Laying it down
Last Sunday we had a Town Hall meeting after our 10am worship, as part of the process to find a new pastor for our St. Albans community. Thanks to the many of you that participated! During that Town Hall, one of the questions we were asked was this:
“What are the qualities we seek in an incumbent?”
Over 40 people took part in the meeting, and there were a lot of responses given to that question. I wasn’t in the meetings, but I did, in my role as Archdeacon, get to see the draft of the parish profile that is being put together to summarize your responses.
There’s a lot of good stuff in there. But I couldn’t help but notice that response given in our gospel this morning was nowhere to be found:
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Pastor is after all just another word for shepherd. So if we were to use today’s gospel to answer the question, “what are the qualities we seek in a pastor?” I suppose the answer would be, “We seek a pastor who will lay down her life for the St. Albans community.”
Now I get why no one dared to suggest that response. It would seem presumptious. Too much to ask. Overly demanding. Maybe it would deter any potential candidates.
And yet this is the model we have been given of a good pastor. Of a good shepherd. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And that is what Jesus did.
To those of us who are pastors, this what we signed up for. This is what we are called to. In our ordination vows, in the Anglican Communion, we embrace the call to “a special ministry of servanthood. In the name of Jesus, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.”
A good pastor lays down her life for her community, her congregation, the people for whom she cares.
It is a lot to ask. But it is not too much to ask of your pastor. It is what we ask of ourselves, with God’s help, and with the awareness that we also need to care for ourselves along the way.
As a pastor, I am called to lay down my life for my community. I have to confess that I’m not very good at it. My own stuff has a habit of getting in the way. But over the years I have discovered something that is pure gold. And that is that when I do lay down my life in this way, when I am able to care for people, to accompany them on their journeys, to serve people, especially those in need, I experience the truth of something else that Jesus says in today’s gospel.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
You see that’s the goal, that’s the raison-d’être of this Jesus movement that we’re a part of: it’s so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. In fact, you might even want to include this as a response to the second question we looked at during the Town Hall Meeting:
Question: What is important to us as we look to the future?
Response: That we may have life, and have it abundantly!
Could anything else be more important?
As many of you know, I am a second-career pastor. For the first part of my adult life, I worked in technology. When I gave up my job as a CEO, many people asked me why I wanted to be a pastor. And though over the years I have given many answers to that question, deep down, unspoken, in my heart, I always come back to these words:
“so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
That’s why we are pastors. That’s the purpose of being a pastor. So that they may have life, and have it abundantly. That’s why this community, that’s why the church exists. To give life. In all its abundance.
What is an abundant life? That’s actually what we’ll talk about next Sunday. In next Sunday’s gospel reading Jesus will use the image of the vine and its branches as a metaphor for abundant living, for connection, intimacy, groundedness, growth, nourishment and fruitfulness. As I often like to say, it’s all about relationship. That’s why community is so important. And that’s why Jesus reminds us that another important task of the good shepherd is to bring others into the flock, into the community, for us to welcome and to love.
The good shepherd lays down her life for the sheep so that they may have life and have it abundantly.
Now I want you to notice that laying down your life is not the goal. We don’t sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. The goal is to have life and have it abundantly.
But here’s what I’ve discovered. Over the course of the years, I’ve discovered that it is in the very moments that I am able to lay down my life for others that I experience abundance in my own life. Laying down your life is life-giving. That is the mystery at the heart of our faith. And it’s not just for pastors.
Many years later, John the gospel writer, is still reflecting on the relationship between life and love in the short letter that he wrote to his beloved community that we read from in our second reading. In it he writes:
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. . . . Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
You see, laying down your life is not just what Jesus does. And it’s not just what pastors are called to do. It’s for all of us. As members of this beloved community, of this flock, we are to lay down our lives for one another.
It’s not too much to ask. It is what we are called to, what we aspire to. It’s what marks us as followers of Jesus. But even more, it is the secret to an abundant life, the secret to joy, peace and fulfilment. For all of us, myself included.
And it’s what you do. As pastor, I have had a front row seat to your awesomeness for the past ten years. I don’t get to see everything, but I do see a lot. Dropping off coffee at someone’s apartment. Helping asylum seekers with their applications. Volunteering at seniors residences. Sending fumigators when someone has bugs. Facilitating peer support groups. Driving those who have no transport. Praying for each other. Helping someone with their homework. Being courageous enough to ask for help and to receive it with grace. Looking after one another. Checking-in. Raising each other up.
We lay down our lives for one another, and in so doing we discover that it really is life-giving, and that in the process, all of our lives have become more abundant.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Homily Yr B Easter 4 Good Shepherd Sunday, April 25 2021
Readings: Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.10b-18