Depending on the Good Shepherd
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
John 10: 1-10
In October of 1993, exactly one week after our first child Sara Caitlin was born, I was stunned by the news that my mother had died by suicide. I was, as you can imagine, in a tailspin. First, all the challenges of new parenthood, with mom and child recovering from birth, and now this. I found myself going through all the stages of grief at once—denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance all in a whirl within me. My father made plans for a very quiet service with her ashes present and a minister friend of his doing the service. I chose to be angry with him about it, reflecting my mixed feelings about how he’d handled my mom’s ongoing struggles with mental illness in the past and my own decision to separate myself from her for the sake of my own sanity. My anger at dad over how he wanted to handle the funeral was my way of trying to control a situation over which I had no control.
I was pastor of a small church in Peaks Presbytery in Virginia at the time. In the midst of all this, I received a call from my associate executive presbyter, George Goodwin. George’s job was to be pastor to the pastors, and he was good at his job. When he called, I unloaded all my feelings on him and he listened compassionately. He offered to attend the funeral service in Pennsylvania with us, a very generous offer. But then I said, “George, will YOU do the service for my mother?”
It was another expression of my anger at my dad and my need to find a way to control the situation. George gently but firmly pointed this out to me. “None of us like to feel helpless,” George pointed out, “but sometimes we are. That’s when we have to remember God is in control.” George’s reassuring words and later presence at the funeral helped me to come to better terms with my own helplessness and to let go of my anger and pain, to support my dad in his own grief, and to trust God.
None of us like to feel helpless, but sometimes we are. And that’s when we have to remember that God is in control. I was truly helpless in this situation. I had no control including over myself and my feelings. I hated that feeling and took it out by being angry at my dad and trying to control the funeral by asking George to do it. But they truth is I didn’t need that. I needed to depend on George for support. I needed to trust God. I was lost. I was helpless. I needed a shepherd.
Our scriptures today are about sheep and shepherds. This happens every fourth Sunday of Easter. I call it Sheep Sunday. It’s supposedly about Jesus the Good Shepherd, but you can’t call Jesus the Good Shepherd without calling you and me sheep.
And we don’t like to be called sheep. You heard a lot of that this year, and maybe said it, too, as the confusion and guidance around the virus and the shut down and now the vaccine impacted all of us. “Are we sheep?” a lot of people asked. None of us like to feel helpless and dependent. And it’s a deep natural tendency among Americans to be strongly independent and self-sustaining and to be suspicious of anyone suggesting that you can’t take care of yourself and that they are glad to do it for you.
We fiercely resist any notion that we are dependent, that we are helpless, that we are not self-sufficient. And yet that is the very basis of the Christian message. We are helpless without Christ and absolutely dependent on God. We can’t depend on ourselves. We must trust God.
Now obviously, independence matters. This very weekend Margaret and I are sending our son up to New York to live on his own, largely on a wing and a prayer. Even though he’s a 24-year-old adult, we’re on pins and needles, but it’s time for him to step out on his own and build his life without our help. Independence is critical.
But honestly, I think even in the church we have way over-emphasized independence. Influenced by the self-help movements of the last few decades, we’re always talking about how people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We tell you how God wants you to stand on your own two feet. This reflects a reaction to the what the church has taught in the past. For centuries, the church taught that the world was hopeless and unchangeable place, that humans were destined for hard lives, and that humans could not change their world. But with the advent of the Scientific Age, it became very obvious that was not true. Humans can change the conditions of their lives and their world. This led to democracy movements and people demanding that they have the ability to govern themselves and to change their situations. All this is good.
But now we’ve swung too far the other way. We have decided that “God helps those who help themselves.” There are people who believe that is actually in the Bible, but no—those words are from Poor Richard’s Almanac, which was written by Benjamin Franklin, who was not even a Christian. Sorry, that’s not the Bible. On the contrary, the Bible is firm about our dependence on others, right from the very beginning. Genesis says,
So God created humankind[e] in God’s image, in the image of God were they created; male and female God created them.
To read this passage clearly, we must understand that it doesn’t say, each of us is created in God’s image; rather it says that “they” are in God’s image—meaning that we are not in God’s image by ourselves, but only together. Likewise Paul says, “we are the Body of Christ and individually members of it,” emphasizing that not one of us functions well without one another. We are not Christ by ourselves individually. We are only the Body of Christ when we are together, in community.
We need each other. God created us to need each other.
And God created us to need God, too.
As I have said before, our dependence—this thing we are so ashamed of—is actually our doorway to God. When we feel lost, helpless, and unable to help ourselves, this is our doorway to God.
When my mom died it was almost the apotheosis of my sense of helplessness. For years, as a teenager onward, I felt some obligation to quote save unquote my mother. Nothing worked. I prayed for her and with her. Nothing. She was an artist but her deep depression made her unable to paint; I tried to help her. She never left the house; I got her out the door to go shopping one day and she came back worse than she was before. In the meantime, dad got her therapist after therapist. My sister lived with her several years while she was in college and had to constantly run to and from home to deal with some new catastrophe. We all felt helpless.
After my mom died, there was only one thing left to do. I had to hand it over to God. I had to trust that my mother, whose life was a hell on earth, was safe in the eternal grace of God who loves her eternally. And that is what I believe. I had no choice but to depend on God.
Over time, I’ve learned that as an autonomous individual, a person with the ability to make decisions and act on them, an independent person if you will, I am still absolutely dependent on God and other people. I may have a great idea, but that idea is absolutely dependent on things I often have almost no control over—like what other people think, whether other people agree it’s a good idea, whether funding is available from people or agencies who have the money; like whether circumstances will cooperate to enable me—hopefully us—to achieve our goal. Look at the pandemic, for goodness’ sake, and all the dreams all of us have had to scrap because this thing we couldn’t do anything about interrupted all our plans.
The lesson I’ve learned is if you want to be independent you need to absolutely recognize how dependent you are and accept it.
Bennie moving to New York has reminded me of my first time fully independent of either school or family, when I went to my first church in Winchester VA in 1985. I thought I was ready to live on my own. I wasn’t. I had no clue about taxes or paying bills or how to spend my salary that was the most money I’d ever gotten but was actually embarrassingly low. I made tons of mistakes. I was by turns terrified and depressed sometimes, as all my illusions about independent living were burst.
But I had a friend, Lewie Costello, who was a tax preparer. He saved me. I had a church full of great and gracious people. They saved me. I think they think I did a pretty good job for them, but the truth is I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for them. I’d have flamed out horribly. It wasn’t just that my leadership wouldn’t have worked. I’d have been a psychological wreck without them. They saved me.
None of that was guaranteed. It was the grace of God that I met a gracious friend to prepare my taxes and that I served a church full of great-hearted people who forgave my foibles and mistakes and made my ideas into realities. A lot of my pastor friends ended up in miserable churches with no friends. Some of my friends flamed out and left the ministry. It was the grace of God that got me through those early years. For that matter, it is the grace of God that continues to get me through to this day.
There is no shame in being dependent. There is no shame in needing others and needing God. In fact, it is a great gift—an extraordinary gift. It’s what enables us to have community. It is why love matters so much. If we were not dependent, love wouldn’t matter. But because we are dependent, love is everything. Because we are dependent, we have empathy. When I see your need, I can relate because I am needy, too. When the Bible says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” what it really means is “Love your neighbor as if she is yourself.” Love your neighbor as if your neighbor is you. Treat them as you would want to be treated. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus called the second greatest commandment, is all about how dependent we are on one another. It means that there is no you without your neighbor—that you are incomplete without each other. You need each other.
Let me suggest something. Next time someone comes to you needy and dependent, or you hear about people demanding their rights or frustrated that their needs aren’t met, I challenge you not to roll your eyes or run away. Imagine yourself in their shoes for a moment. Remember that you too are dependent and needy. None of us have a right to judge others for what they need. Remember that all of us are absolutely dependent on the grace of God to save us from our own sinfulness and helplessness and flaws and failures. Look at that person and say to yourself, I am just like you. I am needy and absolutely dependent on the grace of God. I need you and you need me. We’re in this together.
Let me know how it goes.
We are all absolutely dependent on each other and on God. It is the ultimate indication of the oneness of the universe that this is so. It is the present indication of the world to come, in which all will be united in Christ. In that day, Christ’s love will unite all creation. Til then, let’s do the best we can to live into the grace that our dependence offers–and thank God every day for God’s absolute dependability.