole and tries to push the boat forward yet it is useless.  After a few moments, without a word, Charlie climbs back over the side into the dark water and resumes pulling the boat.  Before long, Rosie has joined him in the water cutting a path through the reeds with a machete [The African Queen (1951); director, John Huston; producer, Sam Spiegel; writers, C.S. Forester and James Agee].

Brothers and sisters, it is the type of love that gets back in the water to resume pulling the boat, and that freely chooses to clear the way for the other that is here in our midst today.  Jesus said, I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.  I am the good shepherd I lay down my life for the sheep.  How shall we respond?  Remember this on this July 4th weekend.  He has chosen and chooses still to love us and know us.  Not as leeches that suck others dry, nor as Superpeople who need no help, but as fellow shepherds and fellow lambs with him, Sua Sponte.  May we choose today simply to know and love him in return?  Sua Sponte.  I so choose.  Amen.

Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, Delaware

July 3, 2011

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