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TRUST IN THE LORD: LAY DOWN YOUR EGO
TRUST IN THE LORD: LAY DOWN YOUR EGO
JOHN 10: 11-18
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 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—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my
In these eight verses, Jesus says five times that the good shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep. If you identify as one of the flock, that is incredibly reassuring. If however, you look at the passage in terms of following such an example, it is a very high bar. I will try to address both aspects.
This passage occurs in the midst of a confrontation with the Pharisees that began in Chapter 8 over Jesus’ authority. In 8:15 Jesus says: “You judge by human standards; I judge no one.” and later in verse 47: “Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” Jesus is directly challenging the Pharisees’ ability to hear and interpret the words of God. Then in chapter nine, Jesus pushes the confrontation further. He gives sight to a blind man and he uses blindness and sightedness to contrast those who can see God’s word with those who are blind to it. He tells the Pharisees that they are blind ones. For some reason Jesus was not very popular with the religious authorities of his day.
In today’s passage, Jesus is the good shepherd. He is more explicit about who he is and what he stands for. Though very few of us have any real life experience with shepherds and sheep, we do have some real life situations that are analogous. While it certainly is not universally true, it more often than not true that family will care for family more than strangers. Hired help, even good hired help, will not put themselves out as much as family members do. Caregivers for our children or for our aging parents, no matter how dedicated, will go off the clock. Jesus says repeatedly that he will lay down his life for those in his fold. His care runs deeper, is more mindful and is more inclusive than that of the Pharisees. Jesus puts the welfare of his flock first. The hired hand will seek to preserve himself first.
Further, Jesus promises: ”I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” Jesus’ care is more intimate and more personal Most mother’s can translate their child’s earliest baby cry— because they know their child. To the rest of us, it is unintelligible gibberish. In Antarctica a penguin mother could call across hundreds of other voices in their colony and their little one would come running. Even with pets, we ‘know’ what our pet wants and needs. Farmer’s often name the animals in their herd. The black and white animals that all look alike to me in the fields have names and personalities to the dairy farmer. **
Generalities don’t cut it for Jesus. All of us need to be known at a deeper level than our skin color, our gender, our age or economic status. All of these descriptors may be true but particular people are more complex. We can get in trouble simply saying “I know how you feel.” We cannot assume and certainly cannot pronounce we ‘know’ how anyone feels. In ordinary relationships, our most common assumption is that the way we experience the world is the same way others experience theirs. It might be true in general but it is rarely true in particular. Our apparent similarities are points of entry—- a place from which we can begin to inquire. They allow us to explore our differences.
Our last FIRL group occurred just after the George Floyd trial. Gina Brown, a black woman from Bermuda, made the point that when she walked down the street, she was seen as African American woman. She is not. Her uniqueness and her history are usually lost to the category of her race. There is nothing she can do about that but it isolates her. It makes it harder to be known—because the listeners and the observers think they already know. It happens on the street, in the classroom and in the church—in our church. I don’t know of a single person who would intend such an outcome but that does not mean it doesn’t happen. Blurring another’s uniqueness with our generalizations and assumptions easily ends up dismissing them. It is a human failing that we need to confess.
(Let me say as a quick caveat. It also works in reverse. This is a human problem. Many of us who are white do like getting lumped together and it is very common for us to get defensive when we are. We do not like being seen as a category either. But Jesus was on the side of the oppressed for a reason. Whoever is in the minority position or in a secularly defined ‘lower’ position will pay a disproportionate price for our collective sinfulness.)
The good shepherd knows his own. That depth of intimate listening is a rare commodity. It takes a great deal of effort but when we are more observant, more attentive and mindful, ultimately we are more loving. The promise is as old as the Psalms. Psalm 139 begins: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up…” Our faith claim is that the good shepherd makes that word flesh.
Finally, Jesus’ care extends well beyond ordinary familial protectiveness and intimacy. Many parents sacrifice for their children but few of us would make similar sacrifices, much less our lives for people outside of our family. Jesus, however, extends family to all of God’s children. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The pharisees looked to separate people more than include people. They spent their lives defining who is righteous and who is a sinner—who is clean and who should be shunned. Jesus’ words of inclusion go far beyond worldly definitions of who is in and who is out. For Jesus, anyone who seeks to separate rather than include has not heard God’s word. They scatter the flock rather than bring it together. Jesus claimed the same fierce love a parent has for their child as the standard of care for all of us—not just some of us.
Identifying such conundrums almost always leads to “What should we do?’ or “What can we do?” Jesus says the good shepherd lays down his life for his flock. Is that the standard for us? NO. A thousand times NO. This is a direction not a destination. Ordinary humans cannot sustain such a standard. In real life, there have been people who literally gave their lives but real life applications are much more prosaic. I told Alex when we were discussing this passage I probably wouldn’t take a bullet for her but I might be able to lay down my ego enough to listen to her.
Our sense of self, our ego, is rarely in harmony with God. We are all too easily inflated or just as bad, too deflated. We must sacrifice the assumptions we make about ourselves in order to be aligned with God. The good shepherd does not give qualifying exams to her sheep. She loves them, knows them, guides them and protects them. She proactively seeks the welfare of the other. It is the gift of the shepherd’s love not anything the sheep have done. (In real life, sheep are pretty stupid. That analogy works here too.) As much as we might yearn for it, it is hard to accept such regard. We are forever trying to earn it or protect it.
It is probably impossible to show genuine regard for others if our primary activity is protecting our self. In real life, when we find ourselves indignant or defensive, we are simply exposing our unwillingness to trust the shepherd. Our safety lies with the shepherd not our indignation, proof texting our good intentions or worse, our dismissive categorizations of others. When that happens, we quit listening. We become adversarial. We do harm to our relationships. Whenever we answer with a ‘yes, but…, ask yourself, What is so important for me to be ‘right’? How is my ego at stake? When we start complaining and/or gossiping about others, what is going on that we must see one another in such negative ways. Us/them thinking is sinful thinking. When we succumb to those ordinary human ego needs, we need to confess. We need to lay down our attempts to manage how we are seen. We need to trust the shepherd to lead us. It is a big ask but that kind of laying down our lives leads to life. It leads to connection and to community. It is eternal. It is the resurrection promise.
Let the good shepherd lead you. Let it be so.