A Black Sheep Tells of the good shepherd


This is Good Shepherd Sunday, and it's not for nothing that I have good shepherd in lower case. Though this Sunday is a favorite of many it is appreciated by few. I thought poet e.e. cummings though dead for over 50 years might help. For a variety of reasons he was considered the black sheep of poetry. What you probably remember is that he didn't always capitalize the first person pronoun i. Hence "good shepherd" in the sermon title. A good poet can tell you things in an unexpected way. Let this black sheep tell you of your good shepherd.

Let him tell you of Jesus laying down His life. That's the insert's translation, it sounds so genteel. It's not. Literally Jesus says, "I place My soul, life, self on behalf of, as a substitute for, in place of sheep." Though I don't wish to bring gambling images to mind. Jesus words have the definitive action of placing a bet and that bet being "all in." This Sunday, brings to mind green pastures, still waters, lacking nothing. But that's not the "feel" of our text. Normally, each sentence in Greek begins with a particle or conjunction. Here they are absent. This denotes the intensity with which Jesus is speaking (Buls, Gospel Texts, 102).

This isn't genteel. This is Gethsemane: bloody, sweating, begging for the Father to find another way to save you. This is Jesus saying to His arrestors, torturers, and eventual crucifiers, "Take Me; let these go." Jesus laying down His life in place of yours is Him being hit in the face when you deserve to be slapped; being whipped to within an inch of His life because of what you have or haven't done with your life; being abandoned by all God's grace, mercy, and peace, so you could have them.

This is e.e. cummings. In his mid-teens, he had a dog. Rex was all his. Followed him everywhere, went wild only when he came home, slept on his bed and growled if anyone entered. One day crossing a lake in boat with Rex and his younger sister, the boat turned over. His sister and he managed to each grab a floating box. Rex, a large bull terrier, tried to swim for shore, but then turned back. In the middle of the lake there was nothing for Rex to do but paddle. His strength failing he climbs on the box his sister is clinging to. Rex does this by climbing over her and pushing her under water. Twice Rex does this and twice his sister sputters to the surface, barely. The third time Rex tries Cummings grabs his beloved dog by the neck and shoves him under water till the dog stops struggling (A Life, 25ff).

It's a heartrending story, isn't it? No one wants to put down a sick dog, let alone a healthy one. Yet, why don't Jesus words move us? All the pathos, all the sacrifice, all the heartache, all the redemption in Cummings' story is found in Jesus laying down His life in place of sheep. We're the sister in the lake of sin clinging to our pathetic excuses for what we are and our lame promises to do better next time, but we're surely going to drown and die in this lake. The Father is e.e. cummings. Rex is His beloved Son.

Of course, Jesus did not push our heads under the waves of sin. Of course, Jesus wasn't trying to save Himself at our expense, though in Gethsemane He asked for another way to save us other than sacrificing Himself. It was the Father's will that His best, most loved Son die so you might live. And rather than His Father having to hold His head under to breathe in that last great dust of death, Jesus put His head down willingly and died.

Enough about the laying down. Let e.e. cummings tell you about the taking up. Sounds like no big deal when Jesus says, "I lay down My life and I take it up again." But the taking up indicates that sin, death, and devil have no more claim on Jesus. They can't stop Him from taking up the life He put down. This proves as Jesus says, "No one takes My life from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord.and I have authority to take it up again."

Jesus died because God had promised that any person who ever sinned would die, and the Devil day and night said, "You promised; you promised. These sinners must die for their sins." God sent His only Son into the Virgin Mary's womb to do that in our place. Having no sins of His own because He kept all God's Laws perfectly, Jesus could die in place of all sinners. So burdened with the guilt of all, Jesus went to the death all sinners deserve, and He died it to the fullest. He left no law un-kept, no sin unpaid for. Being true God He could take up His life again anytime He wanted. With no more sins left to be paid for the devil couldn't demand anymore dying was needed. So Jesus rose.

How can e.e. cummings teach us about Jesus taking up His life again? Cummings never had another dog again, and one way or another he was never the same again. Trauma can do that usually in a bad way, but may the trauma that the good shepherd willingly suffered make us never the same again in a good way.

What does that look like? I can tell you what it doesn't look like. Since Jesus died under the curse of un-kept laws, it doesn't look like you walking around the rest of your days with un-kept laws heavy on your back. It doesn't look like you hearing, "Do this; don't do that" when Jesus rose from the dead saying, "Done." The good shepherd willingly placing His life in place of yours and taking it up again doesn't look like paintings of Judas, Pilate, or Barabbas with their faces marred by guilt and haunted by shame.

Let me illustrate. After all Jesus sacrificed to save you, after being gifted with all that salvation, you walking around with a face marred by shame and haunted by guilt, would be like Cumming's sister walking about wan, white, and drowned. Cummings drowned his beloved Rex, so she could live out her days in love and laughter not so she might mourn what her brother had done to save her. When you wake singing, "I've been baptized into Christ; I'm a child of paradise," when you come from Communion humming "thousand, thousand thanks shall me;" when you refuse to be enticed by the Devil into feeling bad let alone guilty for sins Jesus died for, then you take up the life Jesus meant for you to have.

We're not done yet. Cummings can tell us more. Let him tell of not only the laying down, not only the taking up, but of the knowing. 4 times in 2 verses we have Jesus speaking of knowing: "I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me-- just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father--and I lay down My life for the sheep."

The Greek word Jesus uses is the same word the Greek translation of the Old Testament uses to translate "And Adam knew His wife" (Kittle, 1, 711-712). This is the most intimate, personal, knowing there is. English doesn't have a variety of words for knowing. Saying to some one in disgust, "I know that" means something very different than saying with delight, surprise, warmth, "I know you."

Back to Cummings. He had 2 failed marriages having a daughter with His second wife. She was raised purposefully by the mother to be the daughter of her current husband. Although up to age 10 she saw Cummings on and off she never saw him for more than an hour, and never unsupervised, and was never told he was her father. 20 years go by without them meeting. She marries and has 2 kids of her own. The family she has married into has a summer house down the road from Cummings'. For 4 years his daughter and her family get together on and off with Cummings and his girlfriend. This relationship even carries over to winters back in New York. Still nothing is revealed.

Finally almost by happenstance, Cummings tells her and she knows. Now all that had been out of focus or only dimly seen bursts into view. She sees all that she knew without ever being told. The similarity in looks is striking and literally as plain as the noses on their faces. Now their commonality of likes and dislikes, of temperament, of artistry, of poetry come flooding in and make sense.

At the point where Cummings makes the startling revelation, he is famous. He is known all over the world sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but he is known. Now this 34 year-old woman who thinks her father has died some years back is told that this famous poet knows her, and always has, as his only beloved daughter. Cue the orchestra, fireworks, and see her struggle to get her head around it.

Honestly, have you ever appreciated Jesus' intense, moving words here, "I know My sheep, and My sheep know Me just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father?" The insert adds the word "sheep." It's not there in the Greek and without that the knowing is more intense. NASB has, "I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father."

Deep calls to deep. As deeply as God the Father knows God the Son so deep does Jesus know His own, you. He calls, "Come unto Me all you who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest," and you echo, "Yes, I am ladened and burdened and in need of rest." He calls, "Confess your sins and I am faithful and just and will forgive them," and you echo, "I confess." He calls, "Take eat; take drink; open your mouth wide and I will fill it with all the grace, mercy, and peace you can eat," and we eat His Body and drink His Blood knowing that we have all that He has promised.

When I was in Lutheran grade school a big deal was made of how pronouns referring to God were always to be capitalized. You know that has gone by the wayside especially when referring to Jesus, all lower case for our God and Savior now. Not for us. He is upper case I. We with e.e. cummings are lower case i's. Why? Because it all starts and ends with what Jesus does. It's His laying down His life to pick up us sinners that redeems us. It's His taking up His life again that gives us life. It's His knowing of us that counts and changes everything. Imagine that. The God of all creation knows little old me; I should say i. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Fourth Sunday of Easter (20150426); John 10: 11-18