Sunday, April 29, 2012
"What is Love?"
John 10:11-18; I John 3:11-18
I opened my trusty Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, looked up the word “love” and found it filled four pages and eleven columns. That means the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists almost 880 quotes on this particular subject. 880! No other entry comes close. Shakespeare had a lot to say about love, and not all of it was complimentary. The hopeless romantic Sir Walter Raleigh called love, “The fountain and well where pleasure and repentance dwell.” Later, when rejected by Queen Elizabeth he recanted, suggesting love was, “A substance like the shadow of the sun, a goal of grief from which the wisest run.” Virgil believed, “Love conquered all things” while Samuel Johnson insisted, “Love is the wisdom of the fool and the folly of the wise.” My personal favorite is not found in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. It is by song writer Guy Clark. “There’s only two things that money can’t buy; that’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”
As one might imagine, the Bible has a whole lot to say about love. The center piece of the Old Testament is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The most quoted words in the New Testament are, “For God so loved the world He gave his only son.” This theme of love and sacrifice is at the heart of the New Testament understanding of the real meaning of love. No where is this better expressed than in the 10th chapter of John.
Borrowing from an Old Testament imagery of God’s faithfulness, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep. Trust me, loving sheep is a lot harder than one might imagine. I had a good friend who raised sheep in West Texas. On more than one occasion I would go and observe the wayward tendencies of these seemingly docile animals. They seldom stayed bunched together in a flock. They wandered all over his land, constantly getting into trouble. They would tangle themselves in barbwire, slide down ravines, and sometimes just lie down and refuse to move, no matter the danger from heat or predators. It would take days to gather the flock at sheering time. Then the animals had to be dipped and cleaned, a process I declined an invitation to participate in. I wondered why anyone would take it upon themselves to raise such a cantankerous animal. But then on second thought, I guess loving sheep couldn’t be much worse than loving humans.
What does it mean to be a good shepherd? Obviously there is a huge difference between being a shepherd and a hired hand. Folks who were hired for a short term had nothing invested in the flock. During the heat of the day, a hired hand was liable to lie down and take a nap. At night, when dangers lurked in the darkness, the hired hand would hide in a safe place. The hired hand was in it for the money and pretty much looked out for himself. And what does it mean to be The Good Shepherd? We need look no further than the 23rd Psalm to get a clear image of the task of the eternal shepherd. Christ watches over us. When we are thirsty we are led to still waters. When we are frightened, Christ offers protection. His rod and staff lead us to safe pastures. In the company of Christ we are secure in the knowledge that we are never out of his sight. We would be foolish to pretend that Christ will protect us from all harm. No one can make that promise. But we rest assured that death has no claim on us for Christ has prepared our eternal pasture.
What a wonderful thought. Christ the Shepherd will lead us through the valley of death to the mountain of life. We often paint this picture of Christ cloaked in simple shepherd’s garb, proclaiming the reign of God, leading his faithful flock along a still creek. Truth is, nothing could be further from the truth. Similar to my friends flock in West Texas, we sheep make it a habit of wandering off into the wilderness, sliding down the ravines, getting caught in barbwire and resisting efforts on God’s part to round us up. We all have our individual agendas. We all desire freedom, even if that freedom separates us from the One who has loved us from the beginning of time. We cherish our differences, our individuality and especially our appetites. If Christ were just another hired hand, he would let us wander off and be eternally lost. But Christ is the Good Shepherd who sees each one of us as a creation of God’s imagination. All are precious in the Shepherd’s eyes. No matter what the cost, we will be gathered together as sheep in God’s flock. God loves us so much no one will be forgotten or left behind. We are rescued even as we fall prey to our wayward schemes.
And there in lies the catch. As we have often learned, few things worth having are free. There is always a cost. God’s grace is no exception. In verse 14 we read, “I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. There will be one flock and one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me because I will freely lay down my life for the sheep.”
Having just celebrated the season of Easter, we are well aware of the sacrifices God made on our behalf. What we often forget is that the God who would sacrifice a son for the sins of the world expects us, the recipients of that grace, to live sacrificial lives as a response to God’s grace. In other words, if you love someone, you would sacrifice yourself for them.
Using a translation by Eugene Peterson, I John 3 reads, “Christ sacrificed his love for us. That is why we should live sacrificially for our fellow believers and not just for ourselves. If you see a brother or sister in need and have the means to do something but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.”
Peterson’s translation doesn’t mess around and I am grateful. The responsibility God places upon us to love each other is nothing to mess around with. Unfortunately, like sheep, we do go astray. We become dependent on the sacrifices of others to bring us back into the fold. But how good are we at pulling our weight? While we honor the sacrifices made by others on our behalf, when it comes our turn to share in the load, sometimes we are quick to turn away.
One of my privileges as a minister is to perform weddings. It is my belief that rarely does the couple comprehend what they are getting into when they enter this beloved covenant. They say to each other, “I will love you forever no matter what.” Who in their right mind believes that? And yet that is what people promise each other when they marry.
Remember all the marvelous advice you received when you got married. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” That one has been changed to, “Don’t go to sleep angry.” Or what about, “Always be the first one to say you’re sorry.” How well have you been able to keep those? Barbara Brown Taylor tells her couples the secret of a happy marriage is for both the husband and wife to give 100 percent. What kind of advice is that? No one can give 100 percent all the time. And that is her point. There are times when your grip fails and your spouse has to hold on for both of you. Then you get your second wind and it is your time to hold on while your partner scrambles to get back on board. In theological language, this is called giving ones life for another.
When I was growing up my parents would bring me to Waynesboro and I would enjoy the company of my cousins and my aunt. I didn’t really know my uncle. He worked all the time, even when he was around the house. Avis never had much to say and he never stopped to play with us so I never got to know him. But I loved my aunt. She loved books and encouraged me to read any and every book that crossed my path. When I was about 30, my aunt contracted Alzheimer’s. It was like someone had turned her light off. I hardly knew the person that occupied her body. But during those days I got to know my uncle Avis. He became both my uncle and aunt. I watched as he cared for his wife in ways I could only admire. Then one day, in a tragic yet perhaps merciful event, Evelyn died. Avis was devastated. With his children gone I worried about him living all alone. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Within a year Avis had met someone and asked her to marry him. For a moment I was confused. How could he love someone else? And then I thought, “How could he live without love?”
That is a difficult story for me to tell and for some of you a far more difficult story to hear. We live in a community where none of us are getting any younger. Some of you are living with a spouse who suffers with from a dementia related disease. I am certainly not going to tell you my one story makes me an expert. Nor am I going to suggest there is only one way to respond to this dreaded disease. I only remind you as Christ sacrificed himself for us, we the church, have the opportunity to live sacrificially for others. I suspect Alzheimer and dementia might be the next great opportunity for this congregation to show how we can respond to those who have faithfully and bravely gone before us. This disease is more than any family member can handle by themselves. I suspect the true meaning of love is giving ourselves to those who can no longer give of themselves.
God promises even though we walk through the valley of death we are not be alone. Perhaps God is calling you to be a shepherd, to offer a kind word, to volunteer the services of your car, to sit for a couple of hours, to pray, or just listen. As Christ abides in us, let us find new and unique to abide with and for each other. That is what a loving community is called to do.