I preached this morning at the United Churches of Durham, Connecticut–a lovely congregation. Here is my sermon, “This is What Love Looks Like.”
Our choice of scripture today follows the Revised Common Lectionary, which offers a psalm, an Old Testament reading, a reading from one of the gospels, and a New Testament reading. Out call to worship this morning was based on the Twenty-Third Psalm, which is, perhaps, one of the most well-known passages of scripture: the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. It is a profound statement of faith and hope. Both the psalm and the Gospel reading are about shepherds. The verses from the tenth chapter of John, which we are not reading in full this morning, quote Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
It was a metaphor that would have spoken clearly to those gathered around Jesus. They knew shepherds. Some of them were shepherds. They understood what it meant to take care of a herd of sheep, particularly in the semi-arid climate of Palestine. On this bright Sunday morning, I bet it is fairly safe to say most of us do not have first-hand experience tending sheep, so our understanding of what it means to say, “the Lord is my shepherd” is a bit more romanticized, or at least has become more of an idea than an experience.
Our New Testament reading this morning is from 1 John, one of the letters written to the churches in Europe and Asia Minor. Like many of the letters we have in our Bible, it is full of practical advice on how to live a hands-on faith. Listen to our reading for this morning.
We know what true love looks like because of Jesus. He gave His life for us, and He calls us to give our lives for our brothers and sisters. If a person owns the kinds of things we need to make it in the world but refuses to share with those in need, is it even possible that God’s love lives in them? My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love.
There is a sure way for us to know that we belong to the truth. Even though our inner thoughts may condemn us with storms of guilt and constant reminders of our failures, we can know in our hearts that God is greater than any accusation. God knows all things. My loved ones, if our hearts cannot condemn us, then we can stand with confidence before God. Whatever we may ask, we receive it from God because we follow God’s commands and take the path that pleases God. The command is clear: believe in the name of Jesus and love one another as God commanded. The one who follows this teaching and walks this path lives in an intimate relationship with God. How do we know that God lives in us? By the gift of the Holy Spirit. (I John 3:16-24)
I know. No shepherds. Not even any metaphors. Instead, there is a rather pointed question: “If a person owns the kinds of things we need to make it in the world but refuses to share with those in need, is it even possible that God’s love lives in them?” I guess neither poetry nor subtlety was John’s strong suit. So I spent some time this week wondering what made those who created the Lectionary put these passages together, as well as trying to see what connections I could find, since I was preaching this morning.
Reading the passages about shepherding made me think of my father, who was a pastor and loved to joke that Jesus calling himself a shepherd was not a compliment to his followers since sheep are not known for their intelligence. In my studying this week, I looked up some of the recent research on sheep, which is showing sheep are not quite as dumb as we have thought they were—there is more to them than their “herd mentality” that means they will just go wherever the flock is going. They adapt to their surroundings, form relationships, and pay attention to details. Their tendency to flock together is not out of stupidity, but out of an understanding of the importance of community. They can learn and grow. So can we—and I think that is what John assumed when he wrote to tell the young churches how to take care of each other. They didn’t need metaphors. They needed practical advice. They needed specific images of what love looked like in their lives. So he said, it is as simple as this: if you have what people need, share. He didn’t say, if you have more than you need, share, but if you have what others need, share it. Be like sheep. Realize that without the flock all of us are vulnerable. Unless we take care of each other, we will not survive.
I am not a shepherd, and I don’t know any first hand. The closest I have gotten to farming recently is I went out last week to a friend’s farm to play with their baby goats. She and her husband have a small farm where they are growing vegetables and raising goats for milk and chicken for eggs. Even my limited agricultural experience helps me to understand that it is practical work. You feed the animals. You make sure they have shelter. You clean up after them. You protect them. While we stood in the goat pen, a bald eagle flew overhead, checking out the goats and chickens. You care for your animals in hands-on, tangible, even visceral ways.
John may have said nothing about sheep when he wrote his letter, but I think I see the connection with the other passages because he spoke in practical and tangible terms. Share what you have with those who need it. Live as though you trust that God will see you through, rather than living a life of scarcity and fear. Of course bad things will happen. Of course things will not go as expected. But you are not alone. God is never not with us. So share. Ask for help. Lean into one another in Jesus’ name. Love one another.
I am one of many in the world who live with depression. I first began to come to terms with it in my life in 2001. A couple of years later, a singer named Patty Griffin released a song called When It Don’t Come Easy. The chorus says,
if you break down, I’ll drive out and find you
if you forget my love, I’m here to remind you
and stand by you when it don’t come easy
I listened to that song over and over. One day I said to Ginger, my wife, “This song says what you do for me. Each day, I feel like I break down and you drive out and find me. That is how I am making it through.” She didn’t come find me because life was great for her and she was being generous. I think it’s harder for the person living with the one who is depressed than it is to be depressed. She finds me everyday because she loves me. That’s what love looks like.
Yesterday was our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary. We went to the Bronx Zoo and had a wonderful time. On the way there, we stopped and at breakfast at Poppy’s Diner in Rye, New York and then walked around the little downtown there. We wandered into a little market and saw one of those wooden art pieces that has a saying written on it that said:
Life is simple, it’s just not easy. Be kind because everyone is fighting a hard battle.
The quote has been important to us since Ginger used it in a sermon years ago. The sign became our anniversary gift to one another, and it is a word I pass along to you in the spirit of the psalmist and John, in both the gospel and his letters. To be a follower of Christ is simple, but it is not easy. Both life and faith are team sports. If we have what someone else needs, we are called to share it. And we have what others need because we can love them. We can drive out and find them. We are all in this together. That’s what love looks like. Amen.
PS–Here’s Patty . . .