April 26, 2015 –The 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, but, instead of talking to you about sheep, I want to tell you about a duck. The duck’s name is Caroline, or at least a duck is the image that a woman named Caroline Casey used to describe her life during an interview on the TED Radio Hour on NPR. I heard her story last week, and it’s still with me, and I want to share part of it with you this morning.
As a child, Caroline had difficulty playing sports. Generally uncoordinated, she struggled on the playground and couldn’t really catch a ball when it was thrown to her. Wanting his daughter to have a full and normal life, Caroline’s father taught her to do things that would give her the confidence that she lacked on the ball field. He taught her how to sail and how to rock climb. Determined to succeed, she worked at those pursuits until she had as much courage as anyone in her class.
On her seventeenth birthday, Caroline went with her younger sister, who struggled with a visual impairment, to her eye exam because Caroline knew what it meant to be a supportive big sister. She knew that it was her duty to show her younger sibling that there was nothing to fear. So, after sitting through the mock eye exam, Caroline stepped aside for the younger girl to sit in the chair, and, as the doctor examined the real patient, he asked the older sister how she was going to celebrate her birthday. Proudly, she informed the doctor that her parents had given her a race car driving lesson and that she hoped that someday she would race cars for a living. But, instead of congratulations or curiosity, the doctor responded only with silence—the kind of awkward, painful silence that told Caroline that something was wrong. Finally, he broke the silence, saying to Caroline’s mother, “You haven’t told her yet, have you?”
You see, Caroline, as she explained on the TEDx stage, was born legally blind. She was unable to see with any focus anything more than three feet away from her, but her parents, who didn’t want their daughter to suffer the stigma of her disability, had decided not to tell her that she was different. And she had made it seventeen years without realizing that it wasn’t normal to be blind like that. She thought everyone with glasses had the same problem. So, on her seventeenth birthday, when she learned the shocking and devastating truth about herself, when her self-image was shattered with revelation of her parents’ dark secret and her life’s dreams died in an instant, she did what you would probably expect her to do. She hid that truth from the rest of the world.
For the next eleven years, Caroline swore that no one—absolutely no one—would know that she could not see. In her words, she could not stand for anyone to know that she was “weak”—that she was a “failure.” And so she plowed ahead with the same dogged determination that her father had helped instill within her. She bounced from one job to another, making the best of the situation for as long as she could. She worked in archaeology…until she started breaking things. She managed a restaurant…until people started asking why she kept slipping and falling on spills in the kitchen. She worked as an analyst for a global consulting firm, travelling all over the world but hiding her secret from her colleagues…until she just couldn’t do it anymore. Finally, when she was twenty-eight, she reached the breaking point. And she ran away.
When the interviewer asked her what it was like to carry that secret—what it was like to hide her disability from the world—Caroline said, “I call it the duck.” “Have you ever seen a duck?” she asked. On the surface, above the water, the duck remains calm and composed and seems to have everything under control. But, if you were to look beneath the water at what is hidden below its surface, you would likely see that the calm, composed duck is actually paddling its feet like crazy just to keep itself upright and afloat. And that image grabbed me—not because I know a lot about ducks but because I know what it feels like to paddle like crazy below the surface while presenting an image of calm, cool, composure, and I bet you know what that feels like, too. But is that how life is supposed to be? Is the crazy, never-ending rat race really what life is all about?
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…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.” Jesus is the good shepherd, he is leading his flock into green pastures, but what does it mean to follow him?
Being a Christian means following the one who laid down his life for the sheep. But who wants to follow a dead shepherd? I’m usually not one to disagree with Jesus, but what kind of shepherd dies on the job? I’ve never been a shepherd. I did work on a farm once, but dog-sitting for a border collie is as close as I have ever come to keeping sheep. So I don’t know a lot about being a shepherd, but, for the most part, I think it’s a bad farming strategy to hire a shepherd who is likely to die on the job. Actually, I think a good shepherd is probably one who does the best he can to fight off the wolves, but, when it comes to giving up one’s life to save a flock of sheep, I think that the animal husbandry textbooks would all agree that a dead shepherd doesn’t do anyone a lot of good. But Jesus isn’t a good shepherd. He is the good shepherd, and there’s a big difference—just like there’s a big difference between being killed and laying down one’s life.
Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] 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.” There is power, Jesus said, in laying down his life—a power that is not fully revealed until he takes it up again. But the power of the cross and empty tomb isn’t the same kind of power that the world runs on. It is God’s power—the power of God’s kingdom. We follow a shepherd who died on the cross and was raised again from the dead. That shows us that God’s power is not found in success or strength or victory but in poverty and weakness and even death. God’s power takes the power of the world and turns it on its head. And that’s why following the good shepherd—the one who laid down his life for the sheep—has the power to break the vicious cycle of outward success and inward turmoil that plagues contemporary society.
There are many shepherds in this world, but there’s only one shepherd worth following. Most of the leaders and mentors and gurus out there promise success—or at least the illusion of it. “Come, follow me…read my book…listen to my tapes…buy my program…and you can have true happiness.” Coaches recruit star athletes by promising them a taste of victory. Managers attract new salespeople by promising them bigger commissions. Churches and pastors pull in new worshippers by promising them an hour of joy and peace. But then what? No one ever tells us that true and lasting transformation only comes when we give all of that up. No one ever tells us that we must die along with all of that in order to find our true life—no one except the good shepherd.
Whom are you following? What is your life’s direction? The world tells us that we’d better keep paddling like crazy if we’re going to get anywhere. But the good shepherd leads us into greener pastures not by defeating his enemies nor by gathering an army nor by amassing riches but through his death and resurrection. He shows us that true, life-changing power is found not in our perfection but only in the cross. If we want to experience the freedom of that new life, we must follow the good shepherd through his death and into the resurrection. We must put to death all vain attempts to win for ourselves that true peace which only he can give us. The struggle will get you nowhere. Working as hard as you can pretending that you are perfect will only lead to disappointment. Surrender to God. Surrender to the one who doesn’t expect you to be perfect. Surrender to the one who loves you just the way you are—to the one who laid down his life for you so that you might be made perfect through his love.