by Melody Kroeger
David and I belong to the dwindling demographic that has the daily Seattle Times newspaper delivered to our house. Last week there was an article from Kelso that captured our attention.
According to the Times, “the family of Jerry Moon opened his casket for their final goodbyes and were startled” – shocked you might say – to find an absolute stranger in Mr. Moon’s place.
Mr Moon, aged 72 and another man, Mr. P aged 97, both died at the same hospice on the same day. The bodies were accidently mislabeled – Mr Moon’s remains sent to be cremated, Mr P’s body, dressed in Mr. Moon’s clothes – was placed in the casket – which was subsequently opened by Mr. Moon’s widow and children.
The mortuary facility – despite having received and displayed 60 photographs of Mr. Moon in anticipation of the large memorial service planned for him – tried to convince his family that the stranger in the casket was in fact, Mr. Moon.
The deception is made even more outrageous because in addition to the 25 year span between the two men, Mr. P had a full head of hair. Mr. Moon, as his family knew full well, was completely bald.
Employees of the funeral home attempted to explain away the family’s demands for an apology and a refund by suggesting death alters a person’s appearance and post mortem hair growth could account for Mr. Moons suddenly lush set of locks.
In addition to the $4,600 Mr. Moon had pre-paid for his funeral 16 years ago, his widow was charged an additional $9,000 for services unspecified.
The attorney representing the Moon family was not amused!
Which brings us to the gospel reading today.
In John, Jesus reveals his relationship with the Father and to us through the story of two men – the hired hand and the good shepherd – both caring for a flock of sheep. The hired hand does not own the sheep. Wages are his only concern – not the care of the sheep. The good shepherd, however, lays his life down for his flock. Indeed, he even gathers up sheep outside of this fold – so that there will be one flock and one shepherd.
I think we can agree that the Kelso funeral home was acting the part of the hired hand – interested in wages – not the care and dignity of their flock – even when at their most vulnerable.
It is no coincidence that John places the story of the good shepherd directly after Jesus heals the blind man on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees, protesting the miracle of sight given to a man born blind, shouts out to the crowd gathering in the square, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath! We are disciples of Moses and we know Moses spoke to God.”
The contrast John is drawing, between the hired hand and the good shepherd, symbolizes a seismic shift in the early Christian church, away from a culture that defines righteousness through the laws of Moses and toward a new faith, grounded in Christ Jesus – the good shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep.
When Jesus spoke of shepherds and sheep, he was speaking to people who would have had every day experiences with sheep and lambs.
Even if they made their daily bread by a trade – carpentry, as Jesus did, fishing as Peter and Andrew, or tent-making like Paul – they knew or watched shepherds with sheep all the time, moving the flocks from pens to field and back. They drank sheep’s milk and churned that milk into butter and made cheese.
Images of sheep and shepherd were often used in Hebrew Scriptures to describe God’s relationship to the people of Israel. Isaiah celebrates God as a good shepherd who feeds his flock, carrying the lambs, holding them close to his heart.
David sings of God’s loving care and compassion addressing God in the most personal terms “The Lord”, he sings “is my shepherd, I shall not be in want”. The Eucharistic language is made clear:
You prepare a table before me, You anoint my head in oil, My cup overflows
Some words in the English language are both singular and plural. Words like moose, deer, salmon and the word sheep may be either singular or plural.
In the words of Jesus that John writes in his Gospel, the word sheep is plural. When Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” he is talking about all the sheep in his flock.
We too are called to be the good shepherd. “We know love by this” writes the author of 1 John, “that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
To lay down our life is to set our lives – our wants and desires – aside to be self-giving –so that others can be renewed. It means to live for another.
Examples abound if we only open out eyes to see. Military men and women certainly lay down their lives for others – and I’ll put forward that their families are called to set their lives aside also. First responders – fire and police – who rush into dangerous situations – lay their lives down for the community. So do Doctors without Borders and volunteers for the Red Cross and the people digging through the rumble in Nepal. Is there a better example of laying down one’s life for another then a mother loving and caring for her children? I don’t think so.
I spent last Tuesday with the quilters here at Lakeridge. They welcomed be into their flock – taught me to stretch the quilt tightly over the frame. They feed me. While their fingers fly – these women imagine the people that will sleep and dream under their new quilt and the babies that will be swaddled in their new blankets and sweaters. Together, they support and shepherd the young woman who gathers with them and knows herself to be a loved member of this tight-knit community. They set the table for her and her cup runs over. Do they lay down their lives for the other? Absolutely!
But our Christian response to the new covenant in Christ Jesus doesn’t end there. “I have other sheep” Jesus teaches, “they do not belong to this fold and I must bring them also.” It’s not hard to tend to our own kind – but we are also expected to tend to the outsider. And, our collective responses will say something about us – because it is through our relationships with one another that our relationship with God is best expressed.
In fact, our very idea of community life – is deepened by the image of sheep and the shepherd. One cannot be defined in the absence of the other. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ – we all belong to one another – not as hired hands but as shepherd and sheep.
And, this is what is mean to live with the risen Christ as our shepherd. Christ Jesus laid down his life for us and we are called to take up his life again and again, in the body of the worshipping community – as we become Christ’s body in the holy Eucharist – broken for the world.
The promise of the new covenant in Christ Jesus is salvation. Our response is to care for the flock, not as the hired hand but as the good shepherd.
So let us come forward, as a community, to the table where God acts, giving life to the Body of Christ, renewing and sanctifying each member for the task ahead.