Sermon, April 17, 2016

Laying Down Our Lives for One Another
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
April 17, 2016 Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday
Psalm 23; I John 3:14-18; Matthew 18:12-14; John 10:14-30

The scriptures today have a life or death urgency about them. They are trying to save our lives.

The 23rd Psalm says, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” The shepherd will lead us in the paths of righteousness and restore our soul, if we will follow.

The book of First John says, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.” First John says that murderers, who take life from others, do not have eternal life in them. The sign that we have eternal life in us is that we lay down our own lives for others. We give life, not take it.

Yet someone who has committed murder is capable of turning back to the unconditional life-giving love of God. The worst of criminals can pray the 23rd Psalm, in the faith that the Good Shepherd can restore any sheep to the flock, no matter how lost.

Jesus says in today’s gospel passage, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

The enormity of the Good Shepherd’s grace is breathtaking. Imagine being a murderer and coming to understand that you can be saved from the valley of the shadow of death that has swallowed you. Imagine being our own selves just as we are today, with all our faults and selfishness and forgetfulness of God, feeling the Good Shepherd take us up in his arms from the wilderness where we have strayed and set us back on the path of righteousness.

The urgent message of these passages is that there is a way from death to life, and that is the way of the Good Shepherd, and that is a way of love, laying down our lives for the love of others. It is as simple as that. All we need to do when we are lost in the shadow of death is “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Our neighbor in the Upper Valley, bestselling author Jodi Picoult, was getting at something like this in an interview about her novel, Change of Heart. She quoted the Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Jodi went on to say, “Sounds like a riddle, right? But it’s actually pretty simple: The potential to free yourself – or ruin yourself – is entirely up to you. Which gets pretty interesting when you’re talking about a condemned man who happens to think that donating his heart to the sister of his victim is the way to save himself.”

The scriptures make it clear that it is the love within us that we need to bring forth in order to save ourselves. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

For the character in Jodi Picoult’s novel it is a literal laying down of his life and a physical giving of his heart, but for all of us, the way to our salvation is through a love that lets go of our hold on life as it has been in order to be free to give our heart in the service of others.

Sybil is a matriarch of a small town United Church of Christ congregation in North Carolina. She is one in a long line of leaders who have maintained the traditions of that church since before the Civil War. One of those traditions that has always gone without saying is that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week, with whites and blacks worshipping in their own congregations.

Another tradition that went without saying was the avoidance of the word or even the thought of homosexuality. So Sybil was shocked a few years ago when the grandson of a friend stood up in church one day and said that he was gay, and needed assurance that he was welcome among the people he loved in this church that he loved.

Sybil was even more shocked when the congregation decided a short while later to explore becoming officially Open to and Affirming of people of all sexual orientations. She refused to participate in the education programs or discussions. Then she was most shocked when the church voted overwhelmingly to declare itself Open and Affirming.

She opposed it, as everyone had heard her say privately, because she felt it was wrong to talk about such a thing in church, and she was afraid no one would want to come to a church where it was mentioned. She thought the congregation would die and all its beautiful traditions die with it.

Yet Sybil did not leave the church, and neither did the vast majority of members, and rather than shrinking, the congregation started growing. A few of the new people were gay or lesbian, but most were not. They came because they wanted to be a part of a church that had the courage to open itself to love all people, even those whom others hated.

Not long ago Sybil and the congregation received one more shock. A young gay couple adopted a very cute set of twins, who happened to be black. It was shocking to think that the church was no longer segregated, that it would have two black children growing up in it, but the really shocking thing was that when one of the babies started fussing before worship on their first Sunday, Sybil got up out of the pew where she had sat since she was a girl, and marched across the sanctuary and plopped herself down next to the two young men and reached for the baby.

Every week since then Sybil has sat with the couple and helped out as she could. She has become their adopted grandmother, and the proud adopted great-grandmother of the twins.

“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? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him”

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

“What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

For Sybil, laying down her life meant opening to changes that she thought would be the death of the church and the traditions she loved, and she thought might even be the death of her. Yet laying down her life freed her from death because she did it out of love for others who were in need of what she could offer.

Love is the power Jesus talked about that is greater than all else. It transforms everything. Sybil was almost unrecognizable with all the joy on her face that those babies brought out. She was resurrected, made new. Or you could say she was restored by love to a flock she did not know she had strayed from, the flock of Christ’s beloved community, and she was saved.

Sybil’s was an extreme case, but the same drama plays out here every week. We all have our comfort zone, we have our old ways of being. Our ability to show Christ-like love for one another goes only so far. Maybe we will look strangers in the eye, maybe we will nod, maybe we will smile, maybe we will even introduce ourselves and ask a question or two.

But will we lay down our lives for them? Will we really get to know them? Will we walk with them into the vestry and show them around and introduce them to others? Will we work hard to get to know them, and will we risk opening up our own lives to be known by them, sharing the messy truth of who we are? Will we look for ways in which we or someone else in the church could be helpful to them, or ways in which they could join along side us in serving the mission of the church?

People on the introvert side of the introvert-extrovert line can feel shy, insecure and awkward with people we do not know well. We feel as if we might just die of embarrassment or vulnerability if we risk offering kindness to strangers or people who seem different from us. It feels like laying down our lives when we reach out and open our hearts to people we do not know well during refreshments.

Yet what we gain if we risk laying down our fear is the Good Shepherd life of love and joy and profound meaning that Sybil found. We gain a family, we gain a church transformed into a beloved community beyond our wildest dreams. We create through our shepherding a place that will in turn shepherd us through all the rest of our days.

The Prayer of St. Francis ends,
“O divine master, grant that I may seek
not so much to be consoled, as to console,
to be understood, as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

It is in giving our life that we receive life, it is in dying to our old life that we are born to eternal life, it is in laying down our life in love that we discover how much the Good Shepherd loves us. An entire church of people who live and love and lay down their lives in this spirit is a church that has eternal life.

Let us pray in silence that we may increasingly be such a people and this may increasingly be such a church, more so today than ever before…