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Fifth Sunday of Easter Cycle C (2)

Children

This morning I have with me a valentine greeting. Valentine’s Day has already passed, but I wanted to share this greeting with you today. Who can tell me what Valentine’s Day means? (Let them answer.) Very good! Valentine’s Day is a day that we celebrate love. In school you may exchange Valentine’s cards, telling people how much you like them. Boys give Valentine’s Day cards and candy to their girl friends to show them how much they care about them. Fathers give mothers gifts on Valentine’s Day to show how much they love them, and friends give cards to other friends. Valentine’s Day is a happy day because it is the one day in the year when we really celebrate love. Who can think of another day we can celebrate love? (Let them answer.)

We can celebrate love all the time. We should celebrate love every day of the year. Celebrating love doesn’t mean we have to give gifts, or cards or candy. How else can we show people that we love them? (Let them answer.) That’s right. There are many ways to show people how much we care about them. Sharing your toys with a friend shows him that you love him. Helping around the house, like mowing the lawn or washing the dishes, shows your parents how much you love them. We can show people that we love them by sharing Jesus with them. We can invite our friends to church or Sunday school. Sharing Jesus is a great way to show our love.

Jesus told his disciples that love was the most important thing in their lives. He told them that if they loved one another people would know that they were Jesus’ disciples. He gives us the same message. If we love one another and show our love for everybody, people will know that we are Christians. We need to love people all the time, not just on Valentine’s Day. We need to love our friends and our enemies. We should even share our love with people who don’t like us. We need to love Jesus. Loving Jesus and one another makes us all disciples. As Christians, we should make every day a Valentine’s Day and show our love to everyone. I hope you will all leave here today and try to show your love to everyone. Smile at everybody you meet. Share your toys with your brothers and sisters and friends. Help your parents around the house. Share Jesus with others. Tell other people about Jesus and his wonderful love for us. We can all be disciples of Jesus. Amen. 

 

Adult

A group of boys and girls, ages 4‑8 was asked, “What does love mean?” Here are some of their answers:

“Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.” Karl – age 5

“Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more. My Mommy and Daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss.” Emily – age 8

“Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it every day.” Noelle – age 7

“Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.” Tommy – age 6

“During my piano recital I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. I wasn’t scared anymore.” Cindy – age 8

“Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Brad Pitt.” Chris – age 7

“You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” Jessica – age 8

“There are two kinds of love, Our love. God’s love. But God makes both kinds of them.” Jenny – age 8. (1)

I like that. “God makes both kinds of them.”

A community in Florida had been hit hard by a hurricane. The power was out, houses were flooded, and roads were closed. At the Red Cross center at the local middle school, a distraught African-American woman asked tearfully for six flashlight batteries. “My kids are afraid of the dark” she explained.

“Sorry,” came the answer. “Only two batteries to a family. However. if you have relatives living with you, you can have two more for each one.”

The woman just stood there paralyzed, feeling helpless when Ryan Abel, who is white, piped up. “I’m a relative,” he said.

“So am I,” announced a young Chinese girl nearby.

The Red Cross worker handed the woman six batteries with a smile. (2)

 

“All you need is love,” sang the Beetles over 50 years ago. “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”—as if love was something relatively easy, something we could drop into life like an ingredient in the spaghetti sauce. Yet much as we extol love and make it the center of our songs and movies, the track record is not that good. Just look at the divorces, even among Catholics, the isolation parents have from their children, the seniors ignored by their families, and the way we use each other in the name of love. “All you need is love” –yes, but where do you find it?

Our Easter season moves now to some of the richest themes of the resurrection of Jesus. “I give you a new commandment: as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. This is how all will know you are my followers, if you have love for one another.”  No passage in Scripture can be clearer than this one. Christians are to be known by their love. This is our primary witness in the world. As Christ has loved us, so are we to love one another. I believe that deep down we all know that, but sometimes we forget.

 Jesus, as part of his farewell message to his Apostles, is pointing them to the Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s very dwelling inside of us. The more love shares in God, the more readily it becomes a power in our lives.

There are several dimensions of love. One of them we saw in Boston just a few weeks ago, just as we saw it in New York in 2001. The first responders did not run away from the trouble, but instead they ran right into it, willing to risk anything to be of help to another. They echo the sentiment of Paul, that it is necessary to suffer many hardships to be part of the Kingdom. This heroism shows the first level of love: that we put ourselves aside for the sake of another. When Jesus talks about being glorified, and glorifying the Father, he is referring to his gift of himself which reflects the gift of his Father to the world.

But this dimension does not exhaust what we mean by love, because if we all sacrificed our lives there wouldn’t be any of us around to show love. Love has another dimension, one that is not easy for us to see. Love also means communion with another. It’s easy for us to distort this meaning of love because so often our attitude is to possess another, to have another wrapped around our finger, to derive pleasure from the other, to make another ours. Communion, however, is something different.

We have communion when we abide in the other for the sheer joy and goodness of the other, when the other draws us beyond ourselves in admiration or in care. Love brings us to the very edge of ourselves, and then brings us further, until we have a sense of union with the ones we love. It’s like we live in them, and they live in us. Love as another reality has come upon us, a state, a way of life, a change in how we think of ourselves.

“Behold God’s dwelling is with the human race,” sings the book of Revelation. This is what the new city, the city of Resurrection, the city of God is like: God is the very love that we share with each other, existing in us, between us, and through us. “Behold, I make all things new,” God says. New, because things have finally been infused with the fullness of love. Think of what we wish for our children and our loved ones: isn’t that the fullness of love, where all love our beloved without reserve, where love is everywhere and everything. A world only of love. That’s our dream, our deepest wish. And it’s God’s too.

In his book, Many Things in Parables, Frederick Borsch says that when his wife became pregnant with their first child, he discovered that he strongly wanted a son. Growing up he had two sisters and no brothers. He badly wanted to have a brother. Now he wanted to have a son. And he did! Benjamin was born, and Borsch says that all his parental heart went out to Benjamin with more love than he knew he had inside him.

This presented him with a dilemma when, two years later, his wife became pregnant again. How was he going to hide from his second child the fact that he could never love it as much as he loved Benjamin? Somehow his notion of love was that it was like a pie. The more people that came to share it, the smaller the slices had to be.

Then, as though to make matters worse, his wife delivered twins! But then something miraculous happened. Suddenly Borsch discovered he loved Matthew and Stuart with the same love with which he loved Benjamin, without taking any love from Benjamin. “This was a strange new arithmetic,” says Borsch now. “The pie seemed to have become larger.” 

Love creates the capacity for more love. Love doesn’t develop in a vacuum. People who have experienced love are able to pass that love on to others. The reason there are so many angry, unloving people in the world is that so many people have never experienced true unconditional love.

I am convinced there are many good people in the church who have never experienced unconditional love. Some of us were brought up by well-meaning parents who, without really being conscious of it, put conditions on their love. “I love you when you’re good,” was their basic message.” “I love you when you’re obedient.” That was the subtle message many of us received. “I love you if you make me proud of you.”

Our parents may not have meant those conditional messages to take hold, but they did. And so, many of us grew up with feelings of unworthiness with the feeling that somehow we didn’t measure up to our parents’ expectations. And now we are passing those feelings on to our children, perhaps to our spouses and others. Maybe that’s why God created grandparents.  When my mother became a grandmother I gave her a sweatshirt that read, “If I knew that grandchildren were so much fun I would have had them first.”

 

 

At this Mass we symbolize this world of love. God comes to us in communion, in Jesus, his life now given and living in each one of us, and in all of us together; his love pushing us beyond the edges of the boundaries we set up for ourselves. At this Mass, at every Mass, we enact the sacred equation: as the Father has loved me, so I love you; as I have loved you, so must you love one another.

Dionne Warwick sang a different song: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” She didn’t presume the world had love, nor did she presume it was easy. The world needs love, but it has a God who shows us unlimited love in Jesus, who gives us this love, and calls us to show and give it as well as a sign of our risen life

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter Cycle C (1)

 

A couple retired to a small Arizona ranch and acquired a few sheep. At lambing time, it was necessary to bring two newborns into the house for care and bottle-feeding.

As the lambs grew, they began to follow the rancher’s wife around the farm. She was telling a friend about this strange development.

“What did you name them?” the friend asked her.

“Goodness and Mercy,” she replied with a sigh. (1)

She was referring of course to a line in everyone’s favorite Psalm, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (KJV).

Our lessons for today from Scripture all refer to sheep or shepherds. It is probably the most familiar image in Scripture. God is a shepherd. We are God’s sheep. Sheep were important to the agricultural lives of the ancient Hebrews. That is perhaps why sheep are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible, more than any other animal.

For King David, who authored much of the Book of Psalms, the metaphor of the sheep and the shepherd was an obvious way to think of our relationship with God. He had vivid memories of life as a young shepherd before he became a warrior and a king. Thus he begins his popular and beloved Psalm 23 with, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

But David wasn’t the only Old Testament writer to use this imagery. The Prophet Isaiah used sheep to illustrate the waywardness of God’s people. Isaiah writes, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” Now you’re probably thinking, how did he know about us? He sure got us right.

And, of course, this descriptive language is carried over into the New Testament, concerning Jesus. He is the ultimate Shepherd of God’s people as well as the unblemished, sacrificial Lamb of God.

Now, unless you’ve grown up on a sheep ranch or spent a lot of time at a petting zoo, you’re probably not all that familiar with sheep. In any case, you probably wouldn’t think that being described as a sheep is very flattering although, the truth is, sheep have more right to be offended by the comparison than we do.

Most of us probably prefer to think of ourselves as mavericks, too smart, too free-spirited and individual to go along with any herd. It’s natural, perhaps for Americans in particular, to celebrate qualities that are more characteristic of mules than of sheep. Sheep, unless someone is having a hard time getting to sleep, tend to be woefully under-appreciated.

When most of us think of sheep, we suppose them to be feeble-minded animals too stupid to think for themselves, and therefore apt to follow along with the rest of the herd, sometimes into dangerous or deadly situations. However, this image of the life of a sheep is based on a lack of understanding. When you really get to know a little bit more about sheep, you begin to realize that being a good sheep that is, a sheep that sticks with its flock and tries to remain close to the shepherd requires some basic qualities that are also essential to being a disciple or true follower of Jesus Christ. And, like the disciple of Christ, the sheep benefits greatly from belonging to the flock, gaining safety, guidance, nourishment, correction and care, as well as the opportunity to be useful and productive. Being part of the flock is the sheep’s equivalent of American Express membership has its privileges.

But membership also has its responsibilities. And in our more mule-like character, we are sometimes resistant to those responsibilities. It requires the work of the Holy Spirit to make us into the right kind of sheep to follow Jesus especially those of us who, if you don’t mind a bad pun, are seriously “hard-of-herding.”

We need to ask ourselves, what does being a good sheep require? How can we make sure we’re in the right flock, obeying the Good Shepherd instead of wandering off on our own or following a stray herd? What do we need to know and do as members of Christ’s flock? Let’s look at that for just a few moments.

Our lesson from John’s Gospel is set during the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. The Festival of Dedication is what we know nowadays as Hanukkah or the Feast of Lights. It’s celebrated for eight days in December.

Jesus is in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. Solomon’s Colonnade was a long covered walkway on the east side of the temple. As he walked, some inquiring Jews came up to him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Notice what Jesus says about his flock. First of all, he says that he knows them individually. This is a beautiful picture of our relationship with God, each of us is known by God.

There is an amazing story that comes from the Wycliffe Bible Translators. This story concerns a tribal people in Cameroon called the Hdi. [Nowhere could I find the proper pronunciation of this tribe’s name or the other key words in this story, so bear with me.]

Translator Lee Bramlett, working with the Hdi people, discovered that verbs in the Hdi language consistently end in one of three vowels: i, a, or u. Even more interesting, the ending vowel determines the true meaning of the word. This appears to be true of every word in the Hdi vocabulary except for one the word which means love. When it comes to the word love, the Hdi people use an “i or a,” for the last letter. However, no word for love ends with “u.” In other words, the two words for love are dvi, d-v-i and dva, d-v-a. There is no dvu, d-v-u.

Lee Bramlett asked the Hdi people for help in understanding this discrepancy concerning the word love. He asked, “Could you ‘dvi’ your wife, [d-v-i]?”

“Yes,” they said. That would mean that the wife had been loved but the love was now gone.

Then he asked, “Could you ‘dva’ your wife, [d-v-a]?”

“Yes,” they said. That kind of love depended on the wife’s actions. She would be loved as long as she remained faithful and cared for her husband well.

Then Lee Bramlett asked the question that truly puzzled him, “Could you ‘dvu’ your wife, [d-v-u]?”

Everyone laughed. “Of course not!” they said. “If you said that, you would have to keep loving your wife no matter what she did, even if she never got you water, never made you meals. Even if she committed adultery, you would be compelled to just keep on loving her. No, we would never say ‘dvu.’ It just doesn’t exist.”

Lee sat quietly for a while, thinking about John 3:16, and then he asked, “Could God ‘dvu’ people?”

There was complete silence for three or four minutes; then tears started to trickle down the weathered faces of these elderly men. Finally they responded. “Do you know what this would mean? This would mean that God would keep loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, while all that time we rejected His great love. He is compelled to love us, even though we have sinned more than any people.” (2)

Do I need to tell you that the word dvu was added to the Hdi translation of the Bible to express God’s love for all the people of the world?

Christ knows his sheep by name. Christ dvus his sheep. He keeps loving us over and over, millennia after millennia, even when we reject his love. He is compelled to love us, even though we sin more than any people. That’s the first thing Jesus says about our relationship with the Shepherd. He knows us individually. But listen to what comes next.

Jesus says the sheep listen to his voice. This relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is not one-sided.

A man in Australia was arrested sometime back and charged with stealing a sheep. But he protested that he owned the sheep and that it had been missing for many days.

When the case went to court, the judge didn’t know how to decide the matter. Finally he asked that the sheep be brought into the courtroom. Then he ordered the plaintiff, the man who had accused the man of stealing his sheep, to step outside and call the animal. The sheep made no response except to raise its head and look frightened.

The judge then instructed the defendant to go to the courtyard and call the sheep. When the accused man began to make his distinctive call, the sheep ran toward the door and his voice. It was obvious that the sheep recognized the familiar voice of his master.

“His sheep knows him,” said the judge. “Case dismissed!” (3)

Let me ask you a question: is this imagery descriptive of your relationship with Christ? Do you listen to the voice of Christ?

We see in the first reading that hearing the voice of Jesus is not easy.  It was because some could not hear that voice—for whatever reason—that Paul and Barnabas decide to bring that message to a bigger audience, to those who were, even though pagans, more open to hearing God’s Good News.  And, of course, the openness of the pagan people, the Gentiles, began the great missionary expansion of Christianity, bringing it to continents and lands where our own predecessors lived.

I believe you will agree that most of us are great talkers when it comes to our devotional life, but poor listeners. We give God our orders for the day, but we are not committed to reverently listening to the orders God has for us. Christ says he knows his sheep, but then he adds, “and they listen to my voice.”

Then he says his sheep follow him.

Perhaps we do not feel today we need to follow the Good Shepherd out of fear or persecution, although Christians in the Mid-East and other cultures certainly do. Once the fear begins, it’s hard to stop it.  We know what’s like to be in Brussels now, or to be in Parish; we were on September 12, 2001.  It only takes on crazy person to make it start again.  Always looking over our shoulders.  But we can hardly imagine what it’s been like to live in Aleppo, or Homs, or some of these bombed out Syrian cities; how can you ever forget the months of artillery, the snipers, even the poisonous gases?  Thirty years ago Kitty Genovese was killed on a Queens street; people on that street were just so worn out from crime and fear, they weren’t going to get involved.  Why make it worse? But it is also our comfort and relative affluence that should drive us to our Shepherd.  Because we can fall for the illusion that it’s all about money, pleasure, fame, and escape.  We can forget that our comforts can kill us as readily as any enemies can.  We can have our ears so filled with sweet nothings that their emptiness blots out even the voice of Christ.

Author Neal Andersen contends that those of us who live in the western world don’t have a correct picture of what it means to be led like sheep. Western shepherds drive their sheep from behind the flock, often using dogs to bark at their heels. Eastern shepherds, like those in Bible times, lead their sheep from in front.

Andersen tells about watching a shepherd lead his flock on a hillside outside Bethlehem. The shepherd sat on a rock while the sheep grazed. After a time he stood up, said a few words to the sheep and walked away. The sheep followed him. It was fascinating! Andersen says the words of Jesus in this passage suddenly took on new meaning for him, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (4)

Jesus is well aware of our weakness and our waywardness, so he adds this final word of Grace: Christ says that no one can snatch his sheep from him. In other words, God dvus us. Nothing in all creation can come between us and our Shepherd.

There is a story from yesteryear that says it beautifully. The year was 1850. On the prairies of the Midwest light snow was still falling in March. There was a little log cabin on the prairie in which a little boy, Timmy, was on the verge of death from diphtheria. A Methodist circuit rider came by to visit Timmy. He wanted to see if the boy was all right, since he had heard that he was not doing well. He came into the room to find little Timmy sick in bed. The circuit riding priest asked Timmy if he knew how to say the 23rd psalm. Timmy replied that he had learned it in the second grade at his Sunday school. He started reciting the Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The pastor told him he was reciting it much too fast. Timmy tried to say it again this time more slowly. The pastor decided to teach him how to say the 23rd psalm in a different way. He asked him to count the words on his fingers, beginning with his thumb. “The Lord is my . . .” This way when he uttered the word “my” he would be holding the fourth finger of his hand. The preacher explained, “Your parents wear their wedding rings on the 4th finger of their hands. This is the finger of love. So, if each time Timmy recited “The Lord is My Shepherd,” when he grabbed his fourth finger, it would be a reminder that the Lord is his personal shepherd, “The Lord is MY Shepherd.” This pleased Timmy and he recited the psalm accordingly. Then the pastor bid Timmy farewell and went on his way.

When he came back to see Timmy it was springtime. He noticed that there was a mound of upturned earth with a cross on it in the backyard. He realized that Timmy had passed away. Timmy’s parents spoke about what a good boy Timmy was. Then they described his final night. They had kissed Timmy good night. In the morning when his mother went to check on him, she realized that he had died. But there was something that caught her eye and she found it extremely strange. She noticed that Timmy was holding on to his 4th finger. She asked the pastor. The pastor could only answer her with tear-filled eyes. (5)

You and I know what it meant. “The Lord is My shepherd.” Or as Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows us by name. We are to listen for his voice and follow him, knowing that he will provide for every need. And nothing will every separate us from his love. This is his promise to his people, the sheep of his pasture.