April 22, 2018, Love Actually – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000078
I grew up in a family where giving gifts was a major way of showing love to one another. From the time I was little, I loved getting presents for my birthday or Christmas, but giving presents, especially handmade things, that was a very big deal too. I didn’t think about it when I was a kid; it’s just the way things were. But now, as a grownup person I can see how much of the way I grew up thinking about how to show love comes from my Father, who grew up in a family with very little love, and whose parents used gifts to favor one child over another.
Kids don’t have a very clear idea of their parents’ financial struggles, or at least I didn’t until I grew up, but I know now, looking back, that my Mom and Dad really had a hard time making ends meet, and that they often spent beyond their means to do things like putting presents under the tree at Christmas. My Dad was always so worried about being fair in his giving that every Christmas, he would add up what he had spent to the penny, and if anyone was shortchanged he would run out and get something else just to make sure it was exactly equal.
In the end, my Dad left behind a legacy of debt, and now that I am old enough to understand, it makes me very sad that the only way he ever seemed to know how to show love was ultimately destructive to his family. It’s one of those messed-up, dysfunctional things that pretty much all families are so full of, and in many ways we were certainly very dysfunctional. But there was one thing my Dad got right, and that was this: that real love means giving of oneself, giving sacrificially, giving even when it hurts. My Dad left behind a legacy of debt, along with many other issues, but he also left his family a legacy of love, because with all his human imperfections and poor judgment and insecurities, the truth is that in his own broken way, he loved his family with all his heart and mind and strength.
In this world full of wounded, imperfect people, you have to keep your eyes open to see love in action. If we are willing to look for it, we can catch glimpses of love that surprise and delight us, right in the midst of the unloveliness of human sin and weakness, like the brilliant flash of red when we see a cardinal on a grey, cold, snowy day. It is sometimes hard to see. But we know love when we see it.
The world uses the word “love” to mean so many different things that sometimes it seems like it hardly means anything at all any more. To love something or someone, as the world defines it, means that they are pleasing or useful or enjoyable to you; to be loving means to be gentle or kind or to have sentimental feelings; love can mean anything from lust to desire to hunger for something. We say we love walking in the woods. We say we love old Frank Sinatra songs. We say we love that new flavor of potato chips.We say we love our grandchildren, but we also say we love it when they go back home and the house is quiet again. The world has tried to make love into just another four-letter word. But we know the real thing when we see it.
Because for us, Jesus has defined love once and for all. “We know love,” John says, speaking on behalf all those who belong to the Good Shepherd. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” We have seen real love in action, and now we would know it anywhere, even in the feeble and foolish hands and hearts of his sheep. The Good Shepherd is the one whose life is invested in his sheep. The picture in our window of the gentle shepherd carrying the little lamb is beautiful and comforting, but there is more: love really gets real when the wolf comes, and the Good Shepherd puts his own body between the wolf and his sheep. Because that kind of risk is way beyond the hired hand’s pay grade. Only the real Shepherd sticks around. Only the real Shepherd puts his life on the line for all those dumb and helpless sheep. Because love isn’t a feeling, and it isn’t a preference, it’s a total commitment, it’s a matter of absolute belonging. “I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus says.
We know what love is, because we belong to a God who is Love itself. “I lay my life down for the sheep” – that’s us – Jesus says. “Nobody takes it from me, I lay it down of my own accord, and I take it up again. “The Father loves me for this very reason,” he tells us, “because I lay down my life, in order to take it up again.” Five times in this short passage, Jesus tells us “I lay my life down for my sheep.” “There is no greater love than this,” he told his disciples on another occasion, “for someone to lay down his life for his friends.” No matter what misunderstandings the world might have of what the word “love” means, we, of all people, know what real love is, because we have seen it in action, in the love our God has for us.
We have been loved. And I think there are at least two things that that means. First of all, since we are people who know what love is first hand, then we can begin to see and know love as we find it in the world. I know what perfect love is, and so I can give thanks for the love my Dad had for us, no matter how imperfect it was. We can all recognize and give thanks for the love in the lives of our fellow human beings wherever we find it. We can celebrate those who put their lives on the line for the poor, for the sick, for the oppressed. We can celebrate the love of single moms who care for their children in a system that makes it really hard for them. We can celebrate the love of all the doctors and nurses and teachers we have known who go beyond being hired hands and commit their lives to the people they serve. And we can give thanks for the love we have received, even when it was given by people who aren’t very good at loving. This world was created by the one who is Love, and we should seek love out and celebrate it everywhere we see it in action. It is one of the main ways that we recognize Christ in one another.
And the flip side of that is that we can also, I think, recognize the falseness of all that passes for love in this world, but is not love. We who know love can recognize what is manipulation or control or self-serving, we can recognize when people are being used instead of loved. There is a wisdom that comes with being sheep who know the love of the Good Shepherd, and that wisdom gives us a responsibility to speak the truth, and to reach out in love to those who are being un-loved.
Because the second thing that being loved means, is that we who are loved are to become lovers. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us,” John wrote, “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” One of the things about growing up with my Dad is that now that I am an adult, even though I understand why he was who he was, I still find that I am a person who feels like I have to give gifts to the people I love. That’s how it works. We grow up like our Fathers.
We love according to the love with which we ourselves have been loved. Sometimes that means that we grow up with baggage, and issues we have to work through. But for us sheep, the well-loved flock belonging to the Good Shepherd, we who have been loved perfectly and completely, it is our heritage to love one another in the way that we have loved. Love means that we give of ourselves; love means that we lay down our lives, for the good of our brothers and sisters. “How can we say that God’s love abides in us,” John asks us, “if we have the world’s goods, and see a brother or sister in need, and refuse to help them?” We don’t get to head for the door at the first sign of the wolf, because we belong to the flock – and not just this little flock of St. Philip’s, but the whole flock of all the children of God, united by the one Shepherd, as Jesus said, “I have other sheep who are not of this fold, I must bring them also. So there will be one flock, one Shepherd.”
On this feast of the Good Shepherd, hear the words of John, who called himself “the one Jesus loved”:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.
Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another.”