Letting Go

Ethel Hornbeck
April 29, 2012
“Good Shepherd Sunday”
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Our reading today comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 10 (11-18), and features Jesus, as he addresses a not entirely friendly audience.

"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."

Twenty three years ago today my life shifted course, like a river jumping its banks, and forging a whole new path. Twenty three years ago today, at 10:14 in the morning to be exact, my oldest daughter came into this world. Never could I have imagined how much, in that one moment, everything I believed, trusted, desired and aspired to had already begun to change. My carefully constructed fiction of personal independence that I had worked so hard to construct started, then and there, to unravel.

You see, I grew up in a very typical, 1950s, dysfunctional American family. And for whatever reason, that experience formed in me two basic orientations: 1. a profound mistrust--of life, of people, especially of all people in authority, and therefore 2. an absolute commitment to pursuing an independent life. These motivated all my life choices as I collected degrees and pursued a certain career and with it, financial independence, which for some mysterious reason became for me, lord of all.

And 23 years ago today at 10:14 in the morning, it all shifted. But the moment I remember most came a few weeks later. It stands apart, not because it was the most important but because of its absolute clarity. It happened like this. I was interviewing babysitters. Because, of course, nothing in my life was going to change, ever. I fully intended, after a tiny time out, to return to my life, my work, my bad habits, my bad attitudes, and of course the pursuit of my precious independence.

So I am interviewing this babysitter. The place is utter chaos, with children running everywhere, a whole gang of out of control two year olds looking to me like dangerous giants, next to this tiny, vulnerable creature in the bouncy chair by my side. So, I look up and--I kid you not--make eye contact with Black Velvet Jesus hanging on the wall. And in that moment, I knew. I knew without any doubt that I would not be hiring this babysitter, In fact, I would not be hiring any babysitter. I would not be returning to work, at least not in a 9-5 kind of way.  

It was a moment of knowing, of absolute clarity, so distinct and powerful, that I am convinced, especially in hindsight, which is always where I see the Spirit most clearly, I am convinced I heard the voice of Love--not with my ears, but with my heart. Literally. I heard--not through words of instruction, but through deep knowing, a sense of invitation toward a path I didn’t even know was there. It was moment of new possibility whose meaning continues to unfold even today.

Please note: at the time I was not a person of prayer or deep listening or moral excellence. I was not a student in any school of love, and in many ways my life was kind of a mess. But somehow, in spite of it all, through this tiny opening, I began to glimpse another way, to see that perhaps just perhaps something bigger than me was at work and at stake, in my world, in my life, in my inner experience. A little microscopic seed of trust got planted that day.

I am the good shepherdso says Jesus in our reading today, evoking one of scripture’s most common and beloved images for Holy Presence. Now remember, John’s gospel was written some one hundred plus years after the events described. So it’s not a news report. Its a reflection, a reflection backwards, in light of the present life and experience of John’s community, which was among many other things, a persecuted community. But these words are way more than simple reassurance, although centuries of Christian artists have insisted on reducing them to a sentimental Hallmark moment. I used to attend a church where the visual focal point of the whole worship space is a stained glass window of Shepherd Jesus cradling a little lamb and gazing adoringly at the rest of the flock, as they gaze adoringly back. I will confess that Shepherd Jesus and I had some moments, too, kind of like Black Velvet Jesus, and all I can say is:  be careful who you listen to (and who you ignore!)

I am the good Shepherd and I lay down my life; that’s the refrain here. I lay down my life and I invite you to lay down your lives with me. That is the invitation. This is not about sentimentality but challenge, not passivity but courage, not blind obedience but bold imagination. And sometimes, I know, it takes all the trust, courage and imagination we can summon just to take up the lives we’ve been given and inhabit them fully. The paradox is so often we can only take up our lives by laying them down. For me, letting go, seemingly on behalf of another, was no act of self-sacrifice; it was actually the way of healing in my own life and heart.

In a recent commentary on Psalm 23, the most famous shepherd passage in scripture, Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes this: “Human shepherds keep their flocks safe by herding them along well worn paths.  But the Divine Shepherd is not about safety. The Divine Shepherd is about freedom, justice, and compassion. Where human shepherds call their flocks back to the familiar path, God calls us to the opposite.” And true freedom, I have discovered is actually the opposite of personal independence.

Following the Good Shepherd is not about “salvation”, at least as the word is commonly used. In fact, in Jesus’ own language, Aramaic, there is no word for salvation, according to Cynthia Bourgeault, in her brilliant book The Wisdom Jesus. “To be saved” for those earliest followers would have been understood as being made alive. And the source of that life giving power, Jesus claims again and again, is not his self, but his connection with the Divine. For Jesus this connection was so intimate that he not only addressed the Divine Mystery directly, his favorite reference was Abba, Daddy (which was never about gender, and always about transformative intimacy with the Creator and Source of all life.) It is this scandalous connection, this surrender to a larger reality, this whole new human possibility that Jesus exemplifies—incarnates—and empowers for all who seek the way of Love. 

This is the “new life in Christ” that we claim in the waters of baptism. Not some intellectual agreement to a list of theological claims, or membership in an exclusive club, but participation, or“putting on the mind of Christ” as the Apostle Paul puts it. Bourgeault describes this as acquiring the consciousness of Jesus, practicing “that nondual knowingness of the heart which can see and live from the perspective of wholeness.” tis only in the spacious knowingness of the heart that we access the deepest reality, where we—all humans, those living and all those who have gone before us, all are one, not the same but profoundly interconnected. One heart, one mind, one flock. This connection extends to all creation, and in fact, to the cosmos itself. This radically inclusive vision, and the human capacity to perceive and cultivate it, is at heart of Christ, a heart that is shared by every deep faith tradition.

It is this reality that we touch whenever we lay down our lives, when we surrender, when we say yes to life abundant, regardless. We glimpse it in countless ways that most often go unnamed and unclaimed -- in deep artistic engagement, immersion in nature, in music, poetry, all beauty, all truth, all goodness. Sometimes we choose it, and sometimes it chooses us, in a Black Velvet Jesus moment. We embody surrender in every act of open-hearted listening—to one another, and to our own lives. We cultivate it when we gather together to practice silence, and to nurture our vision of compassionate life. Letting go is the only way to true communion with God and true community with others.

In birth and birthing, in life and in death, in rebirth, again and again--let us lay down our lives. In joy and in sorrow, let us cultivate trust in the power that seeks in and through us to make all things whole, let us listen listen listen together to the voice of Love, that calls out in each of our hearts, saying: lay down your lives.  Surrender your plans, your agendas, your expectations of life, love and loved ones.  Let go your wounds, your self destructive stories, your fears, your arrogance, bad habits and bad attitudes, all the things that keep you separate from Me. Release even your beloved images and preconceptions about Me. Make room, for I am about to do something new. For you, in you, through you for the healing of the world. Let go and let it be. Amen