"Lay down your life"
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
April 22, 2018—Easter 4B
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
In Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, she tells a story that was told over and over in her local Buddhist community, because it was the single best story about love any of them had ever heard.
“A three year old girl, in the next town over, was diagnosed with leukemia. She needed a massive blood transfusion. Everyone in her family was tested to see who would be the best blood donor. It was her ten year old brother. Their parents asked him if he was willing to do this. He said he needed some time to think. A full day later, he said he would do it.
“Some time later, he was hospitalized, prepped, and lay on a gurney, hooked up to the blood donor equipment. His blood filled a liter bag. He was very pale. The nurse bent over him, and asked if he was okay. He said, ‘Yes.’ Then he asked, ‘How soon until I start to die?’”
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11b). The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Of course, the good shepherd knows that laying down your life for the sheep might not mean actually dying. But laying down your life does mean a radical ability to give of yourself, a striking willingness to love.
This is the Way the Shepherd calls us to follow: the way of self-giving love. Sometimes in big dramatic ways, but mostly in everyday ways: in the journey, in the lifetime of walking with God.
Which brings us to the 23rd psalm. A psalm so familiar, so connected to funerals that we don’t always see how it evokes the whole of a life lived with God.
The psalm begins with the assurances that living with God as the one who guides and cares for you leads to a life rich in all that truly matters. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;” that God will strengthen and sustain you: “He makes me lie down in green pastures;” that God will nourish you from the source of life: “He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul” (Ps 23:1-3).
You will be ready, then, to go all the places that life with God will take you. Ready to journey into the valley of darkness (v. 4), into the valley of our deepest fears about loss and illness and danger. Ready (whatever that might mean in this context) to face it all, because you know (somehow you know) that God is still with you, even at the scariest points in your life. That you are not alone. That God’s strength is wrapped around your strength, holding you up (just barely). Holding you up, and telling you that you can survive more than you know. Weeping with you, and telling you that you will get through it together. Holding you up and telling you you will fight this, you will endure this, you will expose this, you will emerge on the other side of this with God still at your side.
You will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. You will confront evil. You will be surrounded by enemies. And you will know and draw comfort from God’s presence with you in it all.
THIS is what a life’s journey with God looks like! It is not all green pastures and clean waters. It’s not. But those things, when they come, will refresh and strengthen us. We should rest well. We should drink deep and take our fill, and be glad of the reminder of God’s presence with us in the good times.
And then, we keep journeying. We walk with God. We walk, to the best of our ability, in the paths of righteousness. Paths, as Joel LeMon points out on Working Preacher, that could more accurately be translated as ruts. Ruts. As in, those grooves that get formed by repeated travel. By habit. By doing something, perhaps just a small something, over and over again. Until the way becomes smoother. Until the path becomes clearer. Until it becomes a part of you somehow, etched into your being.
You will walk in the well-worn grooves of righteousness. You will do this by laying down your life. Probably not in the big ways. More likely by living into one of my favorite lines from Melissa Bank’s book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, in which the lead character comments about her brother’s grand gesture for their mother’s birthday: He’s really good at going above and beyond the call of duty, she observes. It’s the call of duty that he can’t seem to manage.
The call of duty. A phrase that brings to mind the military, and the immense sacrifice its members and their families make for the greater good in times of war. But the Christian call of duty often looks more like the nit and grit of what once happened on the homefront. It looks like rolling endless bandages, to take care of those who are risking lives for us. It looks like food rationing, so that meagre resources can be shared. It looks like small things that are laid down, day after day, so that the lives of the whole can be sustained.
It looks like a gift of time and self, done for something or someone beyond yourself. Like those who are cleaning up the nation’s rivers by picking up a wheelbarrow and hauling trash out of their local waterways. Day after day, piece by piece: clearing out the river on their own time, healing it, allowing it to flow and support life. It’s a life’s work and a labor of love, as is the larger action to keep waste, chemicals and pollution out of the river in the first place. Day after day: the call of duty. Laying down your time and your self to bring desperately needed life to someone or something else.
Or those who take the time to do a similar kind of work with the people around them. Taking the time to listen and to care. Giving the gift of attention, companionship, even advice. Bit by bit, conversation after conversation: offering a different kind of clearing out and healing, allowing life to flow.
These actions, small things done over and over, will form pathways in our hearts and lives. Pathways of righteousness, pathways on which goodness and mercy will pursue us. On our tails, urging us on, speeding our steps.
This is what it is, to have God as our shepherd. We walk these pathways, and the Holy One goes with us, through joys and terrors, through sustenance and threat. We go forth with God, and we come home with God: day after day, and also (finally) at the end of our days. We shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. We shall return to the house of the Lord, every day of our life. The words mean both. We go forth with God every day, laying down our lives, bit by bit, and we come home with God. Today, tomorrow, and forever. May it be so, Amen.