April 22, 2018: Easter 4B (English)
Easter 4B: John 10:11-18, Psalm 23
Zion Lutheran Church, April 22, 2017
Pastor Anke Deibler
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Years ago, singer Paul Simon was interviewed on the TV program “60 Minutes”. He told the story of a phone call he received not long after their famous Simon & Garfunkle song “Mrs. Robinson” was released. That song had the refrain “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you,”. One day, Joe DiMaggio himself called Paul Simon and expressed his bafflement as to what that line could possibly mean. After all, he hadn’t gone anywhere but was actually serving as spokesman for Mr. Coffee.
Paul Simon told the interviewer, “Joe DiMaggio had not yet begun to think of himself as a metaphor.”
A metaphor – that is what Jesus is using when he speaks of himself as the good shepherd. Jesus is not actually a shepherd, wasn’t then and isn’t now. Most of the artworks depicting Jesus as a shepherd do not show an actual working shepherd. The sheep are too clean and the shepherd barefoot in flowing robes is too impractically dressed.
We have a window with the image of the good shepherd. It is in that corner over there, the last one on the baptismal font side of the church. That window actually stresses that this shepherd image is a metaphor, for it shows the suffering and risen Christ. That Jesus is wearing the crown of thorns and has wounds in his hands and feet. And at the same time, that Jesus has the glory of God shining around his head.
Sacrifice and glory are both captured in that window. Sacrifice and glory are both part of Jesus’ sermon about being the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In eight verses, Jesus says this five times. And the good shepherd brings God’s glory to shine by protecting the sheep and keeping them safe.
The good shepherd is a metaphor, one we struggle to relate to, since it has been a long time since any of us have seen a real shepherd at work, let alone done any shepherding ourselves. We might not be able to relate to the metaphor itself; however, we can definitely relate to the yearning this image evokes in us.
Even though we are far past the rural realities of Jesus’ surroundings, we still crave someone who loves us fiercely like a good shepherd. We yearn for someone stronger and wiser who will watch out for us.
Those of us who were raised in solid homes, might remember how good it felt to be tucked into bed at night. Our parents kissed us good-night, and we could leave all the worrying to them. Things like leaky plumbing or threatening weather forecasts or political tensions or overdue bills were not able to disturb our rest. We just snuggled into our pillows and blankets and drifted off to sleep with our minds at rest.
It is that feeling that we yearn for again; that feeling of trust that someone is watching out and is doing the worrying for us.
We are older now. We know a thing or two about the things out there that can threaten our security. We have watched on the weather channel as a major storm approached. We have waited for the pathologist to call with test results. We have experienced the sorrow of burying first grandparents, and then parents, and then friends. We know about those wolves Jesus is talking about, who threaten us and scare us.
We need a shepherd who cares about each and every one of us. We need a shepherd who sees the wolf coming and does what is needed to chase it away. We need a shepherd who is willing to sacrifice, to get killed rather than let any of his sheep come to harm. We need a shepherd with vision and wisdom who can lead us through the challenges of life in this world.
By speaking of himself as the good shepherd, Jesus offers to be that leader for us. Jesus is willing to lay down his life for us. As our window reminds us, that is in fact what Jesus ends up doing, laying down his life for us on the cross, and then rising to bless us with the power of resurrection life.
How exactly does all this work?
A colleague sent me the link to a TED talk that gave me a totally new insight into how Jesus as the sacrificial leader blesses his sheep and keeps them safe. The TED talk is by a man named Simon Sinek and was recorded in 2014.
Mr. Sinek began his talk by sharing a story about Captain Swenson, who was awarded the congressional medal of honor for saving several wounded comrades under fire in 2008. He and his fellow soldiers had come under fire, surrounded on three sides. Swenson ran into the life fire to retrieve a wounded soldier and carried him to a medivac helicopter. The medivac nurse had a go-pro camera on his helmet which captured this scene: After hoisting the wounded soldier into the helicopter, Swenson bent down, gave him a kiss, turned, and ran back into the fire to rescue further soldiers.
Where, Mr. Sinek asked, do you get such people? His research showed that you get such people when the leadership creates the right kind of environment.
The military honors people who sacrifice themselves so others may gain.
The business world rewards people who sacrifice others so they themselves may gain.
The military is full of people willing to sacrifice; they are like the good shepherd. Much of the business world is not willing to do that; they are more like the hire hands Jesus mentioned.
What exactly is the difference in the environments? No matter how many heroes like Captain Swenson Mr. Sinek asked, “Why did you do that?”, the answer he got was always the same: “Because they would do it for me, too.” An environment of trust and cooperation elevates people and makes them willing to being sacrifices for others.
This goes back to the days of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Our tribe was surrounded by lots of danger from bad weather, food shortages, saber toothed tigers and the like. That danger could not be controlled. But the environment inside the tribe could be fostered. When people watched out for one another, they were free to rest and to be creative and to feel safe.
This same mechanism applies today. If we feel threatened in our group, we devote all our energy to fighting for our safety. But if we feel safe, if we think the others have our back, then we can relax and work more happily and creatively.
Here are two examples from the business world:
One day Mr. Sinek was waiting to board a flight when a man tried to get onto the plane before his section of seats was called. The flight attendant was rather rude to him. Mr. Sinek spoke up and asked if she had to treat him like that. The employee answered: “If I don’t enforce the rules, then I get in trouble or lose my job.”
In other words, she did not feel safe, and so she had to fight.
On the other hand, there is Robert Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Companies, a business of $1.5 billion. In the recession of 2008, his company lost 30% of its business. That was huge. The company needed to save $10 million. The board met to discuss lay-offs.
But Mr. Chapman refused to let anyone go. When he counted employees, he counted not heads, but hearts, and it is a lot harder to dismiss hearts. So instead the board instituted a furlough program. Everyone from CEO to janitor had to take four weeks unpaid vacation. They could do it consecutively or spread out, but everyone had to do it. Because, the CEO said, it was better for everyone to suffer a little than for anyone to suffer a lot.
Because everyone participated in this, morale went up immediately. Because workers felt safe, they began to be creative. They started swapping furloughs. People who could afford it took five weeks so someone in tight circumstances only had to take three. In the end, the company saved $20 million and nobody was laid off.
The leader himself was willing to sacrifice, and as a result the whole group was willing to go along. They were willing to buy into the leader’s vision because he was willing to sacrifice for them. People were willing to give their blood, sweat, and tears to make the leader’s vision happen because of the environment of safety and care the leader created.
This insight opened my mind for the kind of leader Jesus is. As the good shepherd he is willing to sacrifice, to lay down his life, to watch over every one of his sheep. He is unwilling for a single sheep to be harmed or lost. By his sacrificial leadership, Jesus creates a group of people among whom we can feel safe. Here, people have our back. Here, people watch out for us.
As a result, here we can be creative and generous. Here, we can buy into the vision of our leader Jesus Christ, a vision of the kingdom of God for all people. Here, we are willing to sacrifice our own blood, sweat, and tears to make our Lord’s vision happen.
Just this week, I saw this taking place right here at Zion.
When I began serving here three years ago, Zion was on precarious financial footing. We did not feel safe at all. As a result, all our energy and resources went into our fight for survival.
Recently, we were blessed with an inheritance. This inheritance made it possible to pay off all our debts. Zion is not debt free. We are safe!
With this new spirit of safety, we were able to be creative and generous and faithful to Jesus’ vision. Our council decided to tithe our inheritance. We will be giving 10% to the synod, with $5,000 earmarked for World Hunger Relief. Our good shepherd has blessed us with this windfall and with the safety it provides. Now we are willing to sacrifice to make the vision of our good shepherd come to life.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is an amazing leader. He is the good shepherd who sacrifices himself for our salvation. Let us trust his leadership. Let us rejoice in the blessing of community and safety it grants us. And in this safe space, let us be faithful and creative as we serve our Shepherd in return. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.