1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Milwaukee Mennonite Church
April 29, 2018
Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd.” I am going to begin and close today by telling you about two men whose examples of following the Good Shepherd have spoken to me as I walk with Candy on her Alzheimer’s journey. She knows I am telling you about these men, though she doesn’t know them.
In 1990 Robertson McQuilkin resigned as the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in South Carolina, a position he had held since 1968. He retired at 62 years old to care for his wife Muriel whose Alzheimer’s had progressed in five years to the point she needed round the clock care. The school’s regents offered to pay for the best in home or residential professional care so he could continue as president.
In 1987, they tried using in-home nursing care, but Dr. McQuilkin realized that as competent as the nurses were, Muriel was distressed and even terror stricken when she couldn’t find him. She began to walk the mile round trip from their home to the school as many as ten times a day. When helping her undress for bed at night, he often found her feet bloody. “What love!” their family doctor said. “The characteristics developed across the years come out at times like these.” Dr. McQuilkin responded, “I wish I loved God like that, desperate to be near God at all times. Thus she teaches me, day by day.”
Determining that caring for his wife was his next ministry, Dr. McQuilkin observed, “This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for
me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”
Muriel died in 2003, and when Dr. McQuilkin died in 2016, their story was retold in Christianity Today and other places. Though Dr. McQuilkin and I would certainly have had some theological differences, I have retold their story several times as a model of following the Good Shepherd, well before Candy’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I would not come close to putting myself in Dr. McQuilkin’s league, but when we got Candy’s diagnosis, I have found him to be both inspiring and instructive. I retell it again for you to ponder as we consider Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
John 9 reports Jesus healing a blind man that brought down the wrath of the Pharisees on the man who has been healed, his parents, and of course, Jesus. In response Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd of God’s people and labeled the religious leaders as hired hands who do not really care for the sheep.
The metaphor of God’s people as a flock of sheep recurs repeatedly in the Hebrew Scriptures. So Jesus’ audience was familiar with the analogy and could easily read between the lines. The hired hands are interested in the income they earn by tending the sheep, but they are not interested in the sheep themselves. When danger comes, the hired hands abandon the sheep to the wolves. Ezekiel 34:17-22 examines this same image from within the flock and how the different animals treat each other.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
By contrast, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd knows the sheep and the sheep know him. The Good Shepherd gathers sheep that are far away and welcomes them into the one flock. The sheep know and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd does not value the sheep as a commodity but loves them together and individually.
As sheep of the Good Shepherd, we bring his life and presence with us wherever we go. We bring the Good Shepherd to everyone in our network of relationships. We are not hired hands nor are we the fat sheep who push and butt the lean sheep.
I don’t want to dwell on the hired hands so much that I distract us from the Good Shepherd. However, think we all know plenty of hired hands are masquerading and expecting to be revered as though they are good shepherds. Investors buy up companies they can split up and sell off in pieces of debt while paying themselves huge dividends. Politicians peddle their influence to cultivate power and wealth. Even pastors distort the Gospel to manipulate people to give so they can enjoy lavish lifestyles.
I think John may have been remembering Jesus as the Good Shepherd when he wrote in his first Epistle (3:16-24) how we are to shape our lives after Jesus.
We know love by this, 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 help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
I never met Robertson and Muriel McQuilkin. I only know their story from what I have read. I told their story as an illustration in one of my first sermons of my interim pastorate with First Christian Church of Albany, Texas. Albany is the county seat, a town of about 2,000 and First Christian Church has about 150 members. Besides the ranching and oil you would expect in West Texas, Albany has a wonderful art museum and a very active artists’ community. Of course, I did not realize that in just a few weeks, I would be called back to Dallas to start the journey in which Candy’s Alzheimer’s would be diagnosed. Nor on that Sunday did I realize that Jon Rex and Ann Jones had already been on that journey for several years. I don’t pretend to explain God’s role in some of these things, but I do recognize that God was present in this convergence that headed our lives in a new direction.
Jon Rex Jones is the choir director for First Christian Church of Albany, Texas. Ann sits on the chancel with the choir, though she does not sing. When Jon Rex would sing in an ensemble or teach the congregation a new hymn, Ann would stand silently beside him behind the pulpit. Jon Rex taught an adult Sunday school class with Ann at his side. She always accompanied Jon Rex when he attended committee or board meetings.
When I was there, the Albany High School basketball team qualified for playoffs at their last game of the season. I was in the stands with several folk from the congregation along with Jon Rex and Ann Jones. They were part of a small group of couples who went together to Dairy Queen for ice cream cones faithfully one night a week.
Though they have in-home health care for Ann, Jon Rex takes her along on his business and errands whenever possible. They are recognized as an item around town. Everyone, including me, is impressed with Jon Rex’s gentle guidance and effort to include Ann in as much of the life of the community as possible. Though “famous” in Albany, Texas, Jon Rex and Ann Jones are unlikely to get the national recognition that came to the McQuilkins, but getting to know them first hand, albeit briefly, has been a gift to me and Candy and I walk our Alzheimer’s journey. Jon Rex lived the life of the Good Shepherd before my eyes.