Love in Action

Homily for Easter 4 by Sherman Hesselgrave

 

Readings:  From the Writings of Oscar Romero    Psalm 23   1 John 3:16-24    John 10:11-18

“Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

The Fourth Sunday of Easter has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday.   The gospel reading is always a portion of the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I AM the Good Shepherd” and the appointed Psalm is always the 23rd.  Iconographic representations of Christ as the Good Shepherd can be found in catacombs from the earliest centuries of the Common Era.  ‘Shepherd’ language has also entered the vocabulary of the church through its Latin equivalent, ‘pastor.’  Seminaries have professors of ‘pastoral theology,’ and parish clergy are expected to have above-average competence in pastoral care.
Long ago, as I was approaching the end of my curacy in my first position, a church I was applying to had an essay question about one’s approach to pastoral care, and I remember responding that I thought there was a pastoral dimension to practically everything we do in congregational life, and by ‘pastoral‘ I mean ‘compassionate caring.’  The Sunday worship bulletin you’re holding in your hands can be designed pastorally–or not.  If it were filled with jargon and abbreviations that only an insider would know, newcomers would not feel very welcome here.  One can tell rather quickly if a space feels inviting or not, or whether the preacher is infantilizing the people in the pew.  There are countless ways of demonstrating that we care for one another.
Which brings me to the passage in today’s epistle reading that I would like to drill down on: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  Everybody’s for love.  You can’t listen to a radio station that plays popular music for five minutes without hearing an encomium to love.  If you go to a church wedding, chances are you will hear once again St Paul extolling the theological virtue of love in his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, rendered here in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase (The Message):

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

There’s no question that these words are inspiring to read and hear, and there’s no question that inhabiting these words, living into them fully, putting them into action, are among the most challenging things a human being can do.  St Paul also tells us that this kind of love is a GIFT from God, not something we do solely out of our own resources, but empowered by the Spirit of God present in us.  There is no way we can “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” without God’s help.
Someone who knew something about putting love into action was Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred 32 years ago, shot while celebrating the Eucharist in a Salvadoran hospital chapel.  The day before, he had preached a sermon calling on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and refuse to carry out the government’s repressive violations of basic human rights.  As we heard in the first reading today, Archbishop Romero had said, “If they kill me, … let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality….  Let my death … be for the liberation of my people and as a witness of hope in the future.”  He knew the personal risk he took to take up his cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  At his funeral mass the Sunday after he was killed, more then 250,000 mourners came from all over the world, and while the violence continued,  many were emboldened to persist in standing up to oppressive political regimes throughout Latin America and elsewhere.
Those in Jesus’ audience who heard him describing the hired hands who did not care for the sheep would have been reminded of the prophet Ezekiel’s diatribe about the “worthless shepherds” that some of Israel’s political rulers had been in the past.  They also would have heard Jesus identifying with his sheep: “I am the good shepherd.  I know my sheep, and my sheep know me – just as God knows me, and I know God.  I am willing to lay down my life for the sheep.”  Loving in truth and action can get you killed or seriously injured.  We read in the papers and hear on the news every week about people all over the world who have been beaten, imprisoned, or killed for standing up for the rights of the poor and powerless.  Whistleblowers in the United States, who have publicized government corruption or malfeasance, are now being prosecuted under archaic anti-espionage laws.  Here in Canada this week–not exactly a banana republic–we learned from a series in the Star that the police can lie in court (in Ontario, at least) without incurring any serious consequences.  However, according to LexisNexis:
“If you provide a statement to the police in Canada, you are required to be truthful in what you tell them. Lying to the police during the course of an investigation is a serious criminal offence called ‘public mischief’ and is prohibited by s.140 of the Criminal Code. Canadian judges view lying to the police during the course of an investigation very seriously and the punishment imposed when people are found guilty reflects that. Therefore, if you provide the police with a statement, you must be truthful in your account.”

I suspect I’m not the only person who fired off a few letters of outrage.

It is so easy for human beings to lose sight of the original vision and to forget the command that Jesus gave us to love one another as God loves us.  Pastoral care is a part of our baptismal identity; or another way of looking at it, God has made us all shepherds for one another.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche tells a story reminiscent of one of Jesus’ parables, that :
“There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.”  [McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press. p. 14.]

Any human institution over time runs the risk of making compromises that can be fatal, of losing its way, of forgetting its original vision, of allowing power to corrupt, and the church is no exception.
Among the responsibilities of those of us called to parish leadership is the task of finding ways to strengthen the fabric of our community, to increase the bonds of affection and understanding and to welcome others as members of this household of faith.  We are asking the Holy Trinity community to engage in a process of reflection of a proposal that would require some sacrifice in order to create the temporal space on Sunday, when we are already gathered for worship, to allow all of us–children, youth, and adults–to explore faith in community more deeply, and at the same time give visitors and newcomers an opportunity to get to know us better, and vice versa.  The proposal is printed in the bulletin, and has been presented to both the Vestry Executive and Worship Committees for discussion.  There will be a special vestry on June 3rd after church to make a decision, so we have the month of May to think, talk, and pray about it.
In this Season of Resurrection, may God, the Good Shepherd of creation, the maker of all things new, accompany us on our journey and empower us to put love into action always and everywhere.