Many thanks to Linda Goertz for preaching this fine sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
When I was little, my family attended a church that emphasized a view of God that was very abstract. God was Mind with a capital M, Principle with a capital P. Although there were valuable things in that church’s practices, I had a hard time with the distance between who I was and where God seemed to be – very far off. Although they also said God was Love with a capital L, it didn’t seem like a love I could connect with. It was like the old story of the child afraid of the dark – her parents tell her there’s nothing to be afraid of because God is with her, but she says, “I want someone with skin on!”
Maybe that’s why I love the passage about the Good Shepherd. There’s a Lord there who knows what it’s like to have skin on.
This past week I came across an online conversation between sheep farmers in New Zealand discussing a “cast sheep.” In case you don’t know, that’s a sheep that has fallen down and tipped over on its back. If it pregnant or heavy with a lot of fleece it may not be able to right itself no matter how hard it struggles. A cast sheep like this is in real danger – they’ve been known to die in a few hours unless someone sets them upright.
So one of the New Zealanders had a ewe who’d been righted after being cast but for some reason couldn’t stay up on her feet afterward. Every time they’d haul her up, she’d collapse again. Eventually, one of the farmers from another town drove over to loan the first one a sort of sling for it, and the sheep was finally able to stand on her own.
But what really struck me was the way these shepherds talked about their sheep. Remember, those shepherds are out having to track down wayward animals at all hours and places, wrestle them out of trouble, medicate them, stay up all night during lambing season, getting dirty, smelly, miserably cold and frustrated when the sheep won’t do what’s good for them – and still they were saying things like, “When I left her today she baaaed at me so I came back and gave her more cuddles.” Or my favorite comment, “she is a silly old sausage.”
I kind of like the idea of Jesus thinking of me as a silly old sausage. I get lost, too, weighed down with possessions, worries, and the busy-ness that makes me feel important. Those are the times I really need to remember Jesus, the good shepherd — the one who leads us beside still waters, comforts us, spreads a feast for us. Jesus lays down his life for us wandering, shaggy, doubting sheep, because he loves us.
And that love calls for a thankful response. Just as the love we’ve received is real and tangible, we’re called to pass that love along, “with skin on.” Today’s epistle says, “. . . 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?”
That’s a key word, abide. God will keep on loving us even if we don’t wake up and pass that love along, because God is too big to be changed by our frailties, to stop loving because of what we do or don’t do. But if we want that love to abide in us, stay with us and fill us with a power that goes beyond our own limitations – we need to stop hanging on to it. We need to open up and pass it along to our brothers and sisters.
We’re all called to the kind of love that walks with those in need — in person and not in theory. Many of you live out that personal commitment every day in professions of healing, helping, serving, building, or in your daily walk with children, friends and family. Still, many of us, and I’m definitely one, struggle with how to give to others as we truly want to do.
Barbara Brecht and I had the wonderful experience last Sunday learning more about the New City Initiative program called Covenant of Hope. You might remember that Sara talked about this a few weeks ago – it’s an opportunity for congregations to help make a home for a homeless family, providing money for rent assistance during a specific limited time period, along with simple acts of neighborliness like help with the move-in or monthly phone calls. We ALL have a great opportunity to learn more about this and other New City Initiative offerings next Sunday, May 6, thanks to the Kaliszewski’s, at their Open House. That information is in your bulletin and I urge you to attend; the program offers concrete ways we can make God’s love real for others.
One of the things Paul Schroeder of the New City Initiative talks about is Joyful Sharing. Not grudgingly sharing out of our own “barely-enough,” wearily doing something because we signed up years ago and got stuck, but joyful sharing. Making a conscious decision to share freely out of the fullness within us. Joyful sharing also means learning to say “no” to things that deplete our time and energy but don’t fill us — even if they’re “good” or “should” things. Learning to ask for help rather than trying to carry it all ourselves. Learning to prioritize our commitments and move toward what really calls us.
OK, I’m terrible at all that myself, and I need help. So here’s a radical idea: we could pray for each other about this specifically. We could pray for joyful openings to service, for new ways for each of us to pass God’s love along to those in need.
I don’t know — Sara doesn’t know — the Bishop doesn’t know — what your struggles are, where you need that joy, that in-filling to bring you comfort and enough strength to share the love you’ve received. But the Good Shepherd does. “I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus says. And he wants to abide in us — not visit us once in a while, not stand above us shaking his finger or tapping his foot impatiently until we get it all together – but abide in us, come right inside. He wants to fill us and empower us with love in spite of our failings. The person beside you right now, the people up here on the platform – we need each other’s prayers because we are all little children trying to learn to love in truth and action. I will pray for you; please pray for all of us and for those who are waiting for our help. Amen.