Love and Safety from the Good Shepherd

What does it mean to love someone?

When the question was posed to a group of 4-8 year-olds, this is what they said. “Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK.” (Danny, age 7). “Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” (Terri, age 4).  Tommy, age 6, said, “Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.” And finally, this gem from 4 year old Billy: “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”

An Eastertide Sermon on 1 John 3 and John 10.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Easter when we read a portion of John 10 and the 23rd Psalm. The metaphor of the Lord as a shepherd always has a thread of trust. We didn’t hear this morning, but in the verses preceding the ones from John’s gospel, Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” And you know that you are safe in their presence, because that’s what love means. Love means that you will be protected, and that the other person will do all that they can for your well being.

In the portion we did read from the Gospel of John, Jesus said a number of times that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He declares, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” We know what this means, of course, having just traveled through Holy Week a little over a month ago. Jesus literally lays down his life for us on the cross. It leads to his resurrection—his taking his life up again through love. Yet he makes it clear that a hired hand will only worry about their own life, and that the sheep won’t be safe. That even though given the authority to tend to the sheep, in no way would they lay down their life for those sheep. The hired hand is not Jesus.

The first letter from John states that if we want to be followers of Jesus then we ought to lay down our lives for one another, and it upends the whole thing. How are we to do this? Are we called to literally offer our lives? 

Theologian Claudia Highbaugh gives this response: “Most [of us] do not have what it takes to be a martyr. This passage then is very easy to pass over, [since] no one is really willing to be burned at the stake, hanged, or shot” for their beliefs. But that doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another,” John writes, but then he goes on to clarify what that message entails, “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 to help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And there it is. We lay down our lives for each other through love. 

Earth Day is April 22, and it was first held on that date 54 years ago. It’s a day when we’re to remember the need to care for and love the earth. Often there are community clean up events, or speakers come to encourage changes in consumption and use. Just yesterday we here at St. Mark’s hosted a tremendous Earth Day for our diocese and the Diocese of Western Massachusetts with a number of people in attendance. One of the things we discussed and that I’ve been learning more about recently is environmental justice neighborhoods. These are the communities—often home to lower income families and people of color—who are saddled with environmentally harmful infrastructure projects since the residents often don’t have enough resources to proclaim “Not In My Back Yard.”

The Boston Globe ran an article this week about new “Clean Energy” infrastructure projects. A recent report found that “more than 80 percent of existing energy infrastructure [in Massachusetts] sits in neighborhoods that are low-income and/or have a high percentage of people of color.” It went on to detail a new facility in East Boston is being built on land that had once been promised by the city for green space and a park for the local children. While it might be green energy—thereby not spewing out toxic fumes—there’s an increased risk of fire or an explosion since the plant is situated in a floodplain zone. While the plant is for Logan Airport, Massport refused to allow it to be built on their land. A number of the residents there are lower income and speak Spanish, and it’s clear that their needs and objections to the project over the past 9 years—including an overwhelming but non-binding ballot question—were simply ignored. But could you imagine such a plant in Marblehead? Or Scituate? Or Southborough? 

“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 to help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 

The writer of 1 John encourages the recipients of his epistle to understand exactly what it means to lay down your life. It means not just paying lip service to it, but taking action. Do we need to take action in this case, in East Boston more than 40 minutes away on a good day? The reality is that it’s easy to ignore these and other injustices. To say that those who live there should save up so they can move to a place like MetroWest even though we all know what housing costs are doing here, in addition to the fact that it’s taking years to figure out where to put state required affordable housing in our own town because no one wants the units near them.

And yet we are being called to truly love one another sacrificially. To lay down our lives for one another. To help people realize that their names are safe in our mouths. It starts with building awareness and understanding about what injustices are taking place in our extended communities. And then building relationships and connecting with others committed to the work of justice and inequality not in the way that we think is best, but in the ways in which they need help. Why, you might ask? Because we are followers of the Risen One and do not want to be those who have means and see a sister or brother—a dear sibling—in need and then simply ignore them.

Beloved, we are called to lay down our lives in love for one another. How will you do that? If it’s not for environmental justice neighborhoods, then can it be for the hungry in Marlborough, or those who are unhoused in Worcester County, or something else? God’s love abides in us because Jesus first loved us. And he calls us to love and help others sacrificially, just as he laid down his life for us. The question simply becomes will we do it? Will we who have means see the needs of another and respond. We know what our Good Shepherd did.


Image by 12019 from Pixabay

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