Updated: Jul 30, 2021
In the name of the triune God: our Mother, our Brother, and our Friend.
Several years ago, someone sent me a postcard. On the front is a narrow, one-lane road covered by a flock of sheep clogging the thoroughfare. A car sits on the far side of the blockage; the driver is impatient. The caption across the bottom reads, “Rush hour in Scotland.”
The imagery in today’s gospel passage from John adds another visual to this pastoral scene: alongside the flock stands a shepherd, his crook leading sheep through an open gate, two at a time. Jesus, the shepherd, says to his sheep, “You are my flock. I keep watch over you… I would lay down my life for you. Because I love you.”
The lesson from the First Epistle of John gives us a similar message. The author tells us that we know love because Jesus loved us… and, in that love, he laid down his life for us. And so, we should understand that loving others in a Christ-like way requires us to do so with some kind of action. The Epistle reads, “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Let us love in action.
In the Episcopal Church, we talk a lot about love: “Love is the way.” “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.” “God loves you. No exceptions.” At Grace, we talk about “Love in action.” And sometimes, I think we talk about love so often that we forget what loving and being loved means.
Love is something that we have to practice—like a good habit—and find within ourselves over and over again. Love is something we constantly improve and deepen. It’s central to who we are, as humans, as children of God, as Christians. Love isn’t just something that we feel or say, but it is an action. Love brings communities together, and it sustains our relationships through difficult times. Love continuously extends outward, like arms, reaching to embrace others at every opportunity—and we do it because we are made for love!
And you know what? Love is hard sometimes. Love doesn’t always come easily, and it is rarely immediate. Love takes time, work, and patience. Love has to sink in and become part of us. And yet, love is who we already are. God created us to give and receive love…to build love up among one another—to love our neighbor as ourselves! Even when it’s hard. Even when we don’t know how. Even when our neighbor is difficult to love. Even when they manipulate us or ridicule us, or when she doesn’t believe in climate change or vaccinations… or even when he kneels on the neck of an unarmed Black man for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, despite his cries, “I can’t breathe.” Tell me that doesn’t make it hard to love our neighbor.
I saw a video on Facebook this week of someone helping a sheep out of a crevasse in the ground. The person pulls the sheep upward by her back leg until she can eventually free herself. The sheep bounds away in four giant leaps, and lands, again, right into the same crack. It’s a short video, so we don’t see what happens next, but it’s probably safe to assume the person walks the fifteen feet to the sheep’s new trap and liberates her again from her self-inflicted captivity.
For how intelligent sheep are, they sure are dumb sometimes. We can always look at all of those Other sheep and think: Wow, what a dumb sheep. What a misled sheep. What an annoying sheep. Why can’t that sheep just use its brain?! We so often look at the other sheep, at our neighbors, with judgment, not love. Maybe we forget that they are part of Jesus’ flock, too, and that we really aren’t so different from those sheep. Just imagine how frequently Jesus is pulling us from a ditch and directing us back to the flock. We repeatedly fall into the same traps, into the same ditch, over and over again, and Jesus always appears with his shepherd’s crook to set us free and send us on our way again… That’s hard to love! But that takes an immense amount of love. And we’re called to share that same love with our neighbors, no matter what.
Loving our neighbor is a reminder of Jesus’ promise to love us. That love which is an invitation to lay down our lives for one another… By taking up our crosses and following Christ, by demonstrating God’s love to those Other sheep whom we encounter every day… By forging community with those we disagree with, Those who look or think or speak differently, those we just downright don’t like.
Again, love is hard sometimes.
When we look at love as an action—one which emulates Jesus’ ministry in the world—love sinks into us. We practice it and it becomes part of us and everything we do. We better understand Jesus’ love for his flock. We also become more sensitive to the lack of love that permeates our world… To the feelings of anger, judgment, and hatred which close us off from our neighbors. Those loveless feelings are the wolf that scatters the flock, that pit neighbor against neighbor.
Jesus, the good shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep—for all the sheep—and he protects them from the wolf. Jesus does this constantly. With that love that reaches outward, he extends his arms to the other sheep, from different folds, to pull them closer to him. He welcomes those other sheep into our flock and expects us to welcome them and love them because they are just like us! And they will know that we are Christians by the love we show.
This week, I wrestled with questions about love: How do I love my neighbor in a way that stands in line with our Gospel values; in a way that preaches peace, justice, and mercy; in a way that is grounded in accountability? What would happen if all of us acted more like shepherds of love? What if we cared for, fed, and protected all of God’s sheep with the same intensity and love that Jesus does?
This is, after all, what we must seek to do every day. This is love in action. This is how we make our world resemble God’s desires for humankind: We welcome the stranger and learn from them. We get vaccinated and wear our masks to keep the vulnerable safe. We advocate for stronger legislation around gun violence, healthcare, and education. We work to dismantle racism and white supremacy in our families, communities, and institutions. We protect our neighbors from those who seek to do them harm because their lives matter. And, so much more than anything, we share Christ’s love with one another—in truth and in action—even when it’s hard to do. AMEN.