“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 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. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 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.”
Last week we encountered the risen Christ with palms of his hands and soles of his feet marred by the world’s sin. Jesus was willing to experience the heartache of being dis-abled by the world for the sake of transforming that same world, our world. And we were sent out with this news: Christ calls us to be witnesses to this truth. God submitted to disability so that we might overcome ours.
This same truth made evident in the story of Christ, our Good Shepherd. On his own accord, caring for his flock deeply enough to lay down his life, Christ acts as our advocate, the one powerful enough to insist on fuller inclusion into God’s kingdom, you and me, and those we cannot yet see.
We are a post-Easter people, which means we know that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection fulfills this Good Shepherd analogy; Christ our redeemer, bringing us into the fold. But lest we become complacent in our communities of belonging, hear Jesus again, “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. Christ’s power is made evident in his willingness to advocate for forgotten sheep.
The role of shepherd is not a glamorous one, it’s filled with risk, discomfort, and constant vigilance. And the work is worth it for Christ, “for they will hear my voice,” he says. As Christ’s followers, we walk in the ways of the Good Shepherd, caring for and seeking out all who desire to be brought into the fold.The question is- are we prepared for this work?- Are we willing to lay down our own comfort for the sake of fuller inclusion of sheep within our fold? And if we’re willing, what could that mean for our faith communities today?
Last week we learned of fuller inclusion of the deaf community within God’s growing fold, and this week we are inspired by the story of another physically-unique human whom we’ll call Brooks. Brooks is my friend from NJ. He taught me many things, but what sticks with me the most is how much our communities benefit from truly listening to the voices of those often sidelined by physical impairments.
Brooks is unlike anyone I’ve met, truly. He was only 18 years old when we were introduced; having just graduated HS, he was off to college. But unlike most of his college-bound peers, Brooks lived with two major impairments every day. Cerebral palsy and blindness. He’d also bravely faced tough childhood experiences. When Brooks was just a young boy, his father abandoned the family, blaming his son. Brooks carries that weight, in addition to constantly having to explain to people that neither blindness nor CP affect his intelligence. He’s picked on, shunned, ignored, laughed at, and not taken seriously most of the time. Even his HS teachers said he shouldn’t go to college. Despite it all, he continues to shine.
Over the next few years, it became my true joy to witness Brooks shifting the culture around him, simply by refusing to be anyone other than who God created him to be. He’s brilliant and has an incredibly developed sense of self, which is why he successfully self-advocated for his own education on the local college campus. When everyone around him said, “It’s not possible for an 18 year-old with CP and blindness to succeed in college” he persisted and insisted, “not only will I attend college, I’ll live in the dorms, too.”
And friends, he did. He earned himself a spot on the college’s diversity team, he earned his degree in teaching and coaching, and he earned my unending respect and admiration.
But here’s the hard news. For every Brooks in this world, able and willing to advocate for a spot in the fold, so many others remain sidelined by our lack of institutional creativity and support. Most importantly, sometimes within our own church practices. And we ought not rely on the incredible gifts of advocates like Brooks alone, because we can become advocates too! When we hear a story of someone sidelined from full inclusion- we can lift their voice with our own. We can claim a spot at the table for everyone, inspired by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, our noble and ideal advocate:
“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.”
I thank God for people like Brooks, a prophet among us who challenges me to be more creative in practicing community across physical difference. I thank God for the ways many of you voice prophetic inclusion in our midst. I thank God that Jesus is not complacent about who’s in the fold of redemptive love. We need everyone to be who they are created to be, in hope this world might be transformed (bit by bit), together in community, into a place that further reflects the goodness of its Creator and Good Shepherd.
Jesus sees every person created in God’s image, worthy of the Good Shepherd’s fold. This is such good news: you and I are witnesses to the risen Christ, no longer beholden to the world’s disabling sin...but made free in the creative Spirit of God. So let’s get to work, expanding our imaginations with fuller inclusion of God’s kingdom come on earth. Amen!