Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Embodying the love of God was the center of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus' intimate relationship with the Father-Creator was the source of his power and direction. If we think of his ministry as the most perfect example of leadership the world has ever seen, the style of that leadership was servanthood, through which Jesus expressed the love of the Father. Jesus' use of the term Father for God has nothing to do with the gender of God, who is beyond gender, but instead borrows from human experience to refer to an ideal relationship of Creator to creature, or parent to child. Jesus understood his ministry to be a mission given to him by his Father, whom he also called "Abba," the Aramaic familiar and intimate name for father, something like "Daddy.” A theme of pop psychology and the self-esteem movement is borrowed from the central focus of this parable of Jesus that genuine love is transforming, both when received and when given. Counterfeit or selfish love, where the object is used or abused, is destructive and enervating, fixing the victim in a state of arrested development. The love of God, the most genuine love there is, is demonstrated in the death of Christ, and vindicated in his resurrection. In the gospel lection for today, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep; Jesus contrasts this genuine love with the counterfeit care shown by the hired man, who defects when a wolf threatens the flock.
The love of God transcends the narrow confines of our imagination. To the Jewish disciples, the thought that God's love might also extend to Gentiles was a radical notion, yet Jesus hints at it here when he refers to the "other sheep that do not belong to this fold" (John 10:16). The thought that the Kingdom of God, the new community, might be broader than they think must have been a real stretch for the disciples. The preacher may want to talk about estranged groups that may be included in God's plan but not our current understanding.
The point can be made that human love will ultimately fail us, except in the most rare and remarkable instances. But the love of the Good Shepherd, who proved his love by laying down his life for the sheep, will never fail us. God's love is ultimately satisfying because God alone has the unlimited power, forgiveness, grace, resources, and pure motive to sustain an eternal relationship. When life fills us with despair, God, our perfectly loving Parent, has the capacity to comfort, sustain and redirect our energies in positive directions.
The theme of genuine relationship growing out of genuine love is found in the intimate knowledge the sheep and the shepherd have of one another (vv 14-15). This relationship is similar to the one Jesus had with the Father-Creator.
John speaks of this interconnected web of mutually supportive relationships in John 17:1-23. The psalm for the day is so familiar as to be taken for granted by most worshipers. Psalm 23 pictures God as the perfect shepherd, who guides his sheep into sustaining places. The guiding and protecting hand of God is like the perfectly loving shepherd whose only concern is the welfare of the sheep. This psalm is so beloved not only because it is simple, brief and vividly visual, but also because it speaks to the need we all feel for the guiding care of God through complex and threatening circumstances. It amplifies the theme of shepherd hood as mirroring the love of God, and declares the believer's confidence that even in the ambiguous dark valleys of our lives, just as surely as upon the mountain tops, God is with us, and God's presence will give us strength and wisdom to handle the challenges of life. The shepherd is a biblical figure whose concern for the sheep becomes a metaphor for leadership. There is a crisis of leadership today. The resignation last fall of Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston amid scandal reaching back for decades in the Archdiocese of Boston, the resignations of Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell from the Presidential Commission to investigate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the unrest in Venezuela over the leadership of President Ugo Chavez, the recent elections in Israel, the opposition to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, all these are symptoms of dissatisfaction with leadership. When leaders are seen to be corrupt, or potentially torn in their allegiances, or out of touch with the people they are trying to lead, or cruel and unjust, they throw into relief the human yearning for leadership with integrity, leadership from the heart, leadership that demonstrates love and concern for the well-being of the people.
The lections on this day are beautifully mutually supportive and are all focused on the same theme the genuine love of God contrasted with the false love we often encounter from others. The shepherd image in the psalm and the gospel complement one another and tell us a great deal about the nature and character of God, and how this love was embodied in the Son, Jesus Christ. In 1 John 3, we are asked to express God's love in our lives; how can we say God's love abides in us, he asks, if we ignore the needs of others when we have resources to meet them. Luke reports in Acts 4 how Peter confronted his captors with their inability to rejoice at the healing power of God, when they were blinded by their own fears and power struggles. The hunger felt by most people for genuine love and leadership with integrity allows us to point to the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
The preacher will want to invite people to consider what makes for good leadership in their experience. She or he may want to ask people to remember a person who had a molding, shaping, nurturing influence on their own lives, and ask them to isolate the qualities that made that relationship so effective.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
What is the most important task for the church today, with declining membership, a swiftly changing culture and a world in great need? Could it be something as
simple as the love of Jesus?
When I was 17 years old I traveled to Kenya with my high school choir. One afternoon, our tour bus took us through an especially impoverished section of town. Overwhelmed by the sadness I saw on the faces through the bus window, I sent up a naïve but heartfelt prayer: “O Lord, show these people your love somehow.” Immediately the following reply resounded in my head and heart, “You show them my love.”
I shared this story with a small gathering of young adult seminarians and church leaders one weekend in November 2009. As we took turns telling our spiritual pilgrimages, we noticed that we all shared a love for Jesus, a concern for the church and a desire to be part of God’s mission in the world. These commitments have come to form the center of our identity as the Anabaptist Missional Project.
But what do we mean when we say we love Jesus? We live in a society profoundly confused about the meaning of the word love. The word slides off our tongues so easily, expressing our feelings about a spouse or family member, our country, our favorite basketball team or even dark chocolate. We equate love with unconditional acceptance or “doing what comes naturally” when we feel attracted to someone.
Can Christians really use the term love and say anything meaningful at all? Or has it become like an old rubber band, stretched beyond any practical use?
One of my seminary professors urges restraint. He invites preachers to abstain from using the word love for at least six months. “If you can’t find some other way of expressing the idea,” he suggests, “perhaps you don’t really know what it means.”
We should probably say the same thing about love that Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have said about peace and justice: “The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth” (Resident Aliens, Abingdon Press, 1989). We must look to Jesus to know what love is.
The first thing Jesus teaches about love is that it does not begin with us. Our love for God is always a response to the One who first loved us by taking on the weakness of human flesh and submitting to death on a cross. But the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross say much more than simply, “I accept you the way you are.”
Richard Hays makes this point in his award-winning book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper SanFrancisco, 1996): “The biblical story teaches us that God’s love cannot be reduced to ‘inclusiveness’: authentic love calls us to repentance, discipline, sacrifice and transformation.” In other words, divine love calls forth a response.
That response begins with an honest assessment of our sinful condition. Love doesn’t gloss over sin. The Son of God loved us enough to unmask our addiction to sin and take its consequences on himself. Jesus confronts personal moral failure and social injustice alike, calling everyone to repentance. We can’t love God if we refuse to admit our brokenness.
When it comes down to it, the love of Jesus is really about worship and witness. We worship the God who first loved us in Jesus Christ. We bear witness to that love by sharing the good news of peace with God, neighbor and creation through Christ. Worship apart from witness is empty, and witness without worship is impotent.
What does it look like when we boldly embody the twofold love of Jesus today?
First of all, we worship with other Christians on a regular basis. For followers of Jesus who love God with all their being, worship is not a commodity we consume but a vocation we assume. We gather with other believers to commune with God through prayer, song, Scripture, preaching, confession, Communion and celebration. Together we cultivate the habits of adoration.
This is especially important to remember as we become an increasingly activist church. I fear we have traded Jesus’ invitation to reflect his love for a Messiah complex. We think we’re the saviors of the world. Worship reminds us that the fate of the cosmos doesn’t depend on us. The Risen Lord rules from heaven, beckoning us to join in his reconciling work.
Secondly, we begin our witness at home and in the congregation. Loving our children as ourselves means winsomely sharing our faith with them. We tell them Bible stories about God’s faithfulness and testimonies of God’s people across the span of time and geography. We honor their questions and concerns but remind them that their lives are part of a drama whose central actor is the Triune God. (https://themennonite.org/feature/boldly-embody-love-jesus/)
The point of having Deacons is so that the world may see the love of God in action.
That is the essential message I draw from today’s gospel reading, which forms the conclusion of the incomparable passage we call John 13–17, the ‘Farewell Discourses’ of Jesus himself after supper on the night he was betrayed. The ordinands and I have been working through these chapters together over the last few days on our Retreat. This is where we find the secret, inner heart of Jesus’ own vocation and ministry, the vocation which unveiled the love and glory of God before a hostile world and which was about to take him to the cross, where the world poured out its hatred upon the Son of God and God poured out his love upon the world. And as we remind ourselves of that larger context within St John’s gospel, we realize that revealing the love of God in action in the world is neither cozy nor easy. And because, none the less, the point of having Deacons is to reveal God’s love in action in the world, we urgently need – you, to be ordained, urgently need – to take to heart, to ponder, to pray through, what that love is all about, why it is so utterly costly, and why it is none the less utterly glorious.
In and through all of this, the public diaconal embodiment of God’s love is above all the revelation of his glory. God’s glory, which Jesus’ contemporaries were longing to see re-appear in the Temple, had re-appeared in Jesus; and one of the main themes of the whole Farewell Discourses is the promise that this glory will be seen, too, in Jesus’ followers. ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ The world needs to see who God is: neither a big bully in the sky, nor the sum total of all the impulses and instincts in the world, but the Father who sent the Son to be the foot washer, the healer, the truth-speaker, the life-giver, the one whose kingdom challenges the kingdoms of the world precisely because it doesn’t use the world’s normal methods of power and death but because it uses God’s methods of service and life.
All this may seem grandiose and a bit remote when you’re walking down the street tomorrow morning, when you’re doing a primary school assembly or visiting an old people’s home, when you’re planning a baptism or doing a funeral ministry. But of course, the whole point of love is that it relishes the small and local, this new baby, this grieving spouse, this class of unruly children, these old people with beautiful but fading memories. The little tasks are themselves the very stuff of that public manifestation of God’s love in action. Just as Jesus’ strange, brief action of washing his disciples’ feet still resonates out powerfully into our lives and our world, who knows what resonances will be set up by the one act of kindness, the one gentle, healing word, the quiet prayer, the quick shopping trip for someone suddenly housebound, the greetings card to show you remembered, those little diaconal touches which reveal God’s love in action in the world. And come back, day by day and year by year, to this prayer of Jesus, the prayer in which you will make yourself at home and find yourself at home, and yet at home in a wonderfully challenging way because this is a home from which you will again and again be sent out, protected by the Father’s power in a dangerous world but revealing the Father’s glory to a dark and confused world.
And to all of you I would say this. You have come here today to support and encourage these our brothers and sisters. Thank you again for that. Now, please, pray for them. Make the prayer of Jesus your own prayer for them in the coming days. Pray for them as they start learning these heart-habits through which they will serve you and the world around. Pray for them in their early days; and pray for the people they will become, by God’s grace, in the years ahead. We need Deacons who, still as Deacons, will be leaders in God’s church in ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years’ time. They will only be that insofar as they learn, right away, what it means to show the world God’s love in action. Pray for them, as Jesus prayed for all of us, that the love with which the Father loved the Son may be in them, and he in them. That is how his glory will be revealed. That is how the world will know his nature and his name. (by the Bishop of Durham, Dr. N.T. Wright http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/03/30/the-circle-of-love/)
Children readily recognize genuine versus counterfeit love. They know intuitively if a parent's love is real. Friendship also is powered by this sense of true love and affection. Relationships falter when trust is absent, or love is in doubt. The multitude of broken relationships in post-modern society_ divorce, the brevity and uncertainty of employment, the abandonment and abuse of children_ is driving people to seek substitutes in mass culture, vicarious relationships through TV, movies and music, and relationships with gadgets like computers and cell-phones. The cyber world attempts to fill the void left by the awful disappointment of lost loves, broken dreams and failed hopes.
While Jesus refers in the John passage to God as Father, the "motherly" love of God can also be a theme of our preaching. In the current political situation, the mothers of Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Northern Ireland, the Sudan, and other conflicted places, are having their love tested at a deep level. When children are subjected to suffering, like the sheep preyed on by the wolf, mothers find their love tested at a level many of us cannot imagine. The challenge of motherhood is always great, but it may be even greater when social change, economic stress, the ordinary stresses of adolescence and the mobility and estrangement of the post-modern world threaten relationships. Both the Acts passage and the extract from 1 John, explore the themes of failed leadership and genuine love. In Acts 4, Peter finds fault with his captors, the "shepherds of Israel," the rulers, elders, scribes and the high-priestly family, by questioning why he was arrested for performing a deed of compassion. He accuses them of having taken the life of the Messiah, who was vindicated by his resurrection. Their leadership has failed because they misread God's intentions in Christ. They are so blinded by their rage toward Jesus, and the threat he presents to their power base, that they don't care that someone was healed and set free. Their own anxiety and clinging to power prevents them from simply expressing and celebrating the liberating love of God. In John's letter, he reminds his readers that we know Jesus' love is genuine because he gave his life. John then exhorts his readers to imitate Christ by also being willing to lay down our lives for each other. Ignoring the plight of the needy, saying kind words and doing nothing, declaring high intentions and failing to perform is a denial of our calling in Christ. John sums up the whole obligation of Christians in his twin exhortations to believe in the Christ and to love one another.
Jesus is no stranger to us. Rather he is the good shepherd who knows us by name. There is a growing business in Japan where people hire strangers to attend their family functions. For instance, if a family feels that not enough guests will be attending a funeral or wedding, they can contact a service, which will provide stand-in family members for the occasion. The hosts then provide the hired guests with a biography of their family, so they will be able to mingle and fit in with the rest of the attendees. The service, however, doesn't come cheap. Each hired friend can cost up to $500.An old TV series was Father Knows Best. This passage in John might lead us to title it "Jesus Knows Best." After all, Jesus claims, "I know my own, and my own know me." But does Jesus know best when it comes to our health? There was considerable debate last year over one of President Bush's appointments to the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. W. David Hager, author of As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now, was named to that body. Critics pointed to the fact that Dr. Hager emphasizes the power of Jesus as a factor in healing. In the past, he recommended that patients read the Bible and pray to alleviate such problems as headaches and premenstrual syndrome. As a shepherd, Jesus not only deals with us en masse but also as individuals. We live in a world where the "shotgun" approach no longer works. Churches discover that the invitation "y'all come" is no longer effective. Instead, congregations are realizing they need to tailor their invitations to the specific needs and questions that individuals are dealing with. The business world has also recognized that fact. By means of the Internet, customers can now directly communicate with the manufacturer and order the specific product they want to purchase. For instance, Gateway and Dell are among two of the first computer companies to allow consumers to control the construction of their particular computers. "One size fits all" is an increasingly outdated method of production.
The earliest recorded mention of establishing a Mother's Day seems to be traced to 1872 when Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," began sponsoring Mother's Day meetings in Boston each year. The theme of her celebration was peace. Origins of Mother's Day also can be found in Albion, Michigan, on the second Sunday in May of 1877, primarily because of the actions of Juliet Calhoun Blakeley. A few days before that Sunday, three young men, who were sons of staunch temperance advocates, were found drunk in the streets of Albion. They were the victims of an anti-temperance scheme to get them intoxicated so as to publicly humiliate their cause. One of those young men was the son of the pastor of the local Methodist Episcopal Church. On that Sunday, which was also Juliet Calhoun Blakeley's 59th birthday, the pastor was so distraught because of his son's drunkenness that he was not able to finish leading the service. When he left the chancel, Blakeley stepped forward and invited the other mothers who were present to help her conclude the service. Her sons were so touched by what she did they announced they would return to Albion each year on their mother's birthday to honor her. Furthermore, the sons, who were traveling salesmen, urged people they met on the road to honor their mothers in the same way on the second Sunday of every May. The beginning of the official observance of Mother's Day, though, is usually credited to Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia. As a child in Grafton, West Virginia, she remembered her mother's desire to establish a tribute for all mothers, both living and dead. On May 10, 1908, the third anniversary of her mother's death, a program was held in Philadelphia and at the Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton as a general remembrance for all mothers. That church then began to observe Mother's Day on the second Sunday of each May, making that congregation the official originator of the annual celebration. Although that church is no longer an active Methodist congregation, the building has been turned into a motherhood shrine and is open to the public throughout much of the year. The governor of West Virginia issued the first Mother's Day proclamation in 1910. Most states celebrated the day in 1911. In 1914 the House of Representatives and the Senate ratified a resolution proclaiming the second Sunday of every May as Mother's Day. President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the idea as well. As the years passed, however, Anna Jarvis became dismayed by the increasing commercialization of the holiday. In fact, in 1923 she filed a lawsuit attempting to block the sale of white carnations—the symbol she had developed for motherhood—for profit. Shortly before her death in 1948, she is reported to have said that she regretted starting Mother's Day because of the merchandizing that developed in connection with it. Ironically, Anna Jarvis herself never became a mother, but each year she was flooded with Mother's Day cards from around the world in tribute to her work in establishing the holiday.
Some historians suggest that Mother's Day was originally celebrated in ancient Greek culture. They point to a Greek spring festival that honored Rhea, the wife of Cronus and mother of the other gods and goddesses.
In England, instead of Mother's Day, they celebrate Mothering Day on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Some historians suggest the holiday originated as a Christianized version of a primitive Roman holiday known as Hilaria, which was celebrated from March 15 to 18 in honor of Cybele, who they considered to be the mother goddess.
As our shepherd, we trust that Jesus will only give us what is good for us. Consumer Reports magazine found itself embarrassed by a giveaway promotion it ran last year. The magazine has a long reputation of informing consumers as to which products are safe and reliable and which ones aren't. During a promotional effort last year, the magazine gave 15,000 new subscribers a defective tire pressure gauge and a flashlight that could overheat and start a fire. The head of the magazine's parent company later said, "We need to test any product that we offer as a premium in our own labs with the same rigor with which we rate the products you see in Consumer Reports." Subscribers who received the defective products were told they would be given six additional issues of the magazine to compensate them for the problem.
Sleep researchers at Oxford University have determined that insomniacs are more likely to fall asleep by visualizing a peaceful scene than by counting sheep. Although counting sheep has been a traditional cure since the 19th century for curing sleeplessness, the scientists claim that it doesn't work, because counting sheep is too boring to take one's mind off the problems and concerns that are causing the insomnia. In the experiment, 50 insomniacs were divided into three groups. One group was encouraged to picture a peaceful scene like a beach or a waterfall. The second group was urged to count sheep. The third group was left to its own to decide what to do. Those who pictured a relaxing scene fell asleep 20 minutes quicker than if they did nothing. Those who counted sheep took slightly longer to doze off. It is believed that one out of every ten people suffer from chronic insomnia, and researchers estimate that sleeplessness costs the U. S. economy about $35 billion a year due to cases of accidents and absenteeism that are sleep-related.
In his role as shepherd, Jesus protects us from thieves and bandits who seek to break into the fold. A 17-year-old boy in Fort Worth, Texas, proved that he was not a very skilled thief. He robbed a Taco Bell by riding up to its drive-thru window on his bicycle and demanding that the employees give him money. The youth was apprehended because instead of taking the money and running, he waited around for the cook to fix him a hot chalupa to put in the money bag. By the time the chalupa was ready, the police arrived and arrested him.
Jesus' words remind us that he knows us better than we know ourselves. Every ten years during the census, the federal government seeks to get to know its citizenry by means of huge questionnaires. As a result of the last census, the government learned that weaving was the second most popular arts activity. More people (48,964) are injured each year by their toilet than by using a hammer (42,426). While Americans consume only .3 gallons of buttermilk per year, they eat 118 pounds of red meat. And Kentucky had the highest percentage of cigarette smokers , while Utah had the lowest .Jesus speaks of wolves that try to break through the fences and enter the fold. Researchers at Penn State University recently invented a fence that is able to detect when someone is climbing it. A tension wire is placed on the fence to detect vibrations. The vibrations are then analyzed by a computer, which can differentiate between the vibrations caused by wind, birds, and intruders. The "smart fence" is especially designed for use around airports, ranches, military bases, and embassies.
Wolves broke into the fold during the Nazi's reign in Germany. Documents released last year from the Nuremberg trials reveal that the Nazis had planned to eliminate Christianity and convert its followers to any Aryan philosophy. The information came to light when the personal papers of Gen. William J. Donovan, a leading investigator at the tribunal, came to light. Following the trials, he entrusted the 628 pounds of documents to a law firm in New York. When the law firm closed a few years ago, the staff debated about what to do with the papers. The firm then contacted Cornell University, which agreed to take possession of them. Under an agreement with Rutgers University, the two schools are now in the process of transcribing and publishing the papers.
It's Jesus' voice what we listen to in order to distinguish between right and wrong. Yet today many people look to more secular voices to be the arbiter of good and evil. Bavaria, which has a history of being one of Germany's more conservative regions, had enacted laws banning "swinger clubs," facilities where partner swapping takes place. Germany's highest court, however, recently ruled that the laws are invalid and that "swinger clubs" are not immoral."
There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility, and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace, and justice, a process that removes barriers" (Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness [New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 265).
"It takes in reality only one to make a quarrel. It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism while the wolf remains of a different opinion" (British churchman Dean Inge).
"The great question...which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is `What does a woman want'?" (Sigmund Freud).
The British author J.K. Rowling has created an amazing new hero in the young Harry Potter. Harry is a wizard whose parents were both killed by the evil wizard, Voldemort. Voldemort attempted to kill the one-year-old Harry at the same time, but his curse backfired and Voldemort himself was nearly destroyed. Years later when the eleven-year-old Harry asked his mentor, Professor Dumbledore, why Voldemort's curse hadn't killed him, too, Dumbledore explained that some of the most ancient and powerful magic in the world is the magic of a mother's love, a love that unreservedly offers its own life to save the beloved. Lily Potter's willingness to die for Harry protected him from all the evil Voldemort had to throw at him.
My grandmother would busy herself about the kitchen while grandpa and I ate supper. I loved spending a few weeks with them in the summer. As a small child I did not question this, but as I grew up I came to realize that this was a habit she formed early in her marriage.
During the Great Depression, as she was raising four boys, she would often fix biscuits and "sawmill" gravy. (Water, flour, salt, and pepper heated up) This was biscuits and liquid biscuits! The boys were ravenous. They would ask when momma was going to eat. She always said she had something in the kitchen while she was cooking. She did not. Neither was she bothered by her hunger.
I served as the associate minister at Pittman park UMC. Pittman park is the campus church for Georgia Southern University. They had as one of the symbols on the altar a pelican. The naturalists tell us that a pelican will go out searching for food for her young. If her search is unsuccessful, she will return to the nest and tear a hole in her breast and feed her young her own blood. Because of this instinct, she has become a symbol of the genuine love of God.
On a trip to Israel I had the privilege of observing two distinct types of shepherds. One raised his sheep as children, fretting over them and searching for them when they strayed. The other would take a sheep that strayed and break its leg. Thus, crippled it ceased to wander far from the shepherd. One rejoiced and brought back lost sheep. The other punished the lost sheep when found by crippling it. As I observed many flocks from a distance, it was obvious what type of shepherd was leading. Some flocks frolicked and played around the shepherd and also wandered out of his sight confident that they would be sought. Other flocks clustered together in fear behind their shepherds displaying their crippled gait.
Voice recognition is a modern innovation in security. A voiceprint reader can identify the absolutely unique voice of a person, and permit entry to a space, or access to secure information. Phones can now be dialed by voice command. The loquacious HAL of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001 is just around the technological corner.
Sea lions have been found capable of identifying the calls of distinct schools of killer whales, some of which are fish eaters, and some mammal eaters. A Scottish scientist played the calls of mammal eating killer whales on a loudspeaker to groups of sea lions, and they scattered to the four winds. However, when fish eating whale calls were played, the sea lions were indifferent to them.
The heroes of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, demonstrated genuine love by giving their lives voluntarily to protect others. By foiling the plan the terrorists were trying to carry out, and causing the plane to crash in a sparsely populated area, they showed remarkable courage, and became an inspiration. Genuine love, a love that reflects the love of God demonstrated in the life and death of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, always necessarily involves an element of self-sacrifice, a quality rare in this self-centered era. But when genuine love is seen and experienced, it is immediately known and recognized. In this time hungry for heroes, the September 11 attacks brought out extraordinary courage. Some might say "they knew they were going to die anyway." But Flight 93 was unique: the passengers in the two planes that crashed hit the World Trade Center towers, and the passengers in the plane that hit the Pentagon, either had no opportunity, or no one was brave enough to start the ball rolling and attempt to foil the terrorists. It almost always takes one brave soul with courage enough to inspire others!
While organ donation is controversial, it can be an illustration of genuine love, if your congregation has no theological problems with it. The imparting of life to another through organ donation is a way to show selfless love, and a gift that can save or enhance a number of lives. One must show confidence, if one has a literalistic view of a future resurrection, that if God can assemble us first in the creative process of physical birth, so God can reassemble us in some future new heaven and new earth. You may find that some of the most sophisticated members of your congregation have qualms about organ donation, but your denomination may have a theological or moral statement about it which could be a good catalyst for discussion.
Sheep are known to be highly suggestible creatures, who will literally rush off a cliff following one another. Some may resent the "sheep" metaphor, which others in the church find quite comforting. Your emphasis should be on the work of the shepherd, whose task of keeping the sheep safe and nurtured with water and food is a demanding one and requires hard work outdoors in rough and sometimes dangerous situations. By the 1st century C.E., there was an ambivalent feeling toward shepherds. While David was revered as the ideal King and ancestor of the Messiah, whose work as a shepherd was idealized and romanticized, those who worked as actual shepherds were marginalized: they lived outdoors ten months out of the year, were dirty and unkempt, smelled bad, and were generally avoided. That is why Luke's story of the announcement of the birth of the Messiah to shepherds was so radical: God came to bring good news not to kings in palaces, or the wealthy and influential, or the pious and religious professionals, but to marginalized shepherds living in the fields. Thus, the good news was first delivered to the poor and outcast, a fact that correlates with Jesus' understanding of his ministry. Sheepfolds in the Middle East are sometimes round rock walled structures with one entrance, and the shepherd sleeps across this entrance, armed with knives and a sword to protect the sheep. Thus, the shepherd becomes the "gate" through which anyone must pass to enter the fold. Shepherds in the Middle East sometimes commingle their flocks for grazing, but when they wish to take them to the fold for protection at night, they can call out their own and the sheep recognize their shepherd's voice and follow. Thus, each shepherd knows his or her own sheep, and the sheep know that distinctive voice.
Mary the mother of Jesus is herself an example of genuine love and self-sacrifice. When called upon to be his mother, she submitted herself to God as a servant, modeling the relationship of willing service to which each believer is called. Her kinswoman Elizabeth rejoiced, and John, her son yet to be born, leapt in her womb with joy at the approach of Mary bearing Jesus, and Elizabeth hailed Mary as most blessed among women for her role in bearing the Son. Her inspiring song (Luke 1:46-55), termed the Magnificat because of its first word in the Vulgate Latin text, is a hymn to God who turns the tables, gives food to the hungry and sends the rich away empty-handed. Though she at times raised questions about Jesus' mission, and pondered it all in her heart, she never deserted him, and stood at the cross with the other women and John, who alone among his disciples had the fortitude to risk identifying with him in his humiliation.
Christ-like love is illustrated in the remarkable story of Corrie ten Boom and her family, as told in her book The Hiding Place (Bantam, 1974). In their home in Harlem, the Netherlands, above the clock and watch repair shop run by her father was a hiding place behind a false wall, in which the devout Christian family hid Jews and members of the Dutch resistance during the occupation of Holland by the Nazis. On February 28, 1944, the family was betrayed, and twenty persons were taken into custody. But the Gestapo never found what they were looking for: in the hiding place were two Jewish men, two Jewish women, and two members of the Dutch underground, who were liberated to days later and taken to safety. Every member of the ten Boom family except Corrie died in concentration camps, but Corrie was released because of a clerical error. Her sister, Betsie, asked Corrie, should she be released, to go everywhere and tell their story, declaring, "no pit is so deep, that God is not deeper still." Today, you may visit the home that has become a museum; there is a fine web site at www.corrietenboom.com.
There is a growing need for foster parents in most metropolitan areas of the United States. The love of Christ can be shown in a powerful and self-sacrificial way as loving parents open their homes to children in transition, children who have been abandoned, or abused, or neglected, or children who are disturbed or who need temporary out placement because of dysfunction in their families of origin. Mother's Day or the Festival of the Christian Home may be an excellent time to refer to this need for foster parents, and direct interested families to agencies where they can volunteer for this opportunity.
The crisis of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa has reached disastrous proportions, and is largely a heterosexual phenomenon there. The grief and loss faced by families who have lost family members to AIDS is enormous. Congregations can be challenged to pray for and help, through your denomination's mission outreach, both local and distant families living with AIDS/HIV, or those bereaved because of this scourge. The Good Shepherd's concern for all the sheep, not just those who currently count themselves members of his fold, can be emphasized in this crisis. We must listen to the voice of the Shepherd, calling us to new concern for the marginalized and traumatized in our contemporary world.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Like a shepherd, the Lord calls us to himself.
People: Come, let us draw near to the Lord.
Leader: Like a shepherd, the Lord leads us to this sanctuary of green pastures and still waters.
People: Come, let us declare our allegiance to the Lord.
Leader: Like a shepherd, the Lord draws us into one-fold.
People: Come, let us sing and celebrate our oneness in Jesus Christ.
Leader: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
People: But this is not enough for us, so we seek more and more things.
Leader: The Lord leads us in right paths for his name's sake.
People: But we prefer to follow our own paths into fleeting pleasures and orgies of self-indulgence.
Leader: The Lord leads us even through the darkest valley.
People: But we do fear evil, and a host of other things as well, because our trust is in our wealth and our machines and human-made institutions.
All: Forgive us, Good Lord, and restore us to our place at your table, where goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives. Amen.
In response to all your graciousness, Good Shepherd, we bring this offering to you and dedicate it to the furtherance of the good news of your coming. Amen.
Awesome and nurturing God, like a father you call and guide us throughout our lives, and like a mother you feed our spirits and soften our hearts so that we will be sensitive to the needs of a hurting world. We thank you for all who have shaped us through the years—friends and fathers, pastors and teachers—but today we give you thanks especially for our mothers who gave us birth and cared for us, often at great sacrifice. If they were close to you and thereby drew us to you, we are very grateful, but even if not, we nonetheless thank you for what they have meant to our lives. Be with mothers everywhere this day— those who are blessed with families at home or close by who gather to honor them; those who are alone and have only memories to sustain them; those who are homeless or without money to support their families; those who are victims of war and upheaval due to the cruel armies and police of tyrants; those who put themselves in danger by protesting against injustice. In all times and in all places, may you watch over and bless the mothers of this earth. We also pray for the sick and the mentally ill; for the discouraged and disheartened; for those left out of the circle of prosperity or acceptance. Guide our nation and its leaders in the ways of peace. Amen.