Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Lindley G. DeGarmo
Union Church of Pocantico Hills
April 25, 2021
1 John 3:16-21
Today is Fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes called “Shepherd Sunday” because the biblical passages for the day all have shepherd themes. The Bible has many of these, and we could read more if time allowed. The most familiar of them all is probably the 23rd Psalm, which takes many of us to a tender place in our hearts. Maybe you think of a graveside service or a funeral where those familiar words of comfort were precisely what you needed to hear. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters, he restoreth my soul. Nice. Comforting. Like the rain on the window through the night, you are reminded of protection and peace.
It’s surprising really that this psalm appeals to us because most of us suburban dwellers don’t know much about shepherding. The majority of us have never been closer to sheep than at a petting zoo or perhaps passing by the herd at Stone Barns here in Pocantico Hills.
Yet in spite of our unfamiliarity with the breed, something of the trust that is there between the sheep and the shepherd gets communicated.
Jesus tells us in this morning’s gospel lesson that the sheep know the voice of the good shepherd, from the bad. The one whom they can trust and the one whom they cannot.
For many years, one of my brothers raised sheep upstate, outside Hudson. Through him, I’ve had the chance over the years to learn a bit about ovine eating habits and cleanliness and intelligence (or lack thereof). But some things about sheep and shepherding don’t require an on-the-ground practitioner to understand. Our passage from 1 John, for instance, picks up on the theme of the shepherd’s protection of the sheep. In order to understand it, you have to know that when the psalmist of the 23rd Psalm refers to the valley of the shadow of death, that’s actually a reference to the fact that valleys were vulnerable places for sheep. Jackals and wolves could lie in wait and attack the sheep from a higher vantage point. It was dangerous in the dark vales. The shepherds would keep watch by day and by night, taking turns in vigilance, just as those watchful shepherds did according to the Christmas story that night so long ago in Bethlehem.
In the dark valleys, it was customary for the shepherd to fence in the sheep, gathering rocks and piling them up in a circle so that the sheep were hemmed in except for one opening, the sheep gate, where the shepherd himself would lie down, using his own body to close the circle and protect his sheep. The very body of the shepherd, then, served as the gate, his voice the warning and reassurance to the flock, his vigilance their protection.
So in the first letter of John, when the writer says that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has laid down his life for us, and we also ought to lay down our lives for one another, he is referring not only to the crucifixion but also to that idea of the shepherd lying down at the sheep’s gate, the one who protects the sheep with his own body.
Now laying down one’s life for sisters and brothers in the faith is by definition a once in a lifetime possibility. Most of us are not asked literally to give our lives for our faith. There is seldom a moment when the need for an ultimate sacrifice comes down the pike like that. Once in a while. There were passengers who went down with the Titanic, for example, so that others would have a place in the lifeboats. And we may think of soldiers and first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to protect their fellow citizens; some make the ultimate sacrifice. But few of us are ever asked to do something as unrepeatable as to lay down our life for another.
The late Fred Craddock tells a wry story of his fantasy of being remembered for having given his life for some great cause of the faith; some momentous event in which his life was poured out in a dramatic and meaningful way.
“And people would come[, he says] and they’d bring tour busses and set up hot dog stands on warm summer afternoons, and there’d be ice cream on sale, and people would get off the busses and take their kids over to that spot where the great sacrifice had taken place, and they would say, ‘Now let’s make sure everybody gets in the picture. Courtney, Travis come on over here because this is where Fred gave his life for our sake.’”
But instead, Craddock says, there’s never been that great moment of sacrifice where everything was required, and he had to lay down his life. No great check he had to write in order to pay the debt for his being.
Instead, it has been a life of small checks, small acts, small things that he has been called upon to do, like most of us. A check for $25.00 to the heart fund. Some pocket change to a fellow who looked down on his luck and was living on the street. Stopping to help a young mother with an oversized baby carriage negotiate a difficult doorway. Tutoring a kid at his church who is slow at math. Getting groceries for an elderly neighbor who can’t get out. Little stuff, the kind of stuff that never amounts to much except, well, except that it counts. It adds up. It’s what we do, what we do to express our faith, because short of giving your life for another how else do you express it, except by laying down your life in that way?
Our Jewish brothers and sisters call it Mitzvat Hatzedaka, the doing of an act of human kindness in which something of God’s blessing is communicated. And I would add, maybe something of God’s presence is made known.
Walking the walk this way is different from talking the talk. Some Christians are more focused on the talk than the walk: on getting the words right, as if salvation depended upon our getting the confession of faith correctly stated and sincerely expressed. Crafting the words just so, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, in precisely those words with an accompanying expression of repentance. As if this were a trick question and you had to get it right, with no help from God or anyone else.
Now I would not want to minimize the importance of making a profession of faith. Lord knows that we all search for words to express what we believe, and the saying of what we embrace as most dear can be a defining moment for the character of a person. But surely there is more to the Christian life than simply getting the confession of faith right. Doesn’t how we live our life and spend our days count as a witness too?
I wonder sometimes if the most earnest expressions of faith are not so much what we say but what we don’t say, rather what we do that counts.
Jesus posed this question once, when he asked his critics, “Which of these two sons pleased his father most: the one who said he would not go into the vineyard to work but did; or the one who said he would and did not?” And when the scribes and Pharisees said, “The first son.” Jesus said, “So I tell you tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
“I’ve spoken to you before about the late David H.C. Read, former pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, who was a prisoner of war during World War II. His book, The Grace Given, tells of that experience and his observations of those with whom he was imprisoned. “It puzzled me,” Dr. Read wrote,
that some of the most fervent believers behaved rather badly under the stress of hunger and anxiety, while those I would have considered somewhat lukewarm in… ‘Christian witness’ were pillars of decency and goodwill. It began to dawn on me that those who were desperately concerned with the salvation of their own souls… were also likely to be equally concerned with meeting their own physical needs. It is because of this experience that I have reservations about all religion that tends toward the fanatical and the demonstrative.
There is a time and a place to witness to one’s faith in words, and I would not diminish that. But more and more, I have come to value the simple acts of kindness that others offer quite modestly as an expression of the goodness that is within them, a God given goodness, that may be more pleasing to God than the most eloquent and carefully crafted professions of faith.
Little checks written, small deeds, unimportant things that we do that don’t add up to much, except that all of it taken together counts. That is, I think, how most of us lay down our life, expressing our faith. And maybe we say more than we realize in doing so. You can study the Bible and the great spiritual writers and sermons and lectures on theology and church history and never find words that can express the faith that we can with our hands, with our eyes, with our compassion.
A group goes to Honduras and builds a small one room house for a family of five. A team of volunteers prepares a free lunch for hungry neighbors on a Sunday afternoon. A friend cooks a meal and takes it to someone just home from the hospital. A deacon sends a personal note to church member who is sick or grieving. Small checks, little things really, that don’t add up to much, except that they do. In our busy, harried, late for the next appointment lives, they do.
Beverly Gaventa, a professor emerita of New Testament studies at Princeton Seminary who is married to a Baptist minister, tells the story of her visit to a funeral home with her husband early in their marriage when a young couple like them had lost an eighteen-month-old daughter to a terrible illness. The couple were Beverly’s husband’s parishioners and he was called upon to care for them. Beverly remembers that she and Bill were new parents themselves and their son Matthew was only a year and one week old at the time, so it really struck home.
Beverly says that the inevitable identification of her son with the loss of this other young couple was so strong that as she and Bill approached the funeral home she began to cry. Once inside, the tears just kept coming. She went over to the open casket and shook with grief. There was no way to stop it.
Finally, Bill asked her to come over and meet these young parents, and when she was introduced, she couldn’t speak, she just cried and cried and cried. Couldn’t even say, “I’m sorry.” She just cried.
Some time afterward Bill got a note of appreciation from the young mother who had lost her daughter. “I will never forget what your wife said,” she wrote.
And isn’t it the case that sometimes it’s what we don’t say that is so much more eloquent than what we do say?
The Christian faith would not spread nor its saving hope be shared if there were not the books and creeds and teachings and sermons and expositions of our faith that have been so finely crafted and expressed. But on the other hand, not a word of it would have been believed if there were not even more eloquent expressions of it offered with our hands and with our hearts and with our tears and with our lives.
I have never been too concerned about the people who say that they cannot recite the confessions of faith that are printed in the bulletin from time to time as a part of our worship. I am far more concerned that people go out from worship and live it.
“We know love by this,” the writer of 1 John says, “that Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our life for one another.”
May it be so.
All authority and power and dominion to the name that is above all names—Jesus Christ our Lord—now and in the age to come. Amen.
 David H. C. Read, This Grace Given (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1984), 115.