Readings & Reflection from the Mid-week Service

May 06, 2009

by Justin Ward


First reading, John 10:11-18 (NRSV)
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 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 Father.

Second reading, from "How It Feels to Know Someone Died for You: Living with the Voice of the Beloved," a talk by Alice Walker. This talk can be found in Walker's book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Light in a Time of Darkness

Reflection ~ "Living Your Best Life, as NOT Seen on Oprah"

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is a bold claim, particularly for those of us who find the life of Jesus worth imitating, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. Essentially, what this means is that short of our willingness to sacrifice our lives, we cannot do enough for our neighbors in need. This can be an uncomfortable position to find yourself in, particularly if, like me, you enjoy being alive. I’m 26-years-old, in great health, as far as I know, and am constantly told that I have my whole life ahead of me. This is good news to hear, but the gospel—the good news we find in the Bible—says something entirely different. To experience the full thrill of being alive, we must be willing to completely let go of our lives, even if only to improve the quality of someone else’s life just a little. Indeed, to truly be alive means that we be not afraid of the established authority. In standing up to that authority, one hopes to be around for the joy that comes in the morning. One hopes to dance in the streets with the captives who are set free. But as good shepherds we cannot let wishful thinking get the best of us. As good shepherds we must be willing to give up all that we have so our neighbors can have just a little something more. By the way, Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely rumored to have been a terrific dancer.

This willingness to lay down our life for someone else... it all looks good on paper, right? As I’m sure you can attest, it’s much easier said than done. How many of you can honestly say that you relate better to the hired hand than you do the good shepherd? I’m willing to be the first to raise my hand. An embarrassing incident a few weeks ago demonstrates that I can talk the talk just fine; after all, I have been in seminary the last three years. I am, however, less adept at walking the walk.

The incident I’m referring took place on a Saturday evening. I’d enjoyed quite the leisurely day. I spent some time in an AT&T store, once again contemplating the purchase of an iPhone. What can I say? Like you, I’ve got the bug! I had a nice lunch at Hale & Hearty Soups. My favorite soup—Tomato Cheddar—even happened to be on the menu that day. The woman behind the counter even upgraded me to a larger size and gave me a discount! After lunch, it being a nice day, I enjoyed a leisurely stroll uptown to my favorite bookstore—the Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center. After spending a couple of hours in the aisles, I decided it was time to head home. Shortly after landing on the platform of the 66th St. subway station, with not one but two new books in tow—books that will likely accumulate a lot of dust before I’m able to read them in their entirety—I noticed a man who was rough around the edges standing right next to me. No sooner had I turned back around and had a glance at my new book, the man had fallen. From his appearance, I intuit the man didn’t own a razor, much less a home. And in this instance, he appeared under the influence of alcohol, but I cannot be certain. Having lived in New York for more than five years, I am accustomed to coming across people holding out their hand for money multiple times on a daily basis. For a number of reasons, I don’t usually give money. What made this particular man different from all the rest was that he wasn’t asking for money. His hand was held out, yes, but without saying as much, he only wished for a hand in return—a hand to help him up from his fall.

I am ashamed to say that I didn’t give him my hand, and by the look on his face, I could tell this was heartbreaking. I didn’t give him my hand for a number of reasons. Growing up, my mother advised me to never speak with strangers. As an adult, I speak to strangers all the time. Mom’s rule, however, makes for a nice couch to fall back on in uncomfortable situations like this one. So that was reason #1. Reason #2 was that I wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t pull me down with him. After all, he was a “stranger” and Mom warned me never to take candy from strangers. Reason #3 was that his hands were visibly filthy. Mine were clean, and I really wanted to keep them that way. Holding on to a subway rail makes me cringe, let alone the dirty hand of someone I don’t know.

It was only a couple minutes before my train arrived, a train I would have surely missed had I spent time with this man. I turned my back on this man, literally, but I continued to look at him out the corner of my eye. I couldn’t count the number of people who walked over him, literally, as he held out his hand for help. By the time my guilty conscious set in, I was on the train, headed home. It was too late for me to help the man whose only request was a hand. Not my life, but a hand.

What are we going to do about this? When will we finally extend our hand, thinking more about the person struggling to stand up than we do ourselves? “What ya got?” I often hear from people who are homeless when I try to share my doggy bag with them. I’ve never been able to understand how a person without food can afford to be so picky. I am slowly starting to get it: people who are homeless are tired of eating leftovers. We know all too well that leftovers are good only for a day, maybe two at most. Certainly not a lifetime.

The days I think I have nothing to give, I am bombarded by requests for help. The days I have leftovers, I usually have to go out of my way to find someone who wants them. Can you relate? I think the message here is that we must always be giving to people, not only when it’s convenient. In giving there are rewards to be had.

I’ve been to seminary and a lot of good churches over the years. I’ve been educated to see the man asking for my hand not as another drunk, homeless person, but as Jesus Christ himself. I even thought about this as I waited for my train that evening, too stubborn to even offer a hand. In this scene, I was most definitely the hired hand. This man wasn’t one of my parishioners—my flock, if you will—so I wrote him off as someone else’s responsibility. It’s hard to share this with you, but better you than my ordination committee, right?

Ordination committees assist would-be pastors discern their capacity for ministry. As a pastor, I failed miserably during the evening I described. You see, to be a pastor means to be a good shepherd. Literally. The very word “pastor” comes from the Latin word meaning “shepherd.” Unfortunately this story isn’t just about my own failure, though; it’s a story about realizing that we all have much more to give than we are often willing. Though Jesus immediately gravitates to one extreme by saying we should be willing to give our very lives, the man on the subway platform teaches us that, more often than not, giving something requires very little of us, sometimes just an extended hand that gets someone back on their feet again.

Last Sunday was Immigrant Rights Sunday. Judson is a congregation that does a lot for immigrant rights, maybe even more than most. We participate in the New Sanctuary Movement. We provide sanctuary to one man and accompany him to his weekly check-ins, bearing witness to Jean’s plight among the people who could very well tear him apart from his family. We procured grant money for the Words of Welcome project, which aims to combat hate speech towards immigrants in the media. Today, our senior pastor—our shepherd, if you will—hosted the second episode of her radio talk show, of which immigration is a central theme. This is a lot of work, it’s wonderful work, but still, is it enough?

In short, the answer is no. A former minister once said to me, “Justin, you will never be able to do enough. You must trust that God will fill-in all the places you can’t.” I find these words much more comforting than Jesus instructing me I must lay down my life if I am to live on full throttle. But then getting comfortable, that’s the problem isn’t it? If we get comfortable with what we’re doing, can we truly say that we’re doing enough? Or might that feeling of comfort be God welling up inside us, as if to say, “There’s more you’re ready to take on.” If I’ve kept your attention this long, you’re probably now thinking about your calendars, and all that goes neglected as it is because of very busy lives. This sermon is not intended to merely add one more item to your to-do list. My hope is that you might come to believe that you, too, have the power to lay down your life... and take it up again. Our faith tells us that not until we are willing to take this risk will be living life most fully. It’s a crazy, ridiculous notion, I know. Without each other to encourage this kind of faith, I doubt that any one of us would stand a chance. But together, as a flock of people trying to believe, might we encourage each other to live more fully on behalf of those who are part of our flock but not yet aware? In a broken world, how will they ever come to be aware that they, too, are loved by God?

I suggest that you are God’s only hope, that you are the only Christ a fallen man might ever meet in this world. If given the chance to be the light of Christ for someone, what will you do? Will you turn and walk away? Or might you extend a helping hand, even if it means you fall, too? Our scripture reading today instructs us to not be afraid, to do whatever it takes to help our neighbors in need. Should you have the courage, and if it happens to cost you your life, as it did Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., take heart trusting that the God who gave you the power to lay down your life is the same God who will also give you the power to raise it up again.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844